Saturday, April 07, 2007

Chol Hamoed Pesach 1945

This is a sad story. Maybe it is inappropriate for Chol Hamoed and simchat Yom Tov. However it is also inspirational as it tells the tale of incredible devotion to Judaism in the face of unbelievable suffering and adversity. This is the Chag of Avdut to Herut (See my next post!) and in that sense, this piece may be read as suffused with the spirit of Pesach... as you will read. I cannot ever daven Mussaf on Chol Hamoed Pesach without thinking about Mr. Finkelstein and Vehikravtem. Maybe this story will give us extra impetus to recite Hallel with full fervour, thanking God for giving us freedom and safety in our day and age.

The piece comes from (Prof. Rabbi) David Weiss-Halivni's autobiography, as he describes life in the Nazi work/concentration camps. He was fifteen years old and working in a very long tunnel with German guard at the entrance and this is what he retells:

"I passed by the Todt (German Guard) as he was eating his scheduled snack, his meal between meals. In characteristic German style, he ate at the same time every night and, what's more, he ate the same thing every night: a thinly sliced sandwich containing some greasy substance that stained the wrapping paper and made it transparent. He and his eating habits became as much a feature of the tunnel as the chila (wagons) and carrying the drills.

This time, however, our meeting was different. His sandwich was wrapped in a page of Orach Chaim, a volume of the Shulchan Aruch, Pesil Balaban's edition. The Balabans began publishing the Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish Code of Law, in Lemberg in 1839. The first publisher was Abraham Balaban, and after his death he was succeeded by his widow, Pesil. Pesil's edition of the Shulchan Aruch was the best; it had all the commentaries, including that of Rabbi Shloma Kluger. As a child of a poor but scholarly home, I had always wanted to have her edition. We had a Shulchan Aruch, but it wasn't Pesil's. Ours was also old and torn. It was my ambition as a child to own a Vi/ner Shas (a complete set of all the Talmud's volumes), Pesil's Shulchan Aruch, and a set of "Rambams," a complete set of Maimonides' major legal writings. Here, of all places, in the shadows of the tunnel, under the threatening gaze of the German, a page of the Shulchan Aruch, with fatty spots all over it, met my eyes.

The page was from the laws of Passover (Orach Chaim 434). The question on the page deals with whether an agent can nullify the leavened bread of a household before Passover, which is the subject of a disagreement. On the one hand, why not? After all, isn't there a general rule: "A man's agent is like unto himself" - everything we can do a proxy can do for us? However, the Ran-a fourteenth-century scholar-argues that since bittul (the annulment) is a result of hefker (abandonment), the nullifying is considered a kind of disowning or dissolving of ownership, which cannot be done through an agent.

Upon seeing this wrapper, I instinctively fell at the feet of the guard, without even realizing why; the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this bletl, this page. For a while he didn't know what was happening; he thought I was suffering from epilepsy. He immediately put his hand to his revolver, the usual reaction to an unknown situation. But then he understood. This was, I explained to him, a page from a book I had studied at home. Please, I sobbed, give it to me as a souvenir. He gave me the bletl and I took it back to the camp. On the Sundays we had off, we now had not only Oral Torah but Written Torah as well. The bletl became a visible symbol of a connection between the camp and the activities of Jews throughout history. It was not important what the topic was, whether agency or any other. Perhaps it was symbolic; who knows what mission we were supposed to fulfill there? The bletl became a rallying point. We looked forward to studying it whenever we had free time, more so even than to the phylacteries. It was the bletl, parts of which had to be deciphered because the grease made some letters illegible, that summoned our attention. Most of those who came to listen didn't understand the subject matter, but that was irrelevant. They all perceived the symbolic significance of the bletl.

The bletl was entrusted to a Mr. Finkelstein-I believe his name was Moshe, from Mateszalka, a town in Hungary where my father had been in the ghetto. Mr. Finkelstein was "a Jew who always prayed"; his lips always moved. I have a feeling that he wasn't sure after reciting his prayers once if he had recited them correctly. Or maybe he recited them once in the Ashkenazic pronunciation and once in the Sephardic. Having the bletl around in the camp was dangerous. Someone caught with it would be considered to be carrying contraband. Mr. Finkelstein volunteered to keep the bletl and, of course, produced it every second Sunday, when we were off. He must have carried it on his person; I'm sure he slept with it. The bletl was always with him and secure. Knowing that the bletl was with Mr. Finkelstein, we felt secure as well.

ALL THIS continued until February 1945, when we were transferred to Ebensee, part of the Mauthausen complex in Upper Austria… Ebensee was the worst extermination camp anywhere in Germany or Austria… The daily toll of dead, I believe, sometimes reached as high as eighty in our block alone. I DIDN'T see Mr. Moshe Finkelstein in Ebensee, even though he was also there. I must confess that the bletl was not on my mind. The sheer need to survive under constant torture drove out any other interests. In Ebensee we didn't have second Sundays off; there was no possibility of learning. The episode of the bletl was blocked out of my memory. As the Talmud says, "Subsequent troubles cause the earlier ones to be forgotten." And troubles there were. Ebensee appeared like a bottomless inferno devouring all who entered it.

One day, while I was mixing cement in the big amphitheater-a kind of working plaza where chilas of all sizes and from all directions raced at me, this time to pick up cement-I spotted Mr. Finkelstein. He saw me as well. We tried to make contact, but it wasn't easy. We had to pass in front of kapos, each of whom had his own turf, which he guarded jealously against intruders. Finally, we made contact. He asked me whether I knew the prayer "vehikravtem" by heart. It was Passover, 1945. It was the first day of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days of Passover, and he wanted to know the exact formulation of the sacrifices performed in the Temple service of old and recited in the Musaf prayer. Sacrifice was on Mr. Finkelstein's mind. How appropriate! He himself was a sacrifice; so were we all, lambs waiting for the slaughter. I told him the formulation and asked him about the bletl. He tapped his hip, and that was enough of a sign that, despite the horrible conditions, which killed perhaps as many as ninety percent of us, the bletl was safe and secure. We parted with a "gut yam tov" greeting.

Subsequently I heard from the Betlamer Rav that soon after we parted, Mr. Finkelstein collapsed. Before there was time to remove the bletl from his body, he was taken away to the crematorium. When Mr. Finkelstein's body went up in smoke, the bletl went with him."

"The Book and the Sword" - A Life of learning in the Shadow of Destruction.
by David Weiss Halivni
pgs 68-72

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