Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Seder Night Story

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Some of the best stories in the Jewish World are the stories told by and about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of blessed memory. Here is one from the highly recommended “The Carlebach Haggadah” [page 88].

Motzi Matzah

My father was appointed to the Rabbinate of Berlin a little before Purim, at the end of the First World War. A few days after Purim, he received a letter from a soldier serving at the front. “Most of the soldiers sent to the front never returned. The letter said, “My name is Moishele Cohen. I’m the only matzah baker in my whole home town. If I don’t come home immediately, there won’t be any matzos in my town for Pesach, so please go to General So-and-so and beg him to give me some leave so I can come home and bake matzah.”

Matzah baking in Bet El

You only had to show this letter to anyone, and if he had a brain in his head, he’d tell you not to waste your time. To try and get leave for this soldier was a big joke. It was the desperate end of the war. Every day thousands of soldiers were dying, and there was nothing to eat in Berlin; and you think the General Staff had nothing on their minds besides matzos? My father, yes, he was an important Rabbi with a big shul, but to come to the General in the middle of a war and tell him we need matzos! For us it’s life-and-death, but what would it be to him? Crazy.

By my father had a pure soul. He said, “I didn’t ask for this letter, the letter came to me. I must go.”

Dearest friends, in my life, I never saw my father without a sefer in his hands. This time too, he took with him a few sefarim, because who knew how much time he’d have to wait to speak to the General? When he got there, he saw hundreds of people waiting. The General had several officers who did nothing but take down names and give out numbers – my father understood that it would be days until he got to speak to the general. What did he do? He gave in his name and continued learning.

A few minutes later an officer came over to my father and said, “Rabbi, the General asks you to come to him immediately. He must see you.”

He walked in to the General’s office, and the General took my father’s hand and kissed it. Unbelievable! What is going on? He asked, “Aren’t you the son of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the Rabbi of Lubeck?” My father said, “Yes, I’m his youngest son.” He said to my father, “Whatever you want will be done.” My father said right away, “I need to bring a solider from the French front back to his home town.” He said, “Just give me his ID number.” And right away, he dispatched an order to the staff in France to send Moishele Cohen home.

My father asked the General, “How do you know my father?”- But if I want you to understand how that happened, I have to take a minute and tell you another story first.

In the early nineteen hundreds, thousands and thousands of Jewish youths from Germany left for America. To our sorrow, their parents lost all connection with them. This left thousands of parents without any help or support when they grew old. There were old people simply dying in their houses without anyone even realizing. My grandfather, the Rabbi of Lubeck, thought, “I must build an old age home for these people.” He decided he would look for new contributors, people that never gave to holy causes like this before. He heard that the banker of the German Kaiser was a Jew. Why was he a Jew? Simply because the Kaiser never asked him to convert – all the Kaiser worried about was that he should take care of the money. But if the Kaiser asked him to convert, he would; that’s what they told my grandfather about him. This man had certainly never associated himself with anything Jewish. But what do we know about a Jewish soul, the depths of the Jewish soul?

My grandfather went to Baron von Bleichroeder’s palace, and they brought him to his office. All of a sudden the Baron stood up when he saw my grandfather. He went over to him, kissed his hand, and started crying. He said, “Rabbi, you must know that G-d sent you to me. I’m seventy years old. Today is my birthday, and last night I cried the whole night. I thought, ‘I’m Jewish, but I’ve never spoken to my brethren. I never spoke to someone who could purify my soul.’ Today you came to me.”

They became close friends. Anything that my grandfather asked of him, the Baron did immediately. He built a huge building for an old age home. It was the first old age home in Germany, and probably the first in the whole of Europe. (To our great sorrow, the building was totally destroyed, because the Nazis, yimach shmam, made it into their headquarters.) After five years during which my grandfather spoke with the Baron almost every day, he got a call from the Baron’s son, who said, “Holy Rabbi, you were my father’s best friend. My father wasn’t a simple man. This morning I entered his office and saw a letter on his desk. This is what was written: ‘If G-d forbid, I don’t get up tomorrow morning, I want only Rabbi Carlebach to eulogize me. If he cannot, I don’t want any eulogy.’ I ran into my father’s bedroom, but he was already in Heaven.”

My grandfather said a hesped, a eulogy for the Baron, and understandably, the Kaiser of Germany with all his family came to the funeral. The brother of the Czar of Russia came too, and the kings of England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway – all the European leaders.

Now I can return to the original story with the General. When my father asked him how he knew the Rabbi of Lubeck, he answered, “I was fortunate enough to be there when Rabbi Carlebach eulogized Baron von Bleichroeder. Let me tell you, generals don’t cry and they don’t laugh. My heart is dead, and my soul died before I as born, because you can’t be a general and remain a person. I don’t believe in anything. If you came and told me that half the world just died, I wouldn’t blink an eye. But one time in my life, I cried like a baby for a quarter of an hour. Once in my life, I believed in people, in a living G-d. Once in my life, I prayed that G-d would forgive my sins. That was when your father spoke.”

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