Latest update: May 10th, 2013
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.
One evening we sat at the table while he peeled an apple, giving me a quarter to eat. My father loved apples and as I child I was mesmerized by the ritual he had for eating them. He would never just bite into one; it would first be washed and then peeled in one long winding strip from top to bottom.
“Let me tell you a story about apples,” he suddenly said, “and how they can save a person’s life.”
During the early war years Buchenwald had a canteen where prisoners who were sent money from outside could purchase foodstuffs, and a few boys in Chaskel’s group bought a sack of apples there. Noticing the division of apples taking place in the block corner, Chaskel chided the boys, reminding them they were now part of a group.
How could they purchase apples and eat them at the table while other boys in the group had nothing? They should remember the common good, he said. Under such circumstances either everyone gets some or no one should have any.
“We must always remember that we are responsible for each other here,” he concluded. “Otherwise the Nazis will have won in taking away our humanity.”
The boys understood. The apples were put on the table, divided into quarters, and everyone ate. The boys learned a lesson that would stand them in good stead in Buchenwald: it was incumbent on everyone to help his fellow prisoner.
Equally important was that the incident had been observed by the block leader, a prominent communist named Erich Eisler who had risen in the camp’s interior administration. Hearing Chaskel’s short speech Eisler was sure that despite his religious background, my father was “one of them.” This erroneous belief that Chaskel was a secret communist – all on account of an apple – was instrumental in saving his life more than once during his years in both Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
If work, food and sleep were the triangle in which a prisoner’s body functioned, there was no parallel framework to nourish the spirit. Each prisoner had to find his own emotional or spiritual solace according to his beliefs. The communist comrades maintained contact and there was even an underground communist library in Buchenwald. The Orthodox prisoners, Chaskel among them, eventually developed their own methods of meeting their spiritual needs.
From their early days in camp religious prisoners kept a luach, a Jewish calendar, to know when holidays would occur. The first festival Chaskel celebrated in Buchenwald, less than two months after his arrival, was Chanukah. As the first night of Chanukah approached, a number of Jewish prisoners spoke to him about the upcoming festival.
“They came to me and said how wonderful it would be if a few of us could get together and light candles to celebrate the event.” As much as the thought appealed to them, they knew that in the context of a Nazi concentration camp it was fraught with danger.
The days passed and Chanukah grew close. Once again the men approached Chaskel, asking if he could think of a way to put together such a gathering. One evening after work Chaskel approached Erich Eisler and mentioned that it would soon be Chanukah and a few of the prisoners wanted to put together some kind of clandestine celebration. Would this be possible?
The blockeltester’s initial answer was a resounding no. “But I wouldn’t accept that as his final answer,” my father recalled. “I appealed to his communist spirit, explained that by not doing so he was collaborating with the Nazis. The Nazis were trying to break down our spirit. Anything that could lift up the Jewish spirit should therefore be deserving of support on the part of the communist leaders in an attempt to fight Nazi tyranny.”
In addition, my father remarked, Chanukah was not only a religious holiday but one of Jewish heroism, and celebrating it would awaken the fighting conscience of the Jews in Buchenwald and be a morally uplifting event.
Eisler looked at Chaskel in dismay. Did he really think it would be possible to put together a Chanukah celebration in Buchenwald in December 1939, almost four months after the war had begun?
Eisler mulled over the idea and recalled Chaskel’s arguments about supporting any event that would keep the prisoners’ spirits from breaking. Later in the day he sought out my father and informed him he would turn a blind eye to any goings-on if several conditions could be met.
“First,” Eichler said, “you are responsible that the event will not be discovered by the guards. Second, none of the block functionaries will be involved. Third, the event has to be totally on your own initiative.” If it works, Chaskel should let him know how it went. In any case, Eisler would make sure not to be in the block at that time.
Chaskel and his friends went into action. Mobilizing the Jewish prisoners, they opened supply lines to the camp workshops. Prisoners in the carpentry commando constructed a wooden menorah; those from the cleaning department “organized” a tablecloth and paper towels. The shoemakers and tailors obtained candles and wax while those in the kitchen hid food that would round off the celebration: apples, cookies and even a bit of chocolate.
On the afternoon before Chanukah, the prisoners began preparing a wing of Block 29 for the event and word went out that after nightfall all Jewish inmates who wanted to celebrate Chanukah should gather discreetly in the block. Finally, the prisoners set up a warning system in the event that S.S. men would enter the area.
My father described the event in glowing terms. “The hall was filled and people were still climbing on each other and through the window to get in.” Before the candle-lighting ceremony Chaskel delivered encouraging words about the history and significance of Chanukah. Just as the Jews who were slaves in Egypt felt hopeless and only a minority held out, the Jews in camp should consider themselves such a minority and know that they will hold out in the exile of Buchenwald.
“This is the purpose of Chanukah and these lights,” Chaskel concluded. “A hope in the darkness giving us courage and strength to survive this gezeirah [evil decree].”
As the inmates in the packed block stared at the flickering lights in the makeshift menorah, some even with tears in their eyes, Eric Eisler’s face appeared in the doorway. The block elder looked around the room, taking in the prisoners’ faces, the food, the menorah, and then he disappeared once again. For a moment, everyone in the room dreamed they were free.
What did Chaskel think of as he looked around at the group gathered in Block 29? Could he even imagine that five years later he would still be a prisoner in a Nazi camp, secretly lighting Chanukah candles in a camp in Poland that did not yet even exist – Auschwitz-Buna?
The Jews in Block 29 continued eating fruit and cookies, encouraged for a few moments to believe that one day they would again be free. It was a most memorable Chanukah, one they would recall years later, both during and after the war. Even Eisler remarked to Chaskel that he had been brought up in an assimilated home and until then knew of Chanukah only by name as a “festival of lights,” which he imagined was like Christmas. But what he saw in the block made a deep impression on him and his communist friends as it reminded them of communist solidarity.
Still uncertain of Chaskel’s political leanings, a number of Jewish communist functionaries in Buchenwald attempted to “convert” him by giving him communist pamphlets from their secret library which he later discussed with them, using the opportunity to teach them about Judaism. While he did not try to convert the communists to the Orthodox Jewish way of life, he did engender a respect for Orthodox Jews in more than one communist who had previously been rabidly anti-religious.
“And so you see,” my father said, “how a simple apple can make the difference between life and death. Sometimes it was physical life and death, such as when Eisler saw me collapse when being forced to run by the Nazis and risked his own life to pick me up and carry me to the camp ‘hospital.’ Sometimes it was spiritual life and death, such as when the communist block elders enabled us to hold the Chanukah celebration in Buchenwald or did not stop us from secretly obtaining flour to bake matzah for Pesach.”
The five and a half years my father spent in Nazi camps changed his life in many ways. He went in as a husband and son and came out a widower and orphan. When he was taken away to prison in September 1939 he owned a factory and a home. When liberated 68 months later, he owned nothing but the disintegrating concentration camp uniform he wore.
He had seen mankind at its worst and human kindness at its highest levels. Many Jews turned their backs on God but despite the despair he experienced at various stages, in the long run, his faith only became strengthened by his experiences.
Decades later he explained how he remained a believer. To do so, he said, one has to learn the true meaning of Psalm 73, which he recited in camp at moments of despair. Verse 22 states: “Then foolish I am and ignorant, I am as a beast before thee.”
“We often could not understand the evil surrounding us,” my father said. “We almost lost our minds, like animals, looking for self-preservation at any price. And yet, only when we reached such despair could we truly understand the simple belief of the next verses – ‘But I shall be continually with thee, Thou hast held me by my right hand.’
“So it was with me. I hoped and prayed we would survive, but only when I reached the depths of despair after hearing my family had been killed did I stop thinking, knowing I could only continue from day to day if I believed I felt God’s hand holding mine. No intellectual explanations of faith could comfort me. Only a simple belief that if God intends for me to live, I shall live, and so I must continue helping and making sure that I would never lose my humanity.”
It was only after his death, when I spoke to people my father saved and heard stories about his valiant actions, that I began to realize the depths of what he meant.
Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is the chair of the graduate program in Contemporary Jewry and teaches in the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. This article is adapted from her just-published book about her father, “The Incredible Adventures of ‘Buffalo Bill of Bochnia’ (68715): The Story of a Galician Jew – Persecution, Liberation, Transformation” (Sussex Academic Press).
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