Like other Jewish boys, Gerhard Maschkowski was given a tefillin set for his bar mitzvah (Jewish coming of age ceremony for boys).
And then came Kristallnacht and the Germans burned down the synagogue. The tefillin were reduced to ashes. Soon millions of people would become ashes as well.
The tefillin or phylacteries are the set of boxes and straps you might have seen Jewish men wrap around their arm and place on their head during prayers. To put it in extremely simple terms, the purpose of the tefillin is to be a tangible reminder of the bond between heart, soul and mind – and God.
Part of the prayer said when putting on the tefillin is a promise between God and the Jewish people:
“And I will betroth thee unto me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving kindness, and in mercy: I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord.” Hosea 1:21-2
It is a promise of passionate love – betrothal, engagement as opposed to marriage where love can become more staid. This prayer is repeated each time the Jewish man puts on the tefillin, a physical sign on his arm reminding of this covenant.
When Gerhard was taken to Auschwitz a different sign was tattooed into his arm. A sign engraved in his flesh to show that he was less than human. A number in a line of Jews to be exterminated.
Gerhard survived Auschwitz. A real miracle. He was there for about two years while most survived only a number of months, weeks or even less.
Each moment in Auschwitz held the possibility of death. Each time Gerhard was saved. Not only that – by sticking together, he and two other friends made it out alive. Moreover, this band of brothers succeeded in protecting a crippled man, hiding and covering up for his physical disability so that instead of being sent straight to the gas chambers as other cripples were, he too survived. Another miracle.
Many ask: if there is a God, where was he? How could he allow so much suffering and misery to take place? After the horrors they witnessed during the Holocaust, many Jews lost their faith. Some converted to Christianity. It is easier, safer to be Christian…
Gerhard remained a practicing Jew, going to synagogue and keeping the Jewish holidays and traditions. Except for one thing – he had never again put on tefillin and he never said the prayer that is a reminder of God’s love for his people.
I met Gerhard more than 60 years after he’d been liberated from Auschwitz. His ability to articulate his experiences is awe inspiring. Many survivors find it next to impossible to tell what happened to them and prefer to remain silent. Many only began speaking when their grandchildren started asking questions. Gerhard paints a vivid picture with exact wording but it is this, combined with the vivid spirit you can see in his eyes and his easy smile that makes him so special. Smiles don’t come easily to many survivors…
Gerhard came to Israel and met family he didn’t know he had. Another miracle. His flesh and blood, thriving in the Promised Land…
During his visit, Gerhard went to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall – the holiest site for the Jewish people. There a religious man stopped him and asked: “Are you a Jew?”
Startled, Gerhard pointed to his arm and showed the man the number tattooed in his flesh: “Am I Jew? This sign on my arm says that I am a Jew!”
The man told Gerhard: “You should put on tefillin.” Gerhard resisted, telling him how he had not put on tefillin since his had been reduced to ashes on Kristallnacht.
The man insisted until finally, Gerhard gave in. For the first time since he had arrived in Israel, Gerhard’s smiling eyes filled with tears. He put on the tefillin and with the help of the man he had never seen before and repeated the prayer that goes with it, the promise between God and his people – eternal faithfulness, loving kindness in righteousness, and in judgment and in mercy.
It is not for me to say where God is or was, particularly when horrible things happen. I will however say that miracles do happen. I have seen them.