This was published on Aish.com
It was a daunting assignment: speaking to 120 eighth grade girls about the Holocaust in the last hour of the last day of their school year. Compounding my challenge, it was gloriously sunny outside. The girls would be anxious to take leave for their summer vacation.
In my favor, I was going to tell them a remarkable story: that of my mother-in-law, Rachel Blum, may her soul rest in peace – a story I have told to spell-bound audiences and have recently published in book form under the title Nothing Bad Ever Happens.
I told these teenage girls that my mother-in-law was roughly their age during the war years, beginning in June 1941 when the Nazis invaded her town, until July 1944 when the Russians liberated Lublin where she had been hiding with a non-Jewish family.
Then I dove into the story, which is truly incredible and gripping – including a Hollywood-worthy climax as Rachel rides in the caboose of a speeding train transporting a thousand SS soldiers to Germany. Fearful an SS officer is about to discover she is Jewish, she convinces the conductor – Ivan Roluk, husband of the non-Jewish couple who took her in – to overturn the train by speeding up around a sharp bend and blowing the horn just beforehand to allow her and his family to jump. (It worked, the family survived and many Nazis were killed; 15-year-old Rachel was responsible for the death of more SS Nazis in one shot than the combined efforts of all the legendary fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising!)
Despite the dramatic nature of that story, I will save the details for the book and instead share another story, one which is in some ways even more incredible.
Rachel’s childhood town, Ludmir, was home to about 22,000 Jews before the war. On Rosh Hashanah 1942, the Nazis, with the help of local collaborators, began marching columns of bedraggled Jews to a spot outside town and machine-gunned them to death into open pits. Between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews lost their lives that way. And Ludmir was just one of countless Jewish towns in Eastern Europe; all told, some million-and-a-half Jews suffered a similar fate under Nazi domination (even before the gas chambers started operating).
Rachel and her family survived thanks to an ingenious attic hideout. And for the next year, she survived by staying in hiding, smuggling in food for her family and ultimately joining the few thousand survivors in the Ludmir ghetto who had been conscripted into brutal slave labor battalions. Over the year, though, each family member was killed or died of starvation.
Finally, on December 25, 1943, the Nazis came to finish off everyone left in the ghetto. In miraculous fashion – Rachel found a hiding place beneath a wooden porch. A few days later she emerged and made her way to a Polish woman her family knew before the war.
This woman risked her life to keep Rachel – until one day when an anti-Semitic neighbor discovered her. Frightened for her own life now, the Polish woman told her she had to leave by the early morning.
It was January 1944. A fresh layer of deep snow lay on the ground. The air was biting cold. And a little girl, improperly dressed, was alone and on the run again.
She wandered the streets of non-Jewish Ludmir for a while before entering a barn. Her entire body chilled to the bone, she found a spot at the far end and stuck her feet into a stack of hay to warm them up.
Suddenly, a woman walked in. Their eyes met. Rachel pleaded with her to be quiet, promising she would be gone by the next morning. The woman said nothing, gathered some items and left.
As the day turned into evening, Rachel prepared to leave. The night before she had experienced a powerful dream where her recently-deceased father appeared to her and told her everything would be alright. Drawing courage from the dream, she exited the barn and approached the house next to it.
She knocked on the door. The woman she had seen earlier in the day opened it and invited her inside. The woman then introduced husband and their seventeen-year-old son (who Rachel later found out worked in the local SS office!). They offered her a bowl of soup. During conversation it emerged that this family, the Roluks, knew Rachel’s father. They praised him for being a very righteous and honest man they had had business dealings with. If they did not have money to pay for the items he gave them on consignment, he did not pressure them to pay.
At this point in the war, both Rachel and the Roluks knew the Nazis would kill any family caught harboring a Jew. Understanding the predicament, Rachel asked Mrs. Roluk if she and her family were religious. She answered affirmatively. Rachel then asked her if they had a Bible. Again affirmative. Rachel next requested that she take the Bible and place it on the table. She did. Finally, Rachel said to the entire family, “I want all of you to place your hands on the Bible.” They complied.
