On the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghettos of the region of southern German-occupied Poland known as Zaglembie, the World Zaglembie Organization and the World Jewish Congress are organizing a week-long pilgrimage of survivors and descendants of survivors from the area to Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Będzin, Sosnowiec, Zawiercie, and other once heavily Jewish towns. The following article is expanded from remarks delivered at Auschwitz on July 29, 2018, by Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, to the participants in the trip.
One of the first things my father taught me to do was to swim. Not just to swim, but also to dive. And it was directly related to the place where we are today.
Seventy-five years ago, on July 29, 1943, my father was in the ghetto of his hometown of Będzin in southern Poland, less than 15 minutes’ drive from the city of Katowice, and some 45 kilometers–around 28 miles–from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Or, more accurately, he was back in the Będzin ghetto. Five weeks earlier, on June 22nd, he had been deported to Auschwitz together with his wife and her daughter. Usually, Jews were transported in windowless cattle cars, but this time the Germans used a passenger car. As the train crossed the Vistula River not far from the camp, my father’s wife and daughter prevailed on him to try to escape. He was an excellent swimmer, and dove out of the train’s window. German soldiers shot at him, and he was hit by three bullets: One grazed his forehead just near his eye, leaving a visible scar; a second entered his arm; and a third was never removed from his leg.
My father recalled losing consciousness, and that the ice-cold water resuscitated him. Somehow, he managed to drag himself out of the river. In the darkness, he saw a dim light emanating from a cottage, a hut really. He knew that knocking on its door was extremely dangerous–the people who lived there might well turn him over to the Gestapo. But he was lucky again. A peasant woman and her son took him in, gave him coffee, bandaged his wound, allowed him to dry his sopping wet clothes, and gave him a cap to hide his wounded head. After the war, my father unsuccessfully tried to find them. He walked through the night back to the ghetto–there was nowhere else for him to go–where he was reunited with his 80-year-old father. Subsequently, he learned that virtually the entire transport, including his wife and her daughter, had been taken directly to the gas chambers upon their arrival at Birkenau. In an oral testimony taken by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Będzin survivor Sigmund Strochlitz recalled my father warning the Jews of the ghetto after his return “that we will all be brought there [to Auschwitz, that is] and to expect the worst.”
Less than six weeks later, during the liquidation of the Będzin ghetto and after his father had died of natural causes in his arms, my father avoided deportation to Auschwitz once more by first hiding in a bunker for several days, and then escaping to the nearby town of Zawiercie. In late August 1943, however, he arrived at Birkenau as part of a transport from Zawiercie.
I knew that shortly thereafter, he spent several days in the notorious Block 11, the so-called Death Block, in Auschwitz 1. On my first visit there in 1995, I saw the page of the Block 11 registry according to which my father, Josef Rosensaft, number 140594, arrived there on Sept. 30, 1943 and left, evidently alive, on Oct. 4. But I never knew the details of how it was that he was not sent from Block 11 to be killed. My father died unexpectedly in 1975 at the age of 64, and this was one aspect of his survival that he never got around to telling me about.
But then, in December of 2013–more than 38 years after my father’s death–a friend of mine in Israel sent me the newly published biography of her cousin, Auschwitz survivor Zeev “Yumek” Londner–the father of our friend Daphna Londner Eldar–who, after Hebraizing his name, had risen to become Colonel (Aluf Mishne) Zeev Liron, one of the highest ranking officers in the Israel Air Force in its formative years. Liron’s father had been one of my father’s close friends in Będzin. I had also known that Liron–Londner–and his brother Moshe (Maniek) had been imprisoned in Block 11 together with my father, both because my father spoke about it and because their names were listed on the registry page alongside his.
As Liron told the story to journalist Moshe Ronen (Reinish) in From the Depths to the Skies (in Hebrew, Tehomot u-shehakim), “Rosensaft did not stop thinking about escaping.” My father told the Londner brothers that he had developed a friendship with a German SS doctor stationed in Katowice who had offered to hide my father and members of his family. Now my father plotted for the three of them to escape from their work detail, hide in a deserted tunnel until the Germans stopped looking for them, and then make their way to the SS doctor’s house in Katowice where they would be able to stay at least for a while.
When their scheme was betrayed to the Germans by a German unterkapo, an assistant to one of the inmates assigned by the camp’s administration to supervise his fellow prisoners, my father and the Londner brothers were taken from Birkenau to Auschwitz where a young German SS officer named Otto Klaus interrogated them.
The punishment for even plotting to escape, Klaus told the three Jews, is death. We are now going to take you to Block 11 and decide whether you will be shot or hanged, he continued. But prisoners are only shot on Mondays, and as today is Thursday, you will spend the next several days in Block 11. The three were put into a small standing cell in the block’s cellar with two other prisoners. Liron recalled that my father quipped with “black humor” that it was a shame they didn’t have a deck of cards to pass the time.
On Monday morning, they heard prisoners being taken from other cells, followed by gunshots. Liron remembered that “Yossele”–my father–bid his friends goodbye, telling them that they might meet again in the next world. But no one came for them. After an hour, Yakov (or Jakub) Kozalczyk, the kapo in charge of Block 11, came to their cell and hugged them. “You’re heroes,” he told them. “Nothing will happen to you, not today.” Later the same day, they walked back to Birkenau, quite probably along the same path we will take later this afternoon.
