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Powerful Holocaust Story

May 7, 2012 at 03:02:38 PM

I just finished reading Out of the Depths (Sterling, 2011), the phenomenal autobiography of Israel's former Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau. I had the great privilege of interviewing Rabbi Lau for this film, in which he describes his rise from the youngest survivor of Buchenwald to becoming one of the most respected individuals of our generation. But I never knew the full extent of his life until reading this gripping book. He describes lengthy conversations with Yitzhak Rabin, Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, and visits to every corner of the world.

This one story captures so much of the drama that typifies Rabbi's Lau's life:

After [World War II], the daughter of a rabbi had a child with a non-Jewish man, and she gave up the infant to a Catholic monastery. She also cut herself off from Judaism. A young rabbi who knew her from childhood, her father's close disciple, attempted to contact her. He tried to find out what had happened to her father, his rabbi, but she avoided him. He decided to go directly to her house. When she saw who it was, she slammed the door in his face, but he did not give up. She opened the door once more, and said quickly and furiously, "I have nothing to do with you people. I've begun a new chapter in my life."

He asked for a glass of water. The woman bowed her head, then invited him to come inside. Again the Jew asked to know what had happened to her father, and explained that he had felt like a son to the rabbi, and that he had a responsibility to memorialize him. Finally, the woman recounted her story.

It was morning, after services. Her father was sitting beside the table wearing his tallis and tefillin, studying Talmud. Suddenly they heard a savage pounding on the door. "I opened the door. Three Gestapo men burst into the room. They threw me on the ground. I got up and ran to see what they wanted. They pushed their way into my father's room. He raised his head and gave them a look that I won't forget until my dying day. He stared at them as if to ask, What do you want from me? What can I do for you? That was to be his last look. One of the three slung the rifle off his shoulder and pounded the butt on my father's head... His beautiful white beard reddened, and he fell onto the open Talmud.

"What do you want from me? Can't you understand the source of my bitterness? Can't you understand my anger? That's how they took my father," she ended.

The man sat before her and wept for his rabbi, the daughter weeping along with him. "My sister," he said, "you cannot possibly understand how much I understand you. I also have many questions, but I have no answers. No human being can answer such questions. The Torah cautions that the secret things belong unto the Lord our God ― we, however, have the responsibility to act. But the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.

"Your child's grandfather has only one grandchild," he continued. "A fateful and historic decision now lies in your hands. If he continues in his present direction, you are handing your father's murderers their victory. That is exactly what they wanted ― to put out the fire, the flame of Judaism, so that it would never burn again. But if your child follows his grandfather's path, then they have lost the war, and your father has won. Who deserves to win? The key is in your hands. Do you want to finish their work? Will you finish spiritually what they did not finish physically? Or will your father win, and his grandson pick up his grandfather's studies on the very page of Talmud where he left off?"

With these words, the Jew walked out of the house. The daughter was stunned. She ran after him, got into his car, and said, "I want to get him out of [the monastery] right now." Then she added, "On the condition that you take responsibility for his education. I have no one else who can do it." He agreed, on his own condition: that she assist him, so as not to traumatize the child by the abrupt transition. "You draw him near to you, and through you, I will draw near to him," he proposed.

Today, this child is a rosh yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is the only living descendant of the old rabbi from Warsaw.

May 7, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) devorah, May 11, 2012 3:11 PM


this story brought big tears to my eyes. my mother is just like this daughter, she lost her mother during the war at the age of 4 and she always wished to move away from judaism, to the point that when I was young she actually wanted me to marry a non-Jew, so that the children won't be marked as Jews. i was not brought up religious, but i intuitively followed the same logic as the young rabbi in the story - if they hate us so much, why bring one of them home, why hand them the victory?

(2) Anonymous, May 8, 2012 1:13 PM

I recommend this book....

I also recently read it and found it fascinating - and well written. I hadn't seen the video interview before and was glad to have a link to that. Thanks for your interesting blog, Rabbi Simmons.

(1) Anonymous, May 8, 2012 12:12 PM

Most incredible story I've heard

A post holocaust miracle.

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