Of the hundreds of heroic stories told by the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Spiro, about his harrowing experiences in the Janowska labor camp during World War II, one episode is not well known at all. It is the story of Dr. Shimon Ringel. It is the courageous tale of a valiant man and his fight to preserve the honor, the kavod, of his people.
Arriving at the labor camp on August 26, 1942, Shimon, a young man in his 30s, carried with him a spirit of defiance and an inner strength. He was shocked at how the Jews all followed the orders of their German superiors; he desperately tried to convince the other inmates that eventually all of them would be killed, every last one. So why follow the Germans' orders and work for their cause? Why not spread the word to the thousands of other inmates? But a number of factors prevented him from doing this.
First of all, it was difficult to ever speak to a large number of people. The Nazis watched their every move carefully, ensuring that no one spoke to anyone else unless it was for a purpose. After work it was nearly impossible to find someone who had either the physical strength or the will to converse. They were shattered both in body and spirit. The only thing they wanted was to rest their bruised and weary bodies. Who had time or interest to speak about hope and pride? They were by and large walking skeletons, living out their days until the time came to die. And when it would, they would gladly leave this nightmarish existence.
So the voices of the Shimon Ringels had no chance of being heard. But Shimon would speak to the Bluzhever Rebbe. In him he found someone who would listen and at least try to share in his hope.
The labor camp was a scene of subhuman conditions ― appalling sanitation, little food, and constant harassment and beatings. Daily, they were forced to endure lineups where the SS guards would degrade and humiliate them.
"Which nation are the biggest liars and cheaters?" the SS guards would call out in glee, almost suppressing a snide smirk as they waited anxiously for the answer. "We the Jews are!" would be the cry of the degraded prisoners. Anyone daring not to scream out this answer would suffer by being chosen to stand in the middle of the courtyard and be beaten ― beaten until he died ― while his fellow Jews watched.
But Shimon could not bear to watch this horrible sight. He could no longer tolerate these barbarians mocking God and His holy nation. It is one thing to beat someone physically, but to humiliate the soul of a Jew, that was just too much. The humiliation and shame hurt so badly that Shimon decided to do something about it.
One of the daily rituals in the camp was the trip the inmates would take to the bathhouses. Although they was given the opportunity to bathe themselves, it was on a strict schedule. They had, to undress, bathe and redress all within a period of 5 minutes. Anyone not keeping to the schedule would be killed instantly. And tragically, often more blood would flow from those bathhouses, than water.
Afterward, again, the humiliating ceremony would begin. "Who's the filthiest nation on earth?" the Nazi guard would call out. "It is we the Jews who are infested with lice and filth."
"And why are you no longer dirty?"
"Because the kind and benevolent commandant has allowed us to cleanse ourselves."
The scene was sickening and shameful. But woe to the individual who dared to defy the sadistic guard. And for the longest time no one dared to do so. Until Shimon Ringel.
Shimon armed himself with a small dose of cyanide and one middle-sized rock. As the routine was about to begin, he turned to the Bluzhever Rebbe with tears in his eyes and he begged, "Please forgive me, Rebbe. I know that after what I am going to do, you will suffer together with the rest of the inmates. But I can no longer tolerate the shame they are causing to God and the Jewish people. I don't know if you will survive but promise me that if you do, you will tell this story to let people know that someone did not allow them to shame God's people."
The Rebbe tried to convince Shimon not to do it. But it was too late. The routine began. "Who is the filthiest nation on earth?"
Shimon refused to answer, while the rest of them struggled to proclaim that they were the filthiest nation, when they knew that the exact opposite was true. It did not take long for the Nazi guards to notice that Shimon was not responding to the questions in the same manner as everyone else.
"Why are you not answering, Jew?"
This time it was the Commandant Kolinko who spoke with a mixture of anger and confusion. "How dare you not answer the way you have been taught?" The commandant was visibly shaken and surprised that this Jew was so defiant!
"Because it is not true. The Jewish people are not filthy and we are not a lowly nation. It is you who should be ashamed of yourselves, you dirty dog. You kill innocent women and children. It is you who should be embarrassed for who you are."
And as soon as Shimon finished his diatribe, the commandant, shocked by his impudence, approached him and stepped right up to his face. Suddenly Shimon spit at him and smashed the rock he had hidden against the commandant's head.
Immediately chaos ensued. The SS guards pounced on Shimon and beat him mercilessly as the commandant bled profusely. But Shimon did not feel it at all. He was now in a place where no one could hurt him.
Astonishingly, somehow, someway, the matter was swept aside. One of those who survived was the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Spira, who retold this story.
Now, here was a Jew who knew he would not survive, yet he would not tolerate the spectacle of Jews calling themselves “filthy.”
We, thank G-d, are given the freedom to speak up against all the voices which never cease to defame and spread lies about the Jewish people and their homeland, the Land of Israel.
You know the story of the anti-Semite who knocks down the Jew in the street. The Jew gives him a coin and says that today is a holiday, a Yom Tov, where we give money to people who hit us and directs him to the wealthy Jew, who will give him big money. The anti-Semite goes to the man’s house and when the Jew comes to the door, the anti-Semite gives him a solid Zetz. The wealthy Jew calls his servants who beat the living daylights out of this anti-Semite. He goes away bruised and muttering, “These Jews, they don't even keep their own holidays.”
We ought never to be ashamed. We must speak up, with confidence, with dignity, with unwavering passion and strength. We cannot afford in times of freedom to suffer from an inferiority complex.