“Now, promise me the following,” the 14-year-old recently orphaned Jewish girl said. “I have nowhere to run. I’m tired and I’m alone. After this, I will go outside to your backyard and lie down in the snow. There I will freeze to death. You will bury me. Now, promise me on this Bible” – and it is difficult to convey the quality of conviction in my mother-in-law’s voice even as she retold it decades later – “that after the war you will find Jewish people and tell that there is a little Jewish girl buried in the backyard. Promise me that you will tell them that her last wish was that she be reburied with other Jews in a Jewish cemetery.”
A deathly silence fell upon the room. The Roluks looked at each other. One by one, they rose from the table and walked into the next room. Rachel could hear them talking. After a while, they returned and said to her, “You will stay with us. We will tell people that you are our niece from another village.”
What the Roluks did not know at the time was that in saving Rachel they were saving themselves – not only in soul but in body too. (This is detailed in the book. Hint: it has to do with the train story above.)
By the end of my lecture, the 120 girls were mesmerized. The most amazing part of Rachel’s story is that – despite the fact that by war’s end she had no family, friends or money – she became the happiest, most active, most loving and helping human being; someone who regularly said with absolute sincerity, “Nothing bad ever happened to me.”
The story of my mother-in-law inspires on many levels. She is a genuine heroine. As Jews, her story impresses upon us an added message: the value of what it means to be Jewish. Perhaps most of all, we learn from her that even if very bad things happen to us, we have within ourselves an astonishing, mysterious, inextinguishable untapped capacity to love; to be truly happy, active, focused and a magnet of joy for others. God knows, the world needs more of that.
With a Heavy Heart…
I write this introduction with a heavy heart… since as we prepare to go to print this month, Menachem Av, my mother-in-law has just passed away.
She was a Holocaust survivor, as some of you may know from my book The Hidden Hand – The Holocaust and from lectures I have delivered as part of my work for Torah Umesorah’s Holocaust education branch, Zechor Yemos Olam.
In many ways, her story is no different than numerous other Jewish men and women who went through the worst imaginable times but emerged as beacons of faith, immersing their energies into rebuilding their lives and establishing new generations. On the other hand, how many people can say that their Bubby caused the deaths of 1,000 SS soldiers at the height of the war in an effort to save her life and the lives of the righteous non-Jewish family that had hidden her?
I hope to publish an article about her incredible story, and perhaps even a book, but the thing that stands out most about her is that she always said with a full heart, “Nothing bad ever happened to me.” This from a woman who as a teenager watched each member of her family killed one by one, a little girl alone against the Nazis and an insane world bent on killing her. Yet, she not only said regularly, “Nothing bad ever happened to me,” but lived it — expressed as an unshakable positive attitude toward everything in life and her total involvement in chessed for others (family and otherwise), even winning an award from the governor of New York for her community work.
I cannot understand or approach my mother-in-law’s emunah peshuta, her simple faith. I cannot comprehend how she came out of her experiences intact physically, mentally and spiritually. Yet, she did.
Of course, she was not the only one. There were many, including Yudel Weinstein whose dramatic story is told in this month’s issue; how he survived 17 hellish days in the Treblinka death camp. Treblinka – the place that began murdering Jews en masse on Tisha B’Av 1942. Treblinka – the death factory no larger than two football fields where 875,000 or more Jewish men, women and children perished. Treblinka – where only a handful of eyewitnesses survived to tell about it.
Some people find Holocaust stories depressing. I find them just the opposite. If one approaches the Holocaust correctly, it is not just another subject. It is the most powerful vehicle to inspire us with the greatest Torah ideals such as ahavas Yisrael; to be more kind and do more chessed; to give us an appreciation of the power of Torah to provide hope in the darkest of circumstances; to impart belief in the eternity of the Jewish people; and, ultimately, to value what it means to be alive.
