Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Analysis of Parshat Hamo'adot (Ch. 23) Homepage
       by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
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Parshas Emor
Commemorating the Desert Experience: An Analysis of Parshat Hamo'adot (Ch. 23)

Part 2
לע"נ אמי מורתי מרים בת יצחק ורבקה הכ"מ



Even though we are accustomed to thinking of Shabbat as a commemoration of - and testimony to - God's creation (see Sh'mot 20:12), Shabbat also has an explicit Zekher liY'tziat Mitzrayim dimension, as mentioned above. Besides the explicit verse (D'varim 5:15) cited previously, there is a direct Shabbat association with the desert experience which is uniquely tied up with the notion of national unity.

One introductory note: As we have mentioned in earlier shiurim, when studying Tanakh, we must simultaneously view the text as outsiders while experiencing it as participants. As outsiders, we are enriched with the global view of the entire canonized text and the interpretations and comments of our sages. As participants, we only know what the original target audience (be it Mosheh, Aharon or the B'nei Yisra'el) knew; we must try to understand (to whatever extent possible) the impact of these particular words and phrases on the ears of this original audience.

When Shabbaton - a relatively rare word - is used, it certainly must evoke in the listener the original context in which it was used. A quick search of the Tanakh reveals that the earliest appearance of this word is in the Chapter 16 of Sh'mot - in the story of the Mahn (Manna).

The story of the Mahn is, (as we indicated in this year's shiur on Parashat Beshalach ), the central turning point in the preparation of the B'nei Yisra'el for their arrival at Sinai.

A quick review of the story will help us understand the relevance of the story of the Mahn to our goal of building a holy nation.

There are two central features of how the B'nei Yisra'el were to respond to the Mahn.

* They were to only take the proper amount per person in the household.

* They were to take double on Friday and take none on Shabbat.

Each of these commands (which, for the most part, the whole nation followed) carries a critical step in the development of the holy nation.

R. Yaakov Medan, in a wonderful article (Megadim 17:61-90), points out that the command for each person to restrict himself to a daily portion for each member of the household represented not only a good deal of faith in God - but also tremendous self-restraint and concern for one's fellow. This is how he explains the "test" of the Mahn (16:4) - that we were tested to see how much concern each of us could demonstrate for our fellow, knowing that if we took more than our portion, someone else would go hungry. Indeed, the B'nei Yisra'el passed this test with flying colors! (v. 18) For a slave people, wandering in a desert to exercise this much self-restraint was a demonstration of their readiness to stand as a unified nation and to enter into a covenant which includes mutual responsibility.

This self-restraint was the first building block in the process of turning a multitude of slaves into a unified nation. The ability to maintain concern for one's fellow in the face of such temptation was the first indication that we would indeed be able to become a Goy Kadosh.

By beginning the parashah of Mikra'ei Kodesh with Shabbat - and by specifically referring to that day as a Shabbat Shabbaton , we are immediately reminded of - and brought back to - that wonderful demonstration of mutual concern with the Mahn. Indeed, Shabbat carries a powerful "social-justice" component (see Ramban at D'varim 5:15); by stepping back from our daily attempt to conquer the world and amass more for ourselves, we are given the golden opportunity to allow others in to our lives and to develop our own empathy for those less fortunate. In addition, the cessation from M'lakhah heightens our awareness of Who is really in charge and of our obligation to look out for all of His creatures.


This one is pretty straightforward. In order to keep the experience of the Exodus at the forefront of our consciousness, the Torah commanded us to relive it (therefore calling it Hag haMatzot, underscoring the method by which we reexperience it) every year. Note that these holy days are also called Mikra'ei Kodesh , in that they remind us of our holy ingathering. Besides the overarching thematic Mikra Kodesh, this one is a bit special - if we think back to the various guidelines and restrictions given us in the context of the Korban Pesach (e.g. to be eaten as a household - see our shiur on Parashat Bo).

One question about this section which we must address is the repeated introduction in v. 4. Once the Torah already captioned this chapter (in v. 2) with the phrase "These are the appointed times..." why repeat it two verses later?

We will only get to this question near the end of the shiur in our discussion about the two sections of Sukkot / Sh'mini Atzeret.


