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Weekly Chizuk

Parshas Lech Lecha

Bitachon - Against All Odds

The Shield of Avraham

After these things the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying, "Don't be afraid, Avram, I am your shield [???]." (Bereishis 15:1)

The Vilna Gaon, in the tefillah for the three Festivals in the Siddur Ha-Gra, discusses this verse.)

At the end of the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, the text reads: "the King who helps, saves, and shields." It would seem that helping, saving, and shielding are all expressions of aid, but what exactly is the difference between them? Furthermore, the berachah concludes by stating: "Blessed are You, Hashem, the shield of Avraham." Why doesn't it say "the help, salvation, and shield of Avraham"?

These three expressions rep re sent three ascending levels of bitachon in the face of threat, and corresponding grades of salvation:

1. On the first level, a person performs some action to bring about the desired result, and the Almighty helps (????) him accordingly. Here, a person's actions are blessed by God.

2. On the second level, a person does absolutely nothing, and Hashem saves him. Here, a person is not even required to exert any effort on his own behalf - God blesses him with direct salvation.

3. On the third and highest level, the person performs an action even though it is contrary to reason. For the Almighty's sake, he exposes himself to risk, and Hashem protects (???) him by nullifying the danger that threatens him. Here, God protects those who rely upon Him and put themselves in danger for the sake of the Almighty.

We are now in a position to understand why this blessing - which corresponds to Avraham (Pesachim 117b) - concludes by only mentioning the Almighty in His role as "shield": Avraham Avinu trusted in God with the highest level of bitachon and braved many dangers for His honor. Therefore, Hashem appeared to him and promised, "I will protect you and save you from all dangers, so that they will not have any power over you." Thus, the expression "shield" alone is employed because of Avraham's great bitachon in his Creator.

Escape from Auschwitz

One of the most outstanding stories of escape from Auschwitz-Birknau is the story of Alfred Wetzler and Rudolph Vrba-Rosenberg. It took place on April 7, 1944. According to the opinions of several historians, the Vrba-Wetzler Report, often referred to as the Auschwitz Protocol, one of the most famous documents in the free world at that period, was a major contributing factor in multitudes of Hungarian Jews not being sent to Auschwitz.

Wetzler and Vrba, two Jewish youths from the city Tirnau in Slovakia, arrived at Auschwitz early in the operation of the camp. They progressed in various positions up the ranks of the inmates. Having been witness to the atrocities occurring in the camps, they found themselves in positions as official secretaries of the camp. This job gave them access to files which contained information about all the horrific activities, the torture, and brutality, and of course the murder. They copied down all the information they could lay their hands on, thus endangering their lives. If discovered, the SS would torture them and then murder them on the spot. Yet, they felt it their sacred duty to document the atrocities and publicize the whole story to the free world. Thus they had to escape. But how to escape Auschwitz-Birkenau? Very few were successful in avoiding the guards, and of those few, only a handful actually survived.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was made up of three main camps and twenty-nine secondary camps - Auschwitz, Birkanau, and Mamanowitz. Around each one of these main camps was a security ring, an internal double fence of electrified barbed wire. Powerful flood lamps lit up the area each night. For every ten yards, there was a guard tower manned by an SS soldier armed with a heavy machine gun. A non-electrified barbed wire fence surrounded the three camps, without flood lamps, also with towers every 10 yards manned by an SS soldier armed with a heavy machine gun.

This was the daily schedule: each evening the Jews would return from their work and gather inside the outside fence. A count was made. If the number matched the number count from the morning, the guards in the outside towers were released from duty for the night. If one Jew, even one, was found missing, an alarm was sounded and immediately two things happened. The guards in the outside towers were not released from duty for three days. And a massive search was commenced, encompassing thousands of personnel, accompanied by two hundred dogs. This continued until either the escapees were caught, or three days passed. In the interim, the watch around the outside fence was maintained day and night.

At the end of three days, if the escapees were not tracked down, the Germans assumed that they would not be found in light of the intensive search that had transpired within the confines of the camps, and everything returned to the normal routine, while the search was handed over to the authorities outside the camps.

Vrba and Wetzler's plan was simple. They would hide for three days, somewhere outside the inner fences, within the outer wall. On the third night, after the guards were released, they would slip away under the fence. But how could they hide in a place so well guarded, and where there was no place wherein to hide? And how could they evade the intense search that would be carried out?

Luck had it, that at that time, the Germans decided to build a new camp called Mexico, in expectation of the Hungarian Jews. In advance of the building they brought long wide boards of wood with which to build the barracks. The boards were to be temporarily stored in piles. A group of Jews had the job of piling up the wood. The Jewish underground arranged that one of the piles would be arranged such that inside was a small compartment, large enough for two or three people to hide, but which could not be discerned from the outside. The pile would look just like all the other piles. It was into that tiny compartment that Vrba and Wetzler crawled and hid.

