The Jewelry Thief in a Labor Camp in Poland
Elijah the Prophet can come in all types of guises.
If I were to tell you all that happened to me during World War II – how it began for me and how it ended, how I survived and how many times I almost died, the friends I lost and the friends I found – it would fill more volumes than there are years of my life. Some stories do stand out in my mind, though, and this is one of them.
It was 1944 and I was fifteen years old. When the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated, I was sent to the Budzyn labor camp in Poland, along with 800 other Jews. There were about 2000 of us in the camp altogether, including women and children. Most of us worked until exhaustion or death at a military-industrial complex nearby; some labored as servants in the homes of local Poles.
The trick to survival, I quickly learned, was to maneuver oneself into a job “with benefits” – that is, where the workload was not as heavy, or the supervisor not as blood-thirsty, or food was attainable, even by theft. If any one of those factors were missing, death would come within days.
I had been working in an arms factory. It was difficult and exhausting labor. One day the Polish supervisor motioned to me to follow him to a new location – a spacious, brightly lit warehouse nearby. In the center, propped up on wooden stands, was a large wing from a German fighter plane – fifteen feet long and five feet wide. Other plane parts were lined up along the walls, while cans of gray, green and brown paint were scattered around the room. The Pole showed me what to do. I was to use pressurized spray cans to paint the wings and other parts as evenly as I could, all according to specifications. In my heart, I was delighted, though I dared not show it on my face. It didn’t look like hard work at all, but something that one person could do alone. I thanked God for the work.
Unfortunately, my joy soon turned to despair. The paint had a strong acetone base, and as I sprayed the plane wings, I found myself at the center of a cloud of noxious vapor that burned my lungs, stung my eyes, and confused my thoughts. I tried my best to cover my mouth, but the dirty cloths lying around the room, with their pungent turpentine smell, offered no protection. My hands and face were speckled from the paint, and my head was swimming.
Each morning, before I entered the hall, I would take several deep breaths of clean, fresh air, hoping that they would suffice for the entire day. From then until evening, I took as shallow breaths as possible. Of course, it didn’t really help, and within a short time, I was inhaling the fumes again. It took immense effort to concentrate on the work, though I dared not stop. My thoughts became confused and I often hallucinated. Sometimes, I thought that I heard voices in the empty room, only to realize it was my own voice; I thought I saw people standing around me, though they would vanish when I turned to look. I was alone in the room, save for a Polish supervisor, who sat at the far end of the warehouse, either half-drunk of half-asleep. He never even glanced in my direction.
This went on for two weeks, without a break. As soon as I finished one wing, they would bring another one in its place. It got to the point that I could no longer continue. I felt like I was going to die. I thought that a gas chamber would be better than this slow death by poison.
You can bring me my mother’s jewelry. They’re hidden in the graveyard in Warsaw.
It was on one of those days that the supervisor unexpectedly rose from his chair and approached me. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, the vodka on his breath mingled with the other chemical smells in the room. I shook my head and tried to concentrate on what he wanted from me. I felt like I was swimming through some dense, dark liquid, struggling for the surface.
“Jew,” he said, “what can I do for you?”
I couldn’t understand what he meant and took a step back. But he moved in closer, his bloodshot eyes staring at me as though through a fog.
“Jew,” he said again, “what can I do for you?”
“Just let me die,” I said to him, struggling to hold back my tears.
“No,” he said, “tell me what I can do for you. Can I bring you something?”
Bring me something? The words spiraled down into my brain, as though through some muddy whirlpool. The answer I gave him came out by itself. Until today, I don’t know where the words came from.
“You can bring me my mother’s jewelry. They’re hidden in the graveyard in Warsaw.”
“Where? Where?” he said, his filthy hand grabbing my wrist. “Where can I find them!?”
That night, as I made my way back to the bunker, I reviewed what had happened earlier that day. Did the Pole really approach me or was it a hallucination? Did I really tell him about my mother’s jewelry or was I just imagining it? And if I did tell that thieving murderer about it, how could I have been so stupid? My mother’s precious jewelry – now I would never see it again.
The next day, I returned to work, and it was as though nothing had happened. The Pole sat in his corner seat, drunk and half-conscious, and never glanced in my direction. A new plane wing was waiting for me, with no time to waste. What I remembered of yesterday must have been a hallucination. I returned to the suffocating job of painting the wings.
About a week passed. I kept on working in the hangar; the situation did not improve.
One day, the Pole rose from his seat and approached me again. I stopped working to focus on him.
“Jew, take!” he said, and pressed a small, round loaf of brown bread into my hand. Then he turned and went back to his seat.
