By: Rabbi Shalom Yaakov Chazan, Beis Moshiach
Rabbi Nissen Mangel was born in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. The happy years of childhood did not last very long for him, since he was only ten years old when the Nazis conquered Slovakia and his family was deported.
They were sent to the accursed Auschwitz camp where they were awaited by the evil Dr. Mengele who carried out the selection process. As he puffed contentedly on his cigarette, he decided who to sent to life and who to death. “I was ten years old, short and skinny, but I told him that I was 17. It was only through a miracle that he believed me, and signaled me to proceed together with my father toward those who were to sent to the labor camps, and not to the crematoria.”
In those years, Rabbi Mangel lived through six death and labor camps, and only through divine mercies, as though an angel had spread his wings over him, did he survive them all.
The memories that he carries with him are painful and far from easy to bear:
One day, I found out that my older sister was in the adjacent camp for women. I went there and suddenly heard a scream, “Nisen!” I did not recognize her. She was without any hair, with sunken cheeks and looked to be in bad shape.
I asked, ‘Who are you?’ She answered that she was my sister… I could not believe it was her, and I asked her, “What is your father’s name?” When she gave the correct answer, I realized that it actually was her. I gave her the little bit of food that I had, and the next time I even managed to bring her some meat sausage.
Who heard of meat sausage in Auschwitz? And who heard of a prisoner who could stroll about the camp as he wished? If you tell this to any other prisoner, he would tell you that it never happened. I was one of Mengele’s kids, part of a group of children that he chose for his sick experiments, and these children were considered protected in the camp.
A SEDER NIGHT THAT I WILL NEVER FORGET
Rabbi Mangel shares some fragments of what is stored in his memory:
It is impossible to imagine what it was like in Auschwitz. The suffering of Iyov? Incomparably worse! The suffering of Egypt? Incomparably worse! At least in Mitzrayim, the whole family was together, they had what to eat, as it says “the fish that we ate in Mitzrayim.”
Many difficult and painful experiences are branded in fire within the memory banks of Rabbi Mangel, and in honor of Pesach, he shares one of the many stories that he lived through in the camps:
At one point, I was transferred to the Melk concentration camp, near the city of Melk in Austria. It is impossible to imagine what we went through there, and I don’t what to get into details because I have no wish to cause anyone any pain. However, I would like to share an uplifting special story, in connection with the holiday of Pesach.
One night, as we were returning from forced labor, one of those present said, “Tonight is Pesach.” I have no idea from where he knew this; maybe he was a rav who had somehow kept track of the time.
If so, we have to conduct a Seder.
Matza – none.
Maror – limitless.
Lights out was at 10pm, and at 4am they would already wake us up for exhausting work.
We returned to the barracks at 8:30, after a day of backbreaking work. We were fatigued to death. Every muscle hurt. But we have to make a Pesach Seder. So we sat on the bunks and began the seder. Each person said some part of the Haggadah that he remembered by heart. I was still a boy, and I said the “Ma Nishtana” in my child’s voice. There were 1,200 people in the barracks, packed in like sardines.
“Tatteh, ich vell bai dir fregen di feer kashyes,” I said, and everyone repeated after me.
The first question, and everyone repeated after me. The second question, and so on.
I also knew the Hallel by heart, and when we got to that point, I said it loudly, and everyone repeated after me. We sang, yes, we sang…
At the end, we began to sing “Ani Maamin.”
People who were three-quarters dead, but they sang! We sang the Haggadah.
Suddenly an SS officer burst into the room with his gun out. He was stunned. Singing? How could they sing? Where did they have the audacity from? He raged and screamed: Lay down to sleep immediately, you need the strength to get up to work. If I come back one more time and you are singing, I will shoot all of you!
In Melk that was no exaggeration. There they killed as many Jews as they could, and whoever killed Jews would even get a medal. His threat was no idle wordplay.
Everybody panicked and we all lay down on the bunks.
It did not take even four minutes, and everyone got up from the bunks and continued to sing the Haggadah. Ten minutes passed, and the SS man came back. This time he was in a murderous rage.
A number of times I saw with my own eyes, how they fired streams of bullets and killed hundreds of Jews at a time. Believe me, when I step on an ant, it pains me a lot more than it affected them that a Jew died.
He waved his gun in a half circle around the room and screamed with fury, “If you do it again, I will kill all of you!”
He left. This time it took almost ten minutes before everybody was back at it, singing the Haggadah…
Meanwhile, the clock struck ten and the lights in the camp went out, and only a small lamp shone dimly at the entrance to the barracks.
We continued to sing, and he came in again. This time he was in an abnormal state of anger; literal fury. He looked from one end of the barracks to the other. He looked right and he looked left, a few times. Everybody knew that now the terrible retribution would be carried out. Then suddenly, he just left the same way that he came. He did nothing.
We continued the “seder” until four in the morning!
The Rebbe Rayatz recounts in one of his sichos, how when he was under the heavy bombing of Warsaw, there were many Jews together in the fallout shelter. These included modern Jews, people who did not even know Yiddish, who were totally disconnected from Jewish practice. However, when there was a terrible “boom” from one of the bombs that fell close by, as the Rebbe Rayatz described it, they all screamed “Shema Yisrael.” I always knew that there is a G-dly spark inside every Jew, but I had never seen it. Then, I saw!
What the Rebbe saw in the shelter during those terrifying moments, I saw then, on the night of the seder. Among the twelve hundred Jews in the barracks that night, many hundreds of them were not observant. According to the laws of nature, they should have screamed at us: Fanatics, you want to endanger your lives? Go outside and make the “seder” there, but not on our account! These are our lives that are at stake!
Nevertheless, not one person said a word, and on the contrary, they all joined in themselves, without fear!
This was a real risk of death, but people continued, due to a real awakening of the neshama. This was mesirus nefesh in the most literal sense of the term!
AN INFORMER MEETS HIS END
There is an interesting ruling that appears in the Shulchan Aruch of the Alter Rebbe, which rules that a moser, meaning someone who informs on and betrays Jews to the government, is given the death penalty. In connection with that, the following occurrence is burned into my memory:
During the period that we were still in Pressburg (the German and Jewish name for Bratislava) and hiding out from the Nazis, there was an informer who would inform on Jews that had gotten hold of gentile identity papers. When he would find out about such a Jew, he would inform the SS, and they would finish the “job.” When we would see him from a distance, we would tremble, hoping that he did not identify us.
In the end, the Nazis caught up to us as well and sent us to Auschwitz, together with him.
They sent my father and me to a barracks. Each bunk slept three people. I slept in the first spot, because I didn’t want the Nazis to see my father, and my father slept behind me.
All the lights went out at 10pm. Half an hour later, a group of 10-15 members of the sonderkommando (a special unit of Jewish prisoners, forced by the Nazis to deal with removing the corpses from the gas chambers and burning them in the massive ovens) called out the name of the informer and instructed him to come outside with them.
He went to them, and they immediately began beating him terribly as they screamed, “You betrayed so many Jews and sent them to Auschwitz!” They kept beating him until he died. Afterward, they dug a pit near the barracks and buried him, so that the SS should not find the body. He was the first of our entire group to be killed…
To this day, I have no idea how they knew that he was an informer, but that is what I saw.
Later, when I learned this halacha that the Alter Rebbe writes regarding an informer, I was reminded of this episode. Even somebody who is guilty of murder beyond a shadow of a doubt, does not get the death penalty nowadays, whereas an informer is ruled to be deserving of death even in our day and age.
PURE JEWISH HEROISM
Two years ago, Rabbi Mangel made a trip to Poland together with the Boyaner Rebbe and hundreds of his followers (see sidebar). One of the places that they visited was a place called Plaszow, not far from Cracow, where thousands of Jews were slaughtered and buried in a mass grave.
