Baruch Hashem
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My Father's Machzor

On Yom Kippur of 1951, my father, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, faithfully prayed all the Yom Kippur prayers. All, that is, except one that is often regarded as the most solemn of the holy day's prayers, the Kol Nidrei.

He was twenty years old and a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. His crime was trying to escape from Russia.

He dreamed of leaving the country and reaching the land of Israel. But he was caught and sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor. He was separated from his parents and two sisters. His brother was already a prisoner in another camp for a similar "crime."

There were about 1,000 men in my father's camp, all laboring on the construction of an electrical power station. About twenty of the prisoners were Jews.

As the summer drew to a close, the Jewish prisoners yearned to observe the upcoming High Holidays. They knew they would lack a shofar (ram's horn), Torah scroll and tallitot (prayer shawls), but they hoped they could find a machzor, a High Holiday prayer book.

My father spotted a man from the "outside," an engineer who worked for the camp on certain projects. He believed the engineer might be a Jew.

So he waited for an opportunity to approach the engineer. "Kenstu meer efsher helfen?" he whispered to the man in Yiddish ("Perhaps you can help me?").

At that time, most Russian Jews were fluent in Yiddish. He saw the flicker of comprehension in the engineer's eyes.

"Can you bring a machzor for me, for the Jews here?" my father asked. The engineer hesitated. Such a transaction would endanger both of their lives. Even so, the engineer agreed to try.

A few days passed. "Any developments?" my father asked.

"Good news and bad news," the engineer replied. He had located a machzor with difficulty, but it was the only machzor belonging to his girlfriend's father, and the man was furious when his daughter asked him to give it up. Maybe she told him why she wanted it, maybe not.

My father would not relent, however. Perhaps, he suggested, the man would lend him the book and he could copy it and return it in time for Rosh Hashanah.

The engineer smuggled the machzor into the camp and passed it to my father.

To copy it, my father built a large wooden box and crawled into it for a few hours each day. There, hidden from view, he copied the prayer book, line by line, into a notebook. After a month, he had copied the entire machzor. But there was one page missing — the one containing Kol Nidrei, the very first prayer recited on Yom Kippur.

Click Image to enlarge
Photo: Chabad Library
The Machzor Rabbi Moshe Greenberg copied by hand in a labor camp in Omsk, Siberia in 1951

My father returned the book, and autumn arrived. The Jewish prisoners learned the dates of the impending holidays from letters from home and, on the holiday, they bribed the guards, probably with cigarettes, to allow them to gather in the barrack for services.

With his handwritten prayer book, my father served as hazzan (cantor) and recited each prayer, repeated by others in low solemn voices. Seven days later, they met for Kol Nidrei services. But despite their efforts, none of the worshippers could recall all of the words of that prayer from memory.

After nearly seven years in jail, my father, along with all political prisoners, were released, owing to the death of Joseph Stalin. The only item my father took with him was his machzor.

He was reunited with his family near Moscow and later married. I was an infant when, in 1967, fifteen years after his release from prison, my family was allowed to immigrate to Israel. The machzor came with us.

My father, who still lives in Bnei Brak, Israel, doesn't like to recall those painful years in Siberia. But on the rare occasions that I hear him tell a story from those times, he tearfully states that he had never participated in services as meaningful as those in prison.

In 1973, he visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York and presented the machzor to him as a gift.

Click Image to enlarge
My Father, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg

A few months ago, I visited the Rebbe's library and found my father's machzor. I looked at the worn book with its fragile pages and Hebrew letters written in haste and with such respect and determination. I copied it — on a copying machine.

This Yom Kippur, as I lead the services at the Chabad Jewish Center of Solon, Ohio, I will have with me the copy of my father's machzor, with the Kol Nidrei prayer still missing.

My father couldn't recite Kol Nidrei during his years in prison. This year I will ask my congregation, and all of us, to say it for him and anyone else who may not have the opportunity to do so.

Holy Day

It began like any one of the indistinguishable, mechanical days which had followed one another in monotonous succession. By now time—hours, days, weeks—had lost their individual marks; the calendar with its neat little boxes of dates and holidays seemed like some foreign relic of another age. Even Shabbat had merged, unnoted, unsanctified, into the large mass of minutes pushed behind: that many minutes lived, that many minutes yet free. In our windowless subterranean shelter there was no hint of the chang­ing light outside, and day and night became mere formalities which we ad­hered to by the clock. The unshaded electric bulbs hanging from the low, sloping ceiling were the only sun we had seen in weeks, months—no one remembered just how long.

