Holocaust Memoirs

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, September 23, 2012

Daughter of Telz: Rebbetzin Rivkah Bloch Hacarmi (1925-2012)

Rivkah Bloch grew up in Telz (Telsiai), a historic township and renowned Torah center in north-west Lithuania. In 1939 the Jews of Telz numbered about 2,800, some 28 percent of the population. Rivkah’s paternal grandfather Reb Yosef Leib Bloch, (1849-1930) zt”l, also known as Maharil Bloch, was a distinguished personality and a prominent scholar and educator. Besides his position as town rabbi, he headed the great Yeshivah of Telz that his father-in-law Rav Eliezer Gordon, zt”l had founded. Its student body numbered around 400 students in 1900.
 Rav Bloch resisted the challenge of the secular Haskalah or Enlightenment movement in a positive way, as he understood the need to educate religious youth differently from what had been done in the past. He was the inspiration behind many educational institutions in Telz, including boys’ schools, a girls’ elementary and high school, and separate teachers’ seminaries for men and women. Another innovation of his was the Kollel Rabbanim established in 1921 to train rabbis. His volumes on Jewish law (Shiurei Halacha) and Jewish thought (Shiurei Da’at) were published posthumously.

Rivkah’s father and uncle were outstanding leaders of the Telz community. Her father Rav Zalman-Shmuel Bloch, Hy”d chose to become a rabbinical court judge and mashgiach of the yeshiva after his father’s death. He thus cleared the way for his younger brother, Rav Avraham-Yitzhak Bloch, (1890-1941)Hy”d, to take over as head of the yeshiva in 1930. Although both were murdered by the Nazis, their brother Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch had arrived in America with his brother-in-law, Rav Mordechai Katz, and some students just prior to World War II. They hoped to raise money for the yeshiva and obtain visas to relocate its students. Though their families perished tragically in Europe (except for a daughter of Rav Bloch), starting from small beginnings, they were able to establish the Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, Ohio.

One of eight children, Rivkah Bloch attended the high school that her grandfather had founded. At Yavne, which belonged to the high-level educational network of Agudath Israel, limudei kodesh or sacred subjects were taught in Hebrew alongside a broad curriculum. Since the girls were actively encouraged to talk Hebrew during school breaks, Rivkah acquired a sound knowledge of Hebrew and also learned Lithuanian, German and Russian.

When Lithuania lost its independence in 1940, the Russians disbanded the yeshiva and the religious high schools. The disastrous German invasion followed on June 22, 1941, reaching Telz on June 26, where they wreaked slaughter and destruction. Armed Lithuanians under Nazi command brutally rounded up the Jews, stole their valuables and ejected them from their homes. On July 15, Rivkah’s father, brothers and male relatives were shot to death or buried alive with the other Jewish men in mass graves at Rainiai, four kilometers away. In bidding farewell to three of his daughters, Chasya Hy”d, Naomi and Rivkah, Rav Zalman-Shmuel Bloch urged them to remain true to their heritage as religious women.

Most of the Jewish women and children were liquidated at the Geruliai concentration camp on August 30. Children were buried alive, while babies’ heads were smashed with stones.  (Many of the atrocities are documented at 
http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/telz  According to this source a few Lithuanian farmers extended help to the suffering Jewish women on forced labor details, while others abused them severely and murdered them in some cases.)

In the final months of 1941 the Lithuanians and the Gestapo continued their cruel abusive behavior. Fifteen-year-old Rivkah was transported to the Jewish ghetto in nearby Shavli (Siauliai) late in 1941. Aware that death was imminent if she stayed there, Rivkah escaped together with her cousin Miriam Kleiner. The girls sought refuge in a wooded area where they wandered among farming villages and forests.

Although Miriam was blond and could pass for a gentile, dark-haired Rivkah had a Jewish appearance, so the two parted company where necessary in order to survive. Starting in the final months of 1943, Miriam was sheltered for a year by a good-hearted Lithuanian woman named Emilija Vitkeviciene who had already hid two other Jewish women earlier in the war. Vitkeviciene and her 14-year-old son Kazys Vitkevicius lived on the outskirts of the town of Alsedziai. At some point in 1944, Vitkeviciene agreed to take in Rivkah too, and a third girl named Anela Shneider joined them for a while. When keeping the girls in their home became too dangerous, Kazys dug a pit in the forest which he camouflaged with branches, and that became their new shelter. The brave youth rode out every day on his bicycle to throw them some food. Even when his mother was arrested for seven weeks and interrogated for harboring Jews, Kazys took the risk of helping the girls in their improvised hideout. Fear was their constant companion, especially when they needed to emerge above the surface to. In 1997, mother Emilija and son Kazys were honored for their good deeds by Yad Vashem and named Righteous Among the Nations.

