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Alone in the World

“I don’t want to learn with you anymore. I don’t want you talk to me at all.”


There is no one whom HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not test. He tests the rich man to see if his hand will be open to the poor, and He tests the poor man to see if he can accept suffering and not get angry, as is said, (Yeshayah 58:7), “And the downtrodden poor you shall bring home”… and if the poor man withstands his test and does not kick, then he will have a double portion in the World to Come, as is said, “For You shall save a poor people…” (Shemos 20:2).

It happened again that week, on Wednesday at exactly four o’clock in the afternoon. Hershel Friedman closed his Gemara, and pushing the shtender aside, stood up and slowly moved toward the door of the beis medrash of Yeshivas Menachem Ozer, Jerusalem.

He moved slowly, hoping the other boys — bent over their Gemaras — wouldn’t notice him. For several weeks he’d been doing this, always on Wednesday, always at the same time, always five minutes after his chavrusa — Binyamin Gletzer — went out.

Hershel stepped out of the beis medrash, closing the door softly behind him, and then broke into a run down the corridor that led to the exit door from the building. His heart was pounding.

Unlike Binyamin, Hershel did not leave the building. No. Quickly, he climbed the steps leading to the dormitory rooms on the second floor, burst into his room and rushed to the window facing the courtyard. And there they were….

Binyamin and … his mother.

Breathing heavily, he hid himself behind the curtain, in case Binyamin should glance up. All he needed was for Binyamin to catch on to the fact that Hershel was spying on him whenever his mother came to visit. With one eye, he peered past the curtain at the proceedings below. Binyamin appeared to be telling his mother about something that had happened in yeshivah that week, and she answered him with a smile and a loving caress. Hershel felt suffocated. His breath grew ragged, and the tears waited attentively for the order to come forth. Soon enough, it came. Binyamin’s mother handed him a small package. He opened it eagerly, and even from the second floor Hershel could see it was cake. Neat slices of dark brown, chocolate cake. Binyamin’s eyes lit up, and spontaneously he gave his mother a kiss on the cheek as she hugged him tightly.

Hershel’s tears waited no longer. The scene turned into a blur as they flowed from his eyes. His ears heard nothing but wild screams. No, not screams — dreadful, inhuman shrieks. Oy, I’m burning! Breindel, my darling, where are you? Hershel, mein Hershel. Oy! Oy! Shema Yisrael…. And then, silence. And before Hershel’s eyes, down there in the yeshivah courtyard, the flames danced like crazed demons, the flames that the Nazis — yemach shemam — had lit in the silo in the little village near Chenstochov where his father, his mother, his sister and he, little Hershel, were hiding.

He never would know how he managed to escape from the burning silo and hide behind a wagon loaded with hay. He couldn’t remember where he’d ended up, who finally picked him up and saved him. He couldn’t remember anything. He knew nothing but what his gaping eyes saw once again, the silo on fire — the red flames lashing out towards the silent, darkening sky. And his mother’s desperate cries for help….

Now, he stood behind the curtain, his fingers clutching at it until they hurt. Close to fainting, he heard himself murmuring, “Mammaleh! Mammaleh!” And he felt her final embrace, just before the accursed Poles had given their hiding place away to the Germans. Now he was the one standing there below in the courtyard, with his mother. And she was the one giving a hug, to her Hershel!

He lost control. Unaware, he pushed the curtain aside and stood there in full view at the window. With envy consuming his soul and his flesh, he watched Binyamin and his mother saying good-bye. There — she was giving him another kiss. He couldn’t bear it … he …

Suddenly, he froze in place. Binyamin had looked up. He’d seen him. His eyes showed shock and dismay.

Hershel was terrified. What now? He’d been exposed. Overcome with shame, he collapsed onto his bed helplessly.


Binyamin said a hasty good-bye to his mother and left her. With hurried steps he returned to the beis medrash. The hubbub of learners’ voices greeted him as he opened the door. He hurried to his place, to the shtender that awaited him.

“Where’s Hershel?” he asked the boys behind him.

“Don’t know… he didn’t come back. Every week he comes back just before you do.”

Binyamin stared at them. “Every week?”

The pair behind him exchanged glances of silent consultation, and one of them spoke:

“Every Wednesday when you go out, he goes out a minute later. And he always comes back a few seconds before you do, opens his Gemara and starts shuckling. But we can tell he’s not really learning. Only this time, he didn’t come back. I wonder why….”

