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
Rabbi Marvin Hier recalls Simon Wiesenthal telling him about a transformative moment in his life. It was 1946. He was spending Friday night with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors who could not understand why he decided to become a Nazi hunter.
“Enough with the past,” they argued. “Focus on the future.”
Then, as Wiesenthal looked into the glow of the Shabbos neiros, Rabbi Hier relates, he suddenly saw “the neshamos of the six million listening to their conversation.”
“My dear friends,” Wiesenthal said, “there will come a time when we’ll go up to shamayim and the six million will come to each of us and ask, ‘What have you done?’ You, my dear friend, will tell them that you went into construction to build homes. And you will say you went into the jewelry business. And you became a manufacturer of clothes. But I will have the privilege of saying to them, ‘I have never forgotten you.’”
Of course, survivors who quietly went about rebuilding their lives and raising families loyal to Torah are the greatest heroes. They never forgot their families and friends, or the six million, as they rebuilt Klal Yisrael in the most concrete fashion.
Nevertheless, Simon Wiesenthal was unique in the way he honored the memory of the six million, as an article this month details. Moreover, his life’s work inspired the creation of a center named after him, as conveyed in our cover story.
I feel particularly close to this topic now, as I write this introduction 30,000 feet above ground, returning from a week in Poland where, with a group of mechanchim and mechanchos from Torah Umesorah, we visited the concentration camps, ghettos and mass graves — the tombstone of a vibrant Jewish world that is no more. The most moving part of the trip took place just outside the town of Tarnow, at the site of a mass grave containing the bodies of 800 Jewish children, hy’d.
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.
In This Issue
Striking It Rich… In The Catskills?
You’ve heard of Texas oil magnates. Now, allow us to introduce you to… Catskill gas magnates. Yes, you’ve heard right. Beneath the soil of our beloved Catskill Mountains, the yearly summer refuge for thousands of Jewish vacationers, lies a hidden treasure – a large reservoir of natural gas that can possibly spawn a new generation of Jewish tycoons and Torah philanthropists. How will this affect the myriad religious summer camps and bungalow colonies across the Catskills?
On the Trail of the Tylenol Terrorist
In 1982, a coldblooded murderer slipped cyanide into bottles of Tylenol, resulting in seven deaths. The entire nation was thrown into a panic that nearly spelled the end for Tylenol and many other medicines — and spawned “copycat” incidents that killed more. After 29 years with no convictions, is the FBI at last “On the Trail of the Tylenol Terrorist”?
“The World Is Coming To An End!”
On May 21, 2011, the world almost stopped – well, not really. However, that was the day the world was supposed to stop according to a famous American Christian preacher. Of course, May 21 came and went, and so did the millions of dollars his supporters had donated to advertise the end of the world. In the year 1524, millions of people were also convinced that the world was about to come to an end. Read about the Great Panic of 1524 and other strange panics that teach us more about human psychology than the apocalypse.
The Dark Side of FDR
While America and her allies deserve great credit for ending the hellish reign of the Nazis, and thus playing a crucial role in the survival of the remnant of European Jews, they failed to act and even at times prevented actions that could have saved countless Jewish lives! Shockingly, it was one of America’s most beloved presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was responsible for bureaucracy and decisions that resulted in countless preventable deaths. Even more shockingly, he did so with the full backing and even the proactive involvement of some of America’s most prominent Jewish “leaders”!
Soul on Fire
Already a legend in his lifetime, Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl rose to even greater heights when the circumstances of the Holocaust forced him into the role of rescue worker. Often maligned by the secular world, efforts to refute his claims and minimize his efforts have been disproven time and again.Zman had the privilege of an exclusive interview with one of Reb Michoel Ber’s sons, who undertook to uphold his father’s legacy, defending him against those who sought to diminish the undeniable influence of his fiery father in the field of wartime rescue.
A Ride with Ohio’s State Police Aviation Unit
They are not your typical state police traversing the highways for speeding drivers. Rather they are a division of the police that do their work from 1,500 feet or higher. Find out what a day in the life of an airborne Ohio traffic cop is like, how they work and what the type of driver behavior they are looking for that will trigger a ticket.
All You Ever Wanted To Know About Smoking
When Columbus sailed from Spain in search of spices and gold, he hardly expected that among his most treasured finds would be… tobacco. A Marrano Jew traveling with Columbus was the first European to take a puff of tobacco. Seven years later, smoking had become common in Spain. Zman presents this important and informative article, authored by a highly respected oncologist, that covers not only on the history of smoking, but current information about its medical and halachic aspects (the latter reviewed by our Rabbinic authority).
I will be speaking in Toronto on Sunday night May 8 and in Detroit on Monday night May 9, be’h. It will be part of a program sponsored by Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education branch of Torah Umesorah. My topic will be, “The Hidden Hand: A Pedagogical Approach to Teaching the Holocaust.”
Here are the flyers for each event: