When my mother was 16 years old, she discovered a paper in her father's Talmud which read, “In memory of my wife Chana, and my daughters Esti and Zlata.” Shocked, she asked her father to explain. His face lost all color and he froze, completely unable to answer.
My grandfather never spoke about his experiences at Auschwitz. Never! He took the horrors he witnessed and pain he experienced to the grave.
I know the memories stayed with him–vividly, because I used to hear him scream in his sleep. The suffering he experienced is indescribable, his misery unimaginable. Today, it is clear that he almost certainly suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My mother was able to find out from her uncle that her father had previously been married, and his wife and both daughters were murdered by the Nazis. On May 18th 1944, my grandfather was deported from Hungary with his wife and two daughters, Esti, 4, and Zlata, 7. Pushed out of the cattle cars at Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele immediately sent the children to the left and their parents to the right. Their mother refused to part with her children and within hours the three of them had been gassed and cremated. May G-d avenge their deaths.
Last weekend I attended a Belev Echad reunion in Jerusalem, with all the participants from all our past trips. What a pleasure to catch up with these heroes and witness the remarkable amount of progress they have made in their mental and physical recovery!
On Friday we visited the kotel, driven in style on 30 motorcycles. One of the soldiers with us was my dear friend Ohad Ben Ishay, who came to New York on the 2015 Belev Echad trip. Ohad was one of the most severely wounded soldiers of the past war, Operation Protective Edge. He suffered major injuries to head and to his body, and he lost the ability to speak. On his trip in 2015 he put on tefillin but was unable to say the shema.
Well, fast forward to 2017 and I asked him if he'd like to put on tefillin at the kotel, which he did, and lo and behold he was able to say the shema! These are the first words I have heard him say since his injury. I was incredulous at his progress; he is able to speak a little, and to hear him say the shema was deeply moving.
I wondered, if he were alive, what my grandfather might say.
Most certainly he would say Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad!
I feel certain he would look with pride and gratitude at our incredible and courageous IDF soldiers who put their own lives on the line on a daily basis to keep us all safe and to ensure that "never again!" actually means "never again!"
He would say the shema, expressing his gratitude to the Almighty for the transformation that has occurred since that fateful day in 1944. He would thank G-d for the super power that Israel has become.
And he would look with wonder upon the many living, healthy descendants he has from his second marriage, something that at one point surely seemed unimaginable.