I once heard a story wherein a rabbi was visiting an ill congregant in the hospital. The elderly man was a Holocaust survivor.
During the visit, the man kept repeating almost in a state of delirium that he was “dancing with the angels.” He said it in Yiddish. “Tanz mit Malachim – Dancing with angels.”
The rabbi managed to ask the elderly man what he meant by this. In a few moments of compete lucidity, the man responded with a story concerning the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah as he remembered it in a camp.
On Simchat Torah, it is the Jewish ritual to read from the end of the book of Deuteronomy and immediately start again from the beginning of Genesis. It is also customary to dance with joy, preferably with a Torah scroll.
The elderly man related that he and three other teen aged boys began to dance but shortly thereafter, they were noticed by one of the SS guards. The guard came over them and asked why they were dancing.
The boys responded that they were dancing because it was their Jewish holiday and that is what they always had done on that day. The SS guard encouraged them to dance and then after a minute or so, took out a pistol and shot one of the boys. The other three remaining boys were horrified.
The SS guard then said to the boys, “So you wanted to dance? Now dance!“ The boys, filed with terror, continued to dance. Before long, the officer took his pistol and shot a second boy.
He then told the remaining boys to dance. Again, after a short period of time, the SS guard took out his gun again and shot one of the two remaining boys.
After this, he said to the remaining boy (who was the survivor in the hospital bed,) “You wanted to dance. You had your dance. Now go back to work!” (I heard this story more than two decades ago from Rabbi Joshua Fass.)
So, when the elderly survivor told the Rabbi that he was dancing with the angels, he meant that he was dancing with the other three teenage boys.
This story is one that I’ve often told in the synagogue in Tykocin, Poland when I have taken March of the Living groups there. There are no Jews living in Tykocin. There are houses that still have markings on the door posts for a Mezuzah.
There are a study hall and a synagogue which have been restored by the community.
Tykocin was an example of a “shtetl,” a small Jewish community living next to a larger non-Jewish community. The synagogue was the center of the Jewish section of town.
There were 2,000 Jews in Tykocin at the beginning of the war. On August 25-26 1941, the Jews there were arrested and taken to a nearby forest where they were executed in waves into pits by SS Einsatzkommando.
This is one of the example of what is called the “Holocaust of Bullets.” More than 2,000,000 Jews were murdered in such a way during the Holocaust.
After telling that story in the synagogue, I ask those who are with me if they would like to “dance with the angels.” The “angels” in this case would be the Jews of the city who were murdered. Immediately, those with me respond by dancing.
We tend to dance with gender separation. This is because the synagogue was Orthodox and some of the times, other groups would come in and join us. On one occasion, another group came in and listened to the story and began to dance with us.
On our trip that year was a Holocaust survivor from Greensboro named Hank Brodt. Hank was a survivor of five Nazi concentration camps.
The boys began to dance with Hank and eventually lifted him up on the chair as though he were the Bar Mitzvah boy at a Bar Mitzvah party. The girls and women on the other side of the room saw this and they too began to dance. There was an elderly woman survivor with them and not to be outdone, they lifted her on the chair, danced and sang loudly.
After we had ceased dancing, I approached and introduced myself to the woman survivor. Sadly, I do not remember her name.
I did notice however that she was dressed in heels with a fairly formal dress. She was wearing pearls and her head was covered. She was as we would say “dressed to the nines.”
The way in which she was dressed was much more suited to attend a wedding than it was to be on a trip with teens.
I remember asking her, “Why are you dressed this way? Why are you so fancily dressed?”
She answered me that this was her first trip back to Poland since she had left after World War II. She said to me that when she left the concentration camp, all she was wearing were concentration camp pajamas and that when she left Poland, she was dressed “in rags.”
She continued and said to me, “When I left Poland, I left in pajamas and rags. Now that I have returned, I made a vow to myself to dress as a princess because indeed, I am the daughter of the King!”
This is one of the stories that I will never forget. It shows not only her incredible faith, but also helps us to understand why in our tradition, the only true King (or Ruler) is the ONE and holy God.
On Rosh Hashanah, this is the Ruler in front of whom we stand. May our prayers be accepted whether given in the weakness of pajamas or in the garb of royalty!
I will never forget Hank Brodt and this woman and the incredible lessons that I learned on that day. May the memories of these survivors continue to teach us and may their memory be a blessing.