We just observed Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of our Holy Temple. With the Holocaust being so recent and such an enormity, I could not help but turn my attention to it as I contemplated the destruction that has befallen the Jewish people over the millennia. In particular, I thought about what happened to my father-in-law on that day many years ago, as well as the events leading up to it. Its message is timeless.
Even in the midst of the greatest evil, inspiring events can occur. During the Holocaust there were ordinary people who rose to extraordinary heights. Heroes were born. Jews were saved by non-Jews (who in some cases paid the ultimate penalty for their actions).
My father-in-law, Reb Mordechai Sauerhaft, zt”l, a brilliant talmid chacham of the old European school who eventually wrote down his experiences of the Holocaust (they are now archived in Yad Vashem), was saved by one such hero.
Mr. Mlodnicki (unfortunately, I do not know his first name) was a religious Roman Catholic, a deacon and organ player in his church, which was located in the small village of Mikolyow near the large Ukrainian city of Lvov. The Ukraine was, of course, one of the most anti-Semitic enclaves in Europe.
Mr. Mlodnicki’s connection with my father-in-law prior to the Holocaust was strictly on a business level. He was a customer at my father-in-law’s family textile business. Mr. Mlodnicki, who saw in my father-in-law honesty and fairness, was treated like the tzelem Elokim he was.
Mikolyow was first occupied was by the Russians, who did not take too kindly to private enterprise in general and Jews in particular, so my father-in-law decided to hide his stock of better fabrics.
When the Nazis later occupied the city, the locals couldn’t wait to give up their Jewish neighbors. Jews were rounded up and forced into doing the most disgusting types of manual labor. When the Nazis were done with their Jewish slave laborers they sent them to the death camps. My father-in-law became a slave laborer. After a time, thinking the end was near, he dug up his fabrics and gave them to Mr. Mlodnicki. He was determined that the Germans not stumble on them and take them for themselves.
Soon enough, the time came for the deportations. My father-in-law managed to hide for their duration. After three days, when things quieted down, he took a chance and went out to see how his town had fared.
All around was devastation. He saw not a single human being in the city. Torn seforim were strewn all over the ground, along with broken utensils and broken glass. He found an old piece of bread and some water which he drank mixed with his tears. His body was so weak after three harrowing days of hiding that he fell asleep for 24 hours.
When he awoke, he thought he was dreaming. Having basically fasted for three days, he knew he would die if he did not get some food soon. Eventually he found a few remaining Jews who fed him and told him that almost the entire town had been transported to a death camp.
But the Nazis weren’t finished.
A few weeks later the remaining Jews were again put into forced labor. The cycle had begun again. Once the work was completed, these Jews would be shipped off to a death camp too. As the project neared its end, one of my father-in-law’s fellow Jewish slave laborers mentioned that he had heard that a gentile was hiding Jews. The gentile’s name was Mlodnicki. My father-in-law told his fellow worker of his relationship with Mr. Mlodnicki. The worker suggested that my father-in-law contact him to see if he would take him in.
My father-in-law was skeptical. He didn’t believe it was possible to hide from the Nazis for any length of time and he had no guarantees that, if push came to shove, he wouldn’t be handed over.
One day, by chance, he met Mr. Mlodnicki in the street and asked him on the spur of the moment if he would take him. Mr. Mlodnicki said he would do so if the Jews he was already hiding were not opposed. Those Jews agreed, and my father-in-law decided to see for himself what was going on in the Mlodnicki household by spending at least one night there. The following is what he saw: