Thursday, February 26th, 2009
(Because of a formatting error on the main site, here’s a corrected version of this week’s “Edge of Town” column).
Uncanny Tales Of Survival
“Small Miracles of the Holocaust,” and the mysteries of coincidence
by Jonathan Mark
‘See here how everything leads up to this day / And it’s just like every other day that’s ever been.”
— Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia, “Black Peter”
A young chasid, Yosef Yitzhak, a future rebbe, went walking with his father in the summer of 1896, past wheat fields, into a forest, near the village of Lubavitch. His father explained how God formed the breeze that bent the wheat, that fluttered the grass; every movement imagined and set in motion at Creation. There is no such thing as coincidence, not even a breeze. Everything is choreographed from the beginning and into the infinite.
And yet, say the mystics, we are dancers within the choreography. The question is whether we can hear the music; appreciate the opportunity for spiritual artistry within the theme.
A few generations and a Holocaust later, Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal were little children sitting with their parents, survivors, in their respective Brooklyn shuls, listening to the davening comparing our lives to “withering grass, a fading flower, passing shade, a dissipating cloud, blowing wind, flying dust, a fleeting dream.” Poetry? Journalism, in its way, the real first draft of history, our fate inscribed in a Book of Chronicles, “Who will die in his time and who before his time,” while “a still, thin sound will be heard.”
Halberstam and Leventhal’s “Small Miracles of the Holocaust” (Lyons Press), the seventh in their inspirational series, reads like a page from the Chronicles, circa 1944.
These two Orthodox women were introduced to some of these stories on long ago Shabbos afternoons, for that’s when these stories are best told, when the candles go out, when the phone goes unanswered, when survivors start talking on those nights and afternoons that feel “out of time.”
Yitta (these authors are on a first-name basis with their many fans, by now) heard this one from one of her relatives:
Esti, newlywed, 19 and pregnant, arrived in Auschwitz where childbirth was a capital offense. A fellow prisoner, Dr. Gizelle Pearl, felt an abortion wasn’t feasible. Esti hoped to have the baby and hide it, which was impossible. When the time came, in an Auschwitz latrine, a boy was born. One woman’s hands muffled Esti’s screams. Gizelle strangled the baby to death. Gizelle promised Esti, “If I ever get out of this hellhole, I will dedicate myself to bringing it back…. I promise you, you will bring forth new life again.” In the 1950s, Esti remarried and was pregnant. She couldn’t quite bring herself to see a doctor. Then, in Borough Park, she saw a white shingle: Dr. Gizelle Pearl, Obstetrician. Gizelle delivered Esti’s baby in Maimonides Hospital. At delivery, the doctor cried, “A life for a life.” She handed the baby to Esti who repeated Gizelle’s words, ”Chaim, Chaim,” her new baby’s name.
“There are signposts,” said Yidis (as Leventhal is known), “the ‘still, small voice of God’ speaks to us continuously. Many people write off coincidences as ‘mere’ coincidences. But to do that is to miss out on a message to you from above. If you are clued in, then you are led to your destiny. It’s a dialogue. To be attuned is to see this dialogue as a small miracle rather than happenstance.”
Jerry meets Yehuda on a kibbutz. Working alongside each other, Jerry notices Yehuda’s numbers — 7416, memorable because they were the last four digits of Jerry’s social security number. Years later, Jerry is a tour guide for Americans in Israel. He meets a particularly difficult client who breaks down and explains his sorry life, “everyone was killed except for me.” He rolls up his sleeve — 7417. The American whispers, “number 7416 is very much alive and I know where he can be found.”
“God used to speak to us in a more obvious voice,” adds Yitta, “with more obvious miracles, but we’re in a time when God is more hidden. He reveals Himself in little taps on the shoulder, small moments of grace when we say ‘this had to have come from God.’ You have to slow down,” and not let the world’s cacophony “block out the sound from above.”
In the Lvov Ghetto, Ignacy and Paulina Chiger escape with others into the sewers. Though discovered by sewer workers, one worker, Socha, is merciful. He helps them navigate the underground, bringing them food. For more than a year, he is their lifeline. They exchange confidences. He was once a major criminal. Saving Jews was his penance, “my plea for the forgiveness of God … I am hoping that just as I have snatched you away from certain death, the angels are snatching sins away from my soul.” He tells them about the time he robbed a jewelry store, a famous unsolved crime. Paulina gasps, “The jewelry store… it belonged to my family.”
Yitta says, “That story of redemption speaks to the mandate of the book: in the darkness there were points of light, even from unlikely people and places.”
And yet, Socha’s story did not end there. In 1946, Socha was killed in a traffic accident. A cynic screamed from the rear of the funeral: “This is God’s retribution. This is what comes from helping the Jews.”
A cynic needn’t stop there. A small miracle saved Hitler, when someone moved the briefcase containing an assassin’s bomb away from Hitler just minutes before the bomb exploded.
Perhaps the Torah’s most comforting line is “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” After all, there is still a God, manipulating even the darkness for a sacred end.
Uncanny coincidences are not for Jews alone. Once on a railroad platform, Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, saved the life of Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, without realizing whose life he was saving. Avi Shafran, of Agudath Israel, points out that Stalin died after drinking himself into oblivion on a night that he didn’t know was Purim, that holiday whose essential principle is that in a Megilla full of coincidences, “nothing is an accident.”
Yidis says she wants to write about the miracle of the plane that landed safely on the Hudson. But what of the plane that didn’t land safely near Buffalo? Well, to believe in small miracles is to believe in a miracle — hardly small — of the soul’s restoration after death; stories for another day in a distant time.
A young teen is passing as a non-Jew in rural Poland, 1942. Leaves turn brown. The harvest air is chilled. If only he had a Jewish calendar. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, “it should be somewhere around now… If only I knew the exact words of the prayers.” His boss sends him to the grocer. For wrapping paper, the grocer rips several pages from a useless book. Outside, the boy unwraps and reads in Hebrew: “Let us tell how utterly holy this day is… A thin, small voice is heard….”
And so it is, our lives “a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a fleeting dream,” like every other day that ever was.