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Purim in Dachau

May 9, 2009 | by Solly Ganor

Suddenly we noticed Chaim standing in the snow and shouting, "Haman to the gallows! And we all know which Haman we are talking about!"

March, 1945.

They arrived from Auschwitz in several groups. Each group counted about 20 people. Of course, they didn't look like people. They looked more like walking skeletons. They had triangular faces with pointed chins, and sunken cheeks. Even the lips had shrunken to thin blue lines. The only prominent feature were their eyes; they were unusually large and with a strange sheen, almost luminous. They were known in concentration camp slang as "Musselman." That was usually the last stage before death.

They spoke Yiddish with an accent, which to us Lithuanian Jews, sounded strange. They told us that they came from the ghetto of Lodz through Auschwitz, before they were sent to our camp. Our camp was known as the "Outer camp of Dachau, #10" and it was situated near the picturesque town of Utting, by lake Amersee.

Our camp was sitting in the middle of a small forest with surrounding green meadows and beautiful landscapes.

I remember the day when we were brought there, I thought to myself, "How can anything bad happen to us among all this beauty?"

I soon found out that the beauty was in the landscape only. The Germans in charge of us were sadists and murderers.

The Lodz people fell into the same deceptive trap. They thought that after Auschwitz, our camp looked like paradise. Most of them died soon after their arrival, from hard labor, beatings and starvation. But they preferred to die here than in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

It was from them that we heard the incredible stories of gas chambers and crematoriums, where thousands of our people were murdered every day.

Some of them told us that they were standing naked before the gas chambers when they were suddenly ordered to get dressed and were sent to our camp. The Germans must have been really desperate for workers to send these walking skeletons all the way from Poland.

Around March 1945, there were only a few of them left alive. One of them was known as "Chaim the Rabbi." We never found out whether he was actually a rabbi, but he always washed his hands and made a blessing before eating. He knew the dates of the Jewish calendar, and also knew all the prayers by heart. From time to time when the Germans were not looking, he would invite us to participate in the evening prayers.

Our Jewish camp commander, Burgin, heard about him and tried to get him easier jobs. Most people died when they had to carry a 100 pounds of cement sacks on their backs, or other chores of heavy labor. He wouldn’t have lasted a day on a job like this. He once told me that if he would survive, he would get married and have at least a dozen children.

Around the middle of March, we were given a day off. It was a Sunday. The camp was covered with snow, but here and there the first signs of spring was in the air. We heard vague rumors of the American breakthrough into Germany and a glimmer of hope was kindled in our hearts.

After breakfast, consisting of a slice of moldy bread, a tiny piece of margarine, and brown water known as "Ersatz Coffee," we returned to our barrack to get some extra sleep.

Suddenly we noticed "Chaim the Rabbi" standing in the snow and shouting, "Haman to the gallows! Haman to the gallows!"

"Fellow Jews, what is the matter with you?! Today is Purim! Let us make a Purim Shpiel!"

He had on his head a paper crown made out of a cement sack, and he was draped in a blanket that had cut out stars from the same paper attached to it.

We stood like petrified before this strange apparition, barely able to trust our eyes, while he performed a dance in the snow, singing: "I am Achashverosh, Achashverosh, the king of the Persians!"

Then he stood still, straightened himself out, chin pointed to the sky, his right arm extended in an imperial gesture and shouted: "Haman to the gallows! Haman to the gallows! And when I say 'Haman to the gallows,' we all know which Haman we are talking about!"

We were sure that he has lost his wits, as so many did in these impossible times. By now there was about 50 of us standing gaping at the "rabbi," when he said: "Yidden wos iz mit ajch! Fellow Jews, what is the matter with you?! Today is Purim! Let us make a Purim Shpiel [a Purim play]!"

Then it dawned on us that back home, a million years ago, this was the time of the year when we children were dressing up for Purim, playing and eating Hamantaschen. The "rabbi" remembered the exact date according to the Jewish calendar. We hardly knew what day it was.

Chaim then divided the roles of Queen Esther, Mordechai, Vashti and Haman among the onlookers. I was honored to receive the role of Mordechai, and we all ended up dancing in the snow. So we had our Purim Shpiel in Dachau.

But that was not the end of the story. The "rabbi" promised us that we will get today our "Mishloach Manot," our gifts of food, and we thought that it was hardly likely to happen.

But, miracle of miracles, the same afternoon, a delegation of the International Red Cross came to the camp. It was the first time that they bothered about us. Still, we welcomed them with open arms, because they brought us the "Mishloach Manot" that the "rabbi" had promised.

Here we were starving to death, and suddenly on Purim, we received these heavenly gifts.

Each one of us received a parcel containing a tin of sweet condensed milk, a small bar of chocolate, a box of sugar cubes, and a pack of cigarettes. It is impossible to describe our joy! Here we were starving to death, and suddenly on Purim, we received these heavenly gifts. Since then, we never doubted the "rabbi."

His prediction also came true. Two months later Haman/Hitler went to the gallows, and shot himself in Berlin, while we, those of us who were still alive, were rescued by the American army, on May 2, 1945.

I lost track of "Chaim the Rabbi" on our Death March from Dachau to Tyrol, but I hope that he survived and had many children as he always wanted. I always remember him when Purim comes around, for the unforgettable Purim Shpiel in Dachau.


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