Tefillin in Hell
A 70-year saga of torture, escape and reunion.
Eliyahu Herman looks like everyone’s favorite zaydie in Jerusalem. Beardless, with a large knitted kippah, he doesn’t fit the stereotype image of a tzaddik [righteous person]. But his devotion for the mitzvah of tefillin saved thousands – yes, thousands – of Jews from death.
Born and raised in Budapest, Eliyahu was 15 years old when the Germans occupied Hungary. Although the countries were allies, it wasn’t until the very end of the war, on March 14, 1944, that German forces took over the Hungarian government, and Hungarian Jews began to feel the full weight of the Holocaust. Within days of the occupation, Eichmann came to Budapest to institute the Final Solution. Every day over 12,000 Jews were shipped to Auschwitz, where most were sent directly to the gas chambers. The change was so sudden, so drastic, that the Jews of Hungary were completely unprepared.
“Yes, we had heard rumors of the atrocities taking place across the border, but we really thought they were exaggerations. We were totally unprepared for what would soon become our new reality,” Eliyahu today explains.
“Rabbi Aaron of Belz escaped Galicia together with his brother, the Bilgoray Rav, and was living in the apartment adjacent to our yeshiva. I was privileged to receive a personal blessing from him, and” – at this, his words falter – “I am sure it is in that merit that I was saved, and that I was able to keep my tefillin with me, even while in the hell of Mauthausen and Gunskirchen, two of the worst spots on the face of the earth.”
They Tried to Warn Us
“There were 15 Polish refugees in my yeshiva. They had tried to alert us to what was happening across the border. The Belzer Rebbe’s assistant, Reb Dovid Shapiro, also tried to warn us, but we could not believe them. We were living in an illusionary world, and we couldn’t imagine that such horrors were possible. But it wasn’t long until we learned otherwise.
“When the Germans arrived, our teacher, Rabbi Chaim Alter Berkowitz, may his blood be avenged, instructed us to close our Talmuds and return home. Rushing through the streets, I saw a sight that to this day still horrifies me. Soldiers with guns were prodding long lines of Jews in the direction of the Danube River. I heard gunshots in the distance. I later learned that the Jews were ordered to remove their clothes and then forced to jump into the water. Most drowned – it was a wide, deep, river – and those who didn’t were shot.
Jews were ordered to remove their clothes and then forced to jump into the water.
“I was lucky enough to find a job at a German factory. A few days after I started, the Nazis rounded up all the Jewish residents of our apartment building. Thanks to my work papers, I was able to save my family from being drowned in the river together with our neighbors. My parents survived the war – they found refuge in one of Raoul Wallenberg’s safe houses, and later on, in 1953, we escaped Hungary and moved to Israel. My father, who’s buried in Jerusalem, opened this tailor shop, and now that he’s gone, I work here.”
Now, his voice beaming with pride: “But my son, he’s not a tailor. He’s a rabbi, a real Torah scholar.”
In the Merit of Tefillin
A few months later, the Germans grabbed Eliyahu off the street and brought him to a brick factory. “It’s impossible to describe what it was like. Thousands of Jews were lying helpless in the mud. One old woman had extended her arm to try to grab a crust of bread. A Hungarian soldier kicked the bread with his shiny leather boots. In my innocence, I thought he was trying to kick it closer to the starving woman. Instead, he continued kicking it until it was totally out of her reach. A few minutes later, the woman succumbed to starvation.
“Shortly after I arrived, the Nazis brought a truckload of Jews from the old age home and the Jewish hospital. The old people could barely walk. The soldiers cruelly pushed them into the mud and shot them.
“After a few days of this hell, the Germans ordered us to leave the factory and begin marching. It started to rain, and then the rain turned into snow. Our ‘friendly’ neighbors stood on either side of the road, jeering at us as they threw snow-covered rocks. Some moved their hands across their necks, to let us know that we were being taken away to slaughter.
“We left the city and continued walking, and walking and walking. Every night, we slept somewhere else – on hard gravel, pavement, mud, even inside a pigsty. The Germans didn’t provide us with food or water; they just forced us to walk until we finally arrived at the city of Sopron on the German-Austrian border.”
In Sopron, Eliyahu, together with the other inmates, were loaded into cattle cars and shipped west into Austria, away from the approaching Red Army. Thirty-five thousand men had left Budapest. The remaining 5,000 were brought to Mauthausen.
“We arrived on erev Pesach. Mauthausen is located in an ancient castle on the top of a very tall mountain. Entering the building, we felt as if we had just passed through the gates of hell. While a band played a rousing march, we stared in horror at the skeletal beings dressed ludicrously in pajamas.”
Eliyahu, a 15-year-old yeshiva student, told the camp commandant that he was a 28-year-old tailor.
Before entering Mauthausen, Eliyahu hid his precious tefillin by carefully tying them to his leg. At the selection, someone whispered to him to lie about his age and profession. Eliyahu, a 15-year-old yeshiva student, told the camp commandant that he was a 28-year-old tailor. “I was sent to the right, to life, while the other boys my age were sent to the left, to death.”
When sent to the shower, Eliyahu miraculously managed to hide his tefillin under a rock. “That was the last time I was ever separated from my tefillin. I kept them with me throughout the war, and afterwards. Today, I take them with me wherever I go.” He pointed to the small velvet bag lying on the counter.
“Dressed in nothing more than thin pajamas, we slept that night in the snow. It was our mattress, our blanket, and our food. Back home, a maid would polish my shoes. Now I had no shoes. Not far from us were what appeared to be five small huts. When I woke up, I was horrified to discover they were really five enormous piles of frozen corpses. There was no fuel to burn them."
