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For the Sake of Tefillin

For the Sake of Tefillin

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Hershel was born in a small town, Dubova, near Munkatch, in the last year of the First World War. Munkatch was then part of Hungary, but after the war the whole region became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia.

In the years between the two World Wars, as well as before, Munkatch had a flourishing Jewish community, famous for its Rabbis and scholars who had a great influence on Hungarian and Czechoslovakian Jewry.

Hershel was raised in this spirit. He studied in the Yeshivah in Munkatch until it was time for him to start thinking about marriage and setting up his own home on the foundations of Torah and its commandments, like other young men his age. But the rumblings of the second World War threw a dark cloud over his plans. Before long, Hitler's hordes began their march of conquest and destruction. One of the early victims was Czechoslovakia, which Hitler took over with the consent of England and France, in the hope that it might satisfy Hitler's appetite for power and conquest.

It was a few weeks before Pesach (1939) when Hitler's armies invaded Czechslovakia. Following the takeover, the country was divided between Germany, taking the biggest slice, and Poland and Hungary, which received areas near their borders.

The Munkatch region was then given back to Hungary. Dr. Sandor Fried, the Jewish Mayor of Munkatch, formally received the Hungarian military commander who marched into the city with his soldiers, and gave him the "key" to the city.

At first the Hungarian government was not unfriendly toward the Jews. But it did not take very long before the position of the Jews worsened under the influence of the German anti-Jewish policy, which found ready collaborators in Hungarian Jew-haters.

Then came the terrible day when, on September 1st, 1939 — two weeks before Rosh Hashanah — the German armies marched into Poland, starting World War II.

After the German Blitzkrieg and easy victory over Poland — Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria did not even attempt to offer any resistance. The German armies occupied these countries without a fight. Yugoslavia was next.

In all these countries the Jews suddenly found themselves trapped. There was no place to which they could escape. Every door was locked against them; their doom was sealed. The rest of the world looked on, not caring.

Knowing how little the world cared about what happened to the Jews of Europe, Hitler could carry out his murderous plan of the "Final Solution" without fear. The Jews of all the lands which had fallen into German hands were systematically and ruthlessly rounded up and shipped off in packed freight-cars and cattle-wagons to various Concentration Camps. Children and old people, as well as everyone unfit for slave labor, were the first to be marked for the gas-ovens.

Hershel was among the "lucky" ones who were sent to do slave labor for the German war machine. Slave labor it surely was; driven unmercifully, overworked and underfed, many did not survive. Yet, despite all the untold hardships, the Jewish spirit could not be broken. The Yeshivah students, like Hershel, and most other Jews in the camp, refused to eat treif (non-kosher) food. Even in the coldest winter days they would not eat the hot meat soup; whenever possible they would exchange it with non-Jewish slaves for a piece of bread. Bread and water was their daily fare, and this, hardly in sufficient quantity to keep body and soul together.

Right from the beginning, Hershel made up his mind that, come what may, he would never part with his Tefillin, which he managed to smuggle into the camp among his few belongings. He was determined to put on his Tefillin whenever he had a chance to do so. It soon became known among his fellow inmates that he had a pair of Tefillin, and while someone kept watch, the Tefillin hurriedly passed from hand to hand. One of the camp guards, to whom Hershel used to turn over his soup and bits of meat rations, returned the favor by informing him when a search of the barracks was to take place. Hershel would then hide his Tefillin outside. Once he hid the Tefillin in the snow and then had a hard time finding them. He was frantic, but he did find them,  and he knew that G‑d was with him. The Tefillin gave him the strongest encouragement to hold on to his faith. He felt that as long as he had his Tefillin, he would outlive his tormentors.

When Hitler began his war against Russia, the occupied countries, including Hungary, had to join forces with the Germans. Hershel's labor camp was ordered to accompany the German and Hungarian divisions, which invaded the Ukraine. The slave-laborers had to dig trenches for these soldiers right at the battle-front, under the constant fire from Russian artillery and air at-tacks. Hershel always had his Tefillin with him — the one for the head in one pocket, and the one for the arm in another.

Once, in Kiev in the year 1943, he almost lost his Tefillin again. For some time past, his work detail had been sent out for a day's work and returned to the camp. Every day, before going out to work, he hid his Tefillin after praying. One day in August, he did the same as usual, but suddenly he felt uneasy about leaving his Tefillin behind. He quickly ran back to the hiding place and put the Tefillin in his pockets, taking them with him to his workplace. Great was his relief to learn that his heart had told him the right thing, for it turned out that they were to remain in the new place for six weeks! So Hershel was able to continue to pray with his Tefillin and enabling other Jews to do the same.

