In February 2009 (the first day of the month of Adar), I was invited to lecture at Florida Atlantic University on a topic that I was researching, “A New Index to Time: Calendars and the Holocaust.”

In hiding, in ghettos, even in concentration camps, such calendars were fashioned to equip Jews with the information necessary to observe the Sabbath and holidays, as well as yahrzeits and even fast days, in whatever form was possible. Under oppressive conditions, producing calendars of this sort took an extraordinary act of resolve. Yet some 30 calendars of this kind existed. I was working toward a book on the topic, and my lecture at FAU on that Wednesday afternoon was one of my first attempts at speaking about this precious cache of artifacts and sharing the stories behind them.

As I recall, the presentation went well enough. But during the question and answer session that followed, a gentleman stood up, identified himself as a survivor of Auschwitz, and stated that making calendars of this sort in Auschwitz was impossible. Why? Because, he continued, a Jewish prisoner of this infamous concentration camp had time and energy only for working, eating and sleeping. Conditions were harsh beyond belief, and it was all one could do, he said, to simply survive. To even think of doing something other than what was basic was out of the question. He spoke firmly and definitively.

Somehow I had not expected this challenge, and felt intimidated by the authority of his experience. I fell back on the evidence I had accumulated. Other survivors in the audience also weighed in, saying that despite the oppression, some people could do more than just survive. I was grateful for their assurance, but as the afternoon program wound down, I was uncertain about how to make sense of the Auschwitz survivor’s assertion.

Having the opportunity to meet with my teacher, Elie Wiesel, in his New York study a few weeks later, I described for him what had happened during my FAU lecture, and asked for his advice. This was typical. In our regular phone conversations and meetings, I would ask his advice about questions that came up in my research and writing, but also about questions that had to do with life: holiday observance and prayer, children, the untimely death of dear friends—and much more.1

Professor Wiesel listened to me and replied: “What he said is true. But his truth was not my truth. I put on tefillin in Auschwitz every morning. I probably shouldn’t have done it. But I did.”2

The details of how Professor Wiesel managed to lay tefillin in such dangerous circumstances surface in his writings and interviews. He wrote in a 1982 article:

I don’t know how, but someone had managed to smuggle in a pair of tefillin by bribing a kapo with dozens of bread and margarine rations. I only know that every morning many of us rose before the call-up to perform this mitzvah. Jewish law would not have required it under the circumstances. One is not obligated to sacrifice his life for the sake of donning tefillin. And yet, Jews who did not know each other, who perhaps did not even speak the same language, met each morning at dawn, exposed themselves to nameless dangers for the sake of not interrupting a millennia-old tradition.

I do not understand it. I will never understand whence they derived so much courage and marshaled so much self-denial, even while the world was forsaking them and surrendered them to death.3

Professor Wiesel set down a similar description in his 1995 autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea, emphasizing the meaning his laying tefillin would have for his father:

In the morning my father and I would rise before the general wake-up call and go to a nearby block where someone had traded a dozen rations of bread for a pair of phylacteries (tefillin). We would strap them onto our left arm and forehead, quietly recite the ritual blessings, and then pass them on to the next person. A dozen prisoners thereby sacrificed their sleep, and sometimes their rations of bread or coffee, to perform the mitzvah, the commandment to wear the tefillin. Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp. I said my prayers every day. On Saturday I hummed Shabbat songs at work, in part no doubt, to please my father, to show him I was determined to remain a Jew even in the accursed kingdom.4

Professor Wiesel’s commitment to honor this commandment, even under grueling circumstances, preceded the ordeal of the camps. In the early pages of his memoir Night, he makes a reference to laying tefillin as he conducts his usual prayers the morning before the deportations of Sighet’s Jews commence.

By eight o’clock in the morning, weariness had settled into our veins, our limbs, our brains, like molten lead. I was in the midst of prayer when suddenly there was shouting in the streets. I quickly unwound my phylacteries and ran to the window. Hungarian police had entered the ghetto and were yelling in the street nearby.5

This is one of several scenes in which the deepening crisis interrupts normal daily activity. Yet we see how Professor Wiesel continued with daily rituals, including the standard practice of donning tefillin during morning prayers, until the last moments of regular community life.

