Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Tenth of Tevet

On the tenth of this month, Tevet, we observe a day of mourning in memory of the siege of Jerusalem that we learn about in the Book of Kings. That siege, led by Nebuchadnezzar, was the first in the series of events that led to the destruction of the First Holy Temple. We fast on this day and in Israel Kaddish, the prayer for the deceased, is recited for people whose date or place of death is unknown. Therefore, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has designated it as a day of remembrance for those who died in Holocaust. Although my father’s family all came from Germany, Divine Providence, along with some helpful connections, enabled all of them to escape the Nazis before 1939.

Still, we have our family legends, the most important one being the story of the Sefer Torah my Uncle Fred rescued the morning following the Krystallnacht.  I first heard the story from my father who was already in America when it happened. His version is the one I used for my Bat Mitzvah speech in the Reform temple in Wichita, Kansas where I grew up.

I told the story of how a neighbor had warned my grandparents of the upcoming attack and warned the Jews of Jesberg, the small village where my father’s family had lived for many generations. Everyone went to the forest to hide and the next day, my Uncle Fred, who was then nine, found a Torah scroll in the rubble of the synagogue. He rescued it and it was brought with him and his parents when they came to America the following month.
My speech reflected my admiration for my uncle stating, my uncle was willing to sacrifice his life to save this Torah. Young as he was he knew how important it was and what it meant to our people. All of us will have to make sacrifices at one time or another, too; not to save the scroll, but what is inside it: the basis of our Jewish religion, the Law of G-d, our way of life.
It continued with ideas of how I could keep the spirit of the Torah alive, thank you to my parents and teachers, and closed with a commitment. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that my Uncle did not save the Torah scroll in vain. 
My uncle did not hear my speech. He lived on the east coast and my cousin had been born just a week earlier so he did not come to my Bat Mitzvah. I always thought of him as a hero but never asked him how he felt as a nine-year-old boy in Nazi Germany rescuing a Torah scroll. Just recently I requested his version of the story.
Not every German was a Nazi and an anti-Semite: the son of a neighbor who had the only car in the village and who drove some of the Nazis had heard what was planned and warned my parents.  By this time there were only six Jewish families left in Jesberg and my parents told them.  All left their homes that night to hide in the fields except us.  My father still had difficulty walking [following a stroke]so we went to a house still occupied by a Jewish family who had recently sold it so we thought that we would be safe there and that turned out to be the case.  We heard the mob as they ransacked our little Synagogue, destroyed the one remaining Jewish store and then went on to several homes including ours but not the one we were in.  The devastation we found upon our return to our home in the morning was indeed sad.  Furniture had been damaged, glasses and dishes broken, beds soaked with urine and they also left behind a cat-of-nine tails which really scared me. However, I was also angry and I decided to go by myself to the Synagogue to find my wimpel which I wanted to take with us when we left for America.  The Synagogue was in terrible condition.  Prayer books, shawls and Torah Scrolls had been piled on the floor and a fire had been set which only scorched some of the items before it went out.  Looking through the rubble, I found a Torah Scroll which had been torn apart at a seam but was otherwise undamaged.  I went home to get our hand wagon and brought both pieces home.  About a month later this scroll was packed with the rest of our belongings and shipped to Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It could not be used being torn apart at a seam so it remained unused until the 1950’s when my brother, Walter, brought it to his Temple in Wichita, Kansas.  There it was repaired to make it kosher and usable.
No matter how many times I heard the story I find it amazing that a young boy, nine years old, who had lived under the Nazi regime already for five years, still had the strength of his beliefs to rescue a Torah scroll in broad daylight. He did not find his wimpel, the long sash that my grandmother had embroidered for him. He had been swaddled with it at his brit and later it was used as a binding for the Torah scroll. It was lost forever but he did find the Torah scroll that became a family legend. I am so thankful to my Uncle Fred for his rescue efforts so many years ago.  It was that scroll that helped influence me to choose my path of life as an observant Jew living in Eretz Yisroel.
Krystallnacht: a major pogrom against the Jews in Nazi Germany on November 9th, 1938


Cindy said...

Now it is clear how you connected to so strongly to Judaism. I guess Hashem makes sure that as Jews we continue to stay on our toes and there is no slacking....

Ester said...

Yes, Cindy,my family had a strong influence on me. Even the most secular Jew is only a few generations from observant grandparents or great-grandparents. Our heritage is there for anyone who wants to connect.