On the day after Hag haPesach (the second day of Hag haMatzot), we are commanded to offer up an Omer's worth of grain (barley). Why this amount - and why mention it so often?

When we look back at the Mahn story, we note that each portion of Mahn that fell was 1/10th of an Ephah - or 1 Omer's worth! It is not surprising that the Torah commands us to "lift up" (symbolically returning the Mahn to its rightful Owner) exactly that amount of grain the day after Pesach. The lesson is clear: Liberation must carry with it a renewed sense of concern for social welfare and a mutual responsibility. As soon as we have celebrated our freedom, the Torah commands us to remember the miracle of the Mahn - and our miraculous response to the test.


The exact middle verse of our parashah is the "interjected" command to leave Pe'ah (the corner of the field) and Leket (gleanings) for the poor. Now we can understand the significance of this addition - while harvesting, celebrating with a new grain offering (v. 16) etc., we must not forget our brothers and sisters who have fallen on hard times. The Torah interrupts the flow of the calendar to remind us that we can not be Holy without ensuring that we are doing so as a Nation.


When we come to evaluate the meaning of this phrase within the context of our parashah, we have to again return to the mode of "participant" as opposed to "observer". If the B'nei Yisra'el are commanded to perform an act of commemoration of a Shofar-blast, it must refer to a particular blast which they had already experienced - and are now being commanded to commemorate.

The only Shofar blast which we know of in their past was the blast (or series of blasts) at Har Sinai which prefaced and followed the Revelation. The festival of the first day of the seventh month ("Rosh haShanah") is, therefore, a commemoration of the stand at Sinai. The Shofar which we blow is intended to remind us of that great event.

When we first arrived at Sinai, the Torah describes us as "encamping opposite the mountain" (Sh'mot 19:2). The Hebrew verb for this encampment is not the expected vaYahanu ("and they encamped"), rather it is the singular vaYihan (lit. "and he encamped"). Rashi (ibid) is sensitive to this anomaly and explains that we encamped there "as one person, with one heart".

The stand at Sinai was the next step of the process begun with the Mahn (hence, Rosh haShanah is also called a Shabbaton) - moving from a Goy to a Goy Kadosh.


We then move to a new level of Goy Kadosh . Previously, the unity we experienced was the product of the spirit of sharing and self-restraint. We now come to the day on which we allow ourselves to be stripped of all that divides us. We have no food, drink, fancy clothes (we dress in white because we are either angels or dead) or family life - we have all been "equalized". Yom haKippurim gives us the opportunity to move to a new level of mutual concern - and to focus that concern on a holy enterprise. The sole focus of Yom haKippurim in its first presentation in the Torah (Vayyikra 16) is the purification of the Mishkan. We have now moved from a Goy Kadosh in the abstract (the stand at Sinai) to a Goy Kadosh with a purpose and a focus of activity - sanctity of the camp and a reenshrinement of God's Presence. Yom haKippurim is called Shabbat Shabbaton because it is a "super-Mahn" experience; mutual concern focused on a holy goal.


At this point, it pays to review the three points of contrast between the two treatments of this holiday:

a) In the first section, the holiday is called Hag haSukkot , but does not explain the meaning for this title; the second refers to it as Hag l'Hashem - but associates the timing with the end of the harvest season.

b) In the first section, both the first and eighth days area called Mikra'ei Kodesh ; in the second section both are called Shabbaton.

c) The first section only includes the commands regarding not working and bringing the proper offerings; the second includes the two Mitzvot unique to the holiday - the four species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Aravah) and residing in the Sukkah.
And now to the answers:

The first section of Sukkot / Sh'mini Atzeret deals with the holiday as a part of the agricultural cycle of celebration - a cycle which began with Hag haMatzot.

[This also explains why the first section here ends with the concluding Ele Mo'adei Hashem - closing off the "middle" section of the list which began at v. 4. This answers the question asked above (in the section on Hag haMatzot) as to why there is a second caption of our list in v. 4.]
As such, it is simply called Hag haSukkot - a purely agricultural connotation. Keep in mind that a Sukkah is a booth used by the workers during harvest season when they could not return home every night - and to rest during the heat of the summer noontime. These days are denoted as Mikra'ei Kodesh - a teleology which is only realized in the second section. They are also replete with offerings and two days of non-work - dedicated to God - but there is no "unity" factor here.

