Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bluzhever Rebbe on Pesach (Bergen-Belsen)

The Bluzhever Rebbe, Reb Yisrael Spiro, was one of the great chassidic leaders of the last century. His wife and children were slaughtered in the Holocaust. High on the Nazis' most-wanted list, the Rebbe himself had been interned in labor camps, and at some point was shipped to Bergen-Belsen. As Pesach approached that first year there was talk among the inmates about obtaining matzah. Needless to say, there was very little hope, and few dwelt on the subject matter for any length of time. While there were some that had been able to don tefilin almost a daily basis, and others who stealthily managed to light shabbos candles on given weeks, and still others who under the cover of night davened b'tzibbur (prayed with a group), obtaining matzah would actually entail a much more serious set of difficulties, namely finding a small oven, and getting the ingredients for the baking. There was no hope in this particular situation.

But there were a few who decided to go to the Rebbe. Perhaps he could think up some idea. The Bluzhever Rebbe, like other "Wunderrabbiner," was particularly hated by the Nazis. But the Rebbe had a special way about him. Oddly enough, there was one kommandant in the camp that saw the Rebbe as a sort of curiosity and, from time to time, would go over to the Rebbe, and engage him in conversation. It is needless to say, however, that he left no doubt as to who was in charge. Their conversations took place in clandestinely, lest someone from the high command find out, and reprimand the kommandant. That wouldn't be good for the Jews either. After meditating on the matter for some time, the Rebbe decided to take a chance; a big chance. When the opportunity arose he casually struck up a conversation with the kommandant in private, and a few minutes into the conversation began to explain that a holiday of the utmost importance for the Jews was almost at hand. "And it is essential for the observance of this holiday," he explained to the kommandant, "that we have a sort of bread baked in a very particular fashion. Is there anything that Herr kommandant could do to perhaps obtain for us a very small oven and some flower and water so that we may bake some of this bread? Of course it would be done in stealth and out of sight." The kommandant, with eyes now opened so wide that they looked as if they were about to burst, gave the Rebbe a long, hard stare. The Rebbe believed now that he had overstepped the bounds of his little camaraderie with the Nazi, and began to back away. He began to fear for his life. The kommandant took his eyes off the Rebbe, and let out a little chuckle. He began to walk away, and said, shockingly, "I'll see what I could do." The Rebbe did not repeat this story to the other inmates. There was really no point in getting their hopes up. But there was a shred of hope implanted in the Rebbe's own mind.

About a week later, when Pesach was almost at hand, the kommandant called for the Rebbe. He was instructed to send two men to a certain gate, and to carry a package to the bunker. The kommandant had, in fact, procured a small oven, and small amounts of flower and water to go with it. Word of the oven spread among the Jews of Bergen-Belsen, and many believed that a miracle was at hand. A small group of Jews began preparations at the first opportunity. It was late into the night, and they began the baking. The oven was tiny, and could only bake a few pieces of matzah at one time, but the joy and elation among those who stood around the oven were so great and palpable that nobody dared complain about the size.

Someone had spotted a Nazi walking toward the bunker, and the operation was quickly halted. "Keep on working," whispered one of the Jews, "it's only the kommandant." But as the kommandant came closer, those who looked him in the face saw clearly that this was not the same kommandant. Yes, it was the kommandant who had obtained an oven for the Jews, but by the look on his face his graciousness was now but a fleeting memory. His eyes spoke of evil, punishment and death. He was a blood thirsty Nazi like all the rest. He marched up to the group, and exclaimed, "a letter was intercepted from this camp! I am going to find out who in this camp smuggled out a letter! Because of this letter I have been reprimanded and have gone down in rank!" With these words he went over to the tiny oven, and with one great malicious stomp, smashed the oven flat with his boot. One stomp, and there was nothing left. The oven was completely destroyed. The Jews began to cry. The mitzvah was so close; it was in hand's reach. But all they were left with now was about a dozen pieces of matzah. They had only begun to bake.

It was erev Pesach, and the obvious question arose: who should get the matzah? Who out of all the Jews in Bergen-Belsen hungry for food, and hungry to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach was going to get a piece? Discussion groups broke out. Nobody had an answer. The Rebbe, of course was asked to decide, but this would be a weighty and momentous decision. He needed more time. He contemplated the profound consequences that lie ahead as to who would and who would not get to eat matzah that Pesach in Bergen-Belson. The Rebbe finally came to an answer. "The adults, the oldest among us will get the few matzohs. But just then came a voice. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu! binoreinu uviskeineineinu!" It was a woman's voice. She lay on the ground, almost lifeless, looking as if she could not go on for even another few minutes. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu," she cried out with what little strength she had left in her emaciated and broken body. "When Moshe Rabbeinu came to Paro at the commandment of Hashem. He said 'let my people go,' and he said, 'binoreinu uvizkeineinu neileich,' the young ones go first. They were going out to the wilderness for matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), and Hashem put the young ones before the old ones. If this was the case with matan Torah, then here too, we must put the young ones first, the children, and give them the little matzah that we have so that they could fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach. Because we have the hope that we will be liberated at some point. And we don't know what will happen to us in this destroyed world afterwords. People could go astray. Children could go astray. But if they have this mitzvah of matzah now on this Pesach in Bergen-Belsen, then they will have it with them for the rest of their lives. The Rebbe went over to this woman, and said, "binoreinu uvizkeineinu. You are absolutely right." And so, that year on Pesach, amidst the horrors of the camp, the matzah was given to the chidren.

After liberation the Rebbe married this woman, and they began a new life. She became known as the Bluzhever Rebbetzin.

I was watching a documentary recently on Peter Bergson, the activist who tried to save Jews from Nazi hands during the Holocaust. It is only in recent years that his efforts have come to light. Stephen Wise, head of the reform movement of Judaism who had ample political contacts did little if nothing to help Jews escape Europe at the time. He told the president directly that the major issue in the Holocaust was not that of Jews. Wise, along with a host of other high-profile non-orthodox Jewish leaders, have blood on their hands until this day. What I did not know was that Rav Aharon Kotler and other orthodox leaders presided over organizations that did try to influence the fate of the Jews in Europe. 400 orthodox rabbis marched on Washington in an attempt to publicize the machinations of the Nazi empire. In general, although they fought hard, these groups were not successful in influencing the president, as Stephen Wise was constantly telling the president that these religious Jews are nothing but trouble. Thank you Stephen Wise and your cronies.

But that is not why I brought up the documentary on Peter Bergson. It was mentioned that many of the Jews who were deported to Auschwitz around Pesach time came with small amounts of flower. They believed, as the Germans had told them, that they were being taken on train rides to be resettled. So as Pesach approached they brought flower with them. Few knew that it would be their last day. The Sonderkommandos were in charge of collecting the gassed bodies and throwing them into the ovens of the crematoria. They also gathered their belongings and found the flower. One of the Sonderkommandos was a Chassidic Jew named Moshe Grossman. He had already lost his wife and children. Using the flower, he made matzah in the ovens of the crematoria as an "act of defiance" against the Nazis. The matzah was distributed to a number of prisoners, and as they gathered around on Pesach night they said, in the words of the Haggadah, "this year we are slaves, next year we will be free."

I'm really not sure how I feel about this episode. On the one hand, the matzah was baked among human remains; skin, blood, hair, nails. Surely it was an act of defiance, but still, I'm not so sure about this being a heroic act. Please tell me what you think.

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