Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Cheshvan 5764 - November 19, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Documenting the Stories of Holocaust Heroes

by S. Fried

The 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night that marked the outbreak of violence against the Jews of Europe, was last week. Many are at work documenting the horrors and bestiality of those times. Not enough are paying attention to the heroism that was expressed in small acts that were private, known only to those who performed them and to Hashem. The Center for the Documentation of Holocaust Survivors in Bnei Brak is working on that.

"When we fled the shtetl my mother and I arrived in a village of goyim, carrying false documents.

"One day I was walking down the street when a sheigetz came up to me and called out, `You're a Jew.' Instantly into my head flickered a memory of an argument I had had with my chavrusa when I was 13, back when we could still sit and learn Torah in peace. My chavrusa maintained it was forbidden for a Jew to deny he is a Jew even if he is endangered because of it, and I argued with him. Now, when this sheigitz identified me as a Jew, I decided my chavrusa was right. Instead of calling him a liar I showed him the false papers and said, `See for yourself.'

"This started a commotion. Other boys gathered around and all of them surrounded me shouting, `You're a Jew,' and then the Ukrainian police arrived. `What happened?' they asked.

"`We caught a Jew,' said the boys. Again I showed them the papers. They took me to the Gestapo. At the Gestapo the German officer asked me, `Are you a Jew?' and again I did not deny it. I just took out the papers again and said, `Read what it says here.' The officer looked. He must not have believed it, but he released me . . . "

"Do you understand what's going on here?" asked Rav S., who has interviewed a number of Holocaust survivors. "A young boy whose life was in danger faces a band of goyim threatening to take serious measures against him, and he is unwilling to do anything against halocho. Isn't it fabulous? Unbelievable!"

The Chareidi Perspective

These type of stories give Rav S. the inspiration to interview Holocaust survivors again and again. Rav S. is one of the few men who have volunteered for the task of documenting the memories of survivors who still remember and are still able to tell their stories. There are not very many of them left and their numbers grow smaller with each passing day. "You can make an appointment with someone and by the time the date arrives there's nobody to interview," he says.

From a technical standpoint the task of documentation is easier than ever: everything is videotaped and transferred directly onto a disk without having to edit, translate or write. But to listen to the accounts is a much harder task.

The Center for the Documentation of Holocaust Survivors in Bnei Brak is the only organization of its kind that employs chareidi interviewers who extract memories of mesirus nefesh, kiddush Hashem, emunoh and bitochon from the survivors.

"We do not seek out descriptions of the atrocities," says project director Mrs. Channah Shtub. "Of course they cannot be disregarded and if an interviewee describes them we won't interrupt, but the main objective is to get a message for the future, to learn from them, to do what all of the secular organizations that preserve the memory of the Holocaust do not do: to encourage the interviewee to recount vibrant Jewish life in the shtetl before the Holocaust, and retaining Judaism and tzelem Elokim during the Churban."

Twelve million Jews lived in Europe before the Holocaust. For the sake of comparison, today there are about six million people living in the State of Israel. The dimensions of the atrocity committed are hard to envision. Never in history was there a planned annihilation like this, a mass uprooting like this, both from the Jewish way of life and from life itself. Only the individual stories of survivors from Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany, etc. can open a crack of understanding.

For many years they remained silent. Perhaps it was the urge to survive, to return to normal life, as if the Holocaust had been an insignificant chapter in their lives. Perhaps there was an unjustified sense of shame due to all the chatter about going like sheep to the slaughter. Perhaps there was a desire to protect the children from growing up with nightmares.

Now the wounds are being opened and the scabs prove to have never really existed. Now that the children have all grown up healthy and sound of mind, now that there are already grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the survivors feel their mission is complete and they can permit themselves to remove the everything's-just-fine masks from their faces and return to the past. They, too, were children once and their childhood was stolen from them with unsurpassed cruelty.

A Story

"We lived in Serbia," she begins, and only the deep breath she takes before beginning her story releases the tension that seizes her. "A small house with my two parents, three children and my grandmother on my father's side. A regular house in which the boys studied in cheder and the girls studied at home. Grandfather was a grain-dealer and Father worked with him." She recalls the preparations for Pesach and the various holidays. Life was entirely normal in a town where the Jews had a clear majority.

Then the war broke out. Father was taken away to work far away. One day it was announced everyone had to report to the town playground the next morning with basic necessities in hand. "Mother baked and cried," she recalls clearly. "Packed and cried. Without Father she felt lost and the future did not bode well. She baked bread and pitas and packed everything into a knapsack. She put salt and soap and other items of this sort in the knapsack, because it was important to maintain good hygiene."

