On a recent Rosh Hashonoh, for some strange reason, my memory
was stirred of a rather incidental episode that took place
sixty-six years ago (1940/5700), something that happened
during one of the first few weeks of the German invasion of
Poland. Perhaps my memory was nudged because I prayed in a
shteibel which was graced by a large number of
beautiful bookcases containing specially bound volumes.
I have an admitted weakness for seforim, and my
admiration of those volumes must have prodded my memory of
one of my confrontations with the accursed people, that was
directly connected with seforim.
Actually, that one was not my first run-in with the
representatives of the `master race.' The first time had
taken place several days before, when they had seized me on
the street and conscripted me, together with other Jews, for
forced labor. I had been brutally beaten, one of many treated
savagely in this manner. I can hardly remember details of
that incident, but what I do recall in particular is the
other event previously mentioned which is completely
connected with seforim, an incident which has much to
convey to readers.
It was during November, 1939. I recall the date since it was
a few days before we fled from Lodz to Warsaw. We were the
object of a `visit' from savage Nazi officers, a visit which
was routine and widespread and usually paid just to pillage
All signs pointed to the fact that it was the German
commanders who instructed their officers and soldiers, and
especially their policemen, to raid Jewish homes. These, like
their owners, were considered fair play, free-for-all, and
legitimate prey — and their property, there for the
taking. The Nazis paid their calls day after day, and did not
stop at mere appropriation but left many a victim bruised and
beaten, wallowing in blood.
Two German policemen stormed into our home without waiting
for us to open the door. They bashed it in with their hobnail
boots and demanded money. My father Hy'd, R' Eliezer
Gershon Friedensohn one of the heads of the Bais Yaakov
movement in Poland and a prolific, gifted writer and renowned
educator was, fortunately, out having joined a clandestine
minchah minyan which was taking place by neighbors on
the fifth floor of our building. My mother had, apparently,
prepared herself for such a call, for she immediately
proffered them a purse containing one hundred German
At first, the officers were not overly brutal and,
remembering their `manners,' they removed all the money
except for ten marks which they handed back to my mother
together with the purse. But then they began searching the
breakfront and silver closets, an event for which my mother
had likewise been prepared. A few days earlier, she had
removed all the silver valuables — the Shabbos
candlesticks, Chanukah menorah, goblets — and
hidden them somewhere. Disappointed, the Germans were about
to leave empty-handed when their gaze fell upon our two huge
There was nothing there that should have interested them, and
I was surprised to see them eye them with interest studying
the Hebrew lettering on the backs of the seforim which
they surely could not read. A few moments passed before one
of them fixed his sight upon my father's new Vilna
Shas which he had bought that summer. The outsized
volumes must have aroused their curiosity, for suddenly, one
of them removed one and shouted at me, "Come here, you!"
Terrified, I approached. "Can you read this?" he asked me.
I nodded affirmatively, stuttering the information that it
was the Talmud.
At the sound of these words, both officers leaped back, as if
they had been scalded with boiling water. The first one began
screaming at the top of his lungs, his face crimson, his feet
stomping the ground. He threw the volume to the ground,
trampling it in rage. The two began removing all the volumes
and throwing them violently to the ground and stamping on
them with their hobnailed boots, attempting to rip them
This activity did not satisfy their blood lust for when they
saw that they could not tear them with their feet, they slung
their bayonets off their shoulders and began puncturing them.
The points and blades were very sharp and succeeded in
ripping most of the volumes. But this did not yet assuage
their rage for they took the remaining ones and flung them
out the window down to the courtyard.
I don't recall how long this terrible scene played itself
out, perhaps during the space of half-an-hour. When they
finally tired of the exertion of piercing the texts and
trampling them underfoot, they turned their attention to the
smaller volumes in the bookcase. They selected the ones with
the more ornate bindings which my father had purchased
together with the Shas, a few weeks before the
outbreak of the war.
To this day, I am baffled by the fact that they did not force
me, a young lad standing by, to help them in their
destructive project. Perhaps they wanted to reserve the
pleasure all for themselves. At any rate, after having
succeeded in emptying half of the bookcase of its contents,
one of them shouted, "Enough for today."
They took a few volumes along with them, perhaps to boast to
their friends and, with a vociferous promise of, "We'll be
back!" they finally left.
Even now, I can still feel chills when I remember how pale my
father's face turned when he descended from the neighbor's
apartment after minchah and saw the desecration of his
bookcase and its holy contents. Ima apparently did not grasp
the extent of this tragedy. She was only grateful to Hashem
that he had not been at home when the travesty had taken
place and that the Nazis had not been able to vent their
hatred upon him. That is what I felt, as well.
I couldn't understand why they had let me be and had poured
out their hatred upon the holy volumes. It had not been that
way in other homes where they had preferred to beat the
inhabitants, to torture, if not kill, them. In my mother's
eyes, this was a miracle.
But when Abba saw the devastation, he began trembling all
over. It took the whole night for him to calm down somewhat,
and this only after we had gathered up the torn and trodden
seforim and put them in a genizah bag, and
placed the ones that could still serve back in the bookcase.
But even after this, he was unable to shut an eye all night.
It was probably during that horrendous night that he began
thinking about leaving Lodz and fleeing to Warsaw.
For the next few days, no one spoke about the destruction of
those seforim. Abba was transformed, all of a sudden,
into a taciturn man. Something inside had taken place during
that long sleepless night, perhaps evoking a reaction like
that of Aharon to the death of his two sons: Vayidom
Aharon — he was silent. He mourned his Shas,
of which only four or five volumes remained intact. The loss
was like that of a child, G-d forbid . . .
