Who Will Save the Baby?
A yeshiva student's heroic choice.
If anyone in the Cracow ghetto stood a chance of surviving the Holocaust, it was Avraham Shapiro*. At 22 years old, he was a smart and resourceful young man whose mind had been honed during years of yeshiva study. He understood that the Germans were out to annihilate every Jew, and he took the precautions necessary to save himself and his middle-aged parents. He got expertly counterfeited papers identifying the three members of his family as foreign nationals. He built and stocked a bunker in a remote place underneath the ghetto. And he procured a map of the sewers and planned out an escape route for the day the ghetto would be liquidated. His master scheme was to escape to the safety of Hungary.
Then one day an 18-year-old neighbor named Chaya Rivka knocked on the Shapiros' door holding a baby. The baby, who was 20 months old and who could neither stand nor sit up by himself, was her nephew Chaim. His parents had been shipped off to Treblinka. Chaya Rivka knew that the Shapiros had foreign citizenship papers. She calculated that of all the doomed Jews in the ghetto, the Shapiros had the best chance to escape. She had approached the Shapiro family several times, asking them to take the baby with them to safety, but they had refused. A baby would be a liability that would endanger their own chances of survival.
But this day -- March 11, 1943 -- was different. Chaya Rivka had received notice that she was being deported to a labor camp. She simply couldn't take the baby along. With heart-breaking cries, she begged Avraham, who was the only one home at the time, to take the baby.
"My compassion overwhelmed my intellect, and I decided to accept the child."
Avraham -- the logical thinker, the careful planner -- was prepared to overcome the Nazis, but that day he overcame his own character. As he would later declare, "My compassion overwhelmed my intellect, and I decided to accept the child."
When his parents came home and saw Avraham holding the baby, they were aghast. How could he have forfeited their three lives for such an act of reckless compassion? Avraham replied that the baby was now his, and either the baby escaped with them, or they would all remain in the doomed ghetto.
Avraham's immediate need was to forge a birth certificate proving that the baby was his. He knew a rabbi who had an official stamp, but where to get a form? Somehow Avraham managed to locate a typewriter. He had never in his life typed, but that night he stayed up all night, and by dawn he had produced a credible birth certificate. He ran to the rabbi to stamp it. "At that moment," Avraham later wrote, "a son was born to Avraham Shapiro."
"ALL OF US TOGETHER!"
Two days later the Germans liquidated the Cracow ghetto. They assembled the Jews into a large square and divided them into groups for deportation: the young for work, the elderly for old age homes, and the children for children's residences. Avraham knew it was all a sham. "I never believed the Germans and I always tried to do the opposite of what they said." When someone tried to take the baby from him, Avraham refused to surrender him, shouting, "All of us together!"
It was impossible that day to reach the bunker he had prepared because it was in the other half of the ghetto, separated by a barbed wire fence. Avraham handed the baby to his mother and told his parents not to budge. He would find a temporary hiding place and be back to fetch them.
After a desperate search, he found an empty building with steps leading down from the entrance hall into a cellar. Amidst the peril, he managed to bring his parents and the baby there. Avraham knew that the Germans would search every building and cellar, but Divine Providence had provided an unlikely protection for them. Someone in the building had had sewage problems, and in the desperate circumstances of the ghetto, could not find a plumber. So they had filled a large barrel with the waste from their toilet and put the barrel in the stairwell. With great effort, Avraham managed to overturn the barrel, pouring excrement all over the steps leading down to the cellar. He calculated that the fastidious Germans would not be willing to soil their boots to look for Jews.
That evening they heard the Germans enter the building. To keep the baby from crying and giving them away, they had planned to give him food, but they only had dry challah with no water to soften it to make it edible. So Avraham and his parents quickly chewed the challah, spit it out, and fed the baby the softened morsels. They heard the Nazis complaining about the stink. Avraham was right; they did not deign to descend into the cellar.
This was the night, following the liquidation of the ghetto, that Avraham had planned to escape through the sewers to the "Aryan side" of Cracow. Looking at the baby, however, he was faced with a dilemma. He had heard of Jews who had fled through the sewers with their children, and the children had suffocated on the way. No, he decided, he would not risk the baby's life by escaping through the sewers. He would have to devise a different plan.
Avraham knew that they could not stay in the cellar for long. They would have to make their way to the bunker he had prepared, but a barbed wire fence blocked the way. Avraham, using a pocketknife and superhuman strength, succeeded in cutting a hole in the fence. Stealthily running through the streets, empty of live people but scattered with Jewish corpses, the Shapiro family reached the bunker.
Avraham had previously set up an electric light in the bunker by cutting electric wires out of the wall of their apartment and connecting them in the bunker. However, there was no way to pipe in water. Each day Avraham had to go up and draw water from a faucet. One day he was caught. Despite their protestations that they were foreign nationals with the papers to prove it, the three of them and baby Chaim were sent to the Gestapo prison.
THE FIRE OF LOVE
Using a gold cigarette case weighing 250 grams, they eventually bribed their way out of the prison. They immediately fled Cracow for a nearby village, where they rented a room and hid. It was autumn, 1943. Hungary was practically the last country in Europe where the "Final Solution" had not been implemented. They hired a guide to smuggle them across the border to Slovakia and from there to Hungary.
Throughout the journey they subsisted by eating raw potatoes, which Avraham and his parents chewed, regurgitated, and fed to baby Chaim. Shabbat night, October 28, found them deep in the forest on the Polish side of the border. The family was tired, cold, and frightened of being caught. The guide abruptly announced that they would have to spend the night there because they could not cross the border that night. And without a word, the guide disappeared.
The Shapiros began to organize themselves to sleep. Avraham, who had been carrying Chaim the whole time, suddenly realized that the baby was damp, silent, and not moving. He quickly removed his wrappings and saw that the baby was blue.
Trembling with fear, Avraham quickly gathered wood and branches and lit a fire to warm the baby back to life.
Trembling with fear, Avraham quickly gathered wood and branches and lit a fire to warm the baby back to life. It was an act of exquisite irrationality. The fire was a bold advertisement of their whereabouts, but Avraham's compassion yet again conquered his intellect. He held the baby as close to the fire as was safe, turning him from side to side, while Mrs. Shapiro stood on the other side of the bonfire drying and warming the baby's clothes.
Chaim revived. He regained his color and started to move. And Avraham, who had and would face repeated danger to his own life throughout the Holocaust, would remember those minutes of fear for the baby's life as the most traumatic of the war.
All of Shabbat they waited, wondering if the guide would return. As darkness fell on Saturday night, the guide appeared. When he saw the ashes of the fire, he became enraged at their recklessness.
It was time to proceed toward the border. To prevent a repetition of the calamity, Avraham took a sheet and tied the baby to his chest, facing toward him. This gave him a constant view of Chaim's welfare, but totally blocked his field of vision of the ground. Treading over rocks and rough terrain, all invisible to him, Avraham at one point tripped, tearing off the sole of his shoe. He tied some rags around his foot and kept going. Hours later they crossed the border into Slovakia.
"FOR THE GOOD OF THE CHILD"
Eventually the fugitives made it to Budapest. They were put up in refugee quarters. A Jewish aid worker, hearing that they had with them an orphan baby who was not their own, suggested that they give the baby to the Schonbruns, a well-to-do, childless, religious Jewish couple.
This time Avraham's intellect and compassion converged. Little Chaim, now two years old, was malnourished and sickly, and still could not even sit up by himself. Avraham knew that his baby's welfare required a stable, normal home, where he would be fed three meals a day and be safe from the danger that still hung over the Shapiro family. Over the virulent protests of his mother, who had grown attached to the baby, Avraham took Chaim to the Schonbruns' house. He was impressed not by the lavish furnishings but by the ample bookcases full of holy books. Confident that he was doing what was best for Chaim, Avraham handed his son over to the Schonbruns.
When Avraham occasionally met Mr. Schonbrun in synagogue and inquired about Chaim, he received only cursory answers. Avraham inferred that the Schonbruns did not want Chaim to know anything about his past. "I distanced myself from the family," wrote Avraham, "for the good of the child."
On March 19, 1944, the Germans took over Hungary. On a Shabbat night two months later, Avraham and his father were apprehended in synagogue. They were transferred from place to place until they were finally loaded onto a boxcar heading to Auschwitz. With a knife he had procured from an old cobbler, Avraham was able to enlarge a tiny window in the boxcar. As the train sped through Slovakia on its way to the death camp, Avraham and his father jumped out.
They spent the rest of the war in Slovakia, masquerading as gentiles. As soon as the Russians liberated Slovakia, Avraham and his father made their way back to Budapest, back to the dwelling where they had left Mrs. Shapiro almost a year before. When they opened the door, they found Mrs. Shapiro sitting by the table eating a piece of matzah. It was the first day of Passover, the holiday of freedom.
Only once in post-war Budapest did Avraham spot little Chaim. The child was walking (yes, walking!) on the street with his nanny. "Tears welled up in my eyes," wrote Avraham in his memoirs, "but I never approached the child."
Communist Hungary was no place for religious Jews. Shortly after the war, the Schonbruns left for Belgium, then Montreal, Canada, where Chaim grew up and eventually married. In 1950, Avraham Shapiro got married and moved to Israel.
A couple years after his marriage, Chaim was told, "There's a Jew in Israel who carried you from Poland to Hungary, and saved your life."
But the thread of their lives, knotted together by a compassion stronger than logic or even love of life, was not severed. Avraham continually kept tabs on Chaim, and Divine Providence conspired that Chaim's wife's aunt, who lived in Haifa, was a close friend of Mrs. Avraham Shapiro.
A couple years after his marriage, Chaim was told by his uncle in Belgium, "There's a Jew in Israel who carried you from Poland to Hungary, and saved your life." Chaim, however, had no idea as to the identity of his benefactor, who continued to watch him from afar.
In 1980, at the age of 39, Chaim brought his family to Israel for his son's Bar Mitzvah. His wife's aunt sent him a message that the Jew who had saved his life was named Avraham Shapiro. Mr. Shapiro, now 60, lived in Haifa and was finally ready to meet Chaim.
That very day, Chaim took a taxi from Jerusalem to Haifa. "Our meeting was very emotional," Chaim recalls. "We both cried and cried, and we spoke for hours."
It was the beginning of a close bond between their two families. During the succeeding 27 years, Avraham has attended the weddings of all of Chaim's children, and Chaim has attended the weddings of all of Avraham's grandchildren. "We are very, very close," Chaim attests. "I consider him like a father, and he considers me like a son."
But why had Avraham not made contact with Chaim sooner? Why had it taken him 35 years to reconnect?
The answer was perhaps contained in a box. Before they parted that day in 1980, Avraham told Chaim, "I have something to give you." He handed him a box, saying, "I have waited 35 years to give you this."
Chaim opened the box and saw that it was full of pieces of gold. Avraham explained that before Chaim's mother was shipped off to Treblinka, she had given this box full of gold to her younger sister Chaya Rivka, and charged her to use it to save the life of her only child. When Avraham agreed to take the baby, Chaya Rivka transferred the box to him.
During their flight from Poland, the Shapiro family used up their own supply of gold. Avraham was forced, reluctantly, to use little Chaim's gold. By the time they reached Budapest, there was nothing left. This greatly bothered Avraham. "I had done the mitzvah of saving a life," Avraham explained to Chaim, "and I didn't want to sell this mitzvah for any amount of gold."
In the wake of the war, as soon as Avraham started working, he put aside some of his wages every week to buy gold. It had taken him 35 years, but he finally had the exact amount of gold originally contained in Chaim's mother's box. He handed the box to Chaim, content that he had taken no profit from the enormous mitzvah of saving a life. Chaim refused to accept the gold. Avraham donated it to a myriad of charity organizations in Israel in the name of Chaim Schonbrun.
In the Cracow ghetto, compassion had overcome Avraham Shapiro's intellect. Nothing ever overcame his integrity.
*"Shapiro" is a pseudonym. The protagonist prefers to remain anonymous.
For Sara Yoheved Rigler’s schedule of lectures and workshops during her November U.S. tour, visit www.kesherwife.com.