Another year has passed, another year in which those who survived the Holocaust were called back home. We lament their loss as individuals who were vital to our community, and as eyewitnesses to the cataclysmic horrors that claimed the lives of six million Jews and forever scarred the lives of millions of others.
But I say that the second part of that lament is misplaced. Although the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed close to 2,000 years ago, we have never forgotten it. I would argue that the Holocaust will be the same, it is engraved on the Jewish psyche like the numbers tattooed on the arms of its victims. No, not its victims, its heroes. Every Jew who lived through or died during the Holocaust was a hero who demonstrated tremendous self-sacrifice and lived or died Al Kiddush Hashem.
It is amazing when you think that these men, women and children, who lived for months or years not knowing if they would survive another day, went on to live into their eighties, nineties – some even became centenarians.
This year, the community I lived in lost two of these individuals within a month’s time. These two survivors had much in common. Both lived into their nineties; both came to Israel after the war as soon as they could get a visa; both raised large, religious families in Petach Tikvah, and were positive, optimistic, kind and modest people.
Ita Irena Mandel came to Israel in 1964 with her husband and two sons from Dej in Romania. She was thirty-eight, had survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz where she lost her whole family, and then spent fifteen years waiting for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel. She and her husband Baruch had two sons. Her husband was also her cousin.
Irena had taken it upon herself to light candles each Shabbat not just for her family, but for her parents and in-laws who died in the war.
When they arrived in Israel, they had practically nothing and Irena looked to save money any way she could. One week, she decided to light only two candles on Shabbat instead of six.
That night, her mother-in-law, Yenta, who was also her aunt, came to her in a dream and, in an angry voice, told her she should continue to light six candles and not alter her custom. Apparently, she had brought light to the souls of her dear departed family and they were upset that she stopped.
The next Shabbat, Irena lit six candles and did so for the rest of her life – until her death at the age of 92.
One of her grandsons gave a hesped at her levaya and, after mentioning his grandmother’s qualities of kindness, love, modestly and gratitude for all that God had given her, he listed the names of her family. Diametrically the opposite of the list of names read on Holocaust Memorial Day, this was a list of the progeny God had granted her and her husband. She lived to see 27 great-grandchildren, with, Baruch Hashem, more on the way.
As Irena took her last breaths, her newest great-grandson was having his Shalom Zachor. The bris was the next day. Her children and grandchildren split their time between sitting shmira for Irena and attending the bris. Many of the same people attended both the bris and the levaya – it was just like Irena not to trouble anyone to come out for her. The entire family was already together.
Moshe David Sofer (Shreiber) came from Reghin in Hungary. Well sometimes it was in Hungary, sometimes it was in Romania. He lost his parents and five of his six siblings during the war. His book, Choose Life, recounts the story of his survival and his journey to Israel with his wife Miriam in 1959. He proposed to her two hours after they met – both still wearing their camp uniforms. They were together for 70 years. They lived a modest life and raised a Torah family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
My father also survived the Holocaust and now his grandson, my son, is teaching Moshe David’s great-grandson Torah in Eretz Yisrael. It’s rather mind-boggling.
Unlike the dispersion and destruction that followed the destruction of the Temples we still mourn until today, the Holocaust was followed by rebuilding, by the establishment of the State of Israel, by sprouting centers of Torah learning worldwide, flourishing communities and large Torah families. The descendants of the survivors are enjoying affluence, religious freedom, and the blessings of large families mere decades after the destruction of the Jewish people seemed eminent.
Irena and Moshe David returned their pure and tenacious souls surrounded by love, by family and by the holy legacy of Torah they built and inspired. Yehi zichram baruch.
L’illui nishmat: Irena Ita bat Shlomo and Moshe David ben Hillel