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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Jew Worthy of Receiving Kvittelach

An interview with Reb Eliyahu Herman
by Debbie Shapiro
Before Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, ztz”l, the Satmar Rav, left Eretz Yisrael to make his home in America, his devoted chassid Reb Asher Zelig Margolis asked him, “Rebbe, now that you are leaving us, to whom shall we give our kvittels?”
“Go into any shul,” Reb Yoelish replied, “and look for a Jew with a number on his arm. A Jew like that, who still puts on tefillin after gong through the war, is worthy of receiving your kvittels.”
A Hidden Tzaddik
Over the years, I had heard rumors of a hidden tzaddik who sits in a tiny tailor shop just down the street from the Prima Palace Hotel. Someone even pointed out his store to me, but it wasn’t until last week that I finally got up the courage to enter and request a berachah, and, being a writer and journalist, a story.
Reb Eliyahu Herman looks like everyone’s favorite zeideh. Beardless, with a large knitted kippah, he doesn’t fit the stereotype image of a tzaddik. But his mesiras nefesh for the mitzvah of tefillin saved thousands — yes, thousands — of Jews from death.
Born and raised in Budapest, Reb Eliyahu was fifteen years old when the Germans occupied Hungary. Although the countries were allies, it wasn’t until the very tail end of the war, on March 14, 1944, with Operation Margarethe, that German forcefully took over the Hungarian government, and Hungarian Jews began to feel the full force of the Holocaust. Within days of the occupation, Eichmann came to Budapest to institute the Final Solution. Every day over 12,000 Jews were shipped to Auschwitz, where most were sent directly to the gas chambers. The change was so sudden, and so drastic, that the Jews of Hungary were completely unprepared.
“Yes, we had heard rumors of the atrocities taking place across the border, but we really thought they were exaggerations. We were totally unprepared for what would soon become our new reality.
“Rav Aharon of Belz escaped Galicia together with his brother, the Bilgoray Rav, and was living in the apartment adjacent to our yeshivah. I was zocheh to receive a personal berachah from him, and” — at this, his words falter — “I am sure it is in that zechus that I was saved, and that I was able to keep my tefillin with me, even while in the Gehinnom of Mauthausen and Gunskirchen, two of the worst spots on the face of the earth.”
I shudder at their mere mention.
Before Reb Eliyahu can continue, the door to his shop is pushed open and a tall, elderly rabbinical figure enters. It is Rav Naftali Porush, one of the heads of the Agudah in Eretz Yisrael. He takes one look at me, perched on a backless wooden stool, my small laptop balanced on a pile of long black reichelach waiting to be repaired, and smiles. “A tayere Yid… Reb Eliyahu’s a tayere Yid… All the gedolei Yisrael used to have their suits sewn davka at his shop.”
Reb Eliyahu smiles and the two men speak for a few minutes about the daily shiur that Rav Porush delivers and that Reb Eliyahu attends. The moment Rav Porush leaves, Reb Eliyahu turns to me and smiles. “Look at me, a sheigetz his grin widens “with my knitted kippah and short-sleeved striped shirt. But it doesn’t matter. My knitted kippah, his black velvet one, this hat, that hat we’re all Yidden, and limud Torah unites us.”
They Tried to Warn Us
Reb Eliyahu continues his story: “There were fifteen Polish refugees in my yeshivah. They had tried to alert us to what was happening across the border. The Belzer Rebbe’s gabbai, Reb Dovid Shapiro, also tried to warn us, but we could not believe them. We were living in an illusionary world, and we couldn’t imagine that such horrors were possible. But it wasn’t long until we learned otherwise.
“When the Germans arrived, our rebbe, Rav Chaim Alter Berkowitz, Hy”d, instructed us to close our Gemaras and return home. Rushing through the streets, I saw a sight that to this day still horrifies me. Soldiers with guns were prodding long lines of Jews in the direction of the Danube River. I heard gunshots in the distance. I later learned that the Jews were ordered to remove their clothes and then forced to jump into the water. Most drowned it was a wide, deep, river and those who didn’t were shot.
“I was lucky enough to find a job at a German factory. A few days after I started, the Nazis rounded up all the Jewish residents of our apartment building. Thanks to my work papers, I was able to save my family from being drowned in the river together with our neighbors. My parents survived the war they found refuge in one of Raoul Wallenberg’s safe houses, and later on, in 1953, we escaped Hungary and moved to Israel. My father, who’s buried on Har HaMenuchos, opened this tailor shop, and now that he’s gone, I work here. But my son, he’s not a tailor. He’s a rabbi, a real talmid chacham.” The pride was apparent in his voice.
