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).