Thus passed the awful war years of 1942-1944, when danger surrounded Hershel daily. He saw so many times how Divine Providence protected him, and he felt certain in his heart that his Tefillin had saved him from many, many dangers.

The time finally came when the German armored divisions began to reel back under the weight of the Russian counter offensive. After the German defeat at Stalingrad in February of 1943, and the failure of the German attempt to mount a new offensive in July of that year, the German armies were steadily pushed back. All through the following winter, weary, frozen and hungry German troops were forced to retreat with heavy casualties, dragging with them the remnants of the surviving slave-laborers, amongst them — Hershel.

In March, 1944, Hershel found himself in the Carpathian Mountains. Rumania and Hungary were still occupied by the Germans. The defeats the Nazi troops had suffered on both the eastern and western fronts enraged them, and they loosed their anger and frustration more than ever on the defenseless Jews. Day after day, transports of these unfortunate victims were sent to the gas ovens at the various Concentration Camps.

Realizing that the situation was getting most desperate, Hershel and his friends decided on a plan to escape and hide in the mountains. This they succeeded to do. They disappeared into the nearby forests and separated into small groups, digging bunkers where they could hide.

Hershel with a group of ten persons found a suitable place for their underground hideout. They dug their bunker under a hill, carefully covering up the entrance, praying to G‑d that they remain safe until the Nazis would be crushed and their power broken forever.

During the day they all stayed in their cramped tomb, barely able to move. German patrols roamed the woods, and it was dangerous to venture out. Only in the dark of night they crept out to stretch their limbs and get some fresh air. Then one of the group bravely set forth to look for the nearest farm house to try to get some bread to keep them from starving to death.

Most local peasants proved to be sympathetic to the plight of the hunted refugees. They had become fed up with the German occupation and inhuman cruelties, having to give up much of their hard-earned crops and livestock to feed the invaders. Now that the fortunes of the war seemed to have turned against the Germans, the peasants hoped to see the last of them sooner or later. So the peasants did not report on the Jewish refugees, and some were kind enough to provide them with food.

One morning, just as Hershel had finished praying, and his Tefillin were being passed from hand to hand, they suddenly heard the barking of a dog and heavy footsteps approaching their underground hideout. German soldiers were on the prowl, with their bloodhounds. Presently, the footsteps were directly overhead. Hershel and his friends froze with fear and held their breath. The next moment, to their horror, a huge dog slid through the hidden entrance and appeared right in front of them.

With bated breath they awaited the inevitable! But they could hardly believe their senses as they looked on and saw the dog standing there motionless, looking bewildered, as if it didn't know why it was there at all, and forgetting all it had been trained to do.

Hershel shook himself out of his state of shock. Seeing that the dog made a turn for the exit, but found it hard to maneuver in the cramped space, Hershel made a sign to his friends to squeeze themselves together, and with a gentle push helped their uninvited guest to make his exit, just as the armed Nazi "dogs" outside whistled for their four-legged comrade.

Soon the heavy footsteps of the Nazi soldiers began to fade in the distance. Hershel and his friends began to breathe more freely, and thanked G‑d for the wonderful miracle of their escape.

"That dog must have been an offspring of those Egyptian dogs that did not sharpen their tongues against the Jewish slaves marching freely out of Egypt when the hour of liberation from Egyptian bondage came for them," remarked Hershel to his friends, when they recovered from the terrible nightmare they had just experienced.

The days and weeks dragged slowly by. Hershel and his friends spent the long days in the cramped bunker, daring only at night to go out for a breath of fresh air and for food. They prayed long and earnestly — they certainly had plenty of time. They also studied Torah, without the benefit of books. Fortunately, the Yeshivah students among them had not lost their memory during the years of suffering. They had studied well at the Yeshivah, and they could recite from memory whole passages from Torah and Talmud and discuss them

The war was still raging and many areas were still under German occupation. But Rumania was already in the hands of the Red Army since August of that year, and hundreds of Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust came to Bucharest, the Rumanian capital. Hershel, too, decided to seek refuge there.

On his arrival in Bucharest, Hershel found there refugee Rabbis, Chassidic Rebbes who, with the aid of the American Joint and other relief organizations, were trying hard to restore the shattered life of the Jewish community and of the broken refugees — broken in body but not in spirit. Kosher kitchens were set up, Torah schools for youngsters were organized, and Talmud classes for adults. Offices were set up to help refugees trace surviving relatives. There was so much to be done!

Hershel threw himself wholeheartedly into the relief work. He was given the task, along with several other young men, of going to outlying towns, townlets and villages in search of Jewish children and bring them to Bucharest.

He would never forget — he related later — a certain incident, which convinced him again of the special protection G‑d had shown him in the merit of his Tefillin.

This happened when he, together with a friend, was taking a group of children by train to Bucharest. The train had left Debretzin and was speeding towards Grossvardein. Somewhere along the track the train suddenly turned a sharp curve. Hershel was standing on the open platform of the train, clutching his small valise in which he kept his Tefillin. As the train swerved, he lost his balance, and in trying to steady himself, his valise flew out!

Hershel was horrified. All through the war years he had guarded his Tefillin at the risk of his life, and now, suddenly he had lost them!

Hershel immediately told his friend that he would have to take care of the children without him, for he was going to get off at the next station and walk back along the rail tracks to retrieve his valise with the Tefillin. Then he would follow on to Bucharest by the next available train.

His friend tried to dissuade him. "Where will you go to look for your valise?" he argued. "Who knows if you will find it? Besides, you will probably be able to get Tefillin in Bucharest. Please, think it over. Don't do it." But Hershel remained firm in his decision.

Hershel hoped and prayed that the next station would not be too far off. As if in answer to his prayer, the wheels of the train began to grind and screech to a sudden full stop. A red signal light had caused the train to halt in the middle of nowhere, until the line ahead would be clear for the train to continue on its way.

Hershel lost no time. He took the welcome opportunity to jump down from the train, then hurried back along the tracks. A few kilometers later, he spotted his little valise in the distance. He rushed forward, picked it up and hugged it with delight.

Hershel walked back as fast as he could in the direction of Grossvardein, passing several small stations on the way. The trains were not running regularly at that time, and it took him several days until he finally reached Grossvardien. At the railway station he found a fairly large crowd of refugees waiting for the next train to Bucharest.

Hershel was about to board the train when someone tapped him on his shoulder and took hold of his arm, saying, "Hershel, you dare not go to Bucharest."

It was a friend of his from Bucharest, who had just come from there. The friend told him that secret Russian agents were waiting for him, keeping watch near his home. Several active young orthodox Jews had already been arrested on charges of working against the communist regime, and had not been heard of since. The Russians had begun establishing communist regimes in Rumania and in other countries "freed" by the Red Army, and the secret police had begun to arrest anyone on the slightest suspicion of engaging in any "counter-revolutionary" activity.

Hershel grasped his friend's hand and said gratefully, "Thank G‑d my valise fell out of the train; otherwise I would now be in their hands..."

"What are you talking about?" said his friend, bewildered. "What has your valise got to do with this business?"

"I'm talking about my little valise with the Tefillin in it. Come, I'll tell you about it," replied Hershel mysteriously, taking his friend by the arm.

They entered the Waiting Room and sat down in a corner. Hershel told his friend how he had guarded his Tefillin all through the war years, and how he had lost his valise with the Tefillin when the train gave a sudden lurch, which made him leave the train to retrieve his valise. Had it not happened, he would have arrived in Bucharest a couple of days ago, right into the arms of the secret police! "See? The Tefillin saved my life again!"

His friend remained silent and thoughtful for a few moments, then hesitantly said, "Hershel, I haven't yet put on Tefillin today. Would you allow me to use yours?"

"With the greatest of pleasure," said Hershel. He took out his Tefillin from the valise and also a small prayer book, and handed them to his friend, saying, "Go ahead. I'll be back in a few minutes."

When Hershel returned about ten minutes later, he noticed that his friend's eyes were still wet.

"I must tell you the truth," he said to Hershel in a very serious tone, and his voice had the ring of deep regret, as he made his confession. "Since the murderous Germans sent me away to a Concentration Camp, I stopped putting on Tefillin. The Germans took away our Tefillin — they did everything to break our spirit. When we were liberated, the few that had survived, the first thing many Jews asked for was a pair of Tefillin to put on; others, including myself, asked for food. I never got around to putting on Tefillin again. But from now on, you can be sure, I will never again miss putting on Tefillin," he concluded, his voice choking with emotion.

Just before parting, Hershel's friend said to him: "Everything happens by Divine Providence. You thought that our meeting here was arranged by Divine Providence in order to save your life. As it turns out — it seems I had to meet you in order to save myself too. You see, your Tefillin brought you to me, and you brought me back to Tefillin."

Hershel now lives in America. He is a respected businessman and a prominent member of his community. Like many other survivors of the Holocaust, he does not like to talk about those terrible years; the experiences are too painful to recount, and words cannot describe them. However, he readily relates the story of his Tefillin during the Holocaust and the many instances when his Tefillin clearly saved his life. "Let Jews know," he says, "how to cherish the Mitzvah of putting on Tefillin daily. After all, it can be done so easily, without any sacrifice whatever."


The Storyteller

Published and copyright by Kehot Publication Society Brooklyn, NY

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