The second treatment, beginning (v. 39) with Akh (which evokes the beginning of the Yom haKippurim section), is a dramatic turn. Instead of being a harvest festival, it is to take place "when you have gathered in the produce of the land" (i.e. that is when you are to celebrate, not the focus of the celebration). This festival includes a Shabbaton at the beginning and the end - bringing us back to the unity theme.

We are then given the two Mitzvot unique to Sukkot: Arba Minim (the Four Species) and Sukkah.

There are many Midrashim explaining the symbolism of the Arba Minim (e.g. they represent the four types of Jews, the four climes of Eretz Yisra'el, four part of the body) - but all of them rest on two basic Halakhic premises: All four species are indispensable for the Mitzvah (inclusion) and all four must be taken as one (community). The introduction of this Mitzvah here underscores the Shabbaton aspect of Sukkot.

Regarding the Mitzvah of Sukkah, the Rabbis said (BT Sukkah 27b): " 'all that are citizens in Yisra'el shall live in Sukkot' - this teaches that all of Yisra'el are worthy to reside in one Sukkah" (this is playing off the way that Sukkot is written in the verse - it could be read Sukkat which is singular, indicating all citizens residing in one Sukkah). This is, again, a Mitzvah which is indicative and symbolic of inclusion of all Jews. The Goy Kadosh is reinforced as we celebrate the end of the harvest.

What can we make of the culmination of our parashah? In what way is Sukkot an appropriate "pinnacle experience" in this sequence? Note that unlike the first treatment, in this second section the festival is called a Hag l'Hashem - a festival of God; that surely indicates something significant...what is it?

Looking back over the sequence of Hag haMatzot (freedom), Omer (the Mahn), Pe'ah (more social concern), Zikhron T'ruah (Har Sinai) and Yom haKippurim (Goy Kadosh) - we note that there is one critical, final step in the desert experience which has not yet been internalized.

As Ramban points out in his introduction to Sefer Sh'mot, the goal of the entire Exodus enterprise was to restore us to the glorious stature of our ancestors, with the Shekhinah residing in our midst. This was accomplished only when we constructed and successfully dedicated the Mishkan (which is, according to Ramban, why Sefer Sh'mot concludes at that point).

The Mishkan, although in the public domain, held a personal connection with each Jew. Not only were all prayers directed there (see MT Hilkhot T'fillah 1:3), but Aharon constantly wore the Hoshen, which included the names of all 12 tribes (on 12 stones) and the Ephod, whose shoulder-straps included all 12 tribes (on two stones). Every Jew had a place in the Mishkan - but could not practically come in.

The Sukkah, coming at the culmination of the season of holy days which walk us through the evolution of the B'nei Yisra'el into a Goy Kadosh, is evocative of the Mishkan. It is indeed fitting that this holiday, from its Shabbaton perspective, with its inclusive and communal approach to Kedushah, be called Hag l'Hashem 

Rosa and the Executioner of the Fiend 

I have always said that the best movies are those made in one location, with as many actors as necessary, and a good, solid story that keeps you glued to the screen until the very end. It is truly an art to accomplish this, to entertain people without big budgets, special effects, etc. Films following these principles that come to mind are “Twelve angry men” (1957), “The Incident” (1967), and “Deterrence” (1999). Now we have to add the passionate and penetrating “ Rosa and the Executioner of the Fiend” to this small, incomplete, but impressive list.

Helmed by Iván Acosta with a visibly low-budget, and based on his own play with the same name, the story takes place in one apartment, which happens to be located in front of the United Nations building in New York City. It is the year in which this important institution is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and many world leaders are making their presence felt at such an historic celebration. The apartment is inhabited by Rosa Mandelbaum (Graciela Lecube), an 80-year old Jewish woman, who has been living by herself for quite some time.

One day, an intruder takes Rosa hostage in her own place. He goes inside her home claiming to be the grocery delivery clerk. He calls himself Amaury (Gabriel Gorces), a young Cuban man, who wants to kill Fidel Castro with a rifle from Rosa ’s place. The Cuban leader was invited to the United Nations anniversary. However, it is not as easy as we might think, because both Rosa and Amaury share a Cuban connection with similar life paths.

