In these tales, the truth and authenticity are to be found in the details that show these people were not just statistics. They were ordinary folk leading unassuming lives when the terror of the Holocaust descended upon them.

Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fleeing the Predators

Though the winds of war blew ever closer, most Dutch Jews did not anticipate the monstrous threat to their existence looming in the late 1930s. My father-in-law, Alexander Henriques de la Fuente, z”l, was born in The Hague, Netherlands in 1912. His father, Mordechai, or Gompel, was head of shehita (animal slaughterer) and the family attended the venerable Sephardic synagogue, K.K. Honen Dal, built in 1726.

Alex’s girlfriend, Rosa (Roosje) Jacobson, worked alongside him in the same company. Though Rosa’s parents had never met him, they adamantly disapproved of the budding romance. Twice a year, Alex was stricken with bleeding ulcers, so they feared she would be burdened with a sick husband. Alex was short in stature, the youngest and frailest of five brothers. In later years, he plaintively described his brothers tucking into succulent portions of roast beef, while he sat in the kitchen reluctantly spooning up oatmeal. Despite the dubious state of his health, Alex was a fine young man and studied nights in the Jewish seminary under Haham Pereira. He had a fine baritone voice and was gifted in hazanut.

The turning point came in 1938 when Rosa was laid up for six weeks with stomach trouble. This somehow evened out the score. Her parents agreed to meet Alex, who visited with a bouquet of flowers. They finally relented and agreed to the match.

The couple were about to be married when World War II reached Holland in May, 1940, disrupting their lives. They married in the spring of 1941, after a long engagement, and moved in with Alex’s widowed mother. Life in occupied Holland grew increasingly restrictive and oppressive. They wore the yellow star and led a low profile existence. A German became nominal director of their company, but they continued working.

In August 1941, Rosa and Alex were the first of the family to receive an ominous summons for the concentration camps. Fortuitously, Alex was confined to bed with his stomach ailment, so they got a postponement. In the anxious months that followed, while friends and family were being deported daily, Rosa searched all around for a hiding place for the three of them – to no avail. In October, her parents and younger sister Liesje went into hiding in a small attic room. Despite the danger, she sometimes ventured out on a moonless night to visit them.

Rosa’s contacts with the resistance came up trumps in February 1943. She received the photo of a hotel owner from Bergen op Zoom, a small town near the Belgian border, who was to smuggle them over. Alex’s mother Miriam refused to go, and her devoted son was reluctant to abandon her. Finally, Rosa, with her strong instinct for survival, gave him an ultimatum.

“I can’t stay here any longer, Alex. The ground’s burning beneath our feet,” she said. “Decide if you’re staying with your mother or coming with me.”

Alex made his choice and tearfully hugged his mother goodbye. Hastily, they removed the yellow stars from their clothes. Rosa sewed 2,000 guilders (around $800) into the hem of her dress, and Alex inserted a small siddur into the lining of his coat. At 7:00 a.m. on February 26 they took the train to Bergen op Zoom. At their destination, the proprietor demanded 2,000 guilders. They were not the only ones fleeing that day, however. Two young Jewish girls were also in the back room counting out their money. Distraught, they found themselves 80 guilders short, so Rosa and Alex gave them the difference, though they had only 500 guilders left. This act of charity saved two young lives.

My in-laws’ departure was just in time. At 9:30 a.m. the Gestapo raided the house. They found only a small, amiable, 65-year-old woman with round spectacles and kerchiefed head, whom they promptly dispatched to Sobibor.

The four fugitives stashed away their scant possessions around their bodies to avoid suspicion. Mounting bicycles, they pedaled feverishly into the woods. They ignored a shout to stop, and rode even faster. It was only the man from the hotel, however. He soon caught up, took the bikes and told them to wait quietly. They had a long, cold, nerve-racking vigil in the woods from 1:30 p.m. until 7:00 p.m., when their border escort came under cover of darkness. Until they passed the border a half-hour later, they trod gingerly, fearful of the Germans patrolling within earshot. On the Belgian side, the familiar face of Solly Elburg awaited them. Rosa and Alex slept at the Elburgs in Brussels, and next day went to a hideout above a pub, joining three other Jewish refugees. Rosa busied herself cooking for everybody. When she and Alex entered a store to buy food, they bumped into some Dutch cousins who were in Brussels by default. When these had tried to cross into Switzerland illegally, the passeur absconded with their money. Luckily, with the aid of a Catholic priest in the resistance, Rosa’s cousins assisted them in moving on. Alex grew a moustache and wore a beret to look typically Belgian, and two weeks later they moved to Louvain, near Brussels – just in time! The next day the Gestapo raided the pub and arrested the three remaining Jews.

Though the landlady had no idea they were Jews, their new lodgings were insecure. They told her Alex was job-hunting in Belgium as he had no work in Holland. An amicable chat soon revealed that her son was in Germany working for the Nazis. The red light went on again! Their false papers now dubbed Alex, Leo, or Leopold Joseph Goutteau and Rosa, Anne Goutteau. Though Rosa spoke fluent French, Alex did not know a word. He went to the nearby monastery every day to learn basic French. The 50-year-old priest instructed him in the depths of the cloister, and liked to hear renditions of Alex’s Sephardic melodies.