May the memory of my mother-in-law and the lives of all who went through the Holocaust continue to be a blessing and an inspiration.
Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief
I will be speaking on Tisha B’Av, iyh, at a Hakhel event.
See attachment for details: Hakhel – Tisha B’Av 5773
The Hidden Hand: Lessons and Teachings From the Holocaust
Including A New Audio-Visual Presentation
LOCATION: KOLLEL BNEI TORAH
1323 East 32nd Street (Between M & Kings Highway)
Fifty years ago, on May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann was executed after the most public trial in history (it was the first time a trial had been televised). It changed so many things about the world’s understanding of Holocaust — as well as Jewish life in general — that today we take these monumental changes for granted.
Today, for instance, Holocaust survivors are widely viewed as heroes, even among non-Jews. Before the Eichmann trial, however, Israeli society in general despised survivors for not standing up to the Nazis and fighting back. Israelis had been propagandized by the persona of the “New Jew,” a street fighter created in the Zionist image.
Hearing survivor testimony firsthand as the “Architect of the Holocaust” listened in a glass booth a few feet away created in the public eye a different perception of the victims. In the words of Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, this perception was the “polar opposite to this Zionist Weltanschauung.” For the first time, many Israelis and Jews understood the impossibility of directly confronting the Nazis, the complexities involved in choosing to physically resist and the Holocaust survivors’ spiritual heroism. The Eichmann trial, she concludes, was a “catharsis not only to the survivors, but to Israelis and the Jewish people at large.”
Of course, the Eichmann trial also dealt a serious blow to Holocaust deniers. Here was testimony by the man arguably most responsible for orchestrating it, who was quoted as saying he would “jump” into his grave “laughing” in the knowledge that the death of five million Jews was on his hands, and who testified to important aspects of it, including personal visits Auschwitz, Treblinka, gas vans and mass graves in Russia. Despite his incredible denial of any personal guilt associated with his actions, his public testimony makes it that much harder for Jew-haters to deny the Holocaust (the denials of the President of Iran, as well as academics in the Muslim and Western world notwithstanding).
Therefore, as we read about the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, let’s remember that the Holocaust is a treasure trove of Torah lessons. At least six of those lessons were enumerated by the Novominsker Rebbe:
- Elicit in students sympathy for the victims and others in distress;
- Inspire them with ahavas Yisrael — to be more kind and do more chessed;
- Instill them with a love of Judaism;
- Give them an appreciation of the power of Torah to provide hope in the darkest of circumstances;
- Imbue them with a sense of hashgachah, i.e. that God runs the world, as well as a closeness to God, and a sense of our responsibility to do His will;
- Impart to them belief in the eternity of the Jewish People.
Eichmann’s capture and trial is a gift we can use to strengthen our emunah. It is a grand central station of Torah lessons. May we merit taking it to heart and securing these lessons for ourselves and our children.
Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief
On Physical And Spiritual Resistance
The story of Leon Weinstein, last surviving Warsaw ghetto fighter, has a little bit of everything: drama, history, heroism, escape, discovery, life, death, etc.
Be that as it may, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising itself became a controversial topic almost immediately after the war when many anti-religious Jews hijacked it to promote their values. We address the controversy in a sidebar (“Spiritual Resistance”).
I got a taste of the controversy last summer when I visited Warsaw and saw the large monument that the Communists dedicated to the uprising. It was disturbing to see that whereas the west side of the monument boasts a raised sculpture of young, physically strong, heroic-looking Jewish fighters, the east side displays caricatures of old, weak, long-suffering religious Jews.
The message was clearly meant to promote the ideal of the “New Jew,” the term Zionist-Socialists/Communists used to contrast with what they believed to be its polar opposite: the old ghetto Jew. Whereas the latter was downtrodden, stooped and weak, the “New Jew” was strong, aggressive and free; he was not beholden to halachah, the rabbis or even G-d. In short, he was the epitome of kochi v’otzem yadi (Devarim 8:17).