“Rosa and the Executioner of the Fiend” (Rosa y el Ajusticiador del Canalla) is intelligent, educational, and at times funny. We learn some episodes – dark, if you will – of Cuban history that otherwise would have been unknown to us until we watch the film. Whether or not you agree with the Cuban revolution, I am certain that you will enjoy this movie. The acting is superb and Lecube and Gorces were well- selected for the main roles. ( USA , 2009. color, 102 min.) Reviewed on March 21, 2010. MVD Visual

Death Wish 3


Death wish three.jpg
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has come back to Brooklyn after being banned since the events of the first film to visit his Korean War buddy Charley, who is attacked by a gang in his apartment. The neighbors hear commotion and call the police. Paul arrives as Charley collapses dead in his arms. The police mistakenly arrest Paul for the murder. At the police station, Lieutenant Richard Shriker (Ed Lauter) recognizes Paul as "Mr. Vigilante". Shriker lays down the law before Paul is taken to a holding cell. In the same cell is Manny Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy), leader of the gang who attacked and killed Charley. He and Paul fight. When he is released, Manny threatens Paul. Manny arrives on his “gang turf” and slashes fellow gang member Hector (David Crean), possibly for betrayal. The police receive daily reports about the increased rate of crime. Shriker offers a deal to Paul—to kill all the punks he wants, as long as he informs Shriker of any gang activity he hears about so the police can get a bust and make news.
Paul moves into Charley's apartment in a gang-turf war zone. The building is populated by elderly tenants terrified of Manny's gang. They include Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam), a World War II veteran and Charley’s good buddy, plus Mr. and Mrs. Kaprov, an elderly Jewish couple, and a young Hispanic couple, Rodriguez (Joseph Gonzalez) and his wife Maria (Marina Sirtis). After a few violent muggings, Kersey goes into action. He buys a used car as bait. When two gang members try to break into the car, Kersey shoots them with a .38 Colt Cobra revolver. Kersey twice protects Maria from the gang, but is unable to save her a third time. She is assaulted and raped, later dying in hospital from her injuries.
Kersey orders a new gun, a .475 Wildey Magnum. He spends the afternoon with Bennett handloading ammunition for it. He then tests the gun when The Giggler (Kirk Taylor) steals his camera. Paul is applauded by the neighborhood as Shriker and the police take the credit. Kersey also throws a gang member off a roof. A possible love interest develops with public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin). She is moving out of the city and Kersey offers to take her to dinner. While waiting in his car, Kathryn is knocked unconscious by Manny and the car is pushed into oncoming traffic. It slams into another car and explodes, killing Kathryn. (After a slight variation in Death Wish II, this re-establishes the murder of Kersey's love interest by gang members as a firm series tradition).
Shriker places Kersey under protective custody, fearing he is in too deep. Bennett takes matters into his hands with a German MG-42. After his taxi shop is blown up, he tries to get even but his gun jams. The gang cripples Bennett. Kersey is taken by Shriker to the hospital, where he escapes after Bennett tells him where to find a .30 Browning M1919 machine gun. Kersey and Rodriguez collect weapons. They proceed to mow down many of the criminals before running out of ammo. Other neighbors begin fighting back as Manny sends in more reinforcements.
Shriker decides to help and he and Kersey take down much of the gang together. Kersey goes back to the apartment to collect more ammo, but Manny finds him there. Shriker arrives just in time and shoots Manny, who falls to the floor, apparently dead. Shriker is wounded in the arm (but his life is saved by a bulletproof vest). As Kersey calls for an ambulance, Manny rises (he was also wearing a bulletproof vest) and turns his gun on the two men. As Shriker distracts him, Kersey uses a mail-ordered M72 LAW rocket launcher to obliterate Manny. As Manny's girlfriend screams in horror, what remains of the gang rush to the scene and see Manny's smoldering remains. One of the other gang members attempts to retaliate, but Manny's girlfriend stops him. Surrounded by the angry crowds of neighbors ready to fight back even more, the gang realizes they've lost and flee the scene. As the neighbors cheer in celebration and with police sirens in the distance, Shriker gives Kersey a head start. Kersey gives a look of appreciation and takes off.

