At the very start, in the interest of full disclosure: Mr. Israel I. Cohen is my father-in-law. He is also the author of a new book, "Destined to Survive," an account of his experiences as a young man in the Lodz ghetto and in a number of concentration camps during the Holocaust. Several excerpts of the book have been featured by Am Echad Resources over the past two years. (Unlike other non-Am Echad employees who write for the organization’s syndication service, he received no remuneration; neither I nor Am Echad will receive any profits from the sale of his book.)
The chapters of Mr. Cohen’s book that appeared in Jewish newspapers nationwide drew an unusually strong response from readers, without exception positive. Dozens of deeply heartfelt letters of appreciation and gratitude – from Jews and non-Jews alike – were e-mailed to one very popular website, jewishworldreview.com, which featured Mr. Cohen’s pieces.
What so impressed readers was what permeates the book, and, as I know from personal information, Mr. Cohen’s life: a strong and abiding trust in God and acceptance of His will. Throughout the deprivation of the ghetto and camps, amid all the death and destruction he witnessed and the violence he suffered, his powerful faith in his Creator, and his commitment to the Torah and to his fellow Jews, seem never to have faltered. That is what sets this book so pointedly apart from the more typical existential-musing, fate-cursing or God-denying Holocaust accounts.
Not very long ago, at one of those all-too-rare-in-these-far-flung-times family gatherings where my beloved in-laws were surrounded by their children and grandchildren, my father-in-law said something I will never forget.
The words were not his own; they were borrowed from the Prophet Isaiah, and the sentiments they embody are engraved on the souls of many a survivor.
He looked around at his daughters and sons and their spouses, against the lush and lively background of, ken ayin harah, grandchildren of a wide assortment of ages, all following in the proud Jewish footsteps he and his wife laid down over the years and continue to lay down, and with G-d’s help, will continue to lay down for many years to come.
And then he said, quietly but with deep feeling the prophet’s words: "Mi yolad li es eleh?" "Who bore me these?" "V’eileh mi gidel?" "And these, who raised them?" "Hein ani nish’arti l’vadi, eleh eifoh heim?" "Behold, I languished alone, where did these come from?"
"I can’t believe my fortune," he explained to those of us within earshot, who may have looked puzzled. "I can’t believe that from lying in a pile of corpses in a burning concentration camp, starved and sick, I have merited to have all that I have today."
His words well reflect what readers of his book will perceive: A deeply Jewish humility and honest appreciation of G-d’s blessings. As Herman Wouk puts it in his introduction to "Destined to Survive," "Israel Cohen’s… unpretentious account is outstanding for vividness – and most strangely – optimism." The celebrated author of "The Caine Mutiny," "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" goes on to call "Destined to Survive" a "declaration of faith that has been tested in hellfire… an adventurous personal history wholly Jewish and wholly G-dly."
My father-in-law’s deep trust in the Creator imbued his heart and life even throughout the seven circles of purgatory that engulfed him over a half-century ago. And I think it will inspire those who read his recollections of those times.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]