Typical protective parents that we are, my wife and I were apprehensive about putting our 14-year-old son by himself on a train from New York to Baltimore, where he attends the high school division of a respected yeshiva. But his planned ride back to school after Sukkot with one of the postgraduate students had evaporated, and we had no choice.
We asked my father, who is a beloved congregational rabbi in suburban Baltimore, if he might be able to pick Dovie up at the train station downtown and take him to the yeshiva. He assured us, as we knew he would, that it would be no problem. He and my stepmother would do anything for any of their grandchildren.
My wife took Dovie to the train station on our end, and I called her on her cellphone from my office to make sure they had arrived safely and on time. As she described seeing our son off, I couldn't help but recall the story of another Jewish 14-year-old's first solo rail ride.
It was just about the same time of year, around Simchat Torah, but the year was 1939, and the Nazis had just begun their invasion of Poland. The boy's family, along with all the townsfolk, had fled their tiny village in central Poland by foot. Doing their best to stay ahead of the advancing German army, they reached a city called Zembrov, where there was a synagogue and Jewish infrastructure. The family found a temporary place to stay, but the boy had made up his mind, despite the family's dislocation, that he was going to the yeshiva in Bialystok, where, before the outbreak of the war, it had been arranged for him to study.
His parents relented, surely unaware that their son's decision would save his life.
The parents balked -- who could know, they argued entirely reasonably, what lay ahead? -- but the boy insisted. Years later, his persistence at the time would make him wonder. Why indeed had he insisted on leaving his family at a time of war? But in the end his parents relented, surely unaware that their son's decision would save his life. With the clothes on his back, a spare shirt, his tefillin, a siddur, and a few apples from his mother, the boy boarded the train to Bialystok. He would never see his mother or father again.
On the train, two elderly Jews approached him and asked: "Little boy, where are you going?" He responded, "To the Bialystok yeshiva."
"The Bialystok yeshiva?" they exclaimed. "The Bialystok yeshiva has moved to Vilna!"
The boy hadn't realized -- how could he have? -- that all the Polish yeshivot had relocated at war's start to the famed Lithuanian city. Having no idea where to go or what to do, he began to panic but then calmed himself with the thought: "Well, I was going to go to Bialystok to study, and so now I'm just going to Vilna instead."
When the train arrived in Bialystok, the boy, although he had no ticket, asked someone in the station which train was going to Vilna. When he finally located the track, he saw a train filled to capacity with people -- some were hanging from its sides. The boy began to cry but was impelled by something nebulous but powerful to somehow get on the train. It had begun to leave the station but was still moving slowly and so he ran after it along the tracks and grabbed the handrail of the steps to one of its doors. Grasping his handhold tightly, he managed to get one of his feet on the step. As the train picked up speed, people moved in, and, with some settling on the platforms between cars, the boy managed to find a place to sit. He fell asleep, and morning found him in Vilna.
The rest of the boy's story is equally compelling. He studied, as he had wished, in the yeshiva, but it wasn't long before he and his fellow students were uprooted again. Eventually they and their teachers were sent by the Russians to a work camp in Siberia, a saga unto itself. Although there were many harrowing moments over those months and years, he survived the war, immigrated to the United States and raised a family.
What we call problems wouldn't even register on their radar screens.
We American-born Jews would do well to more often and more deeply dwell on what previous Jewish generations had to endure. What we call problems wouldn't even register on their radar screens, and realities they faced daily we see only in our nightmares. Reminding ourselves of those facts not only charges us to more deeply respect and appreciate those who came before us, it provides us perspective in our own lives and impels us to be deeply thankful for all the great blessings we have, and all the great adversities we don't.
Dovie's trip was uneventful. His train arrived a bit later than expected but my father was there to shuttle him to yeshiva. When I called my father later that evening to thank him again, he assured me that he was happy to have been of help.
He also mentioned that he had asked Dovie if the train ride had been his first. When Dovie answered in the affirmative, my father told his grandson: "There isn't time now, but one day, you should remind me to tell you about my own first train trip. I was just about your age."
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