By Toby Klein Greenwald
GUSH ETZION, Israel — In his official Memorial Day speech at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described how, as a young soldier, two of his fellow soldiers, 19 years old, were killed during a lethal military operation, and how one of them, David Ben Hamu, died in his arms in the army car on the way to the closest hospital. The Prime Minister had been a member of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, the same unit which his brother Yonatan, led during the Entebbe rescue, during which Yonatan died.
Netanyahu described how, years later, when he went to visit Ben Hamu’s parents in Beer Sheva, his mother showed him David’s room. It was exactly how it looked the day he fell in battle, she said. Not one detail had been changed, not one item moved.
I remember once staying overnight at the home of a friend in another town, a friend whose son had also died in a battle against terrorists. She now uses his bedroom as the guest room. Her hospitality was effusive and generous, but I hardly slept all night. I was surrounded by army medals, photographs, items that had belonged to the courageous young soldier.
As I heard Netanyahu speak, and as I remembered the room of the son of my friend, and the rooms of so many other soldiers who die in battle and whose families maintain their bedrooms as shrines, where they are young forever, all I could think of were the words, “rooms of the heart”.
In English, the four different parts of the heart are called “chambers”. In Hebrew, they are called simply “rooms”.
The week that is, every year
Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and for those who have died at the hand of terrorist, come exactly one week apart. It is a week fraught with emotion and a deep clutching at the internal and collective spirit of the Jewish people in Israel. The two days are inexorably linked, for the event of the first day reminds us why we must have an army of our own, so a shoah will never happen again.
This year, on Yom Hashoah, I invited Mendel Flaster of San Diego, who was visiting in Israel, to speak to the 9th grade class I teach in Yeshivat Makor Chaim in Gush Etzion. Many of the students have brothers who have been in the army, or fathers or grandfathers who have fought in Israel’s wars, or family members who endured the Shoah, or grandfathers who fought with the Allies during WWII.
Mendel, who is 90 years old, is lucid and articulate. He described how, as a 19-year-old, in 1939, he was taken to a Nazi labor camp in Poland. He eventually endured 14 camps in six years, the last one being Auschwitz-Birkenau.
When he was liberated, he was recruited by the American army to work for the CIC and the CID, organizations that tracked down and gathered information to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Mendel helped send 30 Nazi war criminals to prison. Twelve hours of his testimony were recorded for the project of Steven Spielberg, who also wrote him several personal letters.
Mendel’s scores of stories are replete with descriptions of the camps – onerous labor, hunger, filth, cruel punishments, debasement and death, and what the inmates did, not only to survive, but to maintain their personal dignity. The stories are numerous, chilling and inspiring, and hopefully one day will fill a book.
He told five especially mesmerizing stories that I’d like to relate, as they seem so unbelievable, given the context in which they occurred.
One was how Mendel galvanized around him a group of young men in one of the labor camps who, with him, went “on strike” and refused to work after their shoes had fallen apart and they had no other shoes to wear. They struck for several weeks, in spite of severe deprivations and punishments, knowing that they could be executed for their rebellion. Yet they held out, and eventually a truck arrived full of shoes, and they returned to work.
A second story was about how he did everything to keep a modicum of religious observance. He befriended and made deals with one camp cook so that, on Pesach, he could trade the portions of bread for potatoes, for himself and others. He described how he led the davening of Kol Nidre in their “barracks”, with the participation of all of the inmates, even though they knew that if the Nazi guards chose that moment to walk in, they would all be killed.
In a third story, he described how they would do anything in order to see their families, who were hours away. He used to sneak out and walk seven hours each way each week, , through forests and over mountains, in order to – surrealistically – spend Shabbat at home. Every time he reported back to the camp for work, he received 25 lashes, but he bore them bravely each week in order to see his family. When he was in yet another camp, several years later, and the time came that he and the other inmates knew the villages of the area would be sent away to their death, he arranged with a somewhat sympathetic Nazi guard that he and a group of his friends, be allowed to visit their families one last time. He had to explain to the men that if any of them used the opportunity to escape, all the rest would be executed.
He worked out a schedule, and the guard arranged it so that trucks that delivered goods in the area would take detours in order to drop the men off for short visits with their families, who were subsequently sent to their deaths. He left his own visit for the end. “As the leader,” he said, “I wanted to go last.” But there were no more deliveries, so he snuck out. When he arrived at his family’s home, at 1 o’clock in the morning, he didn’t want to knock on the locked door, so as not to awaken neighbors who might report him; rather, he just touched a window and his mother opened it immediately. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, and took him immediately into the home. An hour and a half later he left to return to the camp. He never saw anyone in his family again.
In a fourth story, Mendel described how the first two fingers of his left hand got caught in a machine and the tips were cut off. When he recuperated in the infirmary, he did everything to help people who were in a worse state than himself. When Mengele sent everyone from the infirmary to the gas chambers, the staff asked that Mendel be spared, as they needed his help.
Lastly, when Mendel was in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, he was asked to stay behind and help close the camp when all the others were sent on the infamous death march. But he refused to leave his comrades, even though he knew it could mean almost certain death. “Wherever they go,” he said, “I will go with them.”
Those who stayed behind were eventually shot. Mendel survived.
“All I did,” he told my students, “was try to help others, to not be selfish.”
“Be kind to each other.”
Just before he left the classroom, I photographed him with the boys. He looked them in the eye and said, “You are all good boys. Daven, learn Torah, and be kind to each other, because G-d loves that.”
When I asked the students to write what they received from Mendel’s talk, they wrote about faith, and human dignity, and the importance of not being selfish. One wrote, “Yom Hashoah was always a far nightmare…Mendel made my Yom Hashoah something deeper…Mendel describing his last moments with his family made me cry. Mendel describing Jewish people getting killed, in all kinds of ways, released a rope that was tied to my heart.”
We all hold someone special in the rooms of our heart. And some of those rooms are occupied by holy men and women who died for Kiddush Hashem.
Every year, for one week, in Israel, the entire country allows itself to tiptoe into those rooms, hand in hand, sit down quietly in the corners, weep, and remember.
The writer is a teacher, editor and educational theater director.