Holocaust survivor Sam Zelikson, 85, recently put on tefillin for the first time on an unlikely day, Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Tisha B’Av represents the great destruction and darkness that he experienced in his life, and putting on tefillin for the first time on that day represents bringing the light into the darkness of his life,” said Rabbi Arik Wolf, co-director of Chabad of Bedford, a suburb in Westchester County, N.Y., about an hour north of Manhattan.

Zelikson was born in Dvinsk, Latvia. He survived the Daugavpils ghetto (also known as the Dvinsk ghetto), in addition to five different concentration camps, losing his entire family—mother, father, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins—in the Holocaust.

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“It’s very difficult,” he says. “I myself can’t believe I’m still alive. It’s very graphic and unbelievable.”

His story, like the stories of other survivors, is one filled with terror and triumph. He retells it to groups who weep for him and what he went through.

Eventually, he came to the United States, married, had four daughters and a son, and two grandsons and a granddaughter. He and his wife, Janice, were married for 54 years until she passed away three years ago. Sadly, his son passed away at age 26.

Rabbi Arik Wolf, co-director of Chabad of Bedford, N.Y., teaches Zelikson's granddaughter, Lori, who attends Hebrew school there.
Rabbi Arik Wolf, co-director of Chabad of Bedford, N.Y., teaches Zelikson's granddaughter, Lori, who attends Hebrew school there.

Still, he insists, with all that he has endured, his faith remains unshaken.

“I’ve been through so much; each camp was worse than the other,” affirms Zellikson. To alleviate some of the burden of his memories, he often speaks—at no charge to the academic institution—to schoolchildren about his ordeal, saying, “I do it for my heart, not for my hand.”

‘I Never Give Up’

When the resident of Mount Kisco, N.Y., was looking for a synagogue, his daughters—Helene, Alice, Denise and Linda—suggested that he visit Chabad.

“I said that I’d go; I’ll see,” he recalls. “I still believe in the Torah.”

After years of coaxing from family members, he finally agreed to be called to the Torah for an aliyah in shul a few months ago.

“I thought I couldn’t do it,” he says. The experience was so moving that he fainted afterwards. No harm was done, he assures; the rabbi and congregants caught him.

Then, last week on Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av—for the first time in his life, he put on tefillin. “I felt very strange,” attests the octogenarian, who adds that a friend and the rabbi gently and patiently helped him through it.

“It happened by chance,” says Wolf. “We had a minyan for Mincha on Tisha B’Av, and he came. He said he never put on tefillin because the war [World War II] started before he was 13.”

After all these years, it seems his life has come full-circle.

“For me, it was a real surprise that I did it,” says Zelikson. “I never give up no matter what. And I’m never scared from anything.

“Rabbi Arik is a very fine gentleman. He’s very interested in the Jewish history and the Bible. He teaches a lot of children,” Zelikson says, including his 8-year-old granddaughter Lori.

His daughter, Linda Zelikson, agrees, saying the rabbi “is another great light. He helps bring light to my father, who struggles with the dark. The times my father has questioned the Torah readings, he has been very patient and kind.”

“When I saw my father sitting there with the tefillin on,” she continues, “I imagined him at 13 in Latvia with his parents—as if he had the joy of a normal 13-year-old boy becoming a bar mitzvah.”

Another daughter, Denise Zelikson, adds “how symbolic that G‑d blessed my father to do this mitzvah, especially on the day of Tisha B’Av. Here is a Jew who witnessed destruction, but his faith and his Judaism were never destroyed.”

As for the rabbi, he says: “In the merit of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael [Israel] and Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people or “the whole of Israel”], the light of Bedford should shine on everyone.”

Concludes Wolf: “It’s all hashgacha pratis [Divine Providence] that it worked out the way it did.”