By Rabbi Baruch Lederman
SAN DIEGO –Twenty four thousand talmidim (students) of Rebbi Akiva perished in a horrible plague. These were the best and the brightest. It was a devastating blow to the leadership, to the entire existance of Klal Yisroel. Hashem in His infinite mercy enabled our nation to rebuild after this tragedy. Torah Judaism continues to perservere, as the following true story illustrates:
While he was in Dachau, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at Judah Wallis. He caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he was disturbed to discover a pair of tefillin. Judah was very frightened because he knew that were he to be caught carrying tefillin, he would be put to death instantly. So he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.
In the morning, just before the appel [roll call], while still in his bunkhouse, he put on the tefillin. Unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered him to remove the tefillin, noted the number on Judah’s arm, and ordered him to go straight to the appel.
At the appel, in front of thousands of silent Jews, the officer called out Judah ‘s number and he had no choice but to step forward. The German officer waved the tefillin in the air and said, ‘Dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these.’
Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was placed around his neck.
Before he was hanged, the officer said in a mocking tone, ‘Dog, what is your last wish?’
‘To wear my tefillin one last time,’ Judah replied.
The officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the tefillin. As Judah put them on, he recited the verse that is said while the tefillin are being wound around the fingers: ‘I will betroth you to me forever and I will betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice and with kindness and with mercy and I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know Hashem.’
It is hard for us to picture this Jew with a noose around his neck, wearing tefillin on his head and arm – but that was the scene that the entire camp was forced to watch, as they awaited the impending hanging of the Jew who had dared to break the rule against wearing tefillin. Women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, forced to watch this horrible sight.
As Judah turned to watch the silent crowd, he saw tears in many people’s eyes. Even at that moment, as he was about to be hanged, he was shocked. Jews were crying! How was it possible that they still had tears left to shed? And for a stranger? Where were those tears coming from?
Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, ‘Yidden, don’t cry. With tefillin on, I am The victor. Don’t you understand, I am the winner!’
The German officer understood the Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah , ‘You dog, you think you are the winner? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get another kind of death.’
Judah was taken from the stool and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and two huge rocks were placed under his arms. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head – the head on which he had dared to position his tefillin. The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, ‘Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.’
Judah ‘s response was, ‘No, I won’t give you the pleasure.’
At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses , after which he would have been burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag, so people didn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness fully, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles, and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out under his own power. Two months later he was liberated.
He met a 17-year-old girl in the DP camps who had seen the hanging and beating episode. The two decided to marry. They asked the legendary Klausenberger Rebbe to perform the marriage ceremony. The Rebbe wrote out a kesubah by hand from memory and married the couple.They eventually had a son Yosef who grew up to be the director of Arachim in Israel. Rabbi Wallis has that handwritten kesubah in his possession to this day.
Dedicated by Yaakov Aris in honor of his son Yosef Simcha.
Rabbi Lederman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillas Torah in San Diego.¬† He may be contacted at [email protected]