> Holocaust Studies > People

The Survivor

February 8, 2011 | by Mirish Kiszner

Despite my grandfather's reluctance to talk about his miraculous survival, a remarkable story of Divine providence emerged.

Without exception, every person who endured the tremendous trials and tribulation of the Holocaust has a story to tell. Yet through all those years since liberation, my grandfather could hardly bring himself to tell of his own painful accounts of survival. Gradually, despite his reluctance to talk and through little bits and pieces, a remarkable story of Divine providence emerged.

The sun was ironically shining on Europe that day. The calm skies were colored a beautiful shade of blue. That such a phenomenon was possible seemed inconceivable to the weary group of inmates who were placing one foot in front of the other in their desperate march for survival. Yet the clear skies served as a small reprieve to their exhausting ordeal. For days it had snowed relentlessly on their shivering thin-clad backs, their striped uniforms their only protection against the elements.

Still, it was hard to believe that the sun was capable of shining, that the world continued to exist, and that humanity was capable of going on with their carefree lives. It seemed as though the Death March passing before their very noses was just a pesky nuisance to their own peaceful lives.

Each agonizing step a triumph, with the heavens itself a silent witness applauding his victory, lauding him on.

Amongst this forlorn group of shattered victims was David, a mere youngster of 16, precariously clinging to life. Stumbling along, weak from hunger and exhaustion, he felt his strength beginning to ebb. David felt that he had been walking throughout eternity, as if the only thing he had ever done in his life was walk. One foot forward and the other following numbly. One foot, and then the other foot. Step by step. Each agonizing step a triumph, with the heavens itself a silent witness applauding his victory, lauding him on.

His bloodstained imprints on the snow mingled with the bloodstains of the age old Jew in Exile treading down the long road in a prolonged history of adversity.

The bestial shouts of the S.S. troops blended with the cacophony of the sounds of their tormentors all through the ages. The crackling of the auto-da-fe and the gleeful cries of spectators, the drunken peasants, axe and torch in hand and shouts of a blood libel in the air, and the barbaric shouts of the mounted Cossack wildly stampeding through villages and towns -- all combined into a deafening crescendo. The perpetual dance of hatred, of anti-Semitism and bloodlust.

In quiet contrast, David was struggling to overcome his hunger pangs, and transcending painful sensations of human suffering. His lips were uttering the eternal words of Mincha, the Afternoon Prayer Service, as he forged ahead. He didn’t know it at the time but those were moments so sublime, so divine that many years later he longed to catch hold of that incredible feeling of elevation.

Yet, despite his inner strength, the physical reality was threatening to take over. He felt himself succumbing to the ravages of his tortured body. His body simply failed to respond to the lofty aspirations of his mind, which was impelling him to keep going.

Unexpectedly, he suddenly felt the strong presence of two escorts, each standing by his side, protecting him, supporting him and encouraging him on. He knew at once, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that those guards were true heavenly angels -- direct messengers from God. Though he couldn’t explain the phenomenon, neither then nor later, the experience was unmistakably real. The words of "For He commands His angels concerning you to protect you in all your paths" flashed across his mind. Suddenly it became distinctly clear to him that these guards had been there beside him throughout the entire grueling experience, assisting him and aiding him all along.

Indeed after the war the Belze Rebbe remarked that every single survivor of the Holocaust had been protected by two ministering angels who were standing by his side and guarding him throughout his ordeal.


There were other miracles, too, which David encountered during those traumatic times and of which he strongly felt the unseen hand of God leading him and directing his every move.

One frightful episode occurred when David left his barracks briefly in order to daven Mincha behind a tank standing outside. He returned to a dreadfully eerie silence. Gradually his mind registered the appalling sight greeting his shocked eyes. As comprehension set in, his entire body gave way to violent trembling when he realized that every one of his fellow inmates was lying dead before him. The Nazis, it seemed, had paid them a visit while he was outside conversing with the Almighty.

Another incident took place in Auschwitz. There had been a selection and he had been unceremoniously shoved to the left, slated for the gas chambers. It came as no real surprise. David was rather a frail looking lad, his slender frame and delicate appearance was not very likely to proclaim him a worthwhile resource for the Nazi work machine.

Soon afterwards he found himself in the dreaded Block 25. Block 25 was notorious as the tail end in the tragic saga of Auschwitz. From this final stop the external layers of life were stripped from those holy martyrs, to be extinguished deliberately by a brutal nation, while the intrinsic vitality of their sacred souls departed for eternal life sanctifying God's name.

Now David was among those condemned to await his end, fully resigned to the fact that within the next 24 hours he would be a part of the smoke curling up from the crematorium. David felt no fear, no dread and no anguish, only a strong sense of serenity. He was completely at peace with himself.

