In honor of the observance of Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Memorial Day, I'd like to share two stories about the meaning and significance of counting the Omer during the Holocaust.
Counting the Omer requires no religious artifacts, such as shofar, lulav, matzoh, etc. Once you remember how many days have passed since the first day of Passover, you can perform the mitzvah - recite the blessing and count the days. All you need is your mind. It thus became a mitzvah the Jewish people could keep even when they were suffering from persecution, pogroms and outright genocide. In the memoirs of two Holocaust survivors, we find inspiring testimony on the significance of this mitzvah, showing how even in the darkest of hours they kept track of the Omer count.
The late Hassidic rebbe and posek Rabbi Menashe Klein – also known as the Ungvarer Rav because he hailed from Ungvar, Czechoslovakia – was a teenager who survived Auschwitz and other camps. On April 11, 1945, he was in the Buchenwald concentration camp when the camp was finally liberated by American troops. One of his first reactions was a desire to count the Omer properly.
In volume 10 of his collection of responsa Mishneh Halachot, Rabbi Klein recounts that he was so sick and emaciated after Auschwitz and subsequent camps that he could not stand on his feet or even sit up. But at that great moment of liberation, he wanted so much to be able to stand up and perform this mitzvah, since it is preferable to count the Omer standing up.
He writes, “Using the very last reserves of my strength, I grabbed a pole with two hands, and pulled myself into a sitting position, counted the Omer, and then collapsed back on the wooden floor . . . but I knew this would be the day of freedom.” And that day, he remembers, was the 13th day of the Omer, which, incidentally, is what we count every year on the night following Yom HaShoah.
These survivors’ dedication to keeping track of the Hebrew calendar is testament to the unbreakable Jewish spirit. Despite living through unimaginable horrors, they nevertheless continued performing the mitzvah of counting the Omer, turning it into a form of spiritual resistance. By counting the Omer today, we can honor our ancestors who showed utmost dedication and commitment to our tradition.
May the memory of all the millions of innocent Jewish and non-Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust be a source of blessing for all.