Part 1 of this article recounted extraordinary incidents of Kiddush Hashem from the life stories of Holocaust survivors Rabbi Sholom Dovid and Nadja Horowitz, adapted from a newly released book, “Eich Lo Yodati?” (How Could I Not Have Known?), with the gracious permission of the author, Mrs. Chana Rotenberg.
Mrs. Rotenberg embarked on a journey of discovery to Poland after learning of her parents’ Holocaust experiences through their testimonials for the Beit Hatefutzot museum in Tel Aviv, an affiliate of Yad Vashem. She retraced her parents’ wartime odysseys in the ghettos and death camps, revisiting their separate ordeals in the bowels of hell.
Her book chronicles her parents’ acts of faith, courage and endurance amidst terrible suffering, including a series of riveting episodes in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during the Yomim Noraim of 1944, heard from Rabbi Sholom Dovid Horowitz.
The book also captures inspiring vignettes of mesiras nefesh from the survival saga of her mother, Rebetzin Nadja Horowitz, who was imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Hamburg slave labor camp and finally Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated.
‘You Could Die From Fasting and We Swore To Live!’
With the crematoria behind their barracks spewing black smoke, and death and terror decimating the ranks of the Jewish prisoners, 18-year old Sholom Dovid and Nissan Leiser bartered a blanket for an animal horn a few weeks before Rosh Hashana, 1944. Sholom Dovid sacrificed nights of sleep to painstakingly hollow out the horn and on Rosh Hashana, the boys stole behind their barracks, hearts palpitating, as Nissan blew tekios.
Soon it was Yom Kippur. “Six men were crammed into one freezing-cold, wooden bunk, without a blanket or mattress,” relates Rotenberg. “Papa had been in that hell for five years, suffering the ravages of hunger, abuse and humiliation…death before his eyes every day. Smoke filled the sky, his parents were gone, the cries of little children echoed…”
The anguished protests of a friend who had tried to dissuade him from fasting had haunted him all day. “You have to eat to stay alive, Sholom Dovid. You could die from fasting and we swore to live! Look up, can you see the heavens? The smoke from the crematoria is all you see! Can you find someone up there who cares about your Yom Kippur fast? Find him for me! Find him for me, here in Auschwitz!”
Sholom Dovid had no strength to argue. All he knew was that from the deepest place inside him, his soul cried out for a Yom Kippur and he was going to fast. He spent twelve hours at crushing labor without a morsel of food or a sip of water before staggering back to the barracks. With his last ounce of strength, he drew out the thin piece of stale bread he had saved for after Yom Kippur. Making a brocha, he broke his fast, relief and gratitude washing over him for having withstood an excruciating test of faith.
A few days later, a boy they called Gesundheit approached him with a request. “Come and see what I built,” he murmured. “Tell me if it qualifies as a kosher sukkah?” Sholom Dovid looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. Quietly, his friend led him to a spot behind the barracks. There stood a low, ramshackle structure of rough-hewn wood, hardly distinguishable from the pile of wood that had been there all along.
Sholom Dovid walked around it, measuring it with his eyes. “It’s kosher,” he said in amazement. “And I want to be in it on Yom Tov night.”
“On the first night of Yom Tov,” the author relates in “How Could I Not Have Known?” two emaciated young boys stood in front of the sukkah, eager to crouch down and get inside. But they hesitated.
In order to be yotzei the mitzvah of leishev basukkah they needed a kezayis of bread. Only Gesundheit had bread—barely enough to sustain him another day. Sholom Dovid had finished his afternoon ration and would get no more until the morning. Should he ask his friend for a piece…? But how could he? Should he even accept the bread even if it were offered?
The full moon glowed above them as the two friends looked at one another, unspoken thoughts hovering in the air. Then Gesundheit resolutely divided his bread and handed half of it to his incredulous friend. They crept inside the sukkah and in voices choked with tears, whispered the brachos of hamotzi and leisheiv basukkah. Then after a pause, they each made a shehecheyanu.
Like Quarrying Stone
Many, many years later, recounts Rotenberg, a beautiful, lovingly decorated sukkah stood in Yerushalayim, overlooking the Kosel. It belonged to Gesundheit who had survived the war and after many decades, had settled in Israel.
“Come and visit me,” he begged R’ Sholom Dovid who had by then retired and relocated to Bnei Brak. “Come and drink a lechaim with me in my sukkah.”
The survivors reminisced about the time they had sneaked out of the barracks in Auschwitz at night, risking their lives to perform a mitzvah together. We shared a piece of bread that night,” Gesundheit reminded Sholom Dovid. “You made a leishev basukkah with me…I want you to be with me when I thank Hashem… for saving me, for bringing me here and giving me this beautiful sukkah…”
R’ Sholom Dovid reflected on the inner turmoil they had both experienced making a shehechaynu in the depravity of Auschwitz…. “Blessed are You who have given us life and preserved us…and enabled us to reach this time…”
Their hearts wanted to cry out, “To reach this time?! This place?! Where our people are murdered in gas chambers and burned in furnaces, where children scream in agony and terror… a place where there is no pity. Is it even permissible to utter these words? How can they be true?
“I closed my eyes and felt that getting out each word was like quarrying stone,” R’ Sholom Dovid recalled emotionally. “And as I uttered each word, it became true….Yes! Even here, You, Hashem, have done miracle after miracle to preserve me. Even now, in the midst of gehinnom You are still here with us, and I still believe in You. Only because it is Your will are we sitting in a sukkah…”
The two friends reminisced about incredible nissim they had witnessed in the valley of death. Gesundheit had managed to smuggle a treasure into the barracks – a pair of tefillin that one of the Hungarian Jews had brought with him on the death train. By some miracle it had escaped destruction.
Gesundheit dug a secret pit outside the barracks in which he concealed the tefillin. Each morning, he would snatch precious moments from the fleeting interval allowed the prisoners for a drink before a day of backbreaking labor, and don the tefillin.
Sholom Dovid was in on his friend’s dangerous secret. He too would steal over to the pit in the morning, scanning the area for Nazi guards before hurriedly tying the tefillin to his head and arm. The secret spread in whispers from one person to the next, “There’s a pair of tefillin hidden in the yard!” And soon scores of other men were standing on line to lay tefillin for the briefest moment— each time knowing it might be the last time in their lives.
This tightly guarded ritual continued for eight months. Then the war ended and at the brink of death, R’ Sholom Dovid discovered that his sister, Rivkah Horowitz, was alive in a different part of Bergen Belsen. The former Nazi camp in northern Germany had become a massive DP center, where survivors streamed from many parts of Europe in hopes of finding other family members. The sole survivors of their family, brother and sister clung to each other.
Shock of Liberation
Like other survivors, Sholom Dovid and Rivkah first walked about robotically, as if in a dream. Physical illness, the intoxication of freedom, worries about physical health and anxiety over lost family members consumed them.
Throughout the endless roll calls in the camps, standing at rigid attention in the pouring rain, blazing heat or frigid cold, throughout the starvation, slave labor, humiliation, terror and abuse, they had harbored a dream. When the nightmare was over, someone would be waiting to embrace them with comforting arms, and to dry their tears. If they somehow survived, they would witness a new world and understand the purpose of their suffering.
But when liberation came, there was no one to embrace them and no new world. It was the old order that resumed.
“Where is the new world we believed we’d find after the terrible destruction?” cried out Rivkah in letters to Jews in the free world. “Was it for this that Polish Jewry was destroyed and the world sank to its neck in an ocean of blood, so that everything would remain as it was as before? Are these the ikveseh dimeshichah that we so longed for?”
“There was no doubt in my mind that the war would result in all evil being extinguished like smoke…k’ashan tichleh… umalah haaretz deiya es Hashem kamayim hayom mechasim, wrote survivor Rav Yehoshua Moshe Aaronson, the rav of Sanniki, Poland, in his epic Alei Merorot. “After the terrible Holocaust that wiped out the best of our sons and daughters, our intense hope was for the coming of Moshiach. We couldn’t believe anything less was possible.”
