Rav Yosef, shlita, born in Krakow in 1919, was 18 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. He came from an illustrious Belzer family of talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), dayanim (judges), and people renowned for their charity and kindness. He had the privilege of meeting the Belzer Rebbe, zt”l, a number of times, as well as spending yamim tovim in Belz. All this left a deep and holy impression on him.
Rav Yosef’s Torah learning did not stop with the war. Torah learning was so deep within him, so intrinsic to his soul, that even the horrors of the Nazis could not eradicate it. On many occasions, he commented that it was his learning and faith that helped him survive.
As he was being physically broken and tortured by the Nazis, learning Torah kept him alive. As the kapos were standing over them, my father and other inmates learned among themselves, talking Torah at every available opportunity. Each one would bring another chiddush that they recalled from their yeshiva days.
The starving, tortured prisoners studied among themselves from memory. There were no spacious batei midrash. There were no comfortable tables and chairs. There were no Gemaras or seforim to use as reference. All they had was their deeply embedded love of Torah. This love was so strong that not even the fear of the Nazis and kapos could eradicate it.
“Ki hem chayeinu v’orech yameinu, u’vahem ne’he’ge yomam v’laila – For they are our life and the length of our days, and we will learn them day and night.” The Torah gives life, even in our darkest moments.
Recently, Rav Yosef had a visitor from the neighborhood.
He had received a large bill from the hospital, which greatly upset him. The
visitor tried to reassure him that it was probably an insurance mix-up that could easily be rectified.
But Rav Yosef could not be comforted. He looked at his guest with clear blue eyes and quietly repeated in Yiddish, “But I am very worried! Ich hob agmas nefesh!”
“Farvus?” asked the guest. “Why are you worried?” Rav Yosef lifted his arm and pointed to his bookcase.
“I’m afraid that if I can’t pay the bill, they will come and take away my Shas (Talmud set).”
At that moment, the visitor felt a tremor go through his being.
Rav Yosef had spent 1939-1945 in five concentration camps. He had witnessed the unspeakable – beatings, mass murder, starvation and illness. His family was butchered in his presence. He’d experienced the depths of evil and horror. Yet his face shone with purity and faith. After all he had endured, he was not afraid that the insurance company would come and take away his car, his home, or his bank account.
He was only afraid of losing one thing – his precious Shas.
Rav Yosef’s simple sentence, “I’m afraid they will come and take away my Shas,” rumbled like the awesome sounds of the shofar, the lightning and thunder from Sinai, emanating throughout the universe.
Hashem will surely soon bring Moshiach – in His love for Rav Yosef.