If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say that it’s 1942 for you, and that you are in Belzec with the Bubby Shaindel and the other Jews of Probuzhna.
I call you “Zayde” based on common practice, for in actuality, you are not my grandfather, but rather, my alte zayde, my great-grandfather. Your son Elyah was my paternal grandfather.
I write primarily in the hope that I can provide you with some measure of comfort, even in Belzec.
Undoubtedly, you and the Bubby are aware that you will be martyred. You will die as so many have died before: for the crime of being a Jew. I take for granted that, given the scope of the Nazis’ reach, you fear for the future of the Jewish people in general and, of course, for that of your family.
Although we have the Divine promise that we are an eternal people, the Nazis will eventually exterminate many, many Jews before the Allies defeat them. The Allies will liberate the Jews who survived the hellish ordeal of existing in the camps. And the Jews who yet live, in Europe and elsewhere, will, with G-d’s help, accomplish wonders.
By 1949, a Jewish state will be proclaimed in Palestine. G-d will grant us mastery of our fate in our own land for the first time in almost 2000 years. And with His help, we will build a state that survives and thrives like no other in the region.
By 1968, we will liberate the Old City of Jerusalem and gain access and control over all of the holy sites, including the entirety of the Western Wall. As I write this in 2012, there are approximately 6 million Jews living in what will be called, “the State of Israel.”
The Nazis wanted to eradicate Judaism, no less than they wanted to eradicate Jews. So let me tell you what happened last week.
You have probably heard of the Daf Yomi (“daily sheet”) program. Every day, participants all study the same sheet of the Babylonian Talmud. Over the course of seven-and-a-half years, the participants complete all 2711 sheets. The Siyyum (“completion”) is, of course, a source of unbounded joy. So much Torah learned by so many Jews with unyielding drive and determination!
Over the last few days, Jews have been gathering to celebrate the completion of the 12th cycle of the Daf Yomi. That means that decades and decades after the defeat of the Nazis, the Talmud continues to be studied with seriousness and dedication. And when I say that “Jews have gathered,” I mean thousands of Jews in cities around the world have gathered. Just in New Jersey, where I live, the (American) Daf Yomi committee rented a sports stadium from its non-Jewish owners so that almost 100,000 Jews could gather. You’ll like this picture of the event:
When my grandmother Pesyl Leah, your daughter-in-law, told her associates in Poland that she was bound for America, someone said to her, “In America, even the streets are traif (non-Kosher).” Times were tough for Jews in America in your time. People were told not to come to work on Monday if they skipped work on Shabbos. Food that was reliably certified as kosher was not in abundance. Basic Jewish texts were scarce.
These days, a company could be sued in the non-Jewish courts for firing a Jew for his Shabbos observance. In Manhattan alone, there are scores of minchah minyanim (quorums of ten men gathered for the afternoon prayer) available during the work-day. In cities big and small across America, innumerable kosher-certified foods are available in non-Jewish markets. A person would face an insurmountable challenge if they tried to avoid kosher food when buying a week’s groceries for their family. And new books on all areas of Judaism are being published weekly, in Hebrew and English, in America and Israel. We even have hand-held, wireless electronic devices that allow one to access literally hundreds of thousands of classes on every Jewish topic, and at no cost.
The amount of people learning Torah, full-time and part-time, all over the world, is staggering and incalculable. There are more people learning in the Land of Israel now than at any time in Jewish history since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, 2000 years ago.
I know that in Belzec, and perhaps Probuzhna, the non-Jew in a uniform carrying a gun is a terrifying sight. His presence is inimical to feeling safe and secure.
At the Siyum last night, squadrons of such people were stationed at the stadium to protect Jews and help them mark the Siyum. This picture is only one of dozens that could have been taken at the stadium (and in transit to the stadium):
You should know that the American national Siyum is dedicated to the memory of the European Jews martyred by the Nazis. You are not forgotten.
As for your family…
I suppose that, even in Probuzhna, you saw a discrepancy between your level of observance and that of my grandfather. The diminution of observance continued in America, although my grandfather’s rabbis were always Orthodox and he only joined Orthodox institutions. (There are many pork-eating Jews who can’t take seriously a synagogue that serves pork and a rabbi who consumes it.) During their married years, my parents had a different approach to Jewish life than that, but Jewish pride and identification was a constant and my brother and I were given the maximum schooling available in our circle.
I imagine it will be no small comfort to you to find out that, starting in the mid-1980’s, things began to change. I returned to your ways (actually, the ways of all of our ancestors extending back over 30 centuries). I even became a rabbi…but far more importantly, I’m raising a family on the joyous and noble path of the Torah. I have a son, Yosef Dov—and one of the motivations for naming him “Yosef Dov” was your name being “Yosef.” My third daughter is Shaindel Shoshana: “Shaindel” for the Bubby and “Shoshana” for my father’s aunt Raizel (Margulies).
My brother and his wife, and their son, although not fully observant, are proud and conscious Jews who are always growing in their knowledge and practice. (My sister-in-law is the indefatigable engine behind this, as has been the case in Jewish homes since the days of the Patriarchs.)
And so, even as you smell the smoke of the crematoria, and wonder when you and the Bubby Shaindel will make the ultimate sacrifice, you should know that our nation’s history and your family’s history has never been and, G-d willing, never will be derailed or defined by episodes of catastrophe. I commend to you the lyrics of a song sung by some fellows from the yeshiva (Talmudic academy) from which I received semichah (rabbinic ordination):
Sometimes in my tears I drown,
but I never let it get me down
when negativity surrounds:
I know someday it’ll all turn around.
Passaic, NJ, USA
Rabbi Eliyahu W. Ferrell is the Rabbinic Coordinator of the OU’s Kashruth Division.