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.
Bowing To No Other
As background to this month’s cover story, let me share a thought told by Rav Shlomo Brevda, zt”l.
One of the key moments in the Purim story is when Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman (Esther 3:2). Haman was the second most powerful man in the Persian Empire, which ruled the entire civilized world, including all its Jews. Everyone bowed to him — except Mordechai. When Haman found out, he vowed to kill Mordechai.
That set in motion the events that led to the royal decree to exterminate all Jews – as well as the miracles that thwarted the decree, ending with the execution of Haman, his sons and thousands of other anti-Semites throughout the empire.
Rav Brevda, quoting the Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Aggados Megillah, says that Mordechai’s act served as a tikkun for an old communal transgression that had never been properly expiated. When the Jews were first sent into exile by Nevuchadnetzar he erected a huge statue and called all the leading dignitaries of all the peoples in his domain to meet in the valley where the statue resided. At the designated moment, everyone was supposed to bow. Those who refused would be thrown into a furnace.
Everyone bowed, including all the Jews, except for three brave youths, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were miraculously saved.
The Gemara (Megillah 7) tells us that those Jews who bowed to the idol of Nevuchadneztar did not intend it to be an act of avodah zarah. Rather, they acted out of fear of Nevuchadneztar. However, it had the appearance of avodah zarah, and thus was a chillul Hashem.
It was several generations after Nevuchadnetzar when Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. “Why are you defying the royal decree?” the royal servants asked him.
Mordechai informed them that he was a Yehudi (a Jew), and avodah zarah was forbidden; he would never bow down to Haman, who had made himself into an object of worship (Megillah 10b, 19a; Sanhedrin 6Ib).
Mordechai’s kiddush Hashem served as rectification, tikkun ha’chet, for the chillul Hashem of bowing to Nevuchadnetzar’s idol. In so doing, he undid the earlier wrong and thus set up the deliverance of the Jewish people.
Rav Brevda goes onto explain that the real sin here was that the Jews had come to rely on a power other than Hashem. They looked for help from foreign powers, from persons of great influence or on their own ingenuity and efforts. The tikkun was to absolutely disregard all powers on Earth; to turn only to Hashem for a salvation through prayer and teshuvah.
That is one of the great lessons of Purim: our reliance on Hashem and the primacy of tefillah and teshuvah.
The situation in our cover story was not exactly the same, but there are striking similarities. As such, perhaps it is meant to drive home the point that this lesson is still very current, and one of the primary challenges of our times.
Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief
“Rebbe, please pray for me not to be drafted into the army,” a young man beseeched the Viznitzer Rebbe in the years before World War I. Although non-observant, he knew the Rebbe to be a miracle worker, a man whose prayers were really answered.
The Rebbe’s method was to have the person in need tell him one mitzvah, one good deed, they had done; then the Rebbe would say in his prayers, “Master of the Universe, this person is keeping kosher… or Shabbat, etc. – in that merit please save him.”
The Rebbe looked at the young man now asking him to pray he not be drafted in the army. “Do you pray every morning?” he asked.
“No,” he said, “I don’t wake up till long after noon and then I go to play soccer.”
“Do you keep the Sabbath?”
“How can I? Saturday is reserved for the most important soccer games.”
“Do you eat kosher?”
“It’s cheaper to eat pork.”
The Rebbe persisted, but time and again received the same answer. The young man did not have one single point of merit. Finally, the Rebbe said to him, “I envy you.”
“Yes. Can you imagine, in one moment you can become a greater tzaddik (righteous person) than I.”
“Yes. You see, anyone who does teshuva (repentance) out of fear of God has his sins erased. But anyone who repents out of love of God has his sins turned into merits. And you definitely have more sins than I have merits. In one minute, you can turn everything around and end up with more merits than I.”
A reflective, thoughtful look flashed across this young man’s face. Without batting an eyelash, he said, “Rebbe, wait another year and you will envy me even more!”
