Holocaust survivor recalls Purim in the valley of tears by J. J. Cohen

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"Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?" I asked my brothers in suffering, trying to distract them, and myself, from tormented thoughts and painful pangs of hunger.

"How do you know?"

"Who told you?"

"Have you been dreaming?"

"Where did you find a calendar?"

"It's freezing! Purim can't be for another month."

"No, no!" others protested. "Srulik doesn't make mistakes like that! We know him from before the war and assure you he has a good memory."

"Crazy Chassidim!" yet others grumbled. "You have nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What's the difference anymore between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Isn't it always the fast day of Tisha B'Av?"

The debate gathered force among the 80 living skeletons crammed tightly into a half-buried hut, a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall, when we inhabitants of the block, now converted into an infirmary, lay tensely on our "bunks" — wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw — our eyes riveted to the curtain that separated the block elder's spacious quarters from where we lay.

Suddenly, as if by magic, a silence blanketed the room. The curtain had parted, and the block elder stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly 24 hours. Each inmate, upon receiving his ration, measured it wordlessly with his eyes and compared it to his neighbor's portion, each convinced that the other had received more.

In an instant, best friends turned into jealous rivals, and any enjoyment of the bread was spoiled. Within minutes, the stingy portions were devoured by the starving, wretched men, and our stomachs felt just as empty as before — the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that we would have to wait a whole day for the next piece of bread.

Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus and several days of high fever, I fell back on my board, fast asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight. Unable to think of anything else but eating, I began to calculate how much time remained until noon, when the "hot soup" — a nondescript, lukewarm liquid in which a piece of potato occasionally floated — would appear.

With my head down on the wooden board, near despair, I began to conjure up images from my past, of my life with my parents and my two sisters, Gittel and Mirel…how I used to learn in the study hall of the Chassidim of Ger.

Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me dearly and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer rebbe. I relived the memory of the Chassidic leader's face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating the very depths of my soul.

"Time to daven, Srulik."

My friend's voice shook me from my reverie. The pleasant memories vanished and once again I found myself back in the pit of hell.

Half-dazed, I picked myself up and said, "Yes, of course. Let's wash our hands and daven."

Then it struck me.

"But it's Purim today!" I exclaimed. "We have to organize a minyan. Maybe we'll even remember a few verses of Megillas Esther!"

I suddenly forgot my pain, my suffering, my hunger pangs. Summoning up all my remaining strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan.

Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we could fulfill as much as possible of the Jewish obligation handed down from generation to generation.

And then, as if to show that God particularly desires Jews to perform mitzvot with true dedication, a small miracle occurred: A copy of the second book of the Bible, with the complete Megillat Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.

Our elation was immeasurable! Such a find was awesome! It could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in heaven and the redemption was about to begin. Our excitement grew to a feverish pitch.

Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation? No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing a minyan and reading the Megillah, to the possibility of the Germans or a kapo deciding to drop in on our hut. Even the nonreligious ones who only yesterday had scoffed at the "crazy Chassidim" were filled with excitement at this great event.

"Who will read the Megillah?" someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me, for I had become an adept reader of holy texts over the time I had been locked into the ghetto. Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like the other inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself.

And so, I found myself sitting on the edge of my piece of wooden plank, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulke, reciting with my remaining strength, "and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews."

When I read aloud about Haman's downfall, and that "the Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor," the spark of hope deep inside every Jew's heart ignited into a flaming torch.

"Dear Lord of the Universe," I know each of us was thinking, "make a wondrous miracle for us, too, as you did for our forefathers in those days, and let us too see the end of our enemies!"

When I finished, everyone cheered. For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the death camp had been forgotten, all the hunger and suffering had receded. Having exerted all my remaining energy in my reading of the Megillah, I sat breathless, but with my spirit soaring.

Instead of dwelling on the past or bemoaning the present, we began to dream about the future, to hope that soon the German demon would inherit his own downfall and that the end of Jewish suffering would arrive. And like a river overflowing its banks, the festive atmosphere and the vision of redemption burst out of the broken hearts of the camp inmates, and, one mitzvah leading to another, more acts of spiritual heroism followed.

Someone decided to forgo a small piece of yesterday's bread he had saved and offered it to his comrade instead. Another person made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two "portions," which only yesterday could have caused envy and hatred among friends, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill the Purim mitzvah "of sending gifts of food, one person to another."

These precious mishloach manot were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end.

I thought to myself, "Dear God! Behold your great nation, which in an instant can transform itself from the level of wild animals tearing at one another, to the level of courageous men, faithful Jews…"

And a verse welled up inside me: "Who is like you, Yisrael, a singular nation on Earth?"

With great emotion I turned to all present: "Precious Jews! Brothers in suffering! I don't deserve this honor you have given me. Let us all have but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!"