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.
“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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I received the following question [I’ve edited out personal information]:
I’ve just stumbled across your website and after reading it a bit decided to email…. I miscarried more times than I can recall, 20 plus is an average estimate, and while those years were the worst of my life I just remained focused on HaShem, much to the frustration of everyone around me. My faith has just steadily grown stronger…. With any decision making I need to do I always wonder what HaShem wants of me. I paid out possibly around $200k for fertility treatments but always said, I will work hard to pay for it, but ultimately it was up to HaShem if I had children and only He knew what was best for me. Years later I began to wonder if my desire for children wasn’t great enough and/ or it was wrong handing it over to HaShem. Can you clarify that for me please?
It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what Hashem wants from you. But we do know, as you said, that Hashem does know what’s best for us. That is certainly the correct sentiment. Beyond that, there can be lots of reasons why things happen or don’t happen, in this case why you have not been able to have children. Let me just throw out one general thought, which may or may not apply to your case.
Most people view prayer as a vehicle to some desire, or their heart’s desire. And that is indeed one important function of prayer, something that many people have yet to learn. However, there is also another way of looking at it: prayer is the goal and our heart’s desire is the vehicle. King David said, Ani tefillasi, “I am prayer.” He did not say, “I pray.” He said, “I am prayer.” He reached the exalted level of being in a constant state of prayer. Sometimes God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer because he wants us to pray harder, to unleash the full potential of our heart’s desire. But at other times he wants us to go even higher, and realize that prayer is an exalted state of being unto itself.
I cannot say which applies to you. But perhaps this might help you. Sometimes the lesson he wants us to learn is that we should not be attached to results, to serve him without the condition of expecting reward. That is not to say that there is no reward. But that we should detach from our expectations to such. There is reward. No prayer goes unanswered — even if it is not immediately answered in the way we thought it would be answered. Keep praying. Keep striving to learn more. Keep realizing God does always know what is best for us.
We go to print with news of the petirah of Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, zt’l. Although time does not permit an elaborate essay or even the composition of a properly ordered piece, I wanted to share thoughts that came to mind.
The first thought is the timing of his passing, less than 24 hours after the Israeli coalition government dissolved, an event that effectively delays the attempts by ardent secularists to implement enforced conscription of yeshivah students.
The fact is that Torah is the greatest shemirah (protection). More dangerous than Iran with the bomb is a situation of Jews without Torah, c’v. As the Gadol Hador, HaRav Elyashiv not only taught and exemplified Torah values, but was a fountainhead through which Torah flowed down into the world, and which ultimately protected the generation from all sorts of physical and spiritual dangers.
Who knows if during his last days, as his body lay in a debilitated state, his holy neshamah was not rampaging through the heavens to get the decree of forced conscription torn up, and that only after he succeeded was he recalled by the Heavenly Court? Who knows…? It would certainly be a fitting final act for a man who literally dedicated every moment of his life to Torah.
DEFINING EMUNAH & BITACHON
- What Is Emunah-Bitachon?
- Why learn about Bitachon?
- What should one think about when saying the Shema?
- What is meant by Menuchas HaNefesh (a “Calm Mind”)?
- How could Elisha Ben Avuya have lost his Emunah?
- What is meant by pointing at Hashem?
- How is Emunah “Righteousness”?
ACQUIRING EMUNAH & BITACHON
- How does one acquire Emunah?
- What if one doesn’t have the ability to believe?
- If Emunah is instinctual why is it so hard to believe?
- A decent man without Torah?
- What practical things can a person do to work on Bitachon?
TRUSTING ONLY IN HASHEM
- Why was Yosef punished for a minor lack of Bitachon?
- How does someone deal with betrayal?
- Why were the younger ones the successful ones?
- Why does Hashem make things seem hopeless at times?
- Wrong Emunah?
- How much Hishtadlus?
- Is it possible to forestall trouble?
- Why did David fight so many battles? Why not have Bitachon?
- Why does a person have to work?
- How should one deal with lack of success in Parnassa?
- How much effort should one put into finding a Shidduch?
- What does it mean “A person is led the way he wants to go”?
- Can people die before their time?