Tefillin In Auschwitz
Excerpt from Bar Mitzva & Tefillin Secrets:
These recollections were written by the author’s grandfather, HaGaon Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels zt”l, the Weitzener Rav, author of the responsa works Mekad’shei Hashem and Binyan Tzvi.
Putting on Tefillin in Auschwitz
It was heartening sight to behold. Day after day, Yidden lined up to put on tefillin, reciting the berachah, happy to say the verse Shema Yisrael—in Auschwitz. They risked their lives, since the Germans would have clobbered to death anyone caught in the act.
It was a miracle that a pair of tefillin was there at all. The moment we arrived in Auschwitz our clothing and all our possessions were taken. Often we were frisked to see if we had stowed away anything that had escaped their scrutiny. Miraculously, we were still able to put on tefillin every day.
In Auschwitz, the capital of death, it was impossible to have emunah based on reason and logic. Nothing made sense. The only way we could bolster our faith was by putting on tefillin and accepting G-d’s sovereignty as expressed in the tefillin. People put their lives on the line for the mitzvah of tefillin because it restored their broken spirits. The tefillin reinforced their determination to continue to believe, though the things that occurred in Auschwitz were beyond comprehension.
Through the tefillin we remain bound to Hashem with unflagging emunah, trust, and faith. The tefillin inspire Yidden with valor and vigor to endure periods of Divine concealment, with the firm belief that Hashem will have mercy on them and “remove them from distress to relief.”
The Chasam Sofer offers a beautiful insight on the verse, “[Hashem said to Moshe,] ‘You will see My back, but My face may not be seen.’” (Shemos 33:25) Only after an event has passed, in retrospect, we can understand G-d’s reasons, recognize His wisdom, realize that things that seemed unfair were all for our good. But, “My face may not be seen”—we cannot fathom G-d’s ways while the event is taking place. Moshe Rabbeinu asked, “How will the Yidden come through the long galus when Hashem’s Face is completely hidden?” G-d showed him the tefillin-knot at the back of His head, indicating that even in the darkest galus—yes, even in Auschwitz—Yidden will put on tefillin.
This clarifies the Gemara in Megillah 16b which says that Haman prohibited the Jews from putting on tefillin. Why did he pick this particular mitzvah? He knew that the tefillin would help the Jewish people endure even in times of the greatest concealment of Divine guidance. In the merit of the mitzvah of tefillin, they would be saved from his tyranny.
Living Like a Jew … Dying Like a Jew
When we davened and put on tefillin in Auschwitz, the non-observant Jews watched and admired us—but they were not stirred to do teshuvah. Only when they were forced to take their final journey they would say, “I know that I did not live like a Yid, but I am happy to die al kiddush Hashem as a Yid.”
Often I was told by secular Jews, “If I knew that I would die tomorrow, I would do teshuvah, but I know that I cannot keep it up for a long time.”
The Sages (Shabbos 153a) tell such a person: “Repent one day before you die.” Repent today, since you may die tomorrow. Don’t think that you’ll have to live according to the Torah for a long time; instead, consider tomorrow to be your last day. That way, you will spend your whole life in teshuvah.
Salvation and Hope
The Gemara in Menachos 44a says that whoever puts on tefillin will live long. The Rosh in Hilchos Tefillin declares: I certify that whoever puts on tefillin, Gehinnom will have no power over him.
Auschwitz surely was Gehinnom. We cherished the mitzvah of tefillin, for it protected us, assured us of long life—and would save us from the agonies of Gehinnom.
The arm-tefillin is placed first on our left arm, the weaker arm, indicating that we are powerless, unable to achieve anything by ourselves. Once we place all our trust in Hashem, we need no longer fear our enemies. We can then put on the head tefillin, regarding which it is written, “Then all the nations of the world will realize that the name of Hashem is associated with you and they will be in awe of you.”
In Auschwitz we were captives, incapable of doing anything to save ourselves. Our trust in Hashem was our only source of strength. Our treasured tefillin alluded to the helpless situation we were in—and inspired us with hope for a speedy liberation.