In the Zechus of These Heilege Tefillin
Before Reb Eliyahu could continue, the door opened again, and a young kollel student entered. He had just purchased two pairs of pants at a store down the street and wanted to have them shortened. Reb Eliyahu pointed to a small white stool with peeling paint and asked the young man to stand on it so he could pin the hems in place. “The Rebbe of Belz also stood on this stool,” Reb Eliyahu chuckled. “But there’s no way he could do it today. Then he was a tiny boy not even three years old, and was trying on the suit that I had made him for his upsherin.”
While Reb Eliyahu was pinning the hem in place, the kollel student stared at him intently. Finally, he asked, “Are you the man with the tefillin that survived the Holocaust?”
Reb Eliyahu smiled in response, and the student continued, “Someone in my family is very sick. Could you give her a berachah?”
“Who am I to give you a berachah?” Reb Eliyahu asked. “It’s all the zechus of the tefillin. Here, take my tefillin and daven, and may the merit of my mesiras nefesh for this mitzvah bring you a yeshuah.”
Reb Eliyahu removed a purple velvet tefillin bag from behind the counter and handed it to the kollel student. When he took it, I noticed that his hands were trembling. Then he stood in the corner, motionless, grasping the faded velvet bag containing the sacred tefillin close to his heart as he davened. When he finished, Reb Eliyahu handed him a tattered Sefer Tehillim. “This also survived the War. Say a kapitel of Tehillim from it.”
He did, and then he thanked Reb Eliyahu, asked him when the pants will be ready, and quietly almost reverently exited the store.
As the door closed, Reb Eliyahu smiled. “Hashem blessed me to be a shaliach to help people come to teshuvah. It’s all in the zechus of these heilege tefillin.”
The Tefillin
A few months later, the Germans grabbed Reb Eliyahu off the street and brought him to a brick factory. “It’s impossible to describe what it was like. Thousands of Jews were lying helpless in the mud. One old woman had extended her arm to try to grab a crust of bread. A Hungarian soldier kicked the bread with his shiny leather boots. In my innocence, I thought he was trying to kick it closer to the starving woman. Instead, he continued kicking it until it was totally out of her reach. A few minutes later, the woman succumbed to starvation.
“Shortly after I arrived, the Nazis brought a truckload of Jews from the old age home and the Jewish hospital. The old people could barely walk. The soldiers cruelly pushed them into the mud and shot them.
“After a few days of this Gehinnom, the Germans ordered us to leave the factory and begin marching. It started to rain, and then the rain turned into snow. Our ‘friendly’ neighbors stood on either side of the road, jeering at us as they threw snow-covered rocks. Some moved their hands across their necks, to let us know that we were being taken away to slaughter.
“We left the city and continued walking, and walking and walking. Every night, we slept somewhere else on hard gravel, pavement, mud, even inside a pigsty. The Germans didn’t provide us with food or water; they just forced us to walk until we finally arrived at the city of Sopron on the German-Austrian border.”
In Sopron, Reb Eliyahu, together with the other inmates, were loaded into cattle cars and shipped west, into Austria, away from the approaching Red Army. Thirty-five thousand men had left Budapest. The remaining five thousand were brought to Mauthausen.
“We arrived on erev Pesach. Mauthausen is located in an ancient castle on the top of a very tall mountain. Entering the building, we felt as if we had just passed through the gates of Gehinnom. While a band played a rousing march, we stared in horror at the skeletal beings dressed ludicrously in pajamas.”
Before entering Mauthausen, Reb Eliyahu hid his precious tefillin by carefully tying them to his leg. At the selection, someone whispered to him to lie about his age and profession, so the 15-year-old yeshivah student told the camp commandant that he was a 28-year-old tailor. “I was sent to the right, to life, while all the other boys my age were sent to the left, to death.”
When sent to the shower, Reb Eliyahu miraculously managed to hide his tefillin under a rock. “That was the last time I was ever separated from my tefillin. I kept them with me throughout the war, and afterwards. Today, I take them with me wherever I go.” He pointed to the small velvet bag lying on the counter.
