It was about 1969, and I was ten years old. The Holocaust had ended 24 years earlier, but it was a topic, of which, at this point, I had virtually no knowledge. It was never discussed in school, and I never, ever heard adults speak of this black part of our recent Jewish history. So, on that particular Shabbat morning, as I entered the Bet Knesset, where my family davened, I entered as a naive little boy with regards to the subject of the Holocaust.
However, when I walked out, a door had been opened, or, perhaps more accurately, a curtain had been parted, and I caught a glimpse (literally and figuratively) of this tragic time-period.
I used to sit right next to my dad in shul, just to the left of the Bimah, where the Torah was read. As per usual, we arrived at the beginning of tefilla and sat down. On the Bima, there was a bench for a person to sit on with a Torah, after the Torah was raised for “hagbah,” at the end of Torah reading. But that bench served another function. The top of the bench opened to reveal a storage area inside. In there, many men left their Tallitot from day to day or week to week.
As Mr W walked in to get his Tallit, I turned to my right to greet him. He was a man of approximately mid-40’s with a very strong handshake. Then, he reached into the storage area of that bench to retrieve his Tallit. As he reached down, his forearm protruded from his suit jacket sleeve. I noticed that his arm was dirty; or so I thought. I looked a little closer, and to my astonishment, there, emblazoned on his arm, was a number. I couldn’t begin to fathom why an adult had a number written on his arm. Not only that, it looked like it was written in some sickly green color. I turned to my father and very innocently asked him why did Mr W have a number written on his arm. Today, almost 50 years later, I still recall the look on my father’s face. It was that look of “Uh oh, how do I explain this to a little child.” He told me that we would discuss it when we got home, as it was not just a one-word reply.
Later that day, he began to explain to me, in an age-appropriate way, a little about the Holocaust. I recall being afraid…
Only a few years earlier, mass murderer Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in Chicago, and once again, just as I was afraid Speck was going to come for me, I was afraid this bad man from overseas (Hitler, y”sh) was going to come for me. After calming my fears, my dad promised we would speak more about this topic soon.
As I began to mature, I learned a little more about the topic until one day there was a TV Special (Hallmark?) about the Diary of Ann Frank. My parents agreed to let me watch it. I sat there stunned and almost emotionless. However, when the show was over, I walked upstairs to head to my bedroom to go to sleep and did not make it all the way there. Instead, I nearly collapsed on the floor and began sobbing uncontrollably.
At that moment, it all came crashing down on that little boy: The arm protruding from the jacket sleeve; the news that there were people who were bad enough to want to kill my family just because we were Jewish; that a little girl not much older than I had gone through so much pain and suffering! And I could not absorb it, and I could not bear it alone. And I let out a howling cry. My parents comforted me as we sat on the floor. They explained that no matter what happened, we will always have each other and Hashem to protect us.
Years later, as I think about these thoughts, that I have not considered in ages, I think back to Mr. W’s arm…HIS outstretched arm was my introduction to the Holocaust. And then, as an adult, I think of the simile that we encounter on a daily basis of God’s outstretched arm, and I feel a sense of comfort. Yes, there are still MANY bad people on this Earth, and yes there are people who seek our harm on a daily basis. But we can look to the outstretched arm of God for our protection–and because of that arm of God, we are able to say resolutely, NEVER AGAIN!