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Tunes of Redemption

A grandson’s quest to trace Modzhitz composer Reb Azriel David Fastag

Photos: Mishpacha Archives

Many readers are familiar with the story of the beloved baal menagen of the Modzhitz court, Reb Azriel David Fastag Hy”d and the famous “Ani Maamin” death train to Treblinka. It was 1942, and tens of thousands of Jews were being shipped off daily to their deaths in cattle cars — to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, and other death camps.

Inside one of those overcrowded, airless cars, where people were dying, crushed and standing, before the train even reached its destination, Reb Azriel David Fastag stood wrapped in his tallis, imagining himself on Yom Kippur standing next to his rebbe, Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub of Modzhitz, as he led the Rebbe’s davening in front of the chassidim. And then in his mind’s eye, he saw the words of the 12th Ani Maamin — “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming.”

Closing his eyes, he thought, “Now, when everything seems lost, a Jew’s faith is put to the test.” And so he began to sing, first quietly, then stronger, and before he knew it, the entire cattle car was singing with him — broken and battered Jews on their way to their deaths, singing the song of eternal faith. Reb Azriel David opened his eyes to the sight of the singing train, and cried out, “I will give half of my portion in Olam Haba to whoever can bring my song to the Modzhitzer Rebbe!” He took out a scrap of paper and wrote down the notes.

The Rebbe, who had lived in Otvosk outside Warsaw, had chassidim throughout Poland, and one of them was Reb Azriel David Fastag, noted throughout Warsaw and beyond for his special voice and niggunim. Thousands would come to hear him and his brothers — his backup choir — on the Yamim Noraim, and his biggest admirer was the Rebbe himself: When a new niggun by Reb Azriel David reached the Rebbe, it was a veritable Yom Tov for him. In 1939, the Modzhitzer Rebbe’s chassidim managed to smuggle him out of Poland into Vilna, and from there he made his way across Russia to Shanghai and then to the shores of San Francisco, ultimately reaching New York in 1940, where he began to rebuild the chassidus. He himself was a gifted songwriter who created over 1,000 niggunim.

But would Reb Azriel David’s last niggun — the niggun of faith when G-d seems so hidden — ever get to his rebbe? Suddenly two young men shouted that yes, they would bring the niggun to the Rebbe at any cost. One of them climbed on the other’s shoulders, found a crack in the train’s roof, and then proceeded to jump. One was killed instantly from the fall, but the other survived, eventually making his way to Eretz Yisrael where the Rebbe’s son Rav Shmuel Eliyahu (the Imrei Eish) was living, and the notes were then mailed to Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar in New York.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 780)

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