Chapter 1 – Visit from a Holy Man
The first visit to my hospital bed took place on the day I was born.
But I can’t rightfully start with that celebrated event without including the string of circumstances that led up to it, an emotional and historical roller-coaster that began eleven years earlier, at a time when the birth of a child sparked a more bittersweet style of rejoicing amongst Jews.
My parents were Holocaust survivors. I’ve always been dismayed by the choice of the word “survivor” to describe these “unfortunate” fortunate souls, because, although they did emerge “alive” from that province of Hell, they remained endlessly tortured by the vivid images carved in memory and by a haunting guilt that they were rescued at the expense of millions who were not. “Survivor” seems more a word for victims of a hurricane or an earthquake than for my parents, who never fully ascended from the abyss. Surely there is a word that would pay them a higher tribute.
On those rare occasions when we could coax my mother to speak about her War experiences, she would always begin with a wistful, nostalgic depiction of her very typical, very normal childhood. “The world was different when I was little,” she would croon, in her thickly-accented, improvised English, “but just like you, I go to school, I play with friends, mine sisters, mine brother, I help Mamma’she cook and keep house, and when I get to be eighteen, I go to work making tailoring.”
This idyllic, small town existence vanished forever on an “ordinary” weekday in 1939, when my mother, Sosha (Sofi) Rubensztejn, just nineteen years old at the time, returned home from work to discover a horrifying scene: her quiet street was lined with military vehicles, and a loud, violent mob of Nazi soldiers brandished weapons and bellowed at the neighbors to report outside immediately. Her heart pounded as she struggled to breathe, and her eyes darted frantically across the rows of faces, searching for her loved ones. But her mind was a hopeless jumble, and she simply could not make sense of the scene she witnessed. Suddenly, she froze in horror. About fifty feet away, she recognized her mother, in the clutches of two soldiers, valiantly struggling to resist arrest, but finally succumbing to their superior strength. My mother tried to scream, but no sound emerged. After several attempts, she managed a hoarse “Mamma’she! Mamma’she!” but as if in a dream, all movement slowed: she could not think, she could not call for help, and worst of all, she could not escape.
That was the last she would ever see of her mother.
More than any other trauma she experienced, the unbearable memory of her beloved mother’s capture by the Germans stayed with her most vividly. I believe that at that moment, love and sorrow became forever enmeshed, and my mother was destined never to experience the one without the other.
After my mother’s passing in 1993, I found, among her personal effects, this testimony, written in German, which describes the crimes the Nazis committed against her:
I was born July 30, 1920 in Skarszysko, Poland, where I lived with my parents, prior to the war, until 1939. I attended and graduated from public school there. Later I studied tailoring and worked as such. I earned about 40 zlotys a week.
Before the war I was always in excellent health, and I never suffered from any specific illness, but as a result of the persecution I endured, I suffered permanent damage to my health.
After the outbreak of the German-Polish war in September 1939, the city was occupied by the Germans and the persecution of the Jews began immediately. I had to perform forced labor and wear the [yellow patch] Star of David. Later a ghetto was established to which I had to relocate, along with the other Jewish people in town. We continued to perform forced labor and wear the Star of David. Then I was in KZ(i) Skarszysko, where I had to work in HASSAG (a munitions factory). I performed outdoor work and worked in the gardens. I had to work long hours, partially outside under all weather conditions, rain and cold, without sufficient clothing or shoes. The work was very hard and not suited for women. I stayed in a barracks, had to sleep on flat, hard beds and suffered from hunger. Often, I was beaten while working if I was not able to fulfill the difficult tasks fast enough. I was then in KZ Czenstochau where I worked in HASSAG, had to drag heavy loads and carry out other difficult duties. Towards the end of 1944, I came to KZ Bergen-Belsen, where I was liberated in April 1945.
In 1942, in KZ Skarszysko, an SS man once beat me tremendously on my head and back during work. He kept on beating me until – totally covered in blood – I collapsed and fainted. Others, also imprisoned, lifted me up and brought me back to my “block”, where a woman applied makeshift bandages. I had a hole in my head, which, until today, shows a visible scar. After a short while I went back to work, for fear I would be sent to extermination if I would be found no longer useful for work. As a result of this horrible mistreatment I have suffered terrible headaches as well as pain in the lower back ever since. I am nervous as a result of all the ordeals I have been through, and the constant fear that I would be killed has made me suffer a lot. As a result of the head injury I am hearing-impaired in both ears. I suffer from depressions, and oftentimes, I still believe that I am being persecuted. My memory has suffered as well. Some time later I caught typhoid in Skarszysko and was admitted to the Oekonomia Hospital. In Skarszysko, the notorious SS man Battenschlager also resided. He had already selected me to be shot, from which I was miraculously saved. All that, of course, wrecked my nerves.
In KZ Czenstochau I also worked in HASSAG. The work was very hard; I had to move heavy loads. It was there where I got beaten with a stick on my head and back by the SS man Graefe. At that time I was already sick and weak and was not able anymore to work as fast as was required of me. Even after this abuse, I continued working.
I stayed in Czenstochau until the end of 1944, and after that I was transferred to KZ Bergen-Belsen, where I was liberated in April 1945. I was so sick, and my body was so totally swollen, that I didn’t even realize that I had been liberated. I stayed in Bergen-Belsen until the end of 1945 and was treated in my cell by a German doctor. Today I can’t remember his name anymore, because, as I already mentioned, my memory had deteriorated. In Bergen-Belsen I got married to my husband, Eli Krause, on December 28, 1945. With him I drove to the DP (Displaced Persons) camp Eggenfelden, where I was treated by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) doctors. I never knew their names.
These unbelievable events did not happen to some faceless stranger memorialized in a Holocaust museum; they happened to my very own flesh and blood.
My father, Eliyahu (Eli) Krause was born in Lodz, Poland in 1913. By 1939, at the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was 26 years old, married and the father of a young child. He served his country as a soldier, but in September of 1939, the Soviets invaded Poland from the East and took him prisoner. Soviet POW camps had no shelters, but were mere open areas cordoned off with barbed wire, and my father found himself exposed to the elements, sometimes in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of his fellow prisoners died.
Back in Poland, his parents, five brothers, three sisters, his wife and child remained in the city of Lodz under German occupation. Over the next six months, the more than 200,000 Jews of Lodz were systematically herded into the hastily-constructed Lodz Ghetto where, without running water or proper sewage disposal, the overcrowded living conditions became deadly. Many starved or contracted diseases like diphtheria, typhus, malaria, smallpox, dysentery, scarlet fever or polio. Only 5 per cent survived. My father lost every member of his immediate family except one brother. Even his wife and baby died. Blessedly, he did not hear this heartbreaking news until after the War, for if he had, it might have destroyed him.
In mid-1941, the German armies made their way east through Poland and into Russia, and by December, the Soviet military, decimated after eight months of fighting, had no choice but to release all POWs. Miraculously still alive, my father somehow returned to Poland. No records exist to document what became of him there and what circumstances led him to Germany, but it is clear that, after the travails he had already endured, he was eventually captured by the Nazis and imprisoned at Buchenwald in the summer of 1944. In his own words:
I was an inmate of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp from the 5th day of August 1944 to the 27th day of April 1945 and my Prisoner number was 82246. On the 15th day of November 1944, I managed to escape. When I was recaptured in the evening of the same day by the German Patrol, to save my life, I did not disclose my proper name, but I stated that my name was Abram Perelman born at Lodz, Poland on the 18th day of October 1910. I have chosen the same date of birth except for the year so as not to have any mistakes in the event of being interrogated at a later date. After recapture I was again confined to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in a different barrack under the name of Abram Perelman and never identified. For my own safety I had to retain that name throughout. I resided in Germany from the date of Liberation until the 28th day of December 1948 when I traveled to Israel under the assumed name of Abram Perelman. Immediately on arrival in Israel at the Port of Haifa, I disclosed to the authorities my correct name and have immediately reverted to my proper name of Eliyahu Krause.
The scene that met the British 11th Armoured Division at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945 has been described in the most horrific imagery as a grisly panorama of tens of thousands of corpses intermingled with the emaciated living. Within this surreal landscape raged an outbreak of typhus which threatened the frail survivors, and over the next several days, the concentration camp was evacuated and burned to the ground to contain the epidemic. The 12,000 plus evacuees were taken to a Displaced Persons camp that had been established in a nearby German military school barracks, and this is the unlikely spot where the first buds of romance blossomed for my 32-year-old widowed father and my 25-year-old mother, both broken and aged beyond their years, but divinely selected to continue living and help repopulate the Jewish nation. I personally cannot fathom how, but on December 28, 1945, against a backdrop of ramshackle huts and mobile army hospitals, my parents were sanctified as husband and wife, according to the laws of Moses and Israel.
At this point in the narrative, I must pause to consider how, after what they had been through, my father and mother possessed the resilience to embark on a future together. What force impelled them to rededicate themselves to life? What invisible power lifted them above the numbness and resignation it was surely their right to feel? What dismissed the obvious question, “Why create more life just to watch it die?” And finally, how could my parents risk loving once more when love triggered the possibility of losing everything all over again?
After five decades of turning these questions over in my mind, I have come to this conclusion: the cosmic force that drove my parents’ generation to “choose life” is the same one that has kept the Jewish people alive for more than 3,000 years. It is a God-given purpose, programmed into the soul, that gravitates towards goodness and will not surrender to the potential for evil which exists within the human condition. Regardless of our circumstances, we Jews are a nation zealously committed to repairing mankind through God’s Divine ethics and spiritual wisdom.
Jewish tradition teaches that everything with a potential for Godliness exists in the realm of life and that death has its roots in the opposite of holiness, something Jewish mystical thought – Kabbalah(ii) – calls the sitra achra (iii). Theologians and others have sought philosophical explanations for the inexplicable and unprecedented loss of life resulting from the Holocaust, but, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, passionately wrote (iv):
What greater conceit, and what greater heartlessness, can there be than to give a “reason” for the death and torture of millions of innocent men, women and children? Can we presume that an explanation, small enough to fit inside the finite bounds of human reason, can explain a horror of such magnitude? We can only concede that there are things that lie beyond the finite ken of the human mind.
It is not our task to justify God on this. Only God Himself can answer for what He allowed to happen. And the only answer we will accept is the immediate and complete Redemption that will forever banish evil from the face of the earth and bring to light the intrinsic goodness and perfection of God’s creation.
There are those who argue that the Holocaust disproves the existence of God or His providence over our lives. But if there is anything that the Holocaust has decisively disproven, it is any possible faith in a human-based morality. In pre-war Europe, it was the German people who epitomized culture, scientific advance and philosophic morality. And these very same people perpetrated the most vile atrocities known to human history! If nothing else, the Holocaust has taught us that a moral and civilized existence is possible only through the belief in and the acceptance of the Divine authority.
Indeed, our outrage, our incessant challenge to God over what has occurred — this itself is a most powerful attestation to our belief in Him and our faith in His goodness. Because if we did not, underneath it all, possess this faith, what is it that we are outraged at?
But the most important thing about the Holocaust is not that we do or do not understand it, nor even, how we memorialize its victims, but what we do about it. If we allow the pain and despair to dishearten us from raising a new generation of Jews with a strong commitment to their Jewishness, then Hitler’s “final solution” will be realized, God forbid. But if we rebuild, if we raise a generation proud of and committed to their Jewishness, we will have triumphed. The Jewish people has been so heavily decimated that each of us must be made to count, and to count doubly.
And so, my parents, along with the rest of their noble generation, dug down to access that God-given power, not just to survive, but to reproduce and do their utmost to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.
With the best of intentions, my mother’s delicate health, combined with the miserable conditions at the DP camp, tormented her first pregnancy, and in the winter of 1946, she gave birth to a fragile baby boy they named David, after my father’s father. The joy at having a child after so much tragedy was diminished by David’s frequent colds and respiratory ailments, a by-product of his having taken shape inside a mother who was, herself, less than healthy. Worried sick over her baby’s inability to thrive, my mother was chronically nervous and on edge. She would take David to the play area in the DP camp, thinking the fresh air would benefit him, but once outdoors, she would park the carriage in the shade, then wheel it out into the sunshine, alternately covering and uncovering her sensitive child, never quite sure if he was too hot or too cold. By her own admission, she was a jumpy, skittish new parent, but the truth is, despite her fussing and fretting, David’s well-being was simply not within her control, and just shy of his first birthday, the baby contracted pneumonia and died.
My father told me that losing David sent my mother into a downward spiral. She was frequently inconsolable with weeping, and at times the memory of the baby’s death would seize her so suddenly, she would wail in bone-chilling despair. She would claw at her own flesh or run outside, as though chased, in an attempt to throw off the demons that plagued her.
My father did not know how to comfort her. The more he tried, the worse it got. In the end, the only remedy he could think of was to pick up physically and leave behind the conditions that seemed to trigger more and more misery.
In 1948, as the Jewish world wept with joy at the UN vote to grant them a Homeland, my parents joined the hundred thousand émigrés who relocated to the infant state of Israel. Much effort was expended in absorbing the new immigrants, but the best the fledgling government could do was cobble together a shaky infrastructure, offering them makeshift housing and a jumbled assortment of jobs. My parents’ first “home” was in one of the many ma’abarot (refugee camps providing tin shacks and tents) that sprang up on an as-needed basis. Later, they were able to move into a hastily-built, box-style apartment boasting a shared a kitchen and communal bathroom facilities.
It was in these humble surroundings that my mother regained some sense of normality, and within a few months’ time, she and my father happily discovered that they were expecting another child. Their willingness to throw caution to the winds is nothing short of remarkable, but the simple reality was, their hopefulness was no match for my mother’s chronic ill health, made worse by the arduous pioneer lifestyle she and my father had adopted. After a tenuous nine months, my mother gave birth to a cyanotic little boy – a “blue” baby – whose defective lungs could not deliver sufficient oxygen to the blood and whose imperfect heart rendered him utterly unresponsive. This weak, frail child struggled to live, but his valiant fight lasted just a few short hours, and with history cruelly repeating itself, he perished, nameless, leaving my parents tortured, melancholy and confused.
Never having experienced anything as overwhelming as a Great Depression or a World War, I cannot even conjure up a set of circumstances, outside of an epic tragedy, that would rival my parents’ real life experiences. It is for this reason that I am often in disbelief that my mother agreed to consider to undergo a third pregnancy, but conceive she did, and on Friday, August 25, 1950, in a post-War Tel Aviv hospital, I was born.
In those days, the drug of choice for the laboring mother was a combination of morphine, to relieve pain, and scopolamine, an amnesic, which made the mother forget the reality of childbirth. This mixture produced something called “Twilight Sleep,” a dreamlike state characterized by disorientation and loss of free will. It effectively removed the mother from the birth experience and conferred upon the baby a severely depressed central nervous system.
Since my mother had never fully recovered from the abuses inflicted upon her during the War, and since she had not yet successfully delivered a healthy baby, the effects of these particular drugs played havoc with my already compromised physiology. I arrived in the throes of respiratory failure, with poor color and diminished vitality. My mother, beside herself at the prospect of losing yet another baby, called out to my father, in desperation, to run and get help, and not just any sort of help, she stressed, he should run out and bring back a Rebbe (v).
When medical outcomes seemed questionable, European Jews of my parents’ generation sought the intervention of a Rebbe: a holy man, a Tzaddik (vi) an utterly righteous individual, whose selfless, ego-less devotion to God rendered him a pure conduit for the flow of divine energy.
In this day and age, it is difficult to convey adequately the enormity of a Rebbe, because the modern world is so mired in physicality that we cannot begin to comprehend the vast spiritual resources available to those rare souls who know how to access them.
So, I will attempt to describe the concept of a Rebbe by introducing the first and quintessential Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (vii), who was born in Okup, Poland in the year 1698, in the wake of pogroms and unbearable persecutions against European Jews. The holy Baal Shem Tov was a mystic, a loving shepherd of his people, bringing comfort to the many Jews who were left uprooted and bereft, both spiritually and physically. He was a Torah scholar and miracle worker of great renown, and he founded the Chassidic movement in the year 1734.
The Baal Shem Tov’s philosophy and the body of his teachings were passed down to his disciple, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid (viii) of Mezritch, who is personified in the following story. This illustration of a Rebbe, who is at once a direct pathway into God’s infinite benevolence and a limited human being who is merely a tool in the hand of the Craftsman, will give the reader some idea as to the potential which a Rebbe can tap into by virtue of his elevated spiritual status.
A poor family once came to the Maggid of Mezritch asking for a cure for their crippled son, who had been lame since birth.
Known for his infinite kindness, the Maggid seemed uncharacteristically stern on that day, ordering the parents to bring him 50 gold rubles so that their son might be healed.
“Fifty gold rubles!” cried the crestfallen mother. “It may as well be a million! Would the Rebbe not be satisfied with less?”
“Not a kopek less,” was the Maggid’s unusually harsh answer.
What could the family do? They began to sell their few possessions. After struggling to collect 30 gold rubles, they went back to see the Maggid. “This is all we could gather,” they explained. “Surely 30 rubles will suffice.”
With uncommon severity, the Maggid refused. “Fifty gold rubles,” he repeated, “and not a kopek less.”
Once again, the boy’s desperate parents went knocking on doors, begging for the remaining twenty coins.
When they had accumulated 40 rubles, they came to the Maggid a third time. “This is all we could raise,” the mother pleaded. “Please take it and bless our son with a complete recovery.”
“I will accept nothing less than fifty gold rubles,” the Maggid replied, his curious stubbornness showing no sign of abating.
With fierce frustration, the mother hurled the coins out the window. “God will help us,” she exclaimed to her husband. “We have no need for the Maggid!”
Suddenly, the Rebbe rose from his chair, his face aglow. “Those are the words I was waiting for!” he cried. “Moshe.” He turned to the crippled child, “Run outside and collect those coins! Your family will surely need them.”
