Faith on the Death Train
The Rebbe of Modzitz, Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Elazar, had Chassidim
throughout the major towns and cities of Poland. One of these was Reb
Azriel David Fastag, who was noted for his exceptional voice throughout
Warsaw. Many came to the shul where Reb Azriel David and his brothers,
who were also blessed with lovely voices, would pray on the High Holy
Days. Reb Azriel David would lead the prayers, while his brothers accompanied
him as a choir. His crisp, clear and moving voice had a profound
effect on all who heard him.
Reb Azriel David lived simply, earning his livelihood from a small clothing
store, but his happiness and fulfillment came from another source -- the
world of Chassidic music. His moving tunes made their way to Otvoczk
(a suburb of Warsaw), where his Rebbe, Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Elazar appreciated
them immensely. The day a new niggun (melody) by Reb Azriel
David arrived was a festive day for for the Rebbe.
Dark clouds began to cover the skies of Europe -- the clouds of Nazism.
In spite of the terrible decrees, the yellow patch and the ghettoes, most
Jews could not fathom what was about to befall them. Only a few managed
to escape the clutches of the Nazi occupation to safe havens. One of them
was the Modzitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar, whose Chassidim
made a tremendous effort to save him. As the Nazis entered Poland, the
Chassidim smuggled him out of Poland to Vilna, in Lithuania, and from
there he made his way across Russia to Shanghai, China, eventually arriving
in America in 1940.
Meanwhile in Poland tens of thousands of Jews were being shipped off
daily to their death in cattle cars that were part of the railway system.
Roused from their warm beds in Warsaw in the middle of the night, husbands
were separated from their wives, children wrested from the arms
of their parents. The elderly were often shot on the spot, in front of their
loved ones. Then the Jews were gathered and sent off in those trains to a
place where their existence would no longer trouble the Nazis -- to Auschwitz,
Inside the crowded cars, over the clatter of the cattle cars’ wheels, rose
the sounds of people gasping, sighing, weeping and dying. One could hear
the stifled cries of children crushed together. But in one such car, headed
toward the infamous death camp Treblinka, the sound of singing could be
It seems that an elderly Jew, wrapped up in his ragged clothing, his face
white as snow, had made his way over to his neighbor on the death train,
begging him to remind him the tune of Ma’areh Kohen sung by Modzitzer
Rebbe during the Yom Kippur service.
“Now? Now, what you want to hear is niggunim?” answered the other,
with a hard look at the Chassid, thinking that maybe all the suffering had
caused him to lose his mind.
But this Modzitzer Chassid, Reb Azriel David Fastag, was no longer
paying attention to his friend, or to anyone else on the train. In his mind, he
was at the prayer stand next to his Rebbe on Yom Kippur, and it is he who
was leading the prayer before the Rebbe and all the Chassidim.
the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith: Ani ma’amin b’emuna sheleima,
b’viat hamoshiach; v’af al pi she’yismamaya, im kol zeh, achakeh lo
b’chol yom she’yavo -- “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the
Moshiach; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for
his coming.” Closing his eyes, he meditated on these words and thought,
“Just now, when everything seems lost, is a Jew’s faith put to the test.”
It was not long before he began to hum a quiet tune to these words.
There, amidst the death and despair on the train to Treblinka, the Chassid
was transformed into a pillar of song, bringing forth out of his bloodied
lungs the song of the eternity of the Jewish People. He was unaware of the
silence in the cattle car, and of the hundreds of ears listening attentively
in amazement. He also didn’t hear the voices as they gradually joined his
song, at first quietly, but soon growing louder and louder.
The song spread from car to car. Every mouth that could still draw a
breath joined in Reb Azriel Dovid’s Ani Ma’amin.
As if waking from a dream, Reb Azriel David opened his eyes to the
sight of the singing train. His eyes were red from crying, his cheeks wet
with tears. In a choked voice, he cried out: “I will give half of my portion
in Olam Habbah (the World to Come) to whoever can take my song to the
A hushed silence descended upon the train. Two young men appeared,
promising to bring the song to the Rebbe at any cost. One of them climbed
upon the other, and finding a small crack of the train’s roof broke out a
hole from which to escape. Poking his head out under the open sky, he
said, “I see the blue heavens above us, the stars are twinkling and the
moon, with a fatherly face, is looking at me.”
“And what do you hear?” asked his companion.
“I hear,” the young man answered, “the angels on high singing Ani
Ma’amin, and it’s ascending to the seven firmaments of heaven!”
Bidding farewell to their brothers and sisters on the train, the two proceeded
to jump off, one after the other. One was killed instantly from the
fall. The other survived, taking the memory of the song with him. He eventually
found his way to Land of Israel (perhaps to the Modzitzer Rebbe’s
son, the author of Imrei Aish, who was in Tel-Aviv), and the notes were
sent by mail to Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar in New York.
Upon receiving the notes and having the Reb Azriel Dovid’s Ani
Ma’amin sung before him, the Modzitzer Rebbe said: “When they sang
Ani Ma’amin on the death train, the pillars of the world were shaking. The
Almighty said, ‘Whenever the Jews will sing Ani Ma’amin, I will remember
the six million victims and have mercy on the rest of My People.’”
It is told that on the first Yom Kippur that the Modzitzer Rebbe sang
the Ani Ma’amin, there were thousands of Jews in the shul. The entire
congregation burst into tears, which fell like water into the pool of tears
and blood of the Jewish people. The tune soon spread throughout world
“With this niggun,” said Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar, “the Jewish people
went to the gas chambers. And with this niggun, the Jews will march
to greet Moshiach.”