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Under the Nazis’ Boots

Binyamin Rose, Nitra, Slovakia

Flatbush’s busiest hub of prayer traces its history to an airless bunker beneath the Slovakian ground – where Rav Yechezkel Shraga Landau carved out a place of holiness and prayer despite the Nazi footfalls overhead. Last week, his grandsons returned to the tiny hole that was his shelter, finally fulfilling the charge he bequeathed them

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

two rabbis in cellerCrammed uncomfortably in the front seat of a van, forced to sit at a 45-degree angle to avoid a head-on collision between my knees and the gear box, I’m surprised and relieved when my seatmate notices my pained grimace and graciously offers to share his legroom.

“Stretch your legs out, there’s room here,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Landau, the rav and mara d’asra of the famed Khal Veretzky (fondly known as “Landau’s”) at the corner of Avenue L and East 9th Street in Flatbush.

Sharing tight quarters is part of the Landau genetic makeup, as I would soon see for myself.

“It might be cramped here,” I say, “but it’s nothing compared to what your grandparents must have gone through.” Rabbi Landau merely replies by exhaling and raising his eyebrows.

We are on the road to Nitra, a city of 85,000 at the base of the Zobor Mountain, for a reunion with the surviving member of the Slovakian family that kept the Landau grandparents alive for seven critical months during World War II. We were also preparing to step in — maybe for one last time — to the bunker the size of a walk-in closet in which Reb Yitzchok Meyer’s grandparents and eight other Jews hid for those seven months, some of them with Nazi soldiers literally sleeping on top of their heads.

We cross the border from Austria to Slovakia. The rolling, green fields of the Vienna suburbs have long since given way to the stark, grayish-brown backdrop of the Slovakian foothills. It’s been an unusually mild winter in Europe. Every few miles you might spy a tiny patch of snow on the side of the road, barely enough to make a snowball. Every river we pass has no more than a thin veneer of ice on the surface.

As we exit Highway E-58 at Nitra, and drive through town, several contrasts strike the eye. Virtually every building is different from the next. Zoning doesn’t seem to be an issue here. Single family, two-story stucco homes, some with balconies, abut fashionable, glass-windowed shops.

We leave the city center and pull up at a more spacious, modern home on a quiet, hilly side street. We park and enter the house, where we encounter another contrast. Rabbi Landau and his brother, Reb Yechiel, exchange bear hugs with the elderly host, whose family has been eagerly awaiting our visit, dressed in their Sunday best. The host is 85-year old Frantisek Truska, who was a strapping teenager of 18 when he and his father dug the bunker.

The greetings are just about over, when a new arrival makes her entrance. Mr. Truska glances down at a bassinet holding Reb Yitzchok Meyer’s 11-week old daughter. His face visibly lights up. He may not know the baby’s precise identity, but it’s apparent that he too is shepping nachas from a soul that may never have been born had it not been for him.

Seeing bearded religious men and an older, non-Jewish Slovakian share such warmth may be a stark contrast, but it seems par for the course in this continent, which seems to be perennially grappling between its checkered past and a more tolerant future.

In a few hours, that contrast would be hammered home, as Mr. Truska would join 16 others and be awarded the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem at a ceremony in the elegant Historical Building of the National Council of the Slovak Republic.

“In those times, humanity was overwhelmed by inhumanity, so it is only fitting to honor those who risked their lives to save others,” said Ivan Gasparovic, president of the Slovak Republic, at the ceremony.

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