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, November 29, 2009


When Tilla Rinder was deported to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942, she found a world of evil and brutality where inmates lost their autonomy, their dignity, and usually their lives. Here she embarked on a personal mission to uplift despairing spirits and carry out acts of kindness. In her defiance of the Nazi regime she repeatedly risked her life.

Tilla was born in 1922, the firstborn of Gershon Moshe and Tova Raizel Rinder's four children. The Rinders were a family of hasidic origin from Teshen (Cieszyn) Poland, near the Czech border. Her mother, always involved in good deeds (hesed), would send Tilla out to deliver food packages to the needy. Tova Raizel not only tutored her three daughters daily in Jewish studies in their early years, but also considered it her duty to refine their character traits. By the time Tilla studied in a Bais Yaakov high school, she was an outstanding student, well liked by her peers.

When World War II broke out and the increasing darkness gathered over Europe, 16 year-old Tilla went to Czechoslovakia with a group of Bais Yaakov girls who hoped to escape to Israel. This plan failed because of the rapid Nazi advances. The group only reached Nitra in Slovakia, where work and lodgings were arranged for them within the community. When Tilla heard about a Bais Yaakov teachers' seminary in nearby Topolčany, Bratislava, she left the relative security of Nitra to study under Tzila Orlean, a gifted young teacher who had relocated from the main Cracow seminary. Teacher and student became close friends.

In 1942 both women were deported to Auschwitz, where Tilla remained for three years until the liberation. It was among the horrors of the women's camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau that this quiet, modest young girl became a source of spiritual strength and unflagging kindness to her fellow inmates in their desperate situation. Her primary focus was on helping others, while she herself "seemed to get by on nothing," according to Pearl Benisch in To Vanquish the Dragon (Feldheim 1991), and corroborated by others. Tzila Orlean, who was appointed head nurse in the camp infirmary, was also renowned in the women's camp for her leadership, goodness and courage. In her book, Mrs. Benisch explains how Tzila organized a network of kindness by planting her former students in strategic places around the camp.

In moving terms Mrs. Benisch tells of her reunion with Tilla and Tzila at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When Tilla and Tzila heard that a transport had arrived from Cracow, they along with Toni Katz of Teshen, went out to greet the traumatized girls. Pearl and her friends felt revived as soft, gentle voices whispered "Gut Shabbos" to them in the midst of hell. This warm greeting and the help they later received was dangerous for its initiators who were strictly forbidden to approach new arrivals.

Mrs. Benisch describes Tilla as "a beautiful girl with rich blonde curls framing an angelic face and blue smiling eyes ever full of love." Tilla and Toni Katz later saved Pearl and three of her friends who were confined in a doomed area of the camp by returning them at night to a regular barrack. She relates how on another occasion, unable to bear the desperate cries from Block 25, the final station before the gas chambers, Tilla climbed up alone to the window of "the Dead Block, for those who were deathly ill, forced it open, and distributed water and food. She did all this under the noses of the SS sentries. Angels are invisible." When Tzila heard this, she proudly admitted that her student had surpassed her.

As Tilla knew German and French, she became a secretary in the infirmary offices. After working there in the mornings, she would slip out whenever possible to help others. At night, while others collapsed on their bunks in exhaustion, she made frequent dangerous forays back and forth from one barracks to another, bringing medication to the sick who feared to go to the infirmary, water to the fevered, very often handing over her own precious bread ration or cup of water, apologizing that she could not do more to help. Being outdoors was forbidden, and she could have been shot at any time.

In her book Rays of Light, Pesa Sheroshewski describes her first glimpse of Tilla in the infirmary as she distributed barley broth to a shrieking bunch of sick women - her calm smiling presence restoring order immediately - and how she comforted each agitated individual. After they had a short conversation, Pesa, finally uplifted in spirit, confided in Tilla that strangely, though they had just met, she felt very close to her.

Tilla lost her job as secretary after a Polish collaborator reported her actions to the Nazis. Soon she was posted as a nurse in the infirmary, where she was the lifeline for many. Both she and Tzila Orlean devised daring strategies to save their patients from the gas chambers. Mrs. Sheroshewski tells how Tilla tampered with the list of those designated for death after a Nazi selection. She stole ten index cards in one night, saving the lives of ten women. Making light of the risk she had taken, Tilla said, "Even if I were to die for that, I'd be happy. Better to die with merit than live as a traitor."

The two women were so widely respected that they did not hesitate to confront the SS doctors and plead for the lives of sick patients. Once Tilla even approached Mengele himself, believing her parents might be part of an incoming transport, but they were not located. Tzila told how Tilla concealed frail sick women at those perilous times when a selection was imminent. She concealed one in her bed, one under her bed, dragging others off temporarily to safer places. She even draped a white apron around one sick girl so she would look like a nurse. However, when she was asked to draw up a list of the sick for a forthcoming selection, she decided to quit nursing and join the regular work detail. She would not collaborate in the murder of her fellow Jews.

A letter that reached her sister Ziporah (eight years her junior) at Bergen-Belsen shows Tilla's strong ethical stance in an environment where people over 40 rarely survived. Painstakingly written on scraps of paper, it was pieced together and read aloud in the camp: "Dear Feigush, Remember our background. Behave in a proper Jewish way. Help older people. Make sure you help one another. Strengthen yourself as a human being!" The message had a dramatic impact on the bystanders and reduced many to tears.

After her release from Birkenau, Tilla immigrated to Israel in 1947. She stayed with Tzila Orlean in Jerusalem, where she was employed at the Weingarten orphanage for girls. She married Rabbi Avraham Yogel, the son of Rabbi Shabtai Yogel, head of the yeshiva of Slonim, who had come to Israel before World War II. The couple lived in Ramat Gan with their two children, son Gershon and daughter Yonah. There Tilla devoted the rest of her life to good deeds (hesed), helping the poor, the lonely, and the handicapped. Although she never spoke about her remarkable activities in Auschwitz, a number of grateful women she had saved from death named their children Tilla in her honor.

It was only after her death at 62 from a difficult illness that Tilla's family and friends spoke out in praise and documented her deeds. They noted her distress when her strength gave out and she had to curtail her activities. When her sister, Ziporah Feldman, visited Tilla in the hospital during her final days, she was not surprised to be sent around to the beds of various patients to assist them. Tilla also refused to have her ask a nurse for a pain-killer because "they work so hard and are eating now."

"She outdid us all," was the tribute of Rebbetzin Sorotzkin (the former Tzila Orlean), who praised her friend's piety and amazing acts as the "White Angel of Auschwitz" and thereafter. Rivka Horowitz Pinkusewitz spoke of "her fear of Heaven her modesty, her self-denial." All agreed that this pure soul had dedicated her life to eternal Jewish values and tried her utmost to make the world a better and happier place.