Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, currently the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and Chairman of Yad Vashem, and the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, is one of my personal heroes. I have long desired to meet him face to face ever since I first read about his life’s story. His tale of triumph and faith as a young boy during the Holocaust provides us with a model of personal greatness in the face of unimaginable hardship. Rabbi Lau’s bestselling autobiography has just been translated into English for the first time. “Out of the Depths” (Sterling Publishing) tells the story of his miraculous journey from an orphaned refugee to become one of the leaders of the Jewish people.
An Unbroken Chain
Rabbi Lau was born in 1937 in the Polish town of Piotrków where his father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau Hy”d served as the Rabbi. At the tender age of five, his family was brutally torn apart when his father and brother were taken to the death camps. His father was the 37th in an uninterrupted chain of rabbis in the family. As such, his last instructions to his sixteen year old son Naftali were to protect his little brother, Lulek, as he was called, to ensure that the Rabbinical chain remain unbroken. A few years later Rabbi Lau’s mother’s dying wish was the same. For some reason, they both felt that their youngest son was destined to carry on the thousand year old family tradition.
At age seven, he was separated from his mother when she thrust him over to the men’s side during deportation. “Tulek, take Lulek,” she said, entrusting him to Naftali in the hope that the men were more likely to survive. Naftali smuggled him into the Buchenwald labor camp since a child his age would have been exterminated on the spot if discovered. Rabbi Lau thus became the youngest and smallest inmate in the camp. His survival over the next year was largely due to Naftali’s constant self sacrifice and protection.
Realizing that the end of their life was near, little Lulek stood up tall and made the first speech in his long oratorical career.
A short time after entering a labor camp in Czestochowa, the Gestapo Commander noticed that there were a large number of children in the camp. He rounded them up, explaining that they were unnecessary for the German war effort and therefore expendable. Realizing that the end of their life was near, little Lulek stood up tall and made the first speech in his long oratorical career. “It is a mistake to think that we are useless,” he said in Polish. He went on to describe how he had worked 12 hour shifts delivering water to the glass factory workers when he was only six years old. “Therefore, you cannot say that we lack working potential,” he concluded. Together with a bribe, the speech saved his life and the lives of the other children—at least for the moment.
Old before His Time
In 1945, at the age eight, Rabbi Lau became the youngest survivor of Buchenwald to be liberated by the Americans. He recounted one of the most powerful stories in his book—the moment of liberation. When the young Lulek saw the American soldiers entering the gates of the camp, he hid behind a pile of corpses, unsure if they were friend or foe. Rabbi Herschel Schacter, the chaplain of the U.S. Third Army, climbed off his jeep to examine the carnage and destruction that the Nazis left behind with their last remaining bullets. Suddenly he caught sight of the boy hiding behind the dead. Shocked to see a sign of life there, let alone a Jewish child, he picked Lulek up and hugged him tightly in a warm embrace, while tears of sadness and joy poured from his eyes.
“How old are you my son,” he asked in Yiddish, from behind his tears.
“What difference does it make how old I am?” Lau responded suspiciously. “Anyway, I’m older than you.”
“Why do you think that you’re older than I am?” Rabbi Schacter asked, now smiling.
“Because you laugh and cry like a child,” Lau replied. “I haven’t laughed for longer than I can remember and I can’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”
Bound by Miracles
After having witnessed more death and destruction in his few short years than most of us can ever imagine, the most poignant question is what gave this young orphan boy the strength to survive throughout six years of hell. Furthermore, how did he manage to pick himself up and rebuild his life in Eretz Yisrael from nothing? The answer comes from the strong sense of responsibility he felt. But it wasn’t just a sense of responsibility to his family heritage that allowed Rabbi Lau to persevere and go on to accomplish so much in his life—it was a sense of responsibility to God for having saved his life, when so many others were not so fortunate.
For three years I was surrounded by corpses. When I say Thank You, I really mean it.
