Much of childhood is spent in illusion. We grow up imagining things not as they are, but as we wish them to be. When we confront an unimaginable reality, the colloquial American phrase – taken from, of all things, an apocryphal baseball vignette – is “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” That was the initial American response to “the terrible secret” – the accounts of mass murder and extermination in the Nazi death camps.
Say it ain’t so. But it was so.
As the Sabbath ended each week sixty years ago, my father recited the Havdala prayer in our New York apartment – in the home that he and my mother made for themselves and me, then their only child, in the enlightened new world to which they had escaped from Poland. We inhaled the spices, examined our fingernails by the light of the braided torch, and my father sat and sipped the Havdala wine. And then he recited and had me repeat after him, “A gute voch, a gezinte voch, und a mazeldicke voch, un der zaide zolt balt befreit veren” – May we have a good week, a healthy week, a lucky week, and may grandfather soon be freed.
He felt, but could not bring himself to believe, that his father was dead. Nor could my mother, who had taken leave of her father in Lodz, Poland, in September 1939. And as my father intoned this weekly mantra, this 8-year-old grandson imagined a joyful reunion with grandfathers who were spoken of, but whose faces I could not recall and whose touch had faded from memory.
Say it ain’t so. But it was so.
I now have a grandson who is 8 years old and four younger grandchildren. But I am a grandfather who never really knew his own grandfathers. Both were murdered when they were younger than I am today. Both were men of great distinction, leaders in their communities, whose lives were brutally extinguished only because they were Jews.
My father’s father was the rabbi of Rzeszow, an important Jewish community in Galizia, southern Poland. Rabbi Aaron Lewin was elected twice to the Polish Sejm, where he fought, with a fluency in Polish that astounded freethinkers who thought that no traditional rabbi could converse with the gentiles, for the civil liberties of the Jews of Poland. He was a talmid chacham – a great scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, the Talmud, Midrash, and rabbinic writings. He wrote brilliant books in Hebrew on Torah and Jewish law while traveling from Rzeszow to Warsaw in a first-class rail compartment provided by the Polish government to members of the Sejm.
Rabbi Aaron Lewin, zt”l, was killed on the night of June 30, 1941, as the Nazis entered Lwow (known to Jews as the great city of Lemberg). Ukrainian mobs dragged him from the home of his daughter, to which he had fled when Hitler marched into western Poland, and murdered him and his brother, the distinguished Rabbi Ezekiel Lewin of Lemberg, zt”l, and hung their bodies from hooks at the city’s prison. His widow, his daughter (my aunt) and her little child, aleihem hashalom, were discovered many months later in a hiding-place in Lwow. They were taken to their deaths in the Belzec extermination camp.
I traveled to Lwow in 1989 to see if I could find the manuscript my grandfather had with him in Lwow when he was murdered. The fourth volme of his magnificent work on Torah – HaDrash VeHaIyun – was published in the summer of 1939. The Reisher Rav completed the work with the second half of Bamidbar and all of Devarim by 1941, and we know that the manuscript was with him in June 1941. I took with me on my trip to the then-Soviet Union a biography of my grandfather authored by my father that contained a photocopy of a letter written by my grandfather so that I might identify the manuscript if I found it. At the front of the pamphlet was a photograph of my grandfather.
When my family and I disembarked from our flight to what was then Leningrad, we were greeted by the Soviet customs official who insisted that we unpack our bags. I had collected many Jewish-content books in Russian to distribute to Jews who, notwithstanding perestroika and glasnost, were still trapped in the Soviet Union. The official asked me to whom I was delivering the Russian books. With a straight face I insisted that I was learning Russian and intended to use them myself. As the pile of Russian books grew, he became more skeptical, and he indicated that he intended to confiscate them all.
The he came to the pamphlet with the Reisher Rav’s biography. He asked what that was. I replied, “It’s a biography of my grandfather. I’m traveling to Lwow, where he was killed by the Germans.” I did not report truthfully that it was really the Ukrainians who killed him. The customs official looked into my eyes. “Your grandfather was killed by the Germans in Lwow?” I nodded. “Well,” he said, “take your books.” And he pushed the piles of books over to us. So my grandfather’s z’chus brought Jewish learning to Russian Jews almost 50 years after he was murdered.
My mother’s father, Naftali Sternheim, was murdered at Birkenau. He was ahead of his time, yet died long before his time. He was a man of daring and imagination. He flourished in business in Amsterdam and became one of the Jewish community’s lay leaders in that vibrant modern city.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s he was the forerunner of today’s Modern Orthodox Jew. Naftali Sternheim was devoutly religious, yet maintained a thoroughly modern home. His children – my mother and her brother – received traditional Jewish educations (my mother at a Jewish boarding school in Switzerland and my uncle at the Mirrer Yeshiva) and contemporary secular schooling. My mother even attended the University of Berlin. And my grandfather was a Zionist, making the arduous trip to Palestine in the late 1920’s. He was known for his philanthropy in Europe and in the Jewish communities of what was then Palestine.
He owned textile mills in Lodz, Poland, where he moved my mother and father after they were married and where I was born. We were all together in Lodz on September 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. Naftali Sternheim immediately traveled to Warsaw and then, by commercial airliner, back to Amsterdam for what he thought would be a short trip to recover precious stones and other property. We never saw him again.
Say it ain’t so. But it was so.
My parents escaped Poland, smugged across the border to what was still independent Lithuania with my maternal grandmother and my uncle in the middle of the night. I was three years old, and they warned me to keep absolutely silent while the smuggler led us through the forest because, they said, wolves would come out from between the trees if I made a sound.
Miraculously, I kept still and we made it to Vilna. My mother then invoked her former Dutch citizenship to obtain an endorsement on our travel document from Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch Consul in Kovno. And this endorsement – declaring that we needed no visa to enter the Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curacao – was the basis for the issuance of a transit visa by a Japanese consul named Chiune Sugihara.
(The Sugihara visas saved several thousand Jews who had fled from the Nazis to Lithuania. Consul Sugihara defied instructions from Tokyo and hand-wrote visas from his consular office in Kovno, even to the day when he was o the train, recalled by his government for demotion to an ignominious post. The Mirrer Yeshiva owed its rescue to the Sugihara visas which were, for some reason unknown to this day, honored by the Stalin regime. The Soviets allowed the Jews with such Japanese transit visas to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok by trans-Siberian Railway in order to board a boat to Japan.)
The Sugihara visa enabled us to travel across Russia, through Japan, and then, on a non-immigrant visa granted to my father because of his status, to the United States. Both Zwartendijk and Sugihara are now on Yad Vashem’s honor roll of Righteous Gentiles.
My mother’s father, as mentioned above, was not as fortunate. He was trapped in Amsterdam into 1942, when he tried to enter Switzerland through a railroad stop where Jews had occasionally been successful in surreptitiously crossing the border. Dutch cousins who survived the war have told me they remember witnessing how he had a cache of diamonds sewn into the lining of his coat as he prepared for his journey by train. He was to leave the train when it stopped briefly in the middle of the night near the Swiss border.
The neutral Swiss caught him, however, and handed him over to the Nazis. He was sent to the prison camp at Westerbork, Holland, and from there deported to Auschwitz. And in Birkenau he suffered the fate of the Six Million.
Say it ain’t so. But it was so.
The liberation of Auschwitz sixty years ago happened on the 13th of Shevat, two days on the calendar before the date Jews through the centuries have celebrated life and rebirth of the new fruit of the tree. It was, at the same time, a celebration of human survival – a testament to life – and a coffin to many illusions. No longer could the bestiality of Nazism be denied. The photographed images of the unfortunate masses who had been herded together, starved and dehumanized in preparation for mass slaughter, silenced those who had been insisting that wartime accounts were unreliable and that it was impossible for human beings to be so cruel.
My father, Dr. Isaac Lewin, z”l, had been reporting in the Yiddish press on the Nazi atrocities in Poland and on the destruction of Jews in Polish ghettoes from the time he reached these shores in 1941. But no one was listening.
