June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Apart but Not Alone, Part II: We Danced in Tykocin

Last month, I shared a life-changing experience: our trip to Poland. We walked in the footsteps of our parents, relatives and others who survived or perished in the Holocaust. We learned that while we are “apart” as a nation, we are never “alone”; with God and our people at our side, and our current accessibility to the Land of Israel, we now have a safe haven, a place we can call home. Yet, all through the trip, as I listened to the incredible stories of survivors and kedoshim, another idea kept rising to the surface: the treasure we possess that can make the difference between living or dying al Kiddush Hashem. I learned that even in the direst of circumstances we still have a choice to push as hard as possible, and never give up until Hashem deems it so. This is by no means a criticism or judgment of those who did succumb to the horrific circumstances; and hopefully, our generation will never be tested. Yet, it seems we have something to learn from those who fought to the bitter end.

Dr. Viktor Frankl, in his seminal work “Man’s Search for Meaning,” spoke to the power of finding meaning and purpose even in the most horrific circumstances. He shared his own experiences, including the separation from his family and having his doctoral manuscript, a work in progress, rudely ripped from his arms and destroyed before his eyes. It was then that he vowed to hold onto the images of his wife and children, and to recreate his work as a constant focal point; in addition, the goal of recreating his manuscript and using logotherapy, the psychological technique he developed, in helping his inmates cope with the horrors of the camps, also added meaning to his life. Through his observations and interactions he found that those who focused on goals that added meaning to their lives had an emotional and physical edge over those who directed all of their attention on the stark reality of their circumstances. Typically, the activities that kept Dr. Frankl and others like him going was taking charge of the survival of the more fragile inmates. In addition, holding onto their belief in God and practicing their religious rituals were also critical factors in their survival.

We recently completed Sefer Bamidbar, which ended with the recounting of the 38 sojourns Bnei Yisrael traversed on their 40-year journey in the midbar. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the encampments from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrae, serve as metaphors for the numerous spiritual, emotional, personal, relational and national journeys we traverse throughout our lives; moreover, these trajectories begin with our soul’s descent to this world at birth, through its return back to the source. According to the Rebbe, and others who weigh in on the meaning of these journeys, each “resting station” was necessary—in that each of the pauses, interruptions, setbacks and wrong turns provided opportunities for growth. Mrs. Chana Weisberg, an author on Chabad.org, adds that the vicissitudes we experience also disavow us of the “naivet?” that the path will always be easy, sans obstacles that cause delays in reaching our destination; and eventually we learn that the difficulties we encounter help us to develop strategies and levels of flexibility to deal with further challenges. As we learn in our Bereishit stories, it is during times of “need” that we look back at the “Source” for help; and in doing so, we experience the greatest growth spurts in our spiritual and emotional development.

There was no greater evidence of this truth than the true-to-life stories we heard, beginning with the one Rabbi Efrem Goldberg told during our visit at the historic shul in the small town of Tykocin. Our historian, Dr. David Bernstein, put things in perspective when he explained that life in the shtetls had a far greater Jewish “feel” to them than the larger cities. The population of Tykocin, for example, comprised 2/3 of the population, as compared to the 1/3 in some of the larger cities we visited. As a result, in Tykocin, Jews and gentiles were integrated, living and working among each other in a respectful manner. Moreover, Judaism thrived and we enjoyed an illustrious history. In fact, many of the gedolim and Torah scholars familiar to us by name spent their lives in the shtetls spreading Torah, places that are chillingly empty of even a spark of Judaism today. As we observed in Tykocin, only a few meager remnants—a magen david on the door front of a building, an empty shul that serves as a museum—remain; all other signs of Jewish life were completely eradicated during the horrors of World War II.