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According to Judaism,1 each of us undergoes three different types of Days of Judgment Days:
- Rosh Hashanah, which is an annual review of one’s actions over the previous year used to determine one’s material circumstances for the upcoming year;
- Day of death, which reviews the deceased person’s life and determines whether it is ready for Paradise;
- The Great Day of Judgment, which is an event in the future, at the end of history as we know it, when all who lived are resurrected, and are judged whether they are worthy of everlasting life in a spiritualized renewed physical world (according to most authorities) to frolic in the splendor of God’s Presence.
All this judgment strikes the contemporary mind as backward, even offensive. It only reinforces the stereotypic image of “Old Testament” Judaism as a religion of fear, not love.
Well, yes, judgment — whether on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Death, or the “Great Day of Judgment” — contains the general air of awe and seriousness. There is no sense trying to sugarcoat or diminish the magnitude of these events.
Nevertheless, what’s often lost to the contemporary mind is the liberating experience judgment entails. Perhaps the best illustrations of this are found in a surprising place.
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Three years ago a new self-help fad swept the world. Offering nothing less than everything from unimaginable wealth to happiness and finding one’s soul mate, the people behind the fad claimed they had discovered a very old “secret” that had been carefully guarded and handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, across many cultures. Presenting this secret to the masses for the first time, they called their film documentary and accompanying book, “The Secret.”
And they made a mint.
After one gets past the glitter, the underlying core of the “secret” is a powerful idea expressed in the Talmud that has special relevance to Rosh Hashana.
The operative dynamic behind “the secret” is a concept called the “Law of Attraction”:
Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind. It’s what you’re thinking.You become what you think about most, but you also attract what you think about most….
Long ago, the rabbis of the Talmud said: “The way a person wishes to go is the way he will be led” (Makkos 10b). If a person really wants to do something — for good or bad — all the elements of the world surrounding him will help him go in that direction. The universe will conspire to help him achieve his burning desire.
What we truly want is where we are going to be led.
Light Makes Might
The story of Chanukah is made up of two radically different components. One is the war, the battles of the Chashmonayim and their ultimate victory over the Syrian/Greek oppressors. “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” we insert into our shemonah esrai during Chanukah.
The other component is the spiritual, miraculous event of the small pitcher that supplied oil for eight days even though it held enough only for one night.
At first glance these components — the military the spiritual — are diametrically opposed.
Indeed, there is no other holiday on the Jewish calendar that emphasizes military victory. The triumphs of Yehoshua, Shaul or Dovid HaMelech, magnificent as they were, are not commemorated. What makes the military victory on Chanukah different from all other victories?
It is not the permanence of the victory. The great pantheon of famous warriors in the distant past and the near present testify to this disappointing truth: there are only temporary victors in wars. All military victories are subject to reversal, destruction, decay and abandonment – and Chanukah’s is no different. After the Jews retook Yerushalayim and experienced the miracle of the menorah the war dragged out another five to seven years. Successive Greek emperors tried to take back Eretz Yisrael by force of arms and by orchestrating a coup among the Jews.
What makes a military victory more than a fleeting moment of glory? The spiritual truth behind it. How do we know that Chanukah was more than a military victory? The little flask of oil that miraculously burned eight days.
Only when the military victory is combined with and sublimated to spiritual accomplishment, only when Hashem is acknowledged as having fashioned the victory, only when there is symbolic religious ritual attached to the celebration of physical triumph, only then can that victory be seen as having some sense of permanence.
The memory of the victory of the Chashmonayim is glorified because of the Chanukah candles. With its spiritually uplifting message of eternal fuel and lights, Chanukah allows us to exult fully in the military victory of the Chashmonayim as well. For it is no longer just a triumph of arms and war but of the human spirit and hashgachah pratis.
How apropos, then, that our cover story this month is about four IDF soldiers who became baalei teshuva. The idea that military victory is rooted in spiritual causes is a difficult message to accept among those not raised in an environment of Emunah. Perhaps then the most miraculous aspect of our four soldiers is that they got the message. Despite their upbringing they figured out that, for a Jew, “sharing the burden” means sharing the yoke of Torah and mitzvos – and that it is not only a much more difficult yoke, but the root cause that best protects Jewish lives.
Therefore, the light that these four soldiers shine is a truly a miracle – one worth celebrating ba’zman hazeh, at this time.
Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief