Purim in the Valley of Tears

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The below is by my esteemed father-in-law, R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, who lives in Toronto. It is adapted from his  book “Destined to Survive” (ArtsSroll.com).

 

We sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day – our meager ration of bread.  It was my seventh month in Dachau’s Death Camp #4.

“Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?” I asked, trying to distract my brothers in suffering, and myself, from our painful hunger.

“How do you know?”

“It’s freezing! Purim can’t be for another month.”

“No, no!” some protested. “Srulik doesn’t make mistakes like that! He has a good memory.”

“Crazy Chassidim!” others grumbled. “You’ve nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What’s the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Isn’t it always Tisha B’Av?”

The debate gathered force among the block’s “mussulmen” – the eighty living skeletons crammed tightly into a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall.  We lay in the camp infirmary on wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw, our eyes riveted on the curtain separating us from the block elder’s spacious quarters.

Suddenly the curtain parted, and the block elder stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly twenty-four hours.  Each inmate measured his ration wordlessly with his eyes, and compared it to his neighbor’s, each convinced that the other had received more.  At such times, best friends became bitter rivals and within minutes the stingy portions were devoured.  But our stomachs felt as empty as before, the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that it would be a full day before the next piece of bread.

Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus, I fell back on my board, and fast asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight.  I began to conjure images of my past, of my parents and my sisters, Gittel and Mirel… how I used to study in the study-hall of the Chassidim of Ger.   Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer Rebbe. I pictured the Chassidic leader’s face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating my very soul.

Will I ever have the merit, I wondered, to press myself once again into the crowd of Chassidim gathering around the Rebbe, to learn from him how to be a good Chassid and a G-d-fearing person?

“Time to pray, Srulik.”

My friend’s voice shook me from my reverie.  The memories vanished.  I was back in the pit of hell.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Let’s wash our hands and daven.”

Then it struck me.

“But it’s Purim!” I exclaimed.  “We have to organize a minyan!”

My pain and pangs receded.  Summoning strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we might fulfill something of our sacred Jewish obligation to publicly read the Book of Esther.

G-d responds to good deeds undertaken with dedication.  A copy of the second book of the Bible, with the Book of Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.

We were elated.  Such a find could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in Heaven and that the redemption was near.  Our excitement grew.  Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation?  No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing our prayer group, to the possibility of a German or kapo deciding dropping in unexpectedly. Even those who the day before had scoffed at the “crazy Chassidim” seemed excited.

“Who will read the Megillah?” someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me.  Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like all the inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulka, I read the words: “and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

When I read of Haman’s downfall, and that “the Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor,” the spark of hope that glimmers in every Jew’s heart ignited into a flaming torch. “Dear L-rd of the Universe!” I know each of us was thinking, “Grant us a wondrous miracle too, as you did for our forefathers in those days. Let us, too, see the end of our enemies!”

When I finished, everyone cheered.  For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the death camp had been forgotten. Having exerted the rest of my strength on the reading, I sat breathless, but my spirit soared.

When people’s actions are pleasing to G-d, even their enemies are reconciled to them.  The block elder, who usually strutted in with a scowl, smiled as he entered that day, ladling the soup without cursing at anyone. And the ever-present jealousy among us inmates seemed to turn into generosity.  Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like “Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!”

Instead of bemoaning the present, we dreamed of the future, of when the German demon would inherit his due, when this Jewish suffering would end.  And like a river overflowing its banks, thoughts of redemption burst forth from broken hearts.  One mitzvah led to another, to further acts of spiritual heroism. Someone decided to forgo the small piece of bread he had saved from the previous day, and offered it to his comrade. Another made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two “portions”, which only yesterday would have caused ill will, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill the mitzvah of “sending gifts of food, one to another.”

Those precious “Mishloach Manos” were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end as compensation for my services.

I thought to myself, “Dear G-d, behold Your people, who in an instant can transform themselves from wild creatures to courageous, caring men and faithful Jews…”

And a verse welled up inside me: “Who is like you, Israel, a singular nation on Earth?”

“Precious Jews!” I said to the others. “Brothers in suffering!  Let us make but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!”