Weekly Chasidic Story #837 (s5774-15 / 6 Tevet 5774)
Eighteen Equals Life
Spring of 1944 brought the terror of the Nazi horror to Northern Transylvania.
Connection: Seasonal-This Friday is the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which has become also the date to say Kaddish for those martyrs of the Holocaust (and all the others through the centuries) whose date of death is unknown.
by Chaya M. Klein
SPRING OF 1944 brought the terror of the Nazi horror to Northern Transylvania, including the province of Marmurese and town of Leordina. The Nazis rounded up all the Jews, killing many in the process, and deporting the remainder to the infamous death camp of Auschwitz.
Yechezkel Klein, his wife, Devorah, and their two young children, a boy and a girl, were among those viciously torn from their homes and their lives. The Nazis were ruthless in their cruelty; arrival in Auschwitz brought immediate death to the young mother and her children, and tragic horror to Yechezkel, a young man of 28 years old. A chasid and talmudic scholar who had sat and learned in the yeshivas of Sigit, his hands that were accustomed to turning the pages of classic Torah texts day and night knew nothing of hard, manual labor.
Choosing among the young, strong men to partake in grueling, backbreaking work, the Nazis put Yechezkel Klein on a work force breaking stones in a quarry. He was forced to work long hours on end with barely bread and water as sustenance. His heart heavy with the loss of his wife and children, Yechezkel, like so many others, labored hard, mindlessly following orders, existing on the basic instinct of survival. And yet, amidst all the horrors, he strove to fulfill the mitzvot as best he could, living each day knowing it could be his last.
He hid his tefillin well and rose early each day to put them on, praying for G-d to let him and his fellow Jews somehow survive the misery each hour was sure to bring. His tefillin were large and rather unwieldy, difficult for him to keep concealed. He did his best to hide them, wrapping them in rags, desperate to ensure that they did not fall into beastly hands.
One day, as a weak and weary Yechezkel stood swaying slowly, his arm bound in the straps of his tefillin, one of the Nazi guards stormed into the barracks. Shouting and screaming at the sight of this Jew, gaunt and pale, wrapped in his tefillin, the Nazi began beating Yechezkel over the head with the butt of his rifle. Over and over, kicking and bashing him on the head and body, the Nazi did not stop until Yechezkel lay bloody and unconscious on the floor. Miraculously, he regained consciousness sometime the next day, realizing what a close call he had had and knowing that he had to find a better way to hide his tefillin.
Each day brought new deaths among the inmates of Auschwitz. Killed at the whim of the brutal Nazis, dying of disease and hunger, suffering from broken hearts and broken bodies, the list of the dead grew at an alarming rate. One such death left behind a pair of tefillin that were small, and easier to hide than the bulky pair Yechezkel had since his Bar Mitzvah. Leaving behind all sentimental attachment to his own tefillin, he rescued the smaller pair from the martyr who had left all worldly pain behind. He continued to wrap them in non-descript rags, and hid them wherever he could find a secret place, while he continued to seek a moment each day to put on the tefillin and pray for Mashiach to come and release all of them from this hell on earth.
JANUARY 1945 brought the advance of Russian troops. The commanders of Auschwitz hastened to clear out as many of the camp’s inmates as they could, sending over 58,000 prisoners on forced death marches. The last few days of January brought the Russians to liberate Auschwitz, finding 600 corpses the Nazis had murdered in their frantic efforts to evacuate the camp and retreat from the oncoming Russian forces.
The Russians also found 7,650 surviving prisoners, ill, diseased and starving. Of these survivors, the Russians took all those who were on the work forces, claimed they had conspired with the enemy, and marched them off to Siberia as prisoners of war, along with any German officers or soldiers left behind.
Yechezkel Klein was among those unjustly accused of such conspiracy and collusion. Worn and weary, broken and weak, he was held captive along with 200 other Jews, prisoners of the Russian army.
The journey to Siberia in the cold harsh winter was long and hard. Food was scarce and warm clothing nowhere to be found. As bodies fell in illness and death, their clothing was taken to cover those barely clinging to life. Prisoners scrabbled over crusts of moldy bread, eating snow melted in their hands.
