YOM HASHOAH 5771
Tomorrow is Yom Hashoah Ugvura, Holocaust & Heroism Day. Without much success, I thought about what new insight I could bring to you about this—the worst calamity in Jewish history—that you haven’t heard in the 66 years since the defeat of the Nazis. So instead, I decided share with you 2 Holocaust stories that you probably have not heard that have inspired me with the hope that they will inspire you as well.
Rabbi Jack Reimer recently shared with me a story I had never heard before from a writer named E. B. Daniel. The story is now found in a book, The Flag With 56 Stars by Susan Rubin. Let me read it to you:
The story took place in Mauthausen. It occurred right near the end of the war. Mauthausen was one of the worst of the concentration camps. People were burned, shot and worked to death there. And then, finally, the end of the war drew near. The guards knew that the American army would arrive momentarily and so they ran away during the night. When the people who were imprisoned in Mauthausen woke up the next morning, they found out that they were free. What should they do with their freedom? Some said: “Let us seize weapons and go after the guards who have tortured us for so long and let’s kill them.” That must have been a tempting thought. Could anyone have blamed them if they had done that? But they didn’t know where the guards had gone, and they had no weapons, and they did not have the strength to go after them. And so they didn’t do that.
Some said: let us break into the kitchen and gorge ourselves on the food that the Nazis have left behind. That must have been a tempting thought too. But most of them were wise enough to realize that they could not fill their emaciated stomachs with too much food, and that, if they did, they would become ill. And so, most of them did not do that.
Someone came up with an idea. The Americans are on the way. They will be here soon. They are bringing freedom and a future for us. Let’s greet them, and let’s show them how glad we are that they have come. That idea they accepted. They decided that they would stand at the gates of Mathausen and when the American tanks came into sight, they would cheer with whatever strength they still possessed and they would wave flags.
The only problem was that nowhere in the concentration camp could they find any flags except the Nazi flag…where could they find an American flag in Mathausen? They searched the camp and found some discarded swaths and scraps of cloth: a white one here, a red one there, a blue one here. There were a few tailors in the camp—people who had been kept alive because of their ability to sew Nazi uniforms. These tailors set to work to make an American flag. Betsy Ross herself did not work with as much fervor and as much determination as these tailors did that night. They worked all night, and by dawn they put together an American flag. It would be a way of greeting and thanking the American soldiers who were on the way.
There was only one problem. These Jews, who came from Poland, and Lithuania, and Austria and other such places knew how to sew, but they had no idea how many stripes and how many stars there were in the American flag. There was no library to consult in Mauthausen. And so they did what Jews always do when they are not sure what the right answer to a question is: they argued. One said, “I was once in America and I remember. The Stars and Stripes have 13 stripes and 13 stars, in honor of the 13 original states.” And another one said, “I remember reading it in a book: The Stars and Stripes has 56 stars, in honor of the 56 states.”
They argued back and forth, and finally the maven who was sure that the flag had 56 stars on it, in honor of the fifty-six states, won. And so, when the 1st American tanks lumbered through the gates of the camp, they were greeted by cheering Jews who presented them with a flag in honor of their liberation with 13 stripes—and 56 stars.
Colonel Richard Seibel was the officer in command of the tank corps that entered Mathausen that day. He accepted the flag graciously when it was presented to him as a gift on behalf of the prisoners of Mathausen. He was too wise a man to quibble or to correct the Jews who had worked so hard to make this flag. He simply took it from them, and said thank you. And then, he did more than that. He had the Nazi flag lowered and thrown away, and he put this flag with its 13 stripes and 56 stars over the Administration Building! And as long as he was in charge of that camp, that was the flag that flew there.
When Colonel Seibel was reassigned some time later, he took this flag with him. He considered it a gift, and a legacy, and a precious souvenir. Colonel Seibel kept this flag on display in his home for many years. When he died, this flag went to his son. And then, when the Simon Weisenthal Center was built in Los Angeles, the son donated the flag to the center. He did so because he learned that one of the people who were liberated that day at Mathausen was a man named Simon Weisenthal…
In 1991, the Simon Weisenthal Center held a banquet to honor of President George H. W. Bush for what he had done on behalf of the Jews of Ethiopia. Bush had arranged for a 24-hour cease-fire during the civil war there so that the Israeli Air Force could fly back and forth and pick up as many Jews as possible. It was called “Operation Solomon” and 15,000 Jews were rescued on that day…The son of Colonel Richard Siebel came marching in, carrying that flag with 13 stripes and 56 stars and presented it to the President of the United States as a gift from the Simon Weisenthal Center.
What’s the lesson in this story? Rabbi Reimer asks: When the Jews crawled out of the hell called Mauthausen, what did they do? They didn’t get revenge on their tormentors. They said “thank you” to the American army for having rescued them, and for having saved the civilized world from the Nazis.
What should we take away from this? Perhaps when we face difficult times—and Gd forbid it should be as difficult as that faced by the Mauthausen inmates—we should dwell, not on the horrors of what happened to us. For if we do that, it will only spoil us and sicken us. Instead, we should focus on the need to be grateful that our Hell has ended, that there were those who cared about us, and that we are now capable of beginning life again.