During the final years of the war, Rivkah was often left to face adversity totally alone. Sometimes non-Jews in isolated areas would pity her and shelter her for a few days, but mostly she had to hide in barns, cowsheds and pits and forage for food in garbage heaps. Since Nazi sympathizers were swift to alert the police to her presence, the Gestapo almost caught her many times. Once she burrowed deep into a pile of hay to hide, concealing herself just a fraction deeper than the jabbing and poking of her pursuers who finally abandoned their search. Another time she huddled, trembling behind a bed, while the police searched the house of her host. Their daughter covered for her by sitting on the bed, where she busied herself with some sewing or knitting. On another occasion, when the police came to the front door of a house where Rivkah sheltered, she was unceremoniously pushed out the back door into a snow-covered potato field. Famished, she ate some raw potatoes to still her hunger and spent the night without shelter. Even more traumatic than the torments of hunger and cold was her isolation, the heaviest burden she had to bear. Believing that she was probably the last Jew to survive, she pleaded with the Almighty not to leave her all alone in the world.
 When wartime finally came to an end, Rivkah’s hopes rose. She was ready and eager to approach the Russian liberators and confide in them as they marched proudly through the streets. She was about to tell them that she was a Jewish survivor when she overheard some drunken soldiers bantering gaily among themselves, “How good that Hitler murdered all the Jews, otherwise we would have had to do it!” Silenced by their callousness, Rivkah quickly disappeared into the crowd. Her brief return to Telz in search of family or friends was an equally bitter experience. She rediscovered neighbors of the family who had worked by the Blochs before the war and been well-treated by them. Not only had these gentiles willingly helped to murder the menfolk of her family, but they had taken over the Bloch house as their own.

Although Rivkah’s two surviving siblings in the USA urged her to join them, she was resolved to resume her life in Israel. Her sister, Naomi Bloch Stein, who married Rabbi Pesach Stein zt”l in 1948, and her cousin Chaya Bloch Ausband were the only two Jewish women to survive the war in Ghetto Shavli. Another sister, Shoshana, was brought to America before the war by her chosson, Rav Mordechai Gifterzt”l. However, because Rivkah simply did not wish to live among non-Jews any longer, she joined up with other illegal immigrants who went to Israel via Italy. They landed in the middle of the night on a ricketyMaapilim boat in 1946 near Atlit, and luckily the British authorities did not notice their landing.

Twenty-year-old Rivkah recovered her happy disposition and sense of humor in Israel, putting behind her the years when, in her son’s words, “She lived like a hunted animal.” She immediately found work in Tel Aviv because she knew Hebrew so well and stayed briefly with her elderly grandparents, the Denises of Kharkov. In 1950 she married Akivah Hacarmi, a Ponevezh Yeshivah student who had left Pressburg, Bratislava in December 1939 just after his bar mitzvah. To escape the Shoah, he immigrated alone, was raised by close family and firmly rooted himself in Israel. Rav Hacarmi has served as municipal rabbi of Kiryat Shmuel near Haifa for over 60 years and is still active in his community.
 Though Rebbetzin Rivkah was busy raising her six children, she also devoted her energy to the mitzvahof hospitality. Many survivors and those who had fallen on hard times would enter her apartment dejected but walk out smiling. They were always well fed and given a place to sleep. Her son Rav Yehoshua Hacarmi recalls that she used to care for a mentally deranged man who would yell at and frighten the children. A well-meaning neighbor urged him to tell his mother that it was dangerous to shelter this individual. However, when he did so, she told him gently, “During the Shoah non-Jews took me in. How can I refuse to take in poor Jews?”

Devoted to the furtherance of Torah study, Rivkah freed her husband from all household responsibilities so he could learn or undertake community tasks undisturbed. She also helped him run his kollel, by typing all the letters and doing the accounts, and administered a charity fund that she had founded. The Hacarmis personally bore all the expenses of these enterprises.

At every joyful family occasion her husband would look around at their growing family and gently remind his beaming wife, “You see, Rivkah, you’re not alone anymore.”

