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ALEXANDER KIMEL - HOLOCAUST UNDERSTANDING & PREVENTION

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SHLOJME THE BALAGULE

Written by Alexander Kimel - Holocaust Survivor.

In this small dilapidated "shtejtl" - small town of Galizia Shlojme was an institution. Shlojme was not a "gevir", as the rich men were called. He did not have a honored seat at the eastern wall of the synagogue, he wasn't called to the Torah every second Saturday, but nevertheless he was liked and even some say admired. Shlojme owned a squeaking buggy drawn by old, beaten up horse resembling a dried California prune and earned his living as a "balagule" or a horse driver. The living he made was very precarious. For a few pennies Shlojme hired himself to deliver a sack of potatoes, a pile of wood or a bag of salt.

And although Shlojme cornered about 50% of the transportation market of the "Shtejtl", his outward appearance did not indicate great success. Summer or winter, rain or shine, Shlojme was dressed in the same old, black Kapoty or coat, ripped in the seams and that looked like a quilt with multiple of patches. In the winter he stuffed his booths with straw to keep his feet warm. His competition tried to undermine Shlojme with the true claim that his competitive edge he gained by starving his horse. In the Shtejtl, Shlojme was known for the multitude of children he sired, for his good nature and unorthodox approach to life. Some envious souls tried to say that Shlojme doesn't believe in God and although he dutifully attends the services he does not pray, as God commanded.

The truth is that each day Shlojme joyfully attended the services, but during the "Amidah" the Silent prayer when the congregation silently recited the Eighteen Blessings and asked God of forgiveness for their sins and transgressions, Shlojme was engaged in a one sided conversation with his personal God. Shlojme was doing the talking and God listened. "God, You know that for myself I ask little, a bowl of soup and a piece of herring and I am happy. I am grateful to You for my devoted wife Pearl, for my growing family. But...for the horse, I beg You for help. This poor creature of yours doesn't know the taste of oats, even a bail of hey is luxury. How long can he survive? What will happen to us if the horse dies? How are you going to support us?"

Shlojme was often chastised for his loose praying habits. To his critics Shlojme used to say " Do you think that God enjoys your mindless repetition of two thousand year old prayers. He knows them by heart and is bored with them. Do you think that God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob speaks only the Holy language - Hebrew? Our God speaks Yiddish also, and believe me it is a lot easier to communicate with the Blessed One in your own language". People liked to deal with Shlojme, he never haggled for a few pennies, and always told beautiful stories about rich princesses, poor beggars and smart horses. Despite the hardships and deprivations, he never complained and his eyes always radiated like the sun on a cold winter day.

"God blessed me with full house of children and no money, Mendel the Gevir-Mendel the Rich, is blessed with full coffers of money and no children. My wife nurses a new baby each year, and his wife nurses the same ulcer year after year. What is better? He used to ask half-jokingly." And so time went by, days after days, years after year, until the war erupted. In one sunny Yom Kippur Day, most of the Congregation was herded into cattle trains to be carted off to the gas chambers. For the first time in his life Shlojme took a ride in a real train.

In wasn't a joyful ride. The cars were packed with screaming, sweating, crying, naked people. No place to sit, no place to stand. The cries of the children intermingled with the wailing of the women. One poor soul started to recite the prayer for the dead, the Kaddish and hell broke loose. "Who is going to say Kaddish for our souls? Who is going to remember us? Only Reb Shlojme remained quiet and calm. He was sitting in a corner, with closed eyes an a exalted expression on his face. It looks like Shlojme was enjoying the ride. "What is the matter Shlojme", nudged him his neighbor Mottel. "Don't you know where they are taking us? Are you so stupid?"

Shlojme slowly opened his eyes, silently looked around, and like a man awaken from a pleasant dream said in a low voice: "Mottel, it is said in the Kabbalah, that before his death a righteous man sees his parents and all the loved ones he is going to meet in heaven, and he rejoices. The wicked men see the flames of hell and they cry and suffer". "Me, they are taking for a reunion with my beloved wife and children, blessed their memory. They are waiting for me...Perele and Ruchele, Jankely, Berele and Dwojrele. . . Where they are taking you Mottel, I don't know." Shlojme closed his eyes, and continued the joyful anticipation of the upcoming reunion.
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