Yaakov Astor

My Mother-in-Law: Jewish Heroine and Nazi Killer

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This was published on Aish.com

jewish-heroine-Nazi-killer-230x150
Rachel Blum around age 20, about five years after surviving the Holocaust.

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.

Nothing Bad Ever Happens tells the thrilling, true story of Rachel Blum’s struggle to survive in a world bent on destroying her. Click here to order.

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Massive New Pesach Zman!

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Cover Zman-52The Munich Massacre

The 1972 Olympics was to be a new Olympics symbolizing a new Germany with a new feeling of universal brotherhood. Then Arab terrorists seized 11 Israeli athletes, sparking memories of the Holocaust in the land that perpetrated it. Zman interviews Israeli Olympic delegate Shmuel Lalkin who was only a few feet away in the neighboring apartment at the time of the attack. He provides a fascinating yet harrowing and chilling insider’s account of this terrifying event.

Slavery… Today

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt….” Slavery in modern times has been strongly denounced and much effort has been made to uproot it. Despite that, there are — shockingly — more slaves today than perhaps ever in world history! Zman takes a look at modern slavery and how we can use it as an opportunity to appreciate the words of the Haggadah telling us how fortunate we are that we are not enslaved.

 King Tut – Not One To Say “Tut Tut” To

The discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, a relatively minor pharaoh, with its fabulous treasures virtually intact, took the world by storm. Everyone could now see for the first time the unbelievable wealth that surrounded the monarchs of the ancient world’s most famous and imposing empire. Read about the discovery of the tomb and learn about its significance in the annals of history and in the eyes of the Torah.

Airliners Gone AWOL

The news this past month was full of the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared on March 8. More than two dozen countries searched from land, air, space and sea for any visible sign of the plane. Two weeks of intense searching produced nothing. The plane simply disappeared. But this was not the first time in history that such an event caught the world’s attention. Read the stories of other airplanes that mysteriously vanished.

Apollo 13: Disaster In Space!

The entire world was transfixed. Many said it was the first time they prayed. It all began when the Apollo rocket heading toward the moon experienced a major malfunction. On the ground, specialists worked feverishly to develop a plan to return the astronauts to Earth. It was a race against time. Oxygen, heat and electricity on the craft were fast running out. A series of risky maneuvers were initiated in the slim hope of returning them alive. Would they succeed in time?

 Kids Who Made The News

It isn’t every day that children are featured in the news, but when a child does make headlines the circumstances are bound to be extraordinary, if not completely bizarre. Here is an array of curious reports about children that have captured the interest of the media and the public all over the world.

 Raised By Wild Animals

Although there are many myths, legends and fictional stories depicting children reared by wild animals — such as dogs, wolves, apes and bears — modern day cases suggests that at least some of those legends may have been based on true accounts. As surreal as this may seem, there have been documented instances even today where children have been adopted and raised by animals.

 Humble First Jobs… Of Some Not-So-Humble People

The only truly predictable thing about life is its unpredictability. Nowhere is this more evident, arguably, than in the lives of the most famous (and infamous) world leaders who had the most humble beginnings. Be it the billionaire who once waiting on tables… to the dictator who began as a peasant… to the current President of the United States who used to scooped ice cream, history (past and present) proves time and again that anything can and does happen.

 NASI – Anatomy Of A Crisis

It has been called the shidduch crisis. In order to shed light on the nature of it and its possible causes, Zman interviewed Rabbi Moshe Pogrow, the director of NASI, the North American Shidduch Initiative. To provide a more complete picture, we also interviewed several shadchanim who have been involved in NASI shidduchim, including Mrs. Libby Lieberman, and mother of “older singles” who would potentially benefit from the program.

 The New Seminary

Seventeen years ago, Rebbetzin Sora Bulka, along with Rabbi Yeshaya Levy, envisioned an educational institution that would achieve two different but related goals. The first was to provide young women with the proper values, skills and knowledge to become professionally involved in quality Jewish education. The second was to allow women to obtain degrees from respected universities while remaining in an environment committed to tzniyus and yiras shamayim. Thus was born The New Seminary.

