he was centered in Otvoczk, Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar of Modzitz had Chassidim
throughout the major towns and cities of Poland. One of these was Reb Azriel
David Fastag, who was noted for his exceptional voice throughout Warsaw. Many
came to the shul where Reb Azriel David and his brothers, who were also
blessed with lovely voices, would pray on the High Holy Days. Reb Azriel David
would lead the prayers, while his brothers accompanied him as a choir. His crisp,
clear and moving voice had a profound effect on all who heard him.
lived simply, supporting himself from a small clothing store, but his happiness
and fulfillment came from another source - the world of Chasidic music. His moving
tunes made their way to Otvoczk, where his Rebbe, R. Shaul Yedidya Elazar appreciated
them immensely. The day a new niggun [tune] of R. Azriel David's came to
the Rebbe was like a "Yom Tov" for him. [One of his most memorable
compositions is "M'heira Yishama," a wedding tune.]
clouds began to cover the skies of Europe - the clouds of Nazism.
In spite of the terrible decrees, the yellow patch and the ghettoes,
most Jews could not fathom what was about to befall them. Only a few
"read the map" correctly and managed to escape the clutches
of the Nazi occupation to safe havens. One of them was the Modzitzer
Rebbe, Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar, whose Chassidim made a tremendous
effort to save him. As the Nazis entered Poland, the Chassidim smuggled
him out of Poland to Vilna, in Lithuania, and from there he made his
way across Russia to Shanghai, China, eventually arriving in America
in Poland, tens of thousands of Jews were being 'shipped off' daily to their death
in cattle cars that were part of the railway system. Aroused from their warm beds
in Warsaw in the middle of the night, husbands were separated from their wives,
children from their parents. The elderly were often shot on the spot in front
of their loved ones. Then the Jews were gathered and sent off in those trains
to a place where their existence would no longer trouble those dregs of humanity
known as the Nazis - to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, etc. What was it like
in one of those cattle cars of the "death train"?
What could one
expect to find other than people in their death throes -- gasping, sighing and
crying? One could hear the stifled cries of children, crushed together and trampled
upon by the spiked boots of the evil, cruel Nazis.
However, in one such
car, it seemed like a "tone" of life managed to emerge from these crushed
people. What? People on their way to be slaughtered, singing??? Was this a cruel
It seems that an elderly Jew, wrapped up in his ragged clothing,
his face white as snow, had made his way over to his neighbor on the death train,
begging him to remind him of the niggun the Modzitzer Rebbe sang on Yom Kippur
to "Ma'areh Kohen" (about the High Priest).
Now, all you want to know about is niggunim?" answered the other,
with a hard look at the Chassid, thinking that maybe all the suffering had caused
him to lose his mind.
But this Modzitzer Chassid, Reb Azriel David Fastag,
was no longer paying attention to his friend, or to anyone else on the train.
In his mind, he was at the prayer stand next to the Modzitzer Rebbe on Yom Kippur,
and it is he who was leading the prayer before the Rebbe and all the Chassidim.
Suddenly, before his eyes, the words of the twelfth of the thirteen Principles
of Jewish Faith appeared: "Ani Ma'amin b'Emuna Sheleima, b'vias HaMoshiach;
v'af al pi she'yismamaya, im kol zeh, achakeh lo b'chol yom she'yavo -- I
believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Moshiach; and even though he may
tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming." Closing his eyes, he
meditated on these words and thought, "Just now, when everything seems lost,
is a Jew's faith put to the test."
It was not long before he began
to hum a quiet tune to these words. Amidst the heavy atmosphere of death and despair
on the train, Reb Azriel David's dveykus [attachment to G-d] lifted him
above it all.
"How can one of us be singing at such a time?" wondered
his fellow Jews on the train. And with such a sweet voice! It must be that from
Heaven they are accompanying us, in mourning, to our death, with this song. But
listen, what is it that they are singing? We're about to be slaughtered, shot,
poisoned or burnt and what are they singing? -- I believe!!!"
Modzitzer Chassid was completely above it all, a pillar of song, bringing out
of his bloodied lungs the song of his life -- the song of the eternity of the
Jewish People. He was unaware of the silence in the cattle car, and of the hundreds
of ears listening attentively in amazement. He also didn't hear the voices as
they gradually joined his song, at first quietly, but soon - growing louder and
louder! Meanwhile, he made sure to write out the notes of the newly composed song.
