Mitchell Winthrop Analysis

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The guest speaker at the Illinois Holocaust Museum posed an unanswerable question to the dozen Chabad eighth-grade boys sitting in front of him. Mitchell Winthrop, 88 years of age, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen Nazi concentration camps, had been raised in a secular Jewish home in Lodz, Poland. Why had he, he asked the boys—someone who hadn’t even had a bar mitzvah—been chosen to survive the Holocaust and not his pious, white-bearded grandfather?

His question was meant to provoke thought, but it also spurred the graduating class of Chicago’s Seymour J. Abrams Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School into action.

“It’s never too late to make a bar mitzvah!” called out 14-year-old Yankel Raices. The group was on a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, the highlight of which is to hear a first-person account from a survivor. “We can do it right now. We can put on tefillin.”

Winthrop’s family intended for him to have a bar mitzvah; as a boy, he had even chosen which bicycle he wanted from his uncle’s shop as a birthday present. Then came the Nazi invasion, and on Nov. 14, 1939, the imposing Great Synagogue of Lodz—where Winthrop’s bar mitzvah was to be held a few days later—was
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If Winthrop was willing, they would celebrate with him, then and there.

“I forgot the prayers,” Winthrop objected.

“We’ll help you,” the boys replied, almost in unison.

A few moments later, with a yarmulke on his head and a pre-war photograph of his entire family on the screen behind him, Winthrop donned tefillin for the first time. As he finished saying the words of “Shema,” the boys began to dance, pulling the older man into the joyous circle.

“When we started doing the hora, I felt very emotional,” says Winthrop. “Here was my whole family looking and witnessing my bar mitzvah, if only in a picture. I’m emotional even now as I retell
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