In the Post-Zionism world, culture clashes like this have simmered somewhat. Nevertheless, it still needs to be hammered home that while not denying bravery in a physical sense we do not glorify it at the expense of spiritual bravery and resistance, which the Holocaust produced in quantities and with a quality arguably unmatched in history.
Let me share just one small sample of spiritual resistance, from the Holocaust book, Sisters In The Storm (CIS), whose author lived through the horrors of the Lodz ghetto:
I remember one time when my mother prepared seudah shelishis for the entire group [of her brother’s friends]…. They sang Shabbos zemiros to the haunting chassidishe melodies. Their enthusiasm kindled a spiritual light in our house. For a moment, as I listened to their voices sweeping upwards and praising Hashem for all His good works, I forgot my own hunger….
The bachurim lifted themselves out of the ghetto darkness. They spontaneously jumped up from the benches to dance around the table…. They were in a transcendent, spiritual realm, much closer to heaven than to earth. That seudah shelishis will forever be one of the few bright spots in the memory of my life in the ghetto.
After Binyamin and his friends left the apartment to go to Maariv, I realized that their gathering had actually been an act of rebellion. They had completely defied the Nazis. The suffering, the fear, the pain and hunger that we all felt did not drive them to despair…. Instead of following the orders of the Germans, they followed the orders of the Torah. They were able to find strength, meaning and light in the darkness that enveloped us….
Similarly, Leon Weinstein’s story is remarkable not only for its feats of incredible physical bravery, but for the spiritual bravery that ultimately led Leon to become a baal teshuvah, making his story combination of the best of all worlds.
Last year I spoke at the Holocaust Museum & Study Center in Spring Valley, NY, on Tisha B’Av. Feel free to download, listen and distribute this lecture entitled: Astor Tisha Bav 5770 Finkelstein Holocaust Museum.
National Tragedies on Tisha B’Av in History
“Then the entire congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.” (Bamidbar 14:1)
Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “That night was Tisha B’Av. Hakodosh Baruch Hu, said, ‘They cried for no valid reason; I will establish for them [this night as] a weeping for generations.’” (Sotah 35a)
On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the First and Second Temples were destroyed, Beitar was captured and the City [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
- Bnai Yisrael were told they would not live to enter the Land of Israel (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
- The First Bais HaMikdash was destroyed (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
- The Second Bais HaMikdash was destroyed (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
- The City of Beitar was captured (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
- The Temple Mount was ploughed (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
- On Tisha B’Av — July 18, 1290 — Edward I (1272-1307) issued an edict of expulsion for the Jews from England
- Tisha B’Av, 1492, was the deadline of the Royal Decree expelling the Jews of Spain on pain of death
- World War I began on Tisha B’Av — August 1, 1914
- The Final Solution was unleashed in full force on Tisha B’Av 1942 as the first Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were gassed at Treblinka (see The Hidden Hand – The Holocaust by Yaakov Astor)
Healing through our Wounds
“I [Hashem] will heal you with your own wounds” (Yirmiyahu 30:17). Hashem not only heals us from our wounds but heals us with our wounds. By the same token, says the Midrash, Yosef fell into great misfortune because of his dreams, but dreams also brought about his salvation. If we are far-seeing enough, we will see that Hashem not only heals us from our wounds but heals us with our wounds.
Even more so, He prepares the healing in advance of the wound (Megillah 13b). Rabbi Berel Wein illustrates this via the events of Tisha B’Av, 1492:
OnAugust 2, 1492,Spainbecame a graveyard of Jewish hopes and lives. The Talmud teaches, however, that God provides the cure before giving the illness, and that black day had a ray of light in it; a ray of light borne on three small ships that many feared would fall over the edge of the world. OnAugust 3, 1492,Columbusset out on his historic voyage. He, in fact, writes in his log how he was delayed in the harbor by the traffic of ships evacuating the Jews….