“Dressed in nothing more than thin pajamas, we slept that night in the snow. It was our mattress, our blanket, and our food. At home, we had a maid who polished my shoes. There, I had no shoes. Not far from us were what appeared to be five small huts. When I woke up, I was horrified to discover that they were really five enormous piles of frozen corpses. There was no fuel to burn them.
Take Me
“The first morning in that Gehinnom, I donned my tefillin and begged Hashem to take me. I could not stand the suffering. But although I was no better than the others, Hashem wanted me to remain alive.”
Reb Eliyahu remained alive, and continued to don his tefillin and recite a quick prayer each morning before setting out to work. He had to be careful if the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.
“The camp commander took tremendous pleasure in torturing the prisoners. Afterwards, he would return to his house, located on the camp premises, and, together with his wife, listen to classical music, to Mozart!”
Reb Eliyahu recalled the special hashgachah pratis he had in hiding his tefillin: “Twice a day, at roll call, the SS soldiers would surround us and check us with their dogs. Although these dogs always stopped to smell my leg, the one where the tefillin were tied, the Nazis never discovered my tefillin. I can only describe it as a miracle. There is no other explanation.”
Reb Eliyahu spent some eight weeks in Mauthausen.
“The allied forces were closing in. One day, there was a selection. Most were sent to the crematorium. I was selected for life. Life? We were forced to march for twelve days in the heavy rain until we reached our destination, Gunskirchen. Of the 33,000 who left Mauthausen, 20,000 arrived in Gunskirchen.
“I had been positive that there could be no place worse than Mauthausen. But I was wrong. Gunskirchen was much, much worse. The first thing the Nazis did upon our arrival was to set three huge German shepherds on my friend Chaim. They tore him to pieces.
“Gunskirchen was not a work camp. We did nothing all day, except remove the dead bodies from our barrack and wait for time to pass. A few times a week the Nazis would give us a bit of food and water.”
Reb Eliyahu recalls his last day in the camp: “It was a Friday night, Parshas Behar-Bechukosai. We were locked in our barrack, and had heard that the Germans had placed explosives around it. They wanted to kill us and hide all the evidence. People were dying like flies, and I knew that if the Germans didn’t explode the barrack, I would die of hunger. I said to my friends, the brothers Klein, ‘If you’ll join me, let’s escape together.’ We began climbing over bodies to make our way toward the door.
“In front of the door, I saw a man named Yitzchak lying on the floor. He had converted to Christianity prior to the Holocaust. I bent down and asked him, ‘Do you want to return to the Jewish people?’ Although he was already unable to speak, his eyes told me that he did. My friends were upset with me. After all, what difference would it make, one goy less? But I couldn’t leave him to die as a gentile. I said the Shema with him. He died at the word echad.
“We somehow found the strength don’t ask me how to break the door open and escape that death-filled room. Of course I had my tefillin with me. Once we were in the forest, we threw off our lice-infested prison pajamas and put on SS uniforms that we had removed from dead soldiers.
“Suddenly, we heard the sound of a car traveling. When we saw it was an American jeep, we emerged from our hiding place and stood at the side of the road. Three soldiers jumped out of the jeep, their guns trained on us, and requested that we show them our documents. Documents? We didn’t even have clothes, let alone documents!”
You Are the Mashiach
“I didn’t have documents, so I showed the soldiers my tefillin. At first, they thought it was a hand grenade! But then, one of them recognized that they were tefillin! He asked me, ‘Du bist a Yid?
“I started crying, and said, ‘You are the Mashiach!’ The soldier ordered me to recite a Jewish prayer. I said Shema. He immediately embraced me and started kissing me. When I told him that the two German soldiers standing next to me were also Jews, he hugged and kissed them, too.
“I gave them directions to get to Gunskirchen. Although the camp was not far from where we were located, it was difficult to find. The Jewish soldier immediately phoned his commander and informed him that he had found the camp they had been looking for. ‘Please save the over 35,000 Jews that are left there,’ I begged. ‘Most of them are on the verge of death. If you don’t get there quickly, most will die. Every minute is crucial.’
“The army immediately sent medical care to Gunskirchen, and in doing so, thousands of lives were saved. My tefillin saved my life, and the lives of thousands of Jews, because in their zechus, the American army arrived at the camp quickly,” Reb Eliyahu concludes, the emotion evident in his words.
Reb Eliyahu was sent to a local field hospital. When he arrived there, he weighed in at 81 pounds and was running a very high fever.
