Stories Of Greatness

The Lesson Of The Holocaust

The Gemara says that rich people are stingy. Rav Shimon Sofer zt”l explains that if a rich person was...

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Legend has it that the city of Vilna was founded many centuries ago through an amazing tale involving a young child. But we have it on no greater an authority than the holy Ben Ish Chai, Rabbeinu Yosef Chayim of Baghdad zt”l, that this story is absolutely true. Close to eight centuries ago, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas, was hunting in the forest near the Valley of Šventaragis. Tired after a successful day’s hunt, he went to sleep and began to dream. A huge iron wolf was standing on top a hill and the sound of hundreds of other wolves inside filled all of the surrounding fields and woods. Upon awakening, the Duke consulted his pagan priests to interpret the meaning of his dream. He was told, “The iron wolf represents a castle and a city that will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world.”

There is an intrinsic difference between the natural state of klal Yisrael and the nations of the world. There is no real concept of achdus (unity) between one gentile and the next. Whatever “achdus” they possess is not intrinsically part of their makeup; it is superficial and self-serving. The achdus of klal Yisrael, however, is a reality. It is part and parcel of the Jewish people.

The commandment to eat matzah on the holiday of Pesach is prefaced with the words: “U’shmartem es ha’matzos–And you shall guard the matzos.” Jewish tradition calls for keeping watch over the matzah from the time the wheat is taken to the mill to be ground into flour, and it is kept under careful supervision to ensure that it does not come into contact with water or any other moisture.

After the turn of the 20th Century, one of Orthodox Jewry’s great rabbinic authorities and a leader who guided his people with extraordinary wisdom, care, and concern was the Lutzker Rav, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l. His influence and contributions to Yiddishkeit began well before World War I and continued until his very last day. Virtually no sphere of Jewish communal life was left untouched by his guiding hands, and his magnum opus, sefer Oznayim LaTorah, is still considered a classic of Jewish literature until this day. In 1914 (5674), World War I broke out and Rav Zalman fled to Minsk, where he continued his communal work unabated.

During World War II, the United States government enacted a rescue commission known as the War Refugee Board, which achieved a few notable results (although not as much as it could have), including the rescue of over 100,000 Jews and the distribution of vital relief services when the war ended. In one unique instance, roughly 1,000 refugees were brought from Italy to Fort Ontario, an abandoned army base near Oswego, New York. Vaad Hatzalah, the Orthodox relief organization, offered a wide range of support services, a model for its postwar efforts. Among the refugees were 300 Torah-observant Jews.

The early 1950s was an especially terrible time for Jews in the Soviet Union, a period filled with terror and dread. With a maniacal tyrant leading the country, Joseph Stalin’s infamous “Doctors’ Plot” was at its peak, and Russia’s Jewish physicians were disappearing rapidly. People were being purged left and right, never to be heard from again. Around the world, Jews wept and pleaded for Divine salvation, but there was none yet in sight.