The cleric then arranged work for them in Brussels, as they dared not remain in Louvain. They fabricated a letter informing Alex he had found work in west Brussels, though actually it was to the east. Showing this to their landlady, they terminated their six-week stay. Alex’s job was with a mouthwash manufacturer, who gave them a basement room. Rosa assisted a little with marketing the goods but mostly, she had to clean, cook, bake bread, and do the wash. Though slight of build and never robust, her energy and drive made up for her lack of strength. Danger always lurked nearby. Once, Alex arrived for a rendezvous with a Jewish friend from Holland. He noticed a car with occupants parked there and realized something was wrong. Without pausing, he took the next train back. His friend had been arrested by the Gestapo and perished at their hands.

Another time, Rosa and Alex took advantage of a fine day in May to visit their cousins. On the way home, a German soldier stopped them in the dark street. He requested their ID cards, checking routinely. Alex blanked out and made a mistake when asked for his birth date. They soldier stiffened and shoved the cards into his pocket, glancing up the road to where the Gestapo officers were on duty. After a tense moment of silence, Alex corrected himself. Taking a long, hard look at the mild-eyed young man, the German relented and returned the IDs. Their hearts were beating tumultuously as they walked away. Another close call!

After a year, when the enterprise folded, the good priest again assisted them, suggesting a post in a small village. The drawback was that they would have to attend church to maintain their cover. As Alex refused to do this, they were sent to Liege in eastern Belgium. Here they worked for a year as maid and butler cum housecleaner for the distinguished Hanquet family. M. Hanquet, secretary of the Belgian Senate, was a widower. His oldest daughter, Adi, ran the household and managed the Red Cross office. They were active in the resistance and, like the mouthwash people, knew that Rosa and Alex were Jews.

They allowed Alex to do the major cleaning on Friday instead of shabbat and gave them eggs to eat when bacon or rabbit were served. Except for the frequent air raids strafing the town and Alex’s hazardous week-long hospitalization for appendicitis – Adi’s Red Cross affiliation protected him from discovery there – life with the Hanquets was generally pleasant.

Belgium was liberated in September 1944, about nine months before Holland. The German soldier billeted with them made a fast disappearance. Alex now obtained a tallit (prayer shawl) from the reopened synagogue in Liege and they found new employment translating for the U.S. Army. Pesach 1945 they joined in a memorable freedom seder with 1,500 Allied soldiers. Rosa, active as always, helped prepare the haroseth. (They had, incidentally, managed to obtain four tiny, hand-baked matzot in the spring of 1943 from Jewish partisans, and saved two of these precious morsels for Pesach 1944.

The liberation brought with it bitter news: all the 11 de la Fuente men, women and children deported to Auschwitz, Fuerstengrube, and Sobibor had perished. Rosa and Alex were the sole survivors of their immediate families. Their return to The Hague that September was emotionally devastating. They would scan faces in the streets in the forlorn hope of rediscovering their loved ones.

Ultimately, they Hanquets were declared Righteous Gentiles and honored by Yad Vashem. Adi and her sister, Marie-Jeanne, came to Jerusalem for the award ceremony. Rosa’s family was betrayed to the Gestapo in March 1944 and died in Auschwitz. Mr. Bellekom, their protector, was sent to Dachau but survived. He too was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.

The Sephardic community in The Hague had been obliterated by the Nazis. Of more than 50 families who attended the Honen Dal Synagogue, almost none survived except the Rodrigues Pereiras and the two de la Fuentes. Haham Shlomo Rodrigues Pereira, zt”l, who had bravely served as Jewish chaplain in the Royal Dutch Armed Forces during the invasion, returned to Amsterdam as Chief Rabbi of the Dutch Sephardim. He reassumed a leadership role and brought back many Jewish children who had been hidden with Christian families – a most difficult task.

My husband, Mordechai Eleazar, was born in April 1947 on his parents’ sixth wedding anniversary. The de la Fuentes immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1951, where they remained until their retirement in Jerusalem. Father Alex, once the frailest brother of five, lived to the age of 85. Mother Rosa, may she merit a long life, is now 89. My husband, his sister and our families thank Hashem for all His blessings and can say with fervor: Blessed be the L-rd, Who did not give us as prey to their teeth (Psalm 124:7).

(Originally published in 2003. Lessons in Emunah, New York Jewish Press.)

