One of the many virtues of being a rebbe in Heichal HaTorah is the yeshivah’s Rebbe’s Room. I pick up many great Torah thoughts, perspectives, and stories from my far more esteemed colleagues.
One morning recently, I overheard Rabbi Michoel Parnes sharing a story. Seeing the amazement on my face, he offered to give me the phone number of the person who told him the story – Mr. Bernie Hammer – so I could call him and hear it for myself. I took him up on his offer and was glad I did. Mr. Hammer graciously related the following story about his late father, R’ Nosson Hammer z”l.
In his younger years, R’ Hammer had been a student of the famed yeshivah, Chachmei Lublin. Founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, Chachmei Lublin was a majestic Torah institution for elite young scholars. During a time when yeshivah students were disparaged, Rabbi Shapiro founded the yeshivah to raise the esteem of Torah scholars in the eyes of the masses. R’ Hammer was one such scholar and possessed a photographic memory. Decades later, he would repeat shiurim he heard from Rabbi Shapiro verbatim.
During World War II, R’ Hammer was an inmate at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. The camp had two basic sections where inmates were assigned. One was the quarry, which entailed dragging heavy rocks up and down a steep mountain. Most inmates sent there didn’t survive. The other was a factory that produced the Messerschmitt fighter planes that the Nazis used in their battles against the Allies.
One afternoon, a Nazi officer approached R’ Hammer and demanded that he construct the engine to a Messerschmitt by the following morning. If it wasn’t completed, the Nazi vowed R’ Hammer would be shot.
R’ Hammer received permission to remain in the factory overnight. For hours he analyzed the different parts but could not figure out how to construct the engine. Finally, out of complete exhaustion he collapsed into a fitful sleep, assuming it would be his last sleep on earth.
While he was sleeping, an elderly man appeared to him in a dream and told him that he had come to teach him how to assemble the engine, which he proceeded to do. When he woke up, R’ Hammer assembled the engine exactly as he had been shown. When the Nazi officer appeared the following morning, he was flabbergasted. R’ Hammer was allowed to live.
Mr. Hammer related that he isn’t one to easily believe such a story. But his father repeated it so many times over the years, and he would repeat that the dream saved his life. He was never sure who the person who appeared to him was.
That was the fascinating story Rabbi Parnes had related and was now confirmed by Mr. Hammer. However, I found the subsequent story that Mr. Hammer related to me to be even more intriguing:
As the Allies closed in, in the waning weeks of the war, the Nazis forced the 50 weary Flossenbürg inmates onto a death march. Every inmate had to continuously walk in perfect formation, without food, water, or rest. If any of them so much as stumbled or stepped out of line, he was immediately shot, and his dead body left there.
At one point, the Allies began shooting close to where the march was occurring, and the inmates ran in all directions. The nefarious Nazi guards mercilessly shot at the hapless inmates. All those inmates but R’ Hammer and two others were killed. R’ Hammer was shot in the back, one of the other two was shot in the leg (which later had to be amputated), and the third inmate was shot, as well.
The three men escaped into a nearby barn. Since he was in the best condition of the three, R’ Hammer broke into a nearby tavern and stole a bottle of milk. As he was leaving, a Nazi saw him and threw a grenade at him. For the rest of his life, R’ Hammer had pieces of shrapnel from that grenade lodged in his back.
A few weeks later, after the war had already ended, the trio of survivors were walking on a local German street, when they noticed their former Nazi guard, now wearing civilian clothes, walking opposite them. They immediately ran over to him and began beating him.
At the time, the American military was trying to keep order. An American officer saw the brawl and brought all four of them to a military station for further investigation. When the three Jews explained who their “victim” was, the American officer asked if they had any proof. It seemed like a hopeless request. How could they prove anything? Yet, R’ Hammer replied that he indeed could prove their claim. He told the American officer to remove the German’s boot and to gently turn it over on the table.
When the American officer did so, out came gold watches, earrings, and a lot of other expensive jewelry. The American officer realized there was truth in their claim and investigated further. The German was subsequently hanged.
Mr. Hammer continued that when he asked his father how he thought to tell the American officer that idea on the spur of the moment, his father replied with just two words: “Abayei v’Rava!”
[Abayei and Rava were two of the greatest Torah leaders during the years of the teachings of the Gemara, both living about 280-350 CE. It’s said that no four consecutive folios of Gemara pass without the text mentioning Abayei and Rava. Their constant Talmudic debates represent and are synonymous with Talmudic debate.]
To me, that story is even more powerful than the first. We learn Gemara because it contains the foundation of our traditions and the building blocks upon which Torah observance is based. The side benefit of learning Gemara is that it trains a person to think out of the box, to see another perspective, to mine beneath the surface, and to be inquisitive, intuitive, and focused.
Our enemies, particularly the Nazis, were well aware of the centrality of Gemara to the Jewish people. They therefore made a supreme effort to destroy the Talmud and forbid its study.
Yet, Abayei v’Rava have outlived them and continue to be studied throughout the world. R’ Hammer noted that he had prevailed because of Abayei v’Rava. No doubt, he wasn’t only referring to that encounter with the Nazi, but to his entire survival and rebuilding afterwards.
In fact, it’s the story of our people. We have endured so much, yet we continue to thrive. How? Abayei v’Rava!
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