Rabbi Mangel stood there with the Boyaner Rebbe alongside him, surrounded by the hundreds of Chassidim. They asked him to share a few words, and with his gifted oratory he did so and shared it with us:
I will speak about the kiddush Hashem and mesirus nefesh of Jews in Auschwitz. There are people who think that whoever came to Auschwitz lost his faith, so I will tell you of a few cases that I witnessed or heard from people firsthand.
When I was in Auschwitz, as mentioned, I slept in the first position on the bunk. Behind me slept my father, and behind him was the rav of Pressburg, a Jew named Schreiber, a descendant of the Chasam Sofer. He was a very refined Jew and a tremendous Torah scholar.
Each day they would give us a half a loaf of bread, which was already mostly moldy, and a little bit of “soup.” This was nothing more than hot water with a few kernels of barley, and thin strips of horse meat. Rabbi Schreiber refused to partake from this.
My father said to him, “Pressburger rav, it is pikuach nefesh (danger to life).” His answer was, “I can’t do it.” My father did not let up and said, “This overrides the entire Torah.” But he kept insisting, “I can’t do it.” My father then went on, “It does not just say ‘overrides,’ it also says ‘permits,’ it is literally permissible.” He still would not budge, “I know all that, but what can I do, I am incapable.” So, he only ate the moldy bread.
After two or three weeks, he passed away.
I said to the Boyaner Rebbe, “He was a righteous Jew. He did not say, ‘It is forbidden to me,’ he said, ‘I can’t do it.’” I gave an analogy: If there was a situation of danger to life, could you eat rocks? Obviously not. For him it was literally impossible. I said that this was akin to the level of Moshe Rabeinu. When Hashem said to Moshe, “go down and warn the nation” not to come to close to the mountain, Moshe answered, “The nation cannot ascend.” What does that mean? They cannot? Obviously, they were capable of doing so… However, on the level of Moshe Rabeinu, when something is forbidden – it is impossible!
I would like to share another story, albeit somewhat well known, but I heard it from a direct witness. The person I heard it from was a member of the sonderkommando, who was present at the time. When they would send the mothers to the gas chamber, if there was an infant or young child with her, they would send both of them. However, in their tremendous cruelty, they did not permit the mothers to go to their deaths together with the child, but they would separate them.
There was one mother, who was ordered by the SS guard to hand over her infant, but she did not want to. He demanded again, and then she said to him, “Give me the bayonet from your rifle.” He thought that she wanted to kill the child herself, and he gave her the knife happily. She put the infant on the floor, and gave him a bris mila on the spot, and then she said, “Ribbono shel Olam! You gave me a child, and I am returning him to you as a Jewish child.” This was literally like the story of “Chana and her seven sons.”
Towards the end of the war, when Hitler, may his name be blotted out, realized that he was losing the war, he wanted at least to ensure victory in one war, the war against the Jews. Therefore, the Nazis began to ramp up the shipments of Jews to the death camps. There were days when 20,000 Jews came in one day, among them many children. The gas chambers and the ovens simply could not keep up with the load. What did they do? They took the children and locked them in a barracks until space would open up in the gas chambers and the ovens. In each barracks, there were about 2,000 children.
There was a father there whose son was in the barracks. He came to the kapo who was guarding the barracks and asked him to release his son, and he promised to pay him. He said that he would pay with his gold tooth. The kapo agreed, but said that since the SS knew the exact amount of children there, if one would be missing they would kill him. Therefore, he was willing to save the man’s son, but he would have to take another child in his place.
The father heard that and did not agree. “I will not save my son on the account of another Jewish child!” This was because of the halacha that one may not take one life to save another.
In the end, the father left his son there, and he was killed al kiddush Hashem. This was literally like the Akeidas Yitzchok. The father could have saved his son, but did not save him because that is what the Torah says.