Benjamin Murmelstein’s pact with the devil.

Nazi Collaborator or Hero?

Nazi Collaborator or Hero?

Claude Lansmann’s film, The Last of the Unjust, explores the moral ramifications of Benjamin Murmelstein’s pact with the devil.


Claude Lanzmann, the French documentary filmmaker who directed Shoah, the 1985 widely praised nine and a half hour movie on the Holocaust presenting testimonies by selected survivors, witnesses, and German perpetrators, has once again returned to the same theme that continues to fascinate him, but from a totally different perspective.
This time he focuses on one man – and on one profound question relating to the moral ambiguity of evil.
The Last of the Unjust is the product of lengthy conversations Lanzsmann had with a remarkable survivor. Benjamin Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi, clearly brilliant and extremely capable, was first drafted by Adolf Eichmann to write reports to the Nazi authorities. Later he was put in charge of a program ostensibly to permit Jews to emigrate but primarily intended to financially fill Eichmann’s pockets. Eventually he was made an “Elder of the Jews” at the notorious concentration camp at Thereseinstadt, where he himself was prisoner, following the two Elders preceding him who were both brutally executed with bullets to the backs of their heads.
Last of the Unjust
To follow his story, as the film does – admittedly from Murmelstein’s point of view as there is no one else interviewed to contest him – is to come face-to-face with perplexing challenges to our clearly defined concepts of morality.
Murmelstein helped the Nazis as they ingeniously used Theresienstadt, a cruelly fictional paradise, in propaganda films to the world.
Murmelstein was a collaborator. It is he himself who chose as self-description the words of the film’s title,The Last of the Unjust, an obvious wordplay on the title of André Schwarz-Bart’s powerful award-winning novel The Last of The Just about the 36 righteous souls whose existence justifies the purpose of humankind to God. Murmelstein helped the Nazis as they ingeniously used Theresienstadt, a cruelly fictional paradise, in propaganda films to the world, deceptively depicting it as a Potemkin like village given by Hitler as a gift to the Jews in which they could enjoy all the amenities of a prosperous, fulfilling and beautiful life. Used as a showcase for a visit by the Red Cross, and the site of a film showing happy Jews at work and play, it was in reality a concentration camp where disease and starvation killed nearly 100,000 Jews due to horrible overcrowding and appalling sanitary conditions and for many but the first stop in “relocation to the east” where they would be brutally exterminated.
These facts were enough to have Murmelstein fiercely condemned by many after the war. Though acquitted on the charge of collaborating with the Nazis by a tough Czech court, he never set foot in Israel in order to avoid facing a second trial. Gershom Scholem, the renowned Israeli historian and philosopher, publicly called for him to be punished by hanging – although, as pointedly noted by Murmelstein in the film, Scholem ironically pleaded that Israel spare Eichmann’s life after the court found him guilty of his role in planning and carrying out the Nazi “final solution.”
And yet… Here is where the film forces us to begin the tortuous process of reevaluating moral choices in the face of competing options that offer no satisfactory resolution. How can we find the correct balance between heroism and expediency? How much should the crime of collaboration be mitigated if its purpose is to achieve the better of two nightmarish solutions? Is there room on an ethical balance sheet to vindicate assisting the wicked in order to attain a somewhat more favorable outcome for at least some of the innocent?
In short, can we forgive or perhaps even to some extent approve the choice Murmelstein made to respond to the Nazi regime’s goal of genocide by assuming the persona of “a calculating realist”- making a pact with the devil in order to somewhat diminish his power for evil?
Through his efforts – and his cooperation with Eichmann – he saved the lives of 120,000 Jews.
Slowly but quite effectively we become drawn in by Murmelstein’s justifications for his actions. It is true that through his efforts – and his cooperation with Eichmann – he saved the lives of 120,000 Jews by arranging their emigration to Palestine and other places of haven. He recounts with gusto how he was able to get 2,000 inmates out of the Dachau concentration camp and send them to Portugal and Spain via occupied France. Though he could easily have emigrated to London himself, he stayed behind in Vienna because he felt he “had something to accomplish – a mission.”
Given the impossible task of serving as “King of the Jews” in Theresienstadt, Murmelstein worked to “embellish” its facilities, helping to eradicate typhoid and somewhat improving its structure for the sick and the aged – even though that meant the perpetuation of a lie for the sake of propaganda. Putting glass in windows, he insisted, kept the people inside warmer. As to the propaganda film he cooperated with, Murmelstein says, "If they showed us, they wouldn't kill us. That was my logic, and I hope it was correct."
By the end of the film, it is clear that Lanzsmann has become convinced. The closing scenes show him putting his arm around Murmelstein, telling him he considers him a friend.
But it is we, the viewers, who must make our own judgments.

