My late father was a survivor of Auschwitz. He arrived there as a young Hassid from a Jewish village in Poland, and he left as he had arrived, with his faith intact, and with an awareness that following the Holocaust, he must not be tempted by the offers of the JDC and HIAS to travel to America. As he put it one of the few times he broke the long silence that characterized his life: “The time had come to go home.”
He went to fight in the War of Liberation, although my mother, who had survived the ghettos, already was carrying me in her belly. They had made a decision to build a family together, and were married by a British military rabbi in a Cyprus detention camp for Jews who attempted to break the British blockade of the Land of Israel. Upon arriving here he was immediately conscripted and sent to infantry training and then to serve at Hagana positions. He left my pregnant mother in a village in the north with other families that had come from the gloom of the Diaspora and forged a community of Hassidic laborers out of its wreckage.
Alongside him served other survivors. The cynics among them would later laugh about those days of “Yiddishe soldiers” whose maneuvers were executed in exquisite Yiddish that to my ears sounded like a Dzigan sketch. I remember their reminiscences about mortar-firing exercises accompanied by otherwordly orders straight out of the shtiebl. “Arise, Reb Yechiel—honored with the firing of one bomb!”
As much as this was a Hassidic community, it was a Zionist one, at once hard-nosed and idealistic. Its members took Independence Day with the utmost seriousness, and recited the formal blessing over the Hallel prayer. “Anyone who wasn’t there has no business telling us not to say a blessing,” Daskal, the synagogue manager, once said to me. He would later lose his son Ya’akov, a brilliant yeshiva student, when he fell with two fellow students in a terrorist ambush in the Jordan Valley.
There was no quibbling with decisions as to who was called up for duty. Encounters at the shtiebl between Torah students and fighters lacked the tension that is there today. There was agreement that everyone was on a mission, whether a military mission or one of Torah.
“A Head with Tefillin”
It was the first day of the Yom Kippur War. We were in the middle of the Mussaf prayer, and I was there in my commanding role in the Hassidic choir as we sang “Be with the mouths of your people the House of Israel.”
My mother, who had been informed well in advance that two consecutive calls were due cause to pick up the phone on a Shabbat or holiday, arrived at the synagogue and hurried me out.
“I think they’re calling from your unit,” she said nervously.
Before saying goodbye to me, the old Hassidim sent me to receive a blessing from the rebbe of the neighboring shtiebl, who was considered a miracle worker. He too had come from there.
With the convulsions of war and the battles, I moved around between various units so as to stay on the front. As time went on, as would be expected of me, I lost more and more of my equipment—but not my gun or my tefillin.
My gun—granted, but tefillin? To understand that you have to know a story from my youth.
One day in yeshiva I received a package of cookies from my mother, accompanied by an agitated letter from my father.
“My dear son,” he wrote in the rugged handwriting of a manual laborer, “you know what ‘a head without tefillin’ is. But the head of the yeshiva has informed me that you missed putting on tefillin one day!”