I finished reading Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau last week. I've been thinking about it since then, as reading the book was a spiritual experience. What struck me most was how deeply human Rabbi Lau is, and how his humanity came across in the book in a very beautiful way. I decided the best way to experience the book is simply to reproduce some excerpts below.
As we were boarding the train, the Gestapo commandant in charge fixed his eye on me, the little boy, although I tried to keep close to Naphtali. He thrust his stick into my face, grabbed me by the nape of my neck, and shouted, "Children with the mothers!" Then he threw me into a group of about fifty women and a few children. They had arrived from other camps near Czestochowa and were crowding into the first train car behind the engine. At a certain point, Naphtali realized, this car was to be detached from the other train cars, which held only men, and sent to another camp. Later, my brother told me that the last thing he saw, after I had already completely disappeared inside the car of women and children, was the loaf of bread. I grasped it determinedly, holding my two hands above my head, guarding with my life the precious food I had been entrusted with. This is how Naphtali saw our separation.
Of the train car into which I was thrown, I recall mainly horrible smells, screams, and the sound of children crying. We often hear about the victims of the Nazi Aktions, but rarely do we hear about the days and nights, the hours and seconds, in which people drew their last breaths inside suffocating cattle cars, without water or bathrooms. These trains were in no way suitable for human beings. The souls of many women and children in that car returned to their Maker as a result of the inhuman conditions.
As I was being thrown into the first car, Naphtali was pushed along with the other men into one of the last cars of the same train. Thus we were on the same train, but at a great distance from each other. Naphtali was worried; he had no idea how many cars separated us, and the promise he had made to Father echoed through his head. In the stairwell of our home in Piotrkow, he had sworn not to let me out of his sight, and to do anything in order to continue our family dynasty.
The train set out on its way, and Naphtali had an idea. He and two friends, who had been with him the whole way from Piotrkow, began to manipulate the handle of the door of their train car until they managed to open it. But the train continued on its journey, and the open door did not advance the effort to rescue me at all. At the train's first stop, Naphtali and his friends slowly opened the door and looked around. Then Naphtali lowered himself underneath the car, aligned himself between the tracks, and crawled forward on his elbows to the door of the next car. He pounded on it and shouted my name: "Lulek! Lulek!" Meanwhile, the train whistled and shrieked, signaling that it was just about to move. Naphtali quickly crawled back to the car he had just left. Because he had returned empty-handed, he repeated this operation at the next station, and the one after it, and so forth, four times, each time returning disappointed. He ignored those who complained of the freezing cold that penetrated the car through the open door, and insisted on continuing his mission to rescue me.
His next attempt was a success. When he reached the seventh car, the one just behind the engine, again he shouted my name. I was inside the car, wearing Mother's giant pillow and holding the bread, which had since hardened. One of the women had sprinkled a few fine sugar crystals on the bread, but they had slid off, scattering on the floor of the car, which was packed with bodies. I busied myself hunting for them, so longing to put something sweet into my mouth! Suddenly, as I was searching for the grains of sugar, I heard my name. I thought I was dreaming, but still, I moved in the direction of the voice. I climbed over and between the bodies, forging a path between the women and children, until I fell into the arms of my brother, Naphtali. He had managed to open the train car door using a pin he had modified.
I wanted to hug and kiss him, but he stopped me, demanding that I keep silent. He pulled me down under the car, and again signaled silence with his fingers over his mouth, in case a guard was posted on the roofs of the cars, or in case someone in the engine car noticed the movement on the tracks. It was night; thick darkness surrounded us and I could see only his eyes, but I understood the significance of what we were doing. behaving with extreme caution, I imitated Naphtali's movements, crawling rhythmically on my elbows and knees. He counted seven cars, then stuck out his head, pulling me after him. Two pairs of hands pulled him inside, and he pulled and lifted me into the car.
