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April 18, 2015 / 29 Nisan, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Ani Maamin’

The Train

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

He was having trouble getting up from the platform and into the cattle car. After all, he was only twelve years old and there was no ramp leading inside. An SS thug saw him “dawdling” in front of the car and aimed a boot at the boy’s posterior. The boy jumped out of the way just in time and the SS man fell to his face from the violence of his own kick.

Fearing the German would take his fury out on him, the boy scampered into the train. He hid himself from the Nazi inside a crowded, filthy car until the train pulled out of Budapest’s Nyugati station.

And thus began David Kohn’s participation in what many regard as the most dramatic and controversial train journey in history. For this was the train organized by Dr. Rudolf Kastner, head of the Hungarian Judenrat, on which 1,685 Jews rode to safety.

Kohn, today a well-known medical doctor and expert on geriatric health problems in Haifa, Israel, is one of the diminishing number of survivors from the Kastner train. And he may be the only one who kept and preserved a journal of that journey to freedom.

He was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia, in a region where many of the residents and most of the local Jews spoke Hungarian. After the destruction and division of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich accord, the area passed to Hungarian rule.

The problem was that David’s father had been a patriot and had taken Czechoslovak citizenship, which was frowned upon by Hungarian authorities. The boy was quickly expelled from school there, supposedly because of the father’s citizenship but more likely because they were Jews.

The family moved into Hungary proper, looking for work and a place to live. Then Slovakia was detached from the Czech state by Germany, so for a while they moved back there. The father worked as a forestry manager, a public service job that kept the family safe as deportations of Slovakian Jews commenced.

In 1942 rumors reached them that they were on a list of Jews to be deported. The family stole across the border into Hungary. There they were hosted by relatives who managed to obtain forged residency papers for them.

By 1943 Hungarian Jews were being moved into “concentration” areas – not yet internment camps but rather buildings in which the Jews of a town would be segregated. David was staying with his uncle, a prominent Neolog rabbi, in Czegled, a town outside Budapest near what is today the city’s international airport. They were locked up in a single building, and later moved into the town’s synagogue. Then twenty-three of those in the building were selected to be sent to Budapest for internment. The rest were deported.

David and his uncle were among the twenty-three.

In Budapest they were marched down Andrassy Boulevard, the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue with its luxury stores, many owned by Jews at the time. They were taunted by Hungarian anti-Semitic youths along the way and eventually were held inside the Rumbach Street synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.

* * * * *

Rudolf Kastner was a pompous, arrogant and irritating person. He was born and raised in the largest city in Transylvania, the Hungarian-speaking territory now in Romania that has passed back and forth between Hungary and Romania due to the frivolities of war and politics. He rose to importance in the Hungarian Jewish community and had the reputation of being an aristocratic “fixer” with ties to the regime.

When war broke out, Hungary allied itself with Hitler’s Germany. Kastner served as a journalist and community leader, moving from Transylvania to Budapest. Later, as a head of the Hungarian Judenrat, he was able to move about freely throughout the war. His residence and offices stood on Vaci Avenue, three blocks from my office today at Central European University in Budapest, where I teach when I am not in Israel.

Kastner was renowned for hatching assorted schemes, some rather hair-brained, during the war years. He tried to recruit support from Jewish Agency leaders in Tel Aviv for negotiating different rescue schemes with the Nazis, including the notorious “Trucks for Jews” deal, which never came to fruition. In 1944 he met several times with Adolf Eichmann to negotiate the escape of Jews in exchange for bribes or ransom payments.

A Trip Through History

Friday, May 25th, 2012

A week- seven days. That’s how long I spent in the dustbin of Jewish History that is Poland. I went there to learn about, and to see first hand, the country that housed the absolute horrors of the Holocaust, but I also went to see the places that had once housed such rich Jewish life. As such the trip focused, in my opinion, on three aspects of Jewish life in Poland: pre-war, the Holocaust years and then post-war.

Yes, there is Jewish life in Poland today – for the most part centered in Warsaw. The only shul still in use there has a small minyan, somewhere between 15 and 20 men, nothing compared to what it once held. Even though it was a little sad to look at this gorgeous shul being used by a fraction of the population it once served, there was something overwhelmingly beautiful about the shul and the people who davened there.

Since there is such a small religious Jewish community there is only one minyan. This is very different from what I’m used to living in Flatbush where everyone has the shul he davens in and the shul he doesn’t daven in. In Warsaw, not everyone participating in the minyan looked exactly the same, but they were all overjoyed to have the opportunity to daven together. The way that I saw it, the unity that they had was worth way more than being able to boast about large numbers.