We, that is my mother, my two sis­ters and I, lived as Christians—Catholics—like the scores of families which surrounded us on all sides: we shared the pavement floor of their bomb shelter, we ate their food, we shared their trembling at the ceaseless roar and crash of Budapest above us; we shared their prayers and knelt side by side with them. Our society of maybe a hundred women, children and disabled men—the others were out fighting—became the whole world for us; only very rarely did anyone venture out into the death-infested streets to bring us news of the war-crazed world outside, and then, most of our people did not care to hear it. Thus day followed day till we had lost the will to count them.

Yet, as soon as I woke up, I knew that there was something different about this day; I opened my eyes, looked around, and felt that empty place inside which reminded me that something very familiar, something very important was missing. Turning on my straw mattress I surveyed the floor around me: there lay the sleeping forms of my mother and sisters breathing heavily under their thin blankets. They were all here. My father was "outside" somewhere, work­ing for the underground escape system and my brother was in hiding somewhere else: he looked too Jewish to risk being with us. But they hadn't been with us for months—it wasn't either of them. Suddenly I remembered: it was Max —Max had not come back since the day before yesterday, and no one knew where he was, or, at least that's what they told me. He was much older than I—Max—perhaps even as old as my father, but he was my only friend in this place full of strange faces and fear. Where could he be? And he, who always kept his word, why didn't he keep his promise to me?

Quietly, so as not to rouse the others, I crept to the edge of the curtain that my mother had hung up to give us a little corner of privacy, and tiptoed outside. Most of the people in the shelter were still asleep and the lights, except for the center one which burned through the night, were not yet lit. The place was dark and full of shadows and the thick air was very hard to breathe. But Max was not puttering around, up before everyone else the way he always used to be. I waited and waited but still he did not come.

My mother hated Max—she told me time and again not to go with him on our "promenades" around the shelter, but she never said it in front of him and I went anyway. Max was wonderful. He'd come at any odd time of day with his big laugh, grab me, hoist me in the air unto his shoulders and say, with his big laugh:

"Well, my queen, where shall we promenade today? In the forest pri­meval? By the babbling brook? Or shall we just roam through the fields of laughing daisies?" I'd hang unto the dusty, blue beret which he wore for all our excursions as we climbed into our coach-of-eight or stepped into an idly gliding gondola. Then each broken chair and bed and old box in the dingy cellar turned into trees and rocks and flowers; the sun shone or there were sudden violent storms, according to his mood; there were animals and people to watch; and then there were stories, countless stories to tell. Somewhere in the "fields" we would find a spot for our picnic and through some magic power which I have never figured out to this day, Max would produce, from deep down in his cavernous pockets, a much coveted candy for dessert.

When Max was around the days passed like minutes; people watched us and laughed and sometimes forgot that they no longer cared.

But there was another side to Max, too: on some days a dark and gloomy look used to come on his face. In the middle of a promenade he dropped me, suddenly, as if I were no longer there. He would begin to mutter to himself and pace the shelter, his head thrust before him and his hands behind his back, fiercely, like a caged animal. After a while he'd get so worked up that he talked louder and louder and paced faster and faster till, finally, he grabbed a box from somewhere, jumped on it and tearing off his beret, began on one of his interminable tirades about G‑d and people and war. At the time of course I didn't understand most of what he said but the words which he used again and again were sharply im­printed on my child's mind:

"Sheep, sheep—that's what we are—we're not people—we're sheep that walk right into the wolf's fangs. We deserve what's happening to us, we deserve the war and the death and the torture and let me tell you there's more yet to come, things unimaginable—hell on earth—before they will have done with us. Yes, hell—the hell you're all so afraid of after your puny little lives are over—hell is here on earth and you, you have created it in the name of G‑d! We deserve to live like animals because we are ani­mals! For centuries and centuries we cowered and served and knelt like ani­mals. We are not men—to men this truly could not happen—only to the shells of men who were taught to walk on all fours and not think. In the name of G‑d! Always in the name of G‑d! Well look around, you worshippers of graven images, where is your G‑d now? Why is He hiding? Where is His justice to those who have served Him faithfully? Is this His world or isn't it? And the one that spits on His name rides in glory. What a laugh, what a joke!" He looked around, eyes spitting fire, hands outstretched. "I'll tell you why. Because," and his voice fell to a sudden whispered hiss, "because He isn't, that's why. Your G‑d isn't. There is no G‑d up there—only blue and infinite space and that's what you're praying to." Slowly, the women and children and crippled and old men turned from him; the nuns—there were three in our shelter—knelt quickly and crossed themselves.

