Tears of Joy- Six Decades After Aushwitz

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by Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein

I have just come home from the wedding of Hershel and Esther Boehm’s daughter Rifky to Shuie Anisfeld. As at most frum weddings, there was a long wait for the choson and kallah to come out from the picture taking. At that point, we were seriously thinking of going home as the hour was getting late. As we were leaving, though, there was a heavy rain, and my wife decided we might as well go back in and dance.I am really glad we didn’t leave the wedding. After the first dance there were a few speeches. This is the custom in Canada, and since the choson is from Toronto they did it at this wedding. When I realized that Mr. Jacob Boehm was speaking, I got up from my seat to move closer to hear every word. Bli ayin harah, he is getting older and is not quite as strong as he once was. I haven’t heard him speak in a long time.

He began by saying that he is the only survivor of 9 children and that he escaped certain death three times. He told the story of his wife’s survival. She and her sisters were on the death march and she couldn’t walk. The sisters would not leave her even though it meant that all four would be shot. By a miracle, the German not only didn’t shoot them but he felt sorry for them and went into a barn and took a wheelbarrow. He told the sisters that if they could push her all the way to Bergen Belsen, he would not shoot them. When they got there the German told them that their sister had to walk or she would be shot as soon as they saw she was sick. By some miracle her sisters helped her stand up and she survived the war.

He told us that he often wondered why did he alone survived, as he is no better than his siblings. The answer, he believes, is the bracha he got from his grandmother. She was a tzadeikes and when she was on her death bed and he was only 3, his father took him to his bubby for a bracha. She expired shortly afterwards. He was named for her husband, whom the Munkatcher Rav said was one of the lamed vov tzadikim. He believes that this special brocho was what kept him going.

Now 63 years after the war, he has children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all shomrei torah umitzvos. He blessed the choson and kallah that they should also have ehrliche children who would follow in the ways of Hashem.

Feigi told me that she also was crying when she observed Mrs Boehm and her sisters seated in the middle of a circle and their many granddaughters and great granddaughters were dancing around them.

I am glad we stayed. It was truly inspiring.

The older Oberstein children remember Jack’s Grocery Store located in half of the building where Tov Pizza is located. I still remember when it was lower down south of Northern Parkway. There was a time in Baltimore when the frum community was a fraction of what it is today and a little store like Jack’s which carried the Heimishe products was sufficient. Mr. and Mrs. Boehm were always friendly people and conversed with the customers, so everyone knows them.

When we think of heroes, we don’t appreciate the heroism of Mr. and Mrs. Boehm and people like them. They came out of the war and despite all they had suffered were determined to raise their children in the traditional path of their ancestors. They were the people who founded Shearis Hapleitah . None of them were wealthy, they had little stores and they struggled but they kept their customs and did not give in to America. All around them, other refugees did not have that determination, but these heroic people would not compromise and ,today, they have doros yeshorim yevorach, generations of children who continue in their ways.

After the war there were those who were ashamed that the Jews did not fight back. They concentrated on the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt and other acts of physical bravery. They even called the memorial day “Yom HaShoah VeHagevurah” to give emphasis to the bravery of the partisans who fought in the forests and other acts of bravery

In Israel there was a dispute as to what day to remember the Holocaust. Jews with a sense of history that links all events of the golus to the churban, like Menachem Begin, wanted to make the Holocaust Memorial Day on Tisha B’Av.The secularists wanted to tie it to the brave Warsaw Ghetto Revold which actually started on Pesach. So they made it in chodesh Nisan right after Pesach. though this is a time of the year when we do not observe certain mourning practices . Around that same time, a large monument was built near the location of today’s Binyanei HaUmah in Jerusalem. There was a machlokes — a dispute as to how to spell the one word “Remember” carved on the top of the pillar. The religious wanted “Yizcor” ( Hashem will remember, as in the Yizcor prayer), the secular opposed this choice and wanted “Nizcor” (We will remember). I don’t recall who won. Look at the pillar next time you are in that area and let me know.

I cannot begin to judge anyone who went through the Holocaust. We can never understand what they experienced and how it affected them. What I do see is that six decades after the war, those spiritual heroes who did not give in to despair and who kept their emunah (faith), those who rebuilt their lives with the values of “Yizcor” are able to see that their survival has great meaning. They are the ones who helped rebuild Torah Judaism after the years of destruction. Today, they can dance and share the nachas of grandchildren and great grandchildren because they never gave up. We are all better off because of their spiritual gevurah.

Rabbi Oberstein is the Director of the Teacher’s Institute, Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Baltimore

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2 Responses

  1. Eliyahu Rabovsky says:

    I too am from Baltimore and found this reminiscence touching and inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to record it for us.

  2. Judith (Edelman)Greenberger says:

    I lived in Baltimore from 1962-1970 at which time I got married and left for New York. My parents were very close with the Boehms and the Friedmans ( Mrs. Boehm’s sister) and Herschel is my age. It is very true that they were wonderful people and their Kosher grocery was a lifeline for the community. From our simple life in small Baltimore, grew a major Jewish Community, because of people like them and my parents, all survivors who picked up the pieces of their lives and continued without hesitation to rebuild them.