The Torah Scholar Who Made A Deal With G-d and Survived the Holocaust
1937 Photo of the Juzint Family (Image credit: Courtesy Rabbi Louis Lazovsky, Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Kesser Maariv Anshe Luknik)
On Sunday morning, June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded Lithuania. The gentile population was ecstatic to hear the news, and after church services that day celebrated Hitler’s troops goose-stepping over the border into their country. Each town and village greeted the Nazis with bouquets of flowers as if they were liberators instead of harsh conquerors. There was one thing the locals had in common with the German Nazis: anti-Semitism so extreme that it led to hunting parties – i.e., groups of people going out to catch, terrorize, torture, and murder Jews. Of course, soldiers of the Reich were armed with machine guns and fancy artillery used to exterminate thousands of Jews in a timely and efficient way. The Lithuanians enjoyed their homemade weapons of death – shovels, rocks, pitchforks, garden hoses they forced down their victims’ windpipes with the water on full force until their intestines burst open, or even bare hands that ripped Jewish infants in half. The Lithuanian collaborators weren’t anonymous killers; they were neighbors from all strata of society – doctors, teachers, dentists, classmates, and former friends of their Jewish victims. Who was the worse tormenting monster, Nazi or local collaborator, is hard to say. But the degree to which they worked together was deadly – and the ultimate goal was the same. Jews had lived in the little Lithuanian shtetl of Shadeve since the 15th century. Before World War II, the population consisted of approximately 800 Jewish souls, including the Juzint family. The precise date on which the entire shtetl was massacred, including the Juzint family – with the exception of young Meyer Juzint – is unknown, except that it happened sometime between the Nazis’ arrival on June 25 and the end of the summer, when it was confirmed that no Jews were still alive there. That massacre – with local anti-Semites assisting the invading German killers – was repeated in virtually every town, village, and shtetl in Lithuania, including Slobodka, home of the world-renowned yeshiva. On the day the Nazis arrived in Shadeve, Meyer Juzint wasn’t home. He was sitting in Slobodka Yeshiva’s beit midrash (study hall). Most of the students and their teachers never made it out of Slobodka, and many of those who did escape were murdered later. The victims included the yeshiva’s mashgiach ruchani (spiritual supervisor), Rav Avraham Grodzinski, and the rosh yeshiva (dean), Rav Shraga Feivel Horowitz. The Rav of the town, Rav Zalman Osovsky, was horrifically murdered, as were his wife and son, by Lithuanian volunteers.
Looking Down the Barrel
The brutal saga of Meyer Juzint, sole survivor of his family, is told in his books The Chain of Miracles: Divine Providence in the Midst of Nazi Persecution, and Nechamas Meyer: Mussar Lessons from the Parsha, Breishis and Shemos, which were translated from Yiddish to English and published in 2012 and 2016 by Congregation Kesser Maariv, in Skokie, Ill., under the direction of Rabbi Juzint’s former student Rabbi Louis Lazovsky. It’s an incredible story, a nightmare that began for the teenage Torah scholar on the Sunday the Nazis arrived in 1941. His books tell of the 49 times, in assorted hellish settings, that he was near death but spared that fate. Thanks to a series of miracles, this unarmed Jewish boy, whose family, friends, and rabbis were savagely murdered by vicious anti-Semites, managed to survive. On Sunday, April 15, 1945 in Bergen-Belsen, Meyer, one of the estimated 60,000 emaciated Jews still alive in that death camp, was ordered to drag and stack decaying corpses. When he collapsed, when he couldn’t summon the strength to make his body obey and get up, a Nazi leveled a gun to the young man’s head. Meyer’s reaction was to whisper his last Viduy (confession), pleading with G-d to let his death atone for his life. At that moment, it appeared Meyer’s long run of miracles was about to end. Minutes passed. Perhaps there was a “click” sound of a trigger being pulled back. Or maybe it was a “tick” sound of a clock’s hands moving forward – but closer to life or to death? Then the gates to hell were flung open. British Eleventh Armored Division tanks rolled inside and British voices called out, “You are free! You are free!” The Nazi gun aimed at Meyer was dropped. He stopped reciting Viduy and began saying, through his tears, the Shehecheyanu prayer of thanksgiving. Then he lost consciousness. A Unique Response A heart-wrenching story, to be sure, but there are so many other Holocaust-survivor memoirs. Why is Meyer Juzint’s story different from all (or most) others? Anticipating that question, Rabbi Lazovsky wrote in the preface to Chain of Miracles:
“This book is not merely another first-hand account of the inhuman horrors mankind is capable of perpetrating on innocent victims, although that is certainly one aspect of this work. It is a unique story that chronicles the testimony and reaction of a teen-aged student of the famed Slobodka Yeshiva to the Nazi horrors. It demonstrates the response of a Torah-observant rabbi, who was raised with mussar, to one of the great tragedies of the Jewish people and of mankind.”
How did a teenage Torah illui (genius), armed only with the Word of G-d, survive so many near-death experiences?
