Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, takes place on April 27. As part of the process of preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, Andy Antiles of South Orange participated in Twin-With-a-Survivor, one of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest’s most meaning programs. Below is an excerpt from Andy’s D’var Torah given at his Bar Mitzvah on September 2, 2013.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, in Moshe Rabeinu`s final hours before passing from this world, he stands before the Jewish people and he sings. You might think that Moshe would have other urgent matters to attend to as he nears the end of his life. But he wants the last memory of his beloved people to be of him singing. His message is that through it all, we should approach our Torah, our lives, and our Judaism as a song.
In the parasha, Moshe urges us, Zachor (remember) and “Sh’al avicha…Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” The idea behind Moshe’s statement is that we should go back to our elders and learn from them, they have much to teach us and want to teach us, and if we listen, there is so much wisdom to be gained.
As part of my Bar Mitzvah project I went back to a previous generation, the generation of Holocaust survivors. When looking at this period of Jewish history it is almost impossible to comprehend how any Jews could apply Moshe’s message of living our lives, our Judaism, and our Torah as a song.
Through the Holocaust Council Twin-With-a-Survivor program, I had the great privilege and fortune to be paired with Helen Paktor — a kind, gentle, and incredibly strong soul who survived three concentration camps. I have been blessed to see meaning and great significance in her response to this historic tragedy. Beneath the horrors of her story, Helen delivered an important message — many times in life events are totally out of our control, but we do control our attitude and our actions, and in so doing we can shine light into darkness and sing as Moshe Rabeinu sang at the end of his life.
Helen was just 19 years old when she had her third encounter with Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death.” Helen was in a new camp in Krakow. By this point she had lost her entire family except for her mother. Her mother was extremely weak and frail, and Mengele was inspecting the Jewish women to see which ones would live and which ones would be killed. Helen knew that her mother had no chance of passing Mengele’s inspection.
On the spot she whispered to her mother that she would push her past Mengele, and his eyes would move to Helen. The plan worked, and Helen and her mother made it past Mengele. Thank God both Helen and her mother survived the Holocaust and eventually came to the United States.
In our conversations, Helen mentioned that Holocaust survivors have so much to offer the world. “Of course,” I said, but I wanted to know what specifically she had in mind when she made the statement. Helen said “we are givers.” She talked about how personally she takes tremendous pride in being Jewish, being part of the Jewish people, and how she feels deeply connected to the land of Israel. In her words, “it’s our home.”
Helen is a giver and Judaism and family are central features of her life. By being a giver, Helen has turned her life into a blessing and joy. She has shown us that if we live our lives as givers, it will bring blessings to our own lives and to the lives of others.
Moshe’s song and Helen Paktor’s life show us that it is possible for each Jew to transform darkness into light. Obstacles and difficulties are inevitable, but we must find a way to sing even in the face of our most difficult challenges. If we sing in the face of good and the bad, we can shine a light into the darkness and elevate the world. And through Helen Paktor’s actions and her attitude, she is delivering the same message to us.
The community is invited to attend the Yom Hashoah Holocaust commemoration, “A Moral Mandate: Memories of the Unimaginable,” at 6:45 p.m. on Monday, April 28, Kean University. Click here for further information or call (973) 929-3194.