The Man from Elie Weisel’s Village
By David Hartley Mark
I have had Holocaust survivors in all of my congregations. Some were traditional templegoers, some not. And then, there was Bernie. He wasn’t religious, though he had come from a traditional background. He had a deep, raspy voice, as though he had swallowed bits of steel, and, while they had not killed him, had simply stuck in his throat and become part of his body, his personality. He was, for me, a man of steel, a hard man to kill. The Nazis had been unable to do it.
That’s what he told me. He would smile as he said it, and I would believe him. This was in Pine City, SC, my first fulltime rabbinical pulpit; I had been ordained just that past June, in 1980. I was a wet-behind-the-ears, idealistic rabbi, a New York Jew, who thought I knew everything there was to know about Being Jewish and surviving in a gentile world.
I was wrong. I had a lot to learn, especially from older Jews, Jews with some life experience: Holocaust Survivors, like Bernie.
Bernie liked me; he especially liked to needle me, in a teasing way. On Shabbos, after the Kiddush cake-and-schnapps, and before he went home to his loving American Jewish wife, he liked to come into my office and schmooze for a while.
First, he would look around—“at all of your fancy diplomas, your seforim, your holy books, and—hah!—your English Literature books, my rabbi,” he would say.
He would settle into one of the worn leather armchairs on the far side of the big oak army-surplus desk (Most of the better furniture in Pine City was army surplus; we had Fort Tuscarora, Home of the 93rd Airborne Division, to thank for that), and steeple his fingers.
Then, he would tilt his head in the half-gloom—we didn’t use lights on Shabbos—smile at me like a cat considering a canary, grin widely so I could see his false teeth gleaming in the halflight, and say, “You know, Rabbi, if the Nazis ever came to Pine City, they would have a very easy time of it, finding Jews to hunt down and kill. First, they would find the shul, this building, right here. It’s the only one in town. And then, they would find you, in the shul. You are the number one Jew. And then, through you, they would find all the rest of the Jews.”
“How would they find all the Jews, Bernie?” I would ask, even knowing the answer; this was a game we had played, many times before. The first time, I admit, I had had frighteningly macabre thoughts—would these imaginary Nazis—assuming they could fight and successfully defeat the brave young paratroopers and tankers of the Fighting 93rd (STRAC—Skilled-Tough-Ready-Around-the-Clock)—would the Nazis torture me to learn the names of my congregants? Names were one thing, but I could certainly not remember everyone’s address….
“They would find—the Temple Directory, Rabbi,” he would say, with a dramatic pause, reaching over my desk to where the little booklet, incongruously bound in baby-blue cardboard, occupied a place of prominence on my desk, leaning between the desklamp and my Magen David bookends. “They would go through this little book, and, Presto!”
Here, he would snap his fingers—
“They would go on their way, and, inside of an hour, Hitler would have all the Jews lined up on his own Umschlagplatz—probably the parking lot of the Weeping Willow Mall.”
It was his little joke, and our continual exchange, from Shabbos to Shabbos.
Laughing his bitter, history-remembering laugh, Bernie would rise, shake my hand, and sweep out the door, to go home to Bella, his loving wife, and his pot of chulent-stew.
Bernie, you see, was a Hungarian Jew—as was Elie Weisel. The Hungarians did not meet the Final Solution until fairly late in the war—1944. Their ruler was Admiral Miklos Horthy, an intimate of Der Fuehrer, who pretended to cooperate with Hitler, until the latter realized that he was being played with. Then, an enraged German dictator overthrew Horthy, and sent his designated plenipotentiary, Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust himself, into Hungary to oversee the transportation and death of the Jews, who had lived there for thousands of years.
Bernie and Elie Weisel did not know one another, but they came from the same little village in the Carpathian Mountains—Sighet, which Weisel immortalized in his works. They were about the same age, too—16—at the time they and their families were transported to Auschwitz. And both survived, while their families did not, through a mixture of nerve, luck, and courage.
The ability to survive was evident in every gesture, every nerve of Bernie’s being. As I said, he was not a regular shulgoer, though he continued to believe in God—but I am certain that his belief in God’s omnipotence, not to say mercy, was sorely tested during the time he spent in the Kingdom of Night.
I saw this when Bernie was called up to open the Holy Ark and remove the Torah, a favorite honor-activity of his. He was a big donor to the shul, because two of his grandsons attended the Hebrew School, and I bar-mitzvah’d one of them during my six-year tenure there.
Most Jews I have met assume an attitude of piety when standing before the Ark; I do, as well, unless I am carrying out some last-minute business with a bar-mitzvah family over who is to be called up for an aliyah, a Torah honor, a prayer, a speech, or some other honor. It is necessary that services run as smoothly as possible on state occasions, especially when the entire service is being filmed for posterity. On most Shabbosim, we Ark-openers stand reverently before the Sifrei Torah, the Scrolls of the Law, heads bowed, hands holding the prayerbook, and wait for the cantor to complete the prayers, so we can take the Scroll from the Ark.
Bernie was different, in a way and manner I will always remember. He would pull the curtain and open the doors, but, rather than bow his head, would stand off to the side, staring directly into the Ark, hands either akimbo, crossed before him, or hooked in his belt, as if daring the Almighty, “Go on, God. You took my entire family from me, and I’m still here. Do Your worst; I will survive, with or without Your help. But wait: it’s not for me that I’m asking this, but my family: please, God: we are no longer at war. Watch out for them. For myself, I don’t care; do what You have to do. But for them—well, they deserve some happiness. Amen!”
That was my friend Bernie, the Survivor: a man no longer religious, but a man of great faith. I am sure he is no longer alive, but I hope and pray that he is at rest with his landsmann, his townsman, Elie Weisel, this day. They are both townsmen of a different town, and may they both repose at rest beneath the Wings of Your Divine Presence.
Dear God, we do not know, cannot know, why such tremendous and terrible evil afflicts some people of Your Holy Covenant—that is, the Covenant which You have made with all Humanity. As we work for the common good and peace of all, so do we pray that You will intercede for the Good and the Right and the Helpless. Uphold their side, O’ Lord, this day and every day: do it for the sake of the righteous of Humanity.
Do it for Elie Weisel, and for my friend Bernie, both of blessed memory.