Moreover, the uprooting of the community did not end such commitments, for as Professor Wiesel noted in a 1970 lecture, he had made sure to take tefillin with him at the time of deportation:

We Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. I was young and innocent. In my suitcase I had tefillin, not even a tallis yet. . . . I had only tefillin, a siddur [prayerbook], and a few other seforim [holy books].6

Once the ordeal of the war had come to an end, his commitment to tefillin was still front and center. Indeed, Professor Wiesel’s diary, begun in June 1945, while recuperating at a “splendid chateau in Écouis [France],” refers to laying tefillin in the diary’s very first entry:

I went to see the director in his office and shyly asked for a pen and paper. I began a private journal: “After the war, by the grace of G‑d, blessed be His name, here I am in France. Far away. Alone. This morning I put on my own tefillin for the first time in a long while.”7

What are tefillin (also known as phylacteries)?8 Two leather boxes with straps that Jewish men traditionally put on (or “lay”) on weekdays, as commanded by the Torah and elaborated on by the sages. The boxes contain parchment on which are written, by a skilled and pious scribe, the four passages from the Torah that refer to tefillin.9 The straps are used to affix the boxes to one’s upper arm (opposite the heart) and on one’s head, above the scalp (close to the brain). The proximity to the heart and mind are understood to be a way to link the emotions with the intellect, enabling them to act in concert. The arm straps extend to the hand, which symbolizes the realm of action, and which is also to be harmonized with thought and emotion.

Tefillin carries further associations. The passages enclosed within the tefillin contain the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one”), Judaism’s central prayer invoking belief in G‑d’s oneness and submission to His will. Other passages in the tefillin emphasize the miraculous exodus from Egypt (and the bondage to which the Jews were subjected there), in order to become uncompromising servants of G‑d. Because the passages are not only read but are worn on one’s body, they offer a unique form of tactile memory, a daily discipline of kinetically recollecting key tenets of Jewish faith and experience—a recollecting that could take place even, or perhaps especially, in Auschwitz.

Professor Wiesel was one of a number of Jews whose commitment to the commandment of tefillin in the camps was extraordinary. Written and oral accounts tell of how men performed the mitzvah of tefillin in a variety of labor, concentration and even death camps: rising well before dawn and standing in long lines; wearing them only briefly, so that others could also have the opportunity; clandestinely putting them on while marching in labor squads; paying with food rations for the opportunity to use or acquire the tefillin; devising strategies and hideouts so that the enemy would not discover the forbidden objects. Stories are told of the miracles involved in procuring, preserving and wearing the tefillin, and of attributing one’s survival to the performance of this specific mitzvah.

There are also the sober reports of those tortured or murdered when caught wearing tefillin. Others tell with anguish of the mounds of confiscated tefillin, a sign of the enemy’s ruthless assault on Jewish life and an improvised memorial to the Jews who, on the threat of death, were not allowed to touch or even approach the sacred but contraband articles.10

Despite the risks and difficulties of putting on tefillin during the Holocaust, the demand was sometimes greater than the supply. In one labor camp, for instance, a single pair of tefillin had to serve some 500 men, so that the head and hand tefillin, usually donned simultaneously, were divided up so that everyone could have a chance. Indeed, because of the cruel circumstances, rabbis in certain cases determined that the usual way of carrying out the mitzvah could be modified in order to make performing the mitzvah possible.

And even in those cases where tefillin were nowhere to be found, inmates sometimes devised ways to maintain a connection with daily practice. Filip Muller reports that a Polish Jew by the name of Fischel, head of a Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz, did not possess tefillin, but “mimed the ritual” of putting them on before prayers. Eventually he acquired a pair and used them daily. His dedication to prayer and ritual in that sordid world was such that he inspired other Sonderkommando members to join him.11

In a sense, performance of the mitzvah spoke for itself. But a few rabbis, themselves camp survivors, have tried to explain the significance of carrying out this particular mitzvah under such atrocious conditions. Rabbi Tzvi Meisels, whose imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau overlapped with that of Professor Wiesel, surmised that there was no way to understand the events one was being compelled to live through—no explanation as to why the Jews were being made to suffer so profoundly—that could be drawn on to strengthen one’s faith. Performing the mitzvah of tefillin bespoke acceptance in spite of such lack of understanding, and thus “fortified broken hearts, so that we would not spend a moment without perfect faith, even when we had no understanding.”12

Rabbi Yehoshua Aronson accounted for the significance of this mitzvah in the camps differently. The Torah passages in the tefillin refer to G‑d taking the children of Israel out of the slavery of ancient Egypt. Hence, tefillin were the symbol of that freedom. The tefillin straps also bear several ritually prescribed knots—knots which, in the overwhelmingly difficult circumstances of the camps, served as reminders, according to Rabbi Aronson, of G‑d’s enduring love for his people, His being bound or knotted to them.13

In many of his writings, Professor Wiesel links tefillin both to maintaining Jewish identity and to transforming it. In his 1970 collection of essays, One Generation After, for instance, he tells of Shmukler, a beggar of unknown origin who was thought to be mad. Professor Wiesel one day surprised him in a Sighet synagogue wearing tefillin; adorned in this traditional manner, Shmukler appeared to him “a different man.”14

The transformational quality of tefillin surfaces again in a beautiful episode recounted in Somewhere a Master, Professor Wiesel’s second volume chronicling the inner history of the chassidic movement. Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov, a well-known early chassidic master, had a son, Wolfe, who as a youngster was not given to following in the holy ways of his father. The son’s “behavior left much to be desired. He wasted days and nights with unsuitable friends doing unsuitable things.” There seemed to be no end of this aberrant behavior, even up to the day of his son’s bar mitzvah—the day on which a boy is first obliged to fulfill the precept of tefillin and, as in this case, receives them as a gift.

Before Reb Yechiel Michel gave his son the tefillin, “he inspected them with great care. He read the two parchments and replaced them in their square boxes. And suddenly he began to weep. Tears began rolling down his cheeks into the boxes with the tefillin. That was the turning point for Wolfe.”15 The father’s tears and the occasion of receiving tefillin combined to transform the undisciplined boy into a master-in-the-making.

Professor Wiesel recounts a second moving tefillin episode involving the same chassidic master, Reb Yechiel Michel, who in this case helped his protégé, Naphtali of Ropshitz, “put on tefillin for the first time, remarking: ‘I have just tied his soul up there; the knot will be a lasting one.’”16

With these vignettes Professor Wiesel shows the meaning behind the tefillin that were so much a fixture in his own life.

References to tefillin are sprinkled throughout his novels. Some are routine, depicting religious Jewish characters in situ. Others are linked to crises. In The Forgotten, the protagonist, Elchanan, though on the run, finds an attic where he can snatch a few minutes to put on tefillin. In The Hostage, tefillin have a deeper meaning for the protagonist, serving as a clear sign of his Jewish identity. But it is in The Testament, a tribute to the Russian Jewish poets murdered by Stalin, that Professor Wiesel makes tefillin central.17 When the novel’s hero, Paltiel Kossover, a religious Jew who comes of age after the Revolution, plans to leave his family home, his mother asks, “Where are your tephilin [sic]?” Though Paltiel still observed mitzvahs, the fact that his mother continues querying him, “You won’t forget to take them with you?” intimates that she had guessed his “secret life” as a communist.18 From this moment on, the importance of the tefillin in gauging Paltiel’s tie to Jewish life seeps through the novel. Paltiel indeed remembers to take the tefillin with him. But it is not long before he forgets to put them on one day—and then, as he puts it, he deemed it too late to “resume my habits.”19

But the tefillin do not disappear from his life. When a friend asks Paltiel to entrust the tefillin to him—“You don’t put them on anymore. I’ll return them to you, I promise”—Paltiel can’t imagine being without them. “No, not that. My phylacteries and I were inseparable. That was my father’s wish.”20

Years later, back in Russia with a wife and young child, he finds the long-unused tefillin at the bottom of a drawer, and “touching them I trembled.” He takes them out of their bag, kisses them and puts them on as he used to do in the “House of Study,” remarking, “all the rituals had come back to me”—the rediscovered tefillin being the symbol of them “all.”21

The gesture that may show just how far Paltiel has come back is the kiss—a way of demonstrating affection for the tefillin which, while not listed in the how-to guidelines for performing the mitzvah, is nonetheless customary for serious practitioners.

A sign of returning to traditional ways, the tefillin have a special lineage for those who, like Paltiel, were dubbed enemies of the state and destined for imprisonment in Russian jails. Knowing the special role that tefillin play in the life of those unjustly imprisoned, Paltiel asked his wife, “Do you know the story of Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi?”

