A Jew Has to Know How to do a Favor


A Jew Has to Know How to do a Favor


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A Must Know How to do a Favor

1999 by Rabbi Eugene Labovitz and Dr. Annette Labovitz

Once the blitzkrieg was over, Poland crumbled. The Nazis, in their determination to find a final solution to the Jewish problem, followed a specific pattern of annihilation. They ravaged synagogue and study halls as soon as they overran each shtetl (Jewish village). Sometimes they turned them into stables or latrines, but their priorities were always to confiscate the precious ritual objects and burn the Torah scrolls and the holy books.

Barbed wire was strung around the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. The Jews were herded into a confined, overcrowded area that was continuously narrowed with every additional deportation. Their plan was to isolate the victims, to starve them, to dehumanize them. Food was rationed; smugglers were severely beaten or shot immediately, no questions asked. That was their plan; somehow I had the tenacity to thwart their plan.

I was influenced so much by my Rebbe (teacher), Kalonymous Kalmish Shapiro of Piasetsno; he left an indelible impression on me. Although many years have passed, I think about the lessons of life he taught me in the years between the world wars when I was a student in his Yeshiva (Rabinical Studies Institute), Daas Moshe. Even after the Nazi invasion of Poland, when they shrank the boundaries of the cities and incarcerated the Jews behind barbed wire, my rebbe moved the yeshiva inside the Warsaw ghetto and continued to teach us. He camouflaged it in an underground bunker beneath the Schultz shoe factory.

He was born on 19 Iyar, 1889 to Rebbe Elimelech and Chana B'racha Shapiro. Although his father prophesied at his bris that his young son would grow to be a dedicated servant of G-d, he did not live to see his vision fulfilled for he passed away three years later. At the age of 16, young Kalonymous married Rachel Chaya Miriam, the daughter of Rebbe Yerachmiel Moshe of Koshnitz. His father-in-law was his mentor, and he succeeded him to the rabbinate of Piasetsno when he died four years later.

It was 1909. People came from all over the surrounding area to learn from him. He was like an overflowing well of magnificent Torah thought. His chief concerns were teaching the love of God and Torah, the sanctity of Shabbos, and doing favors. But his most important priority was teaching children, for he was known as the "Rebbe of Children." His students were the jewels of his crown.

After World War I, he moved to Warsaw and established his yeshiva. In order to maintain contact with his followers in Piasetsno, he spent the summer months with them, but this main educational efforts were expended in Warsaw. He was committed to rearing a generation of Torah scholars. People sought his blessings, his advice. They entered his room downtrodden and forlorn, but emerged full of hope, their minds at ease.

On Shabbos, he would sit with his kingdom of children, aged 5 - 17, at his table. The chorus of our young voices ascended on the wings of angels directly to the gates of heaven as we chanted L'Chah Dode and Shalom Alaychem (traditional Shabbat hymns). After he made kiddush, he would speak to us about the Torah reading for that particular week. We washed our hands, he distributed pieces of challah, and continued his teaching. We ate and he taught. At the end of every thought, he paused to gain our attention, and said: "Remember, my children, a Jew has to know how to do a favor!"

His only son, Elimelech and his young wife, were murdered almost immediately after the outbreak of the war. His personal pain was so intense, but aware that all his people suffered, he attempted to cover his own anguish by doing everything in his power to help them. He prayed, he taught, he attended to their physical and spiritual needs. He found tattered blankets and clothing where none could be found. He begged for a little extra food for "his children" from those people who still had a little money and were able to purchase extra rations. He refused to stop doing favors; instead, he worked untiringly to help his people survive, to maintain some semblance of dignity where none was permitted.

I survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began Pesach, 1943, and lasted a month. The German SS General Jergen Stroop did not expect such heroic Jewish resistance. His Nazis fought to regain every house on Zamenhof Street, on Mila Street, on Smocza Street, on Gesia Street, every building, every inch of the ghetto. They used cannons, tanks, flame-throwers, demolition engineers. We used primitive weapons to defend our position and a network of underground bunkers for first aid stations, to hide the defenseless children, the infirm, and the aged.

Toward the end, the Warsaw Ghetto was a flaming inferno. Some Jewish fighters escaped to safety through the sewers, joining the Polish partisan units. The Nazis responded by dropping gas into the sewer manholes around the ghetto wall. All forms of resistance stopped by the middle of May.

My rebbe was taken to Treblinka. We were together. All the way, he kept whispering to me: "Don't forget...A Jew has to know how to do a favor...if you come out of this alive, remember, a Jew has to know how to do a favor. Tell everyone you meet."

That is how I survived. I always tried to follow his instructions, to do another Jew a favor. When I had absolutely no strength left, when I thought I would collapse from lack of food and sleep, I only had to think of my rebbe, and somehow I could go on a little longer. Do you know how many favors you can do in a concentration camp? Each time I did a favor, I heard my rebbe whispering over my shoulder: "Remember, a Jew has to know how to do a favor."

Reproduced from: "A Touch of Heaven: Spiritual and Kabbalistic Stories for Jewish Living" by Rabbi Eugene Labovitz and Dr. Annette Labovitz, Isaac Nathan Publishing Company, Los Angeles, 1998 Contributed with permission of the authors.

from the February 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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