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Anchor for Survival

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Mendel Waldman

During those perilous years, the Torah kept me alive.

I am a survivor of four concentration camps -- Auschwitz, Saufenwasser, Dornhau and Shotterwerk.

For years, most of my concentration camp memories had been removed from my conscious thought, partly in denial that these horrors could have actually occurred, and in part due to the God-given gift of "forgetting" which enables us to let go of the past and move on in life unhindered.

My inspiration to now write about my experiences is a desire to record two key phenomena: the deep comradeship that existed in the most inhumane of places, and the incredible sacrifices for religious observance that the prisoners undertook.

Formative Years

I was born in Satoraljaujhely, a small town in northeastern Hungary, at the end of WW I. My parents were scions of religious rabbis and scholars, who owned small businesses and devoted much of their time to Torah study and prayer.

One of my earliest, most distinct memories of childhood is of my pious father waking up early in the morning and studying Talmud. We did not have our own set of Talmud; we could not afford it. My father had to borrow one tractate at a time from my uncle. When my father would finish the tractate he would then trade it for another one. My mother would devotedly light and stoke the fireplace, and prepare hot tea for my father, to encourage his Torah studies.

In beginning of the 1940s many Jewish youngsters my age were drafted into forced labor and army service. They were taken to the Ukrainian front, given little food, and worked as slaves for 16 hours a day. Their fate was tragic: some were blown up when used for testing minefields. Others who became ill from the harsh conditions were herded together into a barn, which was then burned to the ground.

Unfortunately, this is how my brother Yitzchak Zvi and my brother-in-law Shimon Waldman (who was also a cousin) were ruthlessly murdered in the winter of 1943.

I was confined to a closet, concealed by a hidden door.

In my case, my parents arranged with a family to hide me in their apartment to avoid this cruel draft. During the day and most nights, I was confined to a closet, which was concealed by a hidden door. Sometimes at night, when the loneliness became unbearable, I would venture out for a few minutes -- disguised as a Gentile.

Once in a comic-tragic incident during one of my daring nocturnal excursions, I saw my father and uncle walking toward me. I greeted them with a friendly "Good evening!" My father, not recognizing me at all, remarked to my uncle, "How amazing it is that in such times, one can still find a non-Jew greeting a Jew so nicely."

In spite of it all, there was a naive optimism, and in the winter of 1944, I married Tova Miriam Langer of Kashau.

The Storm

By April of 1944 we were already locked into a ghetto in Kashau. In the ghettos before deportation, they promised to relocate us to "Bread Fields," a euphemism for jobs and prosperity. We lived in such terrible conditions that through wishful thinking we believed them.

One month later, we were hauled from the ghetto and onto trains. Crammed into cattle cars, basic human needs like water and bathrooms were totally neglected. Many died on the way to Auschwitz -- a harbinger of what was to come.

Upon arrival in Auschwitz, we waited in line for Mengele's choice of "life or death." I begged my father-in-law, who was 52 at the time, to lie about his age. He refused. He argued that he was not willing to suffer a slow death in a concentration camp of forced labor. Unfortunately, no one from his family, including my first wife, survived the Holocaust.

After four days in Auschwitz, we were moved to a camp in the Silesian mountains, called Saufenwasser. There the elderly amongst us perished due to the severe conditions and forced labor.

On Tisha B'Av (July 30th), they moved me to Dornhau, which has been described as the "Dry Crematorium." The pungent smell, the cruel labor, hunger, diseases, Kapos, SS commanders, etc., reduced the inmates to zombies, wasting away to death. The extreme hunger and starvation, poor sleeping conditions, the head counts, the unbearable toil in the trenches, drove men to such a low level, lower than a captured animal in a cage. All we thought of was food and survival. The mind was just blank most of the day. It was so unbearable that it is no wonder that I was not able to bring myself to speak about it for so many years.

It was there that I met a giant of a human being who lived in these sub-human conditions. His name was Rabbi Mendel Brachfeld, author of "Yosef Hallel," a commentary on Torah. A small group of us arranged informal Torah study sessions, fueled by Mendel's phenomenal knowledge of Torah which he taught us solely from memory. Our group also arranged prayer services; we prayed by heart, each contributing whatever he remembered.

A Polish prisoner who worked at the crematorium exchanged Tefillin for food.

Mendel and his wise and gentle brother Moshe,* devised a scheme to obtain a pair of Tefillin. When they were still in Auschwitz, they drew a picture of a pair of Tefillin for an inmate, a Polish prisoner of war, who was stationed for work at the crematorium. They asked him to search through the pile of confiscated Jewish possessions, and promised to buy the Tefillin in return for food, which was the camp currency.

The following day, the Polish prisoner returned with the goods, and he received his remuneration.

From Auschwitz to Dornhau, and later to Shotterwerk, the Brachfeld brothers managed to smuggle the Tefillin wrapped around their legs.

Since the Brachfeld brothers had the Tefillin, many inmates would line up in the early morning to take advantage of the limited time before the horrible 'labor day' to recite a few verses of the Shema while wearing the Tefillin. We would then quickly pass on the Tefillin to the next person in line. This gave us a spiritual push to survive the day.

