Thursday, September 8, 2011

Learning From An Angel Among Men

ASoG and I recently paid a shiva visit to her great-uncle who lives on the other side of Washington Heights (the Breur’s side) for the unfortunate loss of his younger brother. Both ASoG’s uncle (who I’ll now refer to as Uncle Shmuel) and his brother survived Auschwitz, the only two children of 12 that survived the war.

As I sat there, listening more than talking, I learned more and more about Uncle Shmuel and his brother, and I have to say I admire him now more than ever. I’ve always thought of him as an angel of sorts, just from barely knowing his personality, but now I’ve seen and heard more that convinces me how much of a tzadik he is.

Uncle Shmuel and his wife never had the merit of having children, while his younger brother did have several daughters who married and produced grandchildren. Instead, he and ASoG’s great-aunt Sara treated ASoG’s mother and siblings as their own children. Even now, in their advanced age, he continues to learn daily with great zeal, and she is very involved in baby-sitting and making bikur cholim visits.

One guest that came to be menachem avel while we were there, herself quite elderly, a bit bent over, and generally frail, sat down near Uncle Shmuel with some effort. He thanked her profusely for coming to visit, and she replied that she could never forget the chessed he performed with her husband of blessed memory – who was once a chazan and ba’al koreh in their shul – when he was quite ill and neared his own end. Uncle Shmuel would go downstairs (they live in the same building) and helped her husband put on his tefillin when he no longer had the strength to do so on his own.

Uncle Shmuel recounted a number of stories from his personal experience in the Holocaust, all of which were quite riveting and heart-breaking. When the entire family was deported, he managed to stay with his father while his younger brother (who he was sitting shiva for) was sent to another camp that ended up being slightly less harsh (if one can say that). He never saw his younger brother again during the 5 years they spent in Auschwitz, and his father died before liberation. Thankfully, through hashgacha pratis, he was reunited with his brother 10 days after the American soldiers liberated them, when he went back to his home in Yugoslavia, hoping to meet up with his older siblings. While he found his brother, they later discovered that they were all that was left from their immediate family. They later made their way to a DP camp, then to Belgium, Antwerp, Montreal and finally America.

One particularly striking story that he told us was a recurring dream he had throughout his duration at Auschwitz.

In the dream, which Uncle Shmuel explained became a form of prayer to HaShem, he found himself free from the horrors of the concentration camp and in a wide open field. There was food planted in the field which he would happily harvest and prepare himself, with no need to bother anyone else with the physical labor involved.

He also imagined/wished/requested that he could go learn Gemara like he used to back at his home. He wanted to just learn a Gemara, any Gemara, it didn’t need to be like the fancy Artscroll Gemaros that we have nowadays. He said all he wanted was a simple Gemara, and two little light bulbs, which would let him study day or night. Even the light bulbs didn’t need to be of the high quality variety we enjoy now in America, just two dim little bulbs that would produce enough light to let him see the words printed on the page.

I was blown away after I heard this dream. I sat back and thought about all the things I’ve ever wanted and dreamed about, some serious, most silly and extraneous, and none of it compares to the purity and Emes that Uncle Shmuel expressed.

Uncle Shmuel repeatedly told us that everyone who survived the Holocaust has their own story, but that for him (and others) it has become too difficult for them to properly tell over their experiences. When they were younger, after arriving in America, the survivors focused solely on getting by, they felt as though they were lower than ants, and merely struggled to make a living and exist in their new country. They didn’t think about trying to record their stories because they were so busy rebuilding. Now that they are old, it has become too emotionally draining for them. Aunt Sara can't even begin to relate her experiences without breaking down into tears. I tried to gently encourage him to tell us more, but in the end I respected his admission of how difficult it would be to relate events in more detail.

Uncle Shmuel spoke about how he found his wife, Sara. He was only 19 when he was liberated, and he waited several years until he was in his 20’s and already in America before he started looking to get married. He told us how all he wanted was an aidel Yiddeshe girl, not someone extremely beautiful, nor someone from a wealthy family. He repeated, with great emphasis, that he never wanted someone whose parents had money. For him, having wealthy in-laws was never a consideration. Uncle Shmuel just wanted a religiously observant girl who would build a proper Jewish home, and he certainly found that in his lifelong partner.

Aunt Sara greatly encourages Uncle Shmuel's learning, and is a perfect companion for living a life full of chessed and tzedaka. They regularly host young singles and other not-so-young residents of the Breur's side for Shabbos meals, and Aunt Sara dabbles in shidduchim when she isn't babysitting or visiting a local nursing home.

Uncle Shmuel is clearly a man who recognizes that everything he has is a matat Elokim, a gift from G-d, to quote Koheles. He has been through so much, yet he still appreciates the most minute things in life. How many of us would actually have the same dream he did while he was suffering in Auschwitz? How many of us would put ourselves in his mindset when we are looking for our zivug? Think about all the brachos we enjoy, and how spoiled many, or most of us are.

There are very few people I’ve ever met in my life that I would honestly describe as a malach (angel), but Uncle Shmuel is one of them. May we continue to learn from him and benefit from his experience, wisdom and humility – along with Aunt Sara’s – for many years to come.


  1. Wow, may he rest in peace. It's sad to see all the survivors slowly dying and soon there will be no witnesses anymore to such a historical milestone of our century

  2. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to Shmuel and Sara, and for the glimpse into the family history. I am so glad you shared this.

  3. I also have an older relative who lived through the Holocaust and made a life all over again here in America. Though neither he nor his family were in camps, he lost siblings-- both to the war and to tempting pull of Communism. When he and his father came to America, they committed themselves to rabbinate and keeping the Jews of America connected to Yiddisheit. I make the effort to visit him whenever I can (he does not live close to me). Knowing that I am related to such a holy and committed man empowers me to live my life with conviction.

    Thank you for sharing this story.


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