The story of Rebbe Schneur Zalman’s incarceration is one Professor Wiesel tells a number of times, including in a 1981 lecture devoted to the life of this chassidic master, as well as in the opening paragraphs to the second volume of Professor Wiesel’s autobiography, And the Sea is Never Full. In these tellings, the emphasis falls on a famous episode in which the prison’s warden seeks the rebbe’s help in understanding an enigmatic biblical passage: How, the warden asks the sage, can G‑d call out to Adam and Eve Ayeka, “where are you?” How can the One who is omniscient not know behind which bush Adam is hiding?

As Professor Wiesel tells it : “Whereupon the rabbi smiled and answered: ‘The Lord, blessed-be-his-name, knew; it was Adam who didn’t . . . the real meaning of the question G‑d asked of Adam . . . Where do you stand in this world? What is your place in history? What have you done with your life, Adam?’” First asked of Adam, the question is addressed to all; no one can hide from being accountable to G‑d for what one has done with one’s days.

But in The Testament, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s imprisonment has to do with withstanding the ordeal of a jail sentence for a capital crime. As Paltiel relates:

In prison [the rebbe] was visited by the prosecutor, some say by the Tsar himself, and he inspired them with such respect, such reverential awe, that they decided to see him free. And the Hasidic tradition says specifically that when he received his august visitors he was wearing his phylacteries.22

Beyond being the archetype of return to Jewish tradition, here tefillin stand for maintaining faith in the face of relentless oppression. Prison notwithstanding, no tyrant can prevent a Jew from being Jewish. Rebbe Schneur Zalman’s devotion to tefillin under such trying circumstances carries an echo of Professor Wiesel’s own devotion to tefillin in Auschwitz—that is to say, in a prison of a far more cruel and ruthless tyrant.

Like most observant Jews, Professor Wiesel’s day-to-day postwar life included a morning ritual of laying tefillin. Yet it was a life increasingly subject to demands and obligations worldwide. For those of us who spend most of our time based in a single location, the daily discipline of putting on tefillin is not terribly difficult. But because Professor Wiesel travelled incessantly over the course of five decades, and his increasing renown and celebrity complicated the logistics of getting from one place to another, the daily discipline of laying tefillin presented more of a challenge. His colleague Yoel Rappel reports that, on one hurried trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 10 minutes turned into a half-hour. The visit to the Wall was meant to be “a private and personal visit. But for the last 30 years Professor Wiesel had no longer been a private individual. [Nevertheless], anyone who that morning saw him pray and lay tefillin at the Western Wall will remember it as an expression of the supremacy of the Jewish spirit.”

Willing to go to great lengths to carry out the mitzvah of tefillin in the optimal manner, Professor Wiesel took steps to make the daily discipline easier, purchasing multiple pairs of tefillin to have at the ready in the various cities he would regularly travel to: Boston, Paris and Jerusalem (in addition, of course, to his home base of New York City). Rabbi Ariel Burger was meeting with Professor Wiesel in his Boston office when a package arrived, and Rabbi Burger recalls the special joy that Professor Wiesel expressed as he unwrapped the new pair of tefillin that was slated to be kept in the office.

And yet, unforeseen challenges had to arise. This was the case when, on October 14, 1986 (the day after Yom Kippur), Professor Wiesel received word that he had been chosen as that year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Because of the time difference between Oslo (where the Peace Prize committee was based) and New York (where the Wiesels resided), the Nobel Committee’s call came at around 4:30 AM (EST). From that time on, phone calls, visitors and requests for interviews multiplied. But certain priorities were kept in mind. Professor Wiesel himself described the scene:

Around 6 the doorman calls again: “What shall I do with NBC?” Then: “And ABC? And CBS?” . . . The apartment now looks like a battlefield. Around me are technicians, sound engineers, lighting people, reporters, and producers who seem to be walking over each other. The telephone doesn’t stop ringing. . . . At eleven o’clock there are still reporters waiting in the hallway. Suddenly I remember: I haven’t yet said my morning prayers. I shut myself in an empty room and put on my tefillin. (All Rivers Run to the Sea, p. 258)

Thrust into the stormy eye of the world, Professor Wiesel continued, amid the commotion, to cleave to the daily discipline of tefillin.

