I recently received an envelope from Belgium, with legal documents informing me that I was found eligible to receive Holocaust compensation. I saw this as a symbolic rectification of a bitter injustice that seemed to represent the very essence of my life. As I flipped through the pages, my mind wandered back to my childhood.
I cannot remember the first time I heard my grandmother tell the story of how my family had fled from Belgium during the Holocaust. But I heard her tell this story so many times that it became deeply etched into my consciousness. My grandmother told the story from many angles, as if to purge her system of it. She never succeeded, for she continued to retell the same traumatic tale to the end of her life. I always hoped for a happy ending, knowing bitterly it would never be. The story still haunts me.
My grandparents lived with my grandmother’s parents in Belgium. My great-grandfather, Yossel, was a generous man who owned and operated the town’s kosher bakery. He made his fortune supplying the surrounding towns with hand-made matzahs for Pesach. He also owned property and businesses that provided jobs for family members and friends, and he funded a shul that was open to one and all.
When the war broke out, rumors began to circulate about Nazi atrocities. People heard about murder and destruction. Men, women and children were being herded into cattle cars, never to be seen again. Everyone was terror- stricken. My grandparents feared that their town would be next, so they began packing to leave for the south of France. My grandmother was very close with her parents, and she urged them to join them in the escape. However, my great-grandparents stubbornly refused to consider the idea.
The day of departure came. My grandparents and their son, my Uncle Maury, got ready to leave. They brought very little with them. They sewed money and jewels into the seams of their clothes. This would eventually purchase their survival.
A horse-drawn wagon was waiting to take them to the train station. My grandmother would tell me the next part of the story with glassy eyes that pooled with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“We climbed onto the back of the wagon with Maury between us, our bundles tightly clutched in our hands. My parents stood crying, giving us blessings for safety, and I kept thinking that if they didn’t join us, I might never see them again. I begged my father once more to join us. He replied that he was too old to leave, that he would remain with his books. How could he leave them to be destroyed?
“I will not leave my books,” he cried.
“Then the wagon began to move. My mother cried, and my father began to hobble after us with his cane, yelling that he loved us.
“I never saw them again,” my grandmother would finish with a heartrending sob.
My great-grandparents died sometime later that year in Auschwitz. When they were taken away, all of their money, properties and bank accounts were stolen by the Nazis and the Belgian government.
My grandparents, their son Maury, and their two daughters born during the war – one being my mother – miraculously survived. They overcame great hardships that haunted them throughout their lives.
As a young child raised without Torah, I couldn’t understand what was so special about those books for which my great-grandfather died trying to protect. What sort of books was worth dying for?
Years later, after becoming observant, I had an epiphany. The books that my great-grandfather died trying to save were holy Torah sefarim. My grandfather, who owned a shul, thought that by staying, he could protect the Sifrei Torah and other holy books from destruction. He died for the Torah he loved so dearly.
Recently, I filed a claim with Belgium’s government for compensation of my family’s losses in the Holocaust. My extended family members, all of them secular, filled out the forms and we all waited. The family speculated how much money we would get, and some talked about what they’d do with the money. I felt resentment. This was blood money, certainly not “let’s-take-a-vacation-money.”
We were all surprised at the outcome. I was the only great-grandchild found eligible to receive compensation because I’d filled out the most specific information. I quickly got messages from relatives that this was unfair, and that I should share my money with them. Instinctively, I felt that if Hashem had seen it just for me to receive this money, I was destined to do something sacred with it.
I began my mission to right a wrong. My great-grandfather had died trying to save his beloved holy books, and I would use this money toward the purchase of sefarim to replace them.
Today, there are two bookcases filled with sefarim in the Khal Chassidim shul in Chicago. The plaque on the bookcases reads as follows: “In Loving Memory of Yossel and Rifka Czwern, a”h, pious people who loved their fellow man, and valued family, all living creatures, and Torah above all!”
Some sense of restitution had finally been achieved.