The heady scent of the leafy green schach wafted towards him as Reb Yisroel entered his succah, and he surveyed the scene before him with a satisfied smile. The festively decorated walls and rafters sparkled and shone, their colors contrasting sharply with the snow-white tablecloth on the long table.
He leaned a ladder against the wall and from his precarious perch at the top, Reb Yisroel hung small fragrant esrogim from the roof, to join the array of birds, streamers and fruit already swinging from the wooden beams that supported the schach.
Descending the ladder, a sigh escaped his lips.
"Who would have believed that we would one day use kosher esrogim to decorate the succah?" Wiping a tear with his forefinger from the corner of his eye, he continued, 'I remember when one esrog was used by thousands of people for the mitzvah of arba minim."
With one foot still on the ladder, he began to relate to us the story of the precious esrog of 1943.
"The falling leaves and gentle wind attested to the fact that autumn had arrived, but the usual joy heralding Succos in Bratislava was darkened by the ominous black clouds looming on the horizon, grimly warning of the storm that had already swept through most of Europe. City after city was wiped out. War threatened to engulf us too.
"Worrisome thoughts invaded our Shacharis prayers that first morning of Yom Tov.
"Where are the rest of my family who have gone into hiding? Are they really safer than I am?
"Who knows what happened to my brother and his family in Poland? We've heard nothing from them since they were deported.
"Where are my children celebrating Succos? I sent them with the kindertransport to England. Will I ever sit with them in a succah again?
"A tearful Hallel ensued as we praised and thanked Hashem for sheltering us in the past, and now fervently begged for his future guidance and protection.
"Suddenly the realization hit us with full force. We looked around, hopefully — to the rov, to Reb Michoel Ber, to my Papa zt"l — but in vain. There was not a single esrog. Valiant efforts had been made before yom tov to obtain a set of arba minim. It was rumored that the Belzer Rov in Budapest had two esrogim. Reb Michoel Ber Weissmandl had written him a letter a few days prior to Succos, describing the plight of Czechoslovakian Jewry, who possessed not a single esrog in any of their communities. " . . . And who knows if there will be anyone left to need an esrog in Pressburg next year," he concluded.
"Papa zt"l (Reb Shlomo Stern of Pressburg), who had close ties with leading diplomats from various embassies, arranged for one of them to fetch an esrog from the Belzer Rov at whatever cost. However, it was already yom tov and nothing had arrived.
"Our hearts were heavy as, empty-handed, we beseeched Hashem, "Hosha no, lema'ancho . . . "
"Towards the end of davening a quiet knock diverted Papa's attention and he made his way inconspicuously to the door. There, on the threshold, stood `his' diplomat, a package in his arms.
"To his astonishment, he was almost swept off his feet by Papa's emotional embrace. Papa rushed up the stairs to our apartment above the shul. With shaking fingers he opened the boxes to reveal their precious contents: a lulav and esrog.
"Trembling, he placed them on the table and was overcome, yet again, with emotion. Down his cheeks cascaded tears of joy at being able to fulfill this mitzvah despite the terrible situation.
"A Czechoslovakian refugee entered the room. Having seen Papa leave the shul with the diplomat, curiosity bade him follow.
"Seeing the precious arba minim on the table, his joy knew no bounds. Without a moment's hesitation he swept up the lulav and esrog in his hands and was the first person in all Czechoslovakia to recite the blessing on this esrog from the Belzer Rov.
"Those first days of yom tov saw a true ingathering of exiles in Czechoslovakia as the arba minim traveled to Tirnau and Nitra, the two largest remaining communities.
"News of the esrog preceded its journeys — and from all over the country Jews emerged from bunkers and hideouts. Refugees with false passports and identification papers risked their lives to come out of hiding and join the lines of people who came to touch the arba minim for a few fleeting moments and to recite the blessings, holding onto these symbols of freedom and protection. In the shadow of this mitzvah many a short but joyful reunion took place, as neighbors, cousins, and brothers discovered that they were not the only ones still struggling to hold onto life and hope.
"Throughout Succos the esrog traveled, attracting Jews to it like a magnet. It returned to us on Hoshanna Rabboh, totally unrecognizable, completely blackened by the hands of thousands of Jews.
"After the war, we soothed our wounds, picked up the torn threads of our lives and resettled here in England, but every year when I brought my father an esrog mehudar, he cried . . . "
Reb Yisroel folded the ladder and stood back to admire his handiwork, his eyes misted over with the memories it evoked. Who would have believed that esrogim would be used as mere decorations to beautify the succah?