Oscar Lifshitz was born in Warsaw in the late 1920’s, to an observant Jewish family. When the Germans invaded Poland he was in his early teens. His parents were among the naïve folk who believed that the Germans only wanted to expand their dominion, and in the end everything would work out. “The Germans are an intellectual and cultured people. If anyone can civilize the coarse Poles, it would be them.”
Oscar knew otherwise. He did not trust the Germans for a moment. He detested the arrogant way they goose-stepped in the streets, and the anti-Semitic slogans they chanted constantly. Despite the views of his parents, Oscar joined the Polish underground to fight the German invaders. Within days it became apparent that this is what saved his life.
Shortly after the German invasion of Poland, Oscar’s father died of a heart attack. A few days later, one fine afternoon, Oscar was standing on the roof of his home watching the street below. Suddenly he saw swarms of German soldiers marching towards his home. They grabbed his mother, brother and sister and herded them into the street together with scores of other Jews. His brothers and one of his sisters were shot to death on the spot. His mother and the rest of his siblings were sent to Auschwitz.
Oscar watched the proceedings from the rooftop, seething with rage. He was determined to avenge the Germans for the slaughter of his family. He fought side by side with the Polish partisans against the German occupation. Later, when the Russians invaded Germany, Oscar joined the Russian army, and in the end he was fortunate to be one of the liberators of Auschwitz. For days after the war was over, Oscar ran around in a daze, looking for a trace of any surviving relative – but he found no one. Oscar was alone.
The hair-rasing sights that Oscar saw in Auschwitz sapped him of his last remaining strength. “Is this the reward for being a Jew?” he thought bitterly.
At a certain point Oscar realized that he would no longer be able to kill any more Germans, so he deserted the Russian Army. He crossed border after border, and finally boarded a ship to faraway America. Alone, without family, without friends, cut off from his roots.
Only one desire burned in his heart – to distance himself as far as possible from Judaism. He settled in Los Angeles, changed his name from Lifshitz to Leff and taught himself English. He buried himself in work to forget his woes and his loneliness.
During the day, the high-pressured lifestyle he led distracted him enough. But at night, the hell he lived through would return in full force. In the silence of his home, the memories would overwhelm him and wreak havoc. Oscar would turn on the television to distract himself from the pain, but before his eyes danced images of his family members who no longer were. This was the life Oscar led, for years and years.
One evening, decades after the war’s end, Oscar was watching television and flipping through channels, as was his habit. Suddenly he saw something on the screen that grabbed his attention. A white-bearded rabbi was lecturing to a crowd of chassidim in Yiddish. The image reminded him of his childhood in the years before the war.
Oscar very nearly flipped to the next channel, but something about the rabbi’s demeanor captivated him, held his attention. He caught one sentence that the rabbi said: “A Jew who escapes from Judaism after the war is giving a prize to Hitler, may his name be obliterated.”
“The Germans tried to wipe out the Jewish people,” the rabbi continued to speak, while Oscar listened raptly from his couch in Los Angeles. “the best way to avenge ourselves of the Germans is to rebuild and continue Judaism. To fulfill Torah and mitzvot and to educate the future generations.”
Oscar felt that the rabbi was speaking directly to him, as if the rabbi had sensed the lust for revenge that filled his heart from the first moments of the war. Finally someone had penetrated his isolation, his loneliness, and pierced through the cloak of suffering and sadness he had worn all those years.
There was a telephone number across the bottom of the screen to call for more information about the rabbi and his organization. Oscar wrote down the number and as soon as the broadcast ended, he made a call. It was then close to midnight, and whoever answered the phone set up a meeting for the next day, in one of the Chabad centers in Los Angeles. That night Oscar hardly slept. He lay in bed and wept for his past, for his childhood, and for the many empty and lonely years he had spent after the war.
At the appointed hour Oscar came to the Chabad House, where he was given a transcript of the Rebbe’s talk the previous evening. He found out the identity of the rabbi—none other than the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Oscar read the Rebbe’s words over and over, until he had them practically committed to memory. The one sentence that really remained emblazoned in his mind was “One who escapes from Judaism is giving a prize to Hitler, may his name be obliterated.”
Oscar’s next step was to legally change his name back to “Lifshitz.” Afterwards he returned to the Chabad House and ordered a pair of tefillin. He had decided to truly take revenge for all the Nazi atrocities, and return to live as a Torah-observant Jew.