Tefillin in the Concentration Camps

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Hershlowitz is a well-known Israeli scientist, professor at the Technion, Knesset speaker, etc. and his parents survived the concentration camps.  Once while he was speaking in West Hartford, CT, he mentioned his survivor father’s experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where he had miraculously managed to put on his hidden tefillin regularly.
Upon the liberation of Buchenwald by American troops, Hershkowitz’ survivor father met a young U.S. Army chaplain–Schacter–who when entering the gates of the camp, encountered the piles of dead bodies and the survivors who were basically walking skeletons and Schacter was reminded of the famous account in Sefer Yechezkel of the valley of the dry bones (see below).  The clean-shaven uniformed Schacter stunned the survivors when he addressed them in Yiddish, explaining that he was in fact a rabbi with the American military and they were all finally free and if there was anything he could get for them, they should let him know.  A young boy, who would later become Hershkowitz’ father, immediately told the chaplain that the Nazis had found his tefillin some months prior and thus he hadn’t been able to do the mitzva since, and did the chaplain have access to tefillin that he could borrow. Schacter was so stunned that instead of asking for bread or water first, this skeletal young boy named Hershkowitz was instead seeking a pair of tefillin to make the bracha, and so Schacter took out his own tefillin and siddur and gave them to the boy and told him that they were his to keep.  Hershkowitz accepted the gift and made his way to Israel, having lost all his family, met his wife and had children and at Rabbi Dr. Daniel Hershkowitz’ barmitzva, his father had him initially put on the tefillin that his father had received from Schacter at the liberation of Buchenwald.  Years later, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Hershkowitz was sent by the Israeli government, along with former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, to participate in the March of the Living, Rabbi Lau also having survived the holocaust, like Hershkowitz’ father Yom haShoah fell out during the trip, but on Shabbos, and so it was observed the next day (as often occurs) on 28 Nissan.  Rabbi Lau asked Hershkowitz if he knew what had occurred 65 years prior on 28 Nissan, which it turned out was the liberation of Buchenwald when Hershkowitz’ father had been given the tefillin by Rabbi Schacter, and it was with these gifted tefillin that he began to rebuild his life, and 65 years later, his son visited Buchenwald to attest to it.

“The hand of G-d was upon me, and He carried me out in the spirit of G-d, and He set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. He made me pass by them around and around, and behold, there were very many over the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And He said to me: ‘Son of man, can these bones come alive?’ And I said: ‘L-rd G-d, You know.’ And He said to me: ‘Prophesy concerning these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, listen to the word of G-d! Thus said the L-rd G-d to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live; and I will lay sinews upon you, and bring flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath within you, and you shall live – and you shall know that I am G-d.’ ”  Ezekiel, chapter 37

Sanhedrin 92b: And let us derive from the dead that Ezekiel revived (see Ezekiel, chapter 37), that Rabbi Eliezer says: The dead that Ezekiel revived stood on their feet and recited song to God and died. And what song did they recite? The Lord kills with justice and gives life with mercy. Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was this song that they recited: “The Lord kills, and gives life; He lowers to the grave and elevates” (I Samuel 2:6). Rabbi Yehuda says: Ezekiel’s depiction of the dry bones that came to life was truth and it was a parable. Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, says: Not only was it not a parable, the dead that Ezekiel revived ascended to Eretz Yisrael and married wives and fathered sons and daughters. Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira stood on his feet and said: I am a descendant of their sons, and these are tefillin/phylacteries that my father’s father left me from them.

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