Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



69 years ago, Jan Karski, an official of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, met with Jewish leaders surreptitiously in Poland and was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. He said to them: I am here to help if I can. I will be in London soon and in a position to obtain audiences with the Allied must give me your official message to the outside world. You are the leaders of the Jewish underground. What do you want me to say?

            They hesitated for a moment. The Bund leader spoke: We want you to tell the Polish and Allied governments...that we are helpless in the face of the German criminals...The Germans are not trying to enslave us as they have other people; we are being systematically murdered...Our entire people will be destroyed...3 million Polish Jews are doomed...Place this responsibility on the shoulders of the Allies. Let not a single leader of the nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland and could not be helped except from the outside. (Nora Levin, The Holocaust, p.339)

This plea, as well as countless other desperate cries for help as we know, fell on deaf ears. The Allies could not waste even a few bombs to save Jewish blood—bombing the walls of the ghettos or the crematoria or even the railroad tracks leading to them. They were not worth it! For many of us, our pain and anguish and anger over the betrayal and the loss to our people has still not subsided—even after all these years.

But there are others—amazingly enough, many Jews among them—who just can’t understand why rabbis and educators keep bringing up something that happened so long ago. “Look to the future and to the State of Israel,” they say. It seems that some of us have a hard time reliving the horrors of the Holocaust. So why remember the Holocaust? Why bother rehashing what is now past history?

This year marks 70 years that the Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler in 1942 ordered the construction of the 1st extermination camps. And so we must remember the Holocaust because of the fundamental question that it raises about us: not “Where was Gd?”—that is a good question for another time—but, “Where was mankind?” Where was America when the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto cried out for help or the passengers of the SS St. Louis off the shores of Miami? Why did we allow, along with England, France, and the rest of the world, countless opportunities for rescue to slip through our hands? Why was the Red Cross—the international agency for relief—silent in the face of atrocity? Why was the Vatican silent? No, the question for us is not, “Where was Gd?” But “Where was mankind?”

We remember the Holocaust so that we can take a good look at ourselves and remember how low the level of human dignity can sink. We remember the Holocaust because, for the majority of the victims, there is no one to recite Kaddish. We remember the Holocaust because it’s important for all Jews to share in memory. We remember the Holocaust because we see how misused this term and the term “genocide” have become in our everyday speech—how PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, can compare chickens slaughtered at factory farms to Jews annihilated in Nazi death camps.

And most of all now we must remember the Holocaust because Jan Karski’s pleas to the Allies that fell on deaf ears almost 70 years ago seem too familiar in our time. No matter how we scream about Iran’s blatant threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, the world indifferently plays games with Iran—opening up yet another round of talks that they know will go nowhere while Iran gets closer and closer to her nuclear goals. It’s not that the world doesn’t get or even appreciate the threat of Iran. It’s that helping the Jewish State now—as was helping European Jewry during WWII—is not convenient.

Ben Stein, in a piece in “The American Spectator” (4/5/12) writes about the recent terrorism in Toulouse, France:  

The gunman who killed a rabbi and his 2 children in front of a Jewish school…a few weeks ago chased his 4th victim, an 8-year-old girl, into the school playground. He cornered her against a fence and grabbed her by her hair. Then he pointed a .45 calibre automatic at her head and tried to shoot her but the gun jammed. So he took a 9mm automatic out of his pocket and shot her point blank in the head, killing her instantly.

The decent people of the world are right to be horrified about this latest example of Jew hatred and murder. But let’s bear this in mind. Europeans and other persons have loved to kill Jews for a long time. During the roughly 2,000 days of World War II in Europe, the Nazis and their many, many local helpers killed an average of 3,000 Jews each and every day—the vast majority of them women and children, all of them civilians…

If you wonder why the Jewish state of Israel believes that it is in deadly peril from an Iranian nuclear bomb, just look at history. People who truly hate Jews, who believe that Jews are not human or are the spawn of the devil, will use any means they can to kill Jews. Questions of morality or retaliation do not enter into the matter at all. The Nazis were still using every tool at their disposal to murder every Jew in their grasp just days before the Reich collapsed…

History has shown that the Jews can only depend upon themselves…Why would Israel think Obama would go to war for Israel?

If you wonder why Israel is so deathly afraid about an Iranian bomb, think of that hand of the Toulouse gunman holding the 8-year-old Jewish girl by her hair and calmly shooting her in the head. Think of the hand of Ahmadinejad pressing a button to destroy Tel Aviv. Think of the Nazis’ industrial machine killing 3,000 Jews a day while the world did nothing. Think if it were your children under the gun. Think and remember.

