Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Saved – in the Holocaust – by a Song
Quiet actions can come from strength too. Dr. Viktor Frankl, himself a concentration camp survivor, writes:
But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors - be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners' reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?
We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way (Man's Search for Meaning, pp. 103-104).
(Excerpted from the book, Shoah: A Jewish Perspective on the Holocaust, by Rabbi Yoel Schwartz & Rabbi Yitzchak Goldstein - ArtScroll Publications. Hat tip, Moshe Kempinski of Shorashim’s Jerusalem Insights).
With this in mind, of the many Holocaust stories [besides the one below], I highly recommend reading Sara Y. Rigler’s Who Will Save the Baby? from the Aish HaTorah website.
Reb Dovid Werdyger is a Gerer Chassid and a Holocaust survivor, as well as a chazan (cantor) who has recorded many traditional niggunim. Reb Dovid's Holocaust memoirs are written in a book entitled Songs of Hope, which is part of the Holocaust Diaries series, and from which the story below is taken.
Saved by a Song
Our column of condemned Jews marched in the direction of the Plaszow [near Krakow, see also here] extermination camp, each step bringing us closer to the jaws of death. As I trudged along with my brother-in-law Hersch Leib Geldwerth, I clasped his hand tightly; the leaden sky matched our sullen mood.
"Mir gehn yetzt oif Kiddush Hashem,” Hersch Leib whispered. "We are going to offer our lives to sanctify the Name [of G-d]. Up in Gan Eden, the tzaddikim are preparing to welcome us. We'll have best seats at the magnificent Tish presided over by Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon HaKohen and the three Avos, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The Chiddushei HaRim and the Sfas Emes [first and second Gerer Rebbes] will be there to receive us with open arms, and they will give you the honor of singing the Gerer Yedid Nefesh. You remember the verse, 'Ki zeh kama nichsof nichsafti . . . Because it is so every long that I have yearned to see the splendor of Your strength.' Today it will come true. You will see the sweet radiance of the Shechina [Divine Presence]." He choked, trying to hold back his tears.
"Let’s prepare ourselves and say Vidui [confess our sins]. I can see the Plaszow gate in the distance, and I don't know how much time we have."
His words lifted my spirits. Suddenly, I did not fear death any longer. A better world awaited me. All the beautiful niggunim of Ger echoed in my mind, and I saw myself again as a little boy singing in the choir on Rosh Hashana.
"K’vakoras roeh edro... [like a shepherd who tends his flock]." The solo I had sung on that memorable Yom Tov echoed in my ears, the words of the tefilla so appropriate to our situation. "Who will live and who will die, who by water and who by fire, who by the sword and who by the beast, who by famine and who by thirst. . .''
Moved by the memory of the hauntingly beautiful melody, tears came to my eyes. I was overcome by mixed emotions, faced with the prospect of certain death, yet knowing that like Yitzchak Avinu, I was going to my Akeida al Kiddush Hashem [personal sacrifice, to sanctify G-d’s Name].
As we marched, the holy niggunim that were so familiar to me rang in my ears. The solemn melody of K’vakoras Roeh was followed by the rousing 'Ein Kitzva Lishnosecha - there is no limit to Your years.' It was an exuberant marching niggun, and I found myself keeping step with the beat of the tune.
When I came to the words, "v’kadeish es Shimcha al makdishei Shemecha, Sanctify Your Name through those who sanctify Your Name," I was shaken. How fitting this phrase was for our group of condemned prisoners.
As we neared the Plaszow death camp, the main gate swung open. In this camp, thirty thousand Jewish inmates were dying a slow death, but we quickly realized that for us, a swift end loomed ahead. In the central square, a firing squad was in readiness, their machine guns in place, and in the rear, several trucks were waiting to haul away the bodies.
At the gate, our column was ordered to halt.
"Sturmbannfuehrer Goeth, the SS Lager commandant, is coming." The ominous news spread through the column. The mere mention of Kommandant Goeth sent shivers up the spine of every inmate of Plaszow. A typically coarse, vile German, he was the embodiment of evil.
He approached us slowly, his steely blue eyes devoid of any human emotion, his thin, cruel lips pursed tightly together. He was wearing the green uniform of the Waffen SS, and a Luger handgun dangled casually from his belt. In his right hand, he held a black wooden cane.
"Hashem Ro’i, lo echsar," I whispered feverishly. "Hashem is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. Gam ki eileich b’gei tzalmaves, lo ira ra. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me" (Tehillim-Psalms 23:1-4).
"Achtung! Halt!'' the command rang out.
Our column came to an abrupt stop, and one by one, we filed past the commandant. Motioning with his cane, he directed most of us toward the square where the machine guns were set up.
Soon it was my turn, and I tried to look confident as I met Goeth's stare.
"Vos ist dein beruf?" Goeth asked. "What kind of work do you do?"
"Ich bin saenger von beruf, Herr Kommandant," I replied straightforwardly, standing sharply at attention. "I am a professional singer, and I have a trained soprano voice. Would you like to hear something?"
Goeth was taken aback. He hesitated for an instant.
"So zing doch mal den Juedischen totengesang," he said, as a diabolical smile spread across his face. "Sing the song you Jews chant when you bury your dead." He was obviously very amused at the thought of my singing the memorial chant for those who were about to die.
I took a deep breath and began to sing, knowing that my fate depended on the quality of my performance. Hashem was with me, and suddenly, I felt like a thousand malachim [angels] were standing behind me, lending my voice new resonance and strength.
"Keil maleh rachamim…" I began slowly and hesitantly, terror gripping my heart. "Oh, L-rd full of mercy, Who dwells on high. . .'' I closed my eyes and concentrated on the meaning of each sacred word of the tefilla. Hamtzei menucha nechona al kanfei HaShechina... Grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence to the souls of the martyrs and the pure ones who were killed, murdered and slaughtered for the sanctification of the Name..."
Seized with emotion, I sang with a vibrancy and fullness I did not know I possessed. Never before had I felt the meaning of a tefilla with such immediacy.
"B’gan Eden t’hei menuchasam, veyanuchu b’shalom al mishkevoseihem. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden, and may they repose in peace in their resting places…" I threw all my might into the last verse, concluding with a thunderous, "V’nomar Amen."
As one, the prisoners standing nearby responded softly, "Amen."
There was a mordent of absolute silence as the Kommandant stared at me, transfixed. At that moment, I believe that a small spark of humanity, hidden under an impenetrably hard shell of depravity and malevolence, was aroused by my singing.
"Geh ins lager [go into the camp]," he said hoarsely, and with an abrupt gesture of his cane, he directed me toward the Plaszow camp, saving me from immediate execution.
Keil malei rachamim. Hashem, in His abundant mercy, had saved me from certain death.
I was among the forty men who had professions that were deemed useful enough for them to be sent to the Plaszow camp. The remaining hundred and forty prisoners were led to the square, and within moments, they were machine-gunned to death. My brother-in-law Hersch Leib Geldwerth was one of those Kedoshim. Hashem yinkom damo. May Hashem avenge his blood.
adapted from Jewish America:
Throughout the world, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life study are marching through the Babylonian Talmud and they study each day another page, which is known as Daf HaYomi.
On the night of September 28, 1997, seventy-thousand people were linked together by satellite and they celebrated the completion of a seven-and-a-half year study cycle. For the tenth time in recent history, the Jewish people concluded the last book of the Talmud and began the first…
Before thousands of Jews assembled at Madison Square Garden, Reb Dovid Werdyger intoned the Keil Maleh Rachamim on behalf of kedoshei Churban Europe [the Holocaust victims].
From the above story, you can well understand why R. Dovid was accorded this honor!
ודע שהעולם הזה אינו אלא גשר צר מאד ויש לעבור עליו והיזהר מאד שתגיע לעולם הבא