A Grave for Grandpa

Now that I was a grandmother myself, it was hard to accept that my maternal grandpa Leib ben Daniel ע"ש had no yahrzeit and no grave, and had simply vanished from the small town of Lyck, East Prussia, in the summer of 1942, without a trace. Although I knew little of him and he had died before I was born, I decided to probe the mystery of his ominous disappearance.
In my birthplace, London, mementos of my mother’s parents were few. A featherbed or two with red ticking, a couple of telegraphic Red Cross messages from the war years, and some old brown photographs, including one of him in Prussian army uniform with his WWI regiment. A 1930’s picture of his boycotted, swastika-festooned storefront later vanished from the family album, but we surmised that the lawyer had used it for a compensation claim.
My hunch was that the Germans were so meticulous in their planning and documentation that information might be available. From my home in Israel I wrote to Magen David Adom headquarters in Tel Aviv, who passed on my request, then five years of silence ensued. When the neatly printed form finally arrived from the German archives via the international Red Cross, I was as awed as if a virtual tombstone had thudded down onto my desk. It stated the following:
“Louis Hammerschmidt born in Woldenberg on 22.11.1874
was committed to Ghetto Theresienstadt by the secret police of Koenigsberg (Transport XIV/1)
on 27 August 1942 and died there on 20 January, 1943, Cause of death not indicated. Category: Jew.”
My theory regarding Teutonic thoroughness was correct; this was an accurate record of grandpa’s final chapter. I even felt some relief when I discovered that Terezin had no gas chambers, but the Nazi terminology - “Category: Jew” – was crude and chilling. It aroused visions of an ornithologist sorting his specimens. (When I checked much earlier documents of my late mother’s, they read: “Religion: Mosaic,” a more dignified appellation). The German data showed that grandpa had survived only 6 months at Theresienstadt. We ascertained that his yarhzeit was probably Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees, that bitter-sweet juncture of blustery winter with the first pink and white blossoms of spring. There is a hint of regeneration in this story too, as on September 8, 1942, right after the deportation, a second grandchild was born to him in London. It was a girl this time, named Rosa Leah for his late wife who died early in the war years. Grandpa remarried shortly thereafter, not wishing to be alone in those dread times.
The fortress of Theresienstadt was originally built to defend Prague by Maria Theresa. To this Hapsburg empress belongs the dubious distinction of having expelled the Jews of Prague, Bohemia and Moravia in 1774. In June 1942, however, Terezin became part of Heydrich’s plan to exterminate 11 million European Jews. It was the only old age ghetto and initially housed German and Austrian Jews over 65 years, many of them army veterans. The deportations to this ready-made concentration camp began on June 2, 1942, and by September there was peak overcrowding and conditions became unbearable. Lack of water and heat, malnutrition and uncontrolled epidemics were the order of the day. That was just the beginning. In 1943 Czech army guards were replaced by Austrian Nazis and eventually 150,000 men, women and children were sent on to the death camps. Terezin soon became a way station in the destruction of Czech Jewry.
Though the Nazis cited the cause of grandfather’s death as “unknown,” the bitterly cold winter and a deliberately calculated Nazi policy of attrition by cruelty, starvation, disease, and neglect no doubt killed him off at the age of 69. He was, incidentally, a stalwart man, a front line artillery soldier, who had fought against the Russians in the World War I battle of Tannenburg when he was 40 years old.
When we set out on a brief mid-winter vacation to Prague around a year later, I packed 3 candles in my suitcase. 2 were for the first night of Chanukah, which fell on the eve of our return flight to Israel, and the third was a memorial light for my dear unknown grandpa. Prague was lit up brightly for the Christian holiday. The Old Town square was a festive marketplace peddling gifts and trinkets, and there were pony rides for the children. The tinkle of antique harpsichords and the sonorous tones of organs and strings resounded from mirrored antechambers and vaulted concert halls. The boutiques in the narrow alleys near the Charles Bridge and the luxurious stores on the main boulevard displayed a resplendent assortment of goods and handicrafts: gold studded with wine-dark garnets, handmade lace tablecloths, ornate crystal vessels in jewel-bright colors.
Underlying this gay facade, however, lurked a sadder reality. The ghosts of a rich Jewish past hovered in the air. Of the many fine synagogues, only two were still active. Most had faded into “museums of Jewish culture,” where collections of confiscated Judaica were under glass. The Pinkas synagogue was now a memorial chapel, listing all the families from Bohemia and Moravia who had been killed by the Nazis. The time-honored Altneuschul is still in use for daily prayers, its plain facade sunken below the present street level. This outer lack of adornment is remedied by its strikingly impressive interior lined with lustrous dark benches; lofty Gothic arches soar high above the wrought iron rails of the bima, which are ornamented with gleaming brass pomegranates. It is moving to learn that “altneu” is a transliteration of the Hebrew “al t’nai” (on condition), and that its founders erected this small sanctuary as a temporary step on their journey through life, not despairing of a return to Jerusalem.
On the last day of our trip we went to Terezin. Once we left the richly ornamented thresholds and magnificent silhouettes of the old city of Prague with its domes, spires and steeples, we passed poorly constructed apartment buildings, drab monolithic relics of the bygone communist regime, juxtaposed without symmetry. Out in the countryside the road wound through a colorless and curiously lifeless landscape. A layer of hoar frost shrouded the flat expanses around us, enfolding the bare trees and sparse clumps of vegetation in its icy grasp. No wintry ray of sun or minuscule thread of blue broke the gloomy monotony of the sky overhead. Scrutinizing the murky impermeable gray, I remembered my teacher’s comments that outside the land of Israel something of God’s divine presence is obscured. Our small tour group included a guide and a driver. As we discussed our motivation for the trip with our companions, two young women from Brazil, who had lost relatives without a trace in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, hot tears pricked my eyelids. It was hard to retrace grandfather’s last footsteps in a strange land, and painful that he had died for being a Jew.
Near the entrance of the ghetto museum, established in 1991 in the former SS Headquarters at the Terezin complex, was a poignant testimonial: piles of black leather batim - empty tefillin cases - with worn looking straps, heaped together in a glass case. As we filed past the charcoal drawings of gaunt huddled figures, I scanned their faces searching for grandpa. 15,000 children had passed through Theresienstadt and some of their drawings were on display. Plaintively, like impaled butterflies, these tender souls had documented their earlier lives and later imprisonment with colored crayons. The mature prisoners had expressed themselves in short poems and scraps of writing in German. Silently I absorbed their message of overwhelming regret and impending doom.
As we visited a secret synagogue in the complex outside, a small empty room about the size of a garage, I thought again of grandpa. Maybe he had prayed here or joined a minyan in his barracks during the bleak months of his captivity. I translated the rust colored Hebrew inscriptions on its plaster walls for my companions:
“And despite everything, we have not forgotten Your Name. Please do not forget us!…We beseech You, turn aside from your fierce wrath…You are a G-d who is slow to anger…If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem…And may our eyes behold Your return in mercy to Zion.”
Outside our footsteps crunched over the icy terrain and stray flakes of snow glided down and brushed against our cold faces. Numbness seeped through my warm leather gloves. Our guide explained that the crematorium had been built to burn the bodies of dead prisoners only after the death rate in the camp soared to mammoth proportions. Nearby was an orderly, restored graveyard, marked with a large gray stone menorah. Small smooth tablets of stone marked the graves where Jewish prisoners were buried prior to 1944. I was immeasurably thankful that grandpa had found a resting place for his bones. It was time to light the memorial light. We placed the small candle on a sheltered ledge of the closed crematorium, and recited psalms and the customary prayers for the dead. That same evening we lit our hanuka candle in the Habad House of Prague. My husband led the service there, and as he said kaddish, I mouthed the words along with him. It was an apt time both to say kaddish for grandpa and to shed a little light on the darkness.
Though the search for my yekke grandpa had yielded some unexpected results, he remained a shadowy figure, and nobody was still alive to fill me in. Only recently, when I received a copy of the joyous letter below via a brother overseas, did I get a more complete picture. Grandpa’s strong hand had written in German on October 3, 1937, after the announcement of my parents’ engagement in London.