Though this righteous woman passed away recently at the age of 87, she left many descendants who are active in furthering the causes of Jewish learning and good deeds.
From: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/potpourri/daughter-of-telz-rebbetzin-rivkah-bloch-hacarmi-1925-2012/2012/05/17/

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Quality of Mercy

What was the moral motivation of gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust? During a recent conference at Yad Vashem, Prof. Wolfgang Bialas of the Hannah Arendt Institute, Dresden, Germany presented some research findings on the mindset of non-Jewish Berliners who sheltered Jews and helped them survive. Apart from “the usual mix of motives,” some common factors distinguish the psychological profile of the rescuers. First of all, they were Independent people who set their own rules and priorities and were not easily influenced by propaganda. In addition, they were righteous, empathic individuals, guided by an innate sense of morality and sound values. They found it a moral imperative to oppose cruel, humiliating treatment and not to reject people in distress. Many didn’t see a choice. Despite the risks, they simply did what they felt they had to do and considered it their duty.
Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania during World War II, shared the traits of these righteous gentiles. He issued thousands of Jews with transit visas to Japan against the direct orders of his superior in Berlin. It is estimated that he saved between six and ten thousand Jewish Polish-Lithuanian refugees. He was aided by his first wife in this frenetic task, while some yeshiva students pitched in with the pen work, and did not flinch from the unfamiliar Japanese script. Rabbi Eli Hecht explains how the students laboriously copied a visa in its entirety, including the name, so that “All 300 Mirrer Yeshiva students were thus named Rabinovitz as far as the visas were concerned. Yet, inexplicably, the Japanese border guards let the visas pass -- a ‘strange conspiracy of goodness’” (www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/kovno-pages).
Sugihara is quoted as saying, “I have decided of my own accord to help these people. If that will result in punishment from my government, then I will have to live with that. I had to go through with my faith and beliefs as a human being.”
Some refugees arrived in Shanghai before the war broke out. A majority had to leave their temporary dwellings in Japan and was confined to the Shanghai ghetto from 1941 until 1947 when most left for other destinations. Though conditions were difficult and crowded, the Jews organized a full spectrum of religious and cultural community activities, and on the whole came through the experience without undue harm.
Working in conjunction with Sugihara was another contemporary hero, the acting Dutch Consul in Kovno or Kaunus, Lithuania. As word spread like wildfire, part-time consul Jan Zwartendijk, director of the Philips’ plants in Lithuania, issued over 1,400 transit visas to Curaçao and Surinam  islands in the Dutch West Indies  during three hectic weeks in the summer of 1940. One visa could cover an entire family. These lifesaving documents declared that no visa was necessary to enter Curaçao, a true statement, but deliberately omitted the standard caveat that entry was contingent upon the permission of the governor of Curaçao. It is estimated that Zwartendijk, the ‘Angel of Curaçao,’ saved at least 2,139 Jewish lives. This nonconformist hero never spoke publicly about his actions.
A second oriental rescuer of European Jews was Dr. Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese Consul General in Vienna. Ho saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Vienna during WWII by issuing them with Chinese visas. He issued the visas for two years after the German Anschluss or annexation of Austria, despite explicit instructions to the contrary. Not every Jew arrived in China, but all desperately needed a visa of some kind, any kind, to leave Austria. Merciful Ho’s perspective on supplying these documents was: “I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be.”
These three rescuers of the Jewish people were all honored posthumously by Yad Vashem. In addition, the Chiune Sugihara Memorial in the town of Yaotsu (his birthplace in Japan) was built by the townsfolk in Sugihara’s honor. However little we knew about these rescuers previously, we were certainly updated on their activities in Shanghai.
During our recent visit to China, when Expo was still on, we spent several days in Shanghai. Our apartment hotel was conveniently situated inside the Chabad complex though a little outside the center. Rabbi Shalom Greenberg and his wife Dina are very accommodating to all guests. Shabbat meals are also available downtown at the Chabad Jewish Center of Pudong and at the restored Sephardic synagogue, Ohel Rachel, distinguished for its elegant architecture. Shanghai is a city of extremes — showing a marked contrast between the older, poorer areas outside the tour bus routes and the elegant high rise buildings downtown and along both river banks. The riverside boulevard known as the Bund is brilliantly lit up at night as packed tour boats ply the waterway.
On Friday morning we explored the former Jewish quarter or Hongkou District (once the Hongkew Ghetto) of Shangai. Lintong Road off Changang road is a poor area of town, still lacking indoor plumbing. A man shampooed his hair in the alley, a woman vigorously brushed her teeth at an outdoor sink beside a kiosk, while another sat knitting on a kerbside stool. Through an open doorway came the smell of fish cooking. An old woman sat at a plain wooden table in the dim interior eating her rice porridge. On Zhonshan Road are tall brick European style buildings. Metal wash lines with laundry are strung across the building facades below the windows, between the lampposts and even attached to the traffic light poles. 
