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(Torah Portion Devorim) Hugs!

We are now in the nine day period of mourning the destruction of our Temples. This period is also the time to recall other calamities, and pogroms including the Holocaust that befell our nation.

I would like to share a few stories told by American liberators of the concentration camps.

My earliest recollections of the Baal Tokeah – the shofar blower – in the Shul that my father was the Rabbi, was of an imposing and tall man by the name of Meyer Birnbaum. Although he was only in his forties, from the perspective of a seven years old, he looked to me very old. I remember him reciting the preliminary prayers before he blew the Shofar as a roar coming from the depths of his being.

Years later, he published a fascinating book called, ‘Lieutenant Birnbaum,’ (Artscroll), in which he related that he was the first to liberate the Ohrduff and Buchenwald camps. After reading the heart-wrenching and horrific stories, I can perhaps understand what was behind his strong and sincere prayers and devotion.

In the prologue of the book he wrote a most harrowing story.

When I entered Ohrduff, I found only two living Jews, a thirty year only Polish Jew and a sixteen year old Hungarian Jew. They were barely able to move. Their first request was for a plain piece of bread.

As they recalled their murdered families, they broke into heaving sobs, however, their eyes remained dry. After fifteen minutes of bitter sobbing, the sixteen year old asked me whether I could teach him how to repent. I was taken aback by his question and tried to comfort him, saying, ‘After going through such hell, you don’t have to repent. Your slate is clean.’

He kept on insisting that he must repent! ‘Finally, I asked him, why must you repent?’


He began: Two months ago a prisoner escaped. The camp commandant was furious and demanded to know the identity of the escapee. No one could provide him with the information he was seeking.

In his fury, the commandant decided to play a sadistic game with us. He demanded that pairs of brothers or fathers and sons step forward. Terrified not to, my father and I stepped forward.

They placed my father on a stool under the gallows and tied a noose around his neck. The commandant then cocked his luger, placed it at my temple and hissed, “If you or your father won’t tell me who escaped, you are going to kick that stool out from under your father.”

I looked at my father and told him, ‘Don’t worry Tatte, I won’t do it.” But my father answered me, “My son, you have to do it. He’s got a gun to your head and he is going to kill you if you don’t, then he’ll kick the chair out from under me and we’ll both be gone. This way there is at least a chance that you’ll survive.

“I will not do it! I didn’t forget honoring one’s father.”

Instead of being comforted by my words my father suddenly screamed at me, “You talk about honoring your father? I’m ordering you to kick that stool.”

“No, father, I won’t!” But my father only got angrier, fearing if I didn’t obey he would see his son murdered, “This is your father’s last order to you. Listen to me. Kick the chair!

I was so frightened and confused hearing my father screaming at me, that I kicked the chair and watched my father’ neck snapped in the noose.

His story over, the boy looked at me, his eyes still dry, even as my own tears flowed freely, and asked, “Now you tell me. Do I have to do Teshuvah – repent?”

I had no words to offer him. I could do nothing but put my arms around his frail shoulders and kiss him.

The story is told that when American soldiers liberated one of the Nazi death camps which was filled with hundreds of half starved children, a huge pot of soup was put out to feed the children. They all lined up eager to get their share of precious food. One soldier made eye contact with one of the boys who was waiting patiently at the end of the line. He approached the boy, and since they were unfamiliar with each others’ language, he communicated by offering the boy a warm hug.

After the hug, the soldier looked up and noticed that the children who were previously lined up for soup had turned away from their chance to eat and instead formed a line behind the soldier to receive a hug
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