“Dear son-in-law Mendel,
We are so glad to accept you, Grete’s fiance, along with your dear parents, as part of our family, and would like you to reciprocate. Please call us Mama and Papa.
We thank you for your detailed letter and wish you and your dear parents and siblings mazel and brocha too. We are as thrilled as Grete, who is very happy to have found you, and we know that you are the right husband for her, as she herself chose you.
May God only give you both His blessings in all your endeavors.
You can be certain that Grete will be a loving wife to you and a good daughter-in-law to your dear parents, just as she is a good daughter to us.
We have a quiet, modest lifestyle and often get together with other families whose children are also overseas. It’s so interesting for us old folks to hear about their lives abroad. Thank the Lord we are feeling well.
We send you, your parents and family our very best wishes.
Your in-laws,
Louis and Rosa Hammerschmidt”

These unpretentious words revealed grandpa’s warm personality and sociability, and how he withstood the increasing terror of those threatening years like a good trooper. My grandparents ע"ש were trapped in Nazi Germany with almost no income, and Kristallnacht, dark night of infamy and destruction, lurked just 13 months ahead. Yet there is no hint of gloom here. It took me many years to discover grandpa’s grave, but his values were implicit in my upbringing. Though in my youth I often resisted what I saw as rigidity and inflexibility of attitudes, the message got through to me later on. It is a message of hope, faith and steadfastness - uncomplaining endurance of the pain and of the darkness, and trust in God, with an unwavering focus on His salvation.

Yom Kippur in Auschwitz

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania. On Sabbaths and festivals in Cuhea village --a Yiddish-speaking enclave--the hasidim, both rich and poor, flocked to the synagogue resplendent in their streimels and caftans. Ruth lost her father at age 3, but her maternal grandparents lived with them. Grandpa Yisrael Szabo found an apt pupil in Ruth and taught her the rudiments of Hebrew, Yiddish and the vernacular. He died shortly before World War II.
Ruth’s widowed mother opened a grocery store for subsistence. From age six Ruth stood on a wooden crate behind the counter and served customers. Her grandmother made great efforts to provide food to the needy. The store went out of business, however, in the early 1940s, owing to anti-Semitic decrees. Ruth, at fourteen, now picked up Hungarian in order to learn a trade. One small solace was when her paternal grandparents boarded the last boat out of Romania in 1939 and got to America. The Nazi decrees intensified, confining the Jews to ghettoes. From Dragomirest ghetto they were assembled for mass deportation. Their bitter exodus to the distant railway station was jeered at by once friendly Christian neighbors, whose exultant eyes now shone with the light of greed. “Our messiah arrived today! We’re getting rid of the Jews.”
In 1944 sixteen-year-old Ruth and her family arrived at Auschwitz after four agonizing days and nights crammed into cattle cars. Her younger sister and brother stood throughout so their elderly grandmother could lie down. The night when the living, the dead, and the newborn arrived at that grim destination, flames belched from four tall chimneys and the air had a sickening stench. Though Ruth was selected for work, her mother, siblings and grandmother were waved aside by Mengele. The petite blue-eyed girl tried to follow her family, but a stick hooked around her throat thrust her away. Her family perished in the gas chambers a few hours later.
The girls in Ruth’s work-group at Auschwitz-Birkenau—most in their early teens --tried to close ranks and support one another despite appalling conditions, terror and cruelty. They covered for the weak ones, and in the event of a fainting spell, pushed the girl to the middle out of sight.
When Yom Kippur came the girls were sent to the area of the crematoria, to load the ashes onto trolleys. This was devastating for them, especially when their shovels revealed small v-shaped bones. The kapo told them that this was the only bone in the body that does not burn. [Footnote: Kabbalists call this indestructible bone the luz (atlas bone) and associate it with the resurrection of the dead].
As for fasting, some girls, including Ruth and her cousin, abstained from the breakfast of ‘coffee’—a dark liquid made of barley. The Nazis knew why and taunted sadistically, “So you’re not hungry today. We’ll make sure you get an appetite!”
That unusually hot day they forced the girls to run for a long time, assailing those that fell with dogs and whips. At lunchtime most ate the watery soup from despair and exhaustion. Many felt their circumstances permitted it but Ruth had resolved to fast. She thought an affirmation of faith was necessary that terrible day. She and her cousin set aside their soup but it had spoiled by evening, so they broke their fast with the two thin pieces of black bread--tasting of sawdust--that constituted supper.
The next morning the 200 girls were back to the backbreaking, pointless routine of digging ditches that promptly oozed with water and worms. Once the heavy clay soil was shoveled aside, they had to climb down onto treacherous mud surfaces. That day they were given heavy, unwieldy tools, so there was scuffling to grab the lighter ones. The SS guard cursed them, striking out viciously. Ruth and her cousin waited it out for whatever tools remained rather than get beaten up. They were unexpectedly rewarded for their forbearance by the German kapo, and told to supervise the others instead of working themselves. The woman then reappeared with a cabbage and asked her cousin if she could cook. She took the girl to a nearby barracks to concoct the soup while the SS men and their dogs followed out of curiosity.
Ruth, unexpectedly left alone as supervisor, seized the opportunity to be helpful. She yelled loudly in Hungarian, “Don’t work now! Just watch me. I will tell you when to work.”
If an authority appeared, she yelled even louder at the girls to work harder. She figured that no one would really keep track of their efforts.
The kapo later reappeared. “Du Kleine--you little one--come over here,” she shouted.
Ruth stood frozen to the spot. The game was up, she thought.
“Yes, I mean you. Why are you standing there like a dumb cow? I heard how diligent you were, shouting at the girls. You and the girl who cooked will get double lunch.”
Ruth told her cousin that G-d had repaid them promptly for their Yom Kippur fast. Years later she wondered at her own courage and defiance.
Just as she helped others, so they helped her. In January she emerged from the camp infirmary, and was sent to work with only a thin jacket to protect her, no gloves or socks, and with leaking shoes. The assignment was to move away the heavy iron tracks of the trolleys used to load ashes from the crematoria.
“That does it,” she resolved, sickly and frozen to the bone. Snow and ice lay on the ground and a bitter wind blew. “Tonight I’m going to the electric wires—I can’t take it any more.”
At this moment of despair kind friends came to the rescue. One girl took off a glove for her, and another tore the rag that covered her hands and gave her half.
Positive thinking fueled by faith kept Ruth going. The last tattooed digits on her arm were eighteen or hai (life), which she considered a good omen. She would picture herself in America with her grandmother, smartly dressed in a blue skirt, white blouse and dark red jacket. She had a vivid dream that grandfather Yisrael visited her bearing a package of cheese. “He is praying for me in heaven,” she thought, “and I will survive.”
She made her own private bargain with G-d. “I have to live so I can tell,” she assured Him. If she survived, she would tell what the world did to His chosen people.