Jewish Taskmasters

Walking out of the theater I heard a couple, taken by Murmelstein’s powerful charisma and intellect, saying they could not understand why, instead of being condemned, he wasn’t proclaimed a hero. To my mind that was a severe overreaction.
There is a biblical precedent to the Nazi genius of appointing Jews over other Jews to be complicit in their own enslavement. The Torah tells us that when the Egyptians forced the Hebrews to make bricks for their construction projects, they set over them taskmasters and officers. The taskmasters were Egyptians, the officers Hebrews. The ones directly in charge of the Hebrew slaves and tasked with making certain the full quota of work was produced were taken from their own people.
The text goes on to tell us: “And the officers of the children of Israel whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had appointed over them were beaten, saying, 'Why have you not completed your quota to make bricks like the day before yesterday, neither yesterday nor today?'" [Exodus 5:14] The Midrash explains that the Hebrew officers refused to comply with the strict orders of their masters. They would not beat the workers assigned to them to make them fulfill the terrible burden of their quotas. They chose to be beaten themselves rather than to oppress their brethren.
The Sages tell us that a remarkable thing happened years later to reward them: These were the very people who merited to be selected as members of the first Sanhedrin. It was upon them that “some of the spirit that was upon Moses was taken and placed on them – as it is said ‘Gather to me 70 men of the elders of Israel’[Numbers 11:16] of those about whom you know the good that they did in Egypt, i.e. the officers who preferred to suffer themselves rather than to impose pain upon others.” [Commentary of Rashi, Exodus 5:14]
Murmelstein was the first to admit that he was no saint in administering the harsh edicts imposed by the Nazis.
Jewish heroes cannot persecute fellow Jews, no matter the consequences. That is what earns for them the respect and admiration of our people. And any trade-offs for personal security or special privileges cast their actions into serious question.
Murmelstein was the first to admit that he was no saint in administering the harsh edicts imposed by the Nazis. In a memorable line in the film he quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer as saying “There were no saints in the Holocaust; only martyrs.” But that is not true. Those who are familiar with Holocaust literature know of many thousands of holy and pious souls whose deeds were saintly beyond any human comprehension. The truly heroic figures could never have complied with the commands of their oppressors, no matter how much could be gained from compromising with evil.
There is no doubt that aiding an evil to subvert a greater evil cannot leave us unstained by the crime committed, no matter how noble our intentions. Murmelstein understood that when he referred to himself as the last of the unjust.
More, we will always be left to wonder whether the murder of six million could have become possible without any cooperation from its victims.
But truth be told the bottom line is that the Holocaust, being unfathomable, makes it impossible for us to offer a fair judgment. In this Murmelstein was correct: “We may condemn but we cannot judge.” And what Claude Landzmann in this unforgettable film has shown us is the profound difficulty of impugning guilt to any survivors – because there is no way we can possibly put ourselves in their place or realistically answer how we might have acted in their stead.
Published: February 15, 2014

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Defeating Evil

Defeating Evil

Defeating Evil

At the age of 1, I survived the selection in the Kovno Ghetto that wiped out a third of the population.


