Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Adar I 5765 - February 16, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Most Awful Thing Was the Screeching of the Ravens . . .

By Yisroel Friedman

Part Two

A Magnificent Memorial

Lizhensk. The tomb of the Noam Elimelech stands on a low hill at the entrance to the cemetery. When the cemetery was vandalized, the original tombstone that was affixed to a wall was laid as part of the pavement. The grave itself was left undamaged.

During the war, the Nazis were sure that the Jews had hidden their valuables inside the tzaddik's grave and they gave orders to remove the cover. Naturally, the Jews refused to obey. Even the gentile guard was unwilling to comply. When the fiends started to dig, themselves, they caught sight of the tzaddik's unaltered form and they quickly covered him and fled.

Today, the grave lies inside a protective "cage" that stands in the middle of the tomb, whose harshness is attenuated by the beauty of its wrought iron decorations. Plenty of kvitelach are piled on the grave. The words of Reb Elimelech's famous prayer are attached to the wall. We too, pray: ". . . that we should see our friends' virtues rather than their shortcomings and that brotherly love should exist between everyone . . ."

A short journey brings us to the town of Lentzhut, whose beis haknesses is near the palace that belonged to one of the counts of the Potoczki family. The synagogue's plain and unassuming exterior gives no hint as to what lies within. Descending the steps that lead into the beis haknesses, one rubs one's eyes in amazement at the lavishly decorated walls and at the bimah supported on massive, marble pillars covered with an artist's multicolored drawings. This was the beis haknesses of the Chozeh of Lublin.

But for all the magnificence that it still possesses, the place has an air of neglect. The people who expended such effort and expense to beautify their place of worship and who poured out their hearts in prayer have of course long since gone. Some of the tefillos and the pesukim that adorn the walls are rubbed away in places and the drawings have lost a little of their luster. Plaster peels off the walls and a layer of white dust covers everything. There is no Aron Hakodesh — just a space where it once stood. The amud has also gone, as have the benches.

For minchah, I stood at the spot where I estimated the shaliach tzibbur once used to stand. The acoustics are amazing. Even a soft voice echoes throughout the place. Not much effort is necessary in order to imagine the roar of a congregation's yehei shemei Rabba or Kodosh, Kodosh, Kodosh . . .

If one likens Poland to a huge Jewish graveyard, the deserted botei knesses that still stand where Jews used to live are the tombstones; the beis haknesses in Lentzhut is one of the most beautiful of these.

The Ancient Capital

The scenery along the route to Galicia is monotonous; forests line the road for mile after mile. Our first stop upon arriving in Cracow, Poland's ancient capital, is the beis haknesses of the Ramo zt'l. A wrought-iron gate fills the impressive arched entrance to the courtyard. The triangular stone at the arch's apex is filled with fine engraving while the words Beis Haknesses Chadash DeRamo Zt'l are engraved on the stones that frame the gateway.

There is great beauty inside, too. For example, in the decorated wooden doors of the bimah a plaque on the mizrach wall declares, "We have a tradition that the Ramo stood at this spot to pray and to pour out his prayer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu." The Ramo's seat is barred so that nobody else can sit there.

From the window the Ramo's resting place can be seen — close by, in the courtyard, virtually at arm's length from his seat. Here too, the area of graves is surrounded by a wrought- iron fence. The tombstones nearby bear the names of the gedolei Torah who were buried here over five centuries.

Many attempts were made by the local gentiles to damage the tall, decorative headstone of the Ramo's grave. All who tried met a grisly death before they were able to carry out their plans.

The Nazis who came to deface the graves were also foiled. Once, as they arrived, a squadron of low flying bombers appeared, causing them to drop their tools and run. On another occasion, they brought a stonecutter to smash the stones. As soon as they began, a shard of stone flew into the eye of the operator, blinding him permanently. After that, they made no further attempts.

Other parts of the cemetery have been destroyed by tractors that dug up and leveled certain areas. The graves of gedolim such as the Bach, the Tosafos Yom Tov and the Megaleh Amukos were preserved thanks to the local Jews hiding them by covering them with earth.

Resting Place of Giants — Cracow's Living Past

The Megaleh Amukos is buried not far from the Ramo. His grave is not hard to spot. Three graves — the middle of which belongs to Rav Nosson Nota Shapira, the Megaleh Amukos — are surrounded by a low stone wall, marking them off from the other graves. We remained there praying for many long minutes. A fascinating story lies behind the grave of the niftar buried to the left of the Megaleh Amukos (see box).

A short distance away, towards the cemetery wall, is a row that contains the graves of several Torah giants: the Bach, the Moginei Shlomo and Rebbe Reb Heschel of Cracow. Some of the letters on the Bach's tall headstone have faded and an untrained hand has emphasized the words niftar, 20 Adar, year 401 [1640]/ the g'[aon] Yoel Sirkis — presumably for the benefit of visitors. A number of candles and kvitelach lie around the grave.

The grave of the Tosafos Yom Tov, Rav Gershon Shaul Yom Tov Lipman Heller, lies some distance away almost at the edge of the cemetery. The fine new headstone (the inscription notes that it was replaced by the communal leaders over a century ago, in 5647 (1886)) bears an engraving of a cruse of oil. One wonders at the grave's position however, right at the edge, near an old, blocked up gate. Why wasn't the Tosafos Yom Tov buried with the other gedolei Torah who served the community?

The story behind this location, albeit without any names, is recorded in Chesed Le'Avrohom, kuntras Metzitz Min Hacharakim by Rav Aharon, the Chofetz Chaim's son-in-law who writes, "In my youth I heard from Reb Tzvi zt'l, that there is a wondrous tale in the old [communal] ledger." The same story appears in the ledger of the Cracow community (see box).

Walking in the cemetery feels like wandering among the pages of a work of history. Cracow evokes so much of our nation's past that in some way, though the city is utterly bereft of Jews, it feels as though the past is alive. From the cemetery we went to see the botei knesses, the oldest of which — an imposing edifice of red bricks and tiles with turrets at its four corners — has been turned into a museum. Nearby are the Hoiche (High) Shul and that of the Chevra Kadisha Lekov'ei Ittim LaTorah.

A short distance away is the large, magnificent beis haknesses built by R' Isaac R' Yekeles z'l. The two flights of stairs leading up to the entrance give the building its distinctive appearance. R' Isaac the builder was a Cracow Jew who discovered a treasure that he consecrated for the construction of the beis haknesses which bears his name. The story was retold by R' Chaim Walder and published in English in Yated in our issues of Behaalosecha and Shelach, 5763 (2003).

Leaving the yard of the Ramo shul we notice a patch of ground enclosed by iron railings. Within, an area has been encircled by a fence in the shape of menorahs. There is no apparent reason why a piece of land in the middle of the street should have been fenced off. It transpires that this too, is a burial ground, having become one under unfortunate circumstances.

The story took place in the time of the Ramo, who upheld a communal enactment that weddings were not to be held on Fridays in order to prevent possible chilul Shabbos. Once, a chuppah was arranged for erev Shabbos in defiance of the Rov's sharply expressed opposition. While the chuppah was being conducted the earth opened beneath the parties and they were buried alive. The pit remained open for many long years until the Germans filled it and the area was fenced off.

The transports during the Holocaust from Cracow also left from here. A stone memorial records the sad final chapter of a community's glorious story.

Two Buildings, Two Worlds

Wawel, the ornate castle that once served Poland's royalty, is one of Cracow's architectural gems. Its stone walls, with their turrets and domes, enclose an abundance of greenery and are a delight to the eye. From the hilltop, one can look down on the gently flowing Vistula River.

A two-minute walk away stands the Bais Yaakov Teachers Seminary, a drab building by comparison but one that warms a Jewish heart more than all the grandeur of the Wawel can.

The Wawel bespeaks glory and power — but how much emptiness lies behind its handsome facade! What moral decay lurks behind its beauty! Most recently it was put to sinister use, serving as Nazi headquarters during the German occupation, where the operation of obliterating all the region's Jews was planned and directed.

By contrast, the Seminary building represents a spiritual world, deep in content and rich in creativity. Here, personal growth and elevation were cultivated, immense moral strength was inculcated, service and dedication to others were encouraged and the seeds of a spiritual revolution germinated.

Two buildings, physically so close to one another — yet worlds apart. The seat of Polish royalty and the Bais Yaakov of Cracow — Eisov's world of power and Yaakov's world of spirit, locked in an ancient struggle for supremacy.


At five in the morning I set out together with Rav Gavriel Kossover for the Bais Yaakov seminary building. A small marble plaque mentioning Bais Yaakov and Soroh Schenirer identifies the place.

"I already know what Cracow's reaction to my idea will be," Soroh Schenirer wrote in her diary. "They'll ask me, `In the twentieth century, you plan on sending girls back to Yiddishkeit and yiras Shomayim?' But at the same time, an inner voice is calling to me, `You must realize your idea of founding an Orthodox institution for girls, in order to rescue the new generation of girls from destruction, chas vecholiloh."

