by Joe Spier
(AJNews) – It was the summer of 1942, the Nazis “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was rampaging towards its zenith. The German fascists who had established the Warsaw Ghetto some 18 months earlier to warehouse Polish Jewry before sending them on to their final destination, were in the process over the course of the summer of shipping a quarter million of the Ghetto’s inhabitants by rail to the Treblinka extermination camp. They were sent to die and they knew it.
The Jews were ordered to gather, and to bring with them only a few possessions. Brutally crammed into congested, closed cattle cars unable to move, lacking ventilation, water, food or sanitary facilities other than a bucket, they were sealed in the cars for days, the stench of urine and excrement pervasive, the heat overwhelming. Upon arriving at Treblinka, most of the wretched men, women and children were led directly and terrifyingly into the gas chambers by guards screaming orders, their dogs snarling and nipping and families torn apart. Some never arrived at the camp, dying instead in the crowded, windowless cattle cars.
Reb Azriel David Fastag was a Modzitzer Hasid from Warsaw. Over the past 200 years, the Modzitzer sect of Hassidic Jews has become known for beautiful melodies — thousands of them. Modzitz is the name of the town in Poland where the sect eventually settled before the Shoah. Reb Azriel David lived simply, earning his livelihood from a small clothing store, his happiness and fulfillment however came from another source — the world of Chassidic music. Reb Azriel David was a singer and composer of niggunim, a traditional group of cantorial melodies. Noted throughout Warsaw for his exceptional voice, many came to the shul where Reb Azriel David davened to hear him sing. His rich, pure and expressive voice had a powerful effect on all who heard him. That all ended on a summer day in 1942, when Reb Azriel David Fastag was among the many forced into those overcrowded, airless cattle cars, where people were crushed, some near or at the point of death.
In the crammed car, amidst the sounds of people panting, groaning, crying and dying, stood Reb Azrial David Fastag wrapped in his tallit with eyes closed visualising that he was back on the bimah of his shul. He could not shake from his mind the 12th of Moses Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Jewish Faith which Maimonides, the Rambam considered binding on every Jew. Written in Hebrew in the 12th century, each Principle begins with the words Ani Ma’amin (I believe). Presently, Reb Azriel David composed a slow, somber, haunting melody for the words of the 12th Principle and began singing the melody at first quietly and then stronger, the lyrics rolling from his mouth like honey; Ani ma’amin b’emuna sheleima, b’viat hamoshiach; v’af al pi she’yismamaya, im kol zeh, achakeh lo b’chol yom she’yavo (I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Moshiach; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming.) The rest of the car went silent.
Soon the full cattle car was singing with Reb Azriel David and then the entire train, broken and battered Jews on the way to their deaths, all singing Reb Azriel David’s “Ani Ma’amin”, his doleful yet inspirational song of the eternity of the Jewish people. Not one who arrived from the train at Treblinka survived. They died with the words of “Ani Ma’amin” on their lips. Reb Azriel David would not live to learn the prominence that his cantorial melody would attain.
“Ani Ma’amin” condensed to its essence is a song of affirmation and of promise, the affirmation of our faith at a time when everything appears lost and the promise that even from the depths of hopelessness a better future can arise.
Reb Azriel David’s “Ani Ma’amin” would have vanished with the poor souls on the train if it was not for two young men who, one climbing upon the shoulders of the other, found a crack in the roof of the cattle car which they enlarged and jumped from the top to the ground. One was killed in the fall but the other survived and escaped taking the words and music to “Ani Ma’amin” in his head with him. Upon hearing “Ani Ma’amin” sung to him, the Modzitzer Rebbe who had escaped Nazi occupied Europe to America, proclaimed; “When they sang Ani Ma’amin on the death train, the pillars of the world were shaking. The Almighty said, ‘Whenever the Jews will sing Ani Ma’amin, I will remember the six million victims and have mercy on the rest of My People.” The refrain spread all through world Jewry.
And so once again, as occurs every year, at twilight on April 7, the first evening of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, as we mourn and shed tears for those who disappeared, the lingering melody of “Ani Ma’amin” will reverberate from the halls of synagogues on every continent all over the world.
We yet await the coming of the Moshiach but we are still here while Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” lasted but eleven years. We have survived and we have prospered. We have freedom and we have independence. Our ancestral and aboriginal home in the land of Israel that was taken from us some two thousand years ago has been returned. Those who have participated in a “March of the Living” perceive that the trip begins at the Auschwitz death camp and ends at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a journey from chilling darkness into restorative light.
We the fortunate, the living, are obligated to the others. They died as Jews – we are charged to live as Jews. If not we will have survived the horror of the Holocaust only to wither in the affluence of North America.
“Ani Ma’amin – I Believe.”
Joe Spier is a Calgary-based retired lawyer and sometime writer with a keen interest in Jewish history.