“But instead, the survivors were greeted by American, British and Soviet soldiers and faced a world that rejected them,” wrote N. Rothe in Kol Hakasuv Lechaim. “Jews who had emerged from the extermination camps were weltering in barracks while the German murderers lived in comfortable houses; murders and pogroms were carried out with impunity in many places; Jewish refugees wandered from country to country forced to sneak across borders since no country would take them in.” (Farbstein, Hidden In Thunder)
“Even when the body regained its strength, the dreadful scenes, the horrific experiences haunted the person day and night,” wrote Rav Aaronson. “The sheer evil and sadistic cruelty scarred the survivor’s soul which at first was incapable of recovering its sanity and rational thought. But the goel Yisroel has mercy…bringing redemption to the soul little by little.”
A Shidduch at Bergen-Belsen
Sholom Dovid belonged to a tiny group at Bergen Belsen after liberation that was adamant about upholding religious life in the camp. It was this group that made sure there would be a kosher kitchen and minyanim for tefillah betzibbur.
His sister, Rivkah, had been a Beis Yaakov teacher before the war, and now, in the DP camp, she and a few others began to organize religious classes for young girls in Bergen Belsen. There were thousands of these young survivors, most of them ill and alone, cut off from their roots.
One of the students was young Nadja Horowitz from Pabianitz, Poland. She had little formal education before the war but was hungry to learn and to connect with girls who reminded her of her warm chassidishe home. Her sweetness and refined character impressed everyone.
Acting on strong intuition, Rivkah felt she had a perfect match for the girl —her beloved brother, Sholom Dovid. This would have been an ideal shidduch even in better times, she knew. Rivkah’s inspiration proved on target and the Dovid Sholom and Nadja were the first couple to get engaged in Bergen-Belsen.
“Mama and Papa walked around in a cloud of happiness,” writes their daughter, Chana Rotenberg, many decades later. “Their shidduch was a miracle and they knew it.” Nadja, the youngest of eleven children, was the sole survivor of her family. Her large extended family, except for one niece, had all been wiped out.
After the war, as Sholom Dovid and Nadja struggled to rebuild their shattered lives, the memories of the Auschwitz tefillin were sealed behind an invisible barrier, together with devastating memories of the ghettos and death camps. Nadja, too, could never bring herself to speak of her suffering to her children.
For these survivors, who had endured six years of indescribable torture and enslavement, the only way of protecting their children from the horror was to bury their ghastly memories underground, where they would never darken their children’s lives, never destroy their innocence.
Nadja’s courageous deeds as a young girl including performing a taharah alone on an old woman in the Lodz ghetto so that the chevra kaddisha would agree to bury the body; giving away a precious food package to a dying woman in Bergen Belsen, when she, Nadja, was collapsing from hunger herself; and many other shining deeds , remained undisclosed for over thirty years.
Only when Malka Wolfe, the dying woman (long recovered) approached her emotionally in Yerushalayim many years later, overjoyed at having found the girl who saved her life, were the Horowitz children allowed a peek behind the invisible barrier enclosing their parents’ past.
The Dam Bursts
But there came a time when the floodgates were finally released. Decades had passed. R’ Sholom Dovid’s and Nadja’s children, born after the war, had grown up and married and now their oldest grandson was crossing the threshold into manhood. The grandparents had flown from Antwerp to Bnei Brak to attend the bar mitzvah. As he gazed at his grandson who had just started laying tefillin, R’ Sholom Dovid suddenly arose, indicating he wanted to speak.
“I remember when I was eighteen years old,” he began in a trembling voice, as the room fell silent. Haltingly, he related the story of the secret tefillin to his stunned family. It was the first time his children had ever heard him talk about his personal experiences in “the lager” … the first time he had ever reminisced about the tightly shrouded war years. But a dam had broken loose and the words began to spill forth.
“Every morning I would run shnell, shnell to the pit where the tefillin were hidden…” R’ Sholom Dovid’s throat seemed to close as he was swept back to the terrifying atmosphere of Auschwitz, with ferocious shouts of Nazi monsters drowning out the moans of their victims. Once more, he was an anguished young boy fighting despair with the only weapon he had, clinging to his faith with his fingernails.