Ruth Brand, now deep in her seventies, remained true to her promise to tell what happened. Somehow she survived the Death March to Bergen Belsen in January 1945, eating snow and mentally recording the crimson patches where the weakest had fallen and been shot. She even survived the ensuing plagues of typhus, dysentery, starvation and lice. Though she envied the dead, she clung feebly to life until the liberation when she was slowly rehabilitated. She has told her painful story numerous times, during her 25 years in America, and in Israel where she moved in 1975. She accompanied groups to Poland eleven times, and spoke there, reliving the hell of Auschwitz. Yad VeShem is soon sending her on a trip to Eastern Europe.
Ruth was privileged to raise a large family. Another noteworthy achievement was to found a Jewish school for special education in New York that has grown from four original pupils to 600 today. She also used her skills as a seamstress to sew gowns for many brides.
“Life to me has a special meaning,” she says, “When I say Modeh Ani in the morning, I do so with infinite gratitude.

Against All Odds

David Grabinski (later Grabin), and Bella Szulman, z"l, each spent the war years in a series of concentration camps. Remarkably, they survived extreme cruelty and debilitating conditions without bitterness or loss of faith, and went on to lead full and productive lives in America. David, the youngest of seven children, grew up in a small, warm community in Schlesin, a rural town in western Poland near the German border, while Bella came from Lublin in eastern Poland. Her father was connected with the Lubliner yeshiva.

David and Bella were introduced by a mutual friend after liberation by the Russian army in Theresienstadt. Upon recovering a semblance of health, the survivors returned to their hometowns to see if any family members had remained alive. David's entire family had been killed by the Nazis, except for his eldest brother who had lost his wife and children. Bella, who had been separated from her parents and two younger brothers since 1939, learned that none had survived, and she left Poland for Germany.

Fate decreed that their paths would cross again soon. Bella was working with the sick in Landsberg, Germany, in a large camp for displaced persons that housed Jewish survivors from September 1945 and on. Landsberg served as a rehabilitation center or "decompression chamber" for these sufferers.

One afternoon, a sudden impulse compelled Bella to leave work early. Fortuitously, David and his brother were just arriving in the area to seek employment. While they were walking their bicycles up the steep hill, David saw Bella across the street. This chance meeting enabled him to renew an acquaintance that endured and led to a marriage of some 40 years. Bella was 19 when they married in Landsberg in November 1946.

At the time of her deportation, 12-year-old Bella pretended to be older in order to work and stay alive in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other death camps. Many times during selections, she would switch lines or groups instinctively, sometimes to stay near a friend, somehow shunting herself away from the jaws of death. With remarkable acumen and inventiveness,she occasionally secured food supplies. At times, when they were in transit, waiting alongside the railway tracks, she would spy a potato field. She scrounged some matches and furtively cooked a few hastily-dug potatoes.

During her internment in the Plaszow slave labor camp near Krakow, she worked briefly as housekeeper to the sadistic commandant Amon Goeth (known to many from Schindler's List). Goeth would stand on his balcony and pick off with his rifle any prisoners who were working too slowly. Bella's hours of work were from early morning till late at night. Once or twice when the household slept, she took a sharp instrument and punched holes in the food.

