Yom Kippur Yizkor 5764 – 2003
Thus Adonai on that day saved Israel from the Egyptians;
Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore.
When Israel saw the great power that Adonai wielded against the Egyptians, the people were awestruck at Adonai;
they believed in Adonai and in Moses Adonai’s servant. (Exodus 14:30-31)
Long ago, our ancestors had an extraordinary spiritual experience, a religious awakening, that forever changed the way they perceived their lives.
For many of us, the loss of a loved one is a life-changing experience. Like the moment of birth, a serious illness, or a life-threatening experience, the moment of death is an intense spiritual experience, for we approach, and sometimes traverse, the frontier of life.
There is nothing that takes away the sorrow of loss, there is nothing that makes it “better.” But there are perspectives that we can hold that help us manage this sorrow, so that we can go on, and live a good life.
This morning, I would like to share with you the remarkable stories of two of our members, stories that might help us attain a certain perspective on life.
Yosef was a shoemaker in Hungary. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War One. Also in his unit was a Hungarian sage, the beloved Rabbi Aharon. As Yosef’s family lived mostly among gentile neighbors, it was a special opportunity for him to experience the company of a fellow Jew, and a learned one at that. This was some pleasure in the adversity of military service.
Yosef the shoemaker explained to the rabbi that his son, his firstborn, a brilliant scholar, had also been drafted, and perished in the war. This was a great source of sorrow for him, but he had a wife and daughters back home, and was determined to survive.
“I know you will survive,” said Rabbi Aharon, “and whatismore, you and your wife will be blessed with another child.”
“Rabbi, thank you for your kind wish. But my dear wife is beyond childbearing years. But I feel blessed to have her and our wonderful daughters.”
One night, they were camped in a valley in Northern Italy. Yosef’s commander sent him to a nearby town to acquire shoemaking supplies, so that he would be able to meet the needs of the men in his unit. Although traveling alone was somewhat hazardous, Yosef the shoemaker set out on his mission.
That night, while Yosef was away, partisans broke the retaining wall of a nearby reservoir. The valley was quickly flooded, and the men of the unit, including Rabbi Aharon, were lost.
After the war, Yosef returned to his wife and daughters. To their surprise and delight, that year they were in fact blessed with a son, whom they named Aharon Shalom — Aharon for the rabbi, Shalom for the end of the war.
As the years passed, the situation for the Jews and others in Europe deteriorated. Yosef could sense the brewing storm. He was able to obtain a visa to travel to America, but he was not able to obtain one for his wife. Despite the urgings of his friends, he refused to leave with his daughters and son without his dear wife.
Then, when their youngest child, their son Aharon Shalom, was twelve, Yosef’s dear wife died from a serious illness. This was surely a great tragedy for him, his daughters and young son. But now they had no reason to stay — and after Shiva they left for America. Immediately after, the whirlwind passed through Europe and destroyed their community and family, along with millions of other innocents. Among those who perished was one of their daughters, who had married and remained in Czechoslovakia.
In America, Aharon Shalom was blessed with a dear wife, and together they created their own family, including two lovely, bright, kind and decent daughters, a great source of joy and pride. And so it was, when one of their adult daughters, herself now a mother of two young children, succumbed to a terrible illness, that Aharon Shalom was able, through his grief, one of the greatest sorrows one can experience, to hold a perspective on life that enables him to see the positive, the goodness, the joy, the miracle, the beauty in his daughter’s life, even as he mourns her loss. As he puts it, “Through all the tragedy, something beautiful is left behind.”
Next is a story of another member, a New Haven native, who served in the United States Army in World War Two.
He was a Sargent in Algeria, North Africa. Among a group of “comfort girls” being organized for the soldiers, a young girl caught his eye, one who did not fit in among the experienced “professional” French women in the group. This girl looked like she was 14 or 15.
He asked her, in Yiddish, “How old are you?” She answered in Yiddish. She thought that the job was to serve sodas and cigarettes to the soldiers.
Rachel Rabinowitz was from Poland, and her father worked as a physician on the border with Germany. She had a brother a couple of years older. When the situation became difficult, their father sent them to their uncle in Marseilles. When that became untenable, they were sent to another relative in Algiers who had a Yeshiva. He had seven children and could feed only three. So the girl and her brother were sent to a camp near the Americans.
The sergeant told his commander that this was not the right job for this girl, that she was only 14. Actually, she said she was 15. So he drove her to the 26th General Hospital, near Bône (today’s Annaba), because she had experience working with her father in his practice. He told the Jewish nurses there to look after her.
Some time later, his tank unit was caught, along with the British, in the fire of a French unit that had switched to the enemy’s side. They did not know that the French were joining the Germans. They were almost wiped out by the French. He was one of few left standing after the battle.
Three days later he was in a tank again in Tunisia. He recounts,
We were hit and I do not know how I survived. My hair and eyebrows were burned off. All the others in the tank were killed.
I was taken to the 26th General Hospital. At the triage point, there were three groups. I was placed in the morgue which was divided into two groups: The dead and the dying, people who were expected to live only two or three hours. There were so many wounded that they just left them alone. I had blood splotched on two places on my chest and one on my belly.
One of the nurses was passing by. It was Rachel. She did not recognize me, because my hair was burned off, but she recognized my class ring. She forced water into me and cleaned me up. She came back several times a day, so I am told. She brought me a blanket. She tied a ribbon around the handle of the stretcher so she could find me among the many rows of dying soldiers.
After two or three days, they took the stretchers from the dying, because they needed them for the living. So they place us directly on the ground. There is a difference of 20 or 30 degrees between day and night, and we had no blankets beneath us. When she came looking for me and saw that I was gone, she thought I must have died. But then she saw the men laid on the ground and she came and found me. They said that I raised my arms and said, ‘Where the Hell am I?’ The nurses were so frightened they ran out — it was like the dead coming to life. Rachel went and insisted that a doctor treat me. Only then they came and began treating me.
I was in the hospital for six months. I couldn’t see or hear. My commander, who later taught at Middlebury College, came and told me that I was now a Lieutenant. But they spelled my name wrong, so I continued to be paid as a Lieutenant under my new name and as Sergeant under my correct name.
Her brother joined the Free French and was killed in battle. She was a very pretty girl, and she wrote to me, but I was interested only in one woman, waiting for me in New Haven.
That is the story of the combat soldier.
But there is another strange twist to the story. Sixty years later, one of the Lieutenant’s relatives was in Israel, and discovered Rachel Rabinowitz, now a 75 year-old-woman living in Jerusalem, with her 95+ year-old-father. More than that: It turns out that Rachel and our Lieutenant are cousins. And they now correspond frequently.
These experiences gave our soldier a perspective on his own life, and a way to view the joys of raising his own children and grandchildren, and a way to view the loss of his beloved wife — also a nurse. It does not in any way diminish the pain, but it means that all of life can be viewed as a blessing.
What is the value of kindness to another person? Why did I survive when so many others did not? How does this change the way I view my life?
When we experience loss, when death touches our lives, for a brief moment, a different perspective crystallizes for us, a new perspective on our lives, on what is important. When we have intense, life-changing spiritual experiences, our perspective can be permanently altered, as we incorporate our hard-gained insights into our lives. When we integrate the idea that our lives are part of a larger story, the story of the Jewish People, the story of Humanity, and that there is a Great Storyteller who knows our hearts, who feels our pain, who shares the experiences of each character, especially the star of the show — you — then our lives are forever changed. Then we can truly understand and appreciate how the memory of the righteous can always a blessing.
Please rise for the Yizkor Memorial Service.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen 2003