I received an e-mail solicitation yesterday and was just about to tap the delete button when I noticed it was from Yad Vashem, the world-class Holocaust Museum in Israel. They were asking for money and sharing a story. It’s a story worth repeating and remembering as many of us prepare to observe the Jewish High Holidays in coming days.
Naftali Stern visited Yad Vashem on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in 1978. He had a gift, a few pieces of crinkled paper filled with Hebrew prayers. It was a precious gift, something he had created years earlier when the world had gone momentarily mad and a little light was needed to brighten the darkness.
In the spring of 1944, Naftali, his wife and four children were swallowed up by the Holocaust, arrested in their little village of Satu Mare in Romania and deported to Auschwitz. His family was murdered when they arrived at the Nazi death camp in Poland and Naftali was shipped off to a forced labor camp in Germany.
He was depressed and alone, each moment filled with memories of all that was lost. His world had become a nightmare – little food, no shelter, brutal guards and backbreaking work digging tunnels and trenches around German fortifications.
Surrounded by misery, a vague and distant memory took root in Naftali’s mind. The days were growing shorter and there was a slight chill in the air. Something stirred inside his heart and Naftali recalled that soon it would be Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Many would have easily pushed that thought aside, buried it along with their families, neighbors and villages.
Naftali clung to the thought; a very small light in a very gray world. He sold a bit of the food he received one day for a pencil, sold a bit more and managed to purchase some sacks that had once held cement. He ripped the sacks into small squares then slowly began to write the entire Rosh Hashana service.
Perhaps it was simply something that was meant to be. If not, why then did the thugs running the labor camp allow Naftali and other inmates to hold a short service? It was Naftali, of course, the chazzan in his little village shul, that led services that holiday season, his sweet voice chanting the words he had scrawled from memory.
For three decades – years after being liberated, starting a new family and immigrating to Israel – Naftali held onto his special mahzor, bringing it out on Rosh Hashana to both mourn and celebrate his life and faith. Three months after he donated the document to Yad Vashem, Naftali died.
It was okay. He knew that his special mahzor – time worn and frayed, created with love for a people and faith – would be protected. Now, three decades later, it remains on display at the museum.
Over the next several days, during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as you struggle with the liturgy and ancient beliefs of Judaism – trying to make sense of the inexplicable – recall Naftali, his story and his final words.
“I pray,” he told Yad Vashem officials, “that each subsequent generation will stay true to their Jewish identity and be a link in a long chain.”
It seems to me, if nothing else, simply sitting in shul will honor Naftali’s prayer. That's a good thing. I'll worry about figuring out the more cosmic issues next year. L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu; May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.