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    July 2010            
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Holocaust Reminder: Number on Arm


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"Lo Tishkach!": The Man In Front Of The Shul

By Walter D. Levy

At first I thought he was asking us to notice the marks on his arm that were made by his tefillin, but then I saw some

thing else. During the summer and early fall of 1955, I would walk, and then ride by trolley-car, from my Morton Street apartment to the Michigan Ave. shul near the entrance to Dorchester's Franklin Park. Every Sunday morning, I would be tutored (along with three other bochurim) by the shul's rabbi in preparation for my bar-mitzvah that October.

Each week, the rebbe would teach us something new: the blessing before the haftorah, our haftorah itself, and the blessing after the haftorah, He would even offer suggestions on the speech we'd give to our families, friends and members of the congregation.

By early fall, I had everything pretty well down pat, even my bar-mitzvah speech. But all that changed one Sunday morning. That day, as I was leaving the temple, I noticed a man who appeared to be in his mid-to-late twenties; he was standing on the sidewalk in front of the shul (in addition to our lessons in the main sanctuary, there was a morning minyan service that was being conducted in an adjoining chapel).

Well, the man in front of the shul motioned for me and my three bar mitzvah classmates to come over to him. He immediately began to unbutton the button to the sleeve on his shirt. He then rolled up the fabric revealing his entire left arm. It was then that he pointed to his arm and asked, "Boytshiks, what do you see?" My first thoughts were the tefillin marks, but then I spotted something else, something ominous: blue numbers tattooed into his forearm. In a low voice, I timidly uttered, "You were in a concentration camp."

For a moment, I was stunned. I had heard of the Holocaust. I had known from my parents and my bubbe and zayde that my bubbe's sister (my great-aunt) and her husband and children had been murdered in Nazi death camps. However, up to this point, I had never met anyone who had been interned in a concentration camp.

As I recall, the man with the tattoo told us how he, his younger sister, his parents and other fellow Jews from his Polish village had been rounded up and herded off in cattle cars. He said that the Nazis told them that they were going to be resettled. As the train pulled away from the station, the man recalled feeling comforted by the fact that his mishpocheh was together.

However, he would soon learn that he and his family were not going been to resettled. Instead, he told us that the Nazis had taken he and his family to a concentration camp called Auschwitz. The man then said, "As soon as we arrived, we became separated." He then told us that would be the last time he would ever see his parents or his younger sister. At that moment, the man paused. He seemed frozen in time. I could see that he was moved by what he had just told us.

Well, when he collected his thoughts, the man went on to say that he was selected to work in an arms factory. His tone again became somber as he related the fact that thousands of Jews from all over Europe were being gassed and cremated each day.

In the end, he told us that he was skin and bones when the Russians finally liberated the camp. He concluded by telling us that he eventually made his way to America. I distinctly recall the last thing he said to us, first in Hebrew, and then in English: "Lo Tishkach!" "Thou Shalt Not Forget!"

Well, as my bar-mitzvah date fast approached, I gave more and more thought to my speech. I had begun to believe -- before I had met the man on the sidewalk in front of the shul -- that I knew exactly what I wanted to say. But now... Now, I was having second thoughts.

As I think back, I believe that G-d had wanted me to meet this Holocaust survivor and to hear his horrific story. So, when I gave my bar mitzvah speech, I not only thanked my parents, grandparents, relatives, rabbis and teachers, but I also made reference to the man I had met in front of the Michigan Ave. shul.

As I concluded my speech, I told the congregation that I was indeed very happy to have become a bar-mitzvah. I also said how wonderful it is to be surrounded by my whole mishpocheh. But I also recall saying that as happy as we are today, we can never forget the past suffering that has been inflicted on the Jewish people. I remember concluding my speech by repeating the words that the man in front of the shul had spoken to me, first in Hebrew, and then in English: "Lo Tishkach!" "Thou Shalt Not Forget!"


from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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