If we have learned anything from the Holocaust, we have learned to take our enemies at their word. That when Hitler threatened to exterminate the Jews, he meant it. And now when Ahmadinejad threatens to exterminate the Jewish State, he means it. Bibi Netanyahu, in a Holocaust memorial address the other day, said the following:

            I know that there are those who…prefer that we not speak of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. They say that such language, even if true, only sows fear and panic. I ask, have these people lost all faith in the people of Israel? Do they think that this nation, which has overcome every danger, lacks the strength to confront this new threat?

…Those who dismiss Iran’s threats as exaggerated or as mere idle posturing have learned nothing from the Holocaust. But we should not be surprised. There have always been those among us who prefer to mock those who tell uncomfortable truths than squarely face the truth themselves. That is how Zev Jabotinsky was received when he warned the Jews of Poland of the looming Holocaust. This is what he said in 1938, in Warsaw: “It is already THREE years that I am calling upon you, Polish Jewry, who are the crown of World Jewry. I continue to warn you incessantly that a catastrophe is coming closer. I became grey and old in these years, my heart bleeds, that you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit its all-consuming lava…I see that you are not seeing this because you are immersed and sunk in your daily worries… Listen to me in this twelfth hour: In the name of G-d! Let anyone of you save himself, as long as there is still time, and time there is very little.”

Zev Jabotinsky was a prophet who calls out to us just assuredly as he called out to Polish Jews, pre-Holocaust, about not ignoring the existential threats right in front of us.

Yaffa Eliach, in her book, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, tells the story of the Bluzhover Rebbe (p.3-4), Rabbi Israel Spira, in the Janowska concentration camp. Let me read some of it to you:

It was a dark, cold night in the Janowska Road Camp. Suddenly, a stentorian shout pierced the air: “You are all to evacuate the barracks immediately and report to the vacant lot. Anyone remaining inside will be shot on the spot!”

Pandemonium broke out in the barracks. People pushed their way to the doors while screaming the names of friends and relatives. In a panic-stricken stampede, the prisoners ran in the direction of the big open field.

Exhausted, trying to catch their breath, they reached the field. In the middle were 2 huge pits. Suddenly, with their last drop of energy, the inmates realized where they were rushing, on that cursed dark night in Janowska.

Once more, the cold, healthy voice roared in the night: “Each of you dogs who values his miserable life and wants to cling to it must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve—ra-ta-ta-ta-ta.”

Imitating the sound of a machine gun, the voice trailed off into the night followed by a wild, coarse laughter. It was clear to the inmates that they would all end up in the pits. Even at the best of times it would have been impossible to jump over them, all the more so on that cold dark night in Janowska. The prisoners standing at the edge of the pits were skeletons, feverish from disease and starvation, exhausted from slave labor and sleepless nights…

Among the thousands of Jews on that field in Janowska was the Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira. He was standing with a friend, a freethinker from a large Polish town whom the rabbi had met in the camp. A deep friendship had developed between the 2.

“Spira, all of our efforts to jump over the pits are in vain. We only entertain the Germans and their collaborators, the Askaris. Let’s sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence,” said the friend to the rabbi.

“My friend,” said the rabbi, as they were walking in the direction of the pits, “man must obey the will of Gd. If it was decreed from heaven that pits be dug and we be commanded to jump, pits will be dug and jump we must. And if, Gd forbid, we fail and fall into the pits, we will reach the World of Truth a second later, after our attempt. So, my friend, we must jump.”

The rabbi and his friend were nearing the edge of the pits; the pits were rapidly filling up with bodies. The rabbi glanced down at his feet, the swollen feet of a 53-year-old Jew ridden with starvation and disease. He looked at his young friend, a skeleton with burning eyes. As they reached the pit, the rabbi closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful whisper, “We are jumping!” When they opened their eyes, they found themselves standing on the other side of the pit.

“Spira, we are here, we are here, we are alive!” the friend repeated over and over again, while warm tears streamed from his eyes. “Spira, for your sake, I am alive; indeed, there must be a Gd in heaven. Tell me, Rebbe, how did you do it?”

“I was holding on to my ancestors. I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory,” said the rabbi as his eyes searched the black skies above. “Tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?”

“I was holding on to you,” replied the rabbi’s friend.

The theme of this year’s Holocaust commemoration is “My Brother’s Keeper—Jewish Solidarity during the Holocaust.” The truth is, the only way any of the survivors made it out the death camps was because they held on to each other—each one held on to someone else. In the face of an indifferent world, it seems the only way the Jewish people and the Jewish State will survive today is if we hold on to each other and together we not allow the world to forget what happened 70 years ago when Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler created the death camps. The Nazis failed to destroy the Jews and, Gd willing, Iran will fail as well. Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people will live. Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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