The journey of Christopher Columbus across the frighteningAtlanticmust be reckoned as one of the turning points in the history of civilization….America, and all that it would later come to represent, would masterEurope, inexorably change it, and itself usurp the dominant role in the story of man. But all of this was not yet visible even to the most far-seeing savants ofEurope, in 1492….
Only later would the irony of the Divine plan be seen: on that very day when Spain chose to close out six centuries of intense and productive Jewish life on its soil, Columbus sailed to discover a new continent where there would be a safe haven for Jews (and others) and where the people of Israel would once again be able to rise to a preeminent role in general society. That black day in August 1492 had a ray of brightness to it. Pity that this did not become apparent for another four centuries. (Triumph of Survival, pp. 38-9)
Thus, the wheels of the Divine Plan were already in motion. As the epoch of Spanish Jewry was coming to a close, the seeds of American Jewry were to be planted. The healing was prepared before the wound.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed a deadline beyond which all Jews remaining in Spainmust either convert or die at the stake – a day that fell on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Templesin Jerusalem. To the tens of thousands of Jews crossing the border to lives of suffering and uncertainty, the date was a Divine omen, signifying that though God was angry with them, He had not forgotten them. (Triumph of Survival, p. 3)
Tisha B’Av teaches us that though Hashem allows the Jewish people to suffer, He is nevertheless with us. He wants us to learn our lessons and benefit from the knowledge won. We may not understand why Hashem allows national tragedies to occur, but we are comforted by the knowledge that He has a plan and ultimately it will be for our good… even if we cannot see it at the time.
(Excerpted from The Hidden Hand – The Holocaust by Yaakov Astor)
 [About 65 years after the destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash, Beitar was] a city where tens of thousands of Jews lived who were led by a great king whom all of Israel and its Sages thought was Mashiach. The city fell to the Romans and all its inhabitants were killed. It was a catastrophe akin to the Temple’s destruction (Rambam, Laws of Fasting 5:3). Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed (Gittin 57a). The Romans not only slaughtered the inhabitants of Beitar, but they refused to allow them to be buried (Berachos 48b).
 Employing an army of slaves, the Roman Emperor Hadrian lowered the Temple Mount almost 1,000 feet. He simply plowed it. When one goes to Jerusalem today, the mountains around the Temple Mount (such as the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus) are taller. Before Hadrian, however, Mount Moriah (the mountain upon with the Bais HaMikdash stood) was the highest mountain there. Hadrian literally reconstructed the landscape in order to prove to the Jews that it would never be rebuilt again. (Rabbi Berel Wein, Travels Through Jewish History, Lecture 12, “The Destruction of the Second Temple”)
 In many ways, World War II was simply the continuation of WW I, since the treaty that ended it (the Versailles Treaty) was the direct cause of World War II (and, ultimately, the Holocaust).
 Birthplace and home to some of the greatest Torah giants over the centuries, Warsaw boasted by far the largest concentration Jews, and, therefore, more than any other city, symbolized European Jewry. The deportation and extermination of its population in the death camp of Treblinka can be seen as a microcosm of the entire Holocaust itself. If so, the “Final Solution” – the term commonly used to signify the systematic extermination of Jews in death camps ─ can be said to have been fully unleashed on the ninth of Av 1942.
Click on this Crash Course link to go to it.
As you will see, not all the courses are up and other aspects of the website are still in progress. Nevertheless, I am glad it is up. It is designed to be the address on the internet for anything to do with Jewish history. It not only includes the written courses I have been working on, but videos, a blog and more.
The written courses that I have been working on, and am continuing to work on, are actually reduced versions of a more complete rendition of history lectures adapted from Rabbi Wein’s widely-enjoyed tapes series, Travels Through Jewish History. The thought was that the longer versions (average of 3-4,000 words each) were too long for the Internet-surfing generation. These longer versions will hopefully also be available at some point.
I plan to share more about this, and other exciting writing projects I am working on, in the near future.