Over the past few weeks, we have travelled across Germany, visiting the cities of Worms, Darmstadt, Mainz, Michelstadt, Speyer, Limburg, and Heidelberg, to name a few. It has been both a wonderful and heavy experience. We were constantly cognizant that we were walking on soil that has been drenched with Jewish blood, yet we strolled the streets in Chassidic garb, on a mission to spread Judaism and bolster the spirits of the German Jews, which we considered our personal proclamation of “Am Yisrael chai”—“the Jewish nation endures.”
We were fortunate to meet many Jewish people, including a large number of Holocaust survivors, and we treasured the opportunity to spend time with these elderly people who have suffered so much. A particularly memorable experience took place just a few days ago, in the centrally located town of Kassel.
We had just concluded a home visit with a contact from previous years, when we noticed an elderly woman staring at us through the window of her apartment, wide-eyed.
“Do you speak Yiddish?” she asked us (in Yiddish). When we replied in the affirmative, she called her husband, visibly excited. “We haven’t spoken Yiddish in fifty years!” she exclaimed.
They introduced themselves as Hershel and Anna, and invited us inside, understandably with a small amount of reservation—we most certainly were not their typical guests.
Still, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room, and before long Hershel was sharing his life story. He told us that at 90 years old he is the oldest Jew in Kassel, born in Warsaw, in 1926, the third of five boys. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew and has fond memories of attending cheder with his brothers. In the late 1930’s, as the Nazi movement was tightening its grip on Europe, Hershel’s father moved the family to Russia, where they remained for the duration of the War. When the dust had settled, they returned, this time to Kassel. Hershel was amongst the lucky ones; his entire immediate family survived, although his two older brothers have since passed on. The younger two moved to the Israeli port town of Haifa many years ago, and Hershel seldom sees them.
There was a lull in the conversation, and Hershel seemed lost in thought. We took out our tefillin and he considered our offer for a few moments before agreeing. “When was the last time that you wore tefilin, Hershel?”
“It’s my first time,” he replied, adding that his older brothers had celebrated their bar mitzvahs, but he had turned thirteen during the War. We carefully wrapped the straps around his arms and head, and began reciting the blessing, intending for Hershel to repeat it: “Baruch…” but Herschel needed no help from us. “Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’haniach tefillin,” he enunciated. He had remembered the blessing he had learned in cheder and heard from his brothers nearly 80 years ago!
After that, the atmosphere was noticeably lighter. We suggested we affix a mezuzah on the front door and he agreed. Hershel showed us a Jewish video he had and in general seemed more relaxed. We were gratified to see that we were leaving them in a better state of mind than when we had arrived, and wished them lots of health and happiness in the years to come.
As we continued with our day, our conversation kept returning to Hershel’s bar mitzvah. There were many elements of Divine Providence to this story, but what struck us most was how Hershel had perfectly remembered the blessing. It didn’t seem possible that a small schoolchild could retain that, especially after experiencing so much pain and trauma. The only explanation is that those pure words, along with the Torah he had studied, had been engraved upon his heart and soul, waiting all these years for the opportunity to mark his bar mitzvah by performing the sacred mitzvah of tefillin.