That evening David thought about his young life and his mind led him back, over the dismal moments and past the dark tunnels of his recent past carrying him in sweet nostalgia to the memories of his beautiful childhood. His father’s kind face, his mother's loving smile, the laughter and happiness of days gone by. He was entirely swept away from his morbid and melancholy surroundings to an enchanting setting created by delightful reminiscence of the past. He inhaled the heavenly aroma of freshly baked delicacies, the sweet smell of wine at the resplendent Shabbos table and he heard the now distant echoes of the melodious strains of Torah in a home filled with peace and harmony.

In a few hours, every one of his youthful hopes and aspirations would become yesterday’s dreams, when the showerheads would emit their poisonous chemicals.

From the time he had been wrapped in a blue blanket, David, the youngest in a family of Jewish scholars, had been nurtured with kavod HaTorah, great respect for Torah and surrounded with the melody and song of Torah study. He had been imbibed with a passionate love for God's mitzvot and the meaning of faith and trust in God. Every bone and sinew was infused with a powerful combination of love and fear of God, coupled with a deep longing to serve Him with joy. The words "Vechai bahem," -- and you shall live by them, the Torah's mitzvot -- were an intrinsic part of his essence. Torah was life and life was Torah. The very walls of his home bespoke of a higher purpose and reverberated with the sounds of Torah, Service, and Acts of Kindness.

A well-defined sense of pride in this prestigious family of Torah scholars was the lush groundwork for his ceaseless striving to follow in their illustrious footsteps. He knew well the legendary tales and accounts related about his forebears and they served as the backdrop in his iron determination to remain steadfast in the high standards of serving God set by those distinguished ancestors.

Now it was all over. In a few hours, every one of his youthful hopes and aspirations would become yesterday’s dreams, when the showerheads would emit their poisonous chemicals. He had no misgivings; if that were the will of the Master of the Universe, it would be his will as well. Like a faithful soldier, he was ready, standing in command to serve his Creator by returning his life to His Maker with love and acceptance.

The sudden skirmish for the slush of watery mixture called soup shook him from his reverie. He sat still, regarding his fellow inmates as if he were viewing the scene from behind an invisible curtain. He suddenly recalled the story he had heard repeated again and again throughout his youth. It was the story of how his grandfather and uncles had abstained from eating food so that they would appear sick and thus manage to avoid conscription in the army and the consequent spiritual demise. They had kept themselves alive by breaking their fast in the evenings on some dry crusts of bread and black tea, keeping to this austere regimen for an entire year! How he had dreamed of carrying on that great legacy…

David sat in silent rumination about his own current circumstances. He was a mere youth, yet he had tried hard to remain loyal to whatever possible vestige of Jewish traditions he was able to uphold in this hell. He had considered the problem about kosher food and he had, up to this time, determined that he would allow himself to eat what he was able to in his attempt to stay alive. However, now that he was slated to be exterminated the following day, this reasoning was no longer valid and he preferred to forgo his non-kosher ration of soup.

Softly he whispered the Viduy prayers [confessional prayers recited before death] and went to sleep in peace. He felt ready for his beautiful journey to meet his Creator. Soon he would be together again with his dear father and mother, his sisters and his brothers….

It was the astonishing dream that jolted him awake, shaking him from his calm passivity and galvanizing him to act. In uncharacteristic urgency his eyes darted quickly around the room searching for a way out. His dear father had appeared to him in a dream.

"Run, my child!" he had urged. "Escape!"

One by one, the boys grasped at their last chance for life.

Suddenly amidst the stillness of the sleeping inmates, he made out some whispering sounds of a small group of boys huddled together in hushed conversation. Silently he inched his way closer to where he was able to catch some snatches of their anxious consultation.

"The chimney…"

"How can we succeed…?"

"…the guard?"

Slowly he managed to form a clear picture. Apparently the watchman had unexpectedly fallen asleep and those dauntless boys were planning their escape through the chimney!

Spurred on by the image of his father, now fresh in his mind, he felt compelled to join them in their risky venture. He reckoned there was nothing to lose. It would be either the bullet or the gas, he supposed.

One by one, the boys grasped at their last chance for life. Each boy climbed deftly in surreal silence, up through the narrow chimney of the formidable Block 25, while the next one in line waited for his turn in a conflicting mixture of trepidation and courage beating in his heart.

Each individual made his narrow escape skyward through the roof and then the daring leap down to the ground. Then they fled into the neighboring barrack and mingled with the other striped-pajama clad inmates.

Seven boys made it out on that fateful night. Seven boys received a new lease on life. Sadly, the eighth one was shot. David was the seventh boy. His holy father had received permission from the Heavens to come to his son in a dream to rouse him and drag him from the ashes.

When the Holocaust was finally over, David married a wonderful woman who was also a survivor, but hers is a story for another time.  Together they left for the friendlier shores of America.  Eventually they went on to raise a large family of 6 sons and 4 daughters -- their own particular answer to the Final Solution. My father is their second son, a successful businessman in his own right who recently realized his own dream and made aliyah to Israel with his entire family.

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