The following story illustrates the strength of the Jewish people. It is a story of remarkable heroism in the face of utter insanity. “Like the rose maintaining its beauty among the thorns, so is my faithful Beloved among the nations” (Song of Songs). I am grateful to the Kaliver Rebbetzin for sharing her story with me.

In the time of our greatest sorrow, deep inside the bowels of the earth, where the Nazis, may their names be blotted out, forced us to dig anti-tank ditches in the path of the advancing Red Army, we cried out, “From the depths I call to You . . .” (Psalms 130)

The earth was frozen over. The Germans would throw a grenade to soften the earth, and then force us, young women and girls, to dig the ditches, two and three meters deep into the ground. Every Shabbat morning, two girls would stand vigil to warn us when the S.S. guards would approach. We didn’t want to work on the holy Shabbat. We sang Shabbat songs and prayers, we told each other stories of ancient and not-so-ancient Jewish heroes, we drew strength from one another.

Suddenly, the Blockelteste burst upon our small group huddled together in song

I remember one Friday night. I was sitting with my two nieces on a thin pile of straw, resting from the backbreaking labor in a barn on the roadside. We were in the middle of a death march then. And as the sun dipped below the horizon, I suddenly remembered that it was Shabbat.

“Let’s pray,” I urged, “in honor of Shabbat.”

Some other girls came to join us, and we sat and sang the prayers greeting the Shabbat Queen. We felt mesmerized by the words. They reminded us of bygone days, and we allowed ourselves to become enveloped in the sweet memories that those words evoked.

Suddenly, the Blockelteste (block leader), who had been sitting in her room behind the wall we shared, burst upon our small group huddled together in song and hurled a vicious slap in my face. Before I could get my bearings, another violent blow landed on my other cheek.

“You are still praying?” she asked. Her face was crimson, contorted from fury, her eyes bloodshot.

A sudden Jewish pride arose within me, like a pillar of smoke rising from a chimney.

“Yes,” I answered her calmly but in a firm voice, “we are still praying.”

Her lips were trembling from rage. She gritted her teeth, planted her hands on her hips and snarled angrily, “You still think that you will get out of here?”

There was absolute silence in the room. No one moved. When did anybody ever challenge the Blockelteste? At that moment, time seemed to stand still. My eyes took in the frozen, terror-stricken faces of my friends, and I arose from my crouched position. I had more to say.

“With G‑d’s help,” my voice emerged with a strength I didn’t know I possessed, “we will get out of here.”

The Blockelteste opened her mouth to speak. Then she stopped. Her arms went limp, her shoulders sagged. Then, without a word, she turned on her heels and left.