THEY CALLED HIM Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire
life he had never had a surname. He was the jack-of-
all-trades in a Hasidic house of prayer, a shtibl. The Jews
of Sighet—the little town in Transylvania where I spent my child-
hood—were fond of him. He was poor and lived in utter penury.
As a rule, our townspeople, while they did help the needy, did
not particularly like them. Moishe the Beadle was the excep-
tion. He stayed out of people's way. His presence bothered no
one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant,
Physically, he was as awkward as a clown. His waiflike shyness
made people smile. As for me, I liked his wide, dreamy eyes, gaz-
ing off into the distance. He spoke little. He sang, or rather he
chanted, and the few snatches I caught here and there spoke of
divine suffering, of the Shekhinah in Exile, where, according to
Kabbalah, it awaits its redemption linked to that of man.
I met him in 1941. I was almost thirteen and deeply observant.
By day I studied Talmud and by night I would run to the syna-
gogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple.
One day I asked my father to find me a master who could
guide me in my studies of Kabbalah. "You are too young for that.
Maimonides tells us that one must be thirty before venturing into
the world of mysticism, a world fraught with peril. First you must
study the basic subjects, those you are able to comprehend."
My father was a cultured man, rather unsentimental. He rarely
displayed his feelings, not even within his family, and was more
involved with the welfare of others than with that of his own kin.
The Jewish community of Sighet held him in highest esteem; his
advice on public and even private matters was frequently sought.
There were four of us children. Hilda, the eldest; then Bea; I was
the third and the only son; Tzipora was the youngest.
My parents ran a store. Hilda and Bea helped with the work.
As for me, my place was in the house of study, or so they said.
"There are no Kabbalists in Sighet," my father would often
He wanted to drive the idea of studying Kabbalah from my
mind. In vain. I succeeded on my own in finding a master for my-
self in the person of Moishe the Beadle.
He had watched me one day as I prayed at dusk.
"Why do you cry when you pray?" he asked, as though he
knew me well.
"I don't know," I answered, troubled.
I had never asked myself that question. I cried because
because something inside me felt the need to cry. That was all
"Why do you pray?" he asked after a moment.
Why did I pray? Strange question. Why did I live? Why did
"I don't know," I told him, even more troubled and ill at ease.
"I don't know."
From that day on, I saw him often. He explained to me, with
great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was
lost in the answer...
Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him,
he liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God
replies. But we don't understand His replies. We cannot under-
stand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and re-
main there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find
only within yourself.
"And why do you pray, Moishe?" I asked him.
"I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the
We spoke that way almost every evening, remaining in the
synagogue long after all the faithful had gone, sitting in the semi-
darkness where only a few half-burnt candles provided a flicker-
One evening, I told him how unhappy I was not to be able to
find in Sighet a master to teach me the Zohar, the Kabbalistic
works, the secrets of Jewish mysticism. He smiled indulgently.
After a long silence, he said, "There are a thousand and one gates
allowing entry into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human
being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the or-
chard through a gate other than his own. That would present a
danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are
And Moishe the Beadle, the poorest of the poor of Sighet,
spoke to me for hours on end about the Kabbalah's revelations and
its mysteries. Thus began my initiation. Together we would read,
over and over again, the same page of the Zohar. Not to learn it by
heart but to discover within the very essence of divinity.
And in the course of those evenings I became convinced that
Moishe the Beadle would help me enter eternity, into that time
when question and answer would become ONE.
AND THEN, one day all foreign Jews were expelled from Sighet.
And Moishe the Beadle was a foreigner.
Crammed into cattle cars by the Hungarian police, they cried
silently. Standing on the station platform, we too were crying.
The train disappeared over the horizon; all that was left was thick,
Behind me, someone said, sighing, "What do you expect?
That's war... "
The deportees were quickly forgotten. A few days after they
left, it was rumored that they were in Galicia, working, and even
that they were content with their fate.
Days went by. Then weeks and months. Life was normal
again. A calm, reassuring wind blew through our homes. The
shopkeepers were doing good business, the students lived among
their books, and the children played in the streets.
One day, as I was about to enter the synagogue, I saw Moishe
the Beadle sitting on a bench near the entrance.
He told me what had happened to him and his companions.
The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border
and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo.
The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto
waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There every-
body was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge
trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the
Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their pris-
oners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer
their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for
the machine guns. This took place in the Galician forest, near Kolo-
may. How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a
miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead...
Day after day, night after night, he went from one Jewish
house to the next, telling his story and that of Malka, the young
girl who lay dying for three days, and that of Tobie, the tailor who
begged to die before his sons were killed.
Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no
longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He
spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to
believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated
that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things. Oth-
ers flatly said that he had gone mad.
As for Moishe, he wept and pleaded:
"Jews, listen to me! That's all I ask of you. No money. No pity.
Just listen to me!" he kept shouting in synagogue, between the
prayer at dusk and the evening prayer.
Even I did not believe him. I often sat with him, after ser-
vices, and listened to his tales, trying to understand his grief. But
all I felt was pity.
"They think I'm mad," he whispered, and tears, like drops of
wax, flowed from his eyes.
Once, I asked him the question: "Why do you want people to
believe you so much? In your place I would not care whether they
believed me or not... "
He closed his eyes, as if to escape time.
"You don't understand," he said in despair. "You cannot under-
stand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where
did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to
you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still
time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to
come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me ..."
This was toward the end of 1942.
Thereafter, life seemed normal once again. London radio,
which we listened to every evening, announced encouraging
news: the daily bombings of Germany and Stalingrad, the prepa-
ration of the Second Front. And so we, the Jews of Sighet, waited
for better days that surely were soon to come.
I continued to devote myself to my studies, Talmud during
the day and Kabbalah at night. My father took care of his business
and the community. My grandfather came to spend Rosh Ha-
shanah with us so as to attend the services of the celebrated
Rebbe of Borsche. My mother was beginning to think it was high
time to find an appropriate match for Hilda.
Thus passed the year 1943.
SPRING 1944 . Splendid news from the Russian Front. There
could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated. It
was only a matter of time, months or weeks, perhaps.
The trees were in bloom. It was a year like so many others,
with its spring, its engagements, its weddings, and its births.
The people were saying, "The Red Army is advancing with
giant strides...Hitle r will not be able to harm us, even if he
wants to... "
Yes, we even doubted his resolve to exterminate us.
Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed
throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By
what means? In the middle of the twentieth century!
And thus my elders concerned themselves with all manner of
things—strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism—but not with
their own fate.
Even Moishe the Beadle had fallen silent. He was weary of
talking. He would drift through synagogue or through the streets,
hunched over, eyes cast down, avoiding people's gaze.
In those days it was still possible to buy emigration certificates
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