Monday, May 10, 2021

Cinders from the Inferno

Pesach Sheini 1945

The following spine-tingling glimpses of Pesach Sheini in Dachau and Buchenwald capture survivors’ yearning for any concrete symbol of Yiddishkeit in the hours after liberation. 

In a gripping Holocaust memoir, Destined to Survive (ArtScroll, 2001), survivor Israel Cohen recounts the saga of his last few days in Dachau as the SS, fully aware of Germany’s defeat, sought to erase all traces of Nazi atrocities there.

“On Wednesday, April 25, 1945, the SS guards in Kaufering’s watchtowers suddenly disappeared,” the memoir begins, going on to describe how the empty watchtowers triggered a reckless dash for the kitchen, where starving inmates broke down the doors to get food.

Kaufering was a network of eleven sub-camps of Dachau located in Bavaria, Germany—one of 44,000 slave labor camps run by the Nazis. Slave laborers in Kaufering camps were forced to hollow out the sides of mountains and build subterranean facilities for German aircraft production that would be secure from Allied bombs.

At these camps, prisoners slept in unheated earthen huts, which were partially submerged in the soil and covered with earth to disguise them from the air. The larger of Kaufering’s eleven camps each contained several thousand Jewish prisoners. Untold numbers died from disease, starvation, brutal work conditions, random executions and abuse. The victims were instantly replaced with others, a great many of whom died the same way.

Countdown to Liberation

As US armed forces approached the Kaufering complex in late April 1945, the temporary disappearance of the watchtower guards led the starving prisoners to fantasize they were moments away from being liberated. After breaking into the camp kitchen, they feverishly hauled away potatoes, flour, cabbage and pieces of bread. And then the unthinkable happened. The Germans returned, descending on the prisoners with clubs and pistols, screaming and brutally dragging everyone out of the barracks.

“Everyone line up–Roll call!”

The author and his group of friends, young Gerer chasidim, together for six years since their time in the Lodz ghetto and later at Kaufering, agonized over whether to hide or take their chances at roll call. Everyone knew that the Americans were close by, but rumors were flying that SS camp commanders had orders to exterminate all inmates to prevent any eyewitness testimony of Nazi atrocities from reaching the Allies.

“We decided to stay and, one by one, stole into the dysentery block, where only the hopelessly ill lay,” the memoir continues. “We prayed the guards would choose not to enter the contaminated area.”

“Suddenly the air shook with the wailing of sirens. The Allies were bombing the German defenses!”

The prisoners were overjoyed, praying the thunderous explosions would force the Germans to surrender. The exhausted youths eventually fell asleep, dreaming of liberation.

They awoke in the morning to an ominous silence and cautiously stepped outside, immediately noticing a gaping hole in the barbed wire. Had it been torn open by the fleeing Germans?

The group hurried to the other barracks and shared the discovery of the hole in the barbed wire with the frightened inmates. Soon they heard the rumble of an approaching convoy. Germans or Americans? Hearts sank when the dreaded sight of SS uniforms came into view. The Nazis had returned, bringing an entire detachment of prisoners from other camps to help them finish their work of destroying the camp.

 Caught!

“We raced to the nearest block, covered ourselves with straw and rags and lay still, hearts pounding with terror,” the memoir continues. The sudden crunch of shoes on straw made their blood run cold, as some of the non-Jewish inmates who had just been brought into Kaufering discovered them under the straw.

Offering them the potatoes they had grabbed from the kitchen, the Jews pleaded with the new arrivals not to disclose their presence to the Nazis. But at that moment, as SS officer stomped in swinging his club wildly. Smashing and kicking, he drove the prisoners outside where trucks and wagons had assembled.

SS commandos hurled the prisoners into a wagon piled with the sick and dying. By a miracle, Yisroel Cohen and his friend Yossel Carmel managed to roll out of the truck unnoticed and found refuge in a nearby latrine.

“Eventually the wagons with their doomed cargo left, and we crept back into the very block we had occupied earlier,” the memoir continues. “I tore down the light hanging from the ceiling, and we posed as corpses. Every so often the door would open, and an SS man would bark, ‘Everyone out!’ but we lay motionless as the dead.  Darkness fell, motors rumbled, and then there was quiet.”

Setting the Camp Ablaze

The next day, Friday, April 27, 1945, brought unseasonably cold weather and periodic explosions as the area continued to be bombed by approaching Allied forces. The rumble of motorcycles and barking of SS dogs suddenly broke the silence, striking fear into the prisoners’ hearts. The Germans were back.

“Footsteps… and then a sadistic German voice, ‘Swine! You’re waiting for the Americans, aren’t you? Get over here!’”

Sounds of commotion, feet running, shattering of a glass window and then a burst of machine gun fire. Some prisoners who had been hiding near the window had tried to escape and were gunned down.

“Yossel and I had not been detected but were paralyzed with fright,” the author recalled. “We heard the rustling of straw and felt someone tapping all around the straw piles to detect any runways hiding underneath.”

The footsteps moved away. Before relief could set in, acrid smoke fumes began burning the eyes of those in hiding. Frantically ripping aside the straw and rags, Yisroel and Yossel saw their barracks were in flames. They groped toward the door, gagging on smoke. Outside, just a few yards from where they emerged, German officers were overseeing the burning of the camp, their backs to the youths.

The entire camp was one big inferno. Still struggling to catch their breath, the boys threw themselves on the first pile of corpses they saw, surrounded by the heavy tread of Nazi boots, the roar of the flames, and the screams and moaning of the mortally wounded.

Barely conscious, Yisroel felt their end was near and whispered to his friend that they should say vidui. Yossel urged him to hold on. “Remember what you told me when we first came to Auschwitz?” he whispered back. “Afilu im cherev chada munach al tzavorecha…Even if a sharpened sword is braced on your neck, never despair of Hashem’s mercy.”

Redemption

The boys crawled to a nearby pit, shivering with cold and exhaustion. Yisroel was delusional, seeing SS guards with weapons poised everywhere he looked. Yossel calmed him, insisting there was no one in sight. They lay in the pit for what felt like a long time, listening to the bombs whistling overhead, followed by enormous explosions “that pumped new hope into our hearts. “

“Slowly, we crept out of the pit and made our way to the only building still standing – the camp kitchen,” the author relates. “There we found a few more frightened souls. Together we discovered a sack of flour, mixed it with water, started the ovens and baked flat breads.”

Someone noted the Hebrew date, the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Sheini. How miraculous that walking skeletons barely clinging to life had the strength to bake matzoh on such a day! What was this if not a symbol that their own redemption was around the corner?

“Suddenly, the door flew open and a Jewish inmate came running in, crying out: “Yidden!  The Americans are here! We’re free!”

“We wanted to cry, sing, dance…but our petrified hearts kept us rooted to the spot,” the author recalls. When he finally composed himself and ventured outside, Yisroel saw a long convoy of tanks and jeeps roaring through the camp.

“A handful of American soldiers approached the barracks,” he reminisced. “One of them, an officer, looked around him, tears streaming down his face. Only then, seeing this place through his eyes, did I fully grasp the extent of the horror.  The barracks were nearly completely incinerated. In front of each block lay a pile of blackened, smoldering skeletons.

The haunted survivors knew that nothing but a heartbeat separated them from the unfortunate souls who had not lived to be freed.

“Along with the American soldiers, we wept.”

A Chaplain at Buchenwald

In 1945, after taking part in the Battle of the Bulge, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces, continued eastward with his regiment on the German Autobahn. German cities were being flattened as Germany cowered in defeat, but the Nazi leadership had not yet surrendered.

The Americans arrived in Weimar towards the beginning of April 1945. There, Rabbi Schacter later wrote, “a friendly colonel approached me and said, ‘You know, this may be of interest to you: we just got word that our troops penetrated a place called Buchenwald. It is some kind of–I think–a concentration camp. We don’t know what went on there—or is happening there now.’”

As Rabbi Schacter made his way into Buchenwald in his jeep, the sights that greeted him made his blood freeze. Shocked and sickened by the machinery of mass-murder, the mountains of corpses, the evidence of systematic torture, starvation and depravity, Rabbi Schacter and his fellow chaplains conveyed the state of affairs to their superiors and to the public.

Their reports and articles informed the world about concentration camp survivors in Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Austria and Germany, humanizing them and spurring relief organizations into action. They indirectly influenced U.S. policy in terms of financial aid and the eventual loosening of restrictive immigration quotas.

