Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Poches Poches V'Holech

Mr. Eugene (Aryeh Leib) Lebovitz of Aventura, Florida (adjacent to N. Miami Beach) and Mr. Yisroel Starck have much in common. Mr. Starck was born in 1929 in a town just outside of Munkacz, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine). Mr. Lebovitz was born in 1928 in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine). These two towns are less than 40 KM apart.

Both were deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 but they went separate places from there. Mr. Starck was eventually liberated in Ebensee, Austria by the allies. Mr. Lebovitz was liberated in Landshut, Czechoslovakia by the Russians. Both men aspired to make their way to Eretz Yisrael but Mr. Starck never made it (at that point). Mr. Lebovitz did make it to Eretz Yisrael and joined the Haganah.  He eventually became a commander. He might have remained in EY for the distance if he had not met his wife to be on a visit to the US. Although he consequently settled in the US, first Chicago and then Puerto Rico and then Florida, he remained affiliated with the Haganah for quite some time and his loyalties are in place to this very day.

(You can find a fuller biography on Mr. Lebovitz HERE).

Mr. Lebovitz spent his early married years – from 1953 to 1961- in Chicago. Mr. Starck came to Chicago in 1948 and has resided there ever since. Despite this, these two Holocaust survivors did not know each other until a few weeks ago. (It was Mr. Lebovitz’s sister that was the reason for his initial trip to Chicago in 1951 and Mr. Starck had indeed known his sister’s husband, Mr. Joe Weiss).

What transpired a few weeks back was that Mr. Lebovitz came across a copy of Mr. Starck’s memoirs – A Boy Named 68818 - and he was immediately taken by the book. Although he felt there were a few minor discrepancies with his own recollection of some of the background details, he was still very much impressed and made it his business to strike up an acquaintance with Mr. Starck. As one thing led to another, Mr. Lebovitz (Haganah veteran and longtime supporter) invited Mr. and Mrs. Starck to a weekend – Shabbos Chanukah - gathering that he was sponsoring in Las Vegas, Nevada that included a fundraising drive for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). He asked Mr. Starck to address the gathering.

Some people who are aware that I have a personal relationship with Mr. Starck and that I maintain a blog sent me a copy of Mr. Starck’s speech given on the seventh day of Chanuka, 5776 (last Sunday). I personally was very touched by the speech and received permission to post it on the blog.

I hereby present it exactly as it was sent to me.

A freicihen post Chanuka!

Dvar Torah

Shabbas Miketz
12.12.15 - FIDF, Las Vegas

Israel Starck
Regarding the mitzvah of Ner Chanuka, we are all aware of the difference in opinion between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai.  Beis Shamai say “poches, poches, v’holech” – we start with 8 candles and we reduce by one every day.
The Beis Hillel say “moseef v’holech” – we start with one candle and we add one more every day for each of the eight days: ma’aleen b’kodesh.
However, in one matter there is no difference of opinion: We all agree, when the subject of survivors of the shoah arises, it is poches v’holech: There is only diminishment with time.
There are of course many halachot pertaining to Chanuka, like, for instance, the question whether women are also obligated in ohr Chanuka – lighting of the Chanuka candles – and in reciting of the full hallel in our tefilla.
But my reason for standing up here in front of this most distinguished tzibbur is not to give you a shiur in hilchos Chanuka.  Nevertheless, lefi aniyas daati, I wish to point out to you the tremendous parallel between the miracle of the days of Chanukah and mesiras nefesh of the Chashmonaim, with the experience and mesiras nefesh of those who were liberated at the end of WWII, and the nissim and niflaos we have been witness to in the last 70 years. 
In many ways the miracle, the nes, of the survival and re-generation of the shearis hapleita, the remnants of the Shoah, is comparable to – and I might say even surpasses – the nes shel Chanuka. 
Every day of Chanuka we recite the additional prayer in the Shemoneh Esrai of the V’al HaNissim.  We say, “biyemay Mattisyahu, k’sheheamda malchus Yavan haresha’ah al amcha Yisroel l’hashkicham torasecha ule’he’avirum me’chukay retsonecha.”  “In the days of Mattisyahu, when the evil Greek kingdom rose up against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your will...”
While the Greeks were not intent to wipe out and eradicate the Jewish race from the face of the earth we, the shearith hapleita, have paid a far greater price by losing 6 million of our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.  All perished at the hands of the Nazi re’shaim.  It did not make a difference whether they upheld chukim u’mishpatim or whether they believed in G-d and his Torah and mitzvot.
Very seldom do we recognize the importance of the moment of liberation by the allied forces.  I compare the small clusters of survivors to the pach shel shemen, the vessel of oil that was found with the seal of the Kohen Gadol.  Only, these survivors were like a pach shel kedoshim.   Just like that precious surviving pach shel shemen, they too bore a unique seal – that of the tattooed number on their arm.  And they too became a miraculous beacon from which light came forth.
Those broken starving skeletons, that I call “pach shemen shel kedoshim,” they were all so weak and depressed and demoralized that no sane person would have anticipated that this small group of skin-and-bones and broken spirits could ignite, and fire up, and radiate again, a light to the world. 
Yes, at war’s end, there were many who proclaimed chalilah, “les din v’les dayan,” “there is no judge and no judgment,” or said, “I will be a good human being at heart, but I cannot accept Torah and mitzvos again”. 