The moving tune, with its holy words, had penetrated the hearts of the
Jews on the train, and had stimulated the pure faith in their hearts, which burst
out from them in the form of this inspired song. The song spread from car to car.
Every mouth that could draw a breath from those congested cattle cars, filled
with live "corpses" and pungent with the odor of people crowded together,
joined in a piece of "Ani Ma'amin - I believe." It became a wonderful,
amazing symphony unto itself.
An elderly Jew, close to his death, asked
for an explanation. His neighbor screamed to him, "We're singing that the
Jewish People lives! You too, sing with us - the Jewish People lives, Ani Ma'amin!"
Closing his eyes, the elderly Jew clenched his fists and sang with his remaining
strength - "the Jewish People is alive, I believe that Moshiach will come
quickly," and expired.
As the train neared the death camp, the railway
workers wondered: from where is this amazing song coming? Could the Jews be singing
their own burial service tune?
As if waking from a dream, Reb Azriel David
opened his eyes to the sight of the singing train. His eyes were red from crying;
his cheeks, wet with tears. Deeply moved, he yelled to whomever would listen,
"My dear brothers! This niggun is the song of the Jewish soul. It is a song
of pure faith, which thousands of years of exile and troubles cannot overcome!"
Then, in a choked voice, he continued, "I will give my portion in
[the World to Come to whomever can take these notes of my song 'Ani Ma'amin' to
the Modzitzer Rebbe!"
A hushed silence descended upon the train.
Reb Azriel David lifted himself up by the ends of his thumbs, searching through
the crowd that surrounded him. Two young men appeared, promising to bring the
notes to the Modzitzer Rebbe, at any cost. One of them climbed upon the other,
and in the small crack of the train's roof that only he knew of, made a hole from
which to escape. Poking his head out under the open sky, he said, "I see
the blue Heavens above us, the stars are twinkling and the moon, with a fatherly
face, is looking at me."
"And what do you hear?" asked his
Turning white, the young man answered, "I hear the Ministering
Angels singing the Ani Ma'amin tune, and it's ascending to the seven firmaments
Bidding farewell to their brothers and sisters on the train,
the two proceeded to jump off, one after the other. One was killed instantly from
the fall, while the other survived, taking the notes of the song with him. He
eventually found his way to Eretz Yisrael [perhaps to the Rebbe's son, the Imrei
Aish, who was in Tel-Aviv], and the notes were sent by mail to Rebbe Shaul Yedidya
Elazar in New York.
Upon receiving the notes and having the "Ani
Ma'amin" niggun sung, the Rebbe said, "When they sang 'Ani
Ma'amin' on the death train, the pillars of the world were shaking. The Almighty
said, 'Can it be that My Torah is a fraud? No! But whenever the Jews will sing
'Ani Ma'amin', I will remember the six million victims and have mercy on
the rest of My People.'"
It is told that on the first Yom Kippur that
the Rebbe sang the "Ani Ma'amin," there were thousands of Jews
in the shul. The entire congregation burst into tears, which fell like water into
the pool of tears and blood of the Jewish Nation. The tune soon spread throughout
"With this niggun," said Rebbe Shaul Yedidya
Elazar, "the Jewish People went to the gas chambers. And with this niggun,
the Jews will march to greet Moshiach."
adapted by Reb Yitzchak Dorfman of Jerusalem, a Modzitzer chasid, from "HaRakeves
HaMisnaggenes - The Singing Train", a story by P. Flexer in M.S. Geshuri's
Negina v'Chassidus b'Veis Kuzmir u'Bnoseha and a story in Sichas HaShavua
Copyright © 1998 - 2002, www.Modzitz.org
Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Elazer Taub [21 Tishrei 1886 - 16 Kislev
1947], the second Modzitzer Rebbe, succeeded his father, Rabbi Yisrael, in 1920.
At the outbreak of WWII he left Poland and made his way eventually to New York
in 1940. He traveled extensively in the USA, bringing Torah and niggunim to many
communities. He may have been the most prolific chasidic composer of all time,
with the total output numbering close to 1000 compositions. Some of them may be
heard on the Modzitz website. He was also known for his extraordinary love for
Eretz Yisrael. On his fourth and last trip there in 1947 he fully intended to
remain and settle, but he passed away that same year. He was the last person buried
on the Mount of Olives until after the 6 Day War.
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed,
and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org
websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.