This post, written by David, is dedicated to his father, Henry Fenster on his 85th birthday, may Hashem grant him many more years of health and happiness - biz hundret un zvantzig!
I don't mean miracles like the parting of the Red Sea or extracting water from a rock. I'm talking about miracles performed by wonder working Hassidic rebbes who could bring children to the barren, heal the sick, protect the Jews from the goyish neighbors or travel in a sleigh from Rufschitz to Radomsk (a full day's journey) in the blink of an eye.
Myself, I lean to a more Litvak-misnagdish (opponent of Hassidim) outlook. That is, I think every problem can be dealt with by sharp observation, cold analyses and maybe with a little pilpul (casuistry) for flavor. So I didn't believe in the wondrous power of Hassidic Rebbes -- until I heard this story from my father.
It was 1944. My father a Jewish boy from the Jewish neighborhood of Logan in Philadelphia was nineteen years old. His father had passed away after a long illness and he had graduated Central High School and gone on to study business administration at university. After a year at college he joined the army and was sent to an engineering course. But then the army needed all their forces for the final fight against the Nazis. He was assigned to the infantry and trained to operate a field mortar. Before he shipped out to Europe, his mother (my Bubba Rose) went to the local Hassidic Rebbe to ask for a blessing for her son. This was Rav Moshe Tzvi Twersky, scion of the great Tolne Hassidic dynasty founded by the first David Twersky around 200 years ago in the town of Tolnoya in the Ukraine.
Bubba Rose was received in the Rebbe's shtible (Hassidic prayer room) by the Rebbe, who gave her 18 pennies “chai fenik”. The number 18 symbolizing 'chai' life. He told her to give the pennies to charity, that by virtue of the tzedaka (charity) and tefilla (prayer) her son would G-d willing return to her from the war.
My father's unit landed in France in September, after the allied invasion on D-day. The first troops that landed were well organized and had been together in training. But the fighting was difficult and while they were pushing the the German army back to the German borderthey sustained over 70% casualties. My father's group were replacement troops sent to take over and make up for the men lost in the earlier battles.They participated in battles in Normandy moved on into Alsace. Moving forward meant digging a foxhole for shelter and shooting at the Germans and then moving to another place where another foxhole had to be dug and more firing.
On October 14, near Luneville, his unit came out of a forest and advanced through a field towards a low hill. Suddenly the world exploded. They were caught in the open by a German artillary barrage. They ran up the hill to the next place they would begin their digging in and my father felt what seemed like a sledgehammer blow to his lower back. He tried to keep up with the others but couldn't. The rest of the platoon continued advancing, leaving him there. This was not the IDF that 'never leaves the wounded in the field'. In WWII the army advanced and only later dealt with the wounded. There were no medics on the platoon level. He might have died in that field but by chance an armored vehicle was stuck in the mud and could not advance with the rest of the unit. As they extricated themselves from the quagmire they saw my father and took him in the vehicle to the next road. They left him on the road and moved on to join the advancing troops. Some time later, by chance, a partly disabled tank traveling back to the American lines for repairs found him and took him to the command bunker. He was shocked and worried that the officers would think he should have continued with the attack. Removing the heavy web belt he was wearing it became clear that he had lost a lot of blood. The belt absorbed the blood when he was hit by a cluster of shrapnel which lodged in his back near his spine. He reached down to take his helmet with him and the army surgeon who just happened to be in this forward command bunker told him 'you won't be needing that' and started to work on him. The last thing my father remembered before going under the anesthetic was the surgeon saying that he had a million dollar wound, meaning it was serious enough to get him out of the war, but with luck would not leave him crippled for life.
And so after two more operations in France he found himself being carried by German POWs onto a troop ship bound for the U.S.
After recuperating in an army hospital for six months he was released. In July 1946 he married a Jewish girl from Philly (my mother Blossom Lichtenstein) and I was born five years later.
Do I believe that the Tolne Rebbe miraculously watched over my father while his comrades were dying around him (and in the larger picture millions of Jews were being murdered in Europe)?
Not really, but I also do not believe that it is the result of chance. I do believe in the divine destiny of the Jewish people, and the destiny of those Jews who survived WWII was to behold the rebirth of the Jewish Nation.
I also believe that the prayers of a saintly Jew and a distraught Jewish mother opened a window in heaven through which divine providence would find my father and save him. And just maybe the Tolne Rebbe had a feeling this Jewish soldier would return from the war and raise a son who would go up to Israel to take part in the return of the people of Israel to its land. God would give him the privilege to see grandchildren and great grandchildren born in Israel who would close the circle on one Jewish family's sojourn in the exile.
There is a footnote to this story. Recently I discovered that the present Tone Rebbe has a shtible in Bayit Vegan. I have heard a number of his sermons and lessons. He is an impressive speaker and is reported to be a wonder worker too.