Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



It’s becoming harder and harder for me to speak about the Holocaust. The older I get, it seems, the more I feel the pain. Unlike the rest of the world that not only would prefer to forget, but also, in the most ugly and offensive manner, it intentionally dismisses Israel, the Jewish State, as being Nazi-like in its treatment of Palestinian Arabs. Israel has provided the Palestinians with education, water, electricity, jobs—a standard of life far superior to any in the Arab world. How do they show their appreciation? They launch tens of thousands of missiles at Israel; they dig tunnels to commit acts of terror; they blow up busses and randomly stab innocent young and old on the streets. And the world says it’s the Jew’s fault because it doesn’t give the Palestinians more! The pain over the Holocaust intensifies in me every time I read how successful the enemies of the Jews are in using Nazi propaganda tactics against us.

But I digress. Regardless of the pain, Yom Hashoah Ugvurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day comes around every year and must be commemorated. This year it was this past Thursday. What do I for this day? Among other things, I now look for inspirational stories filled with hope that mitigates the pain—and there are many such Holocaust stories. Let me share 3 with you today—each a sermon in itself.

Elmer Bendiner was a navigator in a B-17 bomber during WW II. He tells the story in his book, The Fall of Fortresses, of a World War II bombing run over Kassel, Germany, and the unexpected result of a direct hit on their gas tanks:

          Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi anti-aircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20 millimeter shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot, Bohn Fawkes, told me it was not quite that simple. On the morning following the raid, Bohn had gone down to ask our crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of unbelievable luck.

          The crew chief told Bohn that not just one shell, but 11, had been found in the gas tanks. 11 unexploded shells where only one was sufficient to blast us out of the sky. It was as if the sea had been parted for us. A miracle, I thought.

          Even after so much time, so awesome an event leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from Bohn. The shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused. When the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless, but not all empty. One contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was a scrawl in Czech, a note that read: “This is all we can do for you now...Using Jewish slave labor is never a good idea.”

Can you imagine the courage of those Jewish slaves as they found a way to defy their Nazi taskmasters?

My next story is not about Jews, but about Christians. No, not about righteous Gentiles who helped saved Jews, but about what one group of German Christians did 20 years after the Holocaust. A group of German Christians arrived in Israel seeking to live their lives alongside the Jews with the intention of helping to usher in the redemption. The 800 members of Kibbutz Beit-El have become an integral part of the city of Zichron Yaakov, the lives and fate of its members intermingled with the nation of Israel.

For many years Israelis suspected the group of German Christians of being missionaries with a hidden agenda to convert Jews. Time and familiarity brought down the walls of distrust. Today, Kibbutz Beit-El is the largest private employer in the city and its members are fully accepted by their Jewish neighbors.

With almost prophetic vision, in 1977 the members of Beit El taught themselves engineering and began to build air-filtration systems to protect against poison gas attacks. Their initiative was partly due to a belief that the War of Gog and Magog in the Bible that will precede the coming of the Messiah will involve chemical warfare.

During the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein threatened to use chemical weapons and nerve gas in the missiles he fired at Israel. Suddenly, these filtration systems were very much in demand and a new industry was born. This nuclear, biological and chemical system is the only one made in Israel to protect against a very real threat.

Stefan Link—one of the original members—looks back on the years with a quiet joy in their spiritual accomplishments in Israel. “We are 52 years in Zichron. If I look back to ‘63, we came because we saw that it is a great gift for us to be with the Jews. We came here without any plans or expectations. We knew that whoever blesses this nation gets blessed. And we feel that we have been blessed.”

It’s amazing, if you think about it, that German Christians are building systems to protect Israel from genocidal chemical attacks—a far cry from the Zyklon-b chemical showers and ovens of Auschwitz that killed millions of Jews. The tikun (spiritual repair) aspect of this just astounding!

