“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.”
With these laconic words my father, Chaskel Tydor, began his memoirs of his wartime experiences. The war that broke out on September 1, 1939 was not the first war he had experienced. My father had been born in Bochnia, Poland in 1903 and the first years of his life were those of a typical Polish-Jewish chassidic child. He went to cheder, played with his friends, lived in a protected Jewish environment and had all his basic needs cared for by his loving family.
All this was to change during the summer of 1914. Following the outbreak of the First World War he and his family left Bochnia almost overnight, fleeing the invading Russian army. Leaving everything behind, the Tydor family found refuge first in Austria and soon after in Germany, Austria’s ally.
Like thousands of Galician Jews who did not return to Poland at the end of the war, he and his parents remained in Germany, ultimately building a life for themselves as part of the Breuer Torah im derech eretz kehilla in Frankfurt am Main.
Chaskel completed his high school studies in the Jewish Realschule in Fuerth and later learned in the Breuer Yeshiva in Frankfurt while beginning pre-medical studies. The economic crisis of the early 1920s put an end to his academic aspirations and he began working first as a bookkeeper and later as a manager for a Jewish metalworking firm in Frankfurt.
By the late 1920s, when he had become owner of that firm and was financially able to consider marriage, his parents found him a suitable bride from among the Orthodox young women in Bochnia, their former hometown.
“You may be able to take Jews out of Bochnia,” my father once remarked, “but it appears to be more difficult to take Bochnia out of those Jews.”
Chaskel and his wife settled in Frankfurt, trying to keep themselves solvent during the growing economic crisis and watching with concern as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party grew in strength. When the Nazis came to power in early 1933, Chaskel’s parents decided it was time for them to leave Germany and return to Poland. With a heavy heart they bade farewell to their son and his young family.
Chaskel, already the proud father of a two young children, decided to stay in Germany. Like many German Jews, he hoped Hitler would be a passing phenomenon and life in Germany would soon go back to normal.
He was mistaken. The years only brought with them a worsening of conditions. Chaskel and his family, like all German Jews, were barred from public parks and municipal swimming pools. Chaskel’s car was seized by the authorities. Hs factory was boycotted. His daughter had rocks thrown at her on the way home from school.
In March 1938 Austria was invaded, and four months later the Evian refugee conference showed that there were almost no countries willing to take in Jewish refugees. In September the Munich agreement promising “peace in our time” heralded an era in which Germany took over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
In October 1938 Chaskel, along with close to 20,000 Polish Jews living in Germany, was deported to Poland, torn from his wife and children. In November, his family, still in Germany, experienced the horrors of Kristallnacht.
For months Chaskel corresponded from Poland with his wife and finally convinced her to send their children to Belgium with a kindertransport. He desperately wrote to all their friends, acquaintances and contacts in England, trying to obtain a visa for himself and his wife so that they could reunite there and bring their children to England.
After months of correspondence with people – including former partners living in Switzerland and businessmen in France and England – who could vouch for his past business dealings, Chaskel was informed that by the end of the summer visas to England for his wife and himself would be sent to the consul in Frankfurt.
In August 1939 he was permitted to re-enter Germany and settle his affairs while waiting for his visa to England, which, he was told, would arrive any day.
The outbreak of the Second World War on Friday, September 1, 1939, put an end to all hopes and plans of emigration. Like many German Jews, my father spent the first week of September waiting for “the knock on the door,” a visit from the Gestapo that would once again take him away from what was left of his family.
Just as he feared, the Gestapo arrested him a week after the war’s outbreak, transporting him to a local prison. At the time, my father was almost 36 years old, entering early middle age by the yardstick of his time. Little could he know this was only the first step into the concentration-camp world he would live in – and survive by the grace of the Almighty – for the next five and a half years.
* * *
As a first step in his wartime odyssey, my father was taken to a prison where he met Jews arrested by the Gestapo in the same area. Small groups of prisoners were put into each cell, sharing sleeping and washing space, and twice a day the entire group would eat together in a larger cell that served as a prison “dining room.” None had ever been in prison before.
Three days after being imprisoned, the Jews realized Rosh Hashanah would begin the next evening. Still not comprehending the abrupt change their lives had undergone, a number of them approached the German police guards, mentioning that the next day was the Jewish New Year and that they wished to recite their prayers as usual.
In order to do so, they explained, they needed machzorim, special holiday prayer books. Would it be possible for the police to supply them with machzorim so that they could pray on the holiday?
Just as Orthodox Jewish leaders in Germany in 1933 believed they could cause the Nazi regime to alter decrees by submitting petitions, here, too, the Orthodox Jews appeared to be under the na?ve impression that the German affinity for law and order would compel the Nazi police to supply them with the necessary Rosh Hashanah accoutrements.
And just like the Orthodox leaders in 1933, they were greatly mistaken.