But then the greatest miracle occurred. The Ribono Shel Olam sent us a living Torah embodied in sparks of light – people like the Klausenberger Rav, Rav Yekutiel Halberstam – who ignited the spirits of that pach shel shemen shel kedoshim – and the light which emanated was not quickly consumed. 
To the contrary, this small pach shel shemen of kedoshim kept getting stronger and stronger each day, each month and each year.  A living example of Beis Hillel’s moseef v’holech – we add and advance. And just as in the time of Purim, so too the survivors took an oath of “kimu v’kiblu mah shehekiblu kvar.” They fully re-affirmed their commitment and re-dedicated themselves to the mesorah of our fathers. 
This fire, of commitment to Torah values and a Torah life, is getting stronger and stronger even now, day-by-day, giving light to the whole world.  The mosdos haTorah are boruch Hashem flowing over with Yankelach, Moishelach, and Ruchelach.  Be it in South Bend Indiana; Lakewood, NJ; Chicago, Illiniois; New York, and of course Eretz Yisrael.
After one of my talks a few years ago, a little girl by the name of Pereleh came up with the following question:  “Mr. Starck, what do you consider is the greatest threat to the Jewish people in this day and age?” 
And I answered her that when I was a little boy of 5 or 6 years of age and walked to cheder, many times the Ukrainian and Ruthenian kids would spit or throw stones at us, shouting, “Zid, to Palestina sklo missity.”  “Jew, why don’t you leave and go to Palestine to grind glass?” 
And when I turned 14 or 15, even though I never held a weapon of any kind in my hands, if another Yid would have approached me saying, “Srulek, here is a satchel of dynamite and fuses. You have to sneak under this bridge in the dark of the night and place the explosives under the bridge that transports all these trains to Auschwitz,” I would have carried out the mission without any question. 
But, there was then, no dynamite, no fuses, and no one to give instructions.  And now, the difference is that today we have our own country, with the strongest army and air force in the Middle East, if not the world.  Sure there are mechablim, terrorists, who will raise a hand or a knife against us. But he also knows quite well that there will be consequences.  Israeli forces will hunt him down and make him pay with his life.
A chassideshe bochur remarked to me, “Why didn’t I also tell Pereleh that it is the time of ikvasa d’meshicha, and Moshiach will come?” 
I told him, let me tell you the story of two friends, Berel and Shmerel.  Shmerel loved to take a drink now and then.  In difficult times, that was his balm. It gave him a sense of security.  He would often visit the village kretshma, the tavern, where he would drink to his heart’s content.  One day, Berel caught up with him and followed along.  He noticed that every block on his way to the tavern, Shmerel paused, took out a little flask, and took a swig from it. 
Finally Berel said to him, “Shmerel, you know and I know where you are heading to. So must you also stop every block and take a swig from your little flask?  Can’t you at least wait until you get to the tavern?”  Shmerel answered, “Until you get there, you also need a drink.” 
We hope and we pray that the Ribbono Shel Olam will be a Shomer Yisroel and give strength and wisdom to our brothers and sisters guarding the front lines of Israel ad biyas goel tzedek.
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