Five hundred Jews, many wearing armbands with Magein Dovids, marched on Rostov-on-Don yesterday, August 12, in remembrance of the Zmievskaya Balka massacre. The men, women and youth followed the same route that the Jews of Rostov were forced by the Nazis to march on August 11-12 in 1942 where 27,000 people, among them also Soviet citizens, were murdered at a ravine on the edge of the city.
Rostov residents and family members of those murdered mark their loved ones’ deaths at a memorial ceremony here every year. This year, in honor of the 70th memorial, the city’s Jewish community under the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch of Rostov’s Rabbi Chaim Danzingerorganized a march, the first such march in Russia.
In an unusual display of Jewish identity for local Jews, many sporting yarmulkes, walked proudly through Rostov, where traffic was diverted and a police escort accompanied the marchers.
Many spoke painfully of their loved ones who were murdered here, but none could miss the triumphant fact that leading the march on Zmievskaya Balka was Israel’s Chief Rabbi Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, the most unlikely survivor of Hitler’s “final solution.” Rabbi Lau was a five year old when he outwitted the Nazis and became an inmate in Buchenwald, where there were no children, and survived in defiance of all odds to become Israel’s chief rabbi.
“In one of the rooms where Jews were tortured in Buchenwald,” recalled Rabbi Lau, “a Jew scraped the word ‘revenge’ into the wall. What does it mean? Are we going to fight? Will we wage war? Our revenge is to live and follow the Jewish traditions and to give birth to Jewish people. ” Rabbi Lau recited the kaddish at the memorial site, and the Kel Maleh Rachamim prayer.
On Friday, Rabbi Lau visited the burial place of Feodore Mikhailichenko and offered a prayer over the grave of the non-Jewish prisoner who took little Lulek, as Rabbi Lau was called, under his guardianship in Buchenwald, and saved his life.
As he recounts in his book, Out of the Depths, Rabbi Lau had long searched for Mikhailichenko but had no success tracking him down. Then, in 2008, through a series of fortunate events, he established contact with Mikhailichenko’s two daughters in Rostov. To his great regret, their father was no longer alive, but Rabbi Lau recommended that he be granted the title of Righteous Among the Gentiles in Yad Vashem, Jeruslaem’s Holocaust museum and invited his daughters to Israel, where he met them for the first time. Now the Chief Rabbi of Israel came to Rostov to pay his respects and express his gratitude once again.
While in Rostov, Rabbi Lau visited both the home and the burial place of Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber 1860-1920, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad. Israel’s Chief Rabbi and his wife spent Shabbat with Chabad of Rostov.
At least 200 people came to the synagogue to hear Rabbi Lau speak. “He inspired listeners to become involved and engaged in Jewish life,” said Rabbi Danzinger. Rabbi Lau noted that the shul, known as the”Soldatski Synagogue” or the “soldiers’ shul, was built by Jewish soldiers (cantonists) who were forcibly taken away from their homes at the age of 10 to serve the Czar, and remained in his service for about 25 years.
“If after serving for 25 years they were able to build a shul and continue Jewish traditions, imagine the responsibility we have to keep Jewish traditions alive, ensure our children a Jewish education, a bris, a bar mitzvah, kosher observance and Jewish marriages.”