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Learning Pirkey Avot In Buchenwald

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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.

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