“I lost consciousness almost immediately after arriving at the hospital. I woke up to discover my tefillin under my head. I asked about the Jewish soldier who had saved my life, but no one could identify him. And that was the last I heard of him for almost 70 years. Last year, I asked the American embassy to help me find him. They suggested I call the Vatican a lot of help that was!”
Reb Eliyahu later turned to the media. “I phoned one of the more popular radio stations, hoping they’d publicize my story. After explaining my request, the man on the other end of the telephone said, ‘Everything you told me was broadcast throughout the country. Certainly one of our listeners will contact you with information.’”
None of the listeners contacted him, but a major Israeli newspaper did, and a large writeup about his quest appeared in their Friday edition. Motzaei Shabbos, the phone rang in the Herman household, and when Reb Eliyahu answered the phone, a stranger asked, “Are you the guy who was in Gunskirchen 65 years ago?”
Reb Eliyahu replied in the affirmative.
“Do you remember what you said to that Jewish soldier?” the stranger asked.
“I told him, ‘You’re the Mashiach.’”
A few days later, Reb Eliyahu and Rabbi Meyer Birnbaum, a well-known talmid chacham in Jerusalem and author of Lieutenant Birnbaum, met at Rabbi Birnbaum’s home in Mattersdorf, Jerusalem. Of course Reb Eliyahu brought his tefillin. He would never leave them.

A Reunion with the Klein Brothers
A few years ago, Reb Eliyahu’s story appeared on a television program about the Holocaust. The following day, he received a phone call from a stranger. “My grandfather was one of the Klein brothers who joined you in your escape from Gunskirchen,” he said. A few weeks later, Reb Eliyahu and the two brothers met for the first time in over 60 years.

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The Gunskirchen Concentration Camp
Captain Pletcher of the 71st Division arrived at the Gunskirchen Work Camp just hours after Lt. Birnbaum. The following is an abridged version of his account:
“When the German SS troops guarding the concentration camp at Gunskirchen heard the Americans were coming, they suddenly got busy burying the bodies of their victims — or rather, having them buried by inmates — and gave the prisoners who were still alive what they considered an extremely liberal food ration: One lump of sugar per person and one loaf of bread for every seven persons. Then, two days or a day and half before we arrived, they left. As we drove up to the camp, we saw hundreds of starving, half-crazed inmates lining the roads, begging for food and cigarettes. Many of them had been able to get only a few hundred yards from the gate before they keeled over and died.
“Of all the horrors of the place, the smell, perhaps, was the most startling of all. It was a smell made up of all kinds of odors — human excreta, foul bodily odors, smoldering trash fires, German tobacco. The grounds of the camp were pulpy, churned to a consistency of warm putty by the milling of thousands of feet, mud mixed with feces and urine. The smell of Gunskirchen nauseated us. It was completely different from anything I’ve ever encountered, and hung over the camp like a fog of death.
“The living skeletons who were still able to walk crowded around us and wouldn’t let us continue driving. Almost every inmate was insane with hunger. They were excited at the opportunity to touch an American, to touch the jeep, to kiss our arms — perhaps just to make sure that it was true. Those who were incapable of walking, crawled toward our jeep. Those who couldn’t even crawl propped themselves up on an elbow, and somehow, through all their pain and suffering, revealed through their eyes their gratitude and joy at our arrival.
“The prisoners had been crammed into a few low, one-story, frame buildings with sloppy, muddy floors. Those who could came out of the buildings, but there were hundreds inside — the dead, the near-dead, and those too weak to move. The buildings were so crowded that the inmates slept three-deep on the floor, one on top of the other. Often, a man would awake in the morning and find the person under him dead. Too weak to move even the pathetically light bodies of their comrades, the living continued sleeping on them.
“None of the inmates of Gunskirchen will ever be the same again. I doubt if any of us who saw it will ever forget it — the smell, the hundreds of bodies that looked like caricatures of human beings, the frenzy of the thousands when they knew the Americans had arrived at last, the spark of joy in the eyes of those who lay in the ditches and whispered a prayer of thanks with their last breaths. I felt, the day I saw Gunskirchen Lager, that I finally knew what I was fighting for, what the war was all about.”

