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On Account Of An Apple: Chanukah in Buchenwald


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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More Articles from Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz

In the summer of 1993, shortly before I was to participate in an international conference on the concept of the hero in Jewish history, I began researching how Israeli society had perpetuated the memory of the Yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Israel) parachutists from World War II.

There are only a handful of mitzvot about which the Torah hints to their reward and even fewer about which we are told precisely what the reward will be. One of these is kibbud av va’em, honoring our parents, the fifth of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai.

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.

“I was arrested by the Gestapo on the 9th of September 1939, and taken out of the house to a prison in Frankfurt a/M. There I met quite a number of people in the same situation who had been arrested in and around Frankfurt and they knew as little as I did about what was happening, except that we have been arrested by the Gestapo.”

My father, Chaskel Tydor, was among the Jewish prisoners liberated in the Nazi camp of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. Born to a chassidic family in Bochnia, Poland in 1903, the year Orville Wright first successfully flew an aircraft at Kitty Hawk, he had grown up in Germany where his family had fled at the outbreak of the First World War, marrying and raising a family.

Passover is a festival of freedom, chag hageulah, when we remember our deliverance from slavery in Egypt. For my father, Chaskel Tydor, Passover was also a reminder of the slavery he experienced during his lifetime – of his five and a half years in the Nazi camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

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