A shuddering sigh escaped him. “…I could see the chimney of the crematoria from where I stood belching out thick, black smoke. And there I was in wrapped in the forbidden tefillin. I knew my life was over if a Nazi guard chanced to pass by. But I also knew something else… I knew that beyond that thick smoke and the terrible smell, my G-d was there.” R’ Sholom Dovid’s voice broke. “And I would talk to Him. I would say, I know You are here, Hashem. I know it. And for You I’m putting on tefillin. For You I’m risking my life…”
Muffled sobs from his children and grandchildren mingled with his own, as all contemplated the depravity that had crushed so many millions of innocent souls… and wept at the salvation and infinite blessing that no one could have dreamed of in Auschwitz.
Reunion in Switzerland
In a stirring sequel to the tefillin story, R’ Sholom Dovid in his senior years was once in Switzerland on business, preparing to daven shacharis at a minyan near his hotel. An elderly bareheaded man, taking a folded yarmulke from his pocket, asked to daven for the amud as he had yahrzeit that day.
R’ Sholom Dovid listened in astonishment as this stranger led the prayers. This was the tefillah of someone from the old world, the tefillah of someone with deep chasidishe roots.
After davening, R’ Sholom Dovid approached the man, gave him sholom and they began talking. It didn’t take long for them to discover they had been in Auschwitz together, although they did not know each other then. To their astonishment, it emerged that both had belonged to the secret group of men and boys who had risked their lives each day to don the tefillin hidden in the little pit behind the barracks.
Their tears flowed as the memories washed over them. “I often wonder if it was the zechus of those tefillin,” reflected R’ Sholom Dovid, “that I got out of there alive and was later blessed with happiness… a beautiful family all following the path of their ancestors…”
His new friend, whose name was Elie Wiesel (celebrated author and Nobel Peace Prize recipient), slowly nodded. Laying a bashful hand on his yarmulke, he wiped tears away as he said, “There’s no doubt in my case, too, the merit of those tefillin stood by me, to bring me back to my G-d in my old age…”
A Survivor Returns to His Faith
In his late sixties, Holocaust author and survivor Elie Wiesel, who passed away in 2016, wrote about his return to the faith of his ancestors.
When he was fifteen years old, in May 1944, Wiesel and his family were forced from their home in Sighet, Transylvania, and deported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother, Sarah, and younger sister, Zipporah, were murdered by the Nazis.
Elie and his father, Shlomo, endured one camp after another until his father succumbed to dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion just two weeks before their final destination, Buchenwald, was liberated by American troops in April 1945. Elie, who had barely survived a death march, was taken with other child survivors to an orphanage in France.
“I now realize I never lost [my faith], not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those for Shabbat and the holidays. But I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh Hashana, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz,” Wiesel wrote in the New York Times in 1997.
Many years later, in response to questions from a journalist, he elaborated on these comments.
“My father and I would often arise early to pray, and not alone. There would be at least a hundred people with us. We stood in line in the barracks to pray because somebody bought a pair of tefillin for ten portions of bread from a Pole who had managed to sneak them in. We stood there waiting for a turn to put on the tefillin and say the blessing. This meant exposing ourselves to great danger, and forgoing the much needed hot drink before a day of forced labor…”
Wiesel in the interview spoke about his lifelong love of learning Torah. “The moment I came to France, I asked the orphanage for a copy of the Talmud, the same one I had to leave behind at Auschwitz. I wanted to continue studying, and exactly on the same page where I was interrupted,” he recalled of the immediate post-war period. “That passion sustains me to this day…”
Wiesel speaks of his sense of loyalty to those “who were before me,” in explaining his return to religious observance and faith. “It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to break it, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them, and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps.”
Noting in the article that it will soon be Rosh Hashana, Wiesel expresses a surge of emotion over his longtime estrangement from Hashem. “Ribono Shel Olam, it is time for me to return…to make up. It is unbearable to be divorced from You so long!”