Remember Us| May 31, 2022
Through it all my father remembered his promise, what he’d taken upon himself on that long ago night of mourning on a hilltop
As told to Rivka Streicher by Surie Kaszirer
Men working in the night, digging, digging, six feet down. In that makeshift grave they placed the scrolls — scraps and tatters of sifrei Torah.
For 50 years my father was haunted by the memory of that night.
My father, Reb Berel Ostreicher a”h, was born in 1922, in Helmec, Czechoslovakia, a small town near the Hungarian border, the youngest of eight in a warm, chasiddish home.
War came and in 1943 he was taken to the Munkatabor, those infamous Hungarian forced labor camps. There, the 21-year-old was assigned the backbreaking work of clearing forests and laying railroad tracks into the mountains.
In December 1944, the Allies were advancing, war was winding down, and my father escaped the labor camp. He left through the forest, a fugitive under cover of darkness. He walked for weeks until finally he reached his hometown of Helmec.
Helmec was in ruins. He met a few other survivors, but so many were gone. Most of these men were the sole survivors of their families. Their houses and businesses had been plundered by the Hungarian Nazis, and the Jewish businesses taken over by local peasants.
The great shul of Helmec was filthy and desecrated. The floor was covered in dirt and horse manure. A stable for horses. That’s what the Nazis had turned the shul into. The men were horrified. They quickly started clearing up. But the dirt was just the beginning of the horror, for they soon realized what was covering the surface of the floor; it was the holy scrolls, the unrolled sifrei Torah, damaged beyond repair. In shock they rolled up the torn scrolls and with broken hearts carried them to a hillside cemetery on the edge of town.
There they buried the holy scrolls. And they lamented. They tore their garments and sat on the ground. Here was a grave for all those who had no grave, no burial place at all. Here these men found a place that allowed them to mourn.
And on that night my father made a promise.
Somehow, against the odds, despite the Gehinnom they’d been through, life started anew. The war was over, and refugees started coming back. My parents met and started their married life in Helmec. They became involved in rebuilding not only their family, but the community as well. They opened their home to young refugees, they received many famous rabbanim. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, their table was filled with guests.
At the same time my father started a business and traveled through different regions to establish his trade. Wherever he went he would check out stores and pharmacies. He was looking for soaps with the initials RIF, which many, including my father, believed stood for “Rein-jüdisches-Fett” (“pure Jewish fat”), and were manufactured from the remains found in the crematoria.
He purchased these bars of soap and he buried them on the grassy hillside adjacent to the grave of the sifrei Torah.
Time passed, and the survivors departed blood-soaked Europe. My parents left with two infant girls. Four more children were born in America. We were raised in the ways of my parents, to emulate their Torah, avodah, and gemilus chasadim. Soon grandchildren were born.
Through it all my father remembered his promise, what he’d taken upon himself on that long ago night of mourning on a hilltop. It became his mission — to erect a matzeivah for the holy scrolls they’d found on the ground of the shul, and the remnants of the kedoshim in the bars of soap.
Fifty years passed.
Once again my father stood at that hillside cemetery in Helmec. It was a sunny August day, a world apart from that long-ago night. On the other side of 50 years, he now had a son, daughter, and grandson with him.
Three generations stood and watched as the matzeivah was being erected. A gal eid, an eternal monument and testimony to Klal Yisrael.
In a voice choked with tears, my father thanked Hashem for all the miracles and kindnesses that He had bestowed upon him. His voice rang out in the stillness of the cemetery, “Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker.” The Jewish People will live on.
Something of the kavod was restored. The sifrei Torah finally had a matzeivah. And on that day, on that sacred spot, my father fulfilled a 50-year-old promise.
In memory of my beloved father, Reb Shloime Dov ben Alexander Yosef a”h
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 913)
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