Even though our generation enjoyed years of security, with the current rise of terrorism and direct acts of anti-Semitism these feelings of complacency appear to be shaken. Rabbi Goldberg brought it even closer to home when he informed us that in 1921, 49 percent of the population in Tykocin was Jewish. Similarly, the last count of Jews in Boca was up to 51 percent. He asked us to imagine a day in the far future, where visitors might look at the BRS synagogue, make note of the architecture and pictures of the vibrant Jewish life we led in the town we call home and love, and they sadly note that there is nothing left. Indeed, it’s unfathomable. But I’ll bet the Jews in Tykocin and the like could not have imagined it either. Yet, despite the desolation, we know many did survive, immigrating to the U.S., Israel and countries throughout the world. At that point, Rabbi Goldberg told us the story of “Moishele,” a tale of strength, courage, endurance and, most of all, of one man’s survival:

Rabbi Josh Fass, a colleague of Rabbi Goldberg, once visited an elderly man, giving him chizuk during his last days. He was surprised to observe the optimism with which this individual responded to him, and remarked about his positive perspective. The old man responded: “Ich gei tantzen mit di malachim—I am going to dance with the angels.” When the rabbi interpreted this as a beautiful thought by a virtuous man, anticipating the greeting he would receive in the “olam ha’emet,” he mustered up his last bit of strength and assured the rabbi that this was the “emet—for real”; he was certain that he would indeed finally “dance with the angels.” He then recounted the following story:

On Chol Hamoed Sukkot, in a town similar to Tykocin, Moishele, an 8-year-old boy, anticipated the joy of dancing on Simchat Torah. Suddenly, a group of Nazi guards marched into town and rounded up all the Jewish families into the town square. Moishele, who at that time was with his friends, did not understand why and what was happening, and so he cried to his father, “Mir ken nisht tantzen—we won’t be able to dance.” He begged his father to let them stay and take the trip after Yom Tov, but his father responded, “Zay shtil—Be quiet,” but it was too late! The Nazi guard heard him, singled him out, and yanked him by the collar, throwing him out of the line-up. He then grabbed three other boys, parading all four in front of the whole town, taunting them: “So you want to dance? OK, tantz! Tantz!” Petrified, they joined hands, formed a circle, and began to dance. The Nazi, already bored, took out his rifle and pointed it to one of the boys and shot him in the back. When the boy dropped to the ground, and the guard realized the remaining three were frozen in place with fright, he commanded them to continue dancing; holding hands, they danced until the Nazi, whose blood lust was not yet sated, shot the second, and then repeated the ritual with the third; with all three boys on the ground, only Moishele was left. Then the Nazi laughed out loud, watching Moishele standing alone, confused and petrified. The Nazi, no doubt, thought that Moishele would crumble and cry; he was surprised when Moishele suddenly turned his palms up to heaven and began to dance as if it was Simchat Torah. The SS guard was angered and disgusted; he was no longer laughing or entertained. “What are you doing?” he asked, to which Moishele replied, “Ich tantz mit di Malachim—I am dancing with the angels.” The guard was so revolted that he grabbed him by the collar, and told him; “You foolish boy! Just get out of my face,” and threw him back into the crowd.

As you probably guessed, the elderly man was Moishele, who survived the war, and every single year for the rest of his life, wherever he resided, when Simchat Torah came, the whole shul gathered; they waited with respect and awe, knowing that this man would come forward into the circle and start dancing with his palms up to heaven, connecting with God and His angels. And now that the secret was revealed, I believe that although the yad Hashem had much to do with this survival story, it was also Moishele’s focus on the destination point, the moment he would finally “dance with the angels,” the return of his soul to its original source, that added meaning to Moishele’s life and kept him alive.

Rabbi Goldberg ended with the charge to all of us who are “blessed with the privilege of dancing and singing wherever we find ourselves on Simchat Torah, Yomim Tovim, and smachot.” He beckoned us to “sing, dance and pray that no more nightmares come to disturb our dreams.” And we did, in the back of the shul, where prayers are no longer recited and songs no longer heard. May the merits of all the Jews who stand up to the charge of unity, who strive to make sure that no Jew ever feels alone, and who live the message of “acheinu kol am Yisrael” bring back the laughter that will accompany us in our geulah, speedily and in our times.

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA

 Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with special training in Imago and EFT. She can be reached at: [email protected].

 

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