by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon
Last week I posted a story and message titled “Never Extinguished” that Rabbi Mangel said in connection with the International March of the Living. The feedback was more gratifying than I anticipated, and thank you.
Rabbi Newman of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach California, shared with me the following story of Mr. Eugene Schlesinger. He was a holocaust survivor and would come to the school to speak about his experiences in the war.
While his story impacted all the students, there was one incident that had a unique message to the 7th grad boys (the year of their bar mitzvah) about the importance of putting on tefillin every day, even in the most difficult situations.
My name is Eugene and I wish to share with you the story of these tefillin that I am holding. I grew up in a small village in Czechoslovakia. We were a very traditional Jewish home in a small village which had a handful of Jewish families. There were similar villages in the area, all with their handful of Jewish families. None of the villages had a synagogue or the capacity to make a minyan. So Shabbat services rotated from village to village. Each Friday afternoon the families from the villages would travel to the designated village of that week and would stay with the few families in that village. This way we were able to make a minyan and to hold services.
We had no rabbi, but in Europe most Jews were well versed in reading Hebrew and knew basic tenets of the customs, traditions and Jewish law, so we could organize our services without a rabbi.
When the Nazis came to our village and ordered me to follow them, they allowed me a few minutes to part with my mother. The parting words she told me were, to wrap my Tefillin each morning and she said that will help you stay alive. Throughout the four years that I was a prisoner in the various concentration camps, I kept her command, wrapping the tefillin on my hand and placing it on my head.
Boys you understand that I couldn’t do it in public; it would have been taken away from me. So often it was put on in the most extreme conditions. I had to wake up much earlier than everyone else. I always wonder how they never found it or caught me. Indeed Hashem was watching over me.
Toward the end of the war as the German war machine was collapsing, and the guards were trying to save themselves, I managed to escape from the camp I was in. As I was walking on the road, I saw a dead German soldier and I changed into that cursed German army uniform. I felt it was safer to walk in that uniform than in the clothing we wore in the camps.
One day as I was walking, I came upon a field and saw a large assemblage of German soldiers standing with their arms up. I realized that they were prisoners of an advance Russian unit. I stood there contemplating my next move. Obviously I too would be taken as a prisoner, but perhaps when the Russians interrogate me and will see the prisoner number tattooed on my arm, they will take care of me.
I hesitantly and apprehensively began walking towards them, and barely had I taken a few steps when I was spotted. I was stopped by a Russian soldier who ordered me to hand over my knapsack. He rifled through it and pulled out my tefillin bag. He looked at me (in the German uniform) in astonishment and shaking his head, he said, ‘Ivri (Hebrew/Jew)?’.
I nodded. The Russian soldier pointed to the forest and I realized that I need to leave right away and as fast as possible. I ran toward the forest to safety and a few moments later, I heard the rattle of machine gun fire behind me, as all the German soldiers who were being held as prisoners in that field, were gunned down by the Russians. At that point I realized that the Russian soldier was a fellow Jew and he realized that I was a Jew who was wearing a German uniform to survive.
He realized this only because he saw my tefillin, the tefillin that I held on to so persistently and with a resolve that I and them will never part. Yes doing this mitzvah saved my life!
Children, with Hashem’s kindness you are living in a beautiful country, where we pray that these or similar atrocities never happen again. It is not dangerous to put on tefillin, or some other mitzvah and declare that you are a proud Jew.
But sometimes, when things are going easy, people become lax thinking it is ok if I don’t put it on every day. So I want you to remember my mothers’ words, One day this or some other mitzvah may protect and save your life as it did mine.
Yes each and every mitzvah we do, is an extra protection for us.
I thank Rabbi Newman for sharing this story with me to publicize, and invite others to please do so as well.
This weeks’ article is in memory of my brother-in-law, Avrohom Eliezer hy”d, who was murdered forty-one years ago. This Sunday there is the camp fund Chinese Auction in his memory. Please help support this effort in helping families send their children to summer camp by going online at www.thecampfund.com and you can win fabulous prizes.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available for speaking engagements or to farbreng in your community and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org