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A Ḥasidic Leader’s Tale of Holocaust Survival

When the SS murdered Benzion Halberstam in a forest in eastern Poland in 1941, his son Shlomo had already been groomed to succeed him as rebbe of the Bobover Ḥasidim. Shlomo, immediately recognized by his father’s followers as their new leader, set about trying to provide aid and comfort to his flock while attempting to escape with as many of his family members and fellow Ḥasidim as possible. Samuel Heilman tells his harrowing story:

[In 1941, Shlomo and his own son and presumptive successor Naftali] were hustled to Bochnia in southern Poland, where they hoped to “disappear” in the ghetto there. In January 1942, Shlomo’s wife, younger children, and mother-in-law joined more than 8,000 Jews who flooded into what would become a large labor camp in Bochnia. . . .

Through the skills of one or two of his Ḥasidim with a talent for forging documents, Shlomo acquired false papers as a Hungarian. Identified thus as what Germans called an Ausländer (foreigner), he was able to escape the restrictive boundaries of the Bochnia ghetto, as well as to help others flee by providing them with forged papers or with food. . . .

From outside the ghetto, [thanks to] his forged papers, Shlomo would slip into the ghetto to spend some time with the remaining Bobover Ḥasidim. In secret gatherings at Sabbath’s end, after curfew, when the Ḥasidim would gather together, hold hands, and form a silent circle, as if dancing and singing, he would offer hushed words of Torah, ḥasidic teaching, and spiritual encouragement. At times he stole Naftali, who was eleven years old at the time, in with him, taking the risk that if he were caught on the streets after curfew they would both be punished, if not shot. He wanted the boy to see how a rebbe had to act.

Shlomo . . . argued that the best method to prepare for the imminent coming of the messiah (whose arrival would surely end Jewish suffering, a belief that roared through the hearts of many of those whose belief in God’s redemption rose in the face of horror) was to pave his way by saving Jewish children from death or abandonment at the hands of non-Jews.

Read more at Moment

More about: Hasidism, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Polish Jewry

Israel’s Success Has Surprised Everyone

April 20 2018

On the eve of Israel’s decision to declare statehood, 70 years ago, the CIA estimated that a Jewish state couldn’t hold off its Arab enemies for more than two years, while the famed Haganah commander Yigael Yadin told David Ben-Gurion that their chances of victory were fifty-fifty. Daniel Gordis describes just how wildly the country has managed to outpace expectations:

In 1948, there were some 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world’s Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown ten-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people. Some 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel; this population overtook American Jews several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. . . .

Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders. At times, financial collapse seemed imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery for building the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany paid Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.

Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power, but also a formidable economic machine. A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country other than the U.S., Israel’s economy barely hiccupped in 2008. The shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other countries, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.

Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker literary prize were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won. . . . Today, Americans and Europeans alike wait hungrily for new episodes of Israeli shows like Fauda, while others (like Homeland and The A-Word) have been remade into American and British series.

On the occasion of Independence Day, Israelis are fully conscious—and deeply proud—of the fact that their country has exceeded the ambitions of the men and women who founded it seven decades ago.

Read more at Bloomberg

More about: David Ben-Gurion, Israel & Zionism, Israeli economy, Israeli Independence Day, Israeli literature, Israeli society