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Passover Under the Nazis
by Esther Altmann

On the Ninth of Av the First World War broke out. On its heels came WWII and the destruction of 6,000,000 of our brothers and sisters in Europe. Rabbi Nissan Mangel remembers the Allied liberation of Europe from the Nazis when he was an 11 year old boy:

The camp at Gunzkirshen was located in the midst of a dense forest. The starving Jews were forced to hack their way through. They then set up poles and stretched sheets of canvas across them to form a crude shelter, which left them exposed to the elements. Packed closely together, 1,800 people to a barrack, they had only enough space to sit, knees to chest, on the cold ground.

With the war drawing to an end, the German troops feared that their inhuman crimes would be discovered by the conquering Allies.

In a last frantic effort to destroy incriminating evidence, they attempted to exterminate the surviving Jews, living proof of their bestiality, by completely withholding food. How did anyone survive this starvation? Those who could still walk would forage in the forest for any crawling creatures they could eat. They had long ago lost their natural aversion to these creatures. After a few days, many hundreds more had died; the survivors sat on top of the growing pile of corpses, numb to the horror which surrounded them.

Days before the liberation, the Nazis permitted the Red Cross to bring food to the Jews. Long tables were set up and for one short hour a day, food was distributed to the fortunate few. The fights and hysteria of the starved people cannot be imagined as they fought and struggled to find a place in the line. Somehow, young Nissan Mangel was one of the lucky few.

When he saw the amount of food, he knew that his bruised and swollen hands would never be able to carry it. He dearly wanted to bring some back to the friend who had saved his life so many times, and so he devised a plan: He would tuck his shirt into his pants, and make a pouch in which he could stash the containers.

He had just finished packing in the food when a tall man approached him. "You're just a young boy, and there are people here who would steal your food. I'll walk you back to the barrack."

Rabbi Mangel recalled how happy he was to have the help. They hadn't walked far when the man turned and pounced on him, grabbing the containers of food. When others saw, they joined in the frenzied attack. The starving people pulled and ripped at his shirt, pummeling and pushing his face into the pool of black mud on the ground.

"I would have forgiven them the food, but in their struggle they pushed my face into a puddle of mud which I was forced to breathe in as I struggled for air. I thought to myself, 'I survived the gas chambers, but this suffocation is my gas chamber.' I returned battered and empty-handed to my friend, exhausted and close to death.

"A few more days passed, and I had no strength at all. I knew that without food, I was as good as dead. I begged my friend to bring me something to eat -- a worm or a bug. When he returned a little later holding two sugar beets I couldn't believe my eyes. `Where did you get them?' I gasped.

"He told me the kitchen was open and the German troops were fleeing into the forest, flinging their rifles and uniforms in a desperate attempt to escape the Allies. 'Come, we must escape. I'll help you,' he said.

"In the middle of the night we ran into the forest. As dawn was about to break, we saw thousands of Jews, walking skeletons, streaming towards the city. Suddenly, from a distance, we saw a tank approaching. We were terrified and turned to run back when we realized that they were Americans. We ran toward them and surrounded their tank, asking for food. The GI's offered us chewing gum, but we had never seen gum before. We tried to chew the strange, sticky stuff but no amount of chewing made it edible.

"Despite the excruciating suffering, faith was apparent in all the camps. I can honestly say, that I never heard a Jew ask, 'Where is G-d?' 'Why has He forgotten us?' On the contrary, I saw many miracles and many instances of the most extreme self-sacrifice for Torah and mitzvot:

"The meager soup ration was skimmed for the dot of fat which could later be used to make a candle for Chanuka.

"The observance of Sukkot was the most amazing. A tiny sukka, three feet high and one foot wide, was erected. Despite the threat of frightful tortures, Jews rose at 4 am to stick their heads into the sukka for a moment and fulfill the mitzva of reciting a blessing inside.

"When Passover came, 'the time of our liberation,' one could well have wondered what there was to celebrate, but the entire barracks joined together to make a 'seder.' There was no matza, no wine, no food and no Hagada, so what could they do? Each person who could, recited by heart a part of the Hagada, and together they reconstructed the seder from memory.

"It wasn't long before the spirited singing attracted the attention of the SS, for what was there to sing about in hell? The angry guard stormed into the barrack. At once, all lay down on their wooden planks. But as soon as he left, they resumed their singing. A second time, the guard entered the barracks and threatened: 'If you dare make a sound again, I will shoot all of you!' But the prisoners were undeterred, so driven were they to celebrate Passover. When the guard returned a third time and saw the determination of the Jews, he walked out. I can tell you that the entire barracks participated in the seder. Not everyone was a practicing Jew, but not one person said, 'Stop. Don't make noise.' No, all stood together on that Passover night."

Such, is the power of faith in G-d.

 

 


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