Somewhere in northeastern Slovakia sits the village of Kurima; at least, that’s what it’s called. For centuries, Kurima was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before finding itself a part of the newly birthed Czechoslovakia in 1918. At the dawn of World War II, it was in a part of the country sawed off by Hitler to create the puppet state of Slovakia, led by Roman Catholic priest-turned-dictator Jozef Tiso, who happily collaborated with his Nazi overlords. Then, in 1942, its Jews were shipped away and the place that was Kurima disappeared, leaving behind a very different village bearing the same name.
These days, the original Kurima is accessible only via memory.
There was a time when Rabbi Nissen Mangel, 84, knew that place well. His maternal grandparents, the Sterns, were important members of the village’s Jewish community, and each summer of his pre-war youth he’d travel 80 kilometers from his hometown of Kosice, now Slovakia’s second-largest city, and spend a few blissful months there. His grandparents were well-to-do, their yard filled with ducks and chickens, and Mangel and his cousins would play with them in a stream near the house.
Of course, the village synagogue is long gone. Mangel’s ancestors’ graves are, too, destroyed together with much of the Jewish cemetery, the headstones taken by locals to serve as foundations for the new Kurima they were building, the one barren of Jews.
At the end of 2017, Mangel—who as a child survived the Holocaust in six different concentration camps—returned to the country of his birth to speak at the dedication of the new Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center of Slovakia, located in the heart of the capital city of Bratislava. Mangel, a noted New York-based author, editor, teacher and scholar who, among other works, translated the Tehilat Hashem prayer book into English, had been back for brief visits before, to Kosice and Bratislava, the places of his childhood, and to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where that childhood ended. But he travels less frequently these days, and since the purpose of this journey was to highlight the miracle of Jewish rebirth in 21st-century Slovakia, he wanted to find Kurima, the place of his fondest pre-war memories.
There is a tzadik buried in Kurima, Reb Mechele Twerski—a grandson of the legendary Reb Zusha of Anipoli—who passed away in 1856, and for some reason his grave was never destroyed. Mangel’s great-great-grandfather had given Reb Mechele aid and shelter when the great rabbi escaped there from the Russian Empire, ending up over the border in Kurima, and Mangel wanted to take the opportunity to pray at the gravesite.
Rabbi Mangel expected to recognize nothing beyond the great tzadik’s grave. But to his surprise, he found one more thing . . . the stream, right where he had left it.
“He was very happy when he saw it,” says Rabbi Mangel’s grandson, Ari Herson, 21, who accompanied his grandfather on the trip. “The rest of the time he was educating: pointing things out to me, addressing audiences. When he saw the stream was still there and started remembering, it took him back.”
For a brief moment, the survivor, who has spent decades speaking and teaching on general Jewish topics in addition to the Holocaust, caught a glimpse of his childhood—a time, as he put it in an interview earlier this month, before “my youth was snatched away.”
A Building in Bratislava
In 1944, together with his father, mother and elder sister, 11-year-old Nissen Mangel was caught, arrested and deported from Bratislava. He was first sent to the Sereď labor camp near Bratislava, then on to Auschwitz, Birkenau, Mauthausen, Melk and Gunskirchen, from which he was liberated in 1945.
After the war he returned to Czechoslovakia, reuniting with his mother and sister; but the Nazis had done their work. His father had managed to survive Auschwitz, and as the Germans’ retreated was taken further and further into Germany, only to be murdered trying to save a fellow inmate at the moment when he himself had a chance to escape. His paternal grandparents had been taken away in 1941, for they still held Polish citizenship, and were sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where they were executed at Babi Yar. Along with the rest of Kurima’s Jews, his maternal grandparents were deported in 1942, most likely to either the Treblinka, or Maidanek death camps, and dozens more members of his extended family had likewise been murdered.
In 1948, just as Czechoslovakia came under the boot of Soviet domination, Mangel’s mother managed to send her two children abroad, herself remaining stuck behind the newly drawn Iron Curtain until 1951. Smuggled out of the country of his birth, Nissen Mangel didn’t dream of ever seeing Jewish life there again.
Forty-six years later, in 1993, Rabbi Baruch and Chanie Myers arrived in newly independent Slovakia to found the country’s first Chabad center. With the blessings of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—the couple began working to rebuild Jewish life in the country. In addition to his Chabad work, Myers was appointed rabbi of the local Jewish community, a position he continues to hold today.
Slovakia’s Jews are a hardy bunch. Nearly everyone is a child or grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, and when the Myers’ arrived, they were greeted by a Jewish community that had also experienced a half-century of Communist rule. The Myers’ message those first years, says Chanie Myers, was “it’s OK to be Jewish.”
The couple opened a Jewish preschool, then a school, then a Gan Israel summer camp, all in addition to numerous adult-education classes and holiday programs.
“I remember our preschool had a Chanukah performance, and I notice this older woman, a child’s grandmother, in the corner sobbing,” recalls Chanie. “I got worried that something was wrong, and asked her if she was alright. She tells me, ‘When I got out of Auschwitz, I didn’t imagine I’d have Jewish grandchildren, let alone singing Jewish songs openly here in Slovakia!’ ”
After a bit of time, the Myers rented space in the city center to house the Chabad preschool and varied other activities, where they remained for 10 years. About eight years ago, Chabad of Slovakia ran into serious financial trouble, forcing them to eventually evacuate their premises. It was a sad day for the Myers, who had poured all their efforts into creating vibrant Jewish life in their center.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Myers. “I remember standing with one of my children in the empty Chabad House after the movers finished and sobbing, telling her about all the good deeds that had taken place there. My husband and I just couldn’t get over it.”
Still, every Saturday night after Shabbat, Chanie would scour listings for potential new spaces for their Chabad center. There was just one problem: They didn’t have the funds for it.
“I just couldn’t believe this was how the story would end,” she says.
Elijah the Prophet Makes an Appearance
With their preschool now in their own home, and the school and camp staff housed in rented apartments, things were getting desperate for the Myers’. Eventually, Chanie came up with a plan.
The rabbi had always been responsible for raising the necessary funds for them to operate, but now Chanie asked if he was alright with her approaching three potential donors with a pitch that they fund a new building. The rabbi readily, if skeptically, agreed. The first two donors she solicited demurred, but the third yielded results. A string of leads led Chanie to representatives of an anonymous Jewish philanthropist who seemed willing to help.
She developed a strong rapport with the representatives, one of whom soon showed up unannounced in Bratislava to inspect Chabad’s local operation, arriving on the eve of Sukkot. After witnessing the whirlwind of activity bursting out of the Myers’ home, the representative told Myers that they would agree to fund a new building, all of the necessary renovations and top-of-the-line children’s furniture for the preschool. The final donation would amount to 2.6 million Euro.
“This was literally a blessing that fell from heaven,” says Chanie Myers. “G‑d sent us Elijah the Prophet.”
The Myers promptly purchased the former Hotel President at Drevená St. No. 4, a seven-floor structure in the heart of Bratislava. In the last two years, they have renovated it and brought the building up to code. Today, it houses a kindergarten, event space, classrooms, a Hebrew school, tourist accommodations, an industrial kitchen and the Myers’ family home.
As construction and renovation moved along, Chanie would keep the philanthropist, whom she has to this day never met, apprised of the progress via email. Finally, as the finishing touches were being made and a grand opening planned, she wrote him suggesting that maybe they dedicate the building with a name of the philanthropist’s mother, grandmother or another relative, which no one could track back to the anonymous donor.
Myers had over a period of about two years emailed the donor roughly every six weeks, never receiving a response. But this time she did, a simple one liner: “God knows who I am.”
In the Place Where It All Happened
If there’s one person who believes in miracles, it’s Rabbi Nissen Mangel, who in the story of his survival sees the Hand of G‑d at play time after time. When Myers invited Mangel to be guest speaker at the dedication of Chabad’s new building, sharing the tale of its providential provenance, Mangel agreed. While he has slowed his pace of talks in recent years, speaking in Bratislava presented him with a unique opportunity for his own story of Jewish survival, coupled with the post-war story of Jewish rebirth, to meet in the place of their occurrence.
Mangel arrived on Dec. 15 together with his grandson, and for the next week they traveled to the concentration camps where he had spent time: Mauthausen, Melk and Gunskirchen. With the exception of Auschwitz, which he did not visit on this trip but has been back to before, Mangel had not seen the camps since the war.
“He started telling me stories I heard from him my whole life, but suddenly, you’re standing in the place where it all happened,” says Herson. “It was surreal and humbling.”
In one spot, he showed his grandson how many meters he and his fellow inmates had to run naked in the snow. In another, he marked the spot where he witnessed a commandant’s teenage son gun down 15 Jews for target practice, a gift for his 15th birthday. At Melk, a subcamp of Mauthausen high in the Austrian mountains, he pointed out the towering height of the crematoria’s smokestacks, designed that way so that the noxious smells emanating from them would not bother the SS guards manning the death factory.
Feeling a responsibility to witness and recall for himself before speaking at the grand opening, Rabbi Mangel wanted to visit all of the camps before his speech. So on Tuesday morning—the very day of the event—Mangel, his grandson and Rabbi Myers traveled to Sered’, about an hour from Bratislava, where Mangel was interviewed about his experience by a camp historian.
“The goal of this trip was to help perpetuate Jewish life in Slovakia,” says Herson, “and visiting these places was a way for him to tell his story of the war and the years that followed.”
Later that day, Dec. 19, a ribbon was cut, and Mangel spoke in front of a spellbound crowd of 200 politicians, notables, and Jewish community leaders and members. Among others present who addressed the crowd were Slovakia’s minister of culture, Marek Maďarič; Bratislava regional governor Juraj Droba; president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Slovakia Igor Rintel; and president of the Jewish Community of Bratislava Tomas Stern. That evening, the eighth night of Chanukah, a menorah was lit by Rabbi Zeev Stiefel, director of Chabad of Central Slovakia.
With the organized mind of an editor, Mangel works to separate his role as an educator from the emotions such harrowing events naturally summon. When, during his speech, he choked up for a moment, he paused, took a sip of water, composed himself and only then continued to speak.
“I think he feels there is a time and place for raw emotions, but when he’s speaking and educating, that’s not the place,” observes his grandson. “His message is: Yes, this happened and we must know about it, but we also have a mission now and need to look forward.”
‘Miracles, I Saw Miracles’
Nissen Mangel was born on Oct. 31, 1933 (11 Cheshvan 5694) to Eliezer (Leizer) and Faiga (Freida) Mangel in Kosice, then Czechoslovakia. His paternal grandfather had been born in Sanz (historically a Polish city, but at the time in Hungary; today, it is Nowy Sącz, Poland) and moved to Kosice, where Mangel’s father was born. Jewish life in Kosice was a relatively new affair, Jews having been banned from settling there until 1839-40. Once Jews began moving there, their population grew rapidly.
“It was a very frum [religious] city,” explains Mangel. While the community felt the effects of the enlightenment and efforts to modernize Judaism, “we were much closer to Poland, and so it was much more of a Chassidic place. There were Munkatcher Chassidim, Belzer Chassidim. My family was affiliated more with the Stropkover Chassidim, [the Rebbe of whom] came from one of the sons of the Sanzer, the Divrei Chaim [Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, 1793-1876].”
While some of the big synagogues and many of the city’s Jews affiliated with the Neolog movement and a more traditional strain called Status-Quo, Mangel says that nevertheless, the vast majority of these Jews would be categorized as strictly observant today. “The whole standard of Yiddishkeit was on a whole other level.”
Eliezer Mangel was in the textile business, and owned a large store. He was a scholar in his own right and had been a student of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky (1867-1948) at the latter’s famed Galanta Yeshivah. When Dushinsky decided to leave for Palestine in 1930, he asked Mangel’s father to come along with him to help form his new yeshivah in Jerusalem.
“My father was already engaged to my mother, so he did not go, but this was the caliber of my father,” says Mangel.
They prayed at the large Chassidic kloyz adjacent to the big central synagogue, which although Orthodox, was considered a bit more modern. When it came time to go to cheder, Mangel’s father did not send him to the city’s large Talmud Torah but to a small private one run by a learned melamed, with maybe 30 to 40 young students.
“It was more personal, private attention, that’s why my father wanted me to learn in this cheder,” explains Mangel. “The Rebbe [teacher] was so efficient, so capable, he imbued in us yiras shomayim, fear of heaven. When we learned well, he tested us, and if we learned chumash well, or a Rashi, or a piece of Gemara, he would take us . . . he had a big garden with a lot of trees . . . he would hang on the branches of the tree cherries, connected by a stem, and hanging down. [When] we’d learn well, he’d take us to the garden, pick us up by our fiselach [feet] and say, ‘G‑d sends you these cherries because you learned so well.’ This inspired in us such yiras shomayim, awe of heaven, that G‑d is sending us these cherries, that we are in contact with Him. That was the difference between a cheder and a Talmud Torah . . . ”
Mangel is first and foremost a teacher, and so he continues the lesson his melamed taught him more than 70 years ago in Kosice. “It wasn’t even a cherry tree, so was this a deception? No, not at all. G‑d made our Rebbe his emissary to send us these cherries for learning well; it was all true!”
The Kosice he was born in had been in Czechoslovakia, but in 1938, as the world stood by and watched, Hitler annexed Czech Sudetenland, and sliced off the country’s eastern end, where Kosice is located. Hoping to entice them on to the Nazi side in the coming war, he handed it to Hungary. A year later, the Nazi puppet Slovak Republic was established under Tiso’s ostensible rule, and the remainder of Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by Germany. Thus, from 1939 until 1944, the Mangel family lived in Hungary. In a way, this complicated bit of geopolitical maneuvering saved them, at least for a time, for in 1942, Slovakia became the first Axis partner to consent for its Jews to be deported as part of Hitler’s Final Solution—Tiso going so far as to pay Nazi Germany per Jewish head deported. The Holocaust did not come to Hungary until 1944.
Life during those two years continued almost as usual for the little boy; he went to cheder, went to synagogue with his father on Shabbat, and while he knew there was a war on—he watched his father raising money to assist Jewish refugees who had escaped into Hungary—it did not affect him much. Then came the Friday morning in April 1944, when dark uniforms, glinting bayonets and shouting German soldiers suddenly came into his young life. He survived, he attests, due to“miracles; I saw miracles.”
It was early, maybe 7 a.m., when several SS and Gestapo officers entered the Mangel home. Before the Nazis had come into town, his father had prayed in the synagogue every morning, but after their arrival he dared go only on Shabbat, and so was in the midst of his prayers at home when they entered. Mangel was asleep, as was his older sister. Their mother had gone to the market to shop for Shabbat, following the halachic precept that it is worthy to begin Shabbat preparations earlier than usual. Accounting for three of the four Jews living in the home, one officer shouted asking where Frau Mangel was.
“My father told them that she went out to shop,” says Mangel. “So they woke up my sister and yelled, ‘Go fetch your mother!’ I jumped out of bed at the same time and told them I’m going with her. They pushed me down and told me to go back to sleep. I jumped back up again, and they pushed me down, and then I started crying. My father told them, ‘Why don’t you let him go? Can’t you see they’re always together?’ So the Nazi yelled at us to get out of there.”
The two siblings searched for their mother through the entire marketplace, which was teeming with thousands of Jews doing their Shabbat shopping. Just as they prepared to give up, telling each other she had probably headed home already, they saw her emerge from the crowd holding baskets filled with fruits and vegetables, fish and meat. Her surprise at seeing her children turned to fear when they informed her that the Gestapo was in their home with their father, and she urged them to all run home together.
“I told her, ‘What’s the haste? You’re out, we’re out, maybe Tatty [father] will come out?” remembers Mangel. “She said ‘If Tattygoes to Auschwitz, I’m going with him.’”
Eliezer Mangel owned the multi-apartment building in which he and his family lived, and his tenants were all Jews except the property custodian. The custodian’s daughter, named Ivanka, worked at a tavern not far from the Mangel home, and so there they ran, hoping she could go to the house to see what’s going on in their stead. “The tavern was filled with drunkards, and she tells my mother, please let me serve them all and then I’ll go,” he says. “We waited there for half an hour; my mother was on shpilkes [Yiddish for needles.]”
Finally, Ivanka went to check, but at the corner, even before she had the chance to turn onto the Mangel’s street, she sees Eliezer Mangel. While the Gestapo waited for the rest of the family to return, they ordered the senior Mangel to consolidate his heavy, carved wooden furniture into one room. Protesting that he could not do it alone, they permitted him to go out and hire some extra hands to help him, which he had every intention of doing. Then he realized his entire family was out, so why should he return to the waiting Nazis, and that’s when he saw Ivanka on the street corner.
“There were miracles throughout this story. My mother went early to shop for Shabbos. I insisted on going with my sister—why during a time of danger would I go with my slightly older sister and not stay with my father? Then that my father convinced them to let him hire help, and like that we were out,” says Mangel. “But it was all miracles.”
That very day the family headed to a relative’s home in the suburbs, where roundups had not yet taken place, and soon thereafter, they escaped over the border into the Slovak Republic, taking cover in Bratislava until they were caught.
Mangel says that in returning to these places, he feels an obligation to recite the Kaddishprayer on behalf of the millions of souls who perished there, but at the same time to pronounce: “Blessed are You, G‑d, our Lord, King of the universe, who wrought a miracle for me in this place,” a blessing made not only on his own behalf, but on that of his children and descendants.
But it is the renewal of Jewish life in Slovakia that moves him most—the work that the Myers have done to bring Judaism to a place where he had seen it almost entirely eradicated.
“When I was incarcerated in Auschwitz as a boy, I did not think I would ever leave there—if not through the chimney,” Mangel told the audience at the ribbon cutting. “I did not I think that I would one day return to the country of my birth, and I certainly never dreamed that in the city of Bratislava I would find an active Jewish community. That I would be in Bratislava speaking to a room full of people at the dedication of a new Chabad center, for that I can only say: Hodu LeHashem ki tov ki le’olam chasdo—‘Offer praise to the L‑rd for He is good.’ ”
Back in New York, the rabbi adds:
“The world builds museums, edifices to memorialize the Holocaust. These are very important and can be very inspiring, and I don’t want to take away at all from that work. But they are still dead edifices. The Rebbe wanted to build human edifices and not just focus on the past, on what Hitler did, but on the future, to build living museums, living edifices, filled with active Jewish life.”