Nitzavim-Vayelech: Mother Survives the Death March

BS”D By Rabbi Ronnie Cahana September 11, 2020

Song: Needle in the ה by Dvir
Art: Father Figure by Briah

Let me tell you a story. My mother, her sister and a friend escaped in the middle of the Nazi Death March. During the overnight, already in Germany, my aunt told my mother that she couldn’t go on. They were in a barn with more than 150 other prisoners. My mother said, “Don’t worry Edith, we’re right next to a haystack. We can go deep into the haystack and tomorrow morning they won’t notice.” A friend of theirs said, “I’ll go too.” The next morning’s came up three short. They searched the haystacks with pitchforks, nothing. After an hour the group left and the S.S. locked the barn. The threesome waited until nightfall; mother whispered to herself, “So this is freedom”.  Remarkably, that day began her 16th birthday, Then the girls banged on the door. They banged and banged and prayed for salvation. The doors flung open and there was a group of 5 italian farmhands. They were so surprised and delighted to see the young women. They said, “You’re free, you’re free. Come with us and let’s celebrate you.” They made a little campfire in the field. They serenaded, they feted and regaled the girls all night long. My mother told me that that night, at 16, she found her first first-person fairytale. As time was coming up, the italian neighbours said, “We can’t keep you here. We can’t hide you. We don’t know what to do.” My mother said, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to the farm owner, I’m sure that they’ll let us stay.” My mother, dream-like, softly knocked on the door and said to the woman, “Please. We are three girls that overslept but we want to work for you. We can work in your home or in the field. We’ll do anything to help your family. We’ll stay with your workers and we’ll only do good for you. We are orphans and so thankful to be alive.” The woman said, “You damn Jews!” She rang the train station, located the leader of the Death March, and told him, “Get these Jews out of my property.” A car was sent to pick up the three stragglers. Fairy-tale over. 

At the train station, the Gestapo told the Kapo in charge to take care of the three prisoners. They were to be hanged in front of the whole group. My mother said to the woman Kapo, “You’re right. We’re so sorry, but it’s my birthday today. Can I just go to my mother and say goodbye for the last time?” Anger dropped away from the Kapo’s face- maybe she thought of her own mother. “For five minutes only, hurry and come back.” The three girls mingled, deep into the haystack of forlorn humanity, and were never found. Such, they left the day of freedom and entered the nightmare of Bergen-Belsen. 

What was it like for the slaves to be free of Egypt but directly into the roiling Sea of Reeds and then alive and not drowned but entering into the relentless, unbearable desert without water or food, or shade? Miraculously, the Cloud of Glory appeared overhead and Manna and dew came to each household. Each was without and then saved- one day at a time, for forty years – only to be buried in the sand at the end. Is this the meaning of freedom, the meaning of life?

Meaning is evaluated when we transition from whence we came to where we go. Therefore, in the Torah, on the last day of Moshe’s life, Moshe says to stop, look back, look around, look into our past. Understand that we have a national vision and a unique mission. Embodying the dream of the nation, prepare yourself into the transition of entering the Holy Land. Therefore in our portion of “Nitzavim-Vayelech” Nitzavim means: stand as a collective, and Vayelech means to go in individually and wholeheartedly.

Let us look at Chapter 30, verse 14: “כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ”, “The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Now each of us, today, are in the very last week of the year and we are going to enter the new year with new words and in our mouths and new purpose in our hearts. How will we each prepare ourselves to what will be on the other side of the barn door? What is the freedom that may come if we prepare ourselves? In the Orchot Zaddikim of 15th century century Germany, a Jewish moralist says that each of us can change ourselves as one when we purely pray from our mouth and our hearts. G-d does not close the gates of repentance. No, G-d opens the gates of repentance to all who seek G-d in truth. “But the word is very nigh unto thee in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (Deut. 30:14). And further, “The Lord is nigh unto all those that call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth (Psalms 145:18).” We are given the greatest gift of all. G-d says we can direct ourselves, we can change ourselves. When we are upright in our mouth and in our heart, we can reach the holiest abodes of G-d’s Presence. We can make an Aalyiah of our soul to the heavenly realms. Animals and plants and nature cannot change themselves, only the holy creatures of humanity can bring themselves to the heights through repentance. Teshuva and Kedusha. 

May our entrance to the holy land this coming week of Slichot (repentance) reflect backwards on our lives to where we have not yet reached; but then be a conviction to where we strive to arrive. The Torah has invited all of us to stand, now, on the other side of the Jordan. Every Jew is searching their heart to enter with G-d into Eretz Israel. We are charged by Moishe Rabeinu to enter the land with G-d. We are at the doorway of our Holy Memories, of our Holy People in front of the Holy Land of our lives. Amen. 

Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: