Another Shabbat Nachamu has come and gone, but its message should resonate with us throughout the year. More than just an opportunity to go away for the weekend or enjoy a live concert on Saturday night, Shabbat Nachamu means that regardless of what tragedy has befallen our people, the Jewish nation will live on.
My husband’s grandfather, Joseph Hoffman, did not just physically survive the Nazi regime, he did so with his faith intact. There always seems to be an angle in every survivor’s story, a miracle that helped get him or her through another day until liberation. Zaidy had always been reluctant to discuss his experiences during the Holocaust with his children and grandchildren. He felt it wasn’t necessary for every detail to be known.
As he got older, though, he became more willing to talk, and even revealed an old sepia wallet-sized picture of his first family. His wife, Tzipporah, is dressed in a flowery housecoat, holding a baby girl, Rochel, who is wrapped in a white blanket, her hair in pigtails. Standing next to their mother are two little boys, Yehuda and Sender, in short pants and without shoes. Yehuda is wearing suspenders and a cap perched rakishly on top of his head, an impish dimple creasing his cheek. Sender, his curly hair still uncut before his upsherin, is holding a toy wooden sword and wearing a more solemn expression.
Once, when we were visiting, I asked him what it was that helped get him through the war. Zaidy smiled slightly and in his mixture of English, Hebrew and Yiddish told me about Shabbat Nachamu 1943.
He had been laboring in a type of mobile work unit since 1941, and two years into the war, with no end in sight, he was feeling “very bad” and thinking about his family and future. The Nazi commander, who was well versed in Jewish tradition, gathered all the prisoners together and proceeded to give them a Shabbat Nachamu drasha. He mocked the haftarah where the Jews are promised their suffering will soon end and said to the wretched group standing forlornly in front of him, “Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami? This war is not ending anytime soon.”
Zaidy is still a stubborn man, and I’m not surprised when he says that when he heard those words he found the inner strength to continue the backbreaking labor of digging railroads, so determined was he to prove the Nazi wrong. One morning, in November 1944, after sleeping overnight in a grain silo, his group of two hundred men woke up to realize the Nazis were no longer guarding them. They cautiously opened the door, and there, marching down the road, were the Russians.
For two weeks Zaidy walked home to Mamarush, Czechoslovakia, without food or provisions. When he reached his small town, he found the place Judenrein and the Soviets in charge. The Soviets tried to conscript him for forced labor, but he ran away that night to Prague. There he met up with a group of Jewish refugees and for the first time in many years was able to put on tefillin, daven with a minyan and keep kosher.
When I asked him what was it like to keep Shabbat again, after all that he had gone through, I thought he would speak about conflicting emotions and arguments with God. But Zaidy simply said, “I felt like ah Yid.”
Later, at the end of 1945, he married his second wife, Faiga, and while languishing in the DP Camps waiting to immigrate to Israel, Faiga gave birth to my mother-in-law, Nechuma. Nechuma eventually married and had five children, the youngest of whom is my husband, Jacob. Jacob and I married in March 2006; just about sixty years after Zaidy had the strength to remarry and started a new family. A year and a half later, my first daughter, Faiga Shaindel, was born, and two years after that, we had a second child, a boy.
Zaidy serving as sandek at Yehuda Aryeh’s bris
My husband and I had discussed that if this baby were a boy we would name him after Zaidy’s oldest son, Yehuda Aryeh. Nobody had been named after any of Zaidy’s four children. They had died alongside their mother in Auschwitz on the second day of Shavout 1944, and I felt it was time to rectify that omission.