by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon
As is known to many of our readers, Rabbi Nissen Mangel sheyichye is one of the youngest survivors of the German concentration camps. He was incarcerated in 1944, when he was just ten years old, and was liberated a year later, when he was eleven. Last week at a farbrengen in his shul, he connected the following episode of his life, that took place during the Death March, to the parshah.
As was the case with many prisoners, I was moved from one concentration camp to another. I would like to relate one of the many miracles that happened to me during what has infamously become known as the Death March. It began in mid-January 1945, when around sixty-thousand prisoners, including both Jews and non-Jews, were ordered to leave Auschwitz. We were to be relocated to concentration camps in Germany. I personally ended up in Mauthausen. We marched for sixteen to eighteen hours a day, for days on end.
The conditions were horrendous. We were marching in our worn-out prisoner garbs, with our thin blankets wrapped around us, in a few inches of snow. At night we slept out in the fields on the snow; it was truly a miracle that we did not all perish from hypothermia. The snow actually served as a blessing in disguise; since they didn’t feed us, we would scoop up some snow and use it as water. Sometimes we were lucky and scavenged something to eat from beneath the snow.
Yet, while we were walking five or six abreast, no one talked to another. There was complete silence, aside from the cries and pleas of those who stumbled asking to be spared, and the sound of bullets being shot at those who stumbled or moved out of the line. Each person was in his own world, thinking about his/her possibility of survival and so on.
By the third day, my left foot had become completely numb and I couldn’t feel it at all. It felt like I was dragging dead weight, and I knew I couldn’t continue walking like this.
While I saw hundreds, and in fact thousands, of people being shot as they fell out of the march, sad to say, death no longer scared us. We witnessed it day in day out, in the most horrific manner. So it came to a point that I decided to walk out of line. I was all alone, separated from my family, and I thought that anyways I would not be able to continue walking for so many more days. They would end up shooting me anyways, so why delay the inevitable?
As these thoughts were crossing my mind, a young man of twenty-two suddenly began talking to me. He began encouraging me to continue walking and not give up. I didn’t know him, but he was a messenger from Hashem, like a guardian angel. Interestingly, as we continued talking and speaking about our lives, I realized that he was from the same city as I was, namely, Kosice, Czechoslovakia.
I then confided to him that I couldn’t continue walking, and I said pleadingly: “You are strong. You will survive these wicked people. Please make note of where they shoot me and leave my corpse, so in case you meet my family, they will come to take me and I will then merit to be buried in a kever Yisroel.”
“You shouldn’t think like that,” he replied. “You too will survive! I will carry you.”
I looked at him in bewilderment. “How can you possibly carry me for who knows how many more days,” I asked, “in this freezing weather and these indescribably horrendous conditions? Do you realize for how much longer we need to march on?”
“I can’t actually carry you,” he replied, “but you can place your arms over my shoulder and I will support your weak foot.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but since he was so insistent, I agreed to try it out. I stood at his right side and wrapped my two arms around his neck, and he “carried” me like that for the next three days, while I hopped along on my right foot.
How he managed to carry me for so long, I don’t know. He truly and literally saved my life.
We were liberated by the Allied forces eight months later. However, there were many who survived the horrors of death in the various concentration camps and random killings, only to face death in their newly found freedom.
Our bodies were not accustomed to having a lot to eat, and many ate too much and too quickly for their bodies to digest the food properly, resulting in various dangerous ailments. Then a typhus epidemic broke out, and hundreds of people were dying. The Allies made a makeshift hospital, but the sheer number of sick patients was astounding, and they were ill-fitted to deal with everyone. Dealing with the malnutrition of the survivors was difficult enough. Now it was compounded by this epidemic!
My friend who had placed his life in danger to save me also came down with typhus. While he was given some medication, I realized that it was mainly to reduce the pain and suffering, but not enough to heal him. The staff was overburdened, and a person with typhus in his condition was not their top priority. They believed he would probably pass away anyway, as he was delirious from his extremely high fever, and was drifting in and out of a state of consciousness.
But I, a young boy of eleven, ran from nurse to nurse and from doctor to doctor, begging and clamoring that they treat him. Seeing how concerned I was, they probably assumed that he was my only surviving relative, and that I desperately need him. Since they were compassionate individuals, they began attending to him and giving him some additional attention, and he indeed had a miraculous recovery.
So while his intention during those horrendous days of the march was definitely to save and help me, and he had no ulterior motive, in the end, his favor and kindness to me ultimately helped and saved himself. When he was in that life-threatening situation, I saved him in return.
[Rabbi Mangel continued:]
We see this idea in this week’s parsha (Parshas Vayigash). Yehudah offered to become Yosef’s slave in order to save Binyomin. He wanted to protect his father from additional pain and suffering. His self-sacrifice was such that he was willing to forgo his share in the World to Come if he wouldn’t protect Binyomin properly. As it turned out, over a thousand years later, he was saved because of this action.
After Shlomo Hamelech passed on, ten tribes broke away from his son Rechavam. They chose to follow Yeravam ben Nevat and anointed him as the new king of Yisroel. Malchus Yehudah (the kingdom of Yehudah) was on the verge of becoming non-existent. The only tribe that remained loyal to Yehudah, thus preserving Malchus Yehudah, was Binyomin. He was paying back his gratitude, even though Binyomin was the closest tribe to Yeravam ben Nevat, who was a descendant of Yosef, Binyomin’s full brother.
So be available and ready to assist another member of your community. You may be (or you definitely are) investing in assisting yourself.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran Mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng in your community. He can be contacted at email@example.com