When Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was 8 he had the distinction of being the youngest survivor of Buchenwald to be liberated by American troops.
Despite the loss of his family and childhood, the Polish native acknowledged the miracles that allowed him to survive and become Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi.
During an Aug. 3 appearance at Hillel Yeshiva in Deal he spoke to a crowd of 750 about those traumatic experiences, many of which are detailed in his book, “Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald” (Sterling Publishing, 2011). The program was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and Chabad of the Shore.
The program took place two days after Tisha b’Av, when “we mourn all the losses of the Jewish people,” said Chabad executive director Rabbi Laibel Schapiro. However, he noted, it is also a time when “our tradition tells us to focus on the future, to hope, to focus on rebuilding.”
Descending from an unbroken chain of 37 generations of rabbis, Lau was shielded during his years in various camps by an older brother, Naftali, the only other member of his family to survive.
“The book cost me 60 years of my life,” said Lau, now chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo and chair of the Yad Vashem Council. “I entered the Holocaust in my childhood and it influenced my life.”
Lau, who has met influential world leaders, including U.S. presidents, said writing the book “opened old wounds.”
“The book is a complete story of my memories of the Holocaust,” said Lau. He noted that it has been printed in 10 languages, including Chinese and Japanese.
Following his release from Buchenwald, Lau and 220 other boys were taken to an orphanage in France. One day they were informed that a delegation of dignitaries, including the town’s mayor and police chief — accompanied by a Holocaust survivor — was coming to visit and bearing gifts. One of the most exciting events for the boys was not the gifts themselves, but rather seeing their names written on the packages.
“For the last six years we were numbers in Buchenwald, 117030,” he said.
While the boys, who had been left numb by their horrific experiences, vowed to ignore the dignitaries, they were moved by the inspirational Holocaust survivor who spoke to them.
Lau recalled that one of the older boys in the group stood up and told the survivor how he felt, an emotional speech in which he told the man he had believed he had “‘no future, no mother, no father, no roots, no hope. You gave me the chance to feel alive.’”
Afterward many of the orphans cried for the first time in years. Lau never forgot the speech, but had no contact with the impassioned young man as he and the other boys gradually left for Israel and the Unites States.
Fifty years later, while walking in Hadassah Medical Center with several hospital officials following a terror attack, an executive in the hospital’s accounting department stopped him in the hallway and introduced himself. It was the same young man.
Lau said the incident is just one of the many small miracles that have marked his life.