Weekly Chasidic Story #681 (s5771-15 / 7 Tevet 5771)
The Kohen Gang
“The last time I was in a synagogue was over sixty years ago in Poland, and that is when the Germans came and took my entire city to Buchenwald.”
Connection: The Fast Day of the 10th of Tevet is the traditional date for saying Kaddish for Holocaust martyrs whose passing date is unknown
“The Forbidden City”
Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, the Rebbe’s ‘Shliach’ (emissary) in Beijing China, and his wife run a successful and very busy Chabad House catering to the Jews that live, visit or come to do business there. His approach is so genuinely friendly that everyone that comes in contact with him or spends any time in his Chabad House is effected.
In 2007, while on a visit to New York, he was invited to be the personal guest of honor at the Tish (public meal) of the Rebbe of Satmar in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn. Satmer is a very large, wealthy, and influential group of Chasidim that was for a long time at odds with Chabad for various reasons. Nevertheless, because of the many Satmar Chasidim that had benefited from the Beijing Chabad House, the invitation was extended.
Hundreds of Satmar Chasidim were present as their Rebbe whispered something to one of his assistants, whereupon the man pounded on the table and announced: “The Rebbe requests that ‘the Lubavitcher’ guest should speak.”
Rabbi Freundlich began by thanking the chasidim and their Rebbe for inviting him. He discussed an interesting idea from the weekly Torah portion, as is traditional and then asked permission to tell a story, something that had recently occurred in his Chabad House. The Rebbe nodded yes and he began.
“A lot of people come to visit our Chabad House for Shabbat, as you know. Well, one Shabbat evening a few months ago, and older man, maybe about eighty years old, who didn’t look very religious, appeared in the company of a younger man in his forties.
“The old fellow found a seat and just minutes after we began the prayers he put his face in his hands and began to cry. He kept it up for almost an hour; he would calm down for a few minutes, dry his eyes and blow his nose and then begin again.
“I quietly approached him and asked him if everything was all right. He told me not to worry. After the prayers he and his friend joined us all for the Shabbat evening meal.
“There were over fifty people there. I sat him next to me and after he calmed down he asked if he could speak. He wanted to explain the reason for his weeping.
I stood, and after only a few words I introduced him. He cleared his throat and began,
“‘My name is Sam Katz (pseudonym). The reason that I want to speak now is because I became very emotional this evening and I want to tell you about it. The last time I was in a Synagogue was over sixty years ago in Poland. I was a young man then when the Germans came and took the entire Jewish population of my city to Buchenwald. I was there for four years and in that time I lost everyone; my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, my friends; all killed, some of them before my eyes. But I survived and when the war ended I spent a few years searching for family or friends with no results. Finally, I moved to Australia.
“I was totally alone and angry at G-d. I managed to succeed at business and make a lot of money, and to marry and have children. But my wounds and anger were so deep that I swore to never go into a Synagogue or have anything to do with Judaism again. Nothing!
“But then just yesterday I came to China with my friend and he said we should visit the Chabad House. At first I didn’t want to come of course, but he said that he’d been here before and the food is good and anyway there was no better alternative, so I shrugged and agreed.
“But as soon as the prayers began everything suddenly came back to me. I remembered how good it is to be a Jew; how proud and happy my father and mother were. Suddenly it was as if a wall of ice just melted. That’s why I cried. I thought I’d never forgive G-d again, but now I feel like a small child that just wants to be home. All thanks to this Chabad House and the Rabbi here.’
The crowd clapped, wiped tears from their eyes and congratulated him for the beautiful story. A one woman stood up and asked:
“Tell me Mr. Katz. If you were in Buchenwald until the end, maybe you knew my father. His name is Naftali Kogen (pseudonym); he also was in Buchenwald.”
Mr. Katz’s jaw dropped, his eyes bolted open and he held his head in wonder “Naftali Kogen!? What? Naftali is still alive?! Why we were the only two Kohanim in the camp and we were always together. We risked our lives for each other, and not just once. We were like brothers! Oy! Naftali!
“There was such total confusion in those days; everything was upside down. We were put in different recovery camps and got separated. I searched for him for a long time after the war but finally I gave up. I thought he was dead. Now you say he is alive and you are his daughter! It’s a miracle!!”
Rabbi Freundlich finished his story by saying that after Shabbat a meeting was arranged between the two old friends, and this is only one example of the miracles that happen in Beijing thanks to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
At that point, much to everyone’s surprise, a head of a Yeshiva in the Satmar community by the name of Rav Yaakov Kaplan (pseudonym) who had listened intently to the story called out! He raised himself in his seat a bit and fell back, his face pale as chalk and his eyes staring wildly at the ceiling. The others were startled and those seated near him rose to help him, but he came to himself in just seconds. He stood up to his full height and yelled aloud to all those present, “Tell them that Yaakov is still alive!”
In the midst of an emotional hurricane, he continued to call out: “There weren’t just two Kohanim in Buchenwald, there were three! Sam Katz, Naftali Kogan and me too!”
He was obviously experiencing some sort of emotional hurricane.
“There weren’t just two Kohanim in Buchenwald.” He continued, “There were three; Sam Katz, Naftali and …. Me!
“We stuck together like brothers…. more than brothers. But just a few days before the end of the war I was moved to another camp. They probably thought I was dead, and I almost was, and I was sure that they were. I never considered it possible that they could still be alive even now!”
Needless to say, soon after this story there was another joyous reunion.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition on ohrtmimim.org/torah by his friend and colleague Rabbi Tuvia Bolton and from oral reports
Connection: The Fast Day of the 10th of Tevet is the traditional date for saying Kaddish for Holocaust martyrs whose passing date is unknown.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.