The Magazine

Chain of Miracles

A rabbi reflects on the meaning of survival.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By ROBERT M. GOLDBERG
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There are many remarkable episodes in this compelling autobiography of Israel Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel. One in particular captures Lau’s character and shapes his future. Lulek (as he was called) was 5 years old in 1942 when he saw his father, Moshe, also a rabbi, beaten and deported to Treblinka, and only 6 when his mother, Chaya, was taken from him and murdered at Ravensbruck. Thereafter, he and his older brother Naphtali were—after working in a glass factory near the Piotrków ghetto—shipped to the Czestochowa labor camp in Poland.

The defining episode occured when the labor camp’s commandant had lined up the 10 children in Czestochowa and told them that they would be slaughtered because they were “useless.” The 7-year-old Lulek imagined he had “formed a small mound from the mud and stood on top of it in order to make myself taller.” From that imaginary mound, Lau relates, “I gave the first speech I had ever given in my life, which was also the speech of my life, in the battle for my life. .  .  . I have delivered thousands of speeches [since], but none has been comparable to this speech”:

Why does the commandant say such things about us? That we are useless? That we are incapable? For twelve hours a day in Hortensia, the glass factory in Piotrków, I pushed a cart with sixty bottles of water among the furnaces of the glassblowers. .  .  . Fill, empty, fill—and that was already a year ago. Now I’m older and I can do more. I, the youngest, and my friends who are older than I am—we have a right to live, too.

Lau writes that he did not “know exactly what came over me next, who gave me the courage to open my mouth, or who put the words into it,” though we do discover many sources of his unyielding spirit. While Lau carries the memory of his father being savagely beaten and dishonored in public, he also carries the “image of Father, with astonishing spiritual strength, bracing himself from falling, refusing to beg for his life. .  .  . For me, that image of his inner spiritual strength completely nullifies the helplessness that accompanied the humiliation.”

Before their deaths, Lau’s parents entrusted Naphtali with his younger brother’s care and survival. Lulek would be the one to carry on the 37 generations of rabbis on both sides of his family. Lau’s father “emphasized that if we escaped this inferno safely, we would know how to find our home. .  .  . ‘Your home will be in Eretz Israel, even if you have to acquire it through suffering,’ he said.”

Naphtali risked his life and endured great suffering to carry out this instruction. His actions not only averted imminent death but inspired others in the camps to care for his brother: a prison guard whom he bribed to let Lulek (deemed too young for Buchenwald) live; the prison doctor who convinced the guards that the young, blond, fair-skinned Lau was Polish; a Russian prisoner named Feodor who acted as his “guardian angel.” Lau writes: “Often, when I think about my childhood during the war, I find myself amazed at the chain of miracles I experienced, and I say to myself that nothing happens by chance and that the hand of Divine Providence guides everything.”

They had all helped keep Lau alive. But survival was only the beginning. He had to get to Israel to begin life again. Israel was a dream without shape to Lulek, but he realized how important getting there was. Just weeks before the liberation of Buchenwald by American forces, the Germans began evacuating the camp by train. As Naphtali was being herded on a boxcar, facing separation from Lulek and death, he ordered Lulek not to go to any other place than Israel. As the death train moved away, Naphtali jumped out and walked back to Buchenwald and Lulek’s cellblock. 

After the liberation, the brothers left a relocation camp and emigrated to Israel, where Lau encountered and contributed to another “chain of miracles.” This book captures both the turmoil and excitement of growing up in the newly established Jewish state: Lau’s maturation parallels the growth of religious life in Israel, led by rabbis who had left Europe or survived the Holocaust to establish yeshivas. In particular, Lau was blessed to have Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of modern times, urge him to study physics, since it dealt with the creation of the world, and engage him in “one of the most important conversations of my life.” Shlomo told Lau that his voice was a “melodious bell” that must be heard to sustain the Jewish people: 

God gave you the power of speech. You have a mission in life—you take after your father. We must not spurn God’s gifts; we should not turn our backs on Him. I don’t know whether this is what grabbed you by the hair and pulled you out of the piles of ashes in Europe. .  .  . But one thing is clear to me: you must dedicate yourself to your studies, learning more and more, so that when the time comes, you will ring this bell and make it heard afar.

Today, Rabbi Lau comforts the victims of terror, visits wounded Israeli soldiers, and attends many weddings as three of the most important of his various responsibilities. He has urged Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul, King Hussein, and President Hosni Mubarak to promote peace and secure a better life for Jews in other lands.

Ultimately, Rabbi Lau is a warrior who believes he must teach future generations to fight for survival as he did. He recalls the speech he gave at the bar mitzvah of his oldest son, about the last verse in the chapter of Exodus, which describes the Israelites’ battle against Amalek. In Jewish tradition, Amalek is not simply a tribe described in the Bible; it is the desire, “from generation to generation,” to wipe out Judaism:

We cannot fight the enemy Amalek—the nation or the phenomenon—with weapons or with ammunition. Rather, we are obligated to fight this battle in every generation, each generation passing on our heritage to the next. The struggle for the continuity of generations is the true battle, and the great spiritual-divine victory of Israel against the adversary Amalek.

Robert M. Goldberg is vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest in New York.