By Elisheva Schlam
Strike on Heaven, the seventh in a series of Holocaust documentaries, powerfully showcases the tenacity of the Jewish people and their unwavering commitment to Torah, despite the desperation they lived with daily under the Nazi regime. The film, jointly sponsored by the Zechor Yemos Olam division of Torah Umesorah and the Rabbi Leib Geliebter Memorial Foundation with the support of the Claims Conference, riveted students and teachers alike in 350 yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs, and day schools around the country on Asarah B’Teves. Through archival footage and personal interviews with survivors and Holocaust experts, including Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein, the film tells the story of the Nazis’ wholesale attempt to spiritually annihilate the Jews.
The extremely compelling presentation was written and narrated by Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein, director of publications and communications of Torah Umesorah, who also serves as the director of Zechor Yemos Olam. He set up the premise of the film by explaining that the recognition of the true essence of the Jewish people came from an unlikely source: Hitler, yemach shemo, himself. Hitler identified the power of the Jewish spirit–that spark of Yiddishkeit that lives within each Jewish soul. Hitler knew that, once ignited, that ember can turn a regular Jew into a blazing fire of observance. As long as one Jewish heart still beat, generations would follow, and therefore he sought to eradicate every Jew.
The Nazis waged physical and spiritual wars against the Jews simultaneously. They believed they could break the Jews by destroying shuls and batei midrash, burning precious sefarim, and targeting great rabbis and leaders.
Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, survivor and author of Destined to Survive, recalls how the Nazis burned down the Lodz shul and forced all the Jews to watch. In a fire that lasted more than 20 hours, the Nazis torched the library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, destroying 55,000 sefarim. The Jews cried at the sight of the holy pages going up in smoke and the Nazis struck up a military band to drown out the sounds of their cries and to celebrate what they thought would be the end of Jewish continuity.
Perhaps the most moving story depicted in the film was told by Rabbi Yossi Wallis, a child of survivors and an international Jewish-outreach professional. The recounting of his father’s experience in Dachau was told in segments, interwoven throughout the production. Rabbi Wallis described how his father was given a pair of tefillin by a dying inmate. Knowing he could be shot if caught wearing the tefillin, his father awoke early to put them on every day. He was eventually caught by the Nazi guards and they decided to hang him in order to show publicly what happened when someone defied the Germans and attempted to practice religion. When they offered him a last wish, he asked to put his tefillin on one last time. The guards acquiesced and he stood, tefillin on his head and noose around his neck, with the eyes of hundreds of Dachau inmates on him. The Jews who were watching started to cry, out of pity, and he screamed, “Why are you crying? Don’t you see I’m a winner? I get to die with my tefillin on for everyone to see!”
At that point, the guards realized that their victim felt like a victor and they decided to make death more difficult. They removed the noose, gave him two rocks to hold, and began whipping him. They told Rabbi Wallis’s father that he’d be killed once he dropped the rocks. On the 25th lash, when he dropped the rocks, they kicked him amongst the pile of corpses, thinking he was dead. He had actually fainted, and when he regained consciousness, he was found by another Jew, who gave him bread and water and hid him. This man survived the war and moved to America, where he lived as a secular Jew. When his son, Yossi, approached him before his bar mitzvah, requesting a pair of tefillin, he broke down and told Yossi the story of how tefillin had saved him. He vowed to put tefillin on again and to start keeping Shabbos together with his son. This story changed Rabbi Wallis’s own life and his sharing it in the film will undoubtedly transform many other lives.
The film concludes with the declaration that Hitler did not achieve his “Final Solution.” Scenes from the recent siyum haShas and various shuls, yeshivas, and batei midrash are shown as evidence that the essence of the Jews–Torah and spirituality–continues. In the decades since the Holocaust, Jewish life has grown all over the world, reigniting the flames of the giant Torah centers of Eastern Europe and passing on their legacy to future generations.
Strike on Heaven is dedicated to the memory of Uriel Peretz Liwerant, z’l, a ben Torah and IDF tank commander. “This film conveys the enormity of the losses sustained during the Holocaust while offering hope for the future of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of Yiddishkeit around the world and in Eretz Yisrael. It is mournful, but ultimately uplifting,” said Dr. Joseph Geliebter, executive producer.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, commented, “This film was able to portray the worst catastrophe in Jewish history in a positive light. The talmidim and I came away with strengthened emunah.”
“Strike on Heaven contains an important message for today’s secular youth–that the Holocaust was not perpetrated by crazy racists, but rather by sane people with an agenda of war against morality. This is a spiritual battle that we still face today,” said Rabbi Dovid Shenker of the Jewish Education Program (JEP-LI).
According to Carmy Homburger, administrator at Prospect Park Yeshiva, “We had pin-drop silence in a room filled with 250 teenage girls. The video was designed for those with limited knowledge of the Holocaust, like most of today’s students. It was informative and touching at the same time.”
Leba Bald, a sixth-grader at Bnos Bais Yaakov, was so moved by the film that she asked to speak with a Holocaust survivor the very next day. Her reaction is testament to the success of Strike on Heaven in awakening an awareness of the need to learn from survivors, and to incorporate their resolve to safeguard the eternal spark of Yiddishkeit into our own lives.
Strike on Heaven was produced by Better World Productions under the direction of David Lenik. v