When Liron met my father again two years later in the displaced-persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany, my father told him that following the liberation, he had looked for and found his SS doctor friend from Katowice who cleared up what had been the mystery of the three young Jews’ survival.
The unterkapo who had betrayed my father and the Londner brothers did not know the name of the man who was going to hide them but he gave Otto Klaus, the young SS officer, an address in Katowice that he had apparently overheard. Intent on exposing and arresting the still anonymous traitor, Klaus rode his motorcycle to the address in question and rang the house bell. When the doctor opened the door, the two stared at one another in disbelief.
More than 25 years earlier, during World War I, the doctor had saved Otto Klaus’ father’s life. The two families had remained friends. Now Klaus had a decision to make, and he made it. Instead of taking the doctor into custody, Klaus returned to Auschwitz and reported that his investigation had not uncovered any scheme to escape, that the unterkapo had lied, that my father and the Londner brothers were therefore innocent of any crime, and that there was no legal basis for executing them.
And so it is that I can tell my grandchildren that their great-grandfather survived Block 11, which made it possible for their grandfather to be born, because a young German SS officer named Otto Klaus had at least one spark of decency, of humaneness, left within him at Auschwitz in the first days of October 1943.
Back in Birkenau, in mid-October 1943, during Sukkot, my father smuggled a tiny apple into the barrack so that the highly respected rabbi of Zawiercie, the Zawiercier Rov, could recite the Kiddush blessing at the end of a clandestine prayer service. Throughout the prayers, my father recalled, the aged Rov stared at the apple, obviously conflicted. At the end of the clandestine service, he picked up the apple and said, in Yiddish, almost to himself, “Un iber dem zol ikh itzt zogn, ‘ve-akhalta ve-savata u-verakhta et Hashem Elohekha …’” And over this, I should now say, “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless your God …” “Kh’vel nisht essen,” I will not eat, he said, “veil ikh vel nisht zat sein,” because I will not be satisfied, “un ikh vill nisht bentchn” and I refuse to bentch, to sanctify God. And with that, the Zawiercier Rov put down the apple and turned away.
The Zawiercier Rov never lost his faith in God. Like the Hasidic master, Levi Itzhak of Berditchev, however, he was profoundly, desperately angry with Him, and this anger caused him to confront God from the innermost depths of his being.
One evening around the same time, my father and a group of Jews from Zawiercie were sitting in their barrack when the Zawiercier Rov suddenly said, again in Yiddish, “Ihr veist—you know—der Rebboine shel-oilem ken zein a ligner,” the Master of the Universe can be a liar. Asked how this could possibly be, the rabbi explained, “If God were to open His window now and look down and see us here, He would immediately look away and say, “Ikh hob dos nisht geton,” I did not do this—and that, the Zawiercier Rov said, would be the lie.
Later that year, my father was transferred from Birkenau to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Łagisza, near Będzin. Sometime in the spring of 1944, he managed to escape from there and was hidden by a Polish friend. His freedom was short-lived. On his way to try to get forged papers to enable him to get to Hungary, he was recaptured by German soldiers looking for someone else. He was first taken back to Łagisza, where he was severely beaten, and then returned to Auschwitz where he spent months in Block 11 being tortured repeatedly–the Germans wanted to know the name of the Pole who had hidden him, something my father stubbornly refused to do, a stubbornness that I am certain saved his life. For the remainder of the war, through several other camps, my father was forced to wear a uniform with a special red circle—the so-called Fluchtpunkt—identifying him as an escapee.
The same kapo, Jakub Kozalczyk, who had hugged my father and the Londner brothers the previous October, once publicly gave my father 250 vicious lashes at the direction and under the supervision of an SS doctor.
One of the inmates of Block 11 in the late spring of 1944 was Jacob Edelstein, who had been the Judenaeltester, the Elder of the Jews, at the Theresienstadt—or Terezin—concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Accused by the Nazis of corrupting lists of inmates for deportation, Edelstein had been dismissed from his position early in 1943, and deported to Auschwitz in December of that year. On June 20, 1944, SS men came to Block 11 and told Edelstein he had been sentenced to death. Edelstein proceeded to shake hands with each of the inmates in his cell, including my father. Told by one of the SS men to hurry up, Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last moments.” Edelstein’s demonstration of pride and defiance left an indelible impression on my father. “This was the expression of our spirit in those days,” he wrote more than a decade later, “a spirit which no power on earth could break.”
In late September 1944–Sept. 26th, to be exact–Kozalczyk wanted my father to conduct the Yom Kippur service. Emaciated, starved, my father chanted Kol Nidre from memory in the Death Block of Auschwitz, and then led the prayers there that evening and the following day for his fellow prisoners. As a reward, Kozalczyk gave my father and the other inmates of Block 11 an extra bowl of soup to break the fast.
It is surreal to imagine Block 11, where we were earlier today, transformed if only for 24 hours into a sanctuary where Jews condemned to die prayed while the gas chambers of nearby Birkenau functioned in full force. I have always wondered whether God Himself was praying alongside my father throughout that Yom Kippur in 1944.
Let us bear in mind that nothing about Auschwitz, nothing about Birkenau, nothing about the Shoah for that matter, was logical or made sense. Our task, our mission, today and always, is not to try to understand, but to remember.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the associate executive vice president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.