His eyes haunt me. His name was Martin Shtiebel, and his picture is one of many on display in the museum at Dachau, the first and longest standing concentration camp.
In 1933, the year Hitler rose to power, Shtiebel 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 that was 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 the few who attempted to fight the Nazi machine even from within the camps.
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, as late as 1935, the chief prosecutor for the Dachau area filed charges against a number of camp officers for murders that were misrepresented as suicides. 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, alone in such a terribly lonely place, managed to stand up to the might of the Nazi regime for six long months. How does a person who wakes up in a democratic world of rights and laws, find himself by midday in the darkest version of hell and remain sane? 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 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? 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. The word “todah” means thank you, and we use it often.
In fact the word bracha means to increase — hence when we are told that Hashem 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 piece of fresh bread, other than to relish its taste. But it takes a lot of work to make bread — someone has to plough and then sow a field, 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 dependent on rain and sunshine.
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 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 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 it, 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.
Published in 2011.