Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Tefillin of the Holocaust: Thoughts for Yizkor

Rav Tamir Granot begins his series of shiurim on Faith and the Holocaust at Yeshivat Har Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash with an incredibly powerful story, which I feel bears quoting in its entirety. My grandfather's entire family was also decimated in the Holocaust, and around this time of year, especially as we recite the Yizkor on Pesach that falls before Yom Hashoah, I often think about how little I knew of him and his family. I know that his brother, who survived the war, abandoned his faith, while my Zeide did not. He was a tireless supporter of Israel, and sacrificed a great deal to ensure that his children enjoyed the benefits of a Jewish education. He didn't leave a pair of tefillin, but left a legacy of descendants that would make him quite proud.
I will share one of the most meaningful parts of this journey with you. When I celebrated by twelfth birthday, my grandfather, R. Tzvi Greenstein, z"l, phoned my father, ylch"t, and told him that he had decided to buy me tefillin for my bar mitzva. My father was surprised at my grandfather's alacrity, and mentioned that doubtless my other grandfather, R. Yosef, ylch"a, would also want to buy me tefillin, because I was the oldest grandson on both sides of the family. Remonstrance was of no avail: Grandfather Tzvi forced my father and everyone else to comply with his wishes. His insistence bore fruit, and several weeks later he purchased the tefillin.
My grandfather knew what he was doing. He did not merit to attend my bar mitzva. Shortly before my bar mitzva, he died peacefully in his sleep, kissed by God. He suffered no prior illnesses; he was seventy-two years old. In his drawer, we found two envelopes: one contained a standard will, and the other contained a piece of paper with the heading,
"My Heart's Desires." I will now share the latter with you:
B"H
Tzvi Greenstein, Kiryat Motzkin, 23 Harav Kook St.
My help comes from the Lord,
My Heart's Desires!
a. Do not, under any circumstances, perform an autopsy upon my body.
b. I sincerely importune you to bury me next to an upright, God-fearing individual.
c. I request that you do your utmost to bring me to burial on the day I die.
d. I request that you place the head-tefillin (sitting in the clothes closet, next to my prayer shawl and tefillin, in a special case) in my grave, next to my head, so that it will bear witness that under the most trying conditions I risked my life to perform the commandment of laying tefillin, which have [inscribed on a parchment] within them His oneness and His unity, may His name be blessed in the world.
e. I request that you place a very modest and simple headstone upon my grave, and engrave upon it the words attached to this letter.
I accept upon myself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom unreservedly, with no remorse or desire to repent of my decision. I believe with complete faith that You, God, are true and Your Torah is true forever, unto eternity.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. God reigns; God has reigned; God shall reign forever and ever. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom, forever and ever.
Your faithful and devoted servant,
Tzvi Greenstein
Son of Shemaya and Sara Pesil, z"l, Hy"d (May God avenge their deaths)
These moving words were written by a Jew whose entire family – except for his brother Shelomo, ylch"t – was wiped out by the Nazis: both his parents, four of his brothers, and, above all else, his first wife and his only son. His wonderful declaration of faith at the end of the letter was neither a theological conclusion arising from the Holocaust nor even a decision arrived at in spite of it. This spark of faith, as I understand it, is the real reason he survived the trials of the Holocaust and had the strength to start a new family in Israel.
My grandfather's request regarding the tefillin was the surprising part of the letter. We had not known about the old head-tefillin he wrote about, which indeed was sitting in his closet. My grandfather spoke about the Holocaust a lot, but not in the first person. The story completing the picture, which was told only after his death, was that he had smuggled these tefillin into Auschwitz, and later into Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned during the war. Risking his life, he had put them on every day. Near the end of the war, he had been caught wearing them during his prayers, hiding behind one of the barracks. An S.S. officer began strangling my grandfather with the straps, and he would have completed his task, had God not been with my grandfather, for at that moment an air raid siren sounded warning of incoming Allied bombers. The German left him alone, and the head-tefillin had remained in his possession ever since.
In retrospect, I realized that, for my grandfather, the act of purchasing the tefillin completed the circle of his life: it was a joyous departure from the life that tefillin had imbued with meaning and force (and that, in the end, went with him to his grave). He left his gift for me, his grandson and successor, confident and joyful in the knowledge that the Jewish life he believed in would be continued by his descendants.

When I put on my tefillin, I have in mind not only the well-known kavvanot (mystical intentions) included in the "Le-shem Yichud" recitation, but also kavvanot and thoughts of continuity, gratitude to God, and remembrance and appreciation of my grandfather, z"l. In so doing, I reaffirm his tremendously powerful faith.