#115 (s5760-15/ 13 Tevet 5760)
I was in a concentration camp in Hungary, near the Romanian border, under the rule of the accursed Nazis. When their defeat was all but official, and the once-mighty German war machine was retreating in the face of the advancing Russian troops, rumors increased of the imminent arrival of the Russians. I and two others decided to attempt to escape from the sinister clasp of the Nazis and reach the hopefully nearby and presumably friendlier arms of the Russians before the Germans could catch us.
Our plan was to sneak over at twilight, one by one, to the corral at the edge of the camp where the horses were kept. Then, as soon as it became dark, we would run as fast as we could into the nearby forest. The plot was fraught with danger and we well understood that if apprehended we would immediately be hanged, but the temptation of possible success outweighed our fear. We prepared ourselves in eager anticipation and waited, day after day, for the right moment to execute our plan.
One evening, the guards seemed lax in their attention. We decided that this was it! Carefully, we slipped over to the corral in intervals. Each of us carried a brush for grooming the horses. If anyone stopped us, we would say we had come to care for the animals.
As soon as it became dark, we sprinted toward the forest. Much to our relief, no alarm was raised. No one had even noticed! Nevertheless, we knew we didn't have much time until our disappearance would become known and the pursuit would begin. So when we reached the forest, we decided to keep running for as long as our strength would hold out in the direction we desperately estimated that the Russians were coming.
For several hours we trotted through the thick forest. Suddenly we heard frightening sounds from behind us, in the distance. Quickly we climbed as high as we could into three nearby tall trees, and waited nervously for what fate would bring.
The sounds became louder as their source drew closer. It was the barking of dogs! After a while, we saw German soldiers pounding down the route we had taken, with ferocious dogs on leashes. Thank heaven, neither soldiers nor animals noticed us as they whipped past our trees and continued deeper into the forest.
The leaves on the branches of our lofty perches were fluttering in the chilly night wind, and we too were shaking-but with fear. Nevertheless, we dared to hope that the Nazi beasts would not expend much more time hunting for us: the chances of finding us in the pitch darkness of the forest were too slim, and they would have to worry about running into the advancing Soviet troops. And so it was. After an hour or two, we saw them heading back in the direction of the camp.
Even after they were gone, we remained in our trees for another length of time, until we were absolutely convinced that none of our pursuers had remained in the area. Only then did we carefully descend to the ground, and resume trekking into the heart of the forest. Although we were already weak and exhausted, we pushed ourselves to keep moving until daylight penetrated the dense green overhead. Then, after some looking about, we found a well-hidden pit where, on the verge of imminent collapse, we felt confident enough to curl up and sleep.
At dusk, we emerged from our place of concealment and began to walk again. For three days we traveled by night and slept during the day, sustaining ourselves with berries that grew wild in the forest.
Towards morning of the fourth day, we spotted in the distance a clearing in the forest, with a house rooted firmly in the middle of it. We approached it as silently and inconspicuously as we could, and spied it from all sides. We didn't detect any signs of life whatsoever. Convincing each other that it was safe, we gathered our nerve and entered.
After exploring every room, we concluded that the house was indeed abandoned. We went up to the roof and spread out thin mattresses of straw. After three days in the forest, we were overjoyed to be able to pamper our weary bones and rest properly. Exhausted and physically broken, within a few minutes all three of us were sound asleep in a deep slumber.
I don't know how many hours we slept, but our wakening was instantaneous and frightening. The door crashed loudly open with a kick! If it was Germans, we were doomed. Even if they were Russian soldiers, it might not help us much; they tended to shoot first and ask questions only afterwards.
As we bolted upright, I heard a scream of "Sh'ma Yisrael," followed immediately by a quick order barked in Russian. Three Russian officers appeared in our line of vision, led by an officer. The muzzles of their rifles were aimed directly at our foreheads.
We froze. It took me a few seconds to sort out my perceptions, whereupon I realized that the piercing shout of "Sh'ma Yisrael" had come from Bernhard, while the order in Russian had burst forth from the officer.
It turned out that they were a patrol whose job was to hunt for German soldiers trying to escape or in hiding. The commanding officer was actually a Jewish doctor, who was serving in the Russian army. As soon as he heard "Sh'ma Yisrael," he had instinctively roared the command, "Hold your fire."
Amazing! Bernhard's cry from the depths of his soul had saved our three lives. The most surprising thing was that he, unlike myself and our other companion, was a totally non-religious assimilated Jew! In fact, only his mother was Jewish, which had made him "just half-Jewish" in the eyes of our cruel captors, and as such wore a white ribbon on his arm instead of a yellow one.
To this day, two questions from this harrowing turning point in my life gnaw at my mind. Why didn't the quick-triggered Russians shoot us as soon as they spotted us on the roof? And how could it be that Bernhard, an assimilated Jew in his own eyes as well as in everyone else's, was the one who cried out "Sh'ma" so quickly and instinctively?
I guess I'll never know. But one thing I certainly learned from that incredible episode: hidden in the heart of every Jew, no matter how assimilated, is an extraordinary Jewish soul, waiting to assert itself at that moment of truth.
[Translated and freely adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles (and first published in Kfar Chabad Magazine - English) from Sichat HaShavua #604. You may distribute this e-mail as long as full attribution is given, including Ascent's email and internet addresses, as in the heading.]
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.