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Learning Pirkey Avot In Buchenwald

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Passover is a festival of freedom, chag hageulah, when we remember our deliverance from slavery in Egypt. For my father, Chaskel Tydor, Passover was also a reminder of the slavery he experienced during his lifetime – of his five and a half years in the Nazi camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

To be a prisoner in a concentration camp meant living day to day, not thinking about how long one was going to be imprisoned but always hoping liberation was around the corner. This is how my father and his comrades survived their incarceration. His only personal calendar was the Jewish luach, and he lived from holiday to holiday, from fast to festival.

Passover raised a number of difficult questions, as the prisoners’ main daily food was bread. During the days preceding Passover a number of prisoners who knew my father was a learned Orthodox Jew approached him with questions. Should one eat the bread? If one eats it, should it be eaten in a special way?

Seeing how the health of so many inmates had deteriorated, he refused to prohibit eating bread under the circumstances. But he was always strict with himself and made deals with non-Jewish inmates, exchanging bread for potatoes during that week. When it was impossible to make an exchange, he gave his bread to a prisoner who seemed in a very bad state of health and subsisted only on ersatz coffee and soup.

Passover 1940 was a spiritual watershed for Chaskel and a number of his religious comrades, as it marked half a year that they’d been in Buchenwald. Occasionally he asked himself how he could have already survived so long in the camp.

The state of his physical body was one thing. But what about his soul? The coming of Passover, also known as the festival of redemption, reminded Chaskel and his friends that though their bodies may not have been free, their souls certainly were. But how had they been nourishing these souls?

The occasional clandestine holiday celebration was not enough; now they felt the need for something more constant. It was time for them to return to a regular practice of learning Torah, even once a week. How could they do this with no books, no sources and almost no opportunity to meet outside of marching to and from work?

My father came up with an idea. On the first Sabbath after Passover it is customary to begin learning Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) until the festival of Sukkot in the autumn. Why could they not do this in Buchenwald as well?

On Saturdays, when work officially ended by 2 or 3 p.m., they had a bit of unsupervised time when prisoners would tidy their blocks and clean their clothing. After completing their chores, some prisoners would walk between the barracks or even toward part of the Buchenwald forest that lay within the camp’s perimeter, keeping watch for the S.S. Maybe it could be done then?

From the Sabbath after Passover onward, Chaskel and his friends used some of the time in the afternoon to walk around the camp and learn Pirkei Avot together. “It was suddenly important that I had a good memory,” my father told me. “I would begin by reciting the chapter of the week aloud to the group, and then everyone would discuss it.”

The men would walk toward the trees, learning Torah and discussing commentaries, winding their way around the barracks and into the open areas of the camp near the forest. It must have been an incongruous sight: a small group of prisoners in striped uniforms, caps on their heads ostensibly shielding their faces from the spring and summer sun but in truth serving as a head covering, walking through the woods of Buchenwald as they discussed the intricacies of Pirkei Avot.

As a child I had not always understood why my father would expect me to learn by heart every religious text I was taught in school. After all, he said, you never knew when you would be without a siddur or a sefer and would be able to rely only on your memory.

Only after hearing stories such as this did I fully comprehend what he was trying to tell me.

From week to week the study group grew, but the walks were kept short so as not to attract attention. A few more study groups grew out of this one – one that studied the Torah portion of the week, another headed by a Gerrer chassid who remembered the teachings of the Gerrer rebbes.

My father recalled this as one of the spiritual high points of his years in Buchenwald. He and his friends saw it as a triumph against the Nazis, a small victory in their ongoing battle for spiritual survival in the concentration camp. Throughout the long summer Saturdays the groups continued to walk and learn, even after some of the participants were deported to other camps.

But the Nazis were not the Orthodox prisoners’ only enemies.

“At one point we were the victims of ‘Jewish anti-Semitism,’ ” my father recalled, “when we were persecuted by a number of the more fanatic communist camp functionaries, some of whom were Jewish.” The groups were forced to go underground but even then they refused to give up their moments of spiritual freedom, continuing the momentum of Torah study under such abnormal conditions.

This was the story my father would tell us at the Seder every Passover before he would open the door and recite “Sh’foch Chamatcha” (“Pour out Thy wrath”), and every year since his death I tell this story to my children, to remind them how the Jewish spirit survived and triumphed even under conditions that were meant to destroy it.

About the Author: Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is director of the Schulmann School of Basic Jewish Studies and Professor of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

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