Various types of fruit cross our doorstep during the course of the Jewish year. But for me, the symbol of Judaism is the apple. Not the Rosh Hashanah apple dipped in honey but the one I learned about from my father, which began a chain of events that became a lesson of faith during the darkness of the Nazi years.
My father, Chaskel Tydor, was born to a chassidic family in Bochnia, Poland in 1903. After fleeing to Germany at the outbreak of World War I he remained there for two and a half decades, marrying and raising a family. In September 1939 he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald, from there to Auschwitz, and finally back to Buchenwald where he was liberated by the American army on April 11, 1945.
When arrested by the Gestapo he was almost 36 years old, early middle age by the yardstick of his time. In the concentration camp world, unless one was in excellent physical condition, there was only a small chance of survival. The odds he could exist for five and a half years in Nazi camps were next to nothing. And how many German-Jewish businessmen of that time were in excellent physical condition?
Religious Jews were even less fit, spending their free time learning Torah and caring for communal affairs. At most they would walk in one of the few parks Jews were still permitted to enter. Although he bicycled to work, my father was no exception to this rule. Looking at his
pre-war pictures one would not have put odds on his survival for more than a year under the conditions of Buchenwald or Auschwitz.
Did I write a year? Three months at most.
Yet by the grace of God my father survived that entire period in Nazi prisons, camps and extermination centers. “Why did I survive while others did not?” he often asked. “The Almighty must have his reasons, but who can understand them?”
Our story begins when my father was sent to the Nazi camp of Buchenwald near the city of Weimar. Until 1942 the majority of Buchenwald’s political prisoners were communists and during most of its existence they formed its internal administration. Kapos were usually communists and a communist underground existed in the camp throughout the war.
My father learned the danger posed by the communist leadership on his first day in camp. As the sun began to set, he stood at his assigned place near the window and began to daven Mincha, the afternoon prayer. Just then the supervising stubendienst came over to him, administering a hearty slap to his face.
Throwing Chaskel’s cap to the ground, he told him the facts of life at Buchenwald: “You are not in a synagogue and you should forget all this nonsense.” My father realized he would have to fear not only the Nazis in the camp but also the anti-religious communist functionaries.
“I was never a natural leader before the war,” he once remarked, “but something happened in Buchenwald.” During his first months in camp Chaskel became the leader of a group of young men, many just boys in their late teens, who were looking for a father figure. Some were Orthodox; others were far removed from Jewish practice. Their common denominator was a need to be with others; the first rule of survival under the Nazis was that one could rarely survive totally alone.
The first test of this group’s solidarity occurred in December 1939. This was one of the first Buchenwald stories my father told me when I was a child and I recall the backdrop to his tale.