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Surviving the Holocaust physically and theologically

Today’s neighbor is tomorrow’s history. That dispute in shul, that fellow who made a splash and then moved away, that person whose amazing accomplishments you gloss over because he lives next door and you’re used to him — all this is tomorrow’s history.

If you live long enough, you’ll see it’s so. But sometimes you know this now; history moves before your very eyes.

Trails of Triumph (Feldheim) is a book of history for those who lived long enough. “The Miraculous Stories of Eight Young Men” — the book’s subtitle — are the stories of eight survivors of Nazism and, in some cases, of Communism, too. As if it were not enough to dodge death repeatedly in Nazi ghettos and camps, some of these eight young men, after being liberated by the Russians in 1944, found themselves at risk of death or exile at the hands of the Communists.

Truth to tell, there are many such stories and many such memoirs.

To me at least, what makes this book different is, first of all, I knew or heard of many of these people or of their mentors, or both. For me, this is the history I wish I had known when these people were still living.

Many survivors did not speak about their experiences, or, if they did, it was only in bits and pieces and only to close family. The rest of us knew there was a great light of insight buried inside them, but could not access it.

That is how I felt in the Beth Joseph Novorodock yeshiva-shul in Boro Park, which I began to frequent in the 1970s. Almost all of the men who made up that minyan had been in the Nazi camps or in Siberia; their prayers and whole being were powerful, unexplainable — inaccessible.

ONE such person was Benzion Yoselovsky. He was only a face to me. Other than “good Shabbos,” I probably never spoke to him once. But I watched him, as I watched the others. A feeling tone, a faith, a gentleness, and the confidence that comes from knowing you have overcome great suffering, emanated from Yoselovsky and his fellow prayers in that small room, which always seemed filled with spirit.

Now I have Yoselovsky’s story in chapter one of Trails of Triumph.

Once, hiding by the side of a road, Yoselovsky was spotted by a German soldier, who took aim and shot to kill. Yoselovsky ran and bled far into the forest — dodging bullets the whole time — before he realized he was wounded. He was saved by Tuvia Bielski, he of famous partisan fame, who called a doctor and bandaged Yoselovsky’s wound.

Ten Jewish partisans had been killed on the very day Yoselovsky escaped death.

“As for me, ‘Hodu Lashem . . . gratitude to the L-rd . . . [Pslam 118:1]. I had experienced a multiple miracle. The bullet had penetrated my back, then exited. I was a hairs- breadth from death, I thought to myself at the time. That deadly bullet had come so close to my spine. Had the bullet prevented me from getting away, the next one would have been fatal . . .

“Moreover, it had come within millimeters of the body’s most vital organs.

“This miracle saved me from further misfortune, for when we returned to our hometown of Neishtodt the Russian government issued a general order to join the Red Army, to fight on the remaining fronts.

“The Russians were particularly interested in recruiting partisans, who were experienced fighters. This, of course, posed great danger. Many survived three years of war in the forests only to be killed after joining the Red Army, among them one of Commander Bielski’s brothers.

“When summoned for a pre-conscription medical checkup, I presented my fresh wound as grounds for exemption. I was released, albeit temporarily, until the wound healed. The delay gave me time to plan properly for the next summons.”

And plan he did, although it also took many further miracles — not just his own quick thinking and courage — to save Yoselovsky from the Red Army and from Siberia. Meanwhile, parnassah, livelihood, was measured by the smallest of measures, a piece of bread here, a new pair of shoe soles out of the blue, an unexpected recovery of a small stash of loot buried before the war, enough to sell in order to survive for a week or two.

PERHAPS the most painful episode Pin Yoselovsky’s memoir is, believe it or not, neither what the Nazis did to him nor what the Communists tried to do.

It was a few years later, in Israel, when Yoselovsky was seeking to rebuild his life by reentering a yeshiva and continuing his studies that had been so radically interrupted.

The dean of the yeshiva turned Yoselovsky away, since he had not committed to study long-term. Yoselovsky was aghast! The reader hears all the years of suffering, of fleeing, of forced labor, of starvation, of witness to mass murder — and of life-and-death escapes — pent up in Yoselovsky. He burst out:

“I’ve just arrived from Europe after many trials and tribulations. I don’t even know where my next meal is coming from. So how can I know what my long-term plans will be?”

The yeshiva dean relented. Later, when the dean had just scratched the surface of what Yoselovsky had gone through, he apologized profusely and begged for forgiveness.

No one could imagine what a Holocaust survivor had endured.

THE second point that makes this memoir different is that all of these eight young men were pre-Holocaust students in East European yeshivas. Their stories are not only trails of triumph, but tales of theological reflection.

These young men were too young to be steeped in the Jewish theological literature of theodicy, but they had imbibed faith and had faced the worst evil. Their witness, their suffering, their luck (mazal), and their dogged determination to survive yielded a searing mix of theological reflection and existential anguish.

Benzion Yoselovsky’s children recall, especially, their father at the seder as he recited Pslam 118, verses 10-12:

All the nations surrounded me; [I trust] in the L-rd’s Name that I will cut them down. They encircled me again and again; [I trust] in the L-rd’s name that I will cut them down. They surrounded me like bees; they flared like fiery thorns; [I trust] in the L-rd’s Name that I will cut them down.

His children recall:

“At every mention of these ‘encirclements,’ he described how he had been surrounded during the war: how the Nazis besieged the ghetto; how they’d surrounded them in the forest — all the nations surrounded me . . . they encircled me again and again . . . they encircled me like bees . . . until we had goose bumps.

“Every year he was moved afresh and added details. He would also expound new ideas, providing penetrating insights into the path- ways of Providence and G-d’s kindness.

“His shehecheyanu every Yom Tov night was a profound lesson in gratitude to the Holy One, Blessed be He. He would build up intense concentration, channeling every ounce of his energy into slowly enunciating each part of the blessing: Blessed . . . are . . . You . . . Who has kept me alive . . . and sustained me . . . and brought me to this . . . occasion.

“His eyes were closed tight, with only his twitching eyelashes indicating the sights passing before him in his mind’s eye, his repeated rescue until his eventual, unscathed emergence from all danger . . . Who has kept me alive . . . and sustained me And brought me . . . to this . . . occasion.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

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