“The first morning in that hell, I donned my tefillin and begged God to take me. I could not stand the suffering. But although I was no better than the others, God wanted me to remain alive.”
Eliyahu remained alive, and continued to don his tefillin and recite a quick prayer each morning before setting out to work. He had to be careful – if the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.
If the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.
“The camp commander took tremendous pleasure in torturing the prisoners. Afterwards, he would return to his house, located on the camp premises, and, together with his wife, listen to classical music, to Mozart!”
Eliyahu recalled the special Divine providence in hiding his tefillin: “Twice a day, at roll call, the SS soldiers would surround us and check us with their dogs. Although these dogs always stopped to smell my leg, the one where the tefillin were tied, the Nazis never discovered my tefillin. I can only describe it as a miracle. There is no other explanation.”
Eliyahu spent some eight weeks in Mauthausen.
“The allied forces were closing in. One day, there was a selection. Most were sent to the crematorium. I was selected for life. Life? We were forced to march for 12 days in the heavy rain until we reached our destination, Gunskirchen. Of the 33,000 who left Mauthausen, 20,000 arrived in Gunskirchen.
“I had been positive there could be no place worse than Mauthausen. But I was wrong. Gunskirchen was much, much worse. The first thing the Nazis did upon our arrival was to set three huge German shepherds on my friend Chaim. They tore him to pieces.
“Gunskirchen was not a work camp. We did nothing all day, except remove the dead bodies from our barrack and wait for time to pass. A few times a week the Nazis would give us a bit of food and water.”
Eliyahu recalls his last day in the camp: “It was a Friday night. We were locked in our barrack, and had heard that the Germans placed explosives around it. They wanted to kill us and hide all the evidence. People were dying like flies, and I knew that if the Germans didn’t explode the barrack, I would die of hunger. I said to my friends, the Klein brothers, ‘If you’ll join me, let’s escape together.’ We began climbing over bodies to make our way toward the door.
“In front of the door, I saw a man named Yitzhak lying on the floor. He had converted to Christianity prior to the Holocaust. I bent down and asked him, ‘Do you want to return to the Jewish people?’ Although he was already unable to speak, his eyes told me that he did. My friends were upset with me. But I couldn’t leave him like that. I said the Shema with him. He died at the word ‘echad’ – one.
“We somehow found the strength – don’t ask me how – to break the door open and escape that death-filled room. Of course I had my tefillin with me. Once we were in the forest, we threw off our lice-infested prison pajamas and put on SS uniforms that we had removed from dead soldiers.
“Suddenly, we heard the sound of a car traveling. When we saw it was an American jeep, we emerged from our hiding place and stood at the side of the road. Three soldiers jumped out of the jeep, their guns trained on us, and requested that we show them our documents. Documents? We didn’t even have clothes, let alone documents!”
You Are the Moshiach
“I didn’t have documents, so I showed the soldiers my tefillin. At first they thought it was a hand grenade! But then one of them recognized they were tefillin. He asked me, ‘Du bist a Yid?’ (Are you Jewish?)
At first they thought it was a hand grenade! But then one of them recognized they were tefillin.
“I started crying, and said, ‘You are the Moshiach!’ The soldier ordered me to recite a Jewish prayer. I said Shema. He immediately embraced me and started kissing me. When I told him that the two German soldiers standing next to me were also Jews, he hugged and kissed them, too.
“I gave them directions to get to Gunskirchen. Although the camp was not far from where we were located, it was difficult to find. The Jewish soldier immediately phoned his commander and informed him that he had found the camp they had been looking for. ‘Please save the 35,000 Jews that are left there,’ I begged. ‘Most of them are on the verge of death. If you don’t get there quickly, most will die. Every minute is crucial.’
“The army immediately sent medical care to Gunskirchen, and in doing so, thousands of lives were saved. My tefillin saved my life, and the lives of thousands of Jews, because in their merit, the American army arrived at the camp quickly,” Eliyahu concludes with deep emotion.
Eliyahu was sent to a local field hospital. When he arrived there, he weighed 81 pounds and was running a very high fever.
“I lost consciousness almost immediately after arriving at the hospital. I woke up to discover my tefillin under my head. I asked about the Jewish soldier who had saved my life, but no one could identify him. That was the last I heard of him for almost 70 years. Last year, I asked the American embassy to help me find him. They suggested I call the Vatican – a lot of help that was!”
Eliyahu turned to the media. “I phoned one of the more popular radio stations, hoping they’d publicize my story. After explaining my request, the man on the other end of the telephone said, ‘Everything you told me was broadcast throughout the country. Certainly one of our listeners will contact you with information.’”
None of the listeners contacted him, but a major Israeli newspaper did, and a large write-up about his quest appeared in their Friday edition. Saturday night, the phone rang in the Herman household, and when Eliyahu answered the phone, a stranger asked, “Are you the man who was in Gunskirchen 65 years ago?”
Eliyahu replied in the affirmative.
“Do you remember what you said to that Jewish soldier?” the stranger asked.
“I told him, ‘You’re the Moshiach.’”
A few days later, Eliyahu and Rabbi Meyer Birnbaum, a well-known scholar in Jerusalem and author of Lieutenant Birnbaum, met at Rabbi Birnbaum’s home in Jerusalem. Of course Eliyahu brought his tefillin. They are always with him.
Printed with permission of Jewish Lifestyle Magazine.