“We could not talk to each other but we were able to daven together.”

Shabbos in Cracow was very special.  There are perhaps twenty Jews who are active members of the Cracow Jewish community.  Cracow hosted hundreds, perhaps thousands of observant Jews this Shabbos.  There were Chassidim everywhere who had come to pray at the tomb of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, whose Yahrtzeit is today, Sunday, the 21st of Adar.  Reb Elimelech brought the passion, ecstasy, and unconditional devotion to fellow Jews of Chassidus to Poland and Hungary.  There are thousands who came to try and plead at his resting spot for Divine help and a bit of Reb Elimelech’s essence.  There were also multiple Israeli groups.  Seventy high school girls from an Ulpana in Pisgat Ze’ev.  Another group of religious high school girls – two buses strong – from Ramat Gan.  The Darchei Binah Girls Seminary was here with two double decker buses.  Charles E. Smith school from Maryland was here with perhaps a hundred students.  A Rabbi from Colombia was eating with us in the same kosher restaurant with his group of families.  There was a member of the Abuchatzera family of Rabbis with a following, the boys from the Yeshiva High School in Gavat Shmuel who had met Mr. Buchman in Maijdanek, and many others.

All these different types of Jews bonded and united in Cracow.  It is remarkable.

On Motzei Shabbat, during dinner some of the group members shared feelings that they had from the trip.  Aryeh Strobel pointed out that Cracow was the town of Rav Moshe Isserles.  Rav Isserless was the premier Halachic authority and decisor for Ashkenazic Jewry.  He was a man who united the Jewish nation.  He had prepared a work of Jewish law.  It was a monumental effort. It was comprehensive.  It contained all the laws.  Yet he heard that a contemporary, living in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Caro had just printed a similar work, Code of Jewish Law.  Rabbi Caro was Sefardic.  The laws he recorded followed the Sefardic tradition.  Rabbi Isserless put aside his book.  He did not publish it.  He wanted all Jews to use a single book.  He wanted us to unite around one text.  He turned his book into a collection of notes and glosses that he appended to the work of Rabbi Caro.  He united Jews.  To this day he unites Jews.  In his city, near his grave, Jews of very different stripes davened together, learned from each other, and felt the power of being one.

Shabbos was uplifting; Friday was poignant.  On Friday we visited the Birkenau death camp and the Auschwitz 1 camp.  Some of the barracks at Auschwitz have been turned into museums and displays.  I was moved deeply by barrack 21.  It has the book of names.  The book of names is a floor length sized book with the name of every Holocaust victim known by name to Yad Vashem.  It has millions of names, their birth place and location of death; there is no room for any more information.  I looked up my bubby’s family name, Mermelstein.  There were multiple entries.  The book contains millions of names.  Seeing it was staggering.

On another floor in that building there was a floor dedicated to the children who were killed. 1.5 million children were killed in the Holocaust by the Germans.  The loss is incomprehensible.  Each of those children could have lived, created a family, learned Torah, and loved the Jewish nation.  The loss is overwhelming.  An artist found drawings that children made during the war.  Some drew them in ghettos, others in concentration camps, and some in the death camps.  The artist recreated the pencil art and drew the drawings on the wall. I was touched by the words written by David Grossman of Israel about the display:

“They were mere children when they saw, in the flesh, how people, families, and humanity itself were torn to shreds.

Most of the children who perished left no trace.  Very few of their diaries, letters, and drawings survived.

The artist, Michal Rovner has brought back to life, line by line, drawings made by Jewish children during the years of war and annihilation.  Fragile yet strong, these pencil drawings glimmer from the walls of the barrack, signals sent to us from the childhood swept away and lost in the Shoah.

In a mixture of childhood innocence and bitter disillusion, the children bequeathed us memory and testimony, preserving fragments of the most horrible picture ever devised by man.”

The etchings were simple.  The messages macabre.  A child had etched the gallows of Auschwitz with three victims hanging from them.  Another had drawn a squadron of fighter planes, perhaps hoping for the allies to bomb the Nazis to the netherworld they belonged in.

