I’ve always had mixed feelings about Yom Hashoa, on the one hand it would have been preferable to honor our martyrs on the individual anniversaries if only these were known, on the other hand not only are most death anniversaries unknown, many of the 6,000,000 left no one to even remember them. No one to remember, nothing more than the indelible blood stains on the souls of their murderers, on the souls of those who publicly and privately rejoiced, on the souls of those who turned a blind eye, on the souls of those who perhaps winced and forgot it, on the souls of those who deny history…
As I reread my last year’s post (The Proper Way to Die), my eyes swell up, though I’ve read and heard this story many a time, I doubt I could say anything new here so forgive me for posting it again…
In a world where there are Holocaust deniers, where European cities (in deference to Muslims living there) have decided to do away with Holocaust commemorations, in a world where schools in the UK find it expedient (in the interest of a misguided, pernicious, “Political Correctness”) to ignore important historical facts (such as the Holocaust), I thought I should tell a simple story today Yom Hasho’a – the day that commemorates the Holocaust.
There are 6,000,000 stories of those that died, I cannot tell them all! Many of these are known, some (most, like their protagonists and their families) have totally vanished from the human mind, from any surviving record. Some are stories of unbelievable strength, others are more mundane but all unequivocally show an unconquerable spirit. A spirit that no Nazi power could break, no enemy before, no enemy after can destroy.
This is the Story of Rabbi Zvi Michelson, one of Warsaw’s oldest rabbi’s who at the age of 79, became just another of the 700,000 Jews killed in the death camps of Treblinka.
Early in 1942 the Germans first began their systematic raids in the Warsaw ghetto, snatching Jewish men, women and children from the warrens in which they had been “resettled” and transporting them to the extermination camps.
In the very first of these raids, the Germans aided by Ukrainian soldiers surrounded the house in which Rabbi Michelson lived, shouting through the megaphones that all those inside were to come out into the courtyard. All the Jews in the building obeyed the German command – except for Rabbi Michelson, who refused to budge. Those who would remain in their rooms, he reasoned, would soon be routed out by the German soldiers. Their travail would not last long; they would be gunned down on the spot, and their bodies would be flung into the street. There, chances were that other Jews would find them, pile them upon the carts that creaked through the ghetto alleys to collect the dead and bury them in accordance with Jewish law. Those who would go to the Germans in the courtyard, on the other hand, would be loaded by the storm troopers onto trucks and taken to the death camps. There they would die, too, but not without suffering. Even worse, from what the rabbi had heard, they would not be buried at all but cremated, in violation of the Torah. And so Rabbi Michelson prepared himself to meet death as he felt befitted a man of age and tradition. He put on his phylacteries, draped his tallith (prayer shawl) around his spare body, bolted the door of his room and waited for the Germans to come.
But things did not happen the way the rabbi had expected. Yes, the Germans, accompanied by a Jewish ghetto policeman, kicked open the door and burst into Rabbi Michelson’s room. But when the storm troopers saw the old man with the long flowing white beard standing upright before them, stern of countenance and draped from shoulders to feet in his snowy-white, silver -bordered prayer robe, they were immobilized by awe, indeed by a fear, such as they probably never knew before. Years later, the ghetto policeman, who survived the war, was to tell the end of the story. “Why, it is Moses himself!” the policeman heard one of the Germans mutter. With that, the German silently turned and led the others out of the room, slamming the door and leaving Rabbi Michelson untouched.
Alone in his little room, the rabbi could hear the babble of the crowd in the courtyard below, mingled with the raucous shouts of the German soldiers. From his tiny window, he could see the others from his house being shoved into onto huge German army trucks. And a thought far more frightening than death came to Rabbi Michelson. True, he had been granted a a miraculous reprieve. But for how long? When the Germans would recover from their surprise, they would return and shoot him. That is how he would die, and he would die alone. In effect, by refusing to leave his room he had run away like a coward; he had deserted his brethren. Which, he asked himself, was the proper alternative – to die alone, with the chance that he alone might be found by some survivors outside and be given proper burial, or go out to his brethren and be with them on their last journey? Which was the proper way to die?
It did not take Rabbi Michelson more than a moment to make his decision. He turned from the window, adjusted his tallith, and strode from the room. With firm steps, he descended the stairs and marched out into the courtyard. There he joined the others on their way to the Umschlagplatz, the assembly point from where they all were to be taken to Treblinka. He remained a source of comfort and inspiration to his brethren, and when the end came, he shared their fate. He is among the millions who have no graves, but he has a lasting memorial in the annals of valor and uprightness.
Being the son of Holocaust survivors (the younger sibling of a brother I never got to meet, killed at age 3 for the heinous crime of having been born a Jew), I’ve heard hundreds of stories of unbearable horrors and indescribable courage, stories that show the greatness and the baseness of human beings, stories that reveal deep character flaws and hidden jewels but… neither can I retell them all here nor would you, gentle reader, bear to read them all. Therefore I chose one story to stand as a monument to all the known ones and all those that shall forever remain buried… like the people who lived them…
Perhaps a better title would have been a Proper Way to Live….