Over Pesach a friend of mine passed away. He was 93 and lived in Detroit, Michigan. He is the grandfather of two of our students here at TCW. And he was a survivor. His name is Henry. I officiated at his funeral.
He was one of the smartest people you’d ever meet. He taught little kids how to multiply two-digit numbers in their head before their teachers thought they knew how to add.
He was a lawyer and an accountant and worked for the Internal Revenue Service. The most difficult tax cases that the US government was working on would be sent to him to figure out.
He loved to read and learn and attend classes even in his his 90’s. He was known by his teachers as the one who asked the toughest questions.
But what’s most remarkable about him wasn’t his intellect. That was a gift that God gave him. What was most remarkable was his resilience. That was an act of will.
Henry had just finished Grade 12 when the war broke out. He and his family split up. He went with his mother to a city called Radom thinking it was safe. When the SS came in, they gave the 33,000 Jews there 10 days to relocate themselves into a small ghetto.
Within a short period of time, people were dying of hunger and disease. There were daily transports taking out the dead from the ghetto leaving the strongest there.
Henry was assigned with some other prisoners to work the night shift at an SS ammunition factory.
One night Henry saw a glow over the ghetto and at dawn there were bodies strewn all over. He ran to his grandmother’s place and saw her body lying beside his aunt’s. They had been shot.
Henry worked a 10 hour shift. Prisoners were given one piece of bread and watered soup everyday. He came to the conclusion he wouldn’t last much longer.
But he did. He survived a death march, a beating, and typhus.
Somehow this man who weighed only 92 pounds when he was liberated found the strength of body and mind to start life over in the United States. This man who had every reason to lose his faith in God, raised a family that is so committed to the Jewish community that he now has grandchildren here at TanenbaumCHAT. This man who had every reason to lose his faith in people, would sing in German about the brotherhood of mankind.
Elie Weisel worte a book called Messengers of God about different biblical stories. He describes what he calls the first genocide: Cain kills Abel. Abel is dead. Cain is exiled. Remarkably, Adam and Eve survive the loss of two children and they have a third child, Seth. The greatness of Adam and Eve was not that they were the first couple, says Weisel. That’s an accident of chronology. Their greatness is not that they began but that they began again. They loved. They lost, and they began again. That was an act of will.
Henry was a man who began again. He reminds us that we are part of a people that generation after generation has figured out how to begin again. All of us today who come to school daily and study Torah are proof that we are an undying people always prepared to begin again.