My last story is also about the aftermath of the Holocaust. It’s a story about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, and it takes place during his many travels spreading his light and music. On one of his flights, Shlomo was pleasantly surprised to see a stewardess whose name tag read “Cathy”—not a very Jewish name—davening (praying) from a siddur (a Jewish prayer book) in the back of the plane. He waited until she finished and asked, “I see that you’re praying from a siddur, are you Jewish?”

          Cathy replied, “My parents are not Jewish but ever since I can remember, I was attracted to Judaism. When I grew older I studied with an Orthodox Rabbi and converted. As you see, I now lead an observant life and keep all the commandments.”

          One of the passengers signaled for her attention and so the stewardess had to excuse herself.  Later she approached Shlomo and told him of a dilemma she was having: “I see by the way you’re dressed that you’re probably a rabbi. Maybe you can help me. Recently I met a Jewish young man and he proposed. We very much want to get married but his parents are adamantly opposed because I’m a convert. They threatened to cut him off and sever all ties with him if he goes through with this. He’s heartbroken and I fear he’ll call off the wedding. Can you help me?”

          “Give me their phone number and yours and I’ll see what I can do.”

Shlomo later called the boy’s parents and the conversation did not go over very well. In fact, the parents were furious at Shlomo for attempting to intervene. The more Shlomo tried to defend the merits of the girl the further enraged the father became. It got so bad at one point he yelled into the phone, “Know that were are Holocaust survivors and only over my dead body will I allow my son to marry a gentile!” Shlomo tried to explain that she’s not a Gentile; she’s an observant Jew—more observant than his is. The Torah commands us 36 times to love the convert. Why should she suffer because there were Nazis who killed Jews? But it was to no avail, and the last thing Shlomo heard was the father slamming the phone down.

Shlomo immediately called Cathy to confirm her worst fears—that his attempt at mitigation had met with utter failure. As he dialed, Reb Shlomo regretted being the bearer of such bad tidings and worried over shattering the dream of this poor girl’s last hopes. However, she wasn’t home and her father picked up the phone. Shlomo told him about what had just transpired. Much to Shlomo’s chagrin her father became just as upset at him as the boy’s father had been and gave Reb Shlomo another earful: “They don’t want our daughter, so we don’t want them!”

Eventually, Shlomo’s genuine concern for his daughter deeply touched the father and he told him: “I want to tell you something that my daughter doesn’t know—a secret that I’ve never revealed to anyone. My wife and I are not really Christian. We are both Jewish—Holocaust survivors. We did not want our daughter to go through what we went through, and so we pretend to be Christian. We don’t know what may happen in America someday. So let her think she’s Christian.”

          “If so,” exclaimed Reb Shlomo excitedly, “your daughter is actually Jewish from birth and can marry the boy without any objection from his parents! This is wonderful news! Can you and your wife come to my hotel room tonight at 8? I’ll invite his parents as well and, hopefully, we can settle all this.”

A few minutes after 8:00pm when the groom’s parents arrived, the father looked at Cathy’s father who was already there. They stared curiously at each other for about 20 seconds and then in almost shock Cathy’s father cried out, “YANKELE?”

          Startled the other groom’s father then shouted, “HERSHELE? You’re alive! I was sure you were dead.”

They fell into each other’s arms and cried. Everyone was stunned. A few moments later after they regained their composure they explained that before the war they were chavrusa (study partners in yeshiva). Each was certain that the other had perished. Then Yankele asked: “Do you remember how we used to dream about the future while were in the yeshiva?

          “Yes,” replied Hershele, “we told each other that when we grew up and got married we would marry our children off to each other and become one family. We forgot our vow, but Gd did not forget!”

My friends, there are 7 billion people in the world. What’s the chance something like this happening by accident—that this Cathy, born to Holocaust survivors will meet Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on a plane and he would agree to intervene with her fiancé’s family, and the father would be the long-lost chavrusa of Cathy’s father? Some may think that Gd had forgotten the Jews during the Holocaust, but Gd never forgets His people. We will never know why the Holocaust happened; but we do know that Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel live and, with Gd’s grace, will always live. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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