Weekly Chasidic Story #1121
(s5779-39/ 29 Iyar, 5779)
--by the Nazis, by the Rabbi, by the Holy Letters
Connection: Seasonal -- SHAVUOT: the Festival of the Giving
of the Torah
Story in PDF
format for more convenient printing.
by the Nazis, by the Rabbi, by the Holy Letters
Rabbi Hershel Schacter [not to be confused with Rabbi Hershel Schachter,
the Rosh Kollel at YU] was a prominent American Rabbi with a distinguished career
in the rabbinate and in public Jewish life. Before then, during World War II,
he was a chaplain in the Third Army's VIII Corps and was the first US Army Chaplain
to enter and participate in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp
shortly after it had been liberated by General George Patton's troops on April
Rabbi Schacter was appalled at the sights that he encountered when entering
Buchenwald. He was so shocked that he decided to stay there until he could make
a more substantial contribution to the survivors. While other American personnel
begged to leave Buchenwald due to the unbearable stench, Rabbi Schacter stayed
for months, tending to survivors and leading religious services. Never once
did he ever mention any bad odor to anyone. His tremendous devotion to his fellow
Jews and their religious needs was his supreme goal; everything else was trivial.
Yechezkel was a young man from a Polish Chasidic family.
Rabbi Schacter found him charming and took a special liking to the boy. Yechezkel
had lost his entire family during the war and had completely renounced his faith
in G-d. Yechezkel defiantly told the rabbi about his plans to totally assimilate
and live the rest of his life in post-war Germany, without even a trace of Judaism.
Rabbi Schacter listened sympathetically and tried to offer his moral support.
They talked often.
Some time after his arrival in Buchenwald, Rabbi Schacter organized a train
transport for 200 boys to Switzerland. Each boy was issued a special ticket
from the Swiss government, and Rabbi Schacter was responsible for distributing
them to the boys. He also knew that this was a desperate time for these survivors,
and they needed to get more than 200 of these boys into Switzerland. So he invited
another survivor who was an expert artist to create additional tickets. His
craftsmanship was such that you could not tell the difference between the original
and the copy.
Rabbi Schacter distributed the copies, so nearly 400 boys were planning to
make the special trip. He also offered Yechezkel a ticket, but the boy absolutely
refused. He wanted no part of restarting a Jewish life again, and reminded the
rabbi that he planned to resettle in Germany.
The day came when the train for Switzerland arrived at Buchenwald. Rabbi Schacter
told Yechezkel, "Look, even if you don't come with us to Switzerland, at
least come to see us off when we board the trains." Yechezkel reluctantly
A young mother and her small son were desperate to get out of Buchenwald, but
babies were not allowed on this transport. She approached the rabbi in tears.
"Don't worry, we'll get you out" Rabbi Schacter said. "Get on
the train, and hide in one of the lavatories. Lock the door. Under no circumstances
shall you open it unless I call you personally." He gave them some food
to tide them over.
The 400 boys made their way onto the train. Rabbi Schacter was rushing to and
fro, making sure each boy was accounted for. All the while, Rabbi Schacter was
scanning the crowd, wondering if Yechezkel would show up.
As the train was ready to depart, Yechezkel came up to shake the rabbi's hand.
"Yechezkel, it's so nice of you to come and say goodbye!" And with
that, he grabbed the boy's hand and with a burst of strength that surprised
both of them, he hauled Yechezkel onto the train in a smooth motion, just as
it was starting to pull out of the station!
Yechezkel was shocked and furious, and Rabbi Schacter told him he just did
it on impulse, but to please not be so angry. It didn't help. Yechezkel was
Finally, the train made its way to Switzerland. Their arrival was an adventure
in itself. The Swiss protested that there was double the number of boys they
Rabbi Schacter coolly threatened to call a press conference to tell the world
that Switzerland is refusing entry to destitute war orphans. He meant it. The
Swiss quickly backed down. The mother and child also made it safely without
Some time after their arrival Rabbi Schacter attempted to put together a minyan
on Shabbat. There was easily enough people for Shacharit (the Morning Prayer),
but Mincha (the Aternoon Prayer) proved difficult. He could only find nine men,
The rabbi did not give up. Remembering Yechezkel, he went in search of the
young man, who was not happy to see him. He was still cursing his lot at having
"Yechezkel, I need you for a minyan."
