Shimon was an 11-year-old boy learning in a Polish cheder, when Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l, the Lubliner Rav, came to test the boys and speak to them in learning. The children exceeded his expectations and the Rav told the children that, as a prize for doing so well, he was going to share with them a secret for life. He quoted the following words from the Ba’eir Heiteiv in the name of the Chinuch: “Whoever is careful to recite Birkas HaMazon with kavanah, word for word (from a bentcher), is assured he will never worry about where his next meal will come from, for his needs will be taken care of with respect and generosity all the days of his life.” The words entered Shimon’s heart and he decided, right then and there, to accept upon himself to always bentch with kavanah (concentration). It wasn’t easy. After lunch, while other children ran out to play, he stayed longer, taking his time, saying each word carefully, losing most of recess, but never relenting on his kabalah.
When the Second World War broke out, Shimon was still a boy. Amidst the havoc of war, he was separated from his entire family, undergoing misery and loneliness in Nazi concentration camps. Fortunately, he was chosen to work in the camp kitchen – as an assistant to the cook – and this made Shimon constantly aware that the blessing of Rav Meir was already being fulfilled. There was no shortage of food in the kitchen, and he never had to worry about going hungry. He made sure that after eating bread, he would recite every word of bentching loud and clear, and if he saw that circumstances would not allow him to bentch properly, he wouldn’t eat!
One day, a high-ranking Nazi officer walked into the warm kitchen and noticed Shimon working there. Instantly, he became furious and started screaming, “How can it be that a Jewish boy is healthy and well-fed in this camp?” He told Shimon to walk outside immediately, and he handed him a small hammer. Pointing to the frozen earth, he told him to dig a bunker two meters deep to protect Nazi officers from the Russian bombs. It was obviously an impossible request, and they both knew it. But none of that mattered. “Upon completion, you may return to the kitchen,” said the sadistic animal, and then stormed away. The implications were obvious. Shimon was never meant to return to the safety and warmth of the camp kitchen. With the small hammer in hand, Shimon raised his eyes heavenward. “Hashem,” he said, “I am keeping my part of the deal, and I was promised that I will be taken care of all the days of my life. I am still a child! Is this called my whole life?”
Suddenly, a truck full of German soldiers drove by. When they saw a Jewish boy standing on the frozen ground, trying to dig with a hammer, they burst into raucous laughter. Furthering his embarrassment, the Germans began pelting the young boy with whatever was at hand. There were bottles and cigarette butts, but also potatoes, cucumbers, and other produce. This went on for a quite a bit. When the truck finally moved away, Shimon realized that he was standing in the midst of a pile of vegetables! He had asked for food, and here it was! But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. He needed to dig an impossible hole; and if he couldn’t finish the bunker before the Nazi officer returned, all these vegetables would be useless to him!
But this prayer, too, was quickly answered. Out of nowhere, another truck drove by – this one carrying non-Jewish Polish soldiers. They saw piles of vegetables and asked Shimon if they can have some. With a sudden stroke of inspiration, Shimon responded, “Well, if you dig me a bunker right here, two meters deep, I will let you take all the food!” Without Shimon even lifting a finger, the men jumped out of their truck and with their shovels and picks, set to work. Before long, the hole was completed and Shimon was more than happy to give them the entire stock of his valuable produce.
Soon the Nazi officer returned. He stood there shocked, unable to fathom how a child had managed to dig such a precise bunker, through frozen earth, with just a hammer for digging! He looked at Shimon with a venomous gaze and declared, “I always knew you Jews have someone watching over you.” Then he ordered Shimon back to the kitchen!
With the help of Hashem, Shimon survived the war, promising himself in those dark days that he would always make sure to bentch with kavanah – thanking the One Above for providing him with food in such a generous fashion. And he kept this kabalah his entire life. In Jerusalem, where he eventually lived, he was well-known for his special affinity and z’hirus for the mitzvah of Birkas HaMazon.