“Everybody — every human being — has the obligation to contribute somehow to this world”

—Edith Carter, Holocaust Survivor

Simchat Torah

Inspirations from the Jewish Experience: Simchat Torah

Torah Dedication in a DP Camp
Rabbi Eliezer Silver from Cincinnati visited the surviving Jews of Europe, behind the barbed wires of the Allied armies’ Displaced Persons (DP) Camps after the Holocaust. He brought hope and reassurance, food, clothing, money. He also brought Jewish books and objects back into Europe. At the DP camp on the site of the former concentration camp of Bergen Belsen, Rabbi Silver delivered a precious gift: a Torah scroll.

To celebrate the new Torah, a special dedication ceremony was scheduled. Most eagerly awaited this event, but one young man refused to attend. This young man was a strong leader in the camp, and his refusal was jarring.

Rabbi Silver gently approached this man: “They say you are angry with God, is that so?” “No Rabbi,” the young man replied, “I am not angry with God. I am angry with His servants. It is their treachery that I didn’t expect nor can I forgive.”

The young man told his painful story: “In the concentration camp, one of my bunkmates had somehow concealed a small prayer book in his clothing. Often he took out the prayer book and spoke out loud to God. I admired that man’s faith. Then one day I noticed other men begging to borrow his prayer book. He allowed them to use it only on condition that they share their soup rations. Can you imagine, Rabbi? Using his prayer book as a means of taking food from his fellow starving Jews?! This I will never forgive.”

Rabbi Silver thoughtfully listened, and then quietly asked him. “And did men actually share their precious food scraps for the chance to pray from the prayer book? ” When the young man acknowledged that it happened all the time, the rabbi then asked: “Why do you focus on the faith of this man? Consider the faith of the other men. What kind of faith would strengthen them so that they would be willing to give up food for a chance to pray to God?”

The young man reconsidered, and joined in the Torah dedication. His name was Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005), who became known as the man who committed his life to the search for justice by documenting information and bringing to trial Nazis who had escaped punishment.

Out of the Depths, a Torah Shines Among the Stars
Eliezer Wolfermann was just a boy when he escaped Germany. He grew up in British mandate Palestine, fought in the War of Independence, and while on kibbutz, met and married Tonia Kreppel. As a teenager, Tonia survived Auschwitz, and then spent years in a detention camp on Cyprus, forbidden by the British to enter Palestine.

Eliezer and Tonia became the parents of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died on February 1, 2003, along with six American astronauts on the Columbia shuttle tragedy, Mission STS-107. Rabbi Stuart Federow, of Ilan’s Houston synagogue wrote “Ilan understood that being the first Israeli astronaut brought with it great responsibilities, not just to Israel, but Jews worldwide.”

Born in 1954, Ilan Ramon was a role model for all that is distinctive about the Israeli spirit. He became a highly decorated pilot in the Israeli Air Force, and was a member of the squadron that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor. In 1998, Ilan was chosen to become Israel’s first astronaut. Ilan said in an interview before the flight “I left Israel as a shaliach, a representative, of Israel and the air force. After more than four years of training in the United States, I feel that I am now representing the Jewish people.” In Israel, practically every citizen was glued to the TV. There was a great need to celebrate there was such despair in the midst of numerous terrorist suicide bombings. The Israeli newspaper headlines gleefully announced “First Hebrew Astronaut Since Elijah!”

Ilan decided to bring objects into space that he believed “emphasized the unity of the people Israel and the Jewish communities around the world.” Included among the items were a menorah, a pocket size Bible on microfiche film, a mezuzah, and soil from Israel. As a son of a Holocaust survivor, Ilan also felt compelled to bring artifacts from that time and place. Ilan searched for an original, powerful artifact that he felt would be a symbol of the darkest time in human history, and could also serve as a beacon of hope. He found exactly what he wanted in the home of the scientist and professor of physics, Dr. Joachim Joseph, known to all his friends and colleagues affectionately as “Yoya”.

Once, as a guest in Yoya’s home, Ilan saw a miniature handwritten Torah scroll, only 4 inches tall. Yoya told him that he received it from Rabbi Simon Dasberg, of Groningen, Holland, who perished in the Holocaust. They were inmates together in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Yoya was just turning thirteen, and Rabbi Dasberg brought out the tiny Torah scroll and offered to teach him his Bar Mitzvah. Though hungry, cold and exhausted after many hours of slave labor, the two studied together at night. In the early hours of the morning on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, the men secretly held a service, where Yoya read and chanted his Torah portion. Outside the window, his mother had silently slipped out from the women’s camp to hear her son become Bar Mitzvah. The rabbi gave the Torah scroll to Yoya, hoping that with his youth and strength he would survive. He only requested that Yoya tell their story to the world.

Weeks after seeing the Torah, Ilan called Yoya and requested to take the Torah up into space. Yoya agreed on the same conditions that the rabbi gave him: “Tell the world.” On January 21st, in an emotional news conference from the space mission with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ilan held up the Torah, repeated its history and spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust and the year and a half that his own mother spent in Auschwitz.

The Ramon family planned to return together to Israel after the mission, where their second son, Tal, was to have his own Bar Mitzvah, reading out of Yoya’s tiny Torah. On February 1, 2003, the space craft disintegrated during its landing, with the crew and the Torah inside.

We embrace some of Ilan’s final observations from a letter he wrote to Israel’s President Moshe Katzav on day 11 of the mission, January 26th. From space, I could easily spot Jerusalem, the capital, and while looking at Jerusalem, I prayed one short prayer, Shema Yisrael. From space our world looks as one entity with no borders. Let’s work for peace and a better life for everyone on Earth.”