When we went out of Auschwitz we stopped at the  Appellplatz.  This was the place where the Nazis would make the inmates stand for hours during roll call.  The gallows the child drew still stand there.  I told the group a story I had read in the book, Soldiers and Slaves by Roger Cohen.  Mordechai Hauer was deported to Auschwitz from Goncz, Hungary in the summer of 1944.  He was sent to Auschwitz 1 and put to work in the mines outside the camp.  In the camp he met Reb Yankel, a Chassidic Rebbe.  Reb Yankel had a siddur in the camp.  He was always davening.  He would offer the siddur to Mordechai.  Another inmate in the barracks was Israel Katz.  Israel was from Kattowice, Poland.  He had been religious before the war.  The war had turned him against our faith.  He blamed Emunah for Jewish passivity.  He was angry with the Rabbis who had discouraged Aliyah.  He rejected reliance on a Higher Power.  He wanted to fight.  He wanted to run away to Palestine.  He wanted Jews to rise up and take destiny into the own hands.  Israel would argue bitterly with Reb Yankel.  Reb Yankel would listen patiently and explain, “Your pain is understandable.  God has plans beyond our understanding. It is for us to have faith and serve Him.  Against our will we were born; against our will we will die.  While we are on earth we must serve Him.”  The allies bombed the area near Auschwitz.  Israel realized that during bombing raids the camp was less protected.  All the guards would go and hide.  He decided to make a run for it.  During one bombing raid he rolled a barrel between the electrified barb wire strings and he crawled out of the camp.  The next morning at the roll call the Nazis made terrible threats about the escape of Israel Katz.  Two weeks later they called everyone  to the Appellplatz.  Israel Katz had been caught on the outside.  He had been turned in by Poles.  He had succeeded in knifing two German soldiers.  Now the Germans made all the Jews come out to see how they treated those who had the gumption to rebel against them.

The Germans brought Katz to the gallows.  They read the charges against him, “escape from camp, attacking two Germans,” and then the sentence, “death by hanging.”  Katz, despite being only eighteen years old. stared straight ahead.  He did not flinch.  He did not tremble.  The Nazis called for a volunteer to kill Katz.  Hans, a German Kapo, stepped forward.  The rope was put around the neck of Katz.  He was hung.  A moment before he died he called out, “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish nation lives.”  The commandadt warned the inmates that if another man escaped, a hundred prisoners would hang.  He ordered the body to stay on the gallows all day to ensure that all saw what had been done.  He ordered that no one gather near the body to say a prayer for the dead.

The body was on the gallows all day.  At evening, Reb Yankel asked Mordechai Hauer and others to join him.  “Katz died for us,” he said.  “We need to give him respect.  Let us go out and daven Maariv near his corpse.  Mordechai will say the Kaddish for him.”  The other inmates were afraid.  They feared the Nazis would kill them.  Reb Yankel argued with them, “If you see the Nazis come you can run away.  How can the command of a human being, the commander of the camp, be more powerful than the commands of Hashem, the king of all Kings?  We must honor the martyr.”  It was dusk.  Snow was falling. Ten Jews gathered near the gallows in the Appellplatz to pray Maariv.  Hauer then saw two SS men walking towards them. He and his friends ran off.  Reb Yankel was immersed in Shemona Esrei.  The SS man saw Reb Yankel. “Idiot.  What are you doing here?”  Reb Yankel ignored him and continued to pray. The SS man took out his revolver and shot Reb Yankel dead.  His body fell to the ground.

Mordechai Hauer relates that a few minutes after the SS man left he went out and said Kaddish for both his mentors, Israel Katz and Mordechai Hauer.

Yisgadel Veyiskadeish Shmei Rabba…

The Shoah taught that Jews have a deep uniting factor.  The angry young Zionist taught the Chassidic Rabbi courage.  He taught him to risk all for ideals and to ignore the wicked orders of the Nazis.  The Chassidic Rabbi taught all about faith.  He taught that we are in the hands of the Almighty and that we are to continue to serve Him no matter the difficulty.  The Chassidic Rabbi appreciated the holiness of the Zionist and risked his life to give him honor.

