The soul of a Jew is pure. No matter how sullied the building, the foundation is never spoiled. We are assured that no amount of sin can sever the connection of a Jew from his Maker. Thus, Hashem gives us an opportunity each and every year to remove the stench of sin that we have brought upon ourselves through the t’shuvah process on Yom Kippur. No matter one’s station in life, Hashem is willing and eager to accept every last one of His children back into the fold. As we say: “Al da’as HaMakom v’al da’as hakahal…anu mispalelim im ha’avaryanim – With Hashem’s consent and the consent of the congregation ... we pray even with the sinners.”
The season of the Jewish High Holidays was drawing near, and fear in the Janowska concentration camp mounted. It was widely known that the Germans and their trusted helpers, both Jew and gentile alike, especially enjoyed inflicting added terror and death during Jewish holidays. The prisoners huddled in fear, anticipating terrible suffering and sadistic persecution in the coming weeks.
A number of religious prisoners, however, were unconcerned and felt that they needed to celebrate the old holiday rituals as best as they could under the circumstances. In Janowska there was a Jewish kapo (barrack foreman) by the name of Schneeweiss, one of those people one stays away from if he values his life. He was as sadistic as any Nazi toward his fellow Jews, but he was in charge and needed to be dealt with. The day before Yom Kippur, a few prisoners approached a fellow inmate, the Bluzhever Rebbe, R’ Yisroel Spira, zt”l, and asked him to be their representative to speak with this Jewish kapo to request that they be excused from work on the holy day of Yom Kippur. The Rebbe was hesitant, as the request alone could bring about his untimely demise, but he was exceedingly moved by the earnest desire of these prisoners and decided to go ahead and ask.
With a heavy heart and tearful prayer to Heaven, R’ Yisroel approached the kapo. “Tonight is Kol Nidrei eve. You are a Jew like myself. There is a small group of Jews who want to observe and pray on this holy day. Can you do something about it? Can you help?”
To his great surprise, the Rebbe noticed a small tremor course through the kapo’s body. Solemnly, the guard replied, “Rabbi, I cannot do anything for you tonight, as I have no jurisdiction over the night brigade. But during the day tomorrow, I will put you and your friends to work cleaning the officers’ quarters without polish or water, so that it will not be against halachah. I myself will supervise.”
True to his word, the next day R’ Yisroel and the others were brought to the S.S. officers’ quarters and put to work. The Rebbe used a dry rag as he cleaned the huge windows and his companions polished the wood floor. Together they chanted the Yom Kippur t’filos with tears of sincerity pouring forth.
At about noon, two Nazis suddenly burst into the room with heaping trays of aromatic food and set them down before the starving inmates with a simple demand: eat or be shot. Nobody moved. The lead Nazi commanded: “You must eat this minute or you will be shot on the spot!”
Still, nobody moved and the Nazis’ patience began wearing thin. They called in Schneeweiss from an adjoining room and demanded, “Make them eat now, or you will be killed along with them.”
This same kapo stood up defiantly and said, “Today is Yom Kippur, a day holy to the Jews and we may not eat.” Incredulous at the insolence of this Jewish kapo, they asked him to repeat that statement, which he did proudly and defiantly. The German unholstered his revolver and pointed it at Schneeweiss, who did not as much as blink. A single shot rang out and Schneeweiss fell dead.
Much later, the Bluzhever Rebbe would recount this story to his chasidim. “It was only then, on that Yom Kippur day in Janowska, did I understand the meaning of Chazal’s words: ‘Even the transgressors in Yisrael are full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.’”