The Munich Massacre

Munich, Germany – the birthplace of Naziism. The year is 1972, more than 27 years after the end of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. This was to be a new Olympics, symbolizing a new Germany with a new feeling of universal brotherhood and peace for all mankind. Then Arab terrorists infiltrated seized 11 Israeli athletes, sparking memories of the Holocaust in the land that perpetrated it. The world literally watched the horrific events unfold and wondered: Would negotiators and commandos be able to save the Jewish athletes in time?

 Hi Tech Veggies

Vegetables and greens are an important part of Pesach tradition, and take a prominent role at the Seder. In this month’s special food section, Zman explores the wild world of insect infestation, and how to have your broccoli and eat it too!

 

Off to China!

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Great Wall of ChinaTHE GREAT JEWISH TOUR OF CHINA
Summer 2013

I’m off to China from July 21 through August 1.

Flyer for China trip

Introduction to the new Rabbi Miller book by Yaakov Astor

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This book is intended for everyone from the most uninitiated to the most advanced student. Indeed, the general topic of emunah and bitachon, “faith and trust,” is for every human being: man and woman, adult and child, Jew and non-Jew. Like a gushing fountain, it’s a never-ending subject, completely replenishing itself with time. The youngest child can attain (and should be taught) some understanding of it while at the same time adults build on that understanding (hopefully) as time goes on.

Rabbi Miller was uniquely qualified to speak on such a subject. He had a special ability to make the most complex subjects sound simple. Of course, no one should mistake this for lack of depth. Indeed, just a perusal of all the sources he drew on, constantly and often just from memory, is testimony to the breadth. His uncanny ability to instantly apply this vast knowledge to every question thrown at him during his thousands of recorded lectures amply demonstrates the depth of this knowledge. (Not that he needed to prove that.)

His same words that struck a chord with the uninitiated caused great excitement to the advanced student. This ability, combined with his vast erudition and depth of knowledge, makes a book by him on the subject of faith something the widest spectrum of people can understand — and not only understand, as Rabbi Miller would say, but to utilize to change and grow; to make oneself a better person.

Although Rabbi Miller authored 12 books on his own, he left thousands of recorded lectures which include many ideas and/or many nuances of ideas that were either not necessarily mentioned in his books or explained in as much detail in those books. Our topic, emunah and bitachon, is implied in and indeed oozes from all his writings and recordings, but none of the books talk about it as explicitly or at least in once concentrated area as we have endeavored here.

This book is based primarily on the following lectures recorded by Rabbi Miller.

  • 1. Singing In The World
  • 23. Forestalling Trouble
  • 241. Bitachon And Hishtadlus
  • 334. Bitachon And Emunah
  • 486. Bitachon: From Nowhere Comes My Help
  • 562. Bitachon I
  • 794. Bitachon And The Calm Mind
  • 946. Three Aspects Of Bitachon
  • S-10. Bitachon 1
  • S-11. Bitachon 2
  • S-12. Bitachon 3
  • S-13. Bitachon 4

Read the rest of this entry »

My New Book – R’ Miller on Bitachon

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I’m happy to announce my newest book, Rav Avigdor Miller on Emunah and Bitachon. Please stayed tuned to this blog for excerpts. Meanwhile, here is a brief description of the book:

Rabbi Miller on EmunahVirtually every decision we make is affected by our grasp of the principles of emunah and bitachon (faith and trust in Hashem). But where do we turn to gain clarity about these issues, to find answers to our many questions?

Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, answered that need for thousands of Jews, and more than a decade after his passing, he continues to do so. Rav Miller left behind a vast legacy of recorded shiurim and writings. Now, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Yaakov Astor, an important part of that legacy has been transformed into this monumental book.

The themes of emunah and bitachon permeated a great many of Rav Miller’s shiurim and seforim, but the material was scattered in many different places and was thus hard to access. Now, that eye-opening material has been collected, assembled and organized into a fascinating question-and-answer book, a book that will answer your questions and bring you clarity when you need it most. Rav Miller’s bold, straightforward approach sheds a brilliant light on the most troubling, thorny issues that confront us. His crystal clear Torah wisdom will profoundly impact your life.