In Cracow, in 2017 Jewish unity came alive.

We davened in the Isaac shul.  It has very high ceilings, perhaps fifty feet high.  In this shul there were Satmer Chasssidim and Vizhnitz Chassidim, young Israeli teens about to be drafted for military service with kippot srugot clipped smartly on their heads, and multiple other groups.  There is a legend about the shul.  A man by the name of Isaac kept having a recurring dream about a bridge in Prague.  In the dream he was repeatedly told that under the bridge there was a treasure.  He traveled to Prague.  He saw the bridge.  There were soldiers near it, guarding it.  He tried one night to dig for the treasure.  A soldier caught him.

“What are you doing?”

“I intend no harm ..sir…I saw this bridge in my dream, there is a treasure underneath it.  I am digging for the treasure.  If there is anything here, I will give you half of it.”

“Fool, I had a dream that in Cracow in a fellow Isaac’s home there is treasure buried under his stove.  You think I am going to Cracow?”

Isaac left Prague and returned to Cracow; he dug under his stove.  He found the treasure.  From that treasure he built the shul.  Sometimes we travel far to discover that there is a treasure buried in our own home.  All we need to do it look deeply within ourselves and we will find the treasure.  We traveled to Poland and discovered the treasure of the Jewish soul. The little piece that unites Chassidim and Misnagdim, Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Jews of the exile with Israeli teens singing “עם הנצח לא מפחד לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה,” “An eternal nation does not fear, does not fear a long road!”

Stephanie Stifelman brought it all home for me.  She told me a special story.  On Friday night she needed some directions.  She asked one of the girls in the shul for help.  Due to the differences of language, despite her new friend’s best efforts, they simply could not communicate.  Then the davening started. All opened the same siddur.  They sang the same tune.  “It was really cool to see that even though we could not talk to each other we all could daven together.” Am Yisrael Chai!


The end of Shabbos was unforgettable.  Shabbos was filled with unity.  It was illuminating.  After Shabbos we traveled to where the Cracow Ghetto had been.  We heard stories of wretched depravity, how the Nazis deported tens of thousands to death centers.  Then they compressed eighteen thousand into space that had previously only contained three thousand.  We heard of how Nazis would throw furniture out of windows and sometimes babies as well.  We heard of Amon Goeth y”sh.  We heard how he enslaved Helen Hirsch and beat her terribly while she had to serve as a slave to him and live in his basement.  We heard about how Goeth would walk out to his porch in the morning, pick up his rifle, and then shoot Jews, just to satisfy his sadism or to encourage faster labor.  We saw the memorial that has been constructed.  Seventy empty chairs fill a square.

One of the participants asked why there are seventy chairs.  Why seventy? Perhaps it is because there are seventy aspects of Torah interpretation, שבעים פנים לתורה.  The Nazis sought to wipe us out.  They wanted to extinguish Torah but we are still here. Torah is still being learned.  More Jews learn Daf Yomi today than in the days of the Rav of Lublin, Rav Meir Shapiro, who proposed the concept.

Rav Olshin pointed out that in Berlin the Holocaust Memorial has 2711 slabs of stone.  Why that number? The artist said that was the amount of stones he was able to squeeze into the space given to him.  Rav Shlomo Riskin had another thought.  The memorial is right near Hitler’s bunker.  When the American soldiers went through the bunker they found that Hitler had a volume of tractate Pesachim there.  That volume was given to Rav Herzog, the first chief rabbi of Israel.  Hitler wanted to wipe out the Talmud.  There are 2711 pages of Talmud.  There might be a message despite what they have attempted; our memorial is the fact that we have Gemara and Torah.  We live.  We study. Forever.

We said Havdalah under train tracks.  Seventy years ago on those tracks Jews were led away.  Now we sing.  We sing and dance with our faith that rises through the ashes and lives…