Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5763 - September 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Last Minute

by Rabbi M. D. Weinstock

To paraphrase part of the Foreword by Emile Marmorstein, the following is an account of a spiritual adventure through which our faith can derive strength and our resolve to draw nearer to our Creator through the meticulous performance of His orders can be strengthened. The Hashgochoh and simple human heroism are inspiring.

Rabbi Shapira, zt"l, referred to in the story, was known to many as the Bluzhover Rebbe, when he lived in Boro Park.

Once every month Pinchas Kohn of Pittsburgh pays a visit to the Rabbi of Prachnik, grandson of the famous Rabbi of Bluzhov. Rabbi Shapira of Prachnik is today one of the leading figures among the religious Jews of Brooklyn. His followers regard him as the spiritual heir of the famous Rabbis of the great dynasty of Dinov, and when they are near him, they relive in their memories the wonderful times when they had flourished, when those almost superhuman beings -- Rabbi Zvi Elimelech, the rabbi of Dinov and author of Bnei Yisoschor with its kabbalistic depth, and the rabbi of Bluzhov -- had attracted veritable processions of people wherever they went.

Only a miracle had saved the Rabbi of Prachnik from sharing the martyrdom of his brethren at the very outset of the terrible tragedy that befell the Jewish people of Poland. Tens of thousands moved forward on the road to death, and among them was Rabbi Shapira, his wife and his highly-gifted only daughter. They marched in silence, uncomplaining, certain that they would never return the same way.

The Nazis were in need of workers. They selected men under the age of 45 and ordered them to a terrible place, the scene of mass murders. They were lined up for this work. Rabbi Shapira, although he was only 43, did not come forward. He waited, apathetically, for his fate to be fulfilled; but his wife called to one of the Nazi henchmen standing nearby:

"My husband isn't 45 yet."

The Nazi examined the rabbi with malevolent eyes.

"How old are you, Jew?"

"Fifty-five," the rabbi replied calmly.

"You want to perish with your family, don't you, Jew?" the Nazi roared at him, and in his rage, struck the rabbi in the face. The rabbi fell to the ground, bleeding.

"The time for that hasn't come for you!" the Nazi yelled, hurling the rabbi towards the group of selected workers.

Tens of thousands perished around him but, as if a powerful angel were standing beside him and protecting him from the sweeping scythe of death, he remained alive. Nobody could doubt the presence of an angel because no human imagination could fathom how else a man could have survived the indescribable horrors among which he lived day after day; but the Will of the Creator and the great merits of his ancestors protected him like a coat of mail. Death's scythe reaped before him and reaped behind him, but he remained untouched.

His Brooklyn chassidim and their children -- most of them born in America -- listened with awe when the Rabbi related to them his experiences in the death camp. When Pinchas Kohn of Pittsburgh paid his first visit, Rabbi Shapira received him with open arms and the greatest respect. To explain his behavior he turned to his chassidim, who were hanging thirstily on everything that came from his lips and told them the following story:

"Do not be surprised that I receive Pinchas Kohn with such deep joy. This is the least I can do. After all, it was Mr. Kohn who, with the help of the Creator, saved my life."

The German beast, bleeding from a hundred wounds, was writhing in the throes of death. The Russians had surrounded Berlin, and the Allies in their advance from the southwest toward the north, were being held up only by minor skirmishes.

In Rabbi Shapira's camp the mortality rate had reached its peak. As a result of the constant "selections" only 2800 prisoners were still alive in that sector of the Bergen- Belsen camp. The more their hope of salvation grew, the more the prisoners grew afraid of death. Small wonder! The news that the Allies were approaching could, at any moment, have prompted the beasts in whose hands they were, to avenge themselves on their helpless victims.

Their fear proved well-founded. One day they were driven to the railway station and loaded into cattle- trucks. The S.S. were even more brutal than usual. Over a hundred people were crowded into each truck. True, they had become as desiccated as mummies, but they still needed air.

The first few coaches were passenger cars in which the S.S. traveled, the leaders and 200 soldiers of the death's head brigade. Their arms glinted threateningly in the sunshine. The prisoners knew that the end had come, but their apathy and their resignation were such that the will to live was almost completely extinct.

This journey towards death had reached its eighth day. They traveled across unknown territory and it seemed to them that the names of the stations figured only on the map of the devil. Even hunger hurt no more, though for the last three days they hadn't even received their bread-ration.

Suddenly the train slowed down and stopped.

The Rabbi of Prachnik lay on the floor of the cattle- truck, only half conscious, but it seemed to him as if someone were calling his name.

"Rabbi Shapira! Rabbi Shapira! Is there a Jew by that name among you? Let him come immediately to the commander in the first coach."

What could the commander want with him? Nothing good, that was certain.

In the commander's compartment he was received by a squat Nazi with a scarred face. He did not kick the rabbi nor did he hit him, but he offered him a seat.

