There is a Psalm, that I say each day, Psalm 147, which I love in part because its imagery reminds me of my father-in-law’s life story.
The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem;
He gathers in the exiles of Israel.
He heals their broken hearts,
and binds up their wounds.
He remembers with kindness the number of the stars;
to each He gave its name….
O Jerusalem, glorify the LORD…
For He made the bars of your gates strong,
and blessed your children within you.
He lays down snow like fleece,
scatters frost like ashes….
He tosses down hail like crumbs—
Who can endure His icy cold?
[but] He issues a command—it melts them;
He breathes—the waters flow…
My father-in-law, Tully, Naftali, is a survivor. He was a hidden child. He was 5 or 6 when he spent two years living in the attic of a thatched hut on the border of what is now the Ukraine. He shared his space with his father, Meyer, his mother, Mina and his sister, Sally. For two years, he was an observer of life. He watched his mother spin flax into threads that could be sold at market by the righteous family that hid them. He would watch the troop movements of Nazi soldiers through cracks in the wall. Even at his young age, he could understand whether things were bad or worse by listening to the sounds of the wounded and the cries of others whom he does not speak about — passengers on trains which passed nearby on the way to a place somewhere deeper in Poland.
What does he remember about snow? He remembers when it snowed there was food. Sustenance for his family was potatoes and apples foraged in the dark of night by his father. When it snowed, his father could safely hunt for food because the falling snow would hide his footprints. Falling snow, to my father-in-law, meant that he was not hungry.
What does my father-in-law know of ashes? He knows that a sprinkling of ashes saved him. There were times that the Nazis would do house inspections after being tipped off about a Jewish family in hiding. When Meyer would get word of these inspections in advance, he would take his family to crouch in the hole in the ground that he had dug until word was received that all was clear. On this particular day, there was no warning.
Instead, they heard the boots of a Nazi on the stairway leading up to the attic. They saw the edge of a bayonet menacingly poking about within inches of where they were cowering and, then, in full view, they saw a Nazi helmet. Suddenly, the Nazi’s bayonet dislodged soot caught in the straw of the roof — ashes from the coals that would warm the small house in which they were hiding. The soot fell on the Nazi’s helmet. Not wanting to further mess up his uniform, the Nazi gave up his hunt and cursing, he climbed back down the attic stairs and left the house. Ashes, to my father-in-law, meant salvation.
What does my father-in-law know of kindness? It is an act of kindness that gave him life — but not the one of which you might be thinking. When Mina, his mother, was a schoolgirl, she had a friend named Ruschka. Ruschka was always hungry and each day, Mina, who also did not have much, would give her friend half of her sandwich. When Mina and her family needed a place to hide, Ruschka remembered that half of a sandwich and paid it forward. Kindness, to my father-in-law, is a shared half of sandwich.
What does my father-in-law know of a broken heart? I am not sure, because despite all that he went through he is among the most positive people I know. But recently, he shared his story publicly for the first time. It was not easy for him to tell his story. There were places where his words transported him to another time and his emotions overcame him.
It was those moments that brought the reality of his story home to us, his family, and to the young men who were listening. Many of them had never heard a survivor – which is why my father-in-law felt the responsibility to tell his story. Broken heart, I hope not, but a big heart filled with the depth of emotions I know so.
What is Jerusalem to my father-in-law? When asked by one of the young men about his faith and that of his family, he spoke about waking up each morning in the thatched roof of that attic to a father who never seemed to sleep, to a mother who would stand quietly in the corner praying towards Jerusalem and who secretly vowed that if she survived, she would fast every week for the rest of her life. And she did for almost 50 years.
The retelling of these memories caused an emotion-laden pause for all who were listening. And then my father-in-law with a boost of energy and pride, exclaimed: “The true testament to the life I have lived is that 95 percent of my children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren live in Israel [and, many I might add, in the hills surrounding Jerusalem].”
But back to the Psalm. As much as I loved Psalm 147, I never understood the juxtaposition of the “healing of broken hearts” with a “blanket of snow falling in Jerusalem.” Until today.
As I was reading the psalm this morning, on International Holocaust Memorial Day (Thursday, January 27, 2022), and reflecting on the stories to which this day bears witness, I saw the pictures sent to my father-in-law of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren playing in the snow in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Some of the children are the same age as he was when he was in hiding. As I looked at the pictures, I understood the thematic connection within the psalm — for how is the broken heart of our people to be healed? By seeing the blessing of the next generation [and the generation after that] playing in a snow laid down by G-d like a protective fleece within the strong gates of a rebuilt Jerusalem.