When Goeth barked out gruffly at breakfast time, "Why are there holes in the food? What's happened here?" Bella feigned surprise and said, wide-eyed, "Oh, dear, maybe a mouse got into the pantry!"When Goeth told her to throw out the food, and bring more, she deftly packed the food up to share later with other starving inmates. Her Auschwitz number was A-18009, which added up to 18 (representing chai or life). She took this as a sign that she was destined to live through the war and in despairing moments, it helped sustain her.

David was 19 when the war began. The son of grain dealers, he had helped in the business since age 14, and was used to hard physical work. Though only five feet three inches tall, he was broad and strong. Even as a small child of eight or nine, he had shown remarkable resolution, stopping the family seder when a stray grain drifted from the rafters into his plate of soup. He ran to the rabbi and though the latter sought extenuating circumstances, David stood by every detail of his story.

Later on, a determination to persevere even when his strength ebbed from starvation helped him survive and emerge from chaos and cruelty with his priorities intact. After his son's birth, David obtained a pigeon and cycled all the way to an adjacent town to have it slaughtered properly.

In January 1941, David agonizingly parted from his family in the hopes of staying alive. Jewish families were rounded up from their crowded billets with Polish farmers as unpaid laborers. They were crammed into cattle cars and sent to Lodz. Then they were herded into an empty factory and ordered to turn over their valuables. David's uncle was beaten to death for his property. As part of a labor detail, David and three others had to clear away the bodies and clean up. They were then waved back towards the main group. The four approached the guards, explaining that they belonged to a different group. To his sorrow, David was unable to say goodbye to his family, who went eastward to their deaths in Treblinka.

During the coming years, David experienced 17 different camps, always trying to stay alive by performing the grueling physical labor he was assigned. The weak were shot dead - a kleinigkeit, or small thing, for their captors. Once, to avoid a mass grave work assignment (none returned alive from those harrowing expeditions to the forest) - he and a friend scaled a sheer brick wall, one story high. The support of a few close friends from his hometown helped him survive, as they were shuttled around Eastern and Western Poland, Latvia, and Germany. Another comfort were a few photos of happier times that he kept throughout the war.

At the end of 1944, Grabin was sent to Buchenwald where he was further traumatized by the flames leaping from the crematoria and the rank odor of burning bodies. During the Allied bombings, the Nazis intensified their cruelty to the Jews, as if their hapless victims were to blame. In April 1945, he had a brief interlude in the infirmary collapsing from weakness and malnutrition. His friend dragged him out in dead of night, saying the camp was being evacuated - just in the nick of time. The next day, the Gestapo blew up the infirmary and its patients.

According to Yad Vashem, 250,000 concentration camp prisoners died during the death marches conducted by the Nazis at the end of the war. It is a mystery how Grabin survived the next 3-and-a-half weeks, marching to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. He was in pitiful condition, bullets whizzed by freely, and food and water were not supplied. He would sitbeside a tree if there was a rest stop, not having the strength to pull himself up unaided. In a visual history interview by the Spielberg Foundation, he describes climbing over piles of dead people every morning. He was so broken that every night and morning he prayed to G-d to end his life, though not via a bullet.

"But G-d didn't want to take me," he continued wonderingly," He told me, 'Suffer, suffer, and you will survive.'"

Both David and Bella were destined to survive and later, their close partnership enabled them to enjoy happier times. Though he suffered from nightmares, this did not impact on their family life, which was warm and loving. Their son Irving (Yitzhak Hanina) was born in Germany, and their daughter Minnie (Haya Michla) a year after their arrival in America in 1949. (Later they would have 10 grandchildren, all living now in Eretz Yisrael).

They settled in Richmond, Virginia, where they became pillars of a small community of 50 religious families. Though at first David worked in a commercial bakery, he was happy to become manager of the kosher butcher store. That was a G-d send from the religious point of view. Though it was painful for the Grabins to talk of the past, they spoke of their Holocaust experiences to family and friends, and David also addressed Jewish Day School students on the topic.

Bella, infinitely grateful for the blessing of having her own family, also found time to assist her husband in the business. She was loved for her kindness and hospitality, always supplying kosher meals to travelers and to the sick and lonely. Her charitable involvement was outstanding, her purse open for all causes. Though their means were modest, she gave freely and often, anonymously. She died at age 59 after a long illness - the one hardship she could not overcome - but her personality left a lasting imprint on all who knew her.

David remarried some years later, continuing to lead a full and active life in Charleston, South Carolina. He died recently at a ripe old age, and is sorely missed by his community.

His children speak of their late parents with great pride, aware that their legacy of kindness and charity must be transmitted onwards.

First published in The Jewish Press (Link)

A Legacy For Their Children

Krakow or Cracow, Poland's stately capital, founded by Prince Krak in 1038, was for centuries a royal city and home of Polish rulers. Today it still ranks as a tourist attraction. During World War II the Nazis, yimach shemam, were fastidious about not damaging this urdeutsche stadt or ancient German town. The Rama cemetery, the best-surviving Renaissance Jewish graveyard in Europe, dating from 1553, was largely spared and contains the tomb of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the RAMA). Unfortunately, the Nazis did not extend any such consideration to the town's 65,000 Jews (the largest community in Poland for almost 700 years) and killed 55,000 of them.

