He would have been 67 years old today, says Auschwitz survivor Rose Stark in regards to her baby, Shlomo Nachum Ben Yosef. As I held her hand tightly, I peered into her deep, but light brown eyes. “Today,” she stopped, “today I wanted to talk about it, but I couldn’t I got to emotional.” Her European accent really reminded me of my Hungarian grandmother who passed away a little over a year ago. I held back my tears; I wanted to stay strong, for her, for the others.
Last week I attended the fourth annual Michlala Jerusalem College women’s event on the Holocaust. The theme for this year’s was ‘Growing up in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Finding Identity, Keeping Faith’. There were 3 speakers, one short documentary, and one special blessing. Each speaker had an amazing story and I wish I remembered every detail to retell them to others. One of them though, I really identified with. (sorry this is so lengthy, but I had to include everything that I thought would be relevant)
A big guy, with a black hat, a nice suit, and looking tougher than ever walks up to the stage. His name was Joseph Chaim. The crowd quiets down as he begins his story. He starts with ‘I did not go through the Holocaust, but my grandparents and parents did. He looks as if he had been religious his whole life. I thought wrong. He continued with the story of his own family. Him and his wife and 3 kids lived somewhere in Israel and were not really religious. One say, his wife told him that she was tired, and asked him to pick up dinner. He agreed and went to the popular ‘steak lavan’ aka pork place he normally would go to. For some reason, this time while waiting in line, he recalled a story from his past.
During the last days of the Holocaust, his grandfather was still in the camp, and was still trying to keep up the Jewish traditions he had always kept up his whole life. Literally, on the day they were to be released, one of the Nazi guards made the remaining survivors stand in a circle. He pointed to Joseph Chaim’s grandfather, knowing he was the most religious one in the group and said ‘you are going to be released today-that’s it-you are free-so take a bite of this [with pork in his hand] or die, why not, just eat it!’ His grandfather looked at the Nazi and said ‘no.’ He was shot, and he died. Joseph was thinking of this story online to buy pork sandwiches for him and his family and thought to himself ‘either my grandfather is crazy, or I’m crazy…and my grandfather could not have been crazy, so I certainly am!’ he left the line and came home to his wife. He explained to her what had happened and said that he neede to do something more with his life; from there he decided to attend a seminar-a religious one-like a shabbaton for older people.
Anyways, here is where his 360 of life began. As he danced with all these Chassidic rabbis, not ever knowing them before, he felt as if he was with his people. He decided from then on out, he was going to be religious. On his way home, he realized that he did not have tefillin with him, and told his wife that he needed to go to his father’s house to pick them up. At the time, his wife was hoping that his father was going to convince him out of this phase, and wasn’t so sure what was really going on. Anyways, as they got to the house, and as he asked his father for the tefilin-there was a ramble of confusin from everyone, but his father decided to take him up to the attic to get the tefilin anyways.
His father began to cry as he handed over the tefilin and Joseph, dumfounded, asked him why. His father then told him the story of where the tefilin were from. When he was in a camp, he saw his friend being taken away, but right as his friend was being escorted out of the camp, he threw him a bag. He thought it was a piece of bread, but when he looked inside, he realized it was tefilin. He put them on the next morning. The guard came in earlier that day, saw him with the tefilin, escorted him out, looked him in the eye, and told him this was punishable by death. The Nazis gathered up the people that morning and had the man standing on the table, ready to be hanged. They asked him if he had any last wishes and he answered asking to put the tefilin on. The nazi agreed, obviously thinking that this would be perfect, people would see the Jew hanging, with the reason why around his arm and his head. So Joseph’s father put the tefilin on, and then looked at everyone and said ‘you think I am the loser? No no, you have it all wrong, I am the winner here!’
The Nazis, now disheveled, did not want this message to be spread and made him get off the table so he could have a more torturous death. The punishment was holding 2 large stones while getting lashed in the head. If he dropped the stones, he would be shot. Normally, after two slashes, a person was dead. This time however, he did not drop the stones, but he did pass out on the 25th lash. He was thrown into the dead body pile, but later woke up, realized where he was, and went back to the barracks, and from then on later was liberated.
Those were the tefilin that Joseph Chaiim got. Together, with the whole family, including his father and grandmother, and his brothers and sisters and their kids and his wife’s brothers and sister and their kids, new generations of orthodox Jews was born.
I left with a message. A very, truly strong message. These people that went through the Holocaust kept their faith. They kept it, and they are continuously circulated it from now till the day that they die. They want to make sure that their pain and suffering goes unforgotten, and that is what I promised Mrs. Rose Stark, as I held her hand after the ceremony was over.
Her dark, but light brown eyes really showed that even through the darkness, the Holocaust, and having her own baby ripped out of her arms, there will be light, with the continuation of her Jewish family. I can’t help but think that this alone should be a reason to stay true to Judaism, and not get sucked away into the addictions of materialism and society. If you’re not happy with G-d, then OK-but if not for him, then do it for them; the ones that feel they are rich because they have amazing Jewish families, not because they have all the money in the world. Stay true to your roots, to our roots, and to everything that these people went through.
I left with her pulling up her sleeve, showing me the tattoo that was engraved into her arm saying “if someone tries to tell you that the Holocaust didn’t happen, it did! It’s here! Right here, it happened, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’. I will never forget, and with that I say if not for us, then do it for them, keep the Jewish religion alive, circulating, and real..