The situation in Lodz worsened until it became unbearable. My
father z'l consulted the Rebbe of Zichlin zt'l
and they reached the decision that he should take his family
and move to Warsaw. He told my father that he, too, was
planning to do so since all indications showed that Lodz was
going to be more dangerous a place than Warsaw, where there
were fewer Germans.
A few weeks later we arrived in Warsaw. Needless to say, we
left our half-empty bookcase behind. At this point, even the
contents did not really belong to us any more . . . We were
refugees in Warsaw, and so long as we could escape being
mobilized for forced labor by the Germans, we were determined
to do so. There was plenty of time to talk in Warsaw. The
atmosphere was somewhat calmer and I was able to discuss the
matter of the seforim with Abba at length.
I asked Abba if he could fathom what had happened when the
Germans had stormed into our home. They had, to be sure,
robbed Ima of her hundred marks, but they must not have been
the worst of the lot compared to other gendarmes who, when
breaking into a Jewish home acted much more brutally and
savagely. By us they were relatively calm. They had returned
ten of the marks and not even beaten anyone.
In the light of this behavior how, I asked, could he explain
their fiendish treatment of the seforim? The very
sight of the Hebrew letters seemed to have triggered a
demonic reaction which had erupted volcano-like at the
mention of `Talmud.' They had gone berserk, shouting,
cursing, kicking, stomping and trampling. What was the
"I, in fact, do understand their behavior," said Abba. "I
understand it well. Our Jewish bookcase and its holy contents
are like thorns in their eyes and bones in their gullets.
This is because we Jews are the antithesis of them, and it is
our holy works that make it so.
"What is the highest ideal by Jews?" Abba continued his
monologue. "What is our most hidden secret desire? Peace! At
every turn a Jew makes, the first word he utters is
`Sholom.' He encounters another Jew, even an
unfamiliar one, and he greets him with `Peace.' He likewise
welcomes the angels which accompany him from shul on
Friday night with a `Sholom aleichem.'
"Kohanim bless the people with peace, as do fathers
their sons. If you examine our prayers, you will find the
same theme repeated three times a day. The Kaddish
also concludes with a wish for peace. One of the ultimate
praises which we give to the A-mighty is, `He makes peace . .
. ' and `He blesses His people Yisroel with peace.'
"All this is their very antithesis. Whereas we pray for
peace, yearn for it, exalt it — they praise war, whet
their weapons and sharpen their military skills. They sing
songs of battle, think about it, write poetry about it and
march to that tempo in all they do.
"Blood is disgusting to us, abhorrent and repulsive. It is
forbidden. We salt our meat to drain it of the last drop of
"Even more, blood is connected to impurity. One of the
cardinal sins is bloodshed, whereas by them, it is
praiseworthy. The very color is beautiful to them. Blood does
not frighten them. They have a thirst for it and some even
revel in eating animal flesh alive.
"Jews excel in many attributes and traits. They despise those
very values. Jews love chessed. It is one of our
identifying traits: Merciful, bashful, and kindhearted. These
very qualities are faults and shortcomings, signs of weakness
and fearfulness. The greatest insult in the German language
is the epithet `coward.' We Jews, however, declare,
`Fortunate is the one who is forever fearful [spiritually
speaking].' We praise the one who is ever apprehensive. The
most laudable trait in Judaism is humility, while their
hallmark is pride, arrogance, self importance and personal or
Abba continued and said to me, "Why are you so surprised
about the pogrom which they perpetrated on our
seforim? You read newspapers I know, and you must be
aware that the Nazis began their political career by burning
books. Not only our seforim, but also those that
downgrade war and praise peace. They despise them and torched
them all, including their own revered classics. They cast
them into huge bonfires and removed them all from their
"In my eyes, there is nothing new in their anger against our
holy works. The Germans know that all of our laudable
characteristics, our yearning for peace, our love of
chessed and truth — all these originate in and
are propagated by our holy books. Everything refined,
beautiful, praiseworthy, exalted by the intelligentsia of the
outside world is based on our holy writings and philosophy,
and they are aware that all this is blatantly, diametrically
opposed to everything which they consider praiseworthy, good
I am not sure that I absorbed and understood the full
significance of my father's words at the time he uttered
them. It appears to me that I only began to comprehend and
appreciate them many years later, after I came into closer
contact with the Nazis and learned about their true
temperament, and of their wickedness and murderous nature. I
received my `education' while in Buchenwald, where I was also
exposed to Nazi literature which is permeated with their
philosophy of evil.
This took place in my last weeks in Buchenwald, at a time
which the Block Elder of our barracks, a German communist
prisoner, lent me several books from the library which was
under his care. After I made my acquaintance with him and
surprised and impressed him with my educated Schleswig high-
German, he revealed to me that the S.S. appointed over the
prisoners in our block had brought several dozen German
propaganda books to distribute among the anti-Nazi German
prisoners in our midst. He, however, had no intention of
"If you like," he offered, "I can bring you some," and
forthwith, brought me a pile of Nazi literature. "You are a
Jew. I am not afraid of your becoming a Nazi . . . " he said
with a bitter smile.
Understandably enough, from the space of sixty years, there
is not much that I can recall from what I read. But I do
remember how impressed I had been by my father's wisdom and
insight. After several years under the German boot, after the
chapter of the Warsaw ghetto and internment in several camps,
and in addition to my reading Nazi literature which
philosophically and ideologically condoned all of their
murderous, savage ambitions and all of the vile acts which
they perpetrated — I was able to understand very well
why they had so despised our seforim . . .