A Lesson For the Children – This is a story that took place during the terrible days of the Holocaust. Together with thousands of other Jews, I was sent to work camps near the city of Munich, where we were forced to do very harsh labor. There was one bright spot in the camp, the figure of the Rebbe of Klausenberg. I had not met him before this, but I was thoroughly amazed by his character and by the spirit of holiness and faith with which he infused his surroundings.
On the other hand, the figures of the Kappos terrified us completely. They were Jewish prisoners who were assigned tasks of authority by the Nazis, and who were forced to become part of the mechanism of destruction and murder. The Nazis knew whom to pick. Many of the Kappos were cruel and ruthless, taking advantage of their positions to oppress their fellow Jews and in order to obtain advantages for themselves.
One time, the Rebbe stood in the first row during a roll call. The Kappo in charge of the gathering, named Moisheleh, was one of the cruelest of them all. When he saw the trembling knees of the Rebbe he did not hesitate, even though he knew the Rebbe very well, and he struck him very hard, while shouting at him: “Stand up straight!” The Rebbe almost collapsed, but in the end he managed to remain standing and survived the incident. To this day, I can see the painful image of this Jewish Kappo putting the Rebbe to shame and hitting him, simply because his weak knees failed him.
Years passed. With G-d’s help I was rescued from the terrible situation, and after many events I managed to arrive in Eretz Yisrael and to serve as a soldier. This was the year 5709 (1949), only a few short years after the Second World War. According to the law in the new country of Israel, anybody who was in the service of the Nazis, including those who helped them like the Kappos, would be tried and punished for what they did during the time of the Holocaust. At long last we began to feel that those who deserved it would be punished and that justice would be served at least in a small way.
One day I was sitting in a bus in Teveria, and I was suddenly frozen in my place. The Kappo Moisheleh, the “animal in human form” from the labor camp, got onto the bus. He entered, glanced quickly at me, and rushed to the back of the bus. He seemed to have identified me, and indeed he quickly got off the bus at the next stop. I ran off the bus after him. I chased him and managed to catch up, putting my hand on his shoulder. “You are Moisheleh, who was a Kappo in the Wald Lager in Mildorf! This time you will not escape from me. Come with me to the police station!”
Incredibly, Moisheleh began to cry. He admitted that he was indeed the man I thought, and then he told me his story. He was born in Poland and was sent to the concentration camps. There, because of his great suffering and all the cruelty he saw around him he slowly began to lose all human feelings, until he became a Kappo. But now, he could not forgive himself for all the terrible deeds in which he had participated. He had repented of his actions and lived in a religious kibbutz, and he was building a new life for himself. His new friends did not know about his black past, and if I turned him in to the police who could tell if he would ever be able to build a new life? I only had a few seconds to decide what to do. In the end, I felt pity for him and gave him a chance. I released him, praying in my heart that I was doing the right thing.
Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet the Rebbe of Klausenberg once again. I told him this story and asked the Rebbe if I had done the right thing when I let Moisheleh go instead of bringing him to justice. The Rebbe remembered the man very well, including when he struck him so harshly, but his answer was straight and to the point: “The gates of repentance are never closed. During the Holocaust, the animal nature of man went on a rampage, and it took control of most of us. Now that he wanted to repent he deserved another chance, and it is good that you gave it to him.”
Thus, many years after I released the man, I was calm once again. I knew the answer: the gates of repentance are never closed, and even a terrible crime can be forgiven…
Source: Aharon Rath, “Hope Rising from the Ashes”. Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il). Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat BeShabbato please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.