The Past in the Present

Several years ago, I made a quick trip to my home town, Baltimore, to crash a party.

It was a celebration hosted by my brother, a rebbe, or “Talmud/ethics/philosophy teacher and counselor” in Ner Israel Rabbinical College’s high school division. After many years’ effort, he was marking his completion of the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud.

A small group of local relatives and esteemed rabbis were present; my brother (whom I taught everything he knows – about hitting a baseball) had purposefully not informed me of his accomplishment or its celebration; he hadn’t wanted me to make the 200-plus-mile trip to join him. But I was tipped off by his wife, who thought, correctly, that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss so festive an event in honor of so magnificent an accomplishment.

It was a wonderful experience, not only because I was able to participate in the event itself – the meal served in celebration of a siyum, or “completion ceremony,” is considered religiously significant – but because I was able to break bread with my father, stepmother, brother, sons (students in Ner Israel), sister-in-law and her parents and siblings, to whom I feel very close as well.

I found myself thinking about my father’s experiences as a youth in Poland at the outbreak of World War II. Although he rarely spoke about that era to his children when we were younger, I was able to learn much from the videotaped interview he granted Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in 1998. And, at the siyum, between courses and the words of Torah and congratulation that were delivered, I found myself recalling pieces of my father’s testimony.

After my brother expounded on the final words of the Talmudic tractate with which he was completing his course of study, I pictured my father as a 14-year-old, when Germany invaded Poland and he and his family, along with the rest of the residents of his shtetl, fled before the advancing Germans.

He experienced some hair-raising moments during that flight, including the murder of his uncle by German soldiers who overcame the refugees, and being packed, along with the rest of the townsfolk, into a synagogue that was then set ablaze. (The people were released at the last moment, through the intercession of a passing German general – who the villagers suspected had been the prophet Elijah in disguise.) Nevertheless, once the refugees reached another town and settled into some abandoned barracks, the boy who was my father made an announcement to his parents.

“I said … that I’m going to yeshiva now… to Bialystok yeshiva. I was supposed to go a month ago… They said… the war is not over, it’s not settled…”

The war, in fact, had only begun, and it would come to take the lives of my father’s parents and most of his siblings, not to mention countless other relatives. But he couldn’t have known that then, and he was determined.

At the siyum, my brother recited the special prayer traditionally offered at such celebrations, putting “the Talmud” where the name of a single tractate would normally go. And I remembered, incongruously, how my father at 14, when he said his final goodbye to his parents, had never before been on a train.

“I [had] promised [myself] that I would go to Bialystok and something was telling me – maybe it was because I was stubborn — I said I am going to yeshiva and I’m going to go.”

Those gathered at the siyum offered my brother their hearty congratulations and broke into song.

“[It was] a promise to myself, a promise to myself… they thought I was so dead-set to go… so they let me go. My mother, peace be on her, brought me a few apples…”

Several rabbis spoke at the siyum, including my father, who expressed his pride in his son’s accomplishment.

Sixty-seven years earlier, carrying his apples, his phylacteries and a prayer-book, he boarded a train to Bialystok – only to be told by a passenger that, due to the war, all the yeshivos in that city had relocated to Vilna. When the train arrived in Bialystok the boy asked how to get to Vilna.

“Someone comes over to me and says… there is a train that goes to Vilna. I said I have no ticket. He said don’t worry about a ticket – go! People were hanging from the doors… I’m standing there … probably crying… something was telling me ‘you must get onto the train.’ And all of a sudden I see the train moving… so I grabbed the handle of the steps – people were standing on the steps and I couldn’t get on the steps… as the train started to move faster and faster, people pushed themselves in and I got between two cars…”

I, too, am proud of my brother’s accomplishment. He and his wife – whose own commitment and assistance made his achievement possible – deserve tremendous credit for the thousands of hours of hard work and sacrifice that underlie it. But at the siyum I couldn’t help but think a thought that I know they would agree with, a thought that has occurred to me countless times about my own life.

All of us surely play a major role in whatever we may achieve. But in the end we can never really know just how much our achievements are due to our own will and determination, and how much to the merit of the choices, commitment and determination of those who arrived here before us.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
A version of this essay was distributed in 2006.]

(Rabbi Simcha Shafran’s memoirs were published earlier this year.
Inquiries can be sent to [email protected])

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