And the boy, crippled no longer, sprang to his feet and rushed out the door!
“As long as you put your faith in me personally, your prayers could not be answered,” the Maggid explained. “You must always put your trust in God. Then, and only then, can a Rebbe be granted the privilege of assisting you.”
So with that, perhaps the reader will understand the power behind my mother’s request that my father set out on foot in search of a Rebbe who would hold vigil at my hospital bed.
It is said that the Almighty neither slumbers nor sleeps, but watches over Israel (ix) and so, on this, my first Sabbath Eve, with darkness descending, none other than the holy Nadvorner Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Rosenbaum, of blessed memory, rushed determinedly to do this great mitzvah (x)of visiting the sick.
At once, the double doors of the hospital flung open to admit this majestic figure, clad impeccably in a black silk frock coat and fur shtreimel (xi) flanked by my father and half a dozen of his disciples. They strode to the showcase window of the neonatal ICU, where my father pointed out my bassinette. It was then that profound recognition showed on the Rebbe’s face. He nodded humbly and sympathetically. He sighed deeply, and then he closed his eyes and appeared to enter a state of trancelike prayer. His Chassidim similarly positioned themselves. Doctors, nurses and bystanders fell silent, whereupon the Rebbe, eyelids fluttering, quietly began to hum a plaintive niggun (xii). The wordless supplication swelled to a crescendo, and as the Rebbe’s Chassidim harmonized, the exquisitely wrought melody was carried aloft to Heaven.
My father made his way to my mother’s room, where she lay convalescing, still hallucinating from her drug-induced Twilight Sleep. As he opened the door, the tune reached its climax, whereupon my mother saw, in her window’s reflection, the image of her grandfather, long ago deceased. “Sosha,” he whispered lovingly, “The new baby – please give him my name, Simcha Leib.” And as quickly as the apparition materialized, it disappeared.
My mother turned to look at my father, who was just entering the room. As the melody emanating from the corridor faded, the realization began to set in that she had surely merited a visit from the other world, a visit that had brought with it the assurance of her baby’s survival. A sense of serenity enveloped my mother and father. As their eyes met, tears welled up. “This one will live,” my father said simply. And with that, my mother fell into a peaceful slumber.
A short time later, the Nadvorner Rebbe left with his entourage to return to synagogue for the evening prayers. Surprisingly he had been in the hospital for just fifteen minutes. This was surely not enough time to part the waters or cause the sun to stand still, but oddly, the next morning, when the nurses brought me to my mother for a first feeding, I was able to suckle, and within hours, I became more responsive. My heartbeat was stronger, my color improved, and the doctors, in utter disbelief, gave my parents the news that I would be discharged within the week.
And so it was that I survived.
Eight days later, in celebration of my ritual circumcision, and presumably to remind God of their previous agreement, the Nadvorner Rebbe returned to serve as my Sandek (xiii) I don’t know whose merits weighed heavier in the celestial spheres on that day – those of the distinguished gentleman who held me during the ceremony or those of my great grandfather’s spirit, who had braved the trip to this earthly plane, just to bestow upon me the soul powers inherent in his name – in my name – Simcha Leib.
i KZ – Konzentrationslager, a literal translation of the English term concentration camp.
ii Kabbalah – (lit. “received tradition”) the body of Jewish mystical teachings, the central text of which is the Zohar.
iii Sitra Achra – Euphemistically “the other side,” i.e., the opposite of the side of holiness.
iv Based primarily on talks dated Yud Shevat 5741 (January, 1981) and Asarah B’teves 5752 (December, 1991).
v Rebbe (pl. Rebbeim) – A Chassidic spiritual advisor and mentor who is also consulted on practical matters.
vi Tzaddik – (pl. Tzaddikim) – A saint, or righteous person.
vii Born 18 Elul 5458 (August 25, 1698) in Okup, a small border town that has been part of Poland and Russia, and is now part of the Ukraine.
viii Maggid – A teacher or preacher (when capitalized, “the Maggid” usually refers specifically to Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch).
ix Psalms 121:4
x Mitzvah (Pl. Mitzvot) – literally a “commandment (from God)” but also connotes a “good deed,” for it is through doing the Creator’s will that a Jew expresses Divine goodness.
xi Shtreimel – (Yiddish) a wide fur-trimmed hat traditionally worn by some Chassidim on Shabbat, festivals, and other important occasions.
xii Niggun (Pl. Niggunim) – A wordless tune which transports the listener to a more contemplative state.
xiii Sandek – The one honored with holding the baby during the circumcision.
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