Instead of the Gas Chambers, She Asked for a Knife

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The following Holocaust story originally appeared in Besheva Hebrew Magazine, a sister publication of Arutz Sheva, in the Holocaust Day edition. The story was researched and written by Oded Mizrachi.


Rabbi Shapira placed the logs in an orderly pile to transfer them to the Nazi Officers' quarters to heat their rooms in the cold of winter. All around, everything was frozen. His hands were frozen chunks of ice. He was elderly, tired, and fatigued from hard labor, but he had no choice but to continue his work, or else, meet his end.

Suddenly, he heard screams and crying from the women's barracks. Mothers and their children were being led by Nazi officers to trucks which would transport them to the gas chambers. They knew that these were their last minutes. The hollers and cries were terrifying.

Rabbi Shapira was sure that the cries would reach the heavens, and momentarily, fire and brimstone would rain down and wipe out the camp and its cursed leaders from the face of the earth.

But it didn't happen.

One of the women in the group being led to sure death recognized Rabbi Shapira and ran over to him and asked for a knife. He understood that her intent was to commit suicide, and he explained to her that it is better that the Nazis kill her than for her to take her own life. "G-d gave, and G-d took," he quoted explaining that only the One who gave a soul to man could take it from him. He told her that it was forbidden for a Jew to kill herself.

The woman was not convinced and insisted that the Rabbi give her a knife. When she realized that Rabbi Shapira would not cooperate, she glanced behind her and saw a German officer standing some 50 yards away with a knife protruding from his belt. She ran over to the German officer, and Rav Shapira followed behind her pleading with her, "No, no! Don't commit suicide. It is wrong."

When she ran up to the German officer, he cocked his rifle and asked, "What's going on here?" Rabbi Shapira explained that the woman wants to commit suicide, and that according to Judaism, it is forbidden to do so even if a Jew is facing sure death, and therefore he is trying to convince her not to.

The woman's face shined with light, and Rabbi Shapira couldn't tell if it was an illumination of holiness or of insanity. He had never seen a face with such a light.

"Please give me the knife," she said.

The German officer was entertained by the thought of a Jewess stabbing herself to death and saving him a bullet. He pulled the long knife from its holster and pointed his gun at her warning her not to try something stupid.

The woman took the knife in her shaking hands and then lowered the small basket that she was carrying on her shoulder to the snow. She began to remove one rag after another from the basket until…

Rabbi Shapira and the German officer were taken by surprise at the sight in front of them: At the bottom of the basket was a white pillow and on it, a baby who was gently whining. The woman raised her eyes to the sky and said, "Master of the Universe, you gave me a healthy boy, and I ask of you one request: when my son dies, he should die as a Jew." She then grasped the knife, and recited the blessing: Blessed art thou O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe who has sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to perform circumcision!"

She bent over and circumcised her son.

A squirt of blood emanated from the small body. The baby cried, the mother cried, and Rabbi Shapira who couldn't believe what he was witnessing, wept with them. The Nazi stood frozen.

The mother covered her son with the rags, picked him up in her hands, and continued reciting the blessings: "Blessed art thou O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe who has commanded us to enter him into the covenant of Abraham our forefather." She added the shehechiyanu blessing.

The blessings that the mother recited echoed in the frozen expanse, and she returned to the line of women and children who were being led to the gas chambers. After a short while, the mother and her circumcised son were no longer amongst the living.

Rabbi Shapira survived the holocaust. At the end of WWII, he emigrated to the United States, and told this story on many occasions.