A number of years ago, I struck up a friendship over Pesach with a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of the Janowska work camp and Auschwitz. Towards the end of the week I summoned up the nerve to ask him if there was anything that stood out in his mind as the reason he had survived. Without hesitation, he responded: “It was one mitzvah — the Sukkos I spent in Auschwitz.”
When he arrived in Auschwitz in the middle of his 13th year, one of the Kapos, the barracks captains who often exceeded the Nazis in cruelty, arranged for him to be in charge of the daily rations to be given out to the prisoners at the end of the day. It was a job that would save his life.
He spent the days in a small shed attached to the large barracks, responsible for dividing up the bread and soup. Because of his access to food, he was often put into difficult situations having to respond to desperate fellow prisoners. One day, while preparing the rations, he heard banging on the door of the shed and opened it to discover a man he knew to be a great Torah scholar and one of the eminent rabbis of his area before the war.
Before he could turn the man away, the man stepped into the shed, telling Yaakov he needed a favor.
“You know tonight is the first night of Sukkos, and I need two whole loaves of bread before you cut them up, so I can fulfill the special custom of making the blessing over two whole loaves in the sukkah.”
“I was in shock,” recalled Yaakov, at the request. Not only was he asking for two whole loaves of bread, but he was even planning somehow on fulfilling the mitzvah of having a ‘meal’ in the sukkah!”
“You have to understand,” he explained, a whole loaf of bread in Auschwitz was like a million dollars today. Can you imagine someone walking in off the street and asking for a million dollars? Even though he promised he would only take a bite (the equivalent of his own ration) and then return the loaves to me, giving away those loaves meant I was risking my life.”
During the summer and fall of 1944, the Nazis were bringing in hundreds of thousands of Jews (including the remaining 400,000 Hungarian Jews) in a last-ditch effort to complete their “final solution.” In the twisted organizational logic of the lager camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labor until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling bunks in the barracks while rows of new bunks were being constructed in the central parade ground.
Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing that Sukkot was coming, this rabbi had managed to secure some schach, placing it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher sukkah. However, the mitzvah of living in the sukkah can only be fulfilled by either sleeping (which was out of the question) or eating in the sukkah, which was his aim.
Seeing the hesitation on the boy’s face, and desperate to fulfill this mitzvah against all the odds, the rabbi begged him for the loaves. The boy said he would give the rabbi the loaves, but only on condition that they would go together to fulfill the mitzvah of the sukkah.
The shocked rabbi attempted to dissuade the boy. He would be risking his life by walking outside after curfew, and again for carrying two whole loaves of bread, and of course for attempting to sit in a sukkah. But nothing would dissuade the boy, so together the two of them, an old rabbi and a student, risked their lives and sat, for a few brief moments, in a sukkah in Auschwitz.
The Sfat Emes suggests that on Yom Kippur we attempt to recapture the world as it was before we sinned. When Adam and Eve were created, Hashem placed them (us) in the Garden of Eden which was the world as it could be. However, due to our inevitable mistakes we were forced to leave the Garden of Eden and venture into the world as it had become: a world more distant from G-d.
Ever since that time, we’ve been attempting to perfect this world and rectify our mistakes to recapture the world as it could be: the world of the Garden of Eden.
But if Yom Kippur remains just one special day of the year, when we let go of the world and come close to Hashem, then we have missed the point. The real challenge of the sukkah is whether we can bring a little bit of Yom Kippur with us back into the world.
We spend a week in the sukkah to remind us that all we own and all the things we think we have are really an illusion; reality is the world of the Garden of Eden, the world of ethics and love, of closeness to Hashem and Torah.
If two Jews can disconnect from the nightmare illusion all around them, even in Auschwitz, then perhaps we can all tap into a small fraction of that strength to do the same in our every day as well.
A version of this column appeared in 2011.