Chaim Zvi Taub was born in Cracow in 1904 to a prosperous family of Belzer Chassidim, a sect still distinguished by their traditional garb of knee breeches. He and his mother ran a fabric store in an upscale part of town. In 1940 Taub had the foresight to hide a significant portion of the family valuables - including two Torah Scrolls, Judaica items, Holy Books, rolls of fabric and some light machinery - behind a brick wall that he constructed especially for this purpose at the far end of his store.
Following the Nazi invasion, Taub was relocated to ghetto Cracow, where he was sent out for labor. In 1942 he was transferred to Stalowa-Wola, north of Cracow, a slave-labor camp established by Hermann Goering, Hitler's yimach shemam, deputy. A non-Jewish friend often came and smuggled him bread through the fence, saving him from starvation. In August 1944 Taub spent a month in Plaschow. In September 1944 he was transferred to Goerlitz in Silesia, to be liberated by the Russians in May 1945.
Taub's wife and four children had perished in the death camp of Belzec. Now at 41, the lines of suffering already etched onto his face, Taub returned to Cracow to see what remained of his shattered life. He found his only surviving brother via the Jewish community center, and also discovered his future wife, Zofia Buchbaum, whom he married in 1946. His store had been taken over by a large Polish family. Rising to the challenge of recouping his property, the slightly-built man hired a wagon driver with horse and buggy and a policeman, and promised to recompense them well. They stood in readiness while he confronted the startled proprietors. He calmly told them that he had come to recover some possessions. Then, to their consternation he brought in a sledgehammer, broke down the wall and deftly removed all his valuables. He was then able to start over in business.
Zofia Buchbaum Taub was the sole survivor of her family. Ten years younger than Chaim Zvi, she assisted in the business with her administrative and accounting skills.
Her teenage brother, a Radomske Chassid, and her mother Malka were killed during a roundup in the Plaschow ghetto.
She too began the war years in ghetto Cracow, working mainly on the Aryan side. As of Pesach 1943 her base was Plaschow death camp, where she was sent out to work in the salt mines of Wieliczka, a small village 20 kilometers south of Cracow. (Originally, the Nazis planned to construct a war plant in the depths of this old, tunneled mine, but salt corroded the machinery parts. Curiously the salt mines of Wieliczka, with their less-than-humane history, now gets star billing as a tourist site.)
During her years as a slave laborer and camp inmate, Zofia's distinction was that she took great care to observe kashrut. I asked in wonderment how she managed this feat in those bitter times. It meant surviving mainly on potatoes and bread. Zofia was a very strong believer. Her motto was Am Yisrael Chai - the People of Israel Live. Her faith and optimism enabled her to keep going in desperate circumstances.
During her time in Plaschow she confronted the fearsome commandant Amon Goeth, when trying unsuccessfully to get a work permit for her mother. In October 1944 when Plaschow was erased, she was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There she endured Josef Mengele's daily selections for the crematoria. She was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, and in January 1945, participated in a death march to an airplane factory near Leipzig. After the ordeal of marching 30 kilometers a day in the snow, with a rapidly dwindling number of other skeletal figures, Zofia was liberated by the U.S. Army.
The Taubs stayed in Poland until 1951, when they immigrated to Israel via Italy with their small daughter and son. As the greedy Communist regime was unfavorable to private business, it was time to move on. Carefully packed inside their few suitcases were the two Torah scrolls and family Judaica items that had survived the war.
Chaim Zvi, now aged 46, had to start his life over again. He entrusted his Torah scrolls to the Gerer Steibl in Tel-Aviv, his new home. He spoke little to his children about the painful past. He built a small garment factory in Herzliya and lived an honorable life until his passing in 1985. His wife outlived him by 12 years.
His son Shlomo married and moved to Ra'anana. In the late 1980's he saw that the congregation in Tel-Aviv was dwindling and retrieved the Torah scrolls. Although they are at least 100 years old, one of them is in good condition and is in regular use by our congregation.
Zofia would often recall that Chaim Zvi's family owned various properties in Cracow, besides the store. In the late 1980's she was surprised to receive letters from Cracow municipality regarding payments needed for repairs on buildings owned by the Taubs. Windows were broken; roofs leaked. The address given was unfamiliar. Enquiries subsequently revealed that the street had changed names.
Shlomo's sense of justice was affronted by the fact that the township had collected rent on the two buildings for 45 years or more. In time, with the help of a Polish lawyer, he began a determined quest to regain ownership of the properties. He eventually succeeded, which gave him the impetus to found a company to retrieve confiscated Jewish property in Poland and nearby lands. He knows that the current window of opportunity is limited, since Holocaust survivors are elderly and fast disappearing. For this reason, I would suggest that readers use "the Jewish grapevine" to tell their friends or relatives, who may have documentation on property ownership in Poland or Czechoslovakia, that Shlomo's service exists! (Information on Legacy can be found at; phone 972-9-7713811 or fax 972-9-7743495).
It is clear, however, that the Taubs' legacy to their children goes beyond bricks and mortar on alien soil. The fact that they held fast to Torah values in desperate circumstances should inspire all their descendants.

First published in The Jewish Press (Link)

Chapter of Infamy: The Holocaust Of Bullets Identifying Mass Graves In Ukraine

Nazi treatment of Jews during German occupation of the former Soviet Union between June 1941 and 1944 belongs in the annals of infamy. The Gestapo handled religious leaders with extreme sadism, usually executing them after public torture. Torah scrolls were removed from synagogues and thrown onto bonfires around which congregants were forced to dance.

Himmler and Heydrich conceived the idea of the so-called Holocaust of bullets immediately before the invasion. Their policy of genocide began with the formation of Einsatzgruppen, units newly formed to perform mass murder and steal Jewish property. These death squads followed the Wehrmacht or armed forces eastwards as the invasion progressed, gunning down entire Jewish communities from Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States. It is estimated that 1.5 million Jews and other 'undesirables' were killed in the Ukraine alone during these two and a half years.

Jewish men summoned to "work" details were the first to be shot, but by late summer 1941 the Nazis assembled entire communities on pretexts such as "resettlement" and massacred them outdoors. Their bodies were thrown into ditches, pits, ravines (as at Babi Yar), irrigation wells - murders doomed to obscurity, as survivors were few. No traces were left of those who perished so anonymously. Upon reflecting how all my relatives from Bausk, Riga, Kaunus and Zhagarren were obliterated, helplessness gives way to horror at the vast size and scope of the murder operation, at its lethal speed and efficiency. Now that its minutiae are also becoming known, most chilling of all are the dreadful details revealed by Gentile bystanders or collaborators.

Eyewitness accounts from elderly people in the Ukraine have recently been recorded on videotape as they help locate mass graves and unburden themselves of their memories. Fulfilling a unique role of moral and historical import is a 55-year-old French Catholic priest, Patrick Desbois. His organization, Yahad-In-Unum - founded in 2004 - aims to identify sites of mass Jewish executions. Russian regional records and Nazi archives are scanned for approximate locations and numbers of victims. In the last seven years Desbois has identified and documented 600 mass graves in the Ukraine, marking maps with GPS coordinates: "relatively small ditches with less than 1,000 victims, mid-sized ditches holding up to 10,000 victims, and large sites of extermination with over 80,000 victims." He estimates that up to 2,000 such sites remain undiscovered. To forestall plunderers, the task force excavates only a small area of the mass grave, then covers it again.

"Little is known about this terrible chapter in Jewish historyThe Einsatzgruppen wiped out whole villages in hours, entire regions in afternoons. There is little forensic or testimonial documentation other than what Father Desbois is collecting," states Aryeh Rubin of the Targum Shlishi organization.

The purpose of Desbois' organization is to "ensure that the historical record and the evidence of the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in Ukraine becomes available to worldwide study and research, and that the countless numbers of Jewish victims who still lie buried in anonymity are properly remembered, according to their own religion." His discoveries were represented at an exhibition entitled Holocaust by Bullets at the Shoah Memorial Museum, Paris.

Desbois is high up in the hierarchy of the church, director of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops Conference. His personal involvement ensued from close childhood contact with his grandfather, a French P.O.W. interned by the Germans during WWII at Rawa-Ruska on the Ukrainian border. Much later, in 1991 Desbois found himself in that same area. His probing questions on what had happened to the large Jewish population there, were stonewalled repeatedly until a new deputy-mayor came on the scene and led him to a mass grave and about 100 witnesses.

The priest goes four times a year to the Ukraine, for three to four weeks each time, always in clerical garb and accompanied by a small team that includes an interpreter, cameramen, a ballistics expert and a historian. Local pastors help him track down possible witnesses who are all over 70 years old - a resource that is fast disappearing. Sometimes the team goes door-to-door asking where the Jews are buried or stops people in the street to ask if they are long time residents. Vividly etched wartime memories of the mass killings or youthful involvement in Nazi actions, sometimes under duress, spill out, as they give testimony. Desbois skillfully directs questions as he listens in a non-judgmental way.

Horses and carts were requisitioned and farmers were busied, transporting Jews to their death. Locals often had to dig ditches at least three meters deep, intended for the burial of their Jewish neighbors. Sometimes they had to trample on bodies in the mass graves to make room for more layers. Among the dead were classmates and neighbors from the village. Women sorted clothing, while children drummed on saucepans to drown out the noise of gunfire and prevent hysteria. Locals prepared and served food to the executioners so they could eat and drink next to the open graves between shifts.

Victims killed by individual bullets - the usual allotment was one per person - were not always killed outright. Numerous bystander accounts verify that it often took three days for a personto die and stop moving. Desbois confirms that, "The Germans, to save ammunition, buried people alive, especially children."

Chabad emissaries are involved with ritual aspects of mass graves, erecting appropriate memorials to mark locations and ensuring that the areas are treated with the proper respect. In August 2007, during city construction that excavated the site of the old Kharkov ghetto, Chabad was required to rebury 150 charred bodies, some with bullet marks. The victims were mainly women and children who were unable to join the 8 km forced march to Drobitsky Yar, where most of Kharkov's Jews were shot and buried in December 1941. That August, Chabad also held a memorial service in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, commemorating the murder of some 30,000 Jews 65 years ago. According to reporter Dovid Zaklikowski, "Both these atrocities had faded from memory until the breakup of the Soviet Union allowed the revelation of what exactly the Nazis perpetrated following the invasion of Soviet lands in the early 1940s."

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there has been increased openness and the fate of East European Jewry is receiving more media attention. On a visit to Israel in mid-November 2007 Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko gave President Shimon Peres hundreds of declassified documents on the burial sites.

Why did the Soviets conceal the Holocaust for so long? It was most probably because Nazi atrocities, following hard upon hasty Russian withdrawals, did not reflect well on Stalin's regime. Neither did the participation of some local militias in the Nazi annihilation program. Though survivors made valiant efforts to erect memorials after World War II, these were mostly prohibited and sabotaged by the authorities. Those few that were permitted had edited out any mention of Jews.

Though we thought we had heard it all by now, a bitter surfeit of horrors is still being uncovered in Eastern Europe. From over there, the voice of our brothers' blood cries out to us from the ground and rumbles in our ears with a silent but deafening roar.

The Holocaust by Bullets exhibit just completed its engagement in Paris. It is expected that it will be in New York by the fall of 2008 at The Museumof Jewish Heritage.

First published in The Jewish Press (Link)