“You cannot explain one moment of my survival without miracles,” Rabbi Lau recalled passionately. “When I get up in the morning and say Modeh Ani, Thank You to God for restoring my soul, I also have an additional intention—that God did return my soul. For three years I was surrounded by corpses. Every morning in the block many people did not wake up. I carried the wagon of dead to the crematorium each day. Even after liberation, 60% of the survivors of Buchenwald died of typhus and other diseases before they could even begin to start their lives again. I was in the valley of dry bones. When I say Thank You, I really mean it. God performed countless miracles for me. This gives me an extra motivation not to waste my life and to do something to justify all the miracles that happened to me. I could have ended up on the street amongst the criminals but God trusted me. I am forbidden to disappoint Him.”
The Cup Half Full
But how can the rest of us, who have not experienced such open miracles, take inspiration from his story? “A Jew has to believe that everything is a miracle from God. Go to the hospital to see what types of suffering a person can go through to live for one day. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and go through countless operations just to save a small percent of their eye sight. Yet here, we receive two working eyes as a gift from the Master of the Universe, without suffering, without operations, and without paying money. Is it possible to waste that, to not see the value of it? Doesn’t it give you a simcha, a satisfaction that you have these tremendous gifts? How can you not feel obligated to thank the One who gave you these tools? It’s a simple calculation. The hospital is right nearby. Come with me and look. How can you say that you’re worth nothing? There are people out there who would do anything for the gifts you have. And you got it for free!”
Rabbi Lau shared with me a wise insight that has helped shape his life. An optimist sees the cup as half full. Someone once asked him how he can always talk about the full half and deny the fact that the other 50% of the cup is empty. “The answer I gave him is that you can’t drink from the empty half,” Rabbi Lau explained. “If you are thirsty and want to satisfy your thirst you have to pay attention to the 50% that’s full. From emptiness, you have nothing. Therefore in my life, I always try to pay attention to the full part because from it you can derive benefit and hope.”
Defeating the Nazis
Rabbi Lau’s story stayed within him for over 60 years until eight years ago. In 2003, after completing his tenure as Chief Rabbi of Israel, he had two years free before returning to his position as Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. During that time, he wrote a book on Jewish law as well as a six volume series on Pirkei Avot which has since been translated into English by Artscroll (entitled “Rav Lau on Avos”). During this period, he also finally had time to write his memoirs. “Al Tishlach Yadcha Al Hanaar,” sold over 200,000 copies—the bestselling book ever produced by the prestigious Yediot Sefarim publishing house. “I realized that this time was given to me from the Almighty,” he recalled. Shortly afterwards, Rabbi Lau had it translated into English but it took him almost three years to find a publisher who would accept it without making any changes. “How could I allow them to cut it? How can I decide who deserves to be mentioned and who doesn’t? I said, ‘take it as is, or leave it.’”
At last, Sterling Publishing accepted it without any changes. The great uncle of the editor, Barbara Berger, was a survivor of Buchenwald. “I adopted it,” she said. “This will be my baby—just as it is.”
They attacked our soul before our body. If we abandon the Torah, we are helping them win the battle.
Rabbi Lau’s motivation for writing his memoir was twofold. Firstly, he sees it as part of the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to us. “There are two aspects to this mitzvah,” he explained. “’Don’t forget,’ and ‘remember.’ ‘Don’t forget’ is in the heart; ‘remember’ is an action. Lighting yartzeit candles, saying kaddish and learning mishna for the departed is an act of remembrance. This book is also an act of remembrance in order that it shouldn’t be forgotten from the heart. This is a ner neshama, a yartzeit candle that I lit for them.”
His second motivation is to teach people what he believes is the true lesson of the Holocaust. “Many people abandoned Judaism because of the Holocaust. I did just the opposite,” he said. “We have no alternative but to attach ourselves to Torah and mitzvot. Why? Because we want to defeat the Nazis. The Nazis didn’t only attack the Jews physically, but also spiritually. What’s the proof? The very first thing they did before the war even started was Kristallnacht. They destroyed over 1000 shuls in a single night. Ten months before the war began, they were already fighting against synagogues and sifrei kodesh, our holy books. This shows what their real intention was. They attacked our soul before our body. If we abandon the Torah, we are helping them win the battle. We must be victorious by clinging to the Torah. Our eternity, our continuity depends on it.”
This article originally appeared in Hamodia and is reprinted with their permission.