"Look at me," Max continued, jabbing at his breast, "look at me. I am safe because I have no religion—no one will touch me for I am a man, nothing less and nothing more than a man. There are no Christians, no Jews, no Moslems—there are only men; there is only this!" Suddenly his wild hands found me and hoisted me high up into the air, "This is my god! The child, the man, the human being—that's my god and there is no other!" My mother came then and looked at him with tears in her eyes. She took my hand and led me quietly away. But he would go on for hours, until, completely spent, he threw himself down somewhere and slept. When he woke it was as if a storm had passed and the sun shone with a washed brightness.

But now Max was gone—gone since the day before yesterday—and there was nothing to do, no one to talk to, no one to romp with. Listlessly I walked back to our little, curtained-off corner.

Slowly the shelter came to life. My mother got up and prepared breakfast—a few crackers with some jam we still had left, but neither of my two sisters nor my mother touched the food.

"Don't be foolish, Anna, you must eat. Whatever we have left we must use for our strength." My sister just looked at the floor and didn't answer.

"But why aren't you eating, Mommy? Why isn't anyone eating?" My mother looked away, too.

"I'm not hungry this morning, but you just eat—you eat my portion also. I'll eat later." There was that solemn look on her face and she watch­ed me sadly as she used to on special days before we moved out of our house and stopped being Jews. Suddenly, she put her two hands on my head and said a few words quietly the way my father often did. And then I started to cry.

"Where is Max, Mommy? Why does­n't he come back? You know where he is, don't you?"

"Shh—don't talk about him. You mustn't talk about him anymore or mention his name. It's dangerous." The special tone of that last word was very familiar to me and usually it answered everything, but today I perversely persisted.

"Why? Are you still angry at him for what happened with that--"

"With nothing," my mother broke in quickly, "nothing happened. Do you understand? Nothing at all happened. You must not forget that—it's very, very important." Now her tone was very serious, very intense. I nodded, slowly, and kept quiet. But after a while I went off by myself and sat down to think about what I knew had happened.

It was the night before last, the night when Max left.

He had barged in on us after the curtain was already up, while my mother and sisters were out talking to some of our neighbors. Left to ourselves, we began to rummage through all our belongings, just for the fun of it. Sud­denly his hands found a little black book hidden under piles of clothing. He looked into it curiously and then slapped his thigh and laughed louder and louder till he was almost shrieking. My mother ran in and seeing the thing in his hands she stopped short and looked at him.

"Are you completely crazy? Watch yourself!" She whispered. But he just went on rolling on the floor and laughing.

"Of all the insane things in the world! A siddur, a siddur!" he was spluttering, choking, "not a gun, not a pill, not even food to save themselves with. A siddur!" As suddenly as it came the laughter went and he was in a rage. He grabbed my mother and shook her, "Why did you keep this? What do you think this magic object will do for you, huh? Can't you understand that you really are not a Jew? That I'm not a Jew, that there is no such thing as a Jew?"

Now my mother just looked at him and her eyes said nothing.

"I don't know what you're talking about or where you got that thing from. Take it and leave, we would like to go to sleep." Then, she looked steadily in his eyes and crossed herself solemnly, while he stared, with the siddur in his hands. But he didn't leave right away. First he tore out all the pages of the siddur, shredded them, spit on them and stamped on them wildly with his feet. A cold shiver ran down my spine and I made a move forward but my mother's eyes were on me and I froze. Then Max took my hands and looked at me.

"At least you—at least the young and uncorrupted should know. There is no G‑d up there my child; there is no magic power in these pages. Everything that you could ever do or be is in here," and he jabbed my hand with his finger, "there is nothing, noth­ing up there. Remember that." With that he turned and he walked out quietly; he walked right out through the door of the shelter. Seeing the dark, angry look on his face, I ran after him "Max, Max, where are you going?" But gently he pushed me back. "No, my child, not now. Now I must go by myself. But I'll be back for you—I promise. I will be back before you are up tomorrow morning."

And that was the last I saw of him. My mother swept up the torn pages of the siddur. For a moment she hesi­tated, then she wrapped them up in an old newspaper and gave them to my sister.

"It's the only way. It will have to go out with the garbage."

And now my mother said that noth­ing had happened. I knew better, but I understood: it was dangerous.

The day dragged on. I wandered about the shelter trying to work up the magic by myself but it was no good without Max. At lunch I ate alone again; my mother said she had already eaten. Then I just sat in a corner and sulked most of the afternoon. From time to time I looked up hopefully, but no one ducked under the low archway into the shelter.

It was towards evening when I sensed a sudden commotion: someone had come in, someone new. I ran out to look—maybe it was Max. But, then I stopped, frozen. The man who was hurrying forward with his head bent and his hands pressed close to his sides was not Max—it was my father, whom I hadn't seen in months. As soon as he reached our corner he sat on one of the beds with his back to the rest of the shelter. His face was deathly white and I noticed a steady trickle of red dripping from his fingers. My mother hadn't moved all this while and then my father spoke quickly but quietly.

"I am a friend of your late husband's who died recently in action. This is the first you hear of it. His last request was that I see you. I am wounded and in need of rest. You think up the details. Put up the curtain." As soon as the curtain was up and my sister had gone out to tell my father's tale to our closest neighbors, we saw my father's hands. The skin was in shreds and the bones of his fingers were exposed. His legs, too, under the tattered trousers, were bruised and bloody. My mother bandaged him with strips of a sheet and in a few words his story, which I understood only much much later, was told.

Someone had denounced him to the Gestapo as a Jew and worker for the underground. They came looking for him in his hiding place. He jumped two flights out of a window, scaled one concrete garden wall after another with his bare hands and knees and with guns shooting behind him; he outran and outwitted a detachment of blood­hound-trained SS men and now he was here.

"But soon I must go," he said, "I can't endanger the rest of you. You will hear from me as soon as I am safe. With the help of G‑d our passports to Switzerland should be coming through soon."

My mother was pulling out our little kerosene stove. "I will make you something warm to drink and then, at least, sleep a while before you go." My father looked for his watch, but it was gone.

"No, it isn't time, yet. But, it's almost night." My mother just stared at him.

"Do you know what you're doing? How can you go on like this? You must eat something—you must have strength, I tell you!"

"And since when does our food give us strength?" My father asked softly. "And who knows whether fasting does not give more strength than food? This is a time when each man's deepest nature is uncovered and each man sees what he wants to see. Some see a mad, senseless chaos and some see in the chaos the Hand of G‑d on each in­dividual human being. Oh, if only we could understand! Baruch Dayan Emes." Then my father lay down and slept and a little while later he left us again.

It was only later, after the war, that I heard what else my mother found out that day. It was about Max. He had been found the day before, thrown into a doorway near our shelter. He had been shot through the head—maybe by Nazis who found him, maybe by Jews who feared him—nobody knew. But on him, tacked onto his clothing, they found a piece of paper with the word "Jude" scrawled in big letters. There it lay on his breast.

I had been sitting, idly playing with a flashlight, when my father left. Now my mother turned on me in fierce anger.

"Put that down." But I was bored and rebellious and did not obey.

"Put that down, I say."

"But why?" Then my mother's anger faded and she leaned close and whisper­ed in my ear.

"Silly, because it's Yom Kippur and that's mukzah."

My hand dropped the flashlight almost of its own accord. It was Yom Kippur—that's why nobody had wanted to eat! Blurred images of another Yom Kippur flitted through my mind—the look on my mother's face, my father's hands on my head, people all in white, and the whole day in shul—but it was all so far away.

Now I wanted to think about Max. Somehow I had a sad, empty feeling that he wouldn't come back, and I was angry at him, for he, who always kept his word, had broken his promise to me.

The Captured Soul
Once there was a Jewish innkeeper (who we will call Avraham) who lived with his wife and children in a small village and eked out a living from a small inn he rented.

This Avraham, being a Chassid, always tried to be in a good mood and treat all his clients, even the coarsest drunks, with respect and even admiration. And as a result the inn was always peaceful, never empty and despite being often filled with drunks, never out of control.

It so happened that one day a certain Baron from a distant town happened to stop in Avraham's inn and was very impressed with what he saw.

"Ach!!" He thought to himself "If I had a manager like this in my inn it
might make a profit!"

As Divine Providence would have seems that this Baron also owed an inn. but it was a miserable failure and now he understood why; his manager was a half- drunkard with a terrible disposition that drove the clients away.

The Baron made Avraham an offer. Avraham was flattered but said he had to ask his Rebbe first. He traveled to Rav Mair of Parmishlian, the Rebbe gave his consent, and two days later the Baron's men had loaded all of Avraham's possessions into boxes and he and his family were on the way to their new home.

It was like a dream! In just a few months his inn was full of customers and was finally making money.. The Baron was overjoyed!

Then, one night when the inn was empty, the Baron came in with a miserably depressed look on his face, sat at a table in the corner, ordered a brandy, lit his pipe and just stared at the wall.

It was inevitable that Avraham had to ask him what was wrong and it wasn't long before the Baron began pouring his broken heart out.

True he was the Baron and everyone envied him but in fact, despite his wealth and success he was miserable; his only son was insane.

The boy never spoke a word; from the day he was born all he did was scream, kick, bite, throw things and go into tantrums without warning. At first they thought he was just hyperactive but as he grew they realized that something was seriously wrong.

They took him to the best doctors in the world but they all said there was no hope. He had to be watched constantly by two guards lest he hurt himself or someone else.

And today was his fourteenth birthday. The Baron was at his wit's end, about to go insane himself! It seemed that he would have to put the boy a madhouse and it was breaking his heart... But there was no other alternative.

Avraham told him not to worry, sat down opposite him and told him about his Rebbe.

The Baron's eyes lit up with hope.

He announced that he would gladly take Avraham and his family to this Rebbe of his and give him a nice reward as well if it would cure his son.

In a few days they were on their way in two large carriages, one for Avraham and his family and one for the Baron and his and when they arrived Avraham immediately wrote a letter to the Rebbe explaining the Baron's problem. 

But in a few hours the Rebbe's secretary returned, took Avraham off to a side and gave him a disheartening answer;

'The Rebbe says he cannot see the Baron or his son. Don't tell the Baron this but the Rebbe says that when he blesses a Jew and, G‑d forbid, the blessing doesn't take effect, the Jew will justify what happened and won't get angry. But if his blessings don't materialize for this Baron he'll get angry and won't even try to understand. Rather he will be certain to take revenge and everyone will suffer."

But when the Baron heard that the Rebbe refused he got furious and screamed. "If this Rebbe of yours doesn't want to bless me then you and all the other Jews can get off my lands! Understand? Find another place to live!!"

Poor Avraham never saw the Baron act like this. He wrote another letter to the Rebbe explaining the Baron's reaction and pleading for help and this time he got the appointment he wanted.

The Baron entered the Rebbe's office with Avraham, stood respectfully in the presence of this holy man, apologized for his anger and then wept as he repeated his tragic story.

The Rebbe looked up for a moment and said. "If you want your son to be healthy . the only one that can do it is a priest they call Father Thaddius that lives in a small town near the city of Lemberg. Only he can help."

"A priest?" Thought Avraham to himself. "Am I hearing right? How can an idolater possibly do what the Rebbe cannot?"

But the Baron did not sense the irony.  The next day he loaded his son, his two guards and, of course, Avraham on his carriage and set off in the direction of Lemberg.

They searched and searched from village to village with no results. No one heard of a father Thaddius until, near the end of the day, one villager said that he heard that in the next village was a new priest who the rumor had it, had once been called by a different name. Possibly this was who they were looking for.

And sure enough in the next village in a small church they found a priest that admitted to having changed his name from Thaddius several years ago for spiritual reasons.

But every time he looked at Avraham he began to mumble bitterly and when he heard that a Rabbi had sent them he began cursing in every way possible; spitting out blasphemies against the Jews and their beliefs.

Avraham was really perplexed. This fellow did not look at all spiritual, exactly the opposite. But the Baron paid no attention to this and ordered his men to bring his son in.

"Listen, Father" the Bishop said, "I want you to try to cure my son.  I'll
give you whatever money you want.. just please help me! I'm sure you can do it. "

And saying this, the two guards brought his son in the room.

As soon as the boy saw the priest, it was as though a bolt of electricity passed through him. With one twist he broke loose from his guards and jumped at the priest as though possessed; knocking him to the ground and punching, kicking and biting him with such fury that only after several minutes were the guards able to tear him off. 

The priest lay on the ground semi-conscious, bleeding and moaning when suddenly the boy in the clutches of his guards turned to his father, smiled for the first time in his life and said in the calmest and most normal voice. "Thank you daddy.  Whew! I'm really tired after all that. What do you say we return home?"

It was the first time he had spoken since his birth!!

Needless to say Avraham was stunned by all this and even the hard hearted Baron was so overcome with joy that he began hugging and kissing Avraham and gave him a large sum of money for his Rebbe.

Of course when Avraham returned home and reported to to the Rebbe what had happened he asked for an explanation. The Rebbe smiled and explained, 

"That evil priest Thaddius once kidnapped a simple Jewish orphan and tried to force her to accept his religion but she refused for weeks on end. The girl somehow escaped and ran away into the woods. She almost would have made it to freedom but when crossing the frozen river the ice cracked and she fell in and drowned.

It so happened that at that very moment of her death the Bishop, his wife and their newborn son passed by in a carriage and somehow the poor girl's tormented soul entered the baby. And that is why he was insane; he truly was a man possessed.

But just now when the Baron's son was brought to the priest the soul jumped out in revenge and entered his body until justice will be done and then he soul will be released.