"Rabbi Shapira, I want to talk to you. You are the leader of the Jews, aren't you? A wise man, a clever man."

And he offered the rabbi a cigarette.

"I am going to reveal to you a great secret. I want to save your lives. I am sure you know what this train with its two hundred Nazi soldiers means to you, don't you? Yes, I want to save you and I have only one request. When the Americans arrive, you must tell them that I have always treated you well. Haven't I behaved with great humanity?" he asked the rabbi without, however, daring to look into his eyes, for he knew that Beelzebub had been but a beginner compared to him. And now he was asking Rabbi Shapira to intercede for him with the Americans!

"Go back to the others and pray to your G-d that the Americans get here before noon tomorrow. Because I can't play this game much longer. The prisoners will now receive better rations."

But the Americans did not arrive.

The next day Rabbi Shapira was again summoned. The commander seemed angry.

"You have not prayed well, rabbi. True, the Americans occupied the place where I was supposed to take you for execution, but according to latest orders, I am to carry out the execution in that little grove" -- and he pointed with his finger to a distant point. "I can delay it by another day at most. So hurry and pray well now!"

The rabbi was about to leave when an S.S. colonel entered the compartment.

"What is this swine doing here?" he yelled, striking the rabbi in the face.

The commander turned white and could not find words to answer.

But Rabbi Shapira, though tottering under the terrible blow, understood what was at stake and replied:

"I have come to ask the commander to distribute also tomorrow's rations today so that the men, in their weakness, should not have to stand in line twice."

The commander who had collected his wits in the meantime, made a sign of assent: "Yes, this is what the Jew came to see me about."

The colonel shrugged his shoulder as if he were thinking: What difference does it make now. "Fulfill their request," he said.

It was Wednesday and the guns of the Americans sounded quite close, but the Stars and Stripes still didn't show up.

"You see, your Creator refuses to save you," -- shouted the commander having summoned the rabbi again and he abused G-d in an indescribable way.

"Wait until Friday morning, Commander," the Rabbi of Prachnik begged.

"All right, but I make you responsible. Friday morning at seven o'clock the Jews will line up and march, in the greatest silence, towards the little grove. I have to obey orders but I promise you that those who remain unhurt after the volley can run. I won't have them pursued. The highway is quite near. If you reach it, you may still be saved."

Trembling in every limb, Rabbi Shapira turned to the Nazi.

"Thank you for your good will, Commander, but let me beg you, don't hurry with the preparations tomorrow morning at seven. After all, orders can be carried out slowly. The Eternal Father may still help."

The S.S. looked at him in amazement.

"You still have hope, rabbi? What stubborn, extraordinary people you are, you Jews, to keep on hoping to the last minute."

"It is not only to ask His help that we believe in the Creator," the rabbi replied. "We need His help also in the Afterworld."

It was Thursday evening. The rabbi returned to the cattle- truck and looked at his companions. They lay lifeless; most of them lacked the strength to rise. After long deliberation, he picked three young men who still looked strong enough and told them about the devilish plan for the morrow. He asked them to escape.

With great difficulty, after hours of hard work, they succeeded in sawing through the iron bars of the little window. The three young men climbed out and, from the three light thumps, Rabbi Shapira knew that they had reached ground. In the course of the night, the three deserters came out on to the highway and waited, hidden behind bushes, for dawn to come. They were just deliberating where to turn when the arrival of a tank put a stop to their conversation.

"Americans!" one of them exclaimed, and all three began running toward the tank waving white rags.

"Perhaps they won't even stop," the young men thought anxiously.

But suddenly the tank stopped. Its driver, an American Jew, noticed the three scarecrows in their striped clothes.

"Come, come quickly," the young men begged, "every second is valuable. They are this very minute lining up 2800 Jews for execution!"

The two other Americans did not understand their words, but the Jew turned the tank in the indicated direction in spite of the loud protests of the other two who knew that this was against orders. The Jew had seen the handiwork of the Nazis in the liberated areas and was aware what was at stake.

They arrived in the nick of time. The prisoners had lined up in the little grove in rows four deep.

They were waiting for the order to begin the massacre.

At the sight of the American tank, the Nazis threw away their guns and raised their arms to the sky. They thought that more tanks were coming behind the first. The Jews picked up the Nazi guns and put them out of reach. The commander tried to make a run for it but a well-aimed shot from the tank brought him down.

"And do you know who that Jewish tank-driver was?" Rabbi Shapira asked his breathless audience. Then, without waiting for an answer, he pointed a finger at the man from Pittsburgh.

Pinchas Kohn was deeply embarrassed as he stood amid the cross-fire of friendly glances.

Yet he had nothing to be ashamed of. His deed will precede him in this world and beyond it, to the end of time.

Chag somei'ach!

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