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Bar Mitzvah Emerges From the Holocaust’s Horrors

Bar Mitzvah Emerges From the Holocaust’s Horrors

Discovery in Ukraine Inspires a Community

Rabbi Alexandar Faingold and local Jewish residents at the burial of Jewish bones found at a building site in Nytshin, Ukraine.
Rabbi Alexandar Faingold and local Jewish residents at the burial of Jewish bones found at a building site in Nytshin, Ukraine.

When a large number of human bones mixed in with pages containing Hebrew words were discovered at a building site in the town of Netishyn, Ukraine, the few local Jews turned to the only rabbi they knew for assistance.

It all began with a phone call, says Rabbi Alexander Faingold, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, who frequently travels throughout the area to help the small Jewish communities there. “They told me that I should come immediately to the city. They were building a mall, and tractors had unearthed a large grave where many bones were found alongside pages of Jewish books.”

Faingold contacted Rabbi Chezki Kalmanovitch of the Israeli organization Atra Kadisha, which specializes in caring for bones that are found in unmarked graves. By the next day, the two arrived at the city to discover that the bones that the workers found were locked up by the local police until they completed their investigation.

The rabbi says that he knew he had a lot of work ahead of him. “Dealing with local authorities is not an easy task and could make for a very long story.”

He immediately called a local camera crew and set up a meeting with Olga Omelchuk, the city’s mayor. Instead of asking the mayor to assist with the issue, Faingold thanked her for her intervention on behalf of the Jewish community, as the cameras were filming.

“I want to thank you,” Faingold told the mayor, “for all that you do for the Jewish community, and especially for the proper care of the Jewish bones that were just discovered.”

The mayor thanked him, and told him that she would do her best to ensure they would be treated respectfully and would be speedily buried in the manner prescribed by Jewish law.

Bones of Jewish townspeople massacred by the Nazis are reburied according to Jewish law
Bones of Jewish townspeople massacred by the Nazis are reburied according to Jewish law

Within 24 hours, the matter was taken care of, and the bones were buried in a location donated by the city, with a small monument stating that it represents a mass Jewish grave.

Continued Inspiration

Faingold returned home. But toward the end of the week, he received a call from community members requesting that he return to spend Shabbat with them. “The story is making waves throughout the community, which is going through an awakening. Can you come to us for the Sabbath?” he was asked.

Faingold said that he could not refuse, and together with a group of students he traveled to the city, where they held prayer services and enjoyed traditional Shabbat meals with the community.

Before reading the weekly Torah portion from a scroll he brought with him, the rabbi shared some words of inspiration: “When digging in the ground, you will at some point reach water, but the water could be closer or further away. The question is: How much patience will you have as you continue to dig? The same is true for the individual. If we dig long enough and remove the dirt that is covering us, we will find our inner self, the Jewish spark within.”

He then compared it to the digging in the city, noting that as the workers removed the earth they had uncovered something meaningful, which inspired the Jewish community.

As he spoke, the rabbi noticed an old man sitting in a corner of the room. The rabbi noticed that every few minutes the gentleman would remove the headcovering traditionally worn by Jewish males, known as a kippah, and then put it back on shortly afterwards.

Faingold said he felt the man’s inner turmoil, and so walked over to him and asked him if he wanted to be called up to the Torah for an honor. He responded yes, and said that his name was Vasily and his father’s name was Moshe.

Ezriel Waldman
Ezriel Waldman

The octogenarian donned a prayer shawl and went up for his honor. At the end, the rabbi turned to him and asked him if he had a Jewish name in addition to his Russian name. He looked at him with his eyes welling up in tears and said, “I have another name: Ezriel.”

The Grandfather-Rabbi

He then told the congregation the story of his grandfather, Rabbi Avrum Waldman, who had served as the city’s rabbi. “He had a long white beard, with fiery eyes. He was a great scholar and leader. Everyone in the community respected him and listened to his wishes.”

The old man said the last memories of his grandfather were learning with him in preparation for his 13th birthday, when Jewish men traditionally celebrate their entrance into adulthood, known as a bar mitzvah. But, the younger Waldman painfully recalled, “by the 1942 High Holidays, it all ended.”

He said the Nazis gathered the town’s Jews in the synagogue, and from there they took them to a gated location. “I was there with my parents, brothers, sisters, grandmother, grandfather, my friends and neighbors. The entire Jewish community marched after my grandfather.”

He recalled that the entire incident made his body weak, and he felt that that he needed to relieve himself. “I turned to an officer, and he let me go to the side. I stood in a field with high bushes, and suddenly, I heard screaming. I did not move from fright, and watched how everyone was forced to dig their graves. Then the Nazis murdered them.”

After hiding for three days in the bushes, Waldman returned to the town and sought out a non-Jewish family friend. “He was shocked to see me,” he said, “and he hid me in the basement. He would give me food every day, and every few nights I would go out for some fresh air.”

He said the one thing that the family friend told him was: “Your name is now Vasily. No more Ezriel.”

He said his grandfather had wanted to prepare him to read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah, but instead he was murdered. “We were all murdered,” said Waldman. “Even Ezriel, standing in the bushes, was also murdered.”

The crowd stood in silence, recalled Faingold. No one could open their mouths.