I remember his wisdom and common sense: a second before we squeezed into the car, he filled his hat with snow so that we could drink the pure water when it melted. Only after the two friends from Piotrkow had closed the door did we allow ourselves to embrace each other tightly, with heartbreaking cries. After a seemingly final separation that we had thought impossible to overcome, we were together again.
In a few hours, Naphtali's intuition proved justified. At a certain point along the way, the train cars separated. The women and children's car continued to Bergen-Belsen or to Ravensbruck, I am not sure which, while we continued on a very long trip with countless stops. Quite a few of the men died in those freight cars. Those who survived the long journey found themselves, three days later, at the entrance to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
"Now I ask you," continued Rabbi Frankel, "really, why does the Torah emphasize the negative side of this- Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother? We understand the importance of the positive statement, and shall cleave to his wife- to establish a home and family. But why does the Torah use the verb to leave regarding the parents? For twenty years, the parents invest in their child. They can't sleep at night while he burns with fever, they work overtime in order to support him, they take care of his every need. And after twenty years, he leaves his father and mother. What is this- a divorce from the parents? What did they do to deserve this? Why does the Torah have to say, to leave?"
I listened carefully, and thought that this was indeed a fascinating question, but was this why I had come to the rabbi's house? I wanted to hear what he thought about my proposed marriage to his daughter! Was this, in fact, a parting meal? He wines and dines me, and then all of a sudden poses a question from the Torah, putting me on the spot? I had no answers.
Thinking quickly, I admitted to the rabbi that I had never thought about that verse. I told him that I had heard many homilies from my friends about engagement and the seven wedding blessings, but none of them had addressed his question. Rabbi Frankel was not surprised. When I finished, he said in a fatherly manner, "I tell you what I think. Sometimes I stand under the chuppah before a bride and a groom whom I don't know. Often, I ask myself whether this match will last. After all, these are two different worlds we're talking about. How can they possibly cleave to one another? I ask myself, 'Yitzchak Yedidya, what can you say at the wedding ceremony of these two worlds?' But on second thought, I think to myself that there, standing on either side of the couple, are the parents. Twenty or thirty years ago, they stood in the exact same position, excited brides and grooms at their own weddings. They also were not born in the same mold, but the connection between them has held. Now they're marrying off the next generation. In other words, when we look at the parents' home, when we see the father respecting the mother and vice versa, and we see that they live in a home of peace and love, this is a personal example for the chain of generations to follow."
At this point, Rabbi Frankel stopped speaking for a moment. Then he continued, "Israel, the verb to leave does not have to be understood literally. That same word, whose Hebrew root is ayin-zayin-bet, can also mean 'inheritance,' as in the word i-za-von, whose root is also ayin-zayin-bet. There is material inheritance, which parents bequeath to their children after a long life, and there is spiritual inheritance, which they grant their son or daughter the day the child leaves home and gets married. Leaving one's father and mother means one should inherit their example. The Torah presents this as a condition: only if a man leaves his father and mother will he have a true chance of cleaving to his wife. That is how they will succeed in raising a family."
He thought for a moment, giving me a chance to digest his words. Then he continued: "I have heard of you and your reputation for some time. My daughter has received marriage proposals from around the country and beyond, but your name has come up repeatedly." Rabbi Frankel named those who had suggested me for hsi daughter, including his friend from the yeshiva in Warsaw, Rabbi David Weissbrod-Halachmi, and my brother Shiko's brother-in-law, Israel Mintzer. "I have considered you and asked about you. I have heard of your talents and distinguished qualities, and I have no doubt about any of them. But one thing bothers me: where is your 'leaving'? You have no home, you have no parents to leave, as the verse says, and you have no spiritual inheritance."
I felt tears choking my throat. His words were like a eulogy for me and my destroyed family. Rabbi Frankel was telling me, in fact, that because of my personal history as a Holocaust survivor and orphan who had no home, because I did not grow up with a mother and father and had no example to follow, it would be difficult for me to build a Jewish home and family. He said, "I recall the speeches of your father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau. But you did not grow up in his shadow and did not know what family life is like. You have spent almost your entire life in institutions, dormitories and yeshivas. This is what bothers me about placing my daughter in your hands. Still, after checking into your background, talking with all your rabbis and friends in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, I learned something about your brother."