Thus they set out on the journey. "Strange. There are things I remember so clearly. I can't remember what my mother's face looked like, but I remember the terrible rain that poured down that night. In the forest everyone called out to everyone else, parents searched for their children. By morning we already had nothing to eat. The rain got the bread soggy and everything got mixed together, the pitas, the salt, the soap."

An older woman, but certainly not elderly. It was clear she had worked on her appearance so her grandchildren would see her on the disk looking her best. She speaks in a torrent of words, answering the handful of questions posed by the interviewer who gently steers the conversation. From time to time she takes another deep breath, blinking her eyelids and pulling at her lips, then continues talking.

They met up with her father later, along the way. In their wanderings they happened to arrive at the town where he had been put to work. And then Grandma passed away and Father buried her in the shrouds she had made for herself and had carried without her throughout the journey. "She got a Jewish burial and Father sat shiva for her."

Father got killed and was seen no more. The weeping children were forced to keep running. When Mother realized what had happened she said without a pause, "Without Father life is not worth living," and thus they crossed the border into the Ukraine.

How the Project Started

Perhaps these are well-known stories, but not from firsthand accounts. Many of the children of those telling the stories have never heard them from their parents. "The first time I became aware of what my father went through was when I heard the recorded testimony. I cried and cried. Until then Abba had never told us a thing."

The next generation sometime feels the loss only after it is too late. Suddenly they realize they have no past, that they do not know how to tell their children who their grandparents were, where they grew up, how they came to Eretz Yisroel, what they went through, who their parents' parents were. Nothing. A blank slate. As if history began with the subsequent generation.

M. owes the painful glance into his father's past to the volunteer interviewers at the Center for Holocaust Documentation, and she was the one who brought the center's existence to our attention. It has been in operation for a few years and the staff regrets not having begun the center earlier, for every day the list of Holocaust survivors shrinks.

The center is part of Yad Zahava, a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust Hy'd. The project was initiated by Meir Shilo to honor the memory of his mother, Zahava Schwartz o"h. A Holocaust survivor, Zahava Schwartz took her children on a "roots journey" long before such trips become common and organized after the Iron Curtain was opened. After the journey, her children asked her to continue disseminating the memory of the Holocaust to keep it from being forgotten and to ensure that it could not be denied.

During the last years of her life Mrs. Schwartz worked on an information campaign and even escorted groups to Europe to witness the sites where the killing took place. When she passed away unexpectedly, her son Meir promised himself he would continue her work. He set up Yad Zahava, opening various branches around the country to start testimony centers.

The tie between Yad Zahava and Bnei Brak was formed by Mrs. Shtub, whose parents' relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. She too embarked on a roots journey and came back stunned. Upon seeing the dozens of cities and towns that were physical and spiritual centers for the masses of Beis Yisroel and that today are nothing more than road signs, she realized the true dimensions of the Holocaust. No remembrance of the yeshivas brimming with talmidei chachomim or the courts of the admorim.

As she beheld the extermination camps and the ground beneath them drenched with Jewish blood, she began to take in the meaning of the tragedy. "Before my eyes I keep seeing the wall of the Ninth Fort outside Slobodka where Jews etched with their fingernails the words, "Yidden, gedenkt" ("Jews, remember")!

With the goal of setting up an institution to record testimonials that would immortalize the spiritual heroism and the acts of kiddush Hashem by Jews who did not lose their Jewish image and their human image during the Holocaust, she began to recruit volunteer workers.

Channah Nauman, one of the activists, relates how she was convinced to join the project. "I hesitated to make a commitment when the idea was first suggested to me. At the time my father z"l was in the hospital. One day I asked the head of the ward, `If all 70 of the patients hospitalized there were Holocaust survivors, how many of them could recount their memories?'

"`About five,' answered the professor. That's when I understood the need to hurry, not to miss a single day, or else it would be too late."

Mrs. Zahava Klein, who runs the studio, arrived following an interview with her parents that convinced her of the urgency of documenting the survivors' stories.

Some of the elderly Holocaust survivors are under nursing care and their numbers are dropping quickly (and the Finance Ministry wants to reduce their allowances, by the way). As the sand in the hourglass runs out on the survivors, just as the organizations involved in demanding compensation and remuneration have picked up their step, organizations involved in gathering their testimonials are also hard at work.

A few years ago the Spielberg Foundation was set up to pay for the documentation of 50,000 testimonials. Afterwards Yad Vashem continued and is still continuing the Witness Pages project, at first in writing and now in sound recordings and on film.

The chareidi public, on the other hand, has very few organizations involved in gathering the unique testimonials of observant Jews who did not change their beliefs or their way of life even during those dark days. Ginzach Kiddush Hashem promotes a project of this kind in Jerusalem and now it is assisting the testimonial institute in Bnei Brak by providing advice and background material for interviewers.