As the war ended and the pictures and newsreels of the camps began filtering down to the public, the Jewish world was tormented by grief and feelings of guilt.

“Yet months would pass before a real bridge formed between the Jewish world and survivors,” notes Holocaust historian Esther Farbstein in her two-volume work, Hidden in Thunder. Only in 1946 did leaders of all segments of Jewry visit the DP camps where thousands were still languishing.

 

‘We Never Expected to Taste Matzah Again…’

Rabbi Schacter and his colleagues worked hard to reunite families and did the best they could to tend to survivors’ psychological and spiritual needs, his son Rabbi Jacob Schacter notes.

In an article in Tablet, “The Chaplain and the Survivors,” Rabbi Schacter details other enterprises in which his father took initiative, such as the founding of a kibbutz outside Weimar for young survivors preparing to make aliyah and organizing a transport of Jewish orphans to Switzerland.

One of the children whom Rabbi Schacter personally rescued from the camp was then 7-year-old Yisroel Meir Lau, who grew up to become the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Rabbi Schachter also organized minyonim and religious services for the survivors. In a rare photograph that has endured from this period, a picture taken of the “survivors’ minyan” just days after liberation shows a packed hall with some survivors still in prisoners’ garb.

Some sources say the service took place on Shavuos which fell on May 17 in 1945. Others maintain the service was on Pesach Sheini, the 14th of Iyar, which corresponded that year to April 27. Buchenwald had been liberated on April 11.

In another memoir cited in the Tablet article, Buchenwald survivor Jack Breitkopf described the first religious service he attended after the war, which was held in “a house on the camp which the Nazis had used for motion pictures.”

Breitkopf said that on that night, something wondrous happened. Rabbi Herschel Schacter “distributed matzah to the Jews present . . . We never thought we would taste matzah again.” This memory supports the view that the event took place on Pesach Sheini.

In a description of a Friday night service in the former concentration camp, which may or may not have been the aforementioned occasion, Rabbi Schacter later reminisced:

“I walked into the Kinohalle (Cinema Hall) on Friday evening and there were at least 1000 people packed to the rafters. I stood up on a small platform. I had a little G.I. prayer shawl and started with “Shalom Aleichem…” Slowly but steadily we were singing and praying, welcoming in the Sabbath.”

He went on to describe how after he made Kiddush, scores of people flocked around him asking him if he by chance knew their relatives in America. “I have an uncle in Chicago, do you know someone named…? I have a niece who lives somewhere in a place called Florida…”

The emotional encounter with broken survivors who had lost their families and so yearned for connections continued until late in the evening. The experience was so powerful, Rabbi Schacter revisited those moments for the rest of his life.

A Memorable Lechu Neranenoh

In a memoir by survivor Isaac Leo Kram, who died in March 2013, Rabbi Jacob Schacter found another description of a Friday night service his father had led in Buchenwald, this one outlined in fascinating detail.

“Today in the evening all Jews were invited to a festive prayer in the “Cinema” Hall,” Mr. Kram wrote.  “Because of the blend of so many nationalities in Buchenwald, the Cinema Hall was to serve as a House of Prayer for the Jewish inmates from 6:00 to 7:00, and from 7:00 and on, the Communist gathering was scheduled to take place.

“I was therefore not surprised when I entered the Cinema to see on one end, a Star of David on a silk paroches and on the other end, red Soviet-style flags, small green trees, flowers and a large picture of Stalin. Yes, this was Buchenwald, every nation in its own corner…” the memoir continues with irony.

Survivor Leo Kram describes Rabbi Schacter as “a middle-aged man, with an intelligent face, a rabbi in the American style. But he was full of sweetness, with a Jewish sensitivity like one of the East European Jews (indeed, his father was from Galicia).”

“He speaks Yiddish well and also a clear Hebrew with a Sephardic accent. We begin to daven maariv, all the assembled singing Lechu Neranenoh in the American style. A Jewish American soldier helps the rabbi with his singing. Present at the prayer service was also the Jewish officer, Rosenberg, who is part of the American command.”

The memoir recaps the surprise visit, in the middle of the service, of the American Camp Commander, introduced by Rabbi Schacter as one of the chaidei umos haolam. All those present stood and welcomed the guest with applause.

The commander addressed the survivors with compassionate words which Rabbi Schacter translated into Yiddish. “You are the remnants of the Jewish nation, the children of that nation that, in these few years, suffered more than any other nation throughout history,” the commander told the assembled.

“You, who merited to remain alive and see with your own eyes the end of your tormentors, must strengthen your faith and trust in your G-d that He will comfort you and help you establish a new life in a new world, in which no nation shall be persecuted because of its race and its faith…”

Tears flowed from many present as the commander spoke…Such beautiful words. Such moving scenarios. If only they would come pass.

‘Don’t Abandon Your Faith…’

After the davening, Kram recounts in his memoir, the rabbi delivered a short speech in which he emphasized the closeness of American Jewry to its brothers suffering in Europe.

“To their regret, they until now have had little power to help you in a practical way but please be patient; Jewish aid organizations will soon arrive and take care of your needs,” he promised.

The rabbi begged survivors not to abandon Yiddishkeit because of their terrible suffering. He said that in America, Israel and other parts of the world there is still a strong Jewry which is ready to embrace them all.

“Do not despair and abandon your people and your faith,” he exhorted them. “Your personal salvation is testimony to the fact that no one in the world can destroy our people. For thousands of years they pursue us, in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and, nevertheless, we are alive! Believe in the eternity of our people!”

The rabbi finished with the verse, “Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker,” Kram reminisced in his memoir. “Place your hope in the eternity of the Jewish people and it will never be denied.”

*****

Dachau: They Expected to Find A Training Facility

When the American troops of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division rolled into the German town of Dachau in the waning days of World War II, they expected to find an abandoned training facility for Hitler’s SS forces, or maybe a POW camp as military briefings had led them to believe.

What these battle-hardened soldiers discovered instead so shocked and sickened them, they couldn’t process it.  The unbearable stench of stacks of emaciated corpses piled up in room after room, dozens of train cars filled with decomposing bodies, ghastly instruments of torture and murder, and thousands of barely alive, hollow-eyed survivors testified to unfathomable Nazi sadism and depravity.

Some U.S. troops reacted with rage, shooting SS men on sight. Others turned over captive SS and Nazi guards to the inmates, who lost no time in dispensing justice with fists, shovels and sticks. Dachau Commandant Heinrich Wicker was killed this way, as were about 50 other SS officers and guards.

[In the Dachau Camp Trials which were part of the 1946 Nuremburg War Crimes Trial, 40 Dachau officials were tried; 36 were sentenced to death. Of these, 23 were hanged at the end of May 1946, including the former commandant Martin Gottfried Weiss and the camp doctor Claus Schilling.]

Concentration Camp “Blueprint”

Dachau was the Nazis’ first and longest-operating concentration camp, beginning operation in 1933. It served as the model and blueprint for tens of thousands of camps where sadistic and barbaric methods of torture and murder were honed to perfection.

These methods were largely the brainchild of SS officer Theodor Eike, who instituted a “doctrine of dehumanization” based on slave labor, corporal punishment, flogging, starvation, and public executions of anyone who tried to escape.

The prisoners in Dachau’s main camp labored under brutal conditions tearing down a massive WWI-era munitions factory and then constructing the barracks and offices that would serve as the chief training ground for the SS.

The prisoners even built their own concentration camp within the Dachau complex, composed of 32 squalid barracks surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch and seven guard towers. Prisoners were subjected to medical experiments, including injections of malaria and tuberculosis, and the untold thousands that died from hard labor or torture were routinely burned in the on-site crematorium.

“Almost none of the soldiers, from generals down to privates, had any concept of what a concentration camp really was, the kind of condition people would be in when they got there, and the level of slavery and oppression and atrocities that the Nazis had perpetrated,” wrote Prof. John McManus of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, author of Hell Before Their Very Eyes: April 1945.

The liberation of Dachau by American troops on April 26, 1945, wasn’t the first such deliverance by Allied forces. The Soviets had liberated the few remaining survivors of Auschwitz and other death camps months earlier. “But the wrenching images and first-hand testimonies recorded by Dachau’s shocked liberators,” wrote McManus, “brought the horrors of the Holocaust home to America.”

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