A loaf of bread! In Budzyn this was more precious than gold! I was so famished, I could have eaten it all in one bite. But I decided to bring it back to the camp to share with my uncle, and my friend, Simcha Holtzberg.
Reentering the camp that evening, I hid the loaf under my shirt. Later that night, lying between my uncle and Simcha on the bunks, I took it out and showed it to them. They couldn’t believe it either; my uncle wanted to hold it, to make sure that it was real.
“Maybe that guard is Elijah the Prophet,” Simcha said with a smile, but I didn’t respond. To be honest, the idea had occurred to me, too. From all the children’s stories that I remembered, he looked like Elijah, with his blue eyes, square jaw and wavy blond hair.
The entire loaf was hollow. Inside was some of my mother’s jewelry. It saved our lives.
We decided that we would eat the entire loaf right there, rather than divide it into small pieces to make it last for days. I broke open the loaf as quietly as I could, so that none of the other prisoners would hear. Suddenly something small fell out of it. I looked and saw that the entire loaf was hollow. Inside was some of my mother’s jewelry. All three of us stared in disbelief. Had that Pole actually traveled 250 miles to Warsaw to unearth it? And why in the world would he give it to me? Was he really Elijah the Prophet?
Of course, we ate the loaf, but more importantly, that jewelry saved our lives. We traded pieces of it for food, clothing and other means of survival. Once, I traded a piece for a slice of bread, and then traded a bite of that bread for the opportunity to put on tefillin that someone had found in the camp. “You have an extra slice of bread today,” my uncle told me. “You can trade a bite to do the mitzvah.”
I continued working in the airplane factory, though the supervisor never looked or spoke to me again, nor I to him. After a few weeks, I was transferred out of there to a new task and location. I could breathe deeply – for a while.
It would be nice to end the story there. To leave it as a mystery, as incomprehensible as my entire survival during those bitter years. But there’s a second part to this tale that needs to be told. It happened years later, after I had already settled and raised a family in Israel.
It was a Saturday night, following the bar mitzvah of our twin sons, Betzalel and Menashe. Our house had been a bedlam of guests, food and gifts the entire day, and my wife and I were finally cleaning up. She was tidying the living room and I was in the kitchen, doing the dishes.
“Enough, Avraham,” she said. “We’ve done enough today. The work isn’t going anywhere, it can wait until tomorrow. There’s supposed to be an interesting lecture in the community center. Let’s go.”
We drove downtown and took our seats. I can’t say whether the speaker was interesting or not; I was so tired that I fell asleep almost as soon as we sat down. Suddenly, though, a comment from someone sitting behind us startled me back to awareness. “Yes, he was in the cemetery in Warsaw.”
“What?” I thought. “Who are they referring to?” When the war broke out, I, too, had sought refuge in the Warsaw cemetery. I sat up in my chair and stared closely at the speaker. I recognized him! It was Yorek, who had hidden there together with me. He was noticeably older, and now a distinguished scholar. He had even authored a book on the Holocaust – the topic of his lecture. When he finished speaking, I approached him.
“Aren’t you Avraham Carmi?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s me!” I replied.
He laughed and embraced me. And then, before I could say anything, he whispered in my ear, “You know, Lieberman stole your mother’s jewelry.”
“Lieberman? Who’s Lieberman?”
“You don’t remember him? Tall, blond, with light-blue eyes. He came to the cemetery and said that you had sent him. He asked for someone to help him find the red mausoleum in the Jewish section.”
That drunken Pole, sleeping all day in the corner of the airplane factory, had really been a Jew, disguising himself to survive the war.
Suddenly, it dawned on me. That drunken Pole, sleeping all day in the corner of the airplane factory, had really been a Jew, disguising himself to survive the war.
“He wasn’t a thief,” I said in a voice, trembling with emotion. “He was Elijah the Prophet!”
“He was to you,” Yorek replied, with an ironic smile.
To make a long story short, this Lieberman also survived the war and made his way to Tel Aviv, where he ran a small factory. Yorek gave me his address, and several days later, I went to see him. As soon as I walked in, I recognized him – though he no longer smelled of alcohol. He greeted me casually, as though we had seen each other just the day before. “Come,” he said, leading me to his office, “I have something for you.” He opened the drawer and took out a small metal tin – my mother’s jewelry box. It was empty, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the two of us were alive, sitting face to face, in an office in Tel Aviv.
And so, my Elijah was a man of flesh and blood, and a Jew! Yet, he saved my life. To me, he was and will always be an angel in disguise.
This story originally appeared in My Portion in the Land of the Living: The story of Abraham Carmi, by Efrat Hiba. It was translated and adapted by R. Eliezer Shore, in his book Meeting Elijah: true tales of Eliyahu Hanavi (Tehiru Press, 2020), available on Amazon. Click here to order.