"Are you crazy? Absolutely not!"
"But we only have nine. We need a minyan in order to davven (pray) and
lein (read from the Torah scroll)."
"Oh really? Well, you need a minyan. I do not!" To prove his point,
he brazenly lit up a cigarette.
Rabbi Schacter would not stop now. "Yechezkel, I'm begging you. Just come
in to the tent - we'll pray quickly".
In a huff, Yechezkel replied, "Fine! Just this once!" He entered
the makeshift shul with a scowl.
The nine men who would be praying started the preliminaries, followed by Kaddish.
All the while, Yechezkel made sure everyone knew how unhappy he was. Rabbi Schacter
then took out the Sefer Torah that had been lent to them for that Shabbat, rolled
it to the correct place for the reading, and asked if any of the men knew how
to read. They all shook their heads. Yechezkel, meanwhile, was looking longingly
outside the tent, apparently distracted.
"What now?" thought Rabbi Schacter, and then remembered something.
"What do you want," the boy replied, icily.
"Didn't you tell me you were a ba'al koreh (qualified Torah-scroll reader)
before the war?"
"Maybe. So what?"
"So you're the only one of us who knows how to lein. We need to hear the
Torah reading for this Shabbat afternoon." 
"There you go again with your 'We need to
.' You might need to. I
"Yechezkel, please! This is the first chance in years for people to hear
the Torah publically read. I'm begging you. I know you can do this!"
With extreme reluctance, Yechezkel threw his cigarette outside, and approached
the table. He cast an expert glance at the unrolled Sefer Torah and immediately
found the starting point. "Okay," he sighed. "Let's get on with
Another man was called to the Torah and made the blessing. "
has chosen us from all other nations and given us the Torah
"Amen," Yechezkel found himself saying automatically. It came back
so easily. Yechezkel began to read the 3300-year-old sacred text.
Something unexpected happened. The holy letters of the precious scroll seemed
to jump off the page and hit him in the face with full force. He looked as if
he was literally being struck with the powerful black letters, and that they
were searing his soul.
Yechezkel's angry veneer had been shattered. He broke down crying like a baby,
and barely got through the Torah reading.
When he had begun to read, it had been someone else's Torah. Now he had reclaimed
And it had reclaimed him!
Yechezkel was forever changed by that single Torah reading. He returned to
the path of mitzvah fulfillment and remained Torah-observant for the rest of
his life. He built a beautiful Jewish family in Australia and championed Torah
causes there in his city. Yechezkel also stayed a devoted friend to the Schacter
family for many decades.
1] Yechezkel is a pseudonym, to protect his family's privacy.
2] It's complicated. In the scroll there is not punctuation,
no tune marks, no vowels, and no break between verses.
3] On Shabbat morning, the weekly portion is divided into seven sections. That
same Shabbat afternoon (and the following Monday and Thursday mornings), the
first of the seven portions of the new week's portion is publically read.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the article by Rabbi Shlomo
Horwitz, who heard the story from Rabbi Jacob J. Shacter in June 2014, the son
of Rabbi Hershel, and posted it on the OU site (ou.org) on July 31, 2018.
Shlomo Horwitz would like to thank Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, who shared this
story with him in June, 2014. Rabbi JJ Schacter is the son of Rabbi Hershel.
This post originally appeared on OU.org
Submitted to Ascent by Yitzchak Dorfman
Biographical note (from the Arutz 7 eulogy):
Rabbi Hershel Schacter (1917-2013) served as Rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish
Center [walking distance from where I grew up] in the Bronx for more than half
a century, was president of Mizrachi-Hapoel Hamizrachi, founding chairman of
the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry and In 1956 he was a member of
the first rabbinic delegation to the USSR..He also served as chairman of the
Chaplaincy Commission of the Jewish Welfare Board, Director of Rabbinic Services
at Yeshiva University, and on the Board of the OU for decades.
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor
of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells
them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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