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The Righteous Gentile Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg was born in 1912 to a prominent Swedish family that had produced generations of bankers and diplomats. He studied in the United States and graduated with a degree in architecture in 1935. He then worked as a foreign representative for a central European trading company. In 1944, at the request of President Roosevelt and the United States’s War Refugees Board, he was sent by the Swedish Foreign Minister to Budapest in an attempt to save the Jewish community of Budapest — the last left in Europe.
Adolf Hitler’s plans for the annihilation of the entire Jewish population in German-occupied countries had become widely known. Hungary, which had joined forces with Germany in its war against the Soviet Union beginning in 1941, still had about 700,000 Jewish residents as of early 1944.
Raoul Wallenberg’s tactic was to issue Swedish passports to as many Hungarian Jews as possible, which normally saved them from deportation to the death camps. Several tens of thousands of Jews were saved by Wallenberg that way or by the embassies of neutral countries inspired by Wallenberg’s work.
One of his helpers, future Congressman Tom Lantos, accompanied Raoul Wallenberg to the trains where Jews were being packed together like animals for their journey to a certain death and helped the Swede pull people off. “He bluffed his way through,” said Tom Lantos. “He had no official authorization. His only authority was his own courage. Any officer could have shot him to death. But he feared nothing for himself and committed himself totally. It was as if his courage was enough to protect himself from everything.”
Raoul Wallenberg even had a number of face-to-face confrontations with Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” for the Jews in Hungary. After asking Eichmann: “Look, face it, you’ve lost the war. Why not give it up now?” the German replied that he was staying to complete unfinished business — the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. “Don’t think you’re immune just because you’re a diplomat and a neutral!” Wallenberg was threatened. A few days later, Wallenberg’s car was attacked, but he was not hurt.
Raoul Wallenberg shocked the other diplomats at the Swedish Legation with his unconventional methods. He successfully used everything from bribery to threats of blackmail. But when the other members of the Legation staff saw the results of Wallenberg’s efforts, he quickly gained their full support.
Armed only with courage, determination and imagination, Raoul Wallenberg saved approximately 100,000 Jews from slaughter. He was able to issue thousands of protective passes, purchase and maintain “safe houses” and soup kitchens, secure food, medicine and clothing for the new “Swedish citizens” and the many children orphaned by the Nazi violence. A master of diplomacy, organization, threats, bribery and charm, he brought people back from death trains and death marches.
In January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg received information that Adolf Eichmann planned a total massacre in the largest ghetto. Wallenberg sent an ally, Szalay, to find General Schmidthuber, the Commander of the German Army in Hungary — the only one who could stop the slaughter. Szalay delivered a note to Schmidthuber explaining that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that after the war, he would be considered a war criminal and hung.
Thanks to Wallenberg, General Schmidthuber cancelled the order at the last minute and more than 70,000 Jews were saved. Two days later, the Russians arrived and found 97,000 Jews alive in Budapest’s two Jewish ghettos. A total of 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary.
After the war, the Soviets arrested Wallenberg and he disappeared into the Soviet prison system. His fate still remains a mystery. During the late 1940s and 1950s, many foreign officials captured by the Soviet Union were released, but Raoul Wallenberg was never sent home. The Soviets claimed that he died of a heart attack in 1947, but there were reported sightings of him in Soviet prison camps over the years.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan approved a special Act of Congress making Wallenberg an honorary US citizen, a recognition shared with only one other foreigner — Winston Churchill.
In 1989, Wallenberg’s family visited the Soviet Union, and the Soviets surprised them by handing over Wallenberg’s personal belongings, including his passport, money, a daybook and a permit to carry a pistol. But they did not hand over his personal papers.
In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an international commission discovered that the KGB had destroyed the Raoul Wallenberg file, effectively eliminating all possibility of discovering his fate.

The Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz in Upper Austria was not among the Nazi regime’s biggest camps, but it was undoubtedly among its most horrendous. Built in August 1939 by inmates of the Dachau concentration camp, Mauthausen was one of the most brutal concentration camps. Almost 200,000 people, from practically every European country, died there.

More than half of Mauthausen inmates died. They were either beaten to death, lynched, shot, given a lethal injection or gassed, or died “naturally” of disease or starvation.

The inmates were used as cheap labor in a nearby quarry, which was connected to the camp by what became known as the “Stairs of Death.” Several times a day inmates carried heavy granite blocks up a total of 168 “stairs,” consisting of randomly placed rocks of different sizes, some which were over one and a half feet high, while being chased and beaten by their SS guards. Inmates who collapsed were shot.

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