Shloime Kaufman’s eyes moved rapidly across the familiar faces of the men packed into shul on this sunny Shabbos morning. As gabbai, he had been going through this routine for the past 20 years, looking out over the congregation and choosing a few each week for aliyos. He always recalled the famous words of the Yerushalmi (Megillah 4) that k’rias haTorah is likened to the Maamad of Kabalas HaTorah and a gabbai is akin to HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Har Sinai, as he gives out the aliyos.
This was a job that came with its challenges, but it also gave him an opportunity to count his blessings. The world Shloime Kaufman had known as a child and young man in Poland had been erased. It had collapsed all around him, snuffing out the lives of his loved ones. At the time, he didn’t know what would become of the Jewish people. And yet, here he was, the grandfather of a beautiful, Torah-observant family, gabbai of a thriving shul, surrounded by friends and family. Shloime scanned the rows of men as the Torah was removed from the ark. His eyes rested upon an unfamiliar face, a man about his own age with a short grey beard. He hadn’t seen him in shul before – must be a guest.
Suddenly, the man’s features and expression jarred loose a powerful flash of recognition! It was Menachem Reiner, his closest childhood friend! It was Menachem, the boy with whom he had grown up in their small Polish shtetl, with whom he had attended yeshivah in Bialystok. It was Menachem, the young man to whom he had clung, and who had clung to him, as they began their cattle-car journey into the fearsome blackness of Auschwitz. They had stuck together and given each other courage and hope. Bearing the numbers that the Nazis had tattooed on their arms, they had found in each other the strength to hold onto their humanity and resist becoming only numbers. They had vowed to help each other survive, both in body and soul.
And they did survive, baruch Hashem. But when the war ended, each went his own way, eager to begin anew. For sanity’s sake, they each tucked the past away into a deep, locked box that would be opened only on rare occasions. Menachem had settled in Israel and Shloime Kaufman had obtained a visa for America. They had lost touch with each other.
That was many years ago. Now with unbelieving eyes and trembling hands, Shloime Kaufman beheld the unmistakable face of his friend once again. Shloime decided in his mind: Menachem Reiner would get the sixth aliyah.
As the Torah reading began, the gabbai felt as if his heart could not be contained in his chest. Nevertheless, he clamped a tight lid on his emotions and performed his duty, calling up each aliyah with the traditional chant of “Yaamod” followed by the man’s Hebrew name. By the fifth aliyah, however, beads of sweat were sparkling on his forehead and tears were welling up in his eyes. He prayed that when the time came to call up number six, his voice would be able to break free of his tight throat. He knew the name – he could never forget Menachem ben Yehoshua. But when the time came, Shloime could not open his mouth. There were no words fit for this moment. All the suffering locked away in that figurative box was now out in the open, laid out before his eyes, and it was too much to bear. The congregation began murmuring and looking toward their once fearless leader, fearing that the pale, trembling man was becoming ill. And then, a deep cry rose up inside the gabbai, a cry to Hashem that contained in its broken sound all of His children’s cries of anguish.
Shloime Kaufman turned in the direction of his friend and at last found his voice. “Yaamod, 57200148!” he called.
The baffled men in the shul did not understand. What was this number? What had become of Shloime Kaufman? But in the back of the room, one man understood. The number was Menachem’s number, tattooed on his arm as a lifetime reminder of the darkest period of Jewish history, the epic tragedy of his people, which he had witnessed with his own eyes.
The entire shul sat in stony silence as Menachem moved slowly toward the bimah. Menachem needed no introduction. With tears coursing down his cheeks, he cried out, “Shloimele! Shloimele! Is it really you?” “Yes, Menachem, it’s really me!”
They wept on each other’s shoulders, rocking gently. Words were powerless to carry the chaotic emotions. The entire shul sat spellbound, witnessing a moment that could have melted a heart of iron. As these two men stood together, living witnesses to the Jewish people’s miraculous survival, it seemed clear that Hashem would never forsake His people – the Am S’gulah!
(From Rabbi Binyomin Pruzansky, Stories for the Jewish Heart, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications)