THE SURVIVOR by Leon Olenick (as seen in the National Jewish Post and Opinion)
I am frequently asked to officiate at funerals. I sometimes know the family well, and other times I have met them only once or twice or not at all. I was to officiate at the funeral of an elderly woman. The funeral director wanted me to officiate because it was a special case, which would require compassion, patience, and understanding. I met with the woman’s husband prior to the service to find out some facts about his wife, himself and their family.
Max was a man about five feet three inches tall. He had a round face and his bulging cheeks stood tall and reached his eyes. His white beard hid his many chins. His eyes were red from crying and his spotted hands were unsteady. He told me that he and his wife, Sadie, met before the war. And then in his deep Polish accent, he told me his story.
“We were teenagers but I knew she was my besheret. It was hard those days in Poland. I saw families being persecuted and some of my friends disappeared. I knew times would get better and this was temporary. Life went on. I don’t have to tell you, things got worse, a lot worse. The Nazis were in control and they had a mission to wipe us out.”
He began to weep.
“I was a young man when our door was broken down. They stormed our house. They took all my parent’s possessions from the house prior to burning it while we watched. We were lined up with our neighbors. My mother, father, two sisters, grandmother, and me. We stood in a straight line as ordered. I glanced across the road and noticed my Sadie, my besheret, from across the street, standing with her family. Our eyes met and instead of looking at these mean people, we stared at each other. When they completed their destruction they went down the row inspecting everyone. I was ordered to stand to one side. I obeyed. I saw across the road that my Sadie was also on the side. When they completed their inspection they ordered the line of people that were on the opposite side of me to walk to the large crater a few meters down the road. I stayed in my assigned space. From the distance I heard the piercing blasts of machine guns. People were screaming with pain and terror. I then heard the sound of bulldozers as they filled the crater with dirt. My family, my neighbors, my friends were dead. Their bodies were covered with dirt. I was filled with terror, fear and rage as the solders returned telling jokes and laughing. I, along with the others in my line, was placed on a truck and taken to a work camp. It was filthy and smelled of death. Flying insects and rats ran freely. They tattooed us like cattle.”
He rolled up his sleeve revealing the faded numbers on his arm.
“We were stripped of our clothes and dignity and handed dirty prison cloths to wear. A few people complained, or asked a question and they were shot. I kept my mouth shut. My mind was with my family and with my Sadie. Was she alive? Time passed, as torture and death became a common part of life. When a person died we scurried to get their shoes thinking maybe they had less holes that ours. We took their possessions. Our interest was living for the next day. I had become an animal that scavenged for food and drink. Hate kept me going from day to day. I knew there was no God!
One day, after about a year and a half, I walked from the tiny barracks and found the camp deserted. What was happening? I heard trucks and hid. When I dared to peek I saw American soldiers. We were liberated! I was taken to a hospital. I was fed and my decayed body was mended. My teeth were pulled because they could not be saved and I was given false teeth. The tattoos remained on my arm, and the vision of my family being murdered remained on my soul.
I returned to my village to find destruction – total destruction. Rabbi, it was terrible. All the beauty was gone. I met others who also wandered from place to place in an attempt to rebuild what used to be their home. I stayed for a while attempting to find my Sadie. I did not. I walked to the crater to visit my family. Grass had grown over it and weeds had taken over.
I was able gain passage on a ship for America and I left Europe. The ship was crowded and quarters were tight. I slept on the deck. This was a great improvement from the camp. We pulled into New York and passed the Statue of Liberty. Goose bumps, tears of joy, hope! A new life. While they processed me on Ellis Island, I looked around at the thousands of people. Before my eyes I saw the most beautiful sight in the world. My Sadie – my besheret. I ran to her. We embraced and have never parted until now.
So Rabbi, I have to tell you, nobody ever recited Kaddish for my family, and up to this time I did not want to recite any prayers.”
His copious tears were massive as they engulfed his face.
“Would it be all right for me to recite the kaddish at Sadie’s grave?”
His tears continued to flow from the deepest part of his soul. Family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances attended the Chapel service. I was touched as I blessed his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren with the blessing of “l’dor v dor”, to remember their Bubbie and teach her lessons, and tell her stories to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I told them this enables her to live through them for many generations and fulfills the mitzvah of l’dor v dor”. I recited “el malay rachamim”, and we proceeded to the grave. We lowered the coffin as I recited psalms. I told them that Sadie had been here the entire service – she was not here to hear my words, but to join with all the souls who were present, individually, in their hearts. I continued to tell them that as the coffin is covered with earth, her soul will be released to complete its mission. I asked Max to lead the recitation of Kaddish.
“Yis-gad-dal v’yis-kad-dash sh’mey rab-bo…….”
Max’s voice pierced the hearts of all present – and all those who passed from his world. As he annunciated each word, you could feel the angels surrounding the entire cemetery.. His trembling, heartfelt voice sounded like blasts from a shofar. He opened the gates for all the lost souls. Tears came to my eyes and my body trembled – Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh – all is Holy. Amen