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Just over a month ago, the Jewish world lost one of its last links to the world of Sarah Schenirer and prewar Europe. Author Pearl Benisch painted vivid pictures of spiritual triumph through Auschwitz and beyond
Thursday, April 20, 2017
T urn the pages of one of Pearl Benisch’s works — To Vanquish the Dragon and Carry Me in Your Heart — and you’ll find an account that reshapes and transcends the conventions of Holocaust literature. Pearl Benisch’s powerfully sketched memoirs are far more than the account of an eyewitness. They are testimony to the triumph of spirit and goodness over unimaginable monstrosities and encroaching evil. To read them is to touch a world that has vanished forever.
Until her passing last month, Pearl Benisch lived and conveyed the essence of that world. A student of Sarah Schenirer, she cradled her teacher’s immortal lessons through Auschwitz and beyond. And her very person reflected these values; Pearl exuded life, courage, hope, and inspiration.
“My mother lived with me for the past 15 years,” relates Frieda Schwartz, Pearl’s eldest daughter. “As we live near the hospital, she moved in to be able to visit her second husband more frequently after he fell. She ended up staying, and all kinds of people were constantly asking to interview her. Once, two non-Jewish students visited from NYU, a young Greek student and a Chinese girl from the sociology department. They had originally said they’d be coming for an hour, but they ended up talking to my mother for over three!”
Used to the stream of visitors, and busy with her own life, Frieda rarely sat in on the conversations. “But I overheard them asking my mother: ‘How could your belief in G-d have remained intact after the horrors of the Holocaust?’ My mother answered: ‘G-d created both good and evil. There is reward and punishment, and free choice. Just like good has always existed, so has evil — and I see it around me in the world today, too. Nothing has changed. So why should my belief change? This is the way G-d created the world.’ ”
Where does such immutable belief stem from? “My mother told me there were things she went through that she was not able to write in the book,” says Frieda. “Horrible beyond belief. But she had a very strong upbringing.”
If there is one prominent thread woven through Pearl Benisch’s life, plainly evident in all she has said and achieved, it’s a 24-karat strand of unassailable emunah.
Pearl’s challenges did not end when the war was finally over and she built her own home.
“My father was sick for a long time,” relates Frieda. “I was engaged to be married, but the wedding was postponed repeatedly for about six months, because he was so sick. Eventually, we saw he wasn’t getting any better, and the date was set despite his condition. The week of my wedding, my father was rushed to Memorial Hospital — and that’s where my chuppah was set up.”
Pearl’s first husband passed away during her daughter’s sheva brachos. “I was married on Wednesday and he was niftar on Friday.” But Frieda will never forget the inner strength her mother displayed at her wedding. “She was glowing. She danced with such simchah… I don’t know if she even cried once.”
“She was always dressed beautifully,” Frieda says, lovingly. People who saw her on the street would pause and think, Here walks a choshuveh woman.” She had that kind of presence. “I always thought this was probably due to the influence of Rebbetzin Judith Grunfeld, her teacher in Krakow, who was always very put together.”
Rabbi Naftali Schiff of Aish UK, founder of a variety of Jewish communal and outreach organizations, first met Pearl Benisch in 1995, after the publication of her first book, To Vanquish the Dragon. The memoir had such an impact on him that when the opportunity arose for Rabbi Schiff to meet Pearl on one of his trips to Eretz Yisrael, he grabbed it, hoping she would agree to talk at some of the programs he was involved with.
“As a person who works in kiruv and chinuch, the question is never far from people’s minds: How could a horror like Auschwitz have been allowed to happen? Yet when one reads Pearl’s book, the question disappears. As a staunch student of Sarah Schenirer, her emunah peshutah comes across so clearly.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 538)
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