On September 3, 1942, a telegram reporting ghastly details of Hitler̓s Final Solution arrived in New York – just nine months after, we now know, Auschwitz was established as the central death camp. The reaction among the leadership of the American Jewish community was “say it ain’t so.” For many months thereafter, reports of deportations, mass slaughter, emptied ghettoes, and unknown destinations of the deported came to the United States. Committees led by American Jewish leaders met and debated – and neither they nor the American government did anything significant to stop the destruction of European Jewry.
Say it ain’t so. But it was so.
In November 1942, my father wrote in the Yiddishe Shtime about the “Catastrophe of European Jewry and its Impact in America.” He described the eight weeks that had passed since the news of mass murders of Jews had reached these shores, noting that there had been a prohibition – a “cherem” – imposed by the Jewish leadership against disclosure of this frightening tragedy to the press. Here is his original Yiddish first, and then I will translate:
“Anshtat zu klingen of alle glocken; anshtat poshut mar-ish oilomos zu zein – hot men aroifgelegt di flicht oif alle einteilnehmer in der baratung fun di partei-farshtehrer, vos is forgekumen koidem in lokal fun der Agudas HoRabbonim un dan in der local fun Yiddishen Velt Kongress – zu shveigen.”
“Instead of ringing all the alarm bells, instead of simply raising voices in earth-shattering cries, they imposed a duty on all participants in the consultations that took place first in the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and then in the World Jewish Congress to remain silent.”
My father condemned this ilence and demanded, at the end of his call to arms in the Yiddish-language journal:
“Mir fregen di fihrer fun Yiddishe organizatzias in America: Ma ta’anu le’yom pekuda? Vos vet ihr enfehren oib men vet a-mohl fun eich upnehmen a cheshbon, vos ihr hot getohn, ven dos blut fun eire brieder hot zich gegossen in shtrahmen?”
“We ask the leaders of the Jewish organizations in America: “What will you answer on the day of reckoning? How will you respond if you are ever asked to provide an accounting of what you did when the blood of your brothers was flowing in streams?”
They said it wasn’t so. It couldn’t be so. But it was so.
So what do we do today, sixty years after Russian allied troops entered and liberated the shearit ha-pleita, the survivors of the death camp that will live forever in infamy? Do we cry or do we laugh? Is it a time of tragedy or a time of joy? Do we wail or do we sing?
The answer is provided by looking back to the precise day of this liberation. It was January 27, 1945. It was, as I have said, the 13th of Shevat, 5705. But it was more than simply those dates of the secular month and of the Hebrew month.
The day of this liberation was Shabbat – a Saturday. But not an ordinary Shabbat. It was, of all days, Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song. Around the world, in the comfort of communities of Jews fortunate enough to have avoided or escaped the Holocaust, the portion of the Torah was read that includes the Song of Moshe Rabbenu and the Song of Miriam and the Song of the Jews at Yam Suf – the Reed Sea – after they escaped from the tyranny of a Pharaoh who was the first to try to annihilate the Jewish people.
Moses’ Song described the enemy who said “Arik charbi, torishemo yodi” – “I will draw my sword, my hand will demolish them.” But in the end “Tzolelu ka-oferet bemayim adirim” – “They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” The fledgling Jewish nation that had suffered bondage and genocide saw its enemies vanquished and its peoplehood established.
It is a tragic refrain of Jewish history. From destruction comes rebuilding. The prophet Isaiah (44:26) said “Ha-omer leYerushalayim tushav, ule-arei Yehuda tibonena, ve-chorvoteha akomem” – “He says to Jerusalem you shall be inhabited, and to the cities of Judah you shall be rebuilt, and its destroyed sites shall I raise again.” Or, as the classic song to Jerusalem declares: “Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, ho’iri panayich livneich; Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, mey-chorvotayich ev-nech” – “Jerusalem…shine your face toward your son; Jerusalem…from your ruins shall I rebuild you.”
It was so. And may we always remember that it was so. But may we also sing the Song of Deliverance and Rebuilding.
Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who has appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in many Orthodox causes. This essay is an adaptation of the keynote address delivered by Mr. Lewin last week at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”
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