A Postcard from Therestenstadt

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

The post card: In sorting through my mail the other day, I noticed an airmail envelope from Germany with a Chicago return address. Opening it I found a note written on blue stationery on which was printed the word “SHALOM” adjacent to two pictures of Israeli stamps. The note read:

Dear Rabbi Lefkowitz,
 
My name is Gertrude M. Lesser-Cohn. I am in possession of 163 post cards from Terezin which are cards of acknowledgment for the food-parcels that my parents, may they rest in peace, sent over the years from Vienna where we lived, even so we ourselves had very little to eat.
 
Please find the time to display this card and maybe my letter at a prominent place. There used to be many more Thank You cards but over the years I gave many away.
 
We can try to forgive, but we should never forget. Our Holocaust Museum [a magnificent Holocaust Museum was recently built in Skokie, IL north of Chicago. PL] will be a good reminder of the terrible things that happened and are still happening.
 
Sincerely,
Gertrude M. Lesser-Cohn

Enclosed in the note was a tan post card dated 1944, the year of my birth, from Therestenstadt. It was a thank you note signed simply, Robert.

My family all took turns holding it. We stared at it in wonderment. We were speechless. We placed it gently upon our mantelpiece. Our home was still. In our hands was a note from our past, yours and mine, a note from a fellow Jew, who on our collective behalf, suffered unimaginable pain. And there it sits our window to one of the most horrible episodes in our Jewish history.

The phone call: The next day I received a phone call from Germany. It was from a man, now in his forties, the son of members of one of my former congregations. The last time we met, almost thirty years ago, he was on his way to college in Germany. He spent a day with us in Manchester.

We discussed his life, my life, did some catch up on family and then he fell still. I could hear him crying. “What’s wrong I asked?” “I’m an addict, I’m addicted to cocaine.” was the response. “Is that why you called?” “Yes,” he answered. He then went on explain how he always felt a kinship with me. He knew I loved him. I listened quietly. Then I asked, “Do you want my help?” The reply, “Yes.”

He and I then discussed more details of his addiction. I suggested he fly to the States and visit with me so that we can develop a plan to come to grips with his habit. He responded that he would very much want to visit and would call me back in a week.

A chance meeting: Sitting in my Doctor’s waiting room the other day, I was surprised and happy when my son Levi’s Rebbe from his childhood walked in. We smiled at each other. The Rebbe, who is truly loved by all his Talmidim, then proceeded to take out his laptop computer to do some work. I noticed he was shaking his head from side to side. He turned to me and said, “Looking at you I remember your son Yosef and the tragedy of his death. He was a special person who touched the lives of so many. Who can understand the ways of God?”

My son, Rabbi Yosef, was a licensed funeral director in Chicago. His compassion, his understanding, his religious support and his professionalism in caring for the needs of the bereaved, is well known in Chicago’s frum community. Tragically, at the age of twenty-eight, after having minor surgery on his jaw for an over-bite, he was wrongly cared for in the recovery room. He died.

The Rebbe’s few words brought back vivid memories – the funeral at my Schul attended by over 1,200 individuals, the funeral cortège of almost one hundred cars slowly making its way down Lake Shore Drive to my son’s final resting place, his young wife, holding my baby granddaughter, pregnant with his son, Yosef, the Shiva, the hundreds who visited our home, all clearly before me once again. We buried Yosef but days before the 27th of Nissan, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Rebbe then told me a story about his own father who was in the Nazi camps. Through some miracle he was able to hold on to his Tphillin. Sharing them with a friend, one tied the Yad and the other the Rosh around their chests under their shirts. They were able to don Tphillin each day for four years until his father was caught.

Beaten severely, he was to be hanged the very next day. No rope was to be employed. He would be hanged by his Tphillin strap. The next day came and went – then the next and the next. No hanging. Why? Apparently the day he was to be hanged, a new high-ranking officer arrived at the camp. The hanging of a mere Jew was so unimportant, it was forgotten.

Why did I experience these three events in but a short period of time? It came to me in a flash. I am undergoing one of those Solomonic episodes we all go through in life. Difficulties, the frustrations of attempting to deal with individuals bent upon your destruction for no apparent reason, the trials, the tribulations, the sense of loneliness all beg the question – What is the purpose of life? Why am I plagued with such difficulties at this stage in my life?

And Shlomo HaMelech answers “This is the end of the matter: you have heard it all. Fear God and obey his commandments; this sums up the duty of mankind. For God will bring everything we do to judgment, every secret, good or bad.”

Does G‑d speak to us? Of course he does. He spoke to me in a post card from the darkest abyss, he spoke to me in the sweet words of a dearly beloved Rebbe and he spoke to me in the words of a troubled man at a crossroads in his life. The message – have Betachone, live as I have commanded, there is purpose in your life, and I will be the Judge.

The soft sweet voice of God is close at hand to each and every one of us. We need but open our hearts and our souls to hear His soothing words of comfort and support.