One day, one of the Nazi soldiers fell to the snow covered ground in the throes of fever. Craving drink in his feverish state, he begged those around him for water. Everyone knew that with this illness, drinking water brought quick and painful death. Filled with grief and helplessness at his own personal situation, Yechezkel found snow and fed it to the fallen soldier. Let him have what he wants and let him die, he thought.
Not long after, the soldier did indeed die. To remember this soldier who had killed so many, to never forget the tragedy he had helped perpetuate, Yechezkel kept the soldier’s small wooden brush. (His son to this day keeps this brush as a memento of all that his father suffered).
Reaching the deep winter wilderness that is Siberia, the Jews struggled to survive. Yechezkel Klein managed to hold on to his tefillin through all of these tumultuous times. No matter how hungry, weak or frozen he was, he found the strength to bind the sacred straps upon his arm and around his head. He had to hide in a deserted and abandoned building each day to fulfill this commandment of the Al-mighty who had helped him survive this far.
ONE MORNING, TOWARDS THE END OF 1946, as Yechezkel stood wrapped in his tefillin, eyes closed, praying with all his heart, he suddenly heard the heavy stomping of boots echoing down the empty corridors of the old deserted building. There was nowhere to hide in this building bare of furniture, walls broken and windows smashed. Hearing the footsteps grow louder and nearer and knowing there was nothing more he could do, Yechezkel closed his eyes and prayed fervently, tears streaming down his face, the words of Shema Yisroel coming from his lips as he prepared for what must surely be the end.
The footsteps came into the room where he had concealed himself. Time stood still. The silence was absolute. Yechezkel kept his eyes squeezed shut, waiting for the blow or the shot.
What he felt though was a soft stroke upon his cheek. “Shhh…I will not hurt you. You will be alright.” He heard the words, spoken softly in Russian, and thought he must be dreaming. He opened his eyes and found himself face-to-face with a Russian officer who was gazing at him with a smile upon his lips and tears in his eyes. Realizing this officer must be another Jew, Yechezkel began to weep openly. The officer, too, wept, saying he remembered his grandfather standing thus with tefillin upon his head and his arm.
“Tell me how I can help you, my brother,” the officer implored.
“Can you help us, free us? There are only 18 Jews still alive of the 200 that were taken from Auschwitz over a year ago. We only wish to return home to live some sort of life. Can you help us go home?” asked Yechezkel hopefully.
The officer promised to try his best. Two weeks later, Yechezkel Klein and the other 18 Jews who had survived were freed from the Siberian wasteland. Wearily they made their way home to begin to rebuild life from the ashes of tragedy.
YECHEZKEL KLEIN WENT HOME to Leordina where he married his second wife, Leah. Together they made their way to Israel. While they were detained en route in Cypress, their daughter Chaya Baila was born. Their son Moshe was born in the holy land, where Yechezkel spent every moment that he could spare immersed in the holy texts of Torah.
Yechezkel had the merit and the pleasure of seeing his children grown and married, although his health was never fully regained and for the remainder of his life he was frail and thin. Unfortunately, he did not live to see all 18 of his grandchildren born. Yechezkel Klein passed away on 2 Tevet 5745 (1984).
Today there are, praise G-d, several Yechezkel grandchildren and great-grandchildren, proud to carry the name of this simple yet holy Jew. With the blessing of the Al-mighty, may there be many more.
Eighteen grandchildren, 18 lives saved; you do the math….
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from an article by Chaya Klein, as told by Yechezkel Klein, her father-in-law of blessed memory, to his children.
Chaya Klein is the wife of Moshe, son of Yechezkel Klein, and also the daughter of an important ASCENT staff couple, Chana (o.b.m.) and Zalman Tornek. Her original version of this story was first published at //Mikveh.org.
Connection: This Friday is the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which has become also the date to say Kaddish for those martyrs of the Holocaust (and all the others through the centuries) whose date of death is unknown.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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