During the First World War, fierce fighting took place between Russian forces and those of the Central Powers in the land of Galitzia. It was a scene of mass carnage.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews fought for both sides. One Russian Jewish soldier related the following event:
Yom Kippur was approaching and Jewish soldiers in a battalion asked their commander for permission to gather and pray. Their request was granted and they gathered in an empty storehouse for prayers.
They prayed with heightened emotion and shed bitter tears over their difficult plight as soldiers on the front. Also prominent on their minds was the welfare of their families in Poland and Russia facing untold dangers due to the war.
When the time for the concluding prayer, Neilah, arrived a young soldier named Arontchik was asked to serve as Chazzan.
It was a very special Neilah service. Aronchik’s prayers were powerful his voice was melodic and piercing. The emotions emitted by his prayers were indescribable, everyone present shed a river of tears as they pleaded for their lives in the face of the horrors of combat. Soon the fast was over, but no one rushed to eat. Everyone just sat contemplating the intensity of their prayers. Black bread and tea were finally brought and the soldiers broke their fast, yet the chazzan who had aroused them to repentance did not partake.
With the fast and the day over the soldiers lied down on the ground, exhausted, but they could not sleep as they were anxious about the battles that lay ahead.
The following day a new battle erupted. The fighting was furious. The cannons began pounding and the bullets flew like hail. Men were falling all around, one never knew which moment might be his last.
Eventually the fighting stopped and the enemy retreated. The soldiers began to regroup and were horrified to see that Aronchik, the baal neilah, had fallen.
A grave was dug for him by his Jewish comrades, giving him his final honor. On his gravestone they wrote, “Here lies Aronchik, the ‘Baal Neilah’; May his righteous soul rest in peace.”
May his heartfelt prayers inspire us to pray with greater ferver.
In Aronchik’s merit and in the merit of the multitudes of Jewish soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of the First World War, may all our prayers be answered.