The posuk in parshas Vayelech, (Devarim 31:18) “ I will hide My face on that day,” forces us to remember the Holocaust which took place nearly eighty years ago, what happened and what could have happened.
Shortly before the Second World War began, a young talmid chochom learning in the Brisk Yeshiva in Europe was threatened with conscription to the Polish army. He had great potential; how could he waste time in the army? Every legal method was attempted to earn him an exemption . Although these efforts bought some time, they were not permanent solutions and the draft still loomed over him. The only possible loophole was to get married. With the deadline approaching, a shidduch was sought for this young man. A suitable match was suggested — but for some inexplicable reason the shidduch did not go through. Then, just a few days before the deadline, the young man was recommended for a job in a Yeshiva in Switzerland. With bittersweet emotions, he left his whole family and became a rebbe in a Swiss yeshiva. He could well have thought of the great shame that the shidduch did not go through, causing him to go into virtual exile. However he soon saw Hashem’s hashgacha. The Holocaust claimed the lives of the rest of his family and so many more. He was the sole survivor from his family. The name of this young talmid chochom with great potential was Aaron Leib Steinman zt”l who became a leading Godol and guiding light for Klal Yisroel over his long life.
About the same time another young rav was on a ship which sailed from Europe towards Eretz Yisroel. The British authorities refused the ship permission to dock in the Haifa port. The captain directed the ship southwards along the coastline, but there was no safe landing- place. The ship was low on fuel, the captain said, and told his passengers there was nothing he could do to help them. Their only hope was to attempt to swim to the shore, a considerable distance away. Only six people made it to the beach, including this young rav and his wife. His name was Rav Shmuel Wosner, another great Godol and guiding light for Klal Yisroel over many decades. Both these Gedolim, who were a hairsbreadth from death, lived over a hundred years.
At Mincha of Yom Kippur the haftora is Sefer Yona, about another survivor. He was thrown into the sea and was swallowed by a great fish but miraculously remained alive in the stomach of the fish until Hashem instructed the fish to spit Yona out on to dry land. The commentators say that Yona’s survival was not assured until he said that, if he lived, he would bring korbonos to Hashem (2:10) implying that he would henceforth follow Hashem’s command and rebuke the people of Nineveh. After a life-saving miracle what response is there but to devote the rest of one’s life to Hashem, as done by these Gedolim?
Bamidbar (8:17) shows that a recipient of a miracle has to devote himself to Hashem as a payment for that miracle. “All the Jewish firstborn, since the day that I smote the Egyptian firstborn, are mine.” Rashi explains: “Since I protected the Jewish firstborn that they weren’t smitten with the Egyptian firstborn, they are mine by right.”
Having been born in Manchester, England to English-born parents, I never considered myself to have been involved in the Holocaust, let alone to be regarded as a survivor; now I realize that my understanding was flawed. This month is the 78th anniversary of the day that the Germans were to have invaded Britain. The plan was that British air defences were to be destroyed and then German ground forces would invade and conquer the country with the same speed that they had already conquered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France. Their headquarters were to be set up in Manchester where the self-styled English Nazi leader, Oswald Mosley had managed to form his strongest base of local sympathisers. In the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain began. The Luftwaffe attacked the RAF’s airfields and by the end of August seemed to be on the verge of victory. But in early September 1940, a German aircraft was short of fuel and needed to return to Germany. The pilot wanted to jettison his bombs to reduce the plane’s weight and quite by “accident” the bombs landed on London, which had been studiously avoided up until then. Churchill reacted by bombing Berlin. Hitler was so annoyed that, with tactical stupidity, he stopped attacking the English airfields and started attacking English cities. This gave the battered British air force enough respite to regroup and eventually take command of the skies. What I now realize is that if it weren’t for that ‘accident,’ Mosley’s Blackshirts based in Manchester would have quickly rounded up my grandparents and other Jewish Mancunians and this essay would probably have never been written. I am, together with the rest of Anglo-Jewry, therefore, also a survivor with all the responsibility that that status brings with it. Also, if Britain would have been conquered, the allied invasion of Europe in 1944 , could not have taken place and Nazi rule could well have continued unopposed. Therefore this “accident” can be said to have saved Europe and much of the free world. Even American Jews, many of whom, or their parents, had also not long before immigrated from Europe can also consider themselves survivors. So we, the post-Holocaust world Jewish community, are all survivors and as survivors, we have responsibilities.
This is yet another moral imperative for us to do teshuva before Shabbos Shuva and Yom Kippur. After being saved by Hashem’s hidden hand, how can we focus our lives on our personal successes or our material achievements? Is this why Hashem saved us? Rather, we have to focus on Hashem’s priorities. What can we do to bring honor to Hashem? What can we do to rebuild the Jewish people? Yom Kippur can bring about a realignment of our priorities; to accept upon ourselves our responsibilities, the responsibilities of survivors. No less than the Jewish firstborn in Mitzrayim, we all owe our continued existence to Hashem.