Travel and celebrity brought formidable challenges, but aging made for an even greater one. Professor Wiesel’s final book, his memoir Open Heart, chronicles the open-heart surgery he underwent in June 2011, as well as his reflections on his life and career that were elicited by such a confrontation with mortality. Chapter 22 begins: “And G‑d in all that?” probing once again G‑d’s enigmatic role in relation to the Holocaust. Immediately following this, Professor Wiesel writes: “On the third day [after the open-heart surgery], I feel the need to say my daily prayers. I ask [my wife] Marion to bring me my tallith and tefillin.”23 The seamless flow from reckoning “G‑d in all that” to honoring the commandment of tefillin, despite the difficulties surgery added, is of a piece with Professor Wiesel’s commitment overall. In fact, during his recovery, Professor Wiesel requested that the IV that was pulsing medication into his healing body be shifted from his left arm to his right, with whatever discomfort that would occasion, so that he could put tefillin on his left arm as he always had.24

His concern for fulfilling this special daily commandment, even when circumstances made it inconvenient, extended beyond himself. I witnessed this when I visited Professor Wiesel to confer with him about my dissertation in the mid-1980s. At a certain point in our meeting, Professor Wiesel excused himself to take a phone call, which turned out to be from his then-teenage son, Elisha, who was suffering from a bad case of chickenpox. The phone call consisted of Professor Wiesel gently urging Elisha to put on tefillin, despite the momentary discomfort. “Just put them on for a minute . . . Yes, I know it hurts. But you don’t need to keep them on for more than a minute . . . Yes, I know that the skin is tender right there. So find the place that it is the least tender.”

Hearing only half the conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder at Professor Wiesel’s patient insistence, at his nimble coaxing in the face of his son’s understandable distress, at the combination of sympathy and unflagging perseverance. At the time I was simply there, occupying myself with my dissertation notes so as to show that, from my end, the phone conversation could go on as long as it needed to. On another level, I was honored—and humbled—that my teacher would carry on such a personal conversation in my presence, though it was neither the first nor the last such occasion.

But I had no context in which to appreciate Professor Wiesel’s determination regarding tefillin: the daily regimen, the multiple sets of tefillin at the ready in cities throughout the world—and, in Auschwitz, the rising before dawn and risking his life to observe this commandment. To be sure, the conversation I half-heard took place between a loving father and a teenage son. Hundreds of others like it no doubt occurred during these years, on matters far-ranging in tenor and scope. But this tefillin-centered conversation, overheard some 30 years ago, is now illuminated by my knowledge of Professor Wiesel’s remarkable commitment through the years, in Auschwitz and elsewhere.

“What he said is true. But his truth is not my truth.” Professor Wiesel’s extraordinary response to an Auschwitz survivor’s challenge to my research on wartime calendars set in motion my quest. I wanted to do justice to the way that Professor Wiesel conveyed his truth to me: his telling me of his putting on tefillin in Auschwitz.

While I’ve tried to follow that thread and elaborate on the ways tefillin was richly intertwined in Professor Wiesel’s life and writing, the nature of his response to my query is otherwise notable in several respects. First, in the face of a formidable challenge to the premise of my calendar project, Professor Wiesel validated my conclusions. Seeing that I was shaken by the words of a survivor who seemed to contradict the very basis of my research, Professor Wiesel shared with me the experience that confirmed my findings. If one could find time, courage and self-denial—“even while the world was forsaking them and [had] surrendered them to death”—to put on tefillin in Auschwitz, one could find a similar resolve to compose a Jewish calendar from scratch.

But his wording was exact. Professor Wiesel did not lend me his support by saying that what the other Auschwitz survivor said was false or incorrect. Indeed, he began by affirming the other survivor’s testimony: “What he said is true.” Professor Wiesel could say this because he knew that the experience of those compelled to endure Auschwitz varied greatly, shaped by factors in the camp as well as by factors—such as background, character and temperament—that had preceded imprisonment. So what the survivor said was true, was an accurate reflection of his experience. It had to be taken into account.

That said, “his truth was not my truth.” His truth, true though it was, could not, as Professor Wiesel made clear, represent all survivors of Auschwitz, could not define the limits and possibilities of the experience of all Jewish prisoners in the camp. Because some prisoners could not accept, under any circumstances, “interrupting a millennia-old tradition” of putting on tefillin. Hence Professor Wiesel’s truth—tefillin in Auschwitz—left its mark on his slender arm long after the camp barracks emptied.

I am grateful to Professor Alan Berger, who earlier this year convened an Elie Wiesel memorial symposium at Florida Atlantic University, at which time I was invited to present these remarks.