We walked on Haimen Road, the former site of the Refugee Café, now full of Buddhist restaurants and stores peddling incense sticks and other paraphernalia. The Japanese wartime authorities converted the small, crowded area of Houshan Park to a de facto ghetto to restrict the residence and business activities of the stateless Jewish refugees.
A main attraction is the recently renovated Ohel Moshe synagogue on Ward Road in Hongkou. When it was built in 1927 it could accommodate a thousand worshippers. A small museum focusing on the Jewish experience has been set up adjacent to the synagogue. The Beth Aharon synagogue, a splendid edifice on Museum Road near the Bund, was also established in 1927 but destroyed by the authorities in 1985. Its complex included a Talmud Torah and a mikveh. Sir Silas Hardoon, an eccentric though colorful figure who gradually estranged himself from the Jewish community had financed the entire complex. Legend has it that Aharon Hardoon appeared to his son Silas in a dream, ordering him to build this sacred structure and name it after him. Beth Aharon formerly seated 400 and served as an ideal study hall for the Mir Yeshiva in wartime Shanghai.
Our next Shabbat was spent in Guangzhou where we heard another wartime rescue story. After a bracing excursion to the Yellow Mountains, we flew into the large commercial city of Gangzou late Thursday night. Standing in the usual crowd, it was a hassle to find a taxi to the hotel. We finally boarded one with our luggage only to discover that the driver didn’t know English — a common pitfall — and couldn’t read Chinese! Luckily he was resourceful enough to find a policeman who read him our destination with the properly sibilant Chinese intonation. As the annual Canton fair was on, the town was packed with visitors. Chabad on Shabbat was inundated with importers, buyers and business people.
Our friends the Greenfields, formerly of Raanana, live in a compound very close to Chabad and had kindly invited us to eat with them. During the lively conversation our gracious hostess, Adina Greenfield, related the following story of survival. Though not connected to China, it shows the same qualities of mercy and empathy that characterize other rescuers.
‘Every year in the springtime a woman called Ada would appear on our doorstep in Givatayim near Tel Aviv.  Invariably she carried a large bouquet of flowers and would loudly proclaim, “Happy Birthday” with a broad smile on her face.
When I got to the age of reason, and this scene repeated itself year after year, I asked my mom, Sara Goldstein of blessed memory, what this annual visit was all about. Even though my mother always understated her deeds out of modesty, over the years Ada filled in the details for me. The story that follows reflects my mother’s sterling character and her concern for others:
Sara Jozik was born to a religious Jewish family in Lodz, Poland in 1910. She grew into a beautiful young woman with curly hair. Sara went to university to study literature, while working in a garment factory to finance her studies.  At age 22 she married a man called Epstein.
 When the Nazis invaded Poland, Sara was 29 years old. Though she was already married for seven years, the marriage had produced no children. All the doctors that she visited in the hope of finding a solution told her that she was infertile. She supported her husband, his six brothers and her old, sick father-in-law in the difficult conditions of the ghetto by working in a garment factory as a machinist.
In 1943, when Ghetto Lodz was liquidated, Sara was deported, first to Auschwitz, then to Bergen Belsen, where she worked in the munitions factory. At night she would receive a small piece of stale black bread for supper. One night, collapsing on her bunk from fatigue, she still held the piece of bread in her hand. Too overwrought to eat, she dozed off briefly, and when she came back to herself, she realized that her precious piece of bread had disappeared.
On the bunk immediately below her lay Ada in an almost lifeless condition. As Ada was too sick and feeble to work or even to get off her bunk, she was considered a goner.  Her body was all swollen from malnutrition. Clearly, her days were numbered, and all believed that she would soon end up in the crematorium.
 Sara knew that her neighbor below had eaten the bread but told nobody about it and uttered not a word. She had made a decision that she implemented from that night on. Every night she took the trouble to soften her hard slice of black bread by dipping it into some water or into the murky liquid that passed for soup. She would then pretend that she was too fatigued to eat and dangle her arm over the side of the bunk. Sara repeated this action faithfully, sharing her meager rations with Ada.  In this selfless way she sustained the young woman below and gradually restored her to life. Her own belly soon swelled from malnutrition, but she had saved a Jewish life in Israel.
The woman who appeared at our house every year bearing flowers was that young girl — dear Ada, we called her. This special day that she celebrated so regularly was not her actual birthday, but the day when she came back to life and was finally able to get off her bunk. She considered mother her rescuing angel and greatly appreciated and loved her.
The happy ending to this story is that both women survived the Holocaust and subsequently remarried.  Both Sara (Epstein) Goldstein z”l and Ada z”l were blessed with children and left descendants — now beautiful large families in Israel — as testimony to the world that the evils perpetrated by the German Nazis and their henchmen could be overcome.’

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.

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)