Could the writer of those words have had any inkling that her vision would spread beyond the restrictions of space and time to eventually be universally adopted in the observant Jewish world? Could she possibly have sensed to what extent she would be rescuing the Torah world?

As we were leaving, we noticed the graffiti on the walls — slogans in Polish, "Jewish gangsters" and "Poland for the Poles," that remind us that little has changed here. While searching for the Bais Yaakov building in the early morning we met several locals who refused our requests for directions. Their faces were closed; they wouldn't even answer us. And it was not from innocence or lack of comprehension; the look in their eyes showed us that they understood us very well and were simply unwilling to reply to Jews. Another reminder, if one were needed, that antisemitism is a pathological disease that infects populations independently of whether or not there are any Jews in their country.

A short journey through several of Cracow's neighborhoods followed by a climb and a few minutes' walk bring us to a plaque attesting that this was the site of the Plashow Labor Camp. Beyond the built-up area, everything is green. It's hard to tell that this is a cemetery. There are no headstones; they have been vandalized. But one stone is new, made of black marble with gold lettering, marking Soroh Schenirer's grave (recently erected by Mrs. Cohen of New York with the efforts and assistance of the Women of Agudas Yisroel of America, as reported in Yated, Voeschanon 5763).

The headstone stands alone and erect in all weathers, much as Soroh Schenirer braved her disparagers and pursued her convictions. But one can hardly stand here and feel alone. The woman buried here binds generations of Jewish women and girls to herself and her ideals. At her graveside we pray for the future of the movement that she pioneered, for the students of Bais Yaakov schools everywhere. May each of them follow her path and may every aspiring student succeed in finding a place within the walls of one of the schools that perpetuate her heritage.

We leave with the feeling that something is still missing — some kind of protective fencing really ought to be erected around the new headstone. It's an obligation that rests upon each and every one of us.

The End of the Road

From Cracow, where the atmosphere of a rich Jewish past that still lives and breathes prevails, we head down a stretch of fine road running through evergreen forests to a place that reeks of Jewish deaths even today. Catching sight of a small board that informs us that we are just a few kilometers away from the town of Oscwiecim — Auschwitz — my heart misses a beat.

The rustic parking area could just as well belong to a nature reserve. But the famous arch at the entrance to Auschwitz Camp One with its reassuring message that Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Liberates) is a reminder of just how deceitful appearances can be.

We walk down a road flanked by neat two-story buildings of brown brick and red tiled roofs. The arching concrete posts still have a threatening air. One can imagine the inhuman screaming and the barking of the dogs. Turning right, we approach the prisoners' huts that display some of the remains of the atrocities that were perpetrated here.

What is it possible to feel by Death Wall, where hundreds of prisoners were shot daily, which stands in between Mengele's "laboratories" and the interrogation building? The windows of the "laboratory" are blocked up, as they were then too, to prevent anyone looking inside. But the screams of the victims are still deafening, even today.

In the interrogation building, four prisoners would be incarcerated in a single, windowless, airless room no more than one square meter in area. There was no door; one entered by crawling in on all fours. For those forced to stand up through such a night, morning didn't always arrive.

In hut 27, the suitcases tell their own stories with names like Schwartz, Zilberman and Yakobovitz written on them. Some cases simply bear the words "Baby" or "Orphan." Another wing houses the huge mounds of hair shorn from the victims of the gas chambers; curls and locks that will no longer grow. Looking at the hair carefully through a mist of tears one suddenly spots a lone braid and the extent of one single tragedy suddenly seems overwhelming! Where is the little girl who owned it? What was her name?

The sight of another of the piles brings on new waves of shock and disgust — prostheses of all kinds and sizes — as though what befell "ordinary" victims was any less appalling. Were these artificial limbs torn off after the gas chambers had done their work or before? If before, how did their owners move about, literally bereft of their last support and of the very last shreds of dignity? Though our tears are blurring all that we see, we'll never, ever forget these sights.

Outside the huts stands the gallows. To the left are crematoria and the gas chambers, the entrance to which is through a concrete bunker. The walls of the "shower rooms" are filled with the scratches of the frantic victims. Everything has been preserved as it was and is still in working order.

Birkenau is only a few minutes away. For virtually all the arrivals, this was truly the end of the line. Stepping over the railway tracks, one enters the camp by passing through the gateway under the turret in the middle of the wide building, while imagining that one can feel the barbed wire fencing pricking one's flesh. It is not hard to try imagining the scenes that took place here, to picture the eyes of the prisoners, bent, weakened and suffering Jews who bore the burden of their nation's fate. Torah scholars and simple folk, men, women, the elderly and the children . . . especially the children, with their wide innocent eyes, questioning but receiving no answers — not in this world, at least.