“If Hashem will be with me and protect me throughout this dangerous path and save me from the beasts and give me strength to be able to withstand the most horrible suffering, then I will try as best I can to use my pen to record and thereby memorialize the martyrs who were killed sanctifying Hashem’s Name. My fulfillment of the mitzvah of ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (Devarim 25:17) will be to record in writing all the terrible and frightening things perpetrated against the kedoshim (martyrs) of our nation.” (From the introduction to Nechamas Meyer: Mussar Lessons from the Parsha, Breishis and Shemos)
Armed not with man-made weapons but with rock-solid faith, he engaged with the Creator; more than simply pray, he talked his heart out and made his case before the Dayan HaEmet (the Judge of Truth). A Deal With G-d Meyer Juzint, son of Moshe and Golda, brother of Efraim, Miriam, and Sheyna, born on June 15, 1924, was a scholar steeped in mussar (ethics) who, blessed with a photographic memory, possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Torah. At his bar mitzvah in 1937, he recited from memory the entire tractate Ketubot for his rabbis. In 1941, at age 16, he was granted semicha (ordination) by the rabbis at Slobodka Yeshiva. He would always be grateful that his parents and siblings lived to hear him addressed as Rav Meyer Juzint. However, they did not live to see him read his way through the Zohar dozens of times, complete Shas nearly 20 times, be a rebbe for 50 years at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, and teach thousands of yeshiva students who loved him dearly. Nor did they live to know that Meyer had made a 'Deal With G-d', and that Meyer kept his word, using his great intellectual abilities to write the story as promised. He did this in increments, scribbling paragraphs on torn-up pieces of paper and hiding these scraps, sometimes inside the bodies of corpses. Had the Nazis caught him, they would have killed him. However, he saw it as an acceptable risk baked into the deal he’d sworn: to produce a book if he would remain alive. It would, of course, be more than just putting words on paper. It would be a testimony written in the spirit of profound gratitude to Hashem as one element in a life that personified Torah and emunah (faith). Its author, finding himself alayn vi a shtain (alone like a stone in the world), resolved to teach the Torah as he’d been taught – to praise and bring honor to Hashem even after, and despite, the horror of the Shoah (Holocaust). But beneath the outwardly firm exterior he presented to the world – and despite his determination (after immigrating to America) to live his life as a rebbe on a mission to teach Torah – was a man with an irreparably broken heart:
“‘Who is a wise man? He who sees a future development’ (Avot 2:9). My parents truly possessed such wisdom, for six months prior to the days of wrath, the terrible Holocaust that was unleashed against our nation, their parting words to me as I left for Slobodka Yeshiva were: ‘Our son, whatever has been decreed from Hashem will come to pass, wait until the rage has passed, strive in Torah, and derive comfort and strength from it despite what is going to come.’ These were the last words I heard from my saintly parents and they still ring in my ears. Woe is unto me, woe is unto my loved ones, my heart cries for my family.” (Introduction, Nechamas Meyer)
Fear of G-d vs. Fear of Man Rabbi Juzint discusses the mitzvah of yirat shamayim (fear of G-d) in a brief d'var Torah on Parshat Shemot:
“‘The midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the King of Egypt said to them, and they kept the children alive’ (Shemos 1:17). There appears to be a difficulty here: Did the midwives save the children only because they ‘feared G-d’? Should they not have had compassion and saved the children out of the goodness of their hearts? …Although they were aware of the danger that Pharaoh could kill them should he discover that they violated his decrees, nevertheless ‘they kept the children alive’… It was their fear of G-d which prompted them to risk their own lives in order to save the lives of others.” (pp 139-140, Nechamas Meyer)
This insight serves to answer a question often asked about the Nazi murderers: How does a civilized, educated, cultured, refined society suddenly become a vicious nation of cold-blooded killers? If such a moral sea change could happen to the German people, could it then suddenly happen to any person or group of people? The answer is that a person with no fear of G-d can easily become a murderer – while a person with genuine yirat shamayim cannot, even if ordered to do so. Human beings can make and break all kinds of laws, both for and against murder and other atrocities. Moral codes, philosophies, values, opinions, ethics, and social attitudes designed by human beings can quickly be redesigned by other human beings. It’s really that simple. People who truly fear G-d won’t murder each other.
Rabbi Meyer Juzint was a brilliant scholar and devoted teacher whose moral compass was focused on the mitzvah of yirat shamayim and who made a deal with G-d, survived the Shoah, and lived to tell the tale.
As Rabbi Leonard Matanky, Principal of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy said:
“There is barely a student who went through advanced Jewish education in Chicago any time between 1950 and 2000 who didn’t have Rabbi Juzint. He taught thousands of students, including famous rabbis, politicians and Jewish leaders. Unmarried, and with no relatives except cousins in Israel, Rabbi Juzint dedicated his whole life to his students.
“Rabbi Juzint believed that the purpose of life after being redeemed was to tell the stories of this dark chapter, to believe in G-d and to have profound gratitude for the many miracles done for him,” said Rabbi Vernon Kurtz. “He could have asked, ‘Why me?’ Instead he attempted to take this dark chapter of his own history and make of it something positive. Now, there are generations of his students who can tell his story and share his teachings with others.”
Rabbi Juzint passed away in 2001, was buried in Israel, and his Kaddish was recited by his faithful former student Rabbi Lazovsky. Baruch Dayan HaEmet. May Hashem avenge the blood of the Juzint family, the Slobodka rabbis and talmidim, and the six million other martyred Jewish souls.
This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared as "Rabbi Meyer Juzint: The Torah Scholar Who Made A Deal With God And Survived The Shoah." The Jewish Press