“This week, your grandfather received a Jewish burial,” said Igor Malkin, one of the students who came for the Sabbath, after a few long minutes. “It was a burial that he did not receive for 70 years, and the first thing he did up in heaven was to take care of his only living grandson. He made sure you came to the prayer service; he made sure you received the honor of being called to the Torah.”

Faingold remained for that Sunday, and the entire community gathered once again to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Ezriel Waldman.

There Waldman put on tefillin, the ritual boxes worn during morning prayers, recalling the few details he remembered from his grandfather’s lessons. His tears dripped on the tefillin boxes as he kissed them. The entire crowd was emotional, reported Faingold.

“You spoke yesterday about wells,” Waldman told those gathered. “My well was covered with many layers of dirt and corpses. Ezriel was buried deep underneath of the bodies of my family. This Sabbath, I was born anew. The tractors removed the physical dirt, and the rabbi removed the dirt covering my soul. Thank you, Rabbi!”

Translated and adapted from the Hebrew by Dovid Zaklikowski.

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V. Munteanu UK June 17, 2013

The article is amazing! This is encouraging me to continue the researches into my family line, as I am stuck in this moment. My great-grand-father was called Vasily, too and I am trying to locate him and find his Jewish name as I have reasonable reason to believe that on my both sides of my parents, they were Jewish. Reply

Anonymous Ny June 16, 2013

What date did this event occure? Did this all happen recently? Since there were camera crews etc. is there a link to the video somewhere or at least dates? Story with exact dates will make it more powerful. Reply

Anonymous Montgomery, Al, USA June 14, 2013

Adding Names to Yad Vashem I checked Yad Vashem's database of names but could not find Moshe or Rabbi Avrum Waldman listed and did not locate what could be other relatives from Netishyn, Ukraine. Are the names correct? and/or should someone be placing these individuals in the database for rembrance? Also, there is a Rabbi in this town who bares a striking resemblance to Mr. Waldman. This Rabbi's family came from the Ukraine and I do not know how long they have lived in the US. This Rabbi is approximately 58 years-of-age and born in the US. Reply

Joan Spehr Clark Westerville June 14, 2013

Bully Behavior Maybe this article; and other viewed injustices- will teach people the importance of thinking independently and maturely, instead of "participation in what is popular - and inhumane"

Popularity make "people smoke", "become inebriated", do "street drugs", "intimidate", "cheat" and "humiliate" others

But Jewish beliefs are not that way - and are very beautiful Reply

Ruth - Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada June 12, 2013

Thank you for printing this heart rendering story of man's cruelty and G-d's love. Surely it was meant for Ezriel to uncover his Soul's identity through the "coincidental" event of the discovery of Jewish bones and Torah. As we know, there are no coincidences; instead all such events are written into the blue print of each of our individual lives. However, we need the assistance of others to help reveal the truth of our lives, for alone, we are too frail. Reply

Anonymous USA June 11, 2013

Bar Mitzvath And the Holocaust Just today I was watching a movie: "We Were There." This movie shows the horrendous crimes committed against the Jewish people in Germany. My heart was torn once more. I could imagine 1490s, and after the inquisition in Spain. The horrendous crimes committed also against the Sephardic Jews. The never ending hatred against our people. They were my ancestors. No matter how long ago it happened, it still hurts. Just the idea that some other human being are capable of such horrible acts, is hard to understand. Do they really commit these acts out of love for their gods, or do they do it because they are just criminals? Is there really any excuse? What really goes on in the mind of an assassin? Is this hatred the root of jealousy, greed, hunger for power, control, and lack of self steam? Or is it a brain malfunction? No matter what the reasons are, hatred, is the cause of all evil in this world. It kills oneself and others. It needs to stop or it will destroy the world. Starting with family. Reply

Anonymous UK June 9, 2013

BarMitzvah of Ezriel Waldman This story brought tears to my eyes. Rabbi Faingold and his students were able to restore Ezriel to his own true identity and reconnect him with his own family. In making his BarMitzvah there and then, he picked up exactly where the German intervention had severed it all. How wonderful that Rabbi Faingold and Atra Kadisha were there. There must be so many wounded and fragmented communities all over the world and the pioneering rabbis who travel far and wide, searching them out and repairing the damage are vital to the fulfilment of Jewish
destiny. May their work be blessed with every success. Reply

Masha New York, USA February 6, 2013

Thank you My great grandparents came to america at the turn of the last century from the ukraine, not far from here, and until recently I did not know that they left behind brothers, sisters, and cousins who were all murdered like this in 1942. G-d bless those shluchim that are doing this! Reply

Yoka Bony Belgium February 6, 2013

Bar Mitzvah Emerges from the Holocaust's Horrors For their memories , it is in our duty to rise there a shine of remembrence. Reply

RS Mallory February 5, 2013

The Flame Thank you so much for sharing this poignant story. Yiddishkeit and our Judaism IS our Soul (our Neshuma) and Israel's words were most eloquent. His Zeida (grandfather) is no doubt smiling in repose knowing that he has kept The Flame alive, all these years! Reply

Cindy O Arizona, USA February 5, 2013

Thank you for sharing this tender moment I am discovering my Jewish heritage and I am thankful for stories such as this one that demonstrates G-d's care. Reply

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