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, — whose yahrtzeit is this coming Wednesday, 13 Adar — 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.
On Shabbos Zachor 5702/1942, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were experiencing indescribable torment and unspeakable suffering. Among them was Harav Klonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Hy”d, who, despite his own terrible losses and anguish, forged on to lead and inspire his followers. On that Shabbos, toward the end of a lengthy dvar Torah, he wondered about the Midrash Tanchuma that states that the name of Hashem and the throne of Hashem will not be complete until the “zera Amalek — the seeds of Amalek” is wiped out.
While Amalek is also the name of a person — a grandson of Esav — it is also name of a people, as his descendants are also collectively known by this name. So why is it necessary to state “zera” — the seed of Amalek?
The Rebbe homiletically answers that this refers to the “seeds” that Amalek planted. He expresses deep concern about what will happen to those who will survive the horror they were then experiencing. After being forced to desecrate Shabbos, to eat tarfus in order to stay alive, will they be able to reclaim the same yiras Shamayim as they had before the war once this all ended? Will the youth who were forced to stop learning Torah be able to once again fully immerse themselves in Torah study upon their return?
Only when Amalek and all the seeds they planted will be wiped out, when all the detrimental aftereffects of the destruction he wrought will be eliminated, will Hashem’s name be whole.
This Shabbos Zachor, we will lein the passuk “zachor mah she’asah lecha Amalek — Remember what Amalek did to you.”
As part of its mission to ensure that we remember and do not forget only what was done to our people by the vicious offshoots of Amalek during WWII, the pioneering Holocaust Educational Resource Center, Project Witness, reached out to kehillos throughout the world, asking that the spiritual courage and lofty emunah of the Kedoshim as well as the survivors be highlighted on this Shabbos.
Their stories can be a most powerful tool to inspire us all, and especially our young people.
We must talk to our children not only about how the Kedoshim were killed, but also about how they lived — and how they were moser nefesh to perform mitzvos — under the hardest circumstances imaginable. This is a most fitting way to ensure that we fulfill the words of “lo tishkach — you shall not forget.”