My story begins and ends with a prophecy uttered by my grandmother at the moment I was born. “This child,” she said, “because she was born on the first day of the Jewish New Year, will be lucky her entire life.”
Six months later the Nazis invaded Lithuania and the word “luck” disappeared for all of us Jewish people living in that country.
Suly ChenkinBy the time I was 8 months old we wore a yellow Star of David and at 10 months we were prisoners in the hard labor/concentration camp known as the Kovno Ghetto.At the age of 1, I survived the selection in which one third of the population, mostly children and the elderly, were taken away and shot.
In the two years that followed, disease, famine, hard labor, lack of firewood and the constant terror of not knowing what was going to happen next decimated another third of the population. Then came the “Kinder Aktzie,” the raid where the SS went house by house, pulling out all children under the age of 12, and any adult deemed unfit for labor.
Because of my father’s boss, a Nazi with a conscience, we were forewarned, hurriedly built a hiding place and stayed hidden in the newly excavated bunker.
On the second day they came to our house. I remember my terror in the darkness of the hole, as my mother’s hand kept pressing against my mouth so that I wouldn’t cry and give us away. Luckily the Nazis and their dogs did not sniff out our hiding place, but from there on I had to remain inside the house, for there were no children visibly left in the ghetto.
With each passing day my parents, Riva and Solomon Baicovitz, grew more desperate and as the chance of their own survival became nil, they made a decision no parent should ever have to make: They gave me away.
On May 11, 1944, my parents told me they loved me, that if they could they would come back for me, but that I could never ask for them, for if I did, the bad guys would kill them and me. I was giving a sleeping potion and when it took effect I was put into a potato sack.

A Harrowing Escape

Outside, a cart awaited. My sack was loaded atop of the other sacks and then the cart travelled alongside the ghetto fence. At a pre-arranged time and place, I was thrown over the barbed wire. Two women who had been waiting ran to the fence pulled me out of the sack and placed me in a baby carriage. I remained asleep as they wheeled me away to what everyone hoped was a chance to live. I was 3½ years old.
My fate had been entrusted to someone my parents had never met. Miriam Shulman was Jewish herself, from a prestigious rabbinical family. She had gone undercover, placing her own and other people’s children with the few Lithuanians who were willing to take us in.
Within 8 weeks, the fewer than 6,000 remaining inmates of the ghetto were marched through the city to the train depot. There they were loaded onto the cattle cars and sent to concentration camps: the men to Dachau in Germany, the women to Stuthoff in Poland.
A few months later the Soviet Army liberated Kovno and we came out of hiding. But the ghetto had been liquidated, dynamited and burned to the ground and the people, including my parents, were gone and presumed dead. Luckily for me, instead of placing me in the orphanage, Miriam took me in and when she decided to leave Kovno, she took me with her and her own children. In January of 1945, we started our dangerous journey through the snow and devastation of Europe. We had no documents, food or money and the next 10 months were a nightmare. Somehow we made it to Romania and there, on the month of my fifth birthday, we boarded a ship to Israel.
Although I had never asked for my parents, I had never forgotten them. I cried all the way to Jerusalem as I faced the fact that I was an orphan and that same night I started calling Miriam “Ima,” Hebrew for mother.
Half a year later, when I had totally adapted to my new situation, Ima showed me a photograph that had come in the mail. “Do you know who these people are?”
My heart skipped a beat. “This was my Mamma, and this was my Papa.”
Miriam hugged me and, with tears in her eyes, she told me that my parents were alive and that my mother was coming to get me!

My Grandmother’s Prophecy

Both my parents had survived, by miracle and by a hair, the horrors of the camps and the Death Marches. My mother had been liberated by the Russian Army and by word of mouth she had found out that I had survived. Although her body was ravaged from malnutrition and frostbite, she escaped the camp in order to search for me all over Europe.
Out of the 40,000 Jews in Kovno, about 2,000 survived.
A month before my sixth birthday, I came running around the bend of our house in Jerusalem and ran smack into my mother’s arms.
Five months later, my papers allowing me to enter Cuba arrived and I had to say goodbye to Miriam and my foster siblings. On February 6th, 1947, we arrived in Havana and I was reunited with my dad.
Three years had gone by. 27 of our close family members had perished. And out of the 40,000 Jews in Kovno, about 2,000 survived.
My grandmother Minda did not make it. But her prophecy did, for here I am, so many years later, living proof that evil can be defeated by the actions, small and large, of a few good people.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Like Sheep: Why Didn't You Fight?

