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Light in the Valley of Tears

Esther Teichtal

A blind, penniless Holocaust survivor stumbles into England at the end of the war, half his family gone and his prospects nil. But what begins as a tragedy ends in triumph. Hershel Herskovic decided he’d continue living.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Six hundred boys in striped prison clothing and clumsy wooden clogs are roughly shepherded toward their end at the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Accompanied by 25 SS men, the ragged bunch is brought to a halt near the brick building and ordered to undress. Hershel Herskovic tries to stay calm. Mustering his bravery, he composes a silent prayer: “Afilu cherev chadah [even if a sharp sword rests]” upon one’s neck, one should not despair of Hashem’s mercy. He repeats it once. And then again. And then again and again, to calm his nerves. As they undress amid a barrage of bloodthirsty blows, their fear gives way to a sad, stark reality. Smoke is belching from a plain-looking chimney, a sickening smell they recognize instantly. Boys begin to cry, run around, and beg the Sonderkommando for mercy. Some boys recite Vidui, while others sing. Still, Hershel stays calm. A group of older Greek Jews suddenly joins them. They seem more out of place than the Hungarian boys of Hershel’s group, and even more flustered. Three SS officers appear out of nowhere. “The one in the middle was a doctor,” recalls Reb Hershel, 70 years later. “He came flanked by two attendants.” “All boys line up!” yell the Nazi murderers. One boy at a time, the Nazi officers feel the boys’ muscles for strength. Then they tell them to perform ten knee bends, run to the wall and back, and turn around. The lucky ones are sent to the right, while most of the group remains facing left. There and then, at the gateway to death, 51 boys are instructed to return to the barracks. Hershel Herskovic is one of them. In his rush to rejoin the world of the living, he stumbles out of the building with his unwieldy clogs the wrong way around. “It was Simchas Torah,” he says, sitting at his son’s dining room table on a recent Jerusalem morning. His childlike smile, like a lighthouse beacon, shines through the angst. With a little prompting from his son, Rav Avrohom, he elaborates: “My birthday! It was as if I was born all over again — I was given back my life as a gift.”

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