The film studio was donated by the City of Bnei Brak, which provided the site for free and continues to assist in other ways. The interviewers work on a volunteer basis, but they are very professional in their craft. All of them passed a course that included lectures (by volunteer lecturers) on old age and on understanding the mentality of the elderly, how to get them to open up and background lectures on the Holocaust.

The interview procedure is very orderly. Every interviewer fills out a detailed form and holds a pre-interview meeting with the elderly person in his home.

Locating Holocaust survivors who are willing and able to tell their stories is a task in and of itself. "Often the children contact us," says Mrs. L., who is both an interviewer and a photographer. They say, `My father [or mother] went through the Holocaust. It would be a shame for his experiences to be forgotten. Who knows when his memory will betray him and how much time he has left to tell his story?' Others report to us about neighbors, relatives, etc. And I am a detective, too. I hear a hint during the course of conversation about a Holocaust survivor and I immediately begin to recruit him."

In some cases it is the first time the interviewee has exposed his past. In other cases he has told his story over and over again, but the children want everything to be properly documented in an organized fashion.

The only shortcoming is that the conditions needed to open the testimonials to the public have not yet been created. This requires transcribing, editing, publishing, etc. But those who are interested in using the disk can do so at Ginzach Kiddush Hashem, or other places, assuming the interviewee did not restrict the use of the disk to his family members alone or to be used only after he passes away.

They Set Up Good Families

"They are nice people," says Rav S. "Most of the people I've met are good people, with fondness for others, with a sense of humor, who know how to enjoy everything, and have a great deal of wisdom. Even if they hold bitterness in their heart, they know how to hide it."

Rav S., who says he never lacked anything, always received help from his large family and whose path in life was smoothed out for him, finds it hard to understand how these people, who underwent such harsh atrocities, who lost everything dear to them in the Holocaust and arrived in Eretz Yisroel with nothing, with nobody to help them manage, "who didn't even have someone to give them a check for their wedding," managed to rehabilitate themselves, to build new lives for themselves, to set up good families.

All of them are happy to report, "Besiyata deShmaya I have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren taking care of me . . . "

Many of them arrive at the interview escorted by family members afraid they will not hold up under the emotional strain, but so far nobody has ever broken down. "Even those who looked feeble and weak at first girded their strength during the interview," he says.

Yated Ne'eman: Do they ever suddenly regret that they came?

Rav S: Generally not. They hesitate before agreeing to the interview, but after the pre-interview meeting they are prepared to sit in front of the camera and sound recording device, and to share their story. And they recount everything that comes up in their memory, while the interviewer guides the conversation to maintain order.

YN: Do they burst into tears when they recall the hardships and torment?

Rav S: Sometimes a tear drips down from the corner of an eye, but there are no outbursts of crying. They have already passed that stage. The interesting thing is that the tears flow when they describe the more distant past, the tranquil childhood before the outbreak of the war that cruelly severed everything. They cry a bit when they recall their parents, aunts and uncles, grandmother. The loss is impossible to forget and they will miss them until their dying day.

First they talk and talk, recalling all sorts of minor events they have never thought about. And after a while they say, "Oy, I forgot to tell you about the blows I received . . ."

Most of these people studied in cheder or yeshiva before the war and didn't return to their studies until well after the war, yet all of them are full of Torah. Torah is their life. All of them know how to learn and the verses and sayings by Chazal fall right out of their mouths. And none of them ever voice thoughts of finding fault in HaKodosh Boruch Hu's ways during the Holocaust.

Let me tell you a nice little story: One of the interviewees, a Chassidic Jew with a long beard and a constant smile at the corners of his mouth, was 14 when he was imprisoned in a work camp. The person in charge of his cell was an assimilated Jew who enjoyed making blasphemous remarks for the prisoners to hear. Meanwhile this 14-year- old liked to goad him, greeting him with "Gut Shabbos" and the like.

One day the young man transgressed camp regulations and the camp commandant, a hulking German, sentenced him to losing his bread ration [for the day]. Being deprived of bread was tantamount to a death sentence for a young man receiving only one portion of bread per day. The assimilated Jew heard about his punishment and tried to provoke him. "This time your Ribono Shel Olom didn't help you," he taunted.

"You wait and you'll see Him bring me the bread right in the palm of my hand," replied the boy with total confidence.

Full of audacity the boy went to the commandant's office and asked for his bread ration. The clerk checked and said he was not entitled to it. Meanwhile the commandant arrived. "What are you doing here? I told you that you won't get any bread today."

Then he stepped into his office, leaving the door open. The commandant was cold from the freezing draft. "Shut the door!" he shouted.

"From the outside or the inside?" the young man asked, feigning innocence. This impudence, which could have cost him his life, amused the commandant. He laughed and laughed until his whole body shook, and gave the boy the bread.

Then he went back to the assimilated Jew and said, "See? The Ribono Shel Olom gave me my bread!"