Like Sheep: Why Didn't You Fight?
Like Sheep: Why Didn't You Fight?
A survivor's gives his personal answer to this often-asked question.
After the war, many people, especially American Jews, including some members of my own family, asked me why we never fought back. Why, for instance, when the learned, kind Dr. Bloch was being shot, didn't we start a rebellion and try to save him? Why did millions of Jews in Europe go passively to the camps and then to their deaths?
This logical question deserves an answer. When I was first brought to Kamionka, there were Russian prisoners of war whom the German army had captured a few months earlier. To make room for the transport of Jews, some of the Russians were sent to other camps and others were killed. Killing POWs was against the Geneva Convention, but the Germans were beyond abiding by any rules of civilized conduct. They had become utterly savage.
With my own eyes I saw the execution of POWs. Having been raised so close to the Russian border, I understood Russian and listened carefully to what the Russian POWs were saying as they were being selected for death. One man, about forty-five years old, was considered too old for a labor camp and so the Germans decided to shoot him. He stood tall and looked straight into the eyes of the German soldiers: "I have three sons in the Red Army. They are on their way. Remember, you will pay for this." And then the Germans shot him.
There was nothing the Russian could do in the face of many armed German soldiers. Polish soldiers, whose army had been swiftly defeated at the start of the war, faced the same situation. I saw four or five German soldiers control a thousand Polish POWs. Later on in Kamionka, a small number of Germans did whatever they wanted with Russian soldiers, men who had been trained to fight battles. High-ranking officers were reduced to powerless, ordinary men when confronted with the lowliest German soldier and a gun.
When the tide turned and the Germans began losing the war, I beheld the same sight in reverse: hundreds of mighty German soldiers, who only weeks before took life or saved it as their mood dictated, were now herded about passively by a few Russian soldiers with weapons.
These soldiers had all been trained to fight, to use firearms, to survive under the harshest conditions. If they could not resist imprisonment, how were we Jews – a civilian population, with little or no firearm experience and no weapons, a tribe of merchants, artisans, scholars, women and children, all weak from starvation and exhaustion – able to rebel against a well-equipped army? If you are under the gun, there is little you can do.
Certainly, there were a few, wonderful exceptions. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the first of its kind among a civilian population in Poland, is the most famous. Even in Warsaw, however, organizing to fight did not take place when there had been half a million Jews in the ghetto. Only when almost the entire ghetto had been liquidated and death was at hand did a few thousand remaining residents – right-wingers, leftists, Bundists, religionists, atheists, Jews of every political and religious stripe – band together, under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, to fight since they knew their days were numbered. They realized they would not be able to beat the German army. But if they were going to die, they would at least take some Germans with them.
Those of us in Kamionka who were young and still strong would have been more than willing to fight in an organized fashion if we thought we had the slightest chance of making a difference. For months after learning of the German defeat at Stalingrad, we waited for partisans who were rumored to be in the vicinity. It would have been a great honor, a tremendous opportunity, to join them, to fight to save the lives of innocent Jews and non-Jews under German occupation. We had heard that the partisans liberated a camp not far from ours. Many Jews had joined their ranks immediately. In the end, though, the partisans did not come near Kamionka until the camp had already been liquidated.
One night in April 1943, Ladovsky, Rebel's Jewish chauffer, came into my barracks and woke me up. He had just returned from Warsaw with Rebel where they had gone to purchase supplies. In Warsaw Lasovsky had heard about, and actually seen, the uprising during its second day.
"Jews," he told me, "are killing Germans! I saw it with my own eyes, German blood being spilled!"
"Thank G-d I lived to see the day," I said to him and jumped off my bunk.
The two of us began to sing and dance, crying and laughing, beside ourselves with joy. After two days of successful fighting, Mordechai Anielewicz said that killing German soldiers proved that they, too, were vulnerable, that the Germans were not invincible. Like Jews, they could bleed, and this resistance saved Jewish honor. Of course, within a few weeks the Germans had overrun the ghetto, killing almost everyone inside, and shipped the survivors to the death camps. But the thought of Jews defending themselves thrilled us beyond description. Even though we knew there were Jewish soldiers fighting in the Allied armed forces, we had become accustomed to feeling helpless under German occupation.