Monday, December 21, 2009

An X-mas Carol, and Silvesterabend

A few months ago, a good friend and neighbor, and a member of my Daf Yomi for many years, passed away.  He was a Lithuanian Jew, and his name was Yosef Aronovitz.  As a child, he studied in the Cheder in Kelm, where he saw the great tzadikim of the Kelmer Talmud Torah, including Reb Doniel, an experience that he likened to being in the presence of angels.  Later, he spent time in Warsaw, where he met Menachem Begin, with whom he spent many hours discussing the future of the Jewish people and their hopes for a Jewish State.  He was a kind and precious man whose life experience reflected the horrors of the end of of the Jewish sojourn in Europe.  He survived a Nazi death march, watching nine of ten of the others die along the way, but he eventually succumbed to the murderous evil of Auschwitz and was placed on a conveyor belt to be cremated.  A technician happened to see his body move, felt a pulse, and removed him from the conveyor belt and sent him to the hospital so that the doctors could determine what had enabled him to survive that which had killed so many others.

He once told me that he survived for two reasons.  First, he said, the heavier people, the well fed, died right away, and he had always been thin.  Second, and more importantly, he survived the mind-destroying experience because of his absolute faith, his emunah and bitachon.  He told me a story that deserves to be heard.

One December 25th, it was bitterly cold and snowing, and he heard the camp guards singing in their barracks.  He heard them melodiously singing a favorite carol, "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht", which we know as Silent Night.  Then the door of the barracks opened, a drunken guard came out, walked to the building where the starved and freezing Jews lay, and opened the door and grabbed one man and pulled him out into the courtyard, where he began to beat him with his fists and boots.  As the guard broke and bled the Jew to death, Mr. Aronovitz heard the guard say "I know that you Jews will always be in the world- Der ewige Jude - the Eternal Jew- but now, here, we are going to kill as many of you as we can."

I don't know how others would react to this experience, but I can tell you what Mr. Aronovitz said.  He said, "I heard it from the mouth of a shikereh poyer, a drunken peasant.  Even ah shikereh poyer knows that the Jews are eternal.  How can anyone not believe it?"

We Jews, always surrounded by others who disparage our stubborn faith, need to remember Mr. Aronovitz's lesson..  The Christians say, yes, the Jewish People received revelation from God, the Jews were chosen by God, but....., and the Muslims say, yes, the Jews were the first to receive revelation from God, but........  But what?  But nothing.  Every tall steeple and every ring of a church bell, every minaret and every song of a muezzin, testifies unwittingly and unwillingly that the Torah is true and that the Jews have a unique relationship with Hashem and a unique responsibility to Hashem.  Even ah shikereh poyer knows it.  How can anyone not believe it?

Just a footnote: It's interesting to see how cultural referents can be so different.  Around twenty years ago, my children went down the block to my father zt'l's house, and one of them had a little backpack with a picture of Sylvester the Cat on it, with the name Sylvester underneath.  My father was upset; he said, how can I allow my son to carry around such a name?  I had no idea what he was talking about.  It was just a cartoon character.  I later learned that in the area he grew up, in Lithuania/Germany, New Year's Eve was Silvesterabend, the day of veneration of Saint Sylvester, one of the leaders of the early Church.  He was not a friend of the Jews.  Apparently, the commemoration of Saint Sylvester involved sermons demonizing the Jews, and on that night, any Jew found on the street would be viciously beaten or killed.  To my father, Sylvester was not a puddytat.  He was a reminder of one of the several days, like Easter, when the life of a Jew was even cheaper than usual.

I just mentioned Silversterabend to my mother shetichyeh, who comes from Kelm and Shavlan, and she recoiled.  She, too, remembers this to be a day when a Jew being out on the street meant he was taking his life in his hands.  She remembers that on that day, the priests would always fulminate about how the Jews killed their God, and the congregants would rush out of church looking for Jews from whom they could take revenge.

It's a classic irony, though, how we taught the world about monotheism and ethics, and they turn that religious teaching itself into an excuse to murder people.  Also, see the comments, below, for a discussion of Sylvesterabend and the absurd reality that in Israel, New Years is called Sylvester.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.


  1. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

    Thank you for this story Barzilai.

    I hope yours was a wonderful trip to Eretz HaKadosh.


  2. Thanks. It was a nice trip; mostly spent with children, with side trips to Machane Yehuda, Ben Yehuda (not Crack Square, only Cafe Rimon), and a day trip to Ein Tzukim nature reserve near Ein Gedi. I would have preferred to spend most of the time accumulating warmth and sun in Eilat, but I went with my rebbitzen. One odd experience, though. A relative lives in a place called Yahud, and says a Daf Yomi. One guy attends sporadically and sits without a gemara and just comments. Every shiur has a clown like that. In any case, this particular guy has a pet cemetary in Israel. Odd enough as is, but wait till you hear the rest. He says that people BRING THEIR DEAD PETS FROM CHUTZ LA'ARETZ TO BE BURIED THERE. Maybe just their ashes.

  3. May you be Zocher to continue to tell over what we tend to "not" remember.
    When we suffer the loss of an older member of the Kal we not only loose a man but we loose a library.

    Be Well

  4. powerful. btw barzilai you never replied to my comment in the "going to israel" post...

  5. In Israel it is still called Sylvester

  6. On the topic here in this Shiur he explains why it is still called Sylvester in Israel and its Amazing otherwise

  7. Anonymous 12-24-09, thanks for the link.

    Rabbi Keleman quotes the
    U.S. News and World Report December 23, 1996 as saying the following:

    The Israeli term for New Year’s night celebrations, “Sylvester,” was the name of the “Saint” and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic “Saints” are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day - hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.