Today, everything here is quiet and still, but within one is assailed by a tempest of images and sounds. There are no clacking boxcars arriving, spewing forth their miserable human cargo, no SS men strutting around, ready to shoot with the rifles slung from their broad, strong shoulders. There is no Dr. Mengele standing in his immaculate white coat at the junction of the tracks and the gravel path, calmly sending bewildered, uncomprehending Jews to the left or to the right . . . Everything is quiet and still, yet the place has an oppressive atmosphere that makes one want to get away from it, to run far away, to escape from where so many could not.

There are the prisoners' barracks. Windowless, they were built as stables and brought from Germany for human use. The latrines — a cement block tens of meters long with hundreds of holes drilled into it, from which the horses used to drink (the rings where their reins were tied are still visible) that was put to a different use. Cleaning the latrines was the most coveted job in the camp. The work had to be done manually but at least there was shelter and some warmth, minimal protection from the freezing Polish winter. Most importantly, the Germans would never enter the place for fear of infection. That such work was so sought after — that was the ultimate degradation. Those whose lives were not snuffed out immediately, had their life drained out of them drop by drop.

The rail tracks lead on to the ovens. Today, candles burn in memory of the burned martyrs. The Germans blew up three of the ovens in an attempt to destroy evidence. Members of the Jewish Sonderkommando blew up a fourth one, trying to stop the incineration. Next to the ruins lie wide, deep pits filled with human ash . . . the length of the visit makes it no easier. The pain and the tears come in waves . . .

Thoughts on Parting

It's time to leave and we set out for the Slovakian border. The further away we travel the clearer one's innermost feelings about the trip become. Our nation is like a sturdy tree — branches can be hacked off but nothing can uproot us. We continue to exist in the merit of our faith.

People travel across Poland nowadays, in silence, listening to the voices within themselves, plumbing depths they had never before reached and quietly, privately, wiping away their tears.

Poland remains free of its millions of Jews. They have been swallowed up by time and by the soil, but their shadows still stalk the land. From our windows we look upon green fields, green meadows and green vegetation. Which of the farmers innocently tilling their soil, or which of their fathers or grandfathers, hurried Jews to their graves? The pastoral scenes are indeed beautiful but their stark contrast to the other, nightmarish scenes that we witnessed, with which Poland abounds, introduces a jarring note.

It is cloudy and a late summer rain begins falling. The weather turns stormy, mirroring our feelings.

"Let the prisoner's cry come before You . . . and repay our neighbors directly, many times over for the disgrace that they have disgraced You, Hashem" (Tehillim 79:11-12).

Stories of the Cracow Cemetery

The Megaleh Amukos and Yagid Olov Rei'oh

The grave to the left of the Megaleh Amukos has the following inscription on its headstone (which was rebuilt many years ago, after the original one disintegrated):

Here we found a monument to a living soul/ whose name we toiled in vain to discover/ because it was found buried in obscurity and with the passage of the years the letters had been rubbed out/ but let his companion, our mighty gaon, the revealer of profundities [Megaleh Amukos] and illuminator of our darkness, testify about him/ for his honor is great in glory's name/ to remain as a reminder for future generations . . .

The anonymous grave apparently belongs to a concealed tzaddik, whose proximity to the Megaleh Amukos attests to his great virtue. The story behind the fascinating inscription goes back many years.

After the Megaleh Amukos' petiroh, a young man approached the gabbai of the chevra kadisha and expressed his desire to buy the plot next to that of the renowned gaon. The gabbai looked at him in astonishment. He was sure that this was a joke and rebuked the young man for making such an out-of-place request. The prospective buyer stood his ground however and grew even more determined. He even offered an astronomical price for the deal.

The gabbai's thoughts took a practical turn. "I'm already old," he said to himself, "and he's still a young man. I'll sell him the plot and by the time he needs it there won't be anybody around who knows about the sale."

He agreed to the deal and deposited the huge sum into the chevra's depleted treasury. Since he had no intention of actually transferring the plot to the buyer he entered nothing into the records. Everything would indeed have been forgotten had not the young man passed away suddenly that very night.

Who was he? He hadn't even given a name. Nobody knew him. There was no question in the gabbai's mind of burying him next to the Megaleh Amukos and the anonymous niftar was buried in a distant plot off to one side.

That night, the gabbai's sleep was disturbed by a dream in which the deceased man appeared. "I'm summoning you before the Heavenly Beis Din," he declared, "because you didn't honor our transaction!"

The gabbai was unable to dismiss the dream; it recurred on the following nights. Terrified, he turned to the Bach, who was then rov of Cracow.

