The Siddur That Saved A Life

An extract from In Search of Holiness, a newly published collection of writings of the late Rabbi Ephraim Gastwirth.


November 7, 2008
Follow The JC on Twitter

The real sermons in life, those which have the greatest impact, are not those which are delivered from the lofty tower of a pulpit to a congregation who are, for the most part, disinclined to be influenced by what they hear.

The effective sermons are those that take us unawares, sideways, without our realizing that we are listening to something that will change our lives.

Such a sermon came to me in Shul, but it was not from the Rabbi, nor was it spoken from the pulpit. It came from my neighbour and it was delivered off the cuff, in a bitter tone and during the service!

He occupied the seat next to mine, and he used to pray in an old and somewhat battered pocket Siddur, the pages of which often drifted to the floor, so that he had to wriggle under the seat to retrieve them. Once, somewhat irritated by these manoeuverings, I presumed to suggest, only half in jest, that it was time he bought a new Siddur.

He turned to me, his face flushed with anger. "This Siddur saved my life, and it will be buried with me".

My irritation gave way to curiosity and I looked sympathetic so that he was encouraged to continue. "As you know", he said, "I spent three years in Auschwitz. Somehow, I managed to smuggle in my Tefillin and this Siddur. I was young and strong and so I was allocated to work in the adjacent arms factory which utilized the inmates of the concentration camp as slave labour".

"We lived surrounded by death, the slightest sign of illness or weakness meant instant dispatch to the gas chambers. One lived by faith alone. Every morning I would rise a little before the others, put on my Tefillin and pray in this Siddur". And he grasped it until his knuckles were white.

"One day stands out in my mind as even more terrible than the rest. I had returned from work, weak and exhausted as usual. Automatically, I slipped my hand into my hiding place to feel for my Tefillin, they were gone! Without them I felt that I had neither the strength nor the will to survive. Every morning they had given
me an injection of courage; they had raised me above an inferno worse than anything Dante had imagined. They connected me to life as a diver is attached to his air-line. They were, almost literally, the dividing line between life and death, one's daily reminder that Hashem was still alive somewhere and that hope still remained.

"But now they were gone! I knew that I could not survive without them. Later that night when all were asleep, I slipped out, risking certain death if caught, and began a systematic search of the grounds. Some deranged person must have thrown them away - out of jealousy perhaps. Who knows? Perhaps someone whom the Nazis had succeeded in turning into an animal, whose Divine spirit they had succeeded in crushing".

"What shall I tell you?" He was pleading with me now to understand him. "That night changed my life forever. I looked Hell in the eye and survived. I crawled and felt my way round and through corpses, living and dead, through rubbish heaps some of which had once been human beings, and I found my lost Tefillin and Siddur! By the side of the barracks where they had been thrown".

"I was conscious of a great surge of spirit, almost of elation. My soul seemed to leave me and soar over my pathetic body. I must survive, I would survive, miracles are not made in vain. Shortly afterwards, we were liberated. I never did find out who had stolen them or why he had done this appalling thing which could bring him no benefit. Was it simply the act of a man who could not bear to see that Hitler had not succeeded in destroying my spirit as he had destroyed his own? The wicked hate to see goodness, it demeans them".

"That night I learned that holiness exists even in the midst of evil, and that to find it you have to exert every ounce of strength, to stretch yourself to the uttermost limits, to reach upwards until your feet barely touch the earth".

He looked down at his Siddur, kissed it reverently and began to pray from it with great fervour. That was the greatest sermon I had ever heard, and it was told by a simple man who had shaken off the dust of Nazi Europe and made a new life in Israel.

Had he realized, I reflected, that his story exactly paralleled the history of Israel in exile? It might almost have been a parable. It was only the fierce attachment of Israel to its Torah and its prayer book that has kept the nation alive throughout its long night of exile. There have been many who have attempted to rob us of this precious lifeline but we have spent the whole of the long dark night desperately determined not to lose it, knowing of a certainty that there could be no meaningful existence for Israel without its Torah and its code of communication to the Eternal.

In Search Of Holiness - The Writings of Rabbi Ephraim Levy Gastwirth, edited by Ruth Last, Mazo Publishers, Israel, £19.95.

Rabbi Gastwirth, a former minister of South Hampstead, Sunderland, Blackpool and Sale congregations, and director of Jewish studies at Carmel College, died two years ago.

    Last updated: 3:52pm, March 3 2010