At that time, Naphtali was an editor in the She'arim newspaper of Po'alei Agudath Israel, to which Rabbi Frankel contributed a column on halacha every Friday. Rabbi Frankel said, "I have noted the behavior of your brother, who came to the big city of Tel Aviv but remained an observant Jew. Of everything I have heard about you, I believe and hope that this one worry I have will prove unfounded. It doesn't interest me one bit," he added, "that you have no money, or that there is no father-in-law to share expenses with me. Believe me that my daughter has had offers from wealthy men, but they do not interest me. I also came to Eretz Israel with nothing, with two babies, one about a year, the other just two months old. I taught school and to this day, I live in a rented apartment. I am only interested in the groom's personality."
Rabbi Frankel lived in Tel Aviv for fifty-one years. He was chief rabbi of that city for fourteen of those years, but he never owned his own apartment or car, and the material side of life did not interest him at all. But he feared the scars I might have from lack of family. He was worried that I did not know the meaning of affection, generosity or compromise. That was why Rabbi Frankel made sure to have private conversations with my roommates at the yeshiva. He wanted to know how I got along with others, and whether orphanhood had taken its toll on my interpersonal relations.
At the end of that long, private conversation, Rabbi Frankel declared, 'if for your part you are willing, then we are willing to accept you as part of our family. Welcome." I felt overwhelming joy, along with a piercing sadness that my father and mother could not be with me at this happy moment. Meanwhile, Mrs. Frankel and her daughter had returned home, and Rabbi Frankel told them about our conversation. That week, in early June 1959, we invited my two brothers, Yehoshua and Naphtali, and my cousin Shmuel Yitzchak Lau, who had acted as matchmaker, to a meeting with Rabbi Frankel's four sons, and we toasted le-chaim at the vort, the signing of the engagement agreement. The engagement ceremony was held a few weeks later, on my birthday, 22 Sivan 5719 (June 28, 1959). Eight months later, in February 1960, we were married in Tel Aviv.
By definition, a chief rabbi must fulfill two roles. For the first five years of his term, he serves as presiding judge of the supreme rabbinical court and president of the chief rabbinical council. In the latter position, he is responsible for the religious matters in the state: kashrut, Shabbat, religious councils, burials, and examinations for rabbinical ordination. In the second five years, he acts as president of the supreme rabbinic court and head of the religious judiciary system. But the law does not define what the chief rabbi does with the rest of his time- i.e., the events at which he appears or the audiences to whom he speaks. Every person who holds the job can use his time as he sees fit, after first implementing his role as a teacher of Torah and a halachic arbiter.
I decided to focus on an area that I considered of top importance, a mitzvah as well as a mission: social welfare activities related to illness and grief, especially visiting the sick and comforting mourners. My sensitivity to this matter and the special place it held in my world, both personally and as a chief rabbi, stemmed, I think, from the influence of the Holocaust on my life and how it remains with me in all I do. I often recalled the image of myself as a small child, sick with the measles and lying alone in isolation. At the time, Naphtali had typhus and was also in isolation in the Buchenwald hospital, so not a living soul came to visit me to ask how I was feeling or hold my hand. This childhood memory is deeply embedded in my consciousness. This is what compels me to visit hospitals all over Israel, offering words of encouragement to those suffering in pain. this is what leads me to houses of mourning, to comfort the grieving with the few words one can say in trying times.
I saw it as my responsibility to be present at the hospitals for every dedication of a wing or department, to say a few words to encourage and strengthen those doing the work. Another issue I took upon myself, as a rabbinical judge, was to visit the homes of battered women and the families of women murdered by their husbands, attempting to understand how a couple could descend to such an abyss in their relationship, and trying to learn from these tragedies how to help couples in distress.
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