Early one Friday morning in the spring of 1943 the Nazis herded together two dozen Jews of Dombrowa (in Polish,“Dąbrowa Tarnowska”) and escorted them at gunpoint to the Jewish cemetery. Once they had arrived there, the Nazis handed the Jews spades and ordered them to dig a deep, wide ditch. They then commanded the Jews to line up in front of the ditch they had dug. All day long the Jews were forced to stand motionless before their own open mass grave, under the muzzles of the Nazi guns. But the Nazis seemed in no hurry to pull their triggers.
The Ruins of Dombrowa's Main Synagogue
Among the Jews lined up before the open ditch was Rabbi Chaim Yehiel Rubin, the rebbe of Dombrowa. At noontime, the rebbe noticed, standing aside, half-hidden behind a tree, a little old man. This was the gravedigger, whom the Nazis had apparently overlooked. The rebbe motioned to the man and asked him to go into town and bring back with him two loaves of bread. For all that the rebbe knew, they might still be standing before the Nazi guns when the Sabbath would arrive, and he, the rebbe, was determined to welcome the Sabbath properly.
As the day wore on, the rebbe became increasingly agitated. He had his Sabbath loaves now, but there was something else that troubled him deeply. This was the first Friday in his life as an adult Jew that he had not gone to the mikvah to purify his body in honor of the day of rest. And this had to happen now of all days, on this special Sabbath of Sabbaths, when he and his flock were about to meet their Father in Heaven face to face. How could he come before his Maker, on the Sabbath, in a state of impurity?
The sun had set, but the order to fire had not yet gone forth. “The Sabbath is about to begin,” the rebbe said softly. “This is the last time we will greet the Sabbath on earth. My children, let us welcome this Sabbath with the same love that the Lord lavished upon us, His people, when He gave us the Sabbath to keep.”
Having said this to his flock, he began to chant, ever so softly, the psalms with which Jews have ushered in the Sabbath from time immemorial. He did this while the Nazis kept their guns pointed at those Jews who insisted on singing the praises of their God even at the edge of their own open grave.
After completing his prayers, the rebbe bade “Good Sabbath” to the others and sang Shalom Aleichem, the hymn welcoming the angels of Sabbath peace into the Jewish home. The gravedigger, who survived to tell this story, had placed the loaves of bread upon the wet grass near the rebbe’s feet. The rebbe now turned and recited the kiddush over the bread. Then he launched into a learned discourse on the function of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the Torah. But in the midst of his discourse, the rebbe, carried away by ecstasy, burst into joyous song. Those who stood on either side of him picked up the melody, and they all began to dance, there, before the mass grave that was waiting for them.
At that moment, the leader of the Nazi firing squad screamed, “Fire!” and so it was in the midst of a dance in the praise of God and of His loving-kindness that the Jews from Dombrowa and their rebbe returned their souls to their Creator in complete purity.
Rabbi Chaim Yechiel Rubin, May G-d Avenge His Blood
--Based on a report in the Jewish Daily Forward, March 3, 1946.