Night fell, and they heard the Jews returning to the camp; they knew that they were being counted. Then the alarm siren went off, and the search began. For two and a half days dozens of patrols of armed Germans accompanied by dogs passed by, and on top of, their pile. But they weren't discovered. How is it that the dogs didn't detect them? They learned a trick from a Russian officer that Russian tobacco soaked in kerosene confuses a dog's sense of smell and so the dogs went right past them.

Two days passed, then night, and then another half a day. It appeared they were about to succeed. The search parties were tiring. They continued merely as a formality as the Germans had really given up hope of finding them. It was the afternoon of the the third day. All they had to do was to wait for night to fall on the camp. Suddenly Vrba and Wetzler heard two German criminals, inmates of the camp, pass by. One said to the other, "Otto, perhaps they're inside the pile of wood?" "Yeah!" answered the second German, "and Vrba and Wetzler are inside the pile listening. Forget it. The dogs were here tens of times." "Yes, but maybe they have something to ruin the dogs' sense of smell." "O.K. You know what? It is worth trying." Vrba and Wetzler were lying inside, their nerves on the verge of bursting. Tens of attempts at escape had failed, and finally they were almost successful in slipping away, and here were two Germans approaching their hiding place. The Germans removed one layer of boards. They removed a second layer of boards. Altogether there had been 3 layers of boards covering them from the top. Each layer was half a foot thick. Two layers had already been removed. Vrba and Wetzler, hiding inside, were preparing their knives as a welcoming for the two Germans. But they also realized that everything was lost. Even if they would be able to kill those German criminals, someone else would catch them. They were already imagining themselves in the torture chamber; they saw themselves being led up to the gallows, beaten and mutilated. They cursed the whole world. Now at the last minute, right at the verge of their great escape, right before their getaway had succeeded, they were about to be caught! Let us imagine ourselves in Vrba and Wetzler's place at that moment.

Suddenly they heard some noise, and the two Germans said to each other, with Vrba and Wetzler listening, "They caught them!" and they ran away. Two hours passed, night fell, and they heard the all-clear signal pass from one tower to the other. They knew that the guards in the outside towers were being released from duty. They waited another two hours until it was total pitch black darkness. All that was left was to lift up the boards, step outside, to slip under the outside non-electrified fence, to freedom.

Simple to say, perhaps even to do. But not for inmates of Auschwitz. They attempted to push up the pile of boards on top of them. Only one row of boards remained above them, and they found they just didn't have the strength. The inmates of Auschwitz were fed a starvation diet, even the most privileged of inmates. For three days they had not eaten or drunk. And they had almost not slept. Under such stress, such a nerve-racking strain, cramped into such a small compartment, they didn't have the strength to lift up the remaining boards.

Imagine them, laying there in the prison they had built for themselves, either to die of starvation, or be caught in the end. Out of desperation they mustered their last remaining ounce of strength, and slowly, slowly they pushed up another inch, another inch, until they finally managed to push off the boards and step out of their hiding place. They sat down on the pile of planks. Vrba said to Wetzler, "Imagine what would have been if those two blasted German criminals hadn't taken off two layers of boards? If we couldn't remove one layer a half a foot thick, then for sure we had no chance with one and a half feet of wood."

Within two hours they were already outside. Luck had it that the first person they met was a German peasant woman whose son had been sent to an SS prison camp. She hated the Nazis with a passion. Instead of turning them in, she gave them food. The first Pole they met was a member of the underground and he helped them escape over the border to Slovakia. The first Slovak they met was also a member of the underground and he helped them make contact with the Jewish community in Jernina. And thus was written the famous Vrba and Wetzler Report outside the borders of Auschwitz.

Let us imagine Vrba and Wetzler sitting in their hole. The two Germans are removing the two layers of boards that are protecting them and they are sitting there cursing the whole world. What they didn't realize was that these two German criminals were really Heaven-sent help. It was only through their actions that Vrba and Wetzler were able to escape in the end.

"And in that day you shall say, O Lord, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comforted me" (Yeshaya 12:1). In the future we will see how everything that occurred to us was a piece of the plan for our deliverance. As it says in Tehillim (40:6), "Many, O Lord my God, are Your wonderful works which You have done, and Your thoughts which are toward us; none can compare toYou; if I would declare and tell of them, they would be more than can be numbered."

We, too, often find ourselves inside the hole. The Germans are lifting off the layers of planks. But we are in a better situation than Vrba and Wetzler. Vrba and Wetzler thought they were about to be caught and they were cursing the whole world. They were not able to know that at that very moment HaKadosh Baruch Hu was opening the door for their escape to freedom. We, on the other hand, are clearly aware of this, because the parts of the play that we do see are so obviously part of a master plan.

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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