“Were they crazy?” I asked my father. “Didn’t they realize where they were, who they were talking to?” He looked at me with a sad smile. “We were German Jews. We were taught to believe in a system of law. I personally thought it nonsense to ask the policemen for machzorim, but I expected that at worst the request would be refused.”
Naturally, no machzorim were provided. When a number of Jewish prisoners reminded their guards of their request, they were met with a blank stare. A few minutes later a policeman entered the dining room and asked the Jews, with a smile they only later realized was meant to ridicule them, asked, “Who among you can ride a bicycle?” Most answered positively. “How many can drive a car?” Many said they could. The next question dealt with driving a truck and there were several positive answers.
The policeman left the room without explanation. “Maybe they want a driver to get machzorim?” asked one of the Jews. Most looked at him as if he was out of his mind, but a few still lived in hope.
On erev Rosh Hashanah Chaskel and the rest of the Jewish prisoners assembled in the prison dining room, where they recited as much of the holiday prayers as they remembered by heart.
“It was a very sad davening,” my father recalled. “We stood together but in truth everyone was alone with his thoughts, missing his family and loved ones.”
The next morning they were awakened at six o’clock and the police called out of their cells those who knew how to ride a bicycle. Then came the call for those who drove cars and trucks, and finally the policeman turned to the group with a mocking smile and said they were all going out to the courtyard to wash the police cars.
“This was the ‘surprise’ they had in store for us,” my father told me, his voice flat.
“How did you feel at the time?” I asked him, unable to comprehend the dispassionate tone in which he told me this story.
“Of course we were upset – angry – in that we had been tricked, cheated. But this was exactly the problem of German Jews. Even under the worst of circumstances there was this underlying belief in what was proper, acceptable behavior. Some who could not understand that those days were over rarely survived for long. The rest understood that we were now helpless, totally at the mercy of our captors, and that there was no law or justice that could help us anymore.”
The Jewish prisoners were forced to clean the cars until noontime, after which they gathered again to recite the day’s prayers from memory. And what prayers they were! Though the prisoners attempted to remain unobtrusive, fearing more scorn on the part of their captors, the usual disciplined Yekkish form of davening gave way among many to heartfelt tears.
This was Chaskel’s first taste of being treated as a Nazi prisoner – a person with no rights. When he was deported to Poland in October 1938 he had little contact with the Gestapo, and like most Jewish prisoners in the Frankfurt jail he was slowly beginning to understand that to his captors he was no longer a human being. This was to be the framework of his existence for the next five and a half years.
It was also his first taste of the Nazi approach to Judaism. In their desire to mock the Jewish prisoners and desecrate anything they considered sacred, the Frankfurt prison guards singled out Saturdays to force them to perform the dirtiest and most uncomfortable tasks of the week, including the cleaning of latrines.
A few of the Orthodox prisoners protested, saying this was their holy day of rest. “Rest?” roared the policeman on duty. “Prisoners are not entitled to any day of rest!”
“It wasn’t even necessary to beat us to get us to carry out orders,” my father said. “After all, we were German Jews ” He sighed, recalling the extent of their na?vet? at the time.
Chaskel and the other prisoners did not yet know that this was typical Nazi behavior: mocking Jewish symbols such as the Sabbath and Jewish holidays even without comprehending their deeper meaning. These days were often chosen for incarcerating, punishing or deporting Jews, not only in Nazi camps but throughout occupied Europe.
From the Frankfurt prison the Polish Jews were transferred to a penitentiary in the Kassel area where they remained for Yom Kippur. A few in the group knew of Chaskel’s religious background and turned to him in a matter of Jewish law: Should those with heart ailments fast, in view of their condition?
Realizing that those questioning him were not only looking for halachic assistance but a listening ear and human guidance, he gave all those who posed this question the same response: as they were incarcerated in a Nazi prison for an indefinite amount of time, anyone who felt his health would suffer was under no circumstances to fast, as it might endanger his life.
This answer would set the tone for similar halachic responses he would give throughout his years in concentration camp: One had to do everything within the boundaries of moral propriety in order to stay alive and survive the Nazis.
While he, personally, continued to fast every Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av during his incarceration, he constantly reminded others who asked him that if they felt any potential danger to their health, they must eat. The idea was to stay alive and not to afford the Nazis another victory by harming or, chas v’shalom, murdering an additional Jew.
This was the framework of his answer to Jews who would ask him halachic questions in Buchenwald and later in Auschwitz. “Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem” – one must greatly guard one’s life (Deuteronomy 4:15) – while keeping to morally permitted behavior.
It was that first set of Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 1939, that gave my father a glimpse into what his life would be like for the next half decade and that strengthened his soul in a way that enabled him to survive his travails – both physically and spiritually.
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 forthcoming book “The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill of Bochnia (68715): The Story of a Galician Jew – Persecution, Liberation, Transformation” (Sussex Academic Press, January 2010).