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Letters That Burn

Letters That Burn

Nisraf Vesefer Torah Imo

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...Then the tyrant commanded them to bring out ben Tradyon from his place of study. They burned his body on a pyre of bundles of vine-twigs, and placed wet layers of wool on his chest to prolong his suffering. When they were removed from him, he was immediately consumed together with the Torah scroll [in which he was wrapped].

The young, Hasidic woman removed her shaitel, her wig; letting down her long, blond hair.

Styled in the latest fashion, she would pass; she was not so sure about her baby.

Hopefully he wouldn't cry on the train, forcing her to change his diaper.

The Gestapo came through her car doing a spot-check. A dark-haired, German woman was removed.

Bronia, the Hasidic 'Aryan', was complimented as the paradigm of German motherhood.

The SS soldiers were horsing around. "Pipe down," Bronia admonished, "you don't want to be waking up a future soldier."

Late that night an Einsatzgruppen SS guard took the seat next to her. He was agitated, and must have judged her a sympathetic woman. The killings out east were too much, he said. He showed her pictures of the mass shootings.

She hoped her horror would be taken as sympathy for his shattered nerves. "In Zhitomer," he said, "was the worst."

I read this story in Yafa Eliach's book. It was the most current reference of that once-vibrant Jewish city that I had heard. That line "in Zhitomer was the worst" stuck with me.

Years after I had read that dreadful story, I was in 770 — the address in Brooklyn that conveys the world of Lubavitch. As I finished davening, I overheard two young men, bochurim, they are called, probably about nineteen years old, talking about — the name caught my attention — Zhitomer.

They were too lighthearted to be talking about, well, that. I eavesdropped. They were talking about a day camp one of them had just finished. He did or didn't like the head-counselor, color-war was good, the 200 pair of fringes didn't arrive 'til the second week of camp, Russian kids like "American football" better than baseball; yeh, you try doing line-up in Russian...

The Romans were burning Rabbi Chanania at the stake; they had wrapped his body in Torah scrolls and drenched them in water to prolong his agony. His students, (how lacking a word!) his Chassidim, displaying a presence of mind I can't call my own, asked him, "Rebbe, what do you see?" He, displaying a selflessness I see clearly in my Rebbe, answered "I see the scrolls burning, but the letters float into the air."

Those letters — floating into the air — casually drop from the mouths of teenagers who talk of Zhitomer in terms of day camps instead of concentration camps.

In terms of Jewish continuity (though it's doubtful they know the term) instead of mass murder.

Oblivious of the revolution they are making they do line-ups and camp cheers.

In Zhitomer!

Like it was Brooklyn, Petach Tikvah or El Paso.

Singing Shma Yisrael where once it was screamed.

Oblivious to the miracle coursing through them.


It's been over ten years since the scroll of flesh and blood was removed from the ark that was the only frame of reference I ever had. I could never have imagined spending a Tishrei — the Hebrew month from the High Holidays until after Sukkot — without once joining the Rebbe. Hundreds came for the entire season. (When France passed legislation banning vacations abroad for longer than a two-week duration, there was talk of making an exemption for Jews going to New York for the month of Tishrei. I don't know how that all ended up.) Thousands more came for parts of Tishrei, a Rosh Hashanah, a Simchat Torah. Rabbis and stalwarts of communities in the New York area had to be in their places for Yom Tov. You would see them rushing in after havdalah at the end of Rosh Hashanah, the end of Simchat Torah, to get Kos Shel Bracha, some of the blessed wine from the Rebbe's Havdalah cup. They came to "Bet Lekach", to say the blessing on the lulav and etrog.

I feel loneliness come Tishrei, this month of breathtaking awe, unmitigated joy, exuberance, quietude: all wrapped up in so fleeting a month. Did the Chassidim of Rabbi Chanania feel lonely? Or does the question 'what do you see' convey a dimension that is not tempered by the temporal? Perhaps if I had what they had I wouldn't feel lonely.

But so what? I have heard the most eloquent response to the most unimaginable loss:

Teenage counselors in Zhitomer. The landing of letters of fire. Burning, but never consumed.

Rabbi Shimon Posner is the director of Chabad of Rancho Mirage, California.
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