After I told these three stories, the Boyaner Rebbe could not continue to listen any more…
There was a Chassidic shochet (ritual slaughterer, who would often also serve as a spiritual leader in smaller communities), who when he arrived with the members of his community and they were sent to the gas chambers, turned to them and said, “Come, let’s sing. We will go into the gas chambers, and greet Moshiach.” They began to dance. It was gehinnom, but they were certain that they would immediately reach the “chamber of Moshiach.”
THE SHADOW OF DEATH ON THE FINAL MARCH
The war against the Germans began to gain momentum. The Allies fought them on various fronts until they managed to break the German’s iron wall.
The Russians began subduing the Germans on their front and slowly approached Germany. When the Germans saw their defeat, they began the infamous death marches. The camp where Rabbi Mangel was at that time was divided into two. “I realized that those who were healthy were in one line and the rest in another. I was in the wrong line. At the first opportunity, I jumped over to the first line. I thought nobody noticed but one of the Ukrainian guards did notice. He beat me terribly and returned me to the SS guard who threw me back to the second line. I knew that this was a battle for life and did not despair. I jumped again to the first line and this time, nobody noticed.
For many days we marched toward Germany. They gave us no food and we sufficed with snow from the ground. If someone found something on the way to eat, it was a holiday celebration. At a certain point, I felt my strength give out. I asked someone to my side to pay attention where I collapsed so he could tell my family where I died, and also to remember the date so they would know my yartzeit, but he refused to concede to me and said that he would not allow me to die. He helped me walk for several days until we were saved.”
Rabbi Mangel, his mother and sister survived the war. In videos that the Russian army took, my sister can be seen being carried by a caring nurse, since she could not stand on her feet.
THE REBBE’S RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
Despite all these terrible stories, Rabbi Mangel insists on looking at the world with a positive perspective. “I was just in Poland and saw the place where six million Jews were murdered. When I left the extermination camp, I told those around me that this was a real ‘resurrection of the dead.’ Actual resurrection of the dead with take place in the future time, but a spiritual resurrection of the dead already took place.”
Rabbi Mangel explained. “After the war, I arrived in Canada as a refugee, without proper papers. In 5712, I went to the Rebbe for the first time. The following happened around that time:
One day, the Rebbe came in to the office, like any other day, to take the mail. While he was there, a woman came in crying, “Rebbe, save my son!” The Rebbe asked what happened and she said that her son had been in a serious car accident. The car was totaled and for six months her son was in a coma. Nothing helped cure him and the doctors had despaired.
When the Rebbe heard this, he told one of the secretaries to call in a bachur. When the bachur came, the Rebbe said, “Go to the hospital and tell the patient in his ear the name of the Rebbe, my father-in-law (the Rebbe Rayatz). Come back and report to me what happened.”
When the bachur went to the hospital, they did not allow him to enter the patient’s room. He begged and finally, the patient’s mother asked the doctors and got their permission for him to go in. He did what the Rebbe said, saying the Rebbe Rayatz’s name in the patient’s ear. There was no change.
He went back to the Rebbe and reported that he had done as he was told and saw no change. The Rebbe reacted in surprise, saying, “That’s not possible! Go back and say the name of the Rebbe, my father-in-law again.”
The bachur went back and when he said the name, he saw the eyelashes flutter. For six months, the patient had lain there like a vegetable, without moving; this was the first movement. The bachur went back to the Rebbe and reported. The Rebbe said, “Go there every day and say the name of my father-in-law, the Rebbe, until he is completely better.”
The bachur did so and the next time the eyelids began to move. Slowly, he began to regain consciousness until the hospital personnel began calling him “the boy miracle worker.” In the end, he had a complete recovery.
This was the first miracle that I heard about the Rebbe when I arrived for the first time to 770 in 5712/1951. That is the story, but here is the deeper meaning to the story: The Rebbe took on the Chabad leadership right after the Holocaust. The Jewish people were in a state of “coma” at the time. After so much evil and cruelty, many people found it hard to believe in G-d and to follow His Torah. Not only had the Jewish people lost a third of its members, many survivors and refugees stopped believing.
We know that the Shechina