Rabbi Tzvi Meisels is widely known in Chicago for his efforts to reestablish the Orthodox community on the West Side, and later in Albany Park, based on the model of Eastern Europe’s pre-World War II communities.
Yet his extraordinary efforts to uphold Judaism began long before on the other side of the Atlantic – and even inside Auschwitz.
When he was summoned to report for a transport to the infamous death camp, Rabbi Meisels took only one possession: his tallit.
Upon arrival in Auschwitz, he and his family had all of their earthly possessions taken away, including Rabbi Meisel’s precious tallit.
But later he asked to work in the warehouses, and there, sure enough, as he sorted through the piles of confiscated goods, he came across his tallit.
He then came up with a daring plan to smuggle it out. Rabbi Meisels managed to trim the large prayer shawl and make it into a tallit katan, a four-cornered garment that also has tzitzit, wearing it under his uniform. He continued to wear it every day, despite the terrible danger were he to be discovered.
One day a Russian kapo working under the Nazis noticed that Rabbi Meisel’s uniform seemed bulkier than usual. He pulled up the hapless rabbi’s shirt and discovered the contraband – the tzitzit. Enraged, he started beating and cursing the Jew, demanding to know what he was wearing.
Rabbi Meisels managed to stammer out the words, “A Gutt-kleid — a Godly garment.”
This admission enraged the kapo even more. He dragged the Jew to his bunker and proceeded to pummel him without mercy.
“You pig!” he screamed. “You have the audacity to tell me that you’re wearing a Godly garment? Where is your God in this world? What has He done for you, leaving you at the mercy of this death and destruction? How dare you tell me there is a God!”
The kapo fell silent for a moment, and then he made Rabbi Meisels an offer.
“I am giving you one chance. If you can prove to me that God exists, despite this hell we are experiencing, then I will let you go. But if not, I will finish you off right here and now.”
Rabbi Meisels prayed silently for Divine guidance, and then he said: “Let me tell you a parable. There once was a skilled surgeon who could perform amazing operations that would cure people of the worst ailments. One day, a shoemaker was in the operating theater, watching the surgeon’s every move. The shoemaker watched as he made incisions into perfectly intact skin. How ridiculous to cut into healthy tissue! he thought. I only cut into damaged leather when I need to repair it!
“‘What a foolish, inept surgeon!’ the shoemaker concluded.
“In this world, we are like that ignorant shoemaker,” Rabbi Meisels concluded. “We don’t have the slightest inkling of the ways in which God runs the world. Sometimes we see Him cutting into what appears to be healthy tissue, and we are beside ourselves. But of course He knows infinitely more than we could possibly know.”
I now have a first-person “tallit in Auschwitz” story to share. Today, at one of our Jerusalem suppliers, a man came in to buy a tallit with a nice silver atara. He heard the prices then made a phone call, switching to accented Hebrew.
“Do you want the real silver atara or silver coating?”
I once worked as a Hebrew-English translator for many years, so I noted the Hebrewism. In Hebrew they use the term “tzipui kesef,” which literally means “silver covered.” I was about to turn to him and say, “They’ll understand you better if you say, ‘sterling silver or plated silver,'” but I held my tongue.
He went for the sterling silver atara, which cost about $500. Then he started explaining to the employee that it has to be a nice tallit, because tomorrow he would be bringing it to Poland, where it would be worn by a Holocaust survivor scheduled to say Kaddish during the inauguration ceremony for a new exhibit at Block 27 at the Auschwitz museum. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a number of Israel ministers and various Polish political figures are expected to attend.
He said it would be a momentous day for the Holocaust survivor, whose entire family perished.