Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Moshe: a Holocaust survivor story—for us

Spring 2015 is a special time. It’s the 70th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps. Those camps of death and horror were liberated across Europe mostly during the Spring of 1945.

Ceremonies in Poland, Germany, Israel and no doubt other places commemorate that liberation. In our synagogue here in Israel, we held our own celebration—for Moshe.

Moshe is not a young man. He was nineteen when he was liberated. After his liberation, he made his way to America. There, he was drafted into the US Army. The Army sent him back to Germany.

He became part of the US occupying force in Germany. Few ask him what that felt like.

When he was 69 years old, he took family members on a tour to Poland. He wanted to see once again the village he was raised in. He didn’t find it.

It no longer existed. He was told he was the sole survivor of that village.

In a speech in our shul (synagogue) last Shabbat, one of Moshe’s sons told us that, on that trip to Poland, Moshe would often say, mostly to himself but also to anyone who would listen, ‘I won…I won!’

He had beaten the Nazi death machine. But he hadn’t just survived. He had married. He’d had children.

Today, he has 13 grandchildren. He also has 7 great-grandchildren. He won.

He made aliyah (emigration to Israel) when he was 79. He wasn’t finished ‘winning’.

A friend from shul (synagogue) told me that, after Moshe had made aliyah, Moshe met my friend’s father, also a camp survivor. My friend told me that the two older men would get together. They’d sit. They’d talk. Then, they’d sing.

They didn’t cry. They didn’t curse. They sang.

My friend’s father, like many Holocaust survivors, has died. Moshe survives.

This past Shabbat, he celebrated his 70th liberation. First, he read from the Torah. If you’ve ever read the Torah from its scroll parchment, you know how difficult such a task might be.

If you have that knowledge, consider this: when Moshe read his three p’sukim (sentences) on Shabbat, it was the first time he’d ever read the Torah from its scroll parchment.

Such a task is challenging enough for a young man. For an 89-year old, it’s amazing.

After that, Moshe led the rest of our davening (prayers). But he didn’t just lead. He conducted!

As he sang the prayers, he used his hands as a conductor might. He literally orchestrated the singing we did. As he stood with his feet together—as required—he was practically bouncing as he led us.

He sang with a clarity and an energy that would make a 50 year-old blush with effort. He was loud. He was energized. He was brilliant.

The Rav (Rabbi) in his sermon spoke about Moshe’s past experience. The Rav asked, how do we teach the Holocaust? It was such a horror, how do we speak of it?

He looked at Moshe. He had a suggestion. He said, think about the commandment to bring our first fruits to the place in Israel where G-d rests (Devarim, 26:2). One is commanded to bring first fruits and present them to the Cohen (priest). Then, one is to tell the story of the Passover Redemption. That story begins with “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather…the Egyptians mistreated us…we cried out…” (Devarim, 26:3-7).

This, the Rav said, is a tale of woe. It’s a story of affliction and oppression. But when we bring those first fruits to G-d, we don’t start with that tale of horrors. We begin instead with the words, “I declare today to HaShem (G-d)..that I have come to the land that HaShem swore to my forefathers to give us” (ibid, 26:3).

We are commanded to say, essentially, ‘look! I am here!...I’ve made it!” Only then, the Rav said, do we begin to say, essentially, ‘do you want to hear how I got here? Listen to my story and I’ll tell you. An Aramean tried to destroy me…’

That’s Moshe’s story. He experienced horrors we dare not attempt to imagine. But he doesn’t cry over them. He says, essentially, ‘Look, I am here! I’ve made it! I won!” Then, he sings.

May HaShem bless this Moshe to 120 years. May Moshe see health, energy and dozens of great and great-great grandchildren.

Each grandchild means Moshe has won. Each great-grandchild means he has triumphed. May his triumph bring song to all of Israel.



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