Today we mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and, in the Jewish calendar, we just finished observing Lag Ba'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer.
Two Holocaust stories show a profound connection between the two events.
Counting the Omer requires no religious artifacts, such as shofar, lulav, matzah, etc. All you need is your mind. Once you remember how many days have passed since the second night of Passover (if you forgot - use the magic formula), you can perform this mitzvah in any situation you find yourself. Simply recite the blessing, and the count for that day, e.g.: Today is 33 days, which are 4 weeks and 5 days to the Omer.
It was thus a mitzvah the Jewish people could keep even when they were suffering from persecution, pogroms and imprisonment. Even in the darkest of days, during the Holocaust, we find that counting the Omer was an inspiration to Jewish camp inmates, and a form of spiritual resistance: The Nazis can take everything from us, but they can't take our dedication to our tradition.
|Dwight D. Eisenhower accepts a menorah from Rabbi Menashe Klein.|
Rabbi Menashe Klein z”l was a teenager in Buchenwald when he was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945. In volume 10 of his book Mishneh Halachot, he recounts that he was so sick, wounded, and emaciated after Auschwitz and subsequent camps that he could not stand on his feet or even sit up.
But at that great moment of liberation, he wanted so much to perform the mitzvah of counting the Omer in the proper form, since it is preferable to count the Omer standing:
Using the very last reserves of my strength, I grabbed a pole with two hands, and pulled myself into a sitting position, counted the Omer, and then collapsed back on the wooden floor . . . but I knew this would be the day of freedom.
And that day, he remembers, was the 13th day of the Omer.
Another survivor, author Livia Bitton-Jackson, records in her memoir I Have Lived AThousand Years a tragic episode related to counting the Omer that shows, once again, the kiddush hashem that was done through this mitzvah. She and her mother had been transferred from Auschwitz to a slave labor camp in Germany. In the minutes preceding her liberation on Shabbat, April 28, 1945, there was machine-gun fire. The three Stadler sisters from Livia’s hometown were sitting next to her. Two sisters were instantly killed. As the surviving sister, Beth Stadler, wailed, Livia’s mother had the presence of mind to shout to Beth, “Remember, your sisters’ yahrzeit will be three days before Lag Ba’Omer. Today is the 30th day of the Omer.”
These survivors’ dedication to keeping track of the Hebrew calendar even in those horrific times is testament to the Jewish spirit. Despite living through unimaginable horrors, they performed the mitzvah of counting the Omer, turning it into a form of spiritual resistance. When we recite the Omer, we are remembering them, connecting to our tradition and continuing their legacy.