"Torah is not in the heavens," was the Rov's verdict. "Tell him to appear at a din Torah here in this world."

On the appointed day a partition was erected in the beis haknesses and at the designated time sounds were heard coming from behind it.

"I bought it!" protested the deceased man.

The gabbai admitted this was true but argued that since he had no clue to the man's identity — he didn't even know his name — he couldn't bury him next to the Megaleh Amukos; it might not befit the tzaddik's honor.

After a moment's deliberation, the Bach explained to the visitor that since he still refused to tell them who he was the chevra kadisha was unable to bury him where he wanted lest the honor of the Megaleh Amukos be compromised. However, he gave instructions that a grave be opened at the site that the niftar was claiming. "If you're worthy," he addressed the niftar, "move yourself to the plot that you bought while you were alive!"

The following morning Jewish Cracow was abuzz. The grave of the anonymous avreich was empty and the grave next to the Megaleh Amukos that the Bach had given orders to open was closed and covered over! The chevra kadisha erected a headstone that bore the inscription, "Here is buried the unknown avreich, yagid olov rei'oh (his companion will testify about him)" When that stone wore away, the present one was erected.

We prayed there for a long time.

The Tosafos Yom Tov and the Miser

As rov of Cracow, the Tosafos Yom Tov supervised every aspect of communal affairs, including the collection and distribution of tzedokoh. A certain very wealthy individual lived in the city whose comfortable lifestyle was not matched by the size of his donations to tzedokoh. While he participated in every drive to raise money, his contributions were always paltry, nowhere near the amounts that he could quite easily have given.

Even the Tosafos Yom Tov's personal appeal to him to be more openhanded met with a discourteous refusal. The Rov tried to show him what others with more generous spirits were managing to achieve — taking in guests, caring for the sick, providing clothing and food for the needy — with their far more limited means, but this too failed to move him. The attempt failed utterly. There was no common ground over which to hold a discussion.

"In that case," the Tosafos Yom Tov informed the miser, "I decree, with beis din's knowledge and consent, that when you pass away you will be buried in disgrace next to the gate. If you turn a deaf ear to the cries of the town's needy you don't deserve to be buried together with the townsfolk." Even this threat failed to make an impression.

The man passed away shortly thereafter and the Tosafos Yom Tov insisted that his verdict be carried out, to serve as an example to others.

In the period that immediately followed the miser's petiroh the Cracow community experienced some major financial difficulties. The individuals who provided such services as shelter for guests, food for the needy, assistance for brides and medicines and care for the sick etc. all had to curtail their activities because of a severe shortage of funds. Increasingly, with no other option, the needy and destitute would turn personally to the Rov for the assistance they needed.

The Tosafos Yom Tov decided to investigate the strange turn of events, so he summoned those who had been providing the various services and demanded to know what had happened. The miser's secret was finally revealed. "Rabbi," came the responses, "what we gave wasn't our own. The `miser' provided us with the funds for our work."

A heavy burden now rested upon the Rov. "He was a hidden tzaddik and we didn't know," he realized. "Everybody else earned themselves fine reputations thanks to his generosity, while the `miser' — the real benefactor — got himself a bad name. He hid himself to such an extent that he didn't even leave any money to tzedokoh in his will. He died in disgrace and certainly wasn't mourned fittingly. In truth, it was not fitting that he be buried near the gate."

In an attempt to rectify the mistake, the Tosafos Yom Tov called all the townsfolk to the beis haknesses, where he eulogized the "miser". He also noted in his own will that he wanted to be buried in the same place of disgrace, next to the gate, in the "miser's" proximity.

All our attempts at identifying which of the headstones near to that of the Tosafos Yom Tov belongs to the "miser" were in vain. For all our efforts, we simply couldn't make out the lettering. As he seems to have wished, the community's benefactor remains as hidden in death as he was during his life.

You must be wondering why I slight him by still referring to him by the shameful title "miser" . . . Let me explain. It's known that if a person receives any kind of benefit, praise or honor on account of some good deed that he's done, his enjoyment of that benefit or honor in this world is deducted from his reward in Olom haboh.

"Our" miser wanted his good deeds to remain complete so that he would receive their full reward in Olom haboh... So he appointed trustworthy people to supervise all his charitable projects . . . so that he would receive no honor for them. It is thus quite proper to call him a great miser, for he was truly tight-fisted with regard to all his charitable deeds, so that they would remain whole and untainted, losing nothing. There is no greater tight- fistedness — holding onto everything to such a degree, avoiding the slightest taint of imaginary honor in order to keep the full reward in Olom haboh."

(Chesed Le'Avrohom, ibid.)


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