Yom HaShoah is over, but part of being a Jew is feeling that the Shoah is never over. It dogs our steps, reminds us constantly of the depths to which humans can sink in their treatment of other humans, and nowadays is alternately denied and celebrated by the Arabs, Iran, and educated Westerners whose heads are—well, never mind. While it’s easy to get mired down in the horror of the event, at times it can teach us valuable lessons about the human spirit, and about how we should seek to live our lives.
On Monday night, at the end of Yom HaShoah, I got a sitter for the kids and went out to hear testimony from a 90-year-old survivor of the Shoah. Mendel Flaster was 19 when the war broke out in 1939, and his story of surviving 14 concentration camps was riveting. Although he has given the Spielberg Foundation 12 hours worth of his story (available through Yad VaShem) and we only got about 50 minutes, some very clear themes came out of what he chose for his brief capsule that evening.
One theme was that of self-care. I heard a survivor say once that everything in the camps was engineered for death. There was little or nothing there to keep people alive—no heat, no soap, insufficient food, inadequate clothing. Mendel fought against these by doing everything he could to care for himself, physically and spiritually. He kept himself as clean as possible, washing himself daily if there was water to be found. One winter, he was in a camp located right next to a lake, so he went to the ice-covered lake every day and punched two holes in the ice—one to dive in, and one to climb out. When on a work detail with inadequate shoes, he decided to brave the snow barefoot, working as hard as he could to keep up his circulation. The SS had built a fire for the workers to warm themselves periodically, but Mendel avoided that and advised others to do the same to keep from getting sick. Those who listened to him stayed healthy (as long as they rubbed their freezing toes with snow to keep up their circulation); those who ignored him all too often contracted pneumonia, and 99% of the time did not come out of the infirmary alive. But even more important than the physical self-care was the spiritual. He described two jobs he had that were simply impossible for him to perform: one was measuring the Gestapo for uniforms in a tailor shop, and the other was collecting and sorting the clothing of Jews after they went to the gas chambers. With his tailoring job, he was afraid of what he might be tempted to do if left alone in a room with a Gestapo officer and a sharp pair of scissors, implementation of which would not only cost him his own life, but those of 10 other Jews. And after seeing a mother holding her frightened child, assuring the child that they were going to take a shower, he could no longer sort clothing either. Both times, he was able to transfer to a more savory, less soul-destroying job. (I would add here that I have read of Jews who survived by walking away from details, or by overcoming their SS officers, both of which may have cost other Jews their lives. I cannot fault them for what they did; and while other Jews no doubt replaced Mendel at these horrifying jobs, I can say from having heard his account that he would never have agreed to do anything that he knew would have cost another Jew his or her life.)
Another theme of Mendel’s talk was that of luck. He was often in the right place at the right time to keep himself alive. It was during the winter when he was working a machine cutting iron bars and accidentally sliced off two fingers. He had to continue to work from 2 PM to 9 PM with his fingers bleeding before he could get a doctor to stitch them closed. He says that the cold was his friend after this accident, since his hands were nearly frozen and his circulation much slower than it would have been in summer when he might have bled to death. Near the end of the war, he was given a choice to stay with a small group of men to dismantle their camp, or be transferred with the other 5000 prisoners—including women and children—to Auschwitz, most likely to be murdered. For him there was no choice; he chose to go with the people he believed needed him more. In the end, he was selected to continue working, escaping the gas, but found out later that the men who had stayed behind at the camp had all been murdered.
A third theme was that of helping others. He had contacts with the underground and found out the date that his family’s village was due to be liquidated. There were a few dozen boys from his village whose families were all scheduled to be rounded up. At the time, Mendel was in a private labor camp owned and operated by German war profiteers rather than under the direction of the SS. Mendel went to the camp commander and begged him to allow the boys to visit their families one last time. In the end, the commander agreed to allow groups of 5 boys to hitch a ride with a truck that would make rounds for supplies. The boys would be dropped off at their village, then picked up an hour later and returned to the camp. Mendel scheduled himself last, but after only a few trips out, the truck had no further errands, and Mendel and about a dozen other boys were left without having visited their families. (In the end, he sneaked out of the camp by night, had a cup of coffee with his extended family for an hour, then returned before sunrise.) When he found himself in a camp (and this happened several times) where there was inadequate food, he would take it upon himself to find work or trade with Poles to bring back enough to feed the other prisoners, especially the children and the sick. In one camp, he got a job in a restaurant in the nearby village where he could take the leftovers back to the camp at the end of his shift. His selflessness and resourcefulness earned him the love and devotion of his fellow prisoners who in turn saved his life when he was caught by an SS officer smuggling socks out of the camp to trade to Poles for food. He was sentenced to be tortured to death, but a delegation of the other prisoners went to the camp commander. The commander asked why suddenly these Jews cared about THIS prisoner? They told him Mendel was the best worker in the camp, and pleaded for his life. He was let off with 25 lashes instead.
A fourth theme to emerge from his talk was that of hope and faith. I once read a book by a survivor who managed to make it through the war with her sister, who claimed that being with family—or knowing that they had family alive somewhere—was a great help in surviving since it gave someone something to live for. But Mendel had already told us that he had absolutely no surviving family at all. When I asked him what he was living for, and why he didn’t give up, Mendel said he was a young man, he had hope, he believed in God, and he had a strong will to live. He had hope, but what he would be the first to admit was only a fool’s hope; he said that if someone had told him while he was in the camps that he would live to be 90 years old, he’d have said they were crazy. And yet the subtext of everything he said was that he believed this could not be the end for him—there had to be more life to come. And if not that, that he had to continue to live AS IF there was more life to come.
At the end of Mendel’s talk, I was struck not only by how stubborn had been his will to live, but how stubborn he had been about helping others to live too. In those conditions, I imagine some would struggle to save themselves in the knowledge that others may pay the price for their life; others will struggle to save themselves and as many others as they can take with them.
I was told long ago that if there is something we want badly (a child, for example) the best thing we can do is to pray for someone else who wants the same thing. I prayed for all of my children, but for Bill I prayed for a friend who also wanted a baby. Now I have Bill, and she has twins. I don’t know how much Mendel prayed during the war, but hearing his story, I concluded that his actions were louder than any prayers, and perhaps his actions to save others were what enabled him to save himself. I know this didn’t happen to everyone who fought for others—we have plenty of dead heroes to sing about—but for whatever reason, Hashem saved Mendel.
At the end of the talk, someone asked Mendel what he thought of Jews who went back to Germany to live after the war. Mendel said that many went back and made a fortune on the black market. He himself went back to Germany when he was liberated, but for a different reason: to help round up criminals for the war crimes tribunals. There have been celebrated hunts for some of the big operators of the Final Solution, but Mendel, in his own quiet, determined way, helped bring 60 Nazi war criminals to justice.
I have no idea what I would have done had I been in Mendel’s shoes. I can only hope that I would have shown the savvy, the moxie, and the will to live that he did. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to live through what he did; but I can say that hearing his story has helped me recalibrate my moral and spiritual compass.
For more about Mendel’s talk and other Yom HaShoah commemorations in Efrat, see the Voices Magazine blog.