One day, the rabbi of Lodz, who was also in our group, became sick and remained in the barrack. He requested to be last so that he could complete his prayers while donning the Tefillin. As he was praying in the Tefillin, the squad leader came in and confiscated the Tefillin. For us inmates, not having the Tefillin was a grave emotional loss. So I went to the camp's carpentry shop and asked one of the workers to replicate the Tefillin using wood. He agreed. I took the strap from my pants, cut it in two lengthwise, and used it top replicate the straps for this wooden "Tefillin." I went to the office and snuck the imitation Tefillin into the case of the authentic one. We had our Tefillin back! One cannot imagine our joy amidst such indescribable suffering.

On another occasion, on a freezing day in the Silesian mountains, we returned to our barracks feeling very cold and miserable. There was a fireplace in one of the rooms made of tin, and I was standing close to it. The Jewish kapo -- using a sadistic method to show who is boss -- ordered me to move away. I did not obey the order. I figured that the beatings would not hurt as much as the cold. Since the kapo's prestige was in jeopardy, he left to call the camp supervisor. When the supervisor came, the kapo -- instead of standing at attention and saluting -- offered a hearty greeting. Because of this breech of protocol, the supervisor gave him such a forceful slap in the face that he fell off his feet. The kapo was sent out and fired from his position. I saw this as a personal miracle. The incident could have easily ended in my execution; instead, we were eternally spared from this vicious kapo.

When it came to the Jewish holidays, we had to use our imagination in order to get around the tyranny and extreme oppression. On Yom Kippur, while going to our work assignment, I feigned fainting. The commander in charge of my unit was at a loss what to do, and permitted me not to work the entire holy day of Yom Kippur. As for fasting, that was no problem for us, since we basically fasted the major part of every day.

On Sukkot, we even managed to construct a sukkah. Our work details involved digging trenches, so we found some branches and covered one of the trenches. The branches served as the sechach cover for our sukkah, and they also camouflaged our "forbidden activity."

On Purim we sent to each other Mishlo'ach Manot (gifts to friends) consisting of two slices of potatoes.

At the Passover Seder we used borscht for the "Four Cups" of wine.

The sacrifice, devotion, risk, conniving, innovations and perseverance are so difficult to comprehend in modern times, when we have the ability to do mitzvot with such relative ease.

Toward the End

In January 1945, the Germans sensed the inevitable loss to the Allied forces and ordered most of the camp on a "death march" to other camps closer to Germany. I was able to convince my close friends, the Brachfeld brothers, that it was in our best interest to feign illness and not join the death march. Others warned us that the Germans planned to burn down the camp and we will all burn alive. In spite of these warnings, we decided that we had no energy for the 'adventurous' march. This decision helped us survive, since almost all of those who marched perished.

In the early morning of May 9, 1945, we were awakened by a fellow inmate screaming in Yiddish, "Fellow Jews, why are you sleeping? We are free!" We just could not believe it. We went out and saw that the German guards were gone. I immediately headed out of camp and walked to a nearby town, where I knocked on a door and asked to be allowed to shower. The locals feared that we would take revenge, due to their knowledge of the atrocities, and having done nothing to stop it. So they "kindly" agreed to let me use their shower, and even gave me some food.

I was alone in the world.

The magnitude of the tragedy was slowly absorbed. While in camp, we all had thoughts that our dear ones had somehow remained alive. We also had no time to think about the future since we were so absorbed with the basic elements of survival. We now started looking for relatives: for my wife, parents, siblings and any family members. Unfortunately, except for one nephew, all were murdered. The tragedy was enormous. I was alone in the world. I experienced constant crying and indescribable sadness.

After such a massive destruction, the thought of rebuilding seemed so far-fetched. However, God gave me the strength and courage to rebuild my life. I went on a search mission to find any relatives, and found a distant cousin, Esther. We got married, and thank God, were able to establish a wonderful family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- all following in the footsteps of our ancestors, in Torah and mitzvah observance.

And this is the great justice: Like many of the nations who persecuted us over the generations, the Nazis are non-existent now, while the Jewish people are alive and flourishing.

But we must remain vigilant. Ironically today, with the relative ease in performing mitzvot, observance is sometimes treated flippantly and neglected. Yet in truth, given the enormous sacrifice and risks we took to do even one mitzvah during the Holocaust, all the more so must we devote ourselves to Torah today, in these times of freedom and luxury, when we have no obstacles to overcome. May we all be inspired to do so, and imbue these values in our children and grandchildren, our link to the future.

* Unfortunately, while preparing this article, Rabbi Moshe Brachfeld passed away. There are no words that can describe what this man meant to me. To this day my admiration for Reb Moshe does not cease; his calm approach to all dangerous situations that arose, his unbelievable devotion to others in the camp, especially to me, and his brother, R' Mendel zt"l, who was a giant Torah scholar.

Who can forget those bitter and horrifying days in Dornhau. Those black nights when we thought there will never be a morning. To see the calm young boy Moshe so relaxed in those daring missions he undertook, to observe all the mitzvot.

No books will be written about Moshe's heroism during the war, but volumes could be written about his genius in kindness to others, and devotion to Torah and Mitzvot during the most horrific time, place and conditions that one can imagine.

Let his devotion and kindness remain a legacy for his children, grand-children and great-grandchildren.

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