We also went to visit the Jewish school in Warsaw. When the principal spoke to us, I gained such an appreciation for having grown up in a place where it is a no-brainer that I would get some sort of Jewish education. He explained that the school hasn’t been around for long and before it was established Jews living in Poland just didn’t get a Jewish education. He himself had left Poland to learn more about Judaism and eventually received smicha from Yeshiva University. He chose to return to Poland and give back to the community.

It made me think about how much I took, and continue to take, my Jewish education for granted. I never thought about what a bracha it is that I grew up with so much Torah knowledge there for my taking. Until I went to Eretz Yisrael for seminary, I never had to leave home to further my education. Now, the school there does not yet have a high school, but there is hope that as kids and adults learn more about Yiddishkeit, they will want to continue learning and seek out more of a Jewish education or at least have a Jewish foundation that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

Like the shul, the school was filled with all sorts of Jews. Unlike the shul, the school also caters to the non-Jewish community. In some cases the families of the “non-Jewish” children are actually Jews who have been keeping that fact a secret for the past 70 years, while in other cases parents send their children there because it has a good education. We visited the younger classes and even sang some Shabbos songs with them. Though we came from two different worlds the spirit of Shabbos and our Jewish roots bound us together.

It was amazing to see these youngsters who will, im yirtzeh Hashem, be the continuation of the Jewish people – in Poland of all places. Their very existence and the fact that they learn Torah is an incredible act of revenge against Hitler and the Nazis.

For obvious reasons a major part of our trip focused on the terrible years of the Holocaust. We literally traveled the country and saw monument after monument marking places where atrocities occurred. Understandably, this part of the trip was the most emotionally draining, however, it didn’t make the trip depressing. As one of the rabbanim who came with us on the trip said, the reason we go to the camps and into cattle cars and gas chambers is not to depress us, but rather to gain a proper understanding and to awaken our senses. The experience is supposed to well up our rachmanus.

I found this is be completely true. I don’t even remember the first time I was spoken to about the Holocaust, but until I saw the reality of what had been with my won eyes, it didn’t fully sink in. As I stood in the cattle car left as a memorial in Lodz, I understood how dark a menacing the cattle cars were. I finally got why people say you were lucky if you were near the window or a crack in the wall – those were the only sources of light and fresh air. I only got a taste of how cramped it must have been when our entire group piled in. During the Holocaust the same car would hold twice as many people as we were. When we sang the Ani Maamin that was composed in cattle car just like the one we were in, I got a glimpse of just how sincere the tefillah of those kedoshim were. At that moment it was so obviously clear that only Hashem could save them.

Human Chain

Wednesday, August 25th, 2004

Two events that seemed to fit the days before Tisha B’Av happened recently. A few days ago, representatives of many communities met in Hashmonaim with Pinchas Wallerstein, the chairman of the Binyamin Region, and with an army spokesman. The army spokesman made a presentation using colored maps of the security fence’s new planned route.

The Israel Supreme Court decision in favor of the Leftists and the Arabs forced the army to redesign the fence route and to bring it much closer to Jewish communities. The court and the U.S. pressure forced the army to ignore land purchased by Jews and Jewish public land. All the army did was design a plan to satisfy the Leftists and the Arabs. The spokesman could not explain, for example, why the planned fence route took a strange detour to within 100 yards of my home nor why it almost touched the houses of part of the City of Modiin in the Macabbim suburb.

The sighs that emanated from Pinchas Wallerstein, who sat next to me every time the army spokesman showed how the fence route cut up a planned Jewish neighborhood or decimated a Jewish industrial area, sounded like the sighs of those mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple. The conceit and hatred of one Jew for another caused the destruction of the Holy Temple, and the non-religious Leftist hatred of Right wing religious Jews will, G-d forbid, cause the loss of huge sections of Israel for no good reason. We all left the meeting sad and depressed and with little hope that the government would change the route of the fence.

The second event also took place before Tisha B’Av. Over 200,000 Jews of all backgrounds formed a human chain from Gush Katif in the south to the Kotel in Jerusalem in protest against the government’s plan to force every Jew out of the Gaza Strip. As we waited for everyone to arrive, some people read Tehillim while others learned or commiserated with their friends. At 7:00 p.m., we joined hands to form a solid chain, sang Hatikvah and then sang Ani Maamin. We fervently hoped for a change in government policy, but the media reports all spoke with confidence that Sharon and his new coalition will ignore the amazing sight of men, women, children and babies in carriages who all left their homes and traveled to their appointed areas.

We stood in the sun and waited peacefully for the time when we were told to join hands. What an uplifting feeling it was to be part of this human chain. Sadly, the Israeli government can ignore this human outpouring of solidarity and emotion.

I guess we are prepared to begin our fasting and lamenting. (Comments may be sent to dov@gilor.com)

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/human-chain/2004/08/25/

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