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.”