Binyamin said nothing. His thoughts wandered away.

The other boy added, “When he comes back, he looks all upset. What do you fellows do out there?”

Binyamin was silent. With sudden decisiveness he walked out of the beis medrash and headed upstairs, to Hershel’s room. Slowly, he opened the door. Hershel was sitting on his bed with his legs stretched out, his back leaning limply against the wall, and his head hanging loosely forward. He must have heard the door opening, because he lifted his head for a split second to see who it was, and then let it drop again, without a word.

Binyamin hesitated by the door. He and Hershel were good friends, or so he’d thought until now. Their backgrounds were different — he was a sabra from Petach Tikva, and Hershel was a Holocaust survivor, from the unspeakable “there.” But somehow, in the six months they’d been learning together, Binyamin had never really noticed the contrast between them.

Still, under the outer wrappings of their friendship — at a deeper level — perhaps there was a wall that separated them, unseen, but impenetrable? Perhaps there was.

Binyamin took a few steps into the room. Hershel didn’t move. Binyamin sat down on a chair not far from the bed.

Hershel made no response.

“Hershel,” Binyamin ventured in a gentle tone, after a long silence. “Hershel?”

No answer. Hershel didn’t move a muscle.

Binyamin took a deep breath. He was still reeling from the discovery that Hershel had been watching his meetings with his mother. What was going on? Feverishly, his mind groped for an answer. Did his mother remind Hershel of his own mother?  It was torture, not knowing.

“Hershel, answer me! We have to talk!” His tone was more insistent now.

“Please … leave me alone!” Hershel spat out, still not moving.

Binyamin refused to yield. “Well, if you don’t want to talk, how about coming down to the beis medrash and we’ll go on learning?”

Then the bombshell fell.

“I don’t want to learn with you anymore. I don’t want you talk to me at all.”

The words were like a punch to Binyamin’s face. He didn’t know what had hit him or why, but slowly, he got up and left the room, stumbling a little.

Back in the beis medrash, he went to the mashgiach.

Half an hour later, Hershel appeared in the beis medrash, and without a word, he found an empty corner — far from Binyamin — and sat down. At suppertime, he asked a friend to switch places with him in the dining room.

Binyamin was utterly confused and hurt. What am I supposed to do? he thought. I can’t make any sense out of this! What have I ever done to him? Am I supposed to apologize because I have a mother and he doesn’t? I don’t get it.


“Can we talk?”

“No! What for?”

“I’m trying to understand you a little bit.”

“And what good is that supposed to do?”

Yankel Radishkover was speaking to Hershel now. Although he, too, was a Holocaust survivor and an orphan, he was three years older than Hershel. He was all of seventeen, and that seniority made him the unofficial leader of the five young Holocaust refugees learning in the yeshivah. He radiated authority, and he felt a certain responsibility towards the younger orphans that had come to the yeshivah through Aliyat HaNoar. The mashgiach, after Binyamin told him what had happened, had asked Yankel to talk with Hershel.

“What do you mean, what good is it supposed to do? Maybe I can help.”

“It’s no use trying.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s no use.”

“Who says?”

“That’s how it is.”

“Why? I’ve helped you before.”

“This time it’s different.”

“And I’m telling you, after what I heard from the mashgiach, and after talking with Binyamin, that it’s the same thing all over again. The exact same thing.”

Hershel looked surprised and shaken. “The mashgiach spoke with you? He knows?” The words came out in quick bursts, between short breaths.

“Yes, he knows. Binyamin told him about it, and he asked me to talk with you.”

Hershel felt utterly humiliated. The mashgiach knew. Yankel knew. Pretty soon everybody would know. His tormented soul would be exposed to the view of the whole yeshivah. He was ready to run away today, if he had anywhere to go.

Yankel waited patiently for Hershel to say something. There was a long silence, and then, “Tell the mashgiach that there’s no chance. He didn’t go through the Holocaust.”

“Let’s give it a try, anyway.”

“And what if I don’t answer you?”

“Too bad. It’ll be your loss, nobody else’s. Sixty years from now, you’ll still be suffering horribly, like you are now. You’ll be miserable forever, Hershel, if you don’t do something about it. You need to talk it out, talk it out with a friend who went through it, just like you.”

