Thoughts & Views

You are here

Some Thoughts For Yom Hashoah 5771

This submission is an excerpt from Shades of Grey , a Yeshiva University student who was greatly moved by Rebbetzin`s address at YU`s recent Yom Hashoah commemoration.

Rebbetzin Jungreis stood the entire time she spoke leaning lightly on a nearby table, her accented English pulling hard on my heartstrings as her frail yet strong presence filled center stage and radiated outward to every member of the audience. She is such an incredible woman. She told us about her story, growing up the as part of a great rabbinic dynasty, and now living as the sole granddaughter of her illustrious grandfather. She told us about her father, who was the rabbi of Szeged, Hungary, the city she was born in, where he came to do kiruv with the largely unaffiliated and acculturated Jewish populace. She told us how he risked his life to smuggle a pair of tefillin with him when they were evicted from their home by the Nazis, and how hundreds of Jewish men in turn risked their own lives to be able to say the brachos and don the tefillin themselves.

She told us how her father saved up to illegally obtain a shofar for Rosh Hashana, which they somehow managed to blow without being caught and killed. The Hungarian camp where they were kept prisoner was next to the Polish camp, and the Polish Jews ran to the barbed wire to hear the sound of the shofar to be able to make the bracha, in spite of the beatings they received shortly thereafter. Rebbetzin Jungreis then recounted how she told that story while in Israel many years later. A woman came over to her and informed the Rebbetzin that her fatherís shofar was somehow later smuggled into the Polish camp in a garbage can where her own father, the rabbi of the Polish camp, managed to blow the shofar for the Polish prisoners. She then excitedly said that she actually had the shofar in her home a few streets away, which she ran to get. Hearing Rebbetzin Jungreis describe how seeing that shofar sent them back to the time they were little girls, children of the ashes and fire, clutching that shofar used in Bergen-Belsen.

She recounted another story of an American Rabbi who was an army chaplain that helped liberate a concentration camp, and approached a prisoner, greeting him in Yiddish and telling him he was a rabbi. The man replied he wasnít interested, and the chaplain inquired why. The man, clearly outraged, explained that there was a particular fellow in the camp who had smuggled in a siddur, and charged others their piece of bread to use it to pray. The chaplain asked if, indeed, other men actually gave up their bread, perhaps their last piece, necessary to sustain their very lives, to use the prayer book. The man responded yes. The rabbi was amazed, marveling how far the Jewish prisoners went, to give away the very food that should be in their mouths, to instead fill their mouths will praises for G-d.

Perhaps the most striking story Rebbetzin Jungreis told us was how her father would utilize his ration of bread. He would say hamotzi and consume a very small portion, and bentsch anyway, in spite of the fact that it was not nearly enough to truly satisfy him, as the posuk commands us. For him, it was satisfying enough to praise his Creator. Additionally, Rabbi Jungreis would save pieces of bread for Shabbos. He would gather his children together and tell them to close their eyes, then tell them they were in their beautiful Shabbos home. He told them that their mother had baked delicious challah for them, and then pass out the stale, almost inedible bread to each of his children and they would sing Shalom Aleichem together. Rebbetzin Jungreisí younger brother once asked very innocently where the Shabbos malachim were, since he didnít see any in the camp. Rabbi Jungreis replied, with tears in his eyes, that they, his children, were the Shabbos angels. Rebbetzin Jungreis recalled how the Nazis once lined them up for an inspection, calling them ìJewish pigs.î She replied that they were, in fact ìShabbos malachim.î

Iíll never forget Rebbetzin Jungreisí parting message, in which she described how fortunate we are to have Israel, and how we can look forward to the final redemption with the arrival of the moshiach (may he come speedily within our days). She grasped one of the unlit memorial candles and gestured with it for emphasis. Those candles were merely symbolic, but the true flame of remembrance is inside each of us ñ and we must pass on our Jewish legacy to keep those candles burning.

The very last words she spoke, which I think say it all in a way that nothing else can were ìAm Yisrael Chai.î

The lighting of the six memorial candles was also moving. The first was lit by an elderly gentleman who was a survivor. The second by was kindled by Rav Reichman, who read a quotation from a Jewish man in a concentration camp that spoke about how he joined a small group next to a barrack to daven Kabbalas Shabbos one Friday evening ñ and how it literally transformed him, allowing him to leave behind the suffering he had experience and find inner peace in welcoming the Shabbos queen. I hope I can always value my own Kabbalas Shabbos experiences at a level similar to that. We are obligated to enter Shabbos forgetting the work from the week we have yet to finish, but this man was able to cast aside his burden of pain and misery and welcome the Shabbos with joy ñ a truly inspiring sentiment. The other candles were lit by students and YU alumni who also read passages from various Holocaust writings.

Ending the program with "Hatikvah" really underscored how significant our revived homeland is, and how Rebbetzin Jungreis told us that it is absolutely no coincidence that this week of Yom Hashoah we are going to enter the month Iyar, which contains Yom Haíatzmaíut and Yom Yerushlayim ñ signs that HaShem is keeping His promises to bring us back and restore us to our proper place in our homeland.

After the event was over, I quickly ran to join the Maíariv minyan held in the old main Beis Midrash. I donít think Iíve ever davened a more meaningful Maíariv in my life. I read every single word from my siddur, focusing on the translation of each word, pausing to give reflection to what was issuing from my mouth. I didnít say anything by heart or at a quickened pace. I was able to keep up with the chazan during the Shema and its accompanying brachos, but my Shemonah Esrai, along with my Sefiras HaíOmer and Aleinu extended long enough until I was the last one in the room.

I read each tefilla, especially each bracha of the Shemonah Esrei, from the perspective of what a Holocaust Survivor might see when he or she davens.  

In Avos I saw why they believed in G-d in the first place, because of our forefathers. They were the living legacy of what began all those centuries ago, and it was worth suffering and perhaps even dying for the sake of protecting and preserving that history and mission. G-d created all, remembers His promises to our forefathers, and brings redemption with love, but in the meantime He will still be the personal shield of the children of the Avos, never abandoning them.

In the Mechaye Meisim I saw how they firmly believed that G-d would bring their holy martyred loved ones back, and keep the faith to those in the dust, not only the dead who are buried there, but the survivors who dwelled their while in the camps. How HaShem is the one who heals the sick and supports the fallen, and releases the imprisoned an existence that they recognized every day of their lives and a hope they longed for. Who is truly comparable to G-d? He is the One and only who has power over life and death - and resurrection - not the arrogant humans who slaughter their fellow man with impugnity.

I saw in Atah Kadosh that they recognized the inherent holiness of G-d, and in of themselves as they continued to praise him every day in spite of their difficulties.

I saw in Atah Chonen LíAdam Daías how they struggled to understand what was happening to them, but trusted in G-dís wisdom, even though manís limited intellect can never know everything.

I saw in Hashiveinu the outpourings of their hearts to be drawn toward Torah and Mitzvos, in spite of the blows to their emunah from their personal suffering. Though they may have had to forego certain observances, or in fact most or all of the mitzvos because of their inability to do so, they yearned for the opportunity to freely perform them again.

I saw in S`lach Lanu an outcry for forgiveness for whatever transgressions were done that could have possibly lead to this horrible punishment, and even though they continue to suffer for reasons beyond their understanding, they knew, deep down, that HaShem would always forgive them and welcome them back with His abundant patient and forgiveness.

I saw in Reíeh Víanyenu their pleases for redemption from their servitude and for G-d to recognize the torments they endured for Him. Their groans and cries of pain should come to an end through the geulah brought in the way only HaShem can.