Under the circumstances, the very fact that such a conversation even took place is astonishing.
On a cold day in the fall of 1944, in the constant shadow of terrible death surrounded by unspeakable horror, when Aviezer Burshtyn whispered to Yossel Friedenson, “We have been presented with a great mitzvah,” the latter was all ears.
The two inmates of the Auschwitz extermination camp were close friends, and both had been assigned to a crew whose job it was to clean barracks and collect garbage in various parts of the huge death camp.
Aviezer related that he had been sent to one of several women’s camps to clean. There, he was approached by a young girl, 15 or 16 years of age, who asked for sweater. Though it was only September, it was already quite cold in that part of Europe, and the malnourished girl, wearing only the thin concentration camp uniform, was shivering.
“You have a wife in the women’s camp,” Aviezer told Yossel. “Perhaps you can obtain a sweater for her?”
Both were aware that acquiring a sweater in Auschwitz would be very difficult, if not impossible. Only twice during the entire time he was in Auschwitz had Yossel been able to visit the women’s camp where his wife was held. To obtain an article of clothing in that section, smuggle it into the men’s camp and then sneak it back to where the girl was being held seemed like an unrealistic challenge.
The following day, however, they were assigned to clean an area where clothing was stored. Aviezer was able to get his hands on a ladies’ sweater, which he hid under his own clothing. Then the two young men waited for the first opportunity to bring it to the girl. A few days later, Aviezer was able to join a cleaning crew assigned to work in the camp where the girl was held.
When Aviezer returned, his eyes were filled with tears. “She didn’t want a sweater!” he emotionally told Reb Yossel. “She wanted a siddur!”
When he tried to give her the sweater, the girl had begun to cry. “I asked for a siddur, not a sweater! It is soon Rosh Hashanah. I need a siddur or a machzor,” she told him. “I heard by the men there are siddurim…”
The young girl refused to accept the sweater, fearing that if she took it, the men would no longer try to bring her a siddur.
Both men survived the war. Rabbi Aviezer Burshtyn, z”l, moved to Eretz Yisrael, where he served as a menahel and noted author, and Reb Yossel Friedenson, z”l, became a pre-eminent Holocaust historian, Agudah leader, and the legendary editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, a publication he established in a DP camp in 1946 and proceeded to publish for nearly seven decades. Neither of them, however, knew the name of the girl who asked for the siddur, and her fate is unknown to this day.
Chazal (Yoma 38a) tell that Nikanor traveled to Alexandria of Egypt where he paid skilled craftsmen to create magnificent bronze doors for one of the entrances in the Beis Hamikdash. On his return, a powerful gale threatened to sink the ship, and the crew, seeking to lighten the load, cast one of the doors overboard. When the storm didn’t cease, the crew sought to throw the second door overboard as well. Nikanor rose and clung to it, saying: “Cast me in with it!”
The waters immediately calmed down. One door was saved, but Nikanor was deeply distressed about the other one. When he arrived at the harbor of Acco, the missing door miraculously rose up from the sea and emerged from under the sides of the boat.
Sefer Kehillas Yitzchak quotes an illuminating insight on this story given by Harav Yaakov, a Dayan in Vilna:
When the Beis Hamikdash stood, we merited two doors: one was the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash, the other the Torah. We lost one of the doors nearly 2,000 years ago, and throughout our sojourn in galus, we face constant attempts to take away from us the second door as well.
It is up to us to emulate the heroism of Nikanor and be moser nefesh for Torah. In this zechus, we will merit that the other “door” — the Beis Hamikdash — will be returned to us as well.
As Klal Yisrael mourns the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and pines for its rebuilding, this is also a most appropriate time to mourn the six million Kedoshim and be inspired by the countless incredible exhibitions of spiritual heroism — true mesirus nefesh — that were witnessed during one of the darkest chapters in our history.