“This sefer will surely enlighten and inspire every reader.”
— Rabbi Shmuel Miller, Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel

Zman – Adar edition

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Music From The Soul

As soon as he starts playing, he is in a world of his own, entrancing the audience with stirring and passionate melodies that penetrate to the depths of the soul. Yet, his life story is as engrossing as his music…. Zman interviews Yitzchak Fuchs, a star whose time has come…

Table of Contents

Cholent At A US Political Convention

Since at least the 1960s, secular Jews who grew up with little or no knowledge of Judaism typically filled the spiritual vacuum with liberal, left-wing politics. But now that seems to be changing. Zman joined an historical Shabbos at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and presents this exclusive report about a new Jewish group that featured very prominently at this year’s convention: Young Jewish Conservatives, whose twin goals are to recruit conservative support among Jewish students on campus and to bring these students closer to their Jewish heritage.

Ben Shapiro – Rising Star in America’s Conservative Movement

Just 28 years old, he has already accomplished more than politicians many years his senior. At 17, became the youngest nationally syndicated columnist in the US. He is a political commentator, writer, editor, radio talk show host, attorney and media legal consultant. Yet despite his tremendous success in the secular world he maintains his pride in his religion and his yarmulke on his head. Meet Ben Shapiro, a rising star in American politics.

The Young Men and the Sea

Read the gripping account of three young men who went out to sea in a small boat after a drinking binge. By the time they sobered up, they found themselves drifting at sea with no food, drink, fuel or any idea of where they were. How long could they last under such conditions? Not as long as they thought they would ever have to…

133 Days On A Raft… Alone

A Chinese man earned himself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records that he later commented about, “I hope no one will ever have to break that record.” He was referring to the incredible ordeal of surviving 133 days alone on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Without training or more than a week of supplies, he survived sharks, the elements, loneliness and a raging typhoon.

Weird and Wonderful Homes

The real estate crash has hit everybody, and families looking for new housing are having a hard time finding places to live. Look at the some of the creative alternatives people around the world have found for their housing, including an airplane that has been converted into a home that sells for $200,000, a converted shipping container that can be rented for as little as $80 to $140 a month and mobile home that costs just $30,000 and will not be subject to exorbitant property taxes…

Operation Ivy Bells

At the height of the Cold War, several highly skilled and specially trained US divers snuck into Soviet waters and attached a sophisticated electronic bugging device to an underwater Soviet cable. This gave the United States access to Russia’s greatest secrets for nearly a decade and allowed them to know precisely what malicious plans the Soviet leaders were conspiring against them. When the Soviets discovered the secret, however, American lives were placed in jeopardy. Read the gripping account of Operation Ivy Bells.

The Leatherman

For three decades he kept walking the same circular route, spanning an area from western Connecticut to Putnam and Westchester counties in New York. He traversed a large distance every 34 days, and everyone knew that in precisely 34 days he would be back. But who was this man dressed completely in leather and why did he follow this odd habit? Books have been written about this legendary figure and many researchers have tried to discover his identity.

Music From The Soul

Yitzchak Fuchs has been singing publicly for over 25 years, but until recently his soulful performances have been treasured only by a small circle of music-loving devotees, mostly in Israel. Less than three years ago, Fuchs was “discovered” and since then many of the biggest stars of Jewish music have purchased the rights to perform his songs and/or asked him to join in concert. In this inspiring interview, Zman gets the inside look at an Israeli baal teshuva whose personal demeanor is as straight-from-the-heart as is his uncanny natural musical aptitude.

The Hidden Hand & The Holocaust

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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[1] (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
  • The Temple Mount was ploughed[2] (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[3]
  • The Final Solution was unleashed in full force on Tisha B’Av 1942 as the first Jews of the Warsaw[4] 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)


[1] [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).

[2] 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”)

[3] 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).

[4] 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.