The 2nd story is a story about how life sometimes provides us with opportunities to find Gd and elevate our souls. If we take advantage of these opportunities, Gd will meet us half way and then carry us through. This is a true story by Moshe Kormornic (verified by Yitta Halberstam) and sent to me by my father-in-law Harold Goodman:
During the Holocaust, a large group of Polish women were rounded up to be sent to the gas chambers. As the group gathered their possessions to take with them into the camp the evil Nazi officers called out to all the villagers who were standing by watching, “Anything that these Jews leave behind you may take for yourselves, because for sure they will not be coming back to collect them!”
2 Polish women who were standing nearby saw a woman towards the back of the group, wearing a large, heavy, expensive coat. Not wanting to wait to see if others got the coat before them, they ran to the woman and knocked her to the ground, grabbed her coat and walked away. As the Jewish women were being led away, these 2 Polish women lay down the coat to divide the spoils of what was hiding inside. As they rummaged through the pockets, they discovered gold jewelry, silver candlesticks and other heirlooms, but still, as they lifted the coat it seemed heavier than it should be.
After further inspection they found a secret pocket, and hidden inside the coat was a little baby girl. Shocked at their discovery, one of the women insisted to the other, saying, “I don’t have any children, and I’m too old to have now. You take all the gold and silver and let me take the baby.” The deal was agreed and the Polish woman took her new “daughter” home to her delighted husband. They raised the Jewish girl as their own, treating her very well, but never told her anything of her history. The girl excelled in her studies and became a successful pediatrician, working in the top hospital in Poland.
After some years the girls “mother” passed away. A week after, she received a knock at the door. An old woman invited herself in and said, “I want you to know that the woman that passed away last week was not your real mother...” and she proceeded to tell her the whole story. The girl did not believe her at 1st but the old woman said to her, “When we found you, you were wearing a beautiful gold pendant with strange writing on it which must be Hebrew, I am sure that your mother kept the necklace, go and look,” and with that parting advice she left. The girl went into her “mother’s” jewelry box and found the necklace just as the woman described. She had it extended and wore it every day, but thought nothing more of her Jewish roots.
Sometime later, she went on holiday abroad and saw 2 Lubavitch boys. Seizing the opportunity she told them entire story and showed them the necklace. The boys confirmed that a Jewish name was inscribed on the necklace but did not know what to say about her status. They recommended that she send a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe explaining everything. She sent off the letter and received a speedy reply saying that it is clear from the facts that she is a Jewish girl and since she had a special talent, she should use her invaluable skills in Israel, a place in desperate need of talented pediatricians.
She took the Rebbe’s advice and moved to Israel where she approached a Beis Din who declared her Jewish. She was accepted into a hospital to work, and she met her husband and raised a family.
Some years later...When there was a terrorist attack at the Sbarro Pizza cafe in the centre of Jerusalem in August 2001, this woman was walking nearby with her husband. She told her husband to return home to the kids and she proceeded to rush to the scene where she treated the wounded and helped the injured to a hospital. When she arrived at the hospital she
met an elderly man who was in a state of shock. He was searching everywhere for his granddaughter who had become separated from him. She calmed him down and went with him to search amongst all the patients in order to find his granddaughter. Asking how she could recognize her, the frantic grandfather gave a rough description of a
gold pendant necklace that she was wearing. After searching amongst the injured, they finally found the granddaughter who was wearing the necklace. At the sight of this necklace, the pediatrician froze. She turned to the old man and said, “Where did you buy this necklace from?”
“You can’t buy such a necklace,” he responded, “I am a goldsmith and I made this necklace. Actually I made 2 identical ones for each of my daughters. This is my granddaughter from one of them, and my other daughter did not survive the war.”
...And this is how the Jewish Polish girl was reunited with her father.
Moshe Kormornic calls this “The Incredible Moving Story.” You can find it at www.shortvort.com. There are several messages on many levels in this story—about how that pintele yid, that Jewish spark in us never dies. But for me, the inspiration is that life will sometimes provide us with opportunities to find Gd and elevate our souls. If we take advantage of these opportunities, Gd will meet us half way and then carry us through. This girl did not have to pursue the mystery of the necklace. She didn’t have to write the Lubavitcher Rebbe or follow his advice and move to Israel. And she didn’t have to drop everything to help the victims of the Sbarro terrorist attack. She pursued Gd and Gd met her halfway and carried her through till she was reunited with her father.
So here you have it: 2 inspiring stories. The 1st is where the inmates of the hell of Mathausen demonstrated their gratitude with unbelievable enthusiasm in making that American flag with 13 stripes and 56 stars. And the 2nd demonstrates that even in the Jewish wasteland of Poland after WWII, the hidden hand of Gd provides opportunities for His children to find Him. Let’s be inspired from these stories to be grateful for what we have even when life is so hard and to be hopeful that Gd will always be with us and support us. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis