Memories of parents Sustained him

Child Holocaust Survivor became a sage and a leader

"Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord," laments the Psalmist, and his cry is echoed in the title of the reminiscences of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, formerly Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel and currently chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and chairman of Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Authority). Whoever the Psalmist may have been and whatever depths he had plumbed, they couldn't have been deeper or darker than those from which little Lulek Lau emerged in 1945, at the age of 8.

Lulek's first memory was of his father, the rabbi of the Polish town of Piotrków, being whipped by a captain of the Gestapo because the Jew had resisted an order to shave his beard. The child was then 5 and about to part from his parent forever. "When a young boy sees his father - kicked with nailed boots, threatened by dogs, falter from the force of the blow and suffer public shaming, he carries that terrible scene with him for the rest of his life."

Other terrifying events followed. At the age of 6, to prove his "right to live," Lulek performed a back-breaking job in the town's ghetto. Yet the hardships he endured were mitigated by the fierce protectiveness of his indomitable mother. And then, when the ghetto was being liquidated, that mother made a calculated decision on the spur of the moment. Sizing up a scene where women and children were being directed to one side of a platform and men to the other, she shoved the little boy toward the men.

Among those men stood Naphtali, Lulek's 17-year-old brother. Together they were herded onto a train, the child fighting to get back to his mother, Naphtali restraining him. "To separate from your mother is inconceivable; it hurts your whole being for all the years of your life. It took me a long time to understand that when Mother pushed me toward Naphtali, she saved my life."

The maws of the Nazi machine fed on children. That Lulek escaped is remarkable in itself. But that, instead of stunting him, his tragic experiences spurred him on to become a sage and a leader is a tribute not only to his own qualities but to the exceptional people with whom his life was bound up.

This book is many things: survivor story, autobiography, wisdom literature and an unabashed love letter to Israel, the home to which its subtitle alludes. When the two brothers finally arrived there, the state did not yet exist.

The hero of the story is Naphtali, who had made a solemn vow to their father to protect Lulek and convey him to the Promised Land where - so the father had decreed - the child was to perpetuate a dynasty. On both sides of the family the brothers could trace an unbroken rabbinic chain for 37 generations: one thousand years. It's not clear until much later in the narrative why Rabbi Lau Senior had decreed that the one to carry the rabbinic mantle would be the younger son. But in the words "Look out for the boy," Naphtali found his own calling. He stayed alive - barely - when his own will to live flagged, in order to keep Lulek safe.

This in Buchenwald, one of the most dreadful places on Earth.

Without the help of two righteous Gentiles, Naphtali's mission would have failed. Israel Lau pays fulsome tribute to the Russian prisoner and the Czech doctor who befriended him after he was smuggled into the Aryan section of the camp, and separated from Naphtali who was on the Jewish side, where the child wouldn't have lasted a day.

Between 1993 and 2003, Lau served as Chief Rabbi of Israel and hobnobbed with world leaders that included Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and two popes. His most remarkable encounter, however, was with Fidel Castro in 1994. The Communist dictator had been well briefed on his visitor's history and was staggered by it. "Here in Cuba," he said, "a child of 8 who grows up without his parents - will turn into a juvenile delinquent. - Who raised you, gran rabino? How did a boy from the streets, who started with nothing, get chosen to be the senior religious representative of the country?"

Rabbi Lau's answer is too long to reproduce here. But to explain in a nutshell, his father had foreseen that because Lulek was so young at the outbreak of the war, if he survived, he would be more able to put the war behind him than his much older brother, whose formative years were already over. (In the event, Naphtali proved no slouch. First an eminent journalist, he later became Israel's consul-general in New York.) As well, Rabbi Lau gave credit to his many mentors.

But he deemed that his most important influences of all were his memories of the parents he had so cruelly lost. "Although I was without parents, my father and mother were with me continuously. They never left me, not even for one minute."

Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last

by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau

Review published in

March 24, 2012

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