The Torah and our Sages praise Aharon HaKohen after the death of his sons for his silence. The Mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, discusses the art of silence. He wrote: “We teach a child to speak. Once we teach him to speak, this becomes his nature, to speak and to chatter without end. Do we teach this child how to be silent as well? Behold, silence is also a tool.”
Silence can be an expression. It can be a tool, and through it one makes a statement. Rav Wolbe is teaching us that when it comes to children, we must teach and encourage the tool and skill of silence just as we teach the tool and skill of speech.
The following story teaches us about the power of one’s silence. It took place during the Second World War, in Bergen-Belsen. On Friday, the eighth of Av, 1944 (5704), someone lit a mattress on fire in the camp and burned it to a crisp. The Nazis were incensed over the loss of goods, and in retribution decreed that no Jews would receive any food that entire day.
There was one woman in the camp who was well-known for her kindness and dignity. This was no ordinary woman; she retained her modesty when others didn’t bother. She kept her head covered the entire time she was in the camp, even though she could have wrapped herself with the extra cloth to keep out a bit of the winter chill. Even when she became ill and could barely walk due to her exhausted and starved state, she could always be found tending to the sick in the hospital ward.
One day, she heard weeping and found another lady lying in critical condition. She asked what she was crying about, and the sick lady answered feebly that she had finally gotten a bit of milk to drink, but it was so cold that she was unable to drink it. (When one is dying of starvation and typhus, the frustration and despair this situation would cause is unimaginable.) What did the woman do? She took the cup of milk and walked outside. A few minutes later she came back in, her face smudged with soot and her eyes red; but in her hand was a cup of warm milk. She had warmed it over a fire she lit from scraps of paper and bits of wood she had gathered, one by one. She did this despite the prohibition the Germans had placed on lighting fires.
This righteous woman would not pass up the opportunity to aid the sick. On that fateful day, when the Germans refused to provide any nourishment to the inmates of Bergen-Belsen, the woman was only looking out for children. Somehow, she managed to obtain some oats, which she cooked into porridge to feed some children, including her four-year-old daughter. Sadly, though, just as the porridge was cooked and ready to be served, she was caught by two of the kapos, who threatened to report her to the Nazis. She would have to appear before a tribunal that very night – Friday night – to answer for her “crime.”
The tribunal did not involve the Germans. The judges were Jews themselves who served the Nazi overlords slavishly. They felt empowered and did not allow the Jews to do anything that would anger the Germans. In this case, how dare this woman cook for her children against the regulations? They made short work of the trial and the woman was “sentenced” to two days without her bread ration, which she would have to hand over to the kapos. Throughout the mock “trial” the woman refused to utter a word. She did not even bother to deny several of the trumped-up charges, which were totally untrue.
When she was released, she walked back to her barracks, where her relatives and friends were waiting for her. Upon her arrival, she told them what had happened and what her sentence was. The people in her barracks asked her why she had not defended herself against the false charges, but she gave no answer, and instead became quite upset and agitated.
A while later, one of her sons, Rabbi Yonah Emanuel, was bold enough to ask her again why she had refused to say anything in her defense. Why hadn’t she at least argued that on that day there was no food and she couldn’t let her young daughter and other children starve? These extenuating circumstances might have led them to give her a lighter sentence.
This time she responded. “The judges, the prosecutor, the defending attorney, and the court recorder were all Jews. They actually pretended to conduct a real trial and they used an actual person to capture each word. It was a sham but it looked real. The recorder was writing down everything – each and every word that I would have spoken was causing a Jew to write on Shabbos! I had to keep silent. It is better to be hungry a while longer than to cause another Jew to desecrate the Shabbos.”