Here's another story of mesirus nefesh for Torah, a story I tell my kids and grandchildren when they are negligent in their studies:

The young man hiding out in the town of goyim with his mother, with a false identification, and who studied in a yeshiva before the war [mentioned above] felt the lack of a single Hebrew letter in the town. This is what he felt the lack of most acutely.

One day his mother went to the marketplace to buy vegetables. The seller wrapped every vegetable separately in used sheets of paper. When she came home they saw the papers were pages of gemora, in order. The boy descended on the papers as if he had come across great booty and studied them over and over again until he knew them by heart. He kept the papers off to the side, near the fireplace, among the other papers designated for starting fires, to avoid raising suspicions.

One day when they lit the fire they inadvertently used the pages of the gemora. The boy, realizing the mistake, whisked them out of the fire, but a hole had already burned its way through the middle of each page.

He continued to study from these pages, primarily from memory, for a long time.

All of the witnesses, says Rav S., feel their lives were saved miraculously, unlike the millions who were exterminated. Often they describe their rescue with words like "two mal'ochim accompanied me" or "Eliyohu Hanovi came to me in the form of . . . " and they give thanks and make chasdei Hashem widely known.

More Stories

Mrs. L. tells an astounding stories of girls keeping mitzvos through mesirus nefesh. The lady who told her one story was seven years old when the war broke out. She and her family were living in Hungary. Her father was a gabbai tzedokoh and he was afraid the Germans would confiscate the tzedokoh funds. Deep, hidden pockets were sewn into her dress and she was sent alone, a seven- year-old girl, from Hungary to Vienna to pass on the money.

By the time the ghetto was set up she was 11 years old. The Jewish girls were gathered in one place, where non-Jewish women were placed in charge of them. It was Yom Kippur and the girls were fasting in any case, because there was nothing to eat. Hungry and weak, suddenly on Yom Kippur the overseer brought tomatoes. She remembers they were small and green, but to their eyes it was food fit for a king.

At first the girls could not resist the temptation. Then the first one put the tomato in her mouth, rolled it around and around in her cheeks fighting with herself, and then took it out of her mouth again. She was unable to eat during the fast. She gave the tomato to her friend, who rolled it around in her mouth and then took it out. The other girls followed suit. The last girl returned the tomato, full of saliva and mental anguish, to the overseer.

Is it any wonder that Mrs. L. volunteers to interview such women? During the less busy times of year she interviews or photographs as much as twice a week. And she also does other types of volunteer work.

Mrs. L. notes that the survivors who come to bear witness often forget relatively recent events, but invariably remember exactly when their peaceful world collapsed. They know the day of the week, the date, the time and whether it was a Rosh Chodesh or a Shabbos. Most of the atrocities were perpetrated on Shabbos and holidays. Perhaps this was the terrible tragedy that etched the date into their memories or perhaps they repeated it time after time as a reference point on the calendar.

On Rosh Hashana, for example, everybody recited the tefillos together. Without siddurim or machzorim, each person would recite out loud the part he remembered by heart, and together they would recite the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim.

Most of the survivors are willing to relive the terrible events as part of the battle to keep them from being forgotten. The stories must be told and kept alive in memory for the sake of the kedoshim and to prevent such atrocities from recurring in the future, chas vesholom.

Fifty years after the war, when Holocaust denial began to spread, Mrs. H. decided to speak. She called Yad Vashem and was told a course for Holocaust speakers had opened. She sat there, stirred with emotion, and cried continuously, perhaps for the first time in all those years. There she recalled her father's last wishes: "Promise me you'll do whatever you can to survive. You're the only one in the whole family left alive. You must live and set up a Jewish home."

The interviews over and over again, as well as the appearances in schools and delegations to the death camps, do not become any easier. Every retelling is hard for her, every time she is unable to sleep at night, but she continues for the sake of memory. "Many of the survivors like me have no concrete reminders of the past. No photos, no gravesites. On tours of the towns of Lithuania and Poland it is difficult to find any traces of the vibrant Jewish life that went on there for centuries. Only the stories remain. This is the only memorial. And as long as the Ribono Shel Olom gives me the strength I will continue to tell people."


This fabulous project is sustained through the merit of a handful of busy women who find the time to volunteer for this holy endeavor, and through the support of the City of Bnei Brak and Yad Zahava. (To contact HaMerkaz LeTiud Nitzulei Shoah call 03-6199572.)

"When I get to mechayei hameisim in Shemoneh Esrei," said one survivor, "I think not only about the Resurrection to come, but also about ourselves every day. All those who were with me in the concentration camp on the day of liberation. Were we not among the dead? Dry bones. And through chasdei Shomayim we came back to life, began new lives. Hashem blew a new neshomoh into us. Isn't this true resurrection?"


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