I went through a youthful period when I read histories of the Holocaust. Now, I just can't read how primitive and awful are our enemies. I made an exception when my own Rabbi, Samuel Cywiak released his Holocaust memoir just two weeks ago. It was painful yet fulfilling to read the story of my 89 year old rabbi being a 19 year old youth outsmarting and outrunning the Nazis. I had underestimated the man. He had the guile, savvy and strength to survive, when, frankly, I may not have.
My city of Saint Augustine has 3 synagogues. The Reform and Chabad attract a younger crowd but I was most comfortable in Rabbi Cywiak's Conservative synagogue with its older worshipers. If I may add, my synagogue must own the world record for the oldest bar mitzvah boy when 93 year old Benjamin Rosenfel, "became a man."
Rabbi Cywiak's book is called Flight From Fear and was written with the good help of Jeff Swesky. Without this book I would never have known of my rabbi's privileged lineage. His father was one of the founders of a serious political movement to this day, Agudat Yisrael, while his cousin was the revered Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren. The book's horrors are balanced by humor and optimism, yes, apparently you could find an occasional funny and optimistic side of the Holocaust, and that makes this memoir special.
We'll let the Rabbi tell us how he was the sole survivor of a Nazi massacre, after his father shoved him into the death pit a second before the machine guns started blasting:
"Can anyone hear me? Anyone? Anyone at all?" Out of sixty or so Jews marched into the woods by the Germans, I was the only survivor. I was surrounded by death; the senseless murdering of Jews. What kind of evil does these things? "Oh dear G-d, why is this happening to us?" I cried out to the silent night.
He fled to a nearby city and found the burnt remains of the synagogue.
Inside the charred destroyed building were hundreds and hundreds of burnt bodies, skeletons. The Nazis to get rid of many Jews in one shot, packed them into the synagogue, barricaded them inside, and set fire to the building, burning the inhabitants alive.
The horrors of his journey never ended. He entered another city:
There were maybe fifty or more Jewish men, women and children piled in a gutter with their throats slit from ear to ear.
Rabbi Cywiak shows far more compassion to the gentiles of his country than to their religious leaders who prepared the ground for the slaughter.
There were plenty of good Polish people along my travels who wanted to help, who truly felt bad about what was happening to the Jews. They felt sorry, even cried at times. Some went out of their way to help. They had good hearts. Sometimes I felt sorry for them! They were so openly broken up; they showed their emotions.
Who used to start these rumors of us killing Christ and drinking the blood of Christian children? A handful of Christian priests and bishops with an agenda. That's who. These religious leaders were responsible for creating the environment that made it possible for Hitler to attempt his Master Plan.
Too much religion can be as dangerous as too little religion. The best example I can give is the blind faith the Hasidic rebbes had that G-d would not allow Hitler and the Nazis to do all the horrible things that they threatened to do. They believed the Messiah would come and save us all. Of course, that did not happen. The Hasidic rebbes were wrong!
Several times a year, Rabbi Cywiak lectures to Christian audiences about his Holocaust experiences. One asked, Did you ever wish you were a Christian so you wouldn't have had to experience the Holocaust. His answer is succinct and logical, far moreso than the query.
"What if I was born in a family of Nazis? I could have ended up killing Jewish children. Could I possibly wish for something like this?" The girl opened her mouth but didn't say anything. Not a word.
Rabbi Cywiak is eventually told that his family was shipped to Auschwitz.
My heart sunk. The glimmer of hope I held that they had found safety disappeared. Instead my worst fears had come true. Mom, Nechama, my three young brothers, were all murdered in Auschwitz.
In their honor, the survivor of the family, now my rabbi, prints a poem by another victim of the Nazis, Erwin Kirshbaum, called AUSCHWITZ. Its last two lines read:
The surprise is not that so many died,
The true surprise is that any survived.
Rabbi Cywiak's book is currently not available except through him. That means I will buy the books for my readers BUT you are asked to send payment before I purchase your copy.
I will keep the price at $28. for American addresses, including postage and a gift copy of my DVD/CD, Shabtai Tzvi, Labor Zionism And The Holocaust. Postage costs raise the price to $30 for outside the US.
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And now a passage from Flight From Fear with me providing a visual explanation:
Rabbi Cywiak escapes the Nazis by sneaking into Russia. He than tries to escape the Communists by cutting a border fence into Afghanistan, the first stop on a long journey to Israel, but is caught. He is confronted by a Russian guard:
"What have you got here? Take it off."
He found the black boxes of my tefillin. He opened the boxes and removed the parchment. He tried to read it, but could not since it was in Hebrew. He said, "What is this? It must be secret spy code. He called another guard over and they escorted me to the office, each guard holding one of my arms.In the office, they started asking questions.
I told them, "This is used to pray."
"Pray? You're lying. It looks to me like secret code. What is the language?"
"Yah, Hebrew, right, This must be secret code. And for that, you get," and drew his finger across his throat.
I said, "Wait! Don't you have someone here who can read this?"
The other guard said, "Yeah, maybe Boris can. Call in Boris."
Someone asked for Boris. A big Russian guard and took the parchment with the Hebrew written on it...
"What are you talking about? Spies. Codes. These are prayers." He put the parchments back in the boxes. "This is teffilin. The Jews pray with this every day."
"Huh? How do you know this?"
He looked me in the eyes and didn't respond right away."My father used the exact same thing when he was alive. He prayed with one of these things every day, so let's forget about this. Let the man go."
I realized why he had been reluctant. In Russia it was against the law to practice religion. He could have been severely reprimanded for his admission. G-d bless him. That Russian officer saved my life.