Mrs. Liba Eckstein survived the horrors of the Holocaust as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Eventually, she married and settled in Manchester, England. During her ordeal, Liba begged Hashem for three things. First, that she should survive Auschwitz and tell her story to the world. Second, that she should marry a ben Torah. Finally, she prayed that if she ever merits having children, all her offspring should remain shomer Shabbos and marry before her death.
Seven months after her last brush with death, the Russian Army liberated the camp. The Russians offered citizenship to anyone who was willing to accept, and Liba was sorely tempted by the promise of safety, plentiful food, and security. Many others accepted this proposal, in spite of the spiritual dangers of living in atheist Russia. But Liba joined a small group of girls who were returning to their old homes with the hope of finding some surviving family members.
Liba spent a few days in the local train station, waiting and hoping for news. As time passed and nobody stepped forward, she arrived at the dreadful understanding that she was the only survivor of her family. This realization was more painful than all the suffering she had endured. Eventually, she made her way across the English Channel, where she met and married her ben Torah and merited to raise a family of Torah-observant Jews. As she saw her prayers answered, she became consumed with a burning desire to exact some form of vengeance for her murdered family. What could be better, she reasoned, than to say Kaddish at the very site of the Auschwitz crematoria, the place where the Germans tried to liquidate the Jewish nation? This desire became an obsession, and she continually asked her son to arrange the trip. At first, he was unsure, as their family rav steadfastly refused to give them permission to go. When she turned 73, Mrs. Eckstein learned about a tour to Poland that would include a short visit to Auschwitz, and this time she was not to be denied. She took her son and together they arrived at the gates with the famous inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work brings freedom).
Mrs. Eckstein hesitated at the gates, trying to find her bearings. “Sruly, this is not Auschwitz; I was never in this place.” She became very agitated, and the tour guide rushed to her aid. “Tell me, when were you here?” he said. “In 1944.”
“In that case, you were in Birkenau. They used to be called Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II.” Liba and her son hailed a taxi and were driven to the camp that she remembered so well. The driver dropped them off near the crematoria and as the pair solemnly entered the valley of death, Mrs. Eckstein finally got her bearings. “This is it! This is where I was! That building there was my barracks.” Taking her son by the arm, she guided him to the entrance of the forbidding structure. “Look at the sign! It’s C13.” The two entered the building. “There are two rooms here. The other one was for the kapos, and I slept right here, on this very spot. Five agonizing months of my life were lost to these evil men.” She stomped on the floor. “Hitler, where are you? I’m here with my son. I have children. I have grandchildren. You have nothing. Nothing is left from you. No remembrance – Yimach sh’mo.” Then she raised her head and announced, “Hodu laShem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo.”
Her son turned to his mother. “It’s getting late. There’s no minyan here to say Kaddish, but at least you can light a candle.” Liba lit a yahrzeit candle and recited the names of her lost family members. But she was upset. “All I want is to say Kaddish for my family. That is why I came here. Why won’t Hashem allow me to do this?” She started to sob loudly. Her son felt terrible, and tried to comfort his mother. Suddenly, he said, “Mummy, you won’t believe this, but I see nine Jews walking toward us!”
Turning to the group, he asked, “Tell me, where are you from? Why are you here?”
“We work for an American corporation, and we’re here for a business conference. The hotel accommodations are not very pleasant, so we decided to take a drive. Our boss told us to avoid Auschwitz because he didn’t want us to be distracted. But he never said anything about Birkenau, so we came here. We heard a woman crying, so we came over to investigate.”
“My parents, who died al kiddush Hashem, must have sent you so we can say Kaddish. Sruly, please say Kaddish.” Slowly and carefully, her son Sruly intoned the holy words. The emotion was palpable, and everyone was moved. Afterward, Mrs. Eckstein addressed the men. “Do you think that we merely recited Kaddish for my family? I want to tell you that we have just now buried my parents, brothers, and sisters. Now is their burial. And now I have peace, knowing that I have buried them. Thank you, everyone.” This was a pivotal moment for Liba Eckstein. At last, she found herself at peace.
She merited seeing all her requests fulfilled. She survived the war, married a ben Torah, and proudly raised a frum family. All her children were married, and she derived tremendous nachas from her grandchildren. As she lay ill in bed right before her passing, her son whispered into her ear, “Remember the Kaddish in Birkenau.”
“I will never forget that.” She passed away later that day.
(Adapted from Vignettes of Virtue by Rabbi Yosef Weiss)