His eyes haunt me; looking out as they do from a picture taken over seventy years ago. Just one drop of one story from amongst a sea of pain.
His name was Martin Shtiebel, and his picture is one of many that hang on display in the museum at Dachau, the Nazi regime’s first and longest standing concentration camp. In 1933, the year Hitler rose to power, he was a 34 year old working for one of the many political organizations in Nuremberg trying to bring more freedom and equality to a post-World War One Germany, rife with poverty and suffering.
Being a spokesperson for a political group that was at odds with Nazism, he, like many innocent German Jews of his day, did not see the writing on the wall. He was arrested in 1933 and sent to Dachau, where he was publicly humiliated and brutalized immediately upon entering the camp. He was one of those rare few who attempted to fight the Nazi machine, even from within the camps.
Upon arrival, Jews were herded and run into a long barracks where they were stripped of every last piece of clothing and every belonging they owned, after which, amidst a hail of kicks and blows they were run through the camp and out into the open roll call area, where, old and young alike, they were made to run and roll, up and down for hours upon hours, even forced to drink from puddles of swill on the ground, until the weak and the old eventually collapsed.
Shtiebel was caught attempting to smuggle out secret notes on what was really going on in the camp, and in November 1933 was thrown into an isolation cell.
Recall that in 1933, the Nazis still had to present a veneer of respectability and legitimacy. In fact, the chief prosecutor for the Dachau area filed charges against a number of camp officers for murders that were misrepresented as suicides, and this as late as 1935. By then, he was removed from his post.
Subjected to daily torture, Shtiebel refused to sign papers attesting to his own ‘guilt’ until eventually he was found ‘hanged’ in his cell in April 1934.
With all the different images that assault the senses in that terrible place, for some reason, his picture stayed in my head. Looking at the hooks near the ceiling where they hung prisoners by their arms that were tied behind their backs, I wondered what was going through Martin Shtiebel’s mind amidst all that pain.
And most of all, I couldn’t help but wonder, opposite the torture cells of the Gestapo, how a Jewish bureaucrat, all alone in such a terribly lonely place, managed to stand up to the might of the Nazi regime for six long months.
By 1940, the Jews in the camps had a sense of what was coming. After years of Nazi oppression in the ghettos and the work camps, they knew their enemy. But in 1933, prisoners taken to Dachau could not possibly have imagined the horrors that awaited them. How does a person who wakes up in a democratic world of rights and laws, find himself by mid-day in the darkest version of hell we cannot even begin to imagine and still stay sane?
How long did it take Martin Shtiebel before he finally realized no one will be hearing his case and fighting for his rights? What kept him going those six long months, when one signature would have at least ended the horrible torture? Could there have been some light, some dream that kept Martin Shtiebel going? Is it possible to bring light even into the darkest of places?
This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, finds Avraham in what should have been one of the darkest points of his life. An old man, he has just lived through what seems to have been the greatest challenge of his life: the binding of Isaac, only to find his beloved wife Sarah, his life partner, dead. And yet the verse tells us, “And Avraham was old, well on in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” (Bereishit 24:1)
How can the Torah tell us Avraham is so blessed, when he has literally just buried his wife? Especially when the Torah makes it abundantly clear that this was a terribly painful loss for Avraham who “mourns her and cries for her.”
If you’ve just lost everything, you should likely feel as though you have nothing, yet specifically at this juncture the Torah tells us that Avraham has been blessed with everything! Perhaps we need to understand what a blessing is really all about.
Most people think that when I make a blessing I am thanking G-d, but that is not actually correct. “’Bracha’ (the Hebrew word for blessing) does not mean thank you. We have a word ‘Todah’ which means thank you, and we use it often both when we pray as well as after we eat ( “Nodeh lecha’ we thank You….”). So obviously ‘bracha’ (blessing) has to mean something different.
In fact the word bracha means to increase; hence when we are told that has blessed Avraham with everything what it means is Hashem has increased Avraham’s wealth or future, in this case through his son Yitzchak.
And this makes a lot of sense. After all, what is it I am trying to do when I say a blessing? I am trying to increase Hashem’s presence in my life. I can choose just to eat a piece of bread, or I can choose to use that bread as a vehicle for deepening my relationship with G-d.
Most people don’t think twice when they bite into a soft piece of fresh bread, other than to relish its taste. But it takes a lot of work to make bread: You have to plough and then sow a field, then reap the crops, and thresh and winnow and sift the grains and eventually crush the wheat into kernels and produce and then knead the dough until finally baking it into bread. And all this is completely dependant on rain and sunshine….
And by seeing myself as a partner with G-d in producing this bread I increase Hashem’s presence in my life and thus in the world.
As such, our verse which describes Hashem’s blessing of Avraham with everything, is as much about how Avraham chooses to see the world Hashem gives us, as it is about what Hashem actually bestows upon Avraham. He can choose to wallow in the loss of Sarah, or revel in the joy of Yitzchak.
Ultimately the only real choice we have in this world is how we choose to look at the world. And Avraham is blessed “bakol”, with “everything”, only because he chooses to focus on seeing Hashem in his life, as opposed to focusing on where Hashem is hidden from his life.
As we exited the museum, I noticed across the wide-open area where the shouts and screams of roll call used to fill the Dachau air, personnel in Israeli army uniforms. I rubbed my eyes to be sure I wasn’t imagining the image, but as we got closer, sure enough we encountered a small group of Israeli army officers who were in Germany on a military liaison mission with their counterparts in the German army.
When they realized that their trip itinerary did not include a visit to Dachau, even though they were to visit the industrial zone nearby, they insisted on being taken to see the camp.
It was a cold day in Germany but these young officers were touring the camp without coats on so that people passing them by would see their Israeli army uniforms.
In the barracks their guide was explaining that the prisoners were forced to sleep at night without their clothes in the bitter cold nights of the German winter.
And I couldn’t help but be in awe of the powerful fire of spirit that must have burned in Martin Shtiebel’s heart to be able to withstand all that he endured in those dark days.
It is indeed possible to bring light even into the darkest of places, if we so choose.
Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at www.orayta.org