Hershel’s facial muscles softened a bit. Tears wetted his eyes as he picked up his head to stare Yankel in the face. Yankel seized the opening: “Come on, let’s sit down and hear what you have to say.”

They went out to the courtyard and sat under a shady tree. A fresh afternoon breeze cooled their faces. The other talmidim were all relaxing in their rooms in preparation for afternoon seder, and they had the space to themselves. Yankel laid his arm on Hershel’s shoulders. Hershel made no response.

“It’s hard, isn’t it?”

Hershel didn’t reply, and Yankel went on. “It’s hard, like it says in Shir HaShirim — ‘Jealousy is as hard as the grave,’ huh?”


“And kinah has already turned to sinah, right?”

No reply.

“Well, what do you say, Hershel? It’s not jealousy?”

“Have I said anything at all?” Hershel retorted, roused to a response for the first time. “Kinah … sinah,” he went on bitterly. ‘”What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re right, I’m only guessing. I don’t know what you feel. I’m trying to understand what comes over you when you see Binyamin’s mother.”

“What are you trying to understand? What’s so hard to understand, anyway?”

Yankel took a deep breath. “If you’ll permit me, I could explain to you what I think about your behavior.”

“Well, I don’t permit you, so there!”

Yankel removed his arm from Hershel’s shoulders. “Why not?”

“Because it hurts me.”

“What hurts? That he has a mother and you don’t?”

A long, heavy silence, and then Hershel spat out, “Yes.”

“Yes what? That he has, and you don’t?”

“I don’t know. I just know I can’t stand it that that he has a mother who comes to see him every week, and brings him cake, and hugs him, and I’m all alone in the world.” Hershel covered his face with his hands. They were trembling.

“You know, Hershel, I’m alone, too. I have no mother or father, either. My parents were killed too, by the Nazis, yemach shemam.”

“But you’re not the same as me. You didn’t watch them die, like I did. You didn’t see the flames burning them up, like I did, when I was nine years old.”

“You’re right, Hershel. There’s a difference between your experience and mine. But I am alone, like you, so I can understand you.”

Hershel looked up at Yankel doggedly. “No you can’t!” he insisted. “You’re not completely alone. You have an uncle in America who writes you letters.”

There was a short silence, and then the dam broke. “Yankel, do you know how I feel when all the boys get letters from home? Do you feel the knives cutting my heart when I see them opening their letters eagerly, and reading what their mother, their father, their sister, or their brother wrote to them? I’ve never received a single letter in my life! One letter, at least, would show that someone cares I’m alive. But no, not even one! That’s how alone I am!”

Again, Yankel put an affectionate arm around Hershel’s shoulders. He said nothing now, sensing that by remaining quiet he was creating space that might allow the truth to emerge.

No longer caring that he sounded like a hurt little boy, Hershel went on: “Sometimes, I see one of the boys telling a friend something his family wrote to him from home, and they laugh over it together. But, if I ask them to let me in on the joke, they say, ‘You wouldn’t understand … you’re from the Holocaust.’ And the knives dig deeper into my heart, extracting even more blood. Can’t you understand it? It’s so obvious, I feel totally alone in the world — how else could I possibly feel? They don’t understand us, and I can see that they don’t even want to understand us … much less help us.”

After a pause, he added, “Binyamin is like that, too. He doesn’t understand me. We’re supposed to be friends, but he never says a word to me about his home life. He talks to the other boys about it, but to me, never. You know, Yankel, he’s never asked me what I went through. He doesn’t really care. And you know something else? I don’t see what harm it would do him to offer me a piece of his mother’s cake once in a while. A slice of cake for the boy whose mother is never going to bring him anything, ever again in this world? What do you say to that? Like I said — it’s no use.”

Yankel listened carefully, and after a tactful pause, he ventured, “Maybe that’s his way of being considerate? He doesn’t want to hurt you, so he avoids reminding you of … what you went through? It’s not because he has a bad heart, Hershel.”

“No … of course he doesn’t, chas v’shalom. You’re right. It’s not that he has a bad heart … he just doesn’t have a heart at all. Remember last week, when the mashgiach talked about being nosei b’ol im chavero, sharing one another’s burdens? How many of the boys here understand about sharing our burden? Don’t ask me how I felt after the mashgiach’s talk. Ask Avremel, ask Yitzchak, ask Anshel and Berel. They’re all orphans who escaped from that Gehinnom. Ask them how they felt. Ask them how they feel when the other boys keep asking them, ‘You lived through the Holocaust. What do you say about this or that?’ They keep mentioning how we went through the Holocaust, as if it were a summer camp. They have no feelings at all in this yeshivah …”

“Don’t say ‘none at all.’

“All right, I don’t mean everybody. But a lot of them. A lot of them don’t even realize that the mashgiach might have meant them, the way they treat us, the way they pour salt on wounds that are never going to heal….”

Now it was Yankel’s turn. “All right, I understand. I hear what you’re feeling. And what I’m hearing is that you feel this all the time. So, what I don’t understand is, why did you break off learning with Binyamin now, all of a sudden? Did you suddenly feel more alone? Why do you blame him?”

“I don’t blame him. It’s not his fault, or anybody’s fault.”

“So what happened, then?”

“What happened? He found out my secret. He caught me spying on him from the window. Until now, I was keeping it all hidden inside, like the rest of me, the loneliness, the grief, the memories…. I was trying not to show it, but now I’m completely exposed to Binyamin. No secrets left, no privacy, nowhere to hide my terrible weakness. It’s more than shame, — it’s too much — I can’t take it. Am I jealous of him? I don’t know … maybe I am. And if I am, it’s better for me to stay away from him.”

“You think it’s better for you. That’s what you don’t understand.”

“It’s no use, Yankel. I’ll probably never understand. I know you’re trying to help me, but you can’t. Can you tell me why I was the one it happened to? Why was I the one who watched my parents’ burn? The fire inside me never stops raging. Can you tell me why I have to live with memories like that forever?”

“That is exactly the point, Hershel. If you can understand that, then you’ll be on the right path. Before I explain what I mean, tell me one thing: When you’re twenty, forty, sixty years old, do you want to still feel like this, like you’re completely alone? Do you want to carry that sack of pain on your back for the rest of your life? Tell me — yes or no! Im yirtzeh Hashem, you’ll get married one day, you’ll have children and grandchildren. Will you go around thinking you’re all alone even then? Tell me!”

“No, of course not. At least, I hope not.”

“So, you have to start working on it now. Bring down the curtain on the past and start looking forward.”

“Oh, sure! That’s easy to say. It’s just words.”

“I know. But if you want to have a life, you have no other choice. Listen — the thing that’s destroying you, the thing that’s making you so jealous and angry, comes from asking your question in the wrong way. Everyone on this earth has that ‘why me’ question. Everyone in the world, Hershel, is suffering in one way or another, and everyone wants to know, why me? Everybody, Hershel, do you hear me?

“The whole human race is in the same boat, and that’s already a chatzi nechamah. You’re not an only child by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Everyone goes through the same school of life. This is the world of trials, my friend. The Midrash on Parshas Mishpatim says, that there’s no one HaKadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t test. ‘He tests the rich man — will his hand will be open to the poor? And He tests the poor man — can he accept suffering and not get angry?’ It’s an endless struggle. It’s hard. The world isn’t a vacation, it’s a training camp. This is where you learn to pass tests, to correct your middos, and nobody gets a free ride.

“So even if you feel that you’re all alone because you have no family, and people don’t know what you’ve been through, you’re not really alone, because HaKadosh Baruch Hu is testing you, too. Everybody is in the same boat.”

“But why?”

Yankel stood up. “We’ll talk about that. I’ll show you what the Ramchal writes about it. Now it’s time to go in for afternoon seder.”

On the way into the beis medrash, Yankel said offhandedly to Hershel, “Go back to learning with Binyamin in the meantime. He’s very hurt.”

Hershel stopped, anger rising in his heart. “No! That, I won’t do!”

“It’s the beginning of passing your test, Hershel.”

“Show me in the Ramchal where it says I have to do this. I can’t!”

Yankel was quiet. He didn’t press the point.


Days passed. Hershel didn’t return to his chavrusa with Binyamin. The tension between them was the talk of the yeshivah. Hershel decidedly felt that this was his way of voicing his protest against the sum total of his fellow students’ behavior towards him. Although Yankel’s attempt to talk sense into him was beginning to penetrate his rational mind, his heart was still impervious. Even in his heart, there were pockets of awareness that he needed a change of attitude, but on the whole he was still stubbornly set in his ways.

He didn’t fail to notice that Yankel was spending a lot of time talking with the mashgiach during seder, and he was sure he was the subject of their conversation. His heart was crying out for Yankel to invite him for another talk, but Yankel hadn’t approached him. He wondered why. After a week of waiting, Hershel mustered the courage to go over to Yankel during supper.

“Nu, Yankel, you said you wanted to show me what the Ramchal says. What’s the matter — have you also decided it’s no use?”

Yankel gave him a reproving look. “I haven’t seen you learning with Binyamin.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“A lot. Sefer HaChinuch says, ‘The heart is drawn after one’s actions.’ You know that, right? Hershel, your jealousy of Binyamin, and the hatred that comes with it, are growing from day to day. Do you think that sitting on the other side of the beis medrash is going to put out that fire of kinah in your heart? I’ve been watching you; I see your eyes, always looking in his direction. The fire is blazing in you. If you’ll go back to learning with him, the fire will gradually go out. I’m telling you, it’s tried and true. Only when you’ve done that, we can learn the Ramchal.”

Hershel listened with interest. Then he said quietly, as if to himself, “I want to. But I can’t.”

“And I say you don’t want to, Hershel.”



One day a woman showed up at the yeshivah. At the door, she asked the nearest talmid to call a boy named Hershel Friedman.

Hershel was surprised and confused. A lady at the door? For him? Who could it possibly be?

She seemed awfully pleased to see him. “You’re Hershel? Hershel Friedman? What a handsome boy you’ve grown into!”

Hershel stood there, stiff and unresponsive, thinking, “Who is this, anyway? What does she want from me?”

The lady seemed to read his mind, and she rose to the challenge. “Of course, you don’t recognize me. My name is Rochele Blumenkrantz, but you probably have no memory of me. I am — let’s see — I’m your grandfather’s second cousin on your father’s side. Your father’s name was Nesanel, wasn’t it?”

Hershel nodded his head in surprise.

“And your mother’s name was Sarah Leah, right?”

Again, Hershel nodded.

The stranger went on excitedly, “And you had a little sister, now what was her name? Breindel! That was it!”

Hershel had to admit she was correct.

“I remember them! I definitely remember them! My mother and I were at your house once, back in Poland. But we came to Eretz Yisrael a few years before the war and we lost touch…”

She smiled at him. “I’m so thrilled to see you! To know that someone from the family survived…. I thought everybody over there had perished….”

Hershel showed no sign of being thrilled. His distrust showed plainly on his face. Quietly, he asked, “So how did you find out about me all of a sudden — four years after the war ended?”

“You’re right to wonder. What can I say, it just never occurred to me that anyone from the family could have survived and not looked us up. And now, mamesh by chance, a friend of mine who works in the Jewish Agency mentioned to me that Aliyat HaNoar had put out lists of the children they’d brought here, so their relatives could locate them. You know, Hershel, you look a lot like your mother. The same eyes, mamesh.”

Rochele Blumenkrantz rummaged in the bag she was carrying and took out a small package, which she handed to Hershel. “Open it,” she said.

Hesitantly, he obeyed. Pulling back the layers of wrapping, he saw several slices of fresh kokosh cake.

Hershel almost went into shock. Sensing his feelings, Rochele quickly said, “I didn’t know what to bring you … I thought cake would always be nice. The next time you have a free Shabbos, I’ll come and take you to our house, and you’ll get to know your distant relatives. I want you to feel you have a home with us. Oh, Hershel, I’m so excited I could cry!”

She said goodbye and left. Hershel went back to the beis medrash feeling a bit dizzy, holding the open box of cake for all to see, like a conquering hero showing off his trophy.

As he passed near Binyamin’s bench, he stopped for a moment, hesitated, and then said, “Binyamin? Would you like to start learning together again?”


“Tell me, are you really related to Hershel?”

“No, of course not.”

Binyamin’s mother was asking her friend, Rochele Blumenkrantz, about her connection with Hershel Friedman.

“I thought you weren’t. So what made you put on this elaborate show?”

“What’s not to understand? You’re the one who told me all about your son’s poor friend, Hershel. I took pity on him. I decided to see what I could do so he wouldn’t feel so alone…. I made some inquiries, got some information from Aliyat HaNoar, and the rest was easy. You don’t see anything wrong with it, do you? It’s chesed, no?”

(Originally featured in Calligraphy Succos 5773)

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