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Tomorrow is Yom Hashoah Ugvurah, Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day. As I was contemplating what to say about it this Shabbos I read about something that gave me pause. As Jews all over the world sat down to begin their Seders and celebrate Passover this year, the Jewish Museum in Berlin opened a very strange new exhibit called, “Jew in a Box.” The exhibit promised to “showcase Jews,” providing, “The Whole Truth…everything you always wanted to know about Jews.” From 4 to 6pm every day through August, museum-goers will line up to pose questions to a Jew sitting in a Plexiglas box.A diverse group of volunteer Jews from the United States, Britain, Germany, Israel, and elsewhere work shifts. It’s now one of the most popular attractions at the museum.

The timing of this exhibition in Germany takes on a new level of irony, coming as it does, with Passover celebrating the freeing of the Jews from oppression and genocide—given the not too distant Nazi German history of brutally killing 6 million Jews.

What does it say about Germany today that in order to see a Jew you’ve got to go to a museum? Hitler was somewhat successful in making Germany Judenrein. There are virtually no Jews in Germany today except for some Russian immigrants who get generous benefits just for living there and some Israeli businessmen.

What do you think about this exhibit? Would you be a volunteer for it? I have to say that when I heard about it, it didn’t sit well with me. In fact it was disturbing. Think about it: a Jew and a box and Germany. What image comes to mind? A Jew in a grave or a coffin! 

Upon further thought, it reminded me of how many ways the Nazis loved to make Jews into a circus sideshow by cutting off their beards and payos, by laughing as they forced them to eat pork or spit on a Torah scroll, by making them watch as they tossed their babies into the air only to catch them with a bayonet. It seemed to me, as one reporter remarked, “This exhibit is an offensive form of kitsch performance art that dehumanizes Jews.”

“Why don’t they give him a banana and a glass of water,” asks Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany,” and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?”

For older Germans, the “A Jew in the Box” is reminiscent of Adolf Eichmann—chief creator and executor of the “Final Solution” of the Jews, who was put on trial in Israel 1961 for crimes against humanity. At his trial, he sat in a glass box for his own protection.

Journalist Henryk Broder compares the exhibit to the German carnival Black African shows of late 19th and early 20th-century in which people from foreign lands were displayed like animals. Broder adds that if something along these lines were done with Muslims in the Jewish Museum, the Muslims would burn the place down.

A Jew and a box! It brought to mind a story sent to me by Dr. Stephen Natelson and posted in numerous places online. It’s the story told by Rabbi Yosef Wallis, director of Arachim of Israel, describing in an interview to Project Witness how his parents met:

While he was in Dachau, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at my father, Judah Wallis. He caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he was disturbed to discover a pair of tefillin. Judah was very frightened because he knew that were he to be caught carrying tefillin, he would be put to death instantly. So he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.

In the morning, just before the roll call, while still in his bunkhouse, he would put on the tefillin. [One morning], unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered him to remove the tefillin, noted the number on Judah’s arm, and ordered him to go straight to the roll call.

At the roll call, in front of thousands of silent Jews, the officer called out Judah’s number and he had no choice but to step forward. The German officer waved the tefillin in the air and said, “Dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these.”

Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was placed around his neck. Before he was hanged, the officer said in a mocking tone, “Dog, what is your last wish?”

“To wear my tefillin one last time,” Judah replied.

The officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the tefillin…It is hard for us to picture this Jew with a noose around his neck, wearing tefillin on his head and arm—but that was the scene that the entire camp was forced to watch, as they awaited the impending hanging of the Jew who had dared to break the rule against wearing tefillin. Even women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, forced to watch this horrible sight.

As Judah turned to watch the silent crowd, he saw tears in many people’s eyes. Even at that moment, as he was about to be hanged, he was shocked. Jews were crying! How was it possible that they still had tears left to shed? And for a stranger? Where were those tears coming from? Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, “Yidden, don’t cry. With tefillin on, I am the victor. Don’t you understand, I am the winner!”

The German officer understood the Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah, “You dog, you think you are the winner? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get another kind of death.”

            Judah, my father, was taken from the stool and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and 2 rocks were placed on his arms. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head—the head on which he had dared to position his tefillin. The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”

Judah’s response was, “No, I won’t give you the pleasure.”

At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses, after which he would have been burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag, so people didn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness fully, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles, and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out under his own power. 2 months later he was liberated.

During the hanging and beating episode, a 17-year-old girl had been watching the events from the women’s side of the fence. After liberation, she made her way to the men’s camp and found Judah. She walked over to him and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I don’t want to be alone any more. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?” The rest is history.

Now that you’ve heard the story, let me tell you—as Paul Harvey would put it—the rest of the story (Chabad News 8/25/12):

A 95-year-old man, Mr. Lasky…could not believe his eyes when he read the story of Judah Wallis [last year]…He called the office [of Chabad News who also published the story] and asked for the phone number of Judah Wallis’s son, Rabbi Yosef Wallis. When asked why he wanted the number, Lasky stated, “I was in Dachau, together with this Judah Wallis. However, I never knew that he survived the beating. I always wanted to thank him for letting me put on his tefillin in Dachau. Now, at least, I can thank his son.” 

[During that phone call to his son] he said, “I always had one complaint against your father…that is, he always hurried me to finish and take off the tefillin…and for good reason. He had to hide the tefillin from the sight of the Nazis and other people at camp were waiting to wear his tefillin.”

…Rabbi Wallis commented, “Until now, I never found anyone to validate my father's story. Now I have an eye witness. The circle of history has now come full circle.”

Judah was the Jew put on display to be ridiculed and murdered just because he had a little box of tefillin on his head and another on his arm. How inspiring it was for Mr. Lasky and his fellow inmates—and now for us—when he called out, “Yidden, don’t cry. With tefillin on, I am the victor.” With those boxes tied to his arm and head he felt tied to Gd—so much so that his last wish was to put on the tefillin one last time. If Judah could put on his tefillin under such conditions, how can we not show our love for Gd by putting on our tefillin?

A Jew and a box! I know it’s the Jewish Museum that houses this exhibit and no malice was intended, but it does forces us think about anti-Semitism in Germany and throughout Europe today. Recently I read the story of an 18-year-old Jewish girl in Germany named Ilana. She recalls that in grade school, other students would yell, “Jewish pig,” or, “Hey, Jew, bombed a few Palestinians yet?” She was also beaten and attacked with bricks!

Ilana’s Ukrainian grandparents, whose own parents barely survived the concentration camps, urged their granddaughter to show some restraint. Not everyone has to know that you are Jewish, her grandmother would tell her. But Ilana shakes her head: “No.” She tells everyone that she is a Jew. “And why not,” she asks, “here in Germany, of all places?”

Anti-Semitism is still socially acceptable in Germany. Rabbi Daniel Alter from Berlin notes that, “Insults and name-calling, even physical violence…that’s completely normal in Germany…at all levels of society.” He quotes research which shows that almost 1 out of 3 Germans is anti-Semitic. Armed security guards and security checkpoints watch over Jewish life in Berlin; they stand guard outside the synagogues and the Jewish school. I saw it when I was there. Alter now wears his yarmulke hidden underneath a black woolen hat since 4 Muslim youths last year beat him so badly he was taken to the hospital.

There is no fight against Islamic anti-Semitism in Europe today. If a non-Muslim bookseller wanted to sell the worst anti-Semitic literature like,The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in Paris, Berlin or Brussels, he would be arrested. If a Muslim bookseller wanted to do the same thing, he can, without risking anything. If a French or German television station decided to broadcast anti-Semitic programs, it would be shut down and cause a scandal. Islamic TV channels broadcast anti-Semitic programs all the time that attract a wide audience in Europe, and nobody dares talk about it.

Today, Jews who can, leave Europe. Those who do not have the means to leave know they must be extremely careful. It’s dangerous again to be a Jew in Europe. And so the last thing we need now is a “Jew in a Box!” Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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