||Letter of New Year's blessings by R. Israel b. Joshua Spira (1890-1989), Admor of Bluzhov who was descended from a line of Hasidic greats, led congregations in several Polish towns and survived confinement in concentration camps during World War II, including Bergen-Belsen. He came to this country in 1946. His wife and children were not so fortunate; all of them were murdered by the Nazis. A personal accounting of his life was relayed by the Admor to Harav Meir Amsel who printed it in his Zikhronot Hamaor (Brooklyn 1974) pp. 165-183.
One small story gibes a glimpse into the charecter of this great zaddik. One particular incident that took place during his imprisonment in the Janowska concentration camp in Poland. On a cold winter night, a German voice over the loudspeaker barked out the following order: “You are all to evacuate the barracks immediately and report to the vacant lot. Anyone remaining inside will be shot on the spot!” Exhausted and emaciated, the prisoners stumbled to the vacant field and saw before them a large open pit. The voice commanded, “Each of you dogs who values his miserable life must jump over the pit and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve – ra-ta-ta-ta-ta.” The voice imitated the sound of a machine gun.
According to the Rebbe, jumping over the pit would have been nearly impossible even under the best of circumstances. The prisoners were “skeletons”, feverish from disease, and physically exhausted from their daily labors. R. Spira himself suffered from bruised and swollen feet. Awaiting their turn to jump, he and a close friend watched prisoners die in a hail of bullets with each unsuccessful attempt. The bodies began to pile up in the pit. Spira’s friend recommended that they not bother trying and simply accept death, but the Rebbe encouraged him to jump.
They leapt into the darkness and found themselves alive on the other side of the pit. Incredulous at their success, the friend asked him how he did it. “I was holding on to my ancestral merit,” he replied. “I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory.” The Rebbe then asked his friend how he reached the other side of the pit. “I was holding on to you,” he said.
R. Spira miraculously survived several years in the camps. During that time, he buoyed the spirits of his fellow Jews by secretly performing important Jewish rituals and ceremonies, such as lighting the menorah, saying blessings, and obtaining matzah. To acquire materials for these observances, the Rebbe would establish a rapport with the camp commandant or guards. When asked why he bothered to recite the Hanukkah blessing amidst such suffering and death, R. Spira noted that he saw “faith” and “devotion” in the faces of the Nazi-concentration-camp prisoners all around him. “If, indeed, I was blessed to see such a people with faith and fervor, then I am under special obligation to recite the blessing,” he said.
Heroes help people even under the most grim of circumstances. R. Spira witnessed the horrors of the holocaust unfolding right before him, but it didn’t deter him from doing everything he could to lift the spirits and faith of those around him. Six million people perished in the camps, but the Rebbe lived to become a highly revered religious figure for many years before passing away peacefully in 1989. He once said, “There are events of such overbearing magnitude that one ought not to remember them all the time, but one must not forget them either. Such an event is the Holocaust.”
When the Rebbe came to America in February of 1946, he was sick, shorn of all his hair, his body still covered with open wounds. He was absolutely alone, as his entire family had been murdered. He was the sole survivor of the Bluzhov Hasidic sect, which had been founded by his Grandfather. He was penniless. As one of the first camp survivors to come to the USA, he was called upon to speak of his experiences, to educate others of the tragedy. Usually, at the end of his talk, there would not be a dry eye in the audience. When offered payment for the talk, he always refused, saying, “How can I accept payment when the rivers in Europe are flowing with ashes and blood? Never will my hands touch such money.” And he never accepted payment for his efforts to tell the true story of the Holocaust.