Greater than Angels: Interview with Pearl Benisch
With sadness, we report that Pearl Benisch has passed away at the age of 100.
There is an old Polish legend about a dragon named Smok who was in the habit of roaming the streets of Krakow in search of young maidens to eat, while spreading terror and destroying everything in its path. In her stirring Holocaust memoir, To Vanquish the Dragon, Pearl Benisch describes the encounter of the Jewish community of Poland with the Nazi dragon of the 20th Century; and the victory of the maidens who dared to fight the beast.
Mrs. Benisch, who was born and raised in Krakow, describes the extraordinary faith and self-sacrifice shown by her family and other members of her Jewish community during the Holocaust. Her memoir is a rare tribute to the heroism of some of the victims themselves, including the unimaginable courage and strength shown by a group of ten female friends, nicknamed the Zehnerschaft, who supported each other through the tortures of the ghettos, deportations and death camps.
The Zehnerschaft was made up of young women between the ages of 16 and 26, including Mrs. Benisch herself, who were all colleagues and teachers from Beth Yaakov schools for girls in Krakow and surrounding areas. Mrs. Benisch gives detailed accounts of the inspiring way these brave women repeatedly risked their lives to help others and uphold their commitment to Torah and Jewish observance. Armed with the Jewish values and ideals that had been transmitted to them, they managed to become models of courage and altruism even in the bowels of hell.
In Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl observed that “…most men in a concentration camp believed the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph…” The women of the Zehnerschaft became living proof that the type of spiritual victory Frankl was describing is possible in the nightmare of the death camps.
During a recent interview at her home in Brooklyn, Mrs. Benisch spoke about her friends in the Zehnerschaft and some of the lessons she learned from her experiences in the Holocaust.
Can you give an example of the courage shown by the women of the Zehnershaft?
At Plashow one of our jobs was to clean the kitchen. So sometimes we managed to get hold of a little bit of flour. We would mix it with water and bake matza biscuits on top of the stove. We were not permitted to go into the men’s camp but we had to deliver the biscuits to the men who were working in what was called the “library.” There were many important rabbis in the camp and some of them had been assigned to sorting books and manuscripts; believe it or not the Germans wanted to have the Hebrew books. So late at night we would sneak down to bring them those biscuits and sometimes a few turnips, a piece of bread, or whatever we could get our hands on. It was a dangerous trip because we had to sneak past the trigger-happy soldiers in the watchtower. Every day another girl would risk her life to bring them this food so they wouldn’t starve to death.
The monster ran from barrack to barrack looking for us, but miraculously, he didn’t find us.
One night we were spotted by Willie who was the most dreaded SS man in the camp, known for his habit of gouging out his victim’s eyes. We ran in terror. We were past caring about being shot – we just didn’t want him to catch us alive. He chased after us but, thank God, we managed to lose him. We reached our barrack and jumped into our bunks. The monster didn’t give up. He ran from barrack to barrack looking for us, but miraculously, he didn’t find us.
What do you think made you and your friends in the Zehnerschaft act with so much courage?
I will tell you a story. We arrived in Auschwitz and they took us to a crematorium with brown wooden doors on which was written the word sauna (shower). It was Friday afternoon and we had just come from Plashow. There were 2,000 girls and we all knew what was coming. There was an electric fence and some of the girls went over to the fence. They said, “Why should we wait to go to the gas chambers? Let’s end it all now.” So I said to them, “The Torah tells us, 'u’bacharta b’chaim' – choose life [Deut. 30:19]. Girls, we have to choose life! No matter what life will do to us, we have to choose life.” And that’s what we did – we chose life. We waited for those doors to open. They never opened for us – we don’t know why. In the morning, Saturday, they marched us to the women’s camp.
In your book you describe many extraordinary incidents involving your friend Rivkah Horowitz who was with you through most of the war. Can you tell me a bit about her?
There has never been a hero like Rivkah Horowitz-Pinkusewitz. She was a teacher and a leader in Beth Yaakov. She was smart and brave. One day in Plashow we were sewing uniforms for the Germans. Next to my sewing machine was Erma’s machine. Erma was depressed and we were trying to cheer her up. Suddenly the door opened and in walked the dreaded Oberscharfuhrer John with two SS men. We all stood at attention, but Erma just sat there; she wasn’t all there any more. So I tried to alert her with a kick. Snap out of it Erma I prayed, but she didn’t get up.
There must have been a thousand women there but he noticed her right away. He walked straight up to her and pointed his gun at her temple – we were all familiar with the joy he found in shooting people. All of a sudden, Rivkah, who was sitting next to us, gets up quickly and faces him and says, “Herr Oberscharfuhrer, this is not her fault, she is meshuge.” She couldn’t remember the German word for crazy so she said meshuge. Now he didn’t know the meaning of meshuge but he couldn’t get over the fact that a girl had the guts to talk to him and to ask him not to shoot her friend. But he didn’t shoot her. He put his gun back and walked away. That was Rivkah.
You also write about the time Rivkah Horowitz tried to save your life during one of the selections at Birkenau. What stands out for you about that incident?
I was dressed already but they gave me a big jacket of a man’s suit and I must have looked terrible because when I came to Hoess, he pointed to the left which meant death – the crematorium. Rivkah was sent to the right, but she snuck around to the left to join me. I begged her to go back but she refused. “I won’t leave you,” she said. “I’m not giving up. We have to keep fighting.”
After us came Ruchka Schanzer: right. Then Sarah Blaugrund: left. Ruchka ran after Sarah to the left. The rest of our Zehnerschaft passed safely, but the four of us were on the left. Then Rivkah took us back to the middle of the line. I was afraid that Hoess would recognize us but Rivkah didn’t care. When we reached Hoess again the same thing happened: he sent Sarah and me to the left and Rivkah and Ruchka to the right. But the two of them followed us again to the left.
I screamed in frustration, “Why follow us to death?! It’s not just your life you’re forfeiting, but also the lives of future generations. You have no right to do it. Go back to the other side where you belong!” Sarah and I shouted, cried and pleaded with them, but they had made up their minds. Rivkah dragged us to the back of the line but when we reached Hoess the third time, the same scenario repeated itself and, once more, Rivkah and Ruchka followed us. By now the selection was over. The girls who had been chosen to live were taken out of the barrack and the four of us stayed behind in the death block with all the other condemned women.
What happened after that?
That same evening…it was Shabbos…someone knocked on the door of our barrack. The Blockalteste opened it and in walked our friend Tillie Rinder, known by all as the White Angel of Auschwitz, and Toni Katz, another angel. They said to us: “Girls, hurry up. Follow us and stay in the shadows. May God watch over us.” The Blockalteste opened the door and allowed us to step out with our rescuers. We followed them, hugging the walls to avoid the floodlights. Then we had to cross the vast Appelplatz which was flooded with light from all the watchtowers. The watchmen had orders to shoot anyone who was seen walking there.
We had to cross the vast Appelplatz which was flooded with light. The watchmen had orders to shoot anyone seen walking there.
We were terrified – not for ourselves anymore since we were doomed anyway, but for our rescuers. I prayed for their lives. Thank God we made it across and stood in front of the barracks of the living. Nobody said a word. Everything had been prearranged. The Blockalteste assigned us to our bunks, and we were joyfully reunited with the other girls of our Zehnerschaft.
You write about the heroism of Tzila Orlean who was a teacher at Beth Yaakov before the war and who “constantly walked the tightrope between life and death” in order to help others. What stands out most in your mind about Tzila?
I don’t even know where to begin talking about Tzila. If I had the strength left I would write a book about her. In Auschwitz, the Germans called her “Orlean” – Tzila was the only inmate called by name. Everyone who knew her respected her. One Friday she lit the Shabbos candle and said the blessing. All the women in the barrack were watching her, and this gave them hope and the will to continue living. They were all standing there and suddenly they heard the footsteps of an SS guard nearing the barrack. Everyone panicked. “Tzila, Tzila! Put out the candle!”
And Tzila said calmly, “This is my Shabbos candle, I wouldn’t dream of blowing it out.”
Everybody ran out of the barrack. He came in and looked at her and then at the candle. She kept looking at her candle. He stood there looking and then he left.
Can you talk about the time Tzila saved the 20 women who had been selected by Mengele?
When we arrived in Auschwitz there were 2,000 of us but Mengele selected 20 women, including my Aunt Sabina, and they were taken away. I asked Tzila if she could help them. “If Mengele selected them, they’re doomed,” she said. “But if he put them in block 25 there might still be a chance for a miracle. Let’s pray and hope.”
The next day Tzila looked out the window of the infirmary where she was working and saw Dr. Klein, the German doctor in charge of block 25. She ran out and said to him, “Yesterday they took a couple of my nurses to block 25 by mistake. Please give me written permission to take them out.”
“I’m new here," he said. "Please leave me alone.”
I can’t imagine how, in the bowels of Auschwitz, Tzila had the guts to do that.
Tzila kept insisting but he refused. On the way back to the infirmary she ran into SS Aufseherin, the head doctor. Tzila said to her, “I just spoke to Dr. Klein and asked him to release a few of my nurses who were taken to Block 25 by mistake. Could you please arrange for their release?"
“Yes, I saw you speaking to him just now," the doctor said to her. "Go to my secretary Bronka and give her the names of the women.” So Tzila went to Bronka and gave her the names of all 20 women. Miraculously, they were all released and brought back to our barrack! When I think about it now, I can’t imagine how, in the bowels of Auschwitz, Tzila had the guts to do that.
Can you talk about how you and Rivkah Horowitz managed to get your friend Balka Grossfeld out of prison?
There was a Gestapo chief named Handke who had become the terror of Krakow. He would drag Jewish men from their homes and arrest them for no reason. Anyone who tried to intervene on their behalf was considered an accomplice and arrested. One day Handke’s thugs stormed into the home of my friend Balka Grossfeld looking for her father. He was not at home so they took Balka instead and put her in prison where she was interrogated. She was there for several months and even her uncle, who was very influential, couldn’t get her out. It got to the point where we couldn’t stand it any more, so Rivkah and I decided to try to get her out by going to speak to Handke ourselves.
One morning we went to the Gestapo building. Once there we saw a sign: “Entry Forbidden to Jews and Dogs.” We entered anyway and the angry guard shouted, “Jews! You don’t see this sign?”
“Yes we see it," I replied, "but Handke needs the information that we’re bringing him.” I don’t know why I said it; God put those words in my mouth. They were always looking for information on people, so this was a good reason to let us in.
They took us to Handke’s office and the secretary took our names then put us in a big safe and locked the door. It was so dark in there and we didn't know what was going to happen. Was she going to take us to Handke or were they going to take us to prison together with Balka?
We waited and waited and finally the steel door opened and they took us to Handke. Rivkah didn’t speak German so I had to address him, but how should I address him? Oberscharfuhrer? Maybe he’s Unterscharfuhrer. But if I call him Unterscharfuhrer and he’s Oberscharfuhrer he might get angry. So I said “Herr Doctor.” That got him. I don’t know what made me say it but he liked the title. He told us to sit down, which was very unusual, and asked me why we’ve come. I began to speak about Balka and he said, “She’s stubborn and refuses to tell me where her father is.”
Once again God put words in my mouth and I made up a story. “She doesn’t know where he is and doesn’t want to know," I told him. "Her father is a drunk. He never comes home. She supports her family with her sewing. She’s so innocent. Please let her go home." Then he asked us a few more questions and told us to go home. Two weeks later Balka was back at the ghetto.
What motivated you and your friends of the Zehnerschaft to act in such a self- sacrificing way at the risk of torture and death?
This is the upbringing and education we had. We were taught to help people no matter what price we had to pay for it. We are here to give. We live to give. As long as you give, you live. You stop giving, you stop living; you’re just existing.
Do you think that your religious convictions had anything to do with your survival?
Yes, I was brought up to believe in God and that whatever He does is for our well being. We pray during difficult times and you know…I don’t have to tell you that sometimes we pray and we don’t get an answer right away. It’s very hard to get through a period like that. But we got through it. There is a verse in Psalms, Chapter 30 which I used to recite at the camps: “Though at night we may lie down crying, in the morning we will awake with song!” We lived through many nights, but we believed that morning would come. We believed that God wanted us to survive; to be witnesses; to tell the world how great our people were during the war. And I did tell the world.
What is your message to young people today?
I often speak to Jewish teenagers and I tell them about those girls and boys who risked their lives to save others; to give someone a piece of bread; or to give away their own piece of bread to someone who was hungrier than they were. I speak to those teenagers and I tell them what greatness they possess; how much goodness, beauty and love they have in them; how much of a will to help others and to bring goodness and justice into the world. I tell them they are just as great as the girls of the Zehnerschaft. I just pray that God won’t test them the way He tested us.
How do you think you were tested?
Those people lived through the tortures and they still believed. They were greater than angels.
Those Tillies, Tzilas, Rivkahs, those great, great women and men who risked their lives to save others. They were greater than angels. They passed all those tortures and didn’t become beasts like their tormentors. They lived through it and started a new life. They wanted to give, to live, to build a future for the Jewish people. They bore children and grandchildren. Isn’t that great? Aren’t they greater than angels? The angels did not see their parents being tortured. They did not see little children crying for their mothers. They did not see mothers running after the trucks taking their children to the gas chambers. The angels were not tortured…those people were! Those people lived through the tortures and they still believed. They were greater than angels.
What happened to your family?
My family had moved to Slomniki. A Polish neighbor informed the Gestapo that there was a Jewish family living in my house and they came and took my family one Friday while I was working in Krakow. They murdered my parents, my brother Shimshon and his wife Feiga, my brother Berish, my brother Avrum Chaim, my brother Asher, and my only sister Baila Malka. Their lives were brutally cut off in the death camp of Belzec in June 1942. Only my brother Mendek and I survived.
How do you manage to stay happy despite all the pain that you’ve experienced?
I stay happy by making other people happy. I believe that we were put here to make each other happy. Also, I went to a beautiful graduation here in Boro Park at the Beth Yaacov high school. I look and I see all those Jewish children, and I remember that after the war I could hardly walk, but I went from one barrack to another looking for one child. I did not find one child. Thank God, now we see so many wonderful Jewish children graduating, such great dorot (generations). That makes me very happy.
If you could erase all the traumatic memories of the Holocaust from your mind, would you do it?
No I wouldn’t because even in that university of torture I learned a lot. I grew from it. I don’t want to forget it. I want to teach my children about it. I want to tell my children and all the generations to come what is a man – how man can fall deep down into the pit of evil, and how man can raise himself to the loftiest heights and become greater than an angel. I want to tell the children what the “cultured” German nation did to us. I want to teach the children that they should be proud to be Jewish.
Thank you to Dina Reis for introducing me to Pearl Benisch and arranging our interview.