Recently something reminded me of a book I had first read back in the 1980s, one I would recommend to everyone. It’s called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, and it’s quite different from most Holocaust literature:
An important work of scholarship and a sudden clear window onto the heretofore sealed world of the Hasidic reaction to the Holocaust. Its true stories and fanciful miracle tales are a profound and often poignant insight into the souls of those who suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis and who managed somehow to use that very suffering as the raw material for their renewed lives.
In other words, although the circumstances of these stories are horrific, the people telling them are by definition survivors, and they interpret what happened to them through the prism of their religious faith. According to the author, who heard the tales from Holocaust survivors living in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, these stories have been substantiated in various ways and are not fiction. But they have a mythic quality of fable that might lead some readers to believe they are embellished. I certainly don’t know for sure, but I think they are probably mostly true, and at any rate they make for remarkable and very moving reading.
The tale I was thinking of the other day is that of 16-year-old Zvi Michalowsky. The story can be found online in its entirety here, but I’ll give an excerpt from it (I suggest you read the whole thing, though; it’s short). It begins in the Lithuanian town of Eisysky, when the Nazi occupiers had summoned the 4,000 Jews of the town and marched them to pits where they would be shot (this was very early in the Holocaust in the killing campaign known as the Einsatzgruppen which I’ve written about here):
Among the Jews that September 25, 1941, in the old Jewish cemetery of Eisysky was one of the shtetl’s melamdim (teachers), Reb Michalowsky, and his youngest son, Zvi, age sixteen. Father and son were holding hands as they stood naked at the edge of the open pit, trying to comfort each other during their last moments. Young Zvi was counting the bullets and the intervals between one volley of fire and the next. As Ostrovakas and his people were aiming their guns, Zvi fell into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hit him.
He felt the bodies piling up on top of him and covering him. He felt the streams of blood around him and the trembling pile of dying bodies moving beneath him.
It became cold and dark. The shooting died down above him. Zvi made his way from under the bodies, out of the mass grave into the cold, dead night. In the distance, Zvi could hear Ostrovakas and his people singing and drinking, celebrating their great accomplishment. After 800 years, on September 26, 1941, Eisysky was Judenfrei.
At the far end of the cemetery, in the direction of the huge church, were a few Christian homes. Zvi knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. “Please let me in,” Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” he shouted at Zvi and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other doors, but the response was the same.
Near the forest lived a widow whom Zvi knew too. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small, burning piece of wood. ” Let me in!” begged Zvi. “Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!” She chased Zvi away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit, a dybbuk.
“I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in,” said Zvi Michalowsky. The widow crossed herself and fell at his blood-stained feet. “Boze moj, Boze moj (my God, my God),” she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.
Zvi walked in. He promised her that he would spare from damnation both her family and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Zvi food and clothing and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house, he once more reminded her that the Lord’s visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.
Dressed in a farmer’s clothing, with a supply of food for a few days, Zvi made his way to the nearby forest. Thus, the Jewish partisan movement was born in the vicinity of Eisysky.
This story illustrates many things, among them (if you go to the link and read the beginning) the fact that some Jews were for armed resistance, including Zvi who ended up as a partisan. It also illustrates the combination of extreme resourcefulness and luck displayed by some survivors. And although it is tempting to offer swift and self-righteous condemnation to the people who closed their doors to Zvi, how many among us would have risked our lives and especially our family members’ lives (including children’s) to save him?
When I first read that story so many years ago, it gave me the chills. The simple religious woman’s powerful faith moved me, too. And the story reminded me in turn of this ancient Gaelic rune. The first time I was introduced to it was also in the 80s; it was called to my attention by a friend who was taking a course in literature. When I read the poem I got the chills, just as with the other tale. It was something about the archaic language and the sentiment, which although Christian (and I’m not) seems to me to be a general statement about the soul dwelling in every human being:
Christ in the Stranger’s Guise
I met a stranger yest’re’een;
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place;
And, in the sacred name of the Triune,
He blessed myself and my house,
My cattle and my dear ones,
And the lark said in her song,
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise;
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.