For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this story from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach.
Good Morning, Herr Müller
Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law. During his morning walk it was the rabbi’s custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.” Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.
Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Müller, a Polish Volksdeutsche (ethnic German). “Good morning, Herr Müller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile.
Then the war began. The rabbi’s strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Müller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields. The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.
One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton. “Right! Left, left, left!” The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decided who should live and who should die. He lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:
“Good morning, Herr Müller!”
“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones. “What are you doing here?” A faint smile appeared on the rabbi’s lips. The baton moved to the right—to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.
The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.”
Based on my conversation with an elderly Hasidic personality.
In the literature of the Holocaust, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust stands alone. As the publisher describes it, “Derived by the author from interviews and oral histories, these eighty-nine original Hasidic tales about the Holocaust provide unprecedented witness, in a traditional idiom, to the victims’ inner experience of “unspeakable” suffering. This volume constitutes the first collection of original Hasidic tales to be published in a century.”
As the author writes in her Foreword:
The Hasidic tale of the Holocaust is rooted in the Auschwitz reality, yet it soars to heaven and higher. It can carry the faithful above pits filled with bodies. Despite Auschwitz, the tale still expresses belief that man is good and capable of improvement; it can restore order to a chaotic world and offer unlimited freedom to the creative mind attempting to come to terms with the Holocaust. Its rich Jewish heritage and European tradition make it a unique genre of modern literature. The tales in this collection completed a full cycle from documentation to art to documentation and back to art. For in the beginning there was a tale.
There are many other books that will tell you about the history of the Holocaust. There are few other books that so deeply and creatively offer its soul.