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“Bury Me with the Wax”

David Damen, Belgium

When he was a child in Kharkov, Sam (Shlomo) Samuel used to stand behind the chair of his beloved Tchechoiver Rebbe. But although the elderly restaurateur is no longer a chassid in the classic sense, he daily recites the verse that was on the Rebbe’s lips when his holy body turned to ashes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

tchechoiver ravIt is now the seventh of Elul, 1943. (Or perhaps it was the third of Elul, as some others have testified.) Shlomo was sent, along with a group of other Jewish prisoners, to the Bochnia camp, which was in the process of being liquidated. Only 83 Jews remained in the camp — their fate had already been sealed. The Jews from Plaszow were brought to the entrance of the camp, where they beheld a horrifying sight: a long row of dozens of frightened Jews, standing with their faces to the wall. Death was about to descend upon them at any moment. The guns were cocked, waiting for the command to fire.

 

Shlomo stared straight ahead. He had stopped feeling pain or anguish long ago. Blackness and death had become his steady companion. But suddenly, a human spark was ignited within him. He looked again at the group of the degraded human sacrifices, and his eyes widened in shock. There was the Rebbe, the esteemed Reb Yeshayale, the Rebbe whom he loved so much. Now the Rebbe was standing in that group of condemned men. His holy face was covered by a piece of fabric that appeared to be a tallis katan.

Shlomo looked at the elderly Rebbe, and the memories flooded his mind. Suddenly he was carried back to the tefillos and the tischen, to the Rebbe’s pleading tone on the Yamim Noraim. Was he about to be a witness to the Rebbe’s final moments?

The Rebbe’s holy face was illuminated by an ethereal glow. He paid no attention to what was taking place around him. His lips were moving, and Shlomo struggled to hear the words. The Rebbe was saying the psukim from Tehillim, “The dead will not praise Hashem, nor those who descend to the grave, but we will bless Hashem …” The Rebbe did not have a chance to finish the pasuk before he was struck by the murderous bullets. His holy soul ascended to the Heavenly treasury, to rejoin his illustrious ancestors in the realm of the sacred and pure.

The group of Jews from Plazsow was forced to burn the bodies of the martyrs. The Nazis ordered them to lay the bodies down on the train tracks, pour kerosene over them, and set them on fire on the spot. The slave laborers followed their orders in silence. The flames spread, but the Nazis’ appetite for gruesome murder was not fully sated until they took crates filled with candles, which had been in the possession of the Judenrat and were no longer needed, and cast them into the blaze fueled by human bodies.

Shlomo Samuel shakes himself out of his reverie. It’s now Elul 2012, and he is leaning on the armrest of a sofa in his well-appointed home in the neighborhood of Edegem, on the outskirts of Antwerp. Shlomo survived the horrors of the war and lived to embrace his older brother once again, to establish a family, and to build a thriving business. Yet the noble countenance of the Rebbe Yeshayale Tshkhoiver still appears before him almost daily.

“Every day since witnessing that horror and then being forced to burn the bodies, I recite the pasuk of Tehillim, the words that were on the Rebbe’s lips when he died,” Shlomo reveals.

In the 1980s, Shlomo decided to return to Poland and visit the accursed land that soaked up the blood of his family. For added security, he brought along an imposing gentile — a colleague from the diamond exchange in Antwerp. “For years I debated whether I should return to that place,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d have the courage, but I decided I would revisit the spot where the massacre was carried out — the spot where I saw the holy Rebbe ascend in a blaze of burning flesh.

“It had been so many years, but I found the place without any difficulty. I asked my friend to remain in the car, and I walked to the site alone. I looked around. There was absolutely nothing to remind anyone of what took place there. Who would ever know? Then, in a spontaneous sort of instinct, I bent down on my knees, and using the car key in my hand, I began to dig under the top layer of dirt.

“Suddenly, I encountered a soft spot — a piece of wax. I was in shock: these were the candles the Nazis threw into the fire.

“I picked up the wax with great reverence and put it in my pocket. Today it’s still in my vault, and I guard it vigilantly. People have told me that I should bury it, and I tell them that indeed it will be buried — but only together with me.”

I asked Sam to show me that chunk of wax, but it’s kept in his private vault in the cellar of the diamond exchange. He refused to leave it in a place where its protection isn’t guaranteed. For him, it’s the final, chilling reminder of his sacred Rebbe and the horrible fate he met, through Sam’s own hand.

 

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