By Shmuel Herzfeld
Rabbi, Ohev Sholom–The National Synagogue
America is a nation of immigrants, many of whom heroically fled oppression to arrive in the safe haven of our country. The powerful story of these heroes is often unknown to their American descendants. Those experiences must be remembered and incorporated into succeeding generations.
Judaism offers a special ritual, adapted from the holiday of Purim, to ensure that each family’s personal story is remembered. The holiday of Purim, based upon the Book of Esther, begins this year on Saturday night February 27.
On Purim we celebrate salvation from the wicked Haman. Even though the event took place in ancient times, Purim is still celebrated as a day of feasting and rejoicing. There is also a related custom to celebrate a private Purim holiday, known as Purim Kattan.
After a person was saved from danger they and their family would accept upon themselves to celebrate a personal holiday. Like Purim, they would often undertake a pre-holiday fast, give charity and enjoy a festive meal. The story of their salvation was sometimes told during a synagogue service.
I just had the good fortune to learn my own family’s tale of survival and I have now taken upon myself to observe a Purim Kattan as well.
Here is my story:
A member of our congregation, Howard Gutman, recently became U.S. Ambassador to Belgium.
I told Ambassador Gutman that my father was born in Belgium but had escaped as a young boy from the Nazis and fled to Cuba.
When the Ambassador heard this, he invited me to visit.
I accepted the invitation and visited Belgium with my six year old son, Elai.
After landing in Brussels, we traveled with the Ambassador to Antwerp to see the house my father had lived in. But first we stopped at the diamond district for lunch.
We were greeted there by the President of the diamond district who said, “You look like your great-grandfather.” He then took out a book and a package of photographs of my great grandparents and grandparents. He showed me a picture of Mendel and Chaya, my father’s aunt and uncle. I had never heard of them. Now I learned why. They had been sent to Auschwitz with their four children.
I looked at the book he gave me and started to shake. It had a copy of my father’s exit visa. It was written in German and listed the date they left the country: February 19, 1942 or in the Hebrew calendar, Bet Adar.
The deportations from Belgium began in August, 1942. Half of Belgium’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz to a near certain death. Of the estimated 25,000 Belgian Jews that were sent to Auschwitz only 1,200 are believed to have survived.
Now I am adding another holiday to my calendar: Bet Adar. It is the day my father left Belgium; the day his life was saved while his cousins’ fate was sealed. It is a day I hope my descendants will treasure and speak about for many generations to come.
Shmuel Herzfeld is rabbi of Ohev Sholom–The National Synagogue in Washington.