Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Kislev 5766 - December 21, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

A Smile of Conviction
by Chedva Ofek

Yisroel Green was the undisputed leader of his shiur in yeshiva. His kindness and consideration towards his classmates influenced everyone around him: An atmosphere of spirituality and love of learning surrounded him.

"Yisroel," they asked him one day, with a tinge of envy, "Can you pinpoint one particular cause of your success in acquiring good middos and overcoming the bad ones?" Yisroel did not answer for a long moment, then he looked in the direction of the aged Rosh Yeshiva, and murmured emotionally, "My gandfather. He is the one who cultivated and strengthened my character and encouraged me when things were difficult. It is easier to learn the whole of Shas than to change one bad trait, but whenever I felt discouraged, I saw him with his permanent kindly smile, which never faltered for a moment. This smile encouraged me all my life and helped me to strive for greater perfection."

The students gazed at their venerable Rosh Yeshiva with admiration. He returned their look and seemed to caress them with his eyes. He stood up, his smile even broader than usual. "Boys," he said, in his strong voice, "My friends, you are giving me more admiration than I deserve. Let me tell you a short story:


More than fifty-five years ago, a little boy of ten was incarcerated in the concentration camp where the fiend Mengele conducted his "experiments." Like hundreds of other children, the boy had been cruelly separated from his parents, and was now a human guinea pig. They operated on the facial muscles around his mouth, ostensibly to discover if a human being can smile forever. The child cried bitterly, without a trace of tears; they had frozen his tear ducts, but his mouth continued to smile. When the scars had healed, the accursed Nazi took photos of his 'protege' from every angle, to send around the world, to show how happy the children were in his care. No one could tell that the smile had been forcibly contrived with a scalpel.

The war ended and the child survived.

A shudder swept through the beis hamedrash as Rav Green continued his story. "Yes, I was that little boy. You can see the permanent smile, which I can never remove, etched on my face." Yisroel knew that this was the first time that his grandfather had ever revealed this story from his past.

He went on reminiscing:

Among the melancholy dejected crowds who had survived hell and disconsolately tried to trace some relative, a smile was a rare phenomenon. Yet I, Yehoshua Green, smiled and smiled ceaselessly, all my waking hours. There were those who kept their distance, thinking that my mind was unhinged because of all the horrors I had suffered. Others thought that I had become dehumanized, without any feelings of compassion for my fellow sufferers. They were unable to trace a single living relative of mine and nobody could understand that even this sad fact could not make a child cry. They did not know that I was maimed and mutilated.

I began to walk with my face downcast, so that people should not see my smile. My spirit was broken when I finally arrived in Eretz Yisroel, with a group of other refugees. Divine Providence led me to Rav Kupperman, an erstwhile Rosh Yeshiva from Poland.

"What ails you my boy, that you walk so bent and are so utterly desolate?" His kindly concern broke my self-imposed silence and I told him the whole story, about the accursed Mengele and about my useless facial muscles. The Rav listened in silence and then asked, "Is there no way to reverse the damage?"

"If only there were," I wept silently, "I feel terrible." Rav Kupperman promised to find out if there was any possibility of surgical intervention. For two weeks I carried a glimmer of hope in my heart, filled with euphoria. I knew that American and French doctors went out of their way to help refugees. But Heaven decreed otherwise. When the Rav answered evasively day after day, I understood that there was no way to remove the smile.

One day I called out in a broken voice, "What is to become of me? What am I to do?" Rav Kupperman rested a gentle hand on my shaking shoulders, "My son," he spoke like a father to me, "if you use your disability to encourage people, to make them happy and smile too, the time will come when your handicap will become a blessing."

I remember that he wiped a tear from his eye as he spoke. My face continued to bear the smile you know so well. The smile with which I faced all vicissitudes in my life. The smile with which I raised anyone who was feeling down, and helped them overcome their problems. With this same smile I revised pages of gemora, and became a genuine yeshiva bochur, under the guidance of Rav Kupperman.

This evening you gave me an accolade which I ill deserve. It is time to give credit where credit is due. Who is responsible for the great influence my smile has had on dozens, if not hundreds of people?

An electric silence filled the air as the spell bound boys waited for his revelation.

"My Torah, and yours, and the Torah of this grandson here and of all my other grandchildren, are all hers. The merit of Soroh Rochel, my late wife."

In Poland straight after the war.

In the corner of the women's section of the small dusty shul, Soroh Rochel had a ramshackle bed of sorts. She had no father or mother, nor any other relative. She was just another of the thousands of Holocaust survivors. Her tears drenched the open pages of the Tehillim in her hands as she prayed, "I want to marry a talmid chochom like my father, a tzaddik like my grandfather, I want to add another link to the illustrious chain of my family."

Mindel the cleaner, a woman in her mid-fifties, tried to help some of the refugees. In particular, she took Soroh Rochel under her wing as if she were her daughter. "Dry your eyes, maidele," she said one day, "I have the perfect match for you. Ahrele the porter; he is tall and efficient and will make you a good husband. He makes a good living . . . What do you say Soroh Rochel? Shall I start looking for some white material for a wedding dress?"

Soroh Rochel did not answer. Her pinched, jaundiced face had a mulish expression. No, Ahrele, although famous among all the displaced refugees as a go-getter, someone who was pulling himself up by his own shoe laces, was not the boy she wanted to marry. She wanted a house of Torah, as she remembered her own home. She was looking for a man who would be engrossed in his learning all day.

Thus she continued to weep and to pray, but Mindel was not so easily put off. "Soroh Rochel, in these days straight after the war, it is incumbent on every survivor to set up a home as soon as possible. Forget your ideas! Where do you think you will find the boy of your dreams?"

Soroh Rochel did not reply. She knew that if her father were alive, he would have understood, and helped her. But she was completely alone in the world. One day, when Rav Kupperman arrived at the Displaced Persons camp to hearten the refugees, she poured out her heart to him. He listened to each word intently, and then suggested, "I have a boy in my Yeshiva who is a perfect gem. He is a lamdan and a masmid and I imagine he is also looking for a shidduch." Soroh Rochel's face brightened. "Unfortunately," continued the Rav, "he is handicapped." Her spirits fell. Why should she marry a handicapped boy? "The boy was mutilated by Mengele, and has a permanent smile on his face."

"What is wrong in marrying a boy who is always smiling?" countered the bewildered girl.

"Other people think differently. They think he is unhinged, mentally deficient, lacking in all human sentiments. They keep their distance from him. I wonder if you could cope with the ostracism, and with this deformity?"

Soroh Rochel tossed and turned in her bed that night, and then decided. She would marry Yehoshua Green. Mindel the cleaner did not sew a wedding gown for her. Mindel sobbed and tried to dissuade her. "They all say he is unbalanced. All he does is learn all day. What will you live on?" Soroh Rochel smiled calmly. She relied on Rav Kupperman's judgment.

"All these years," the Rosh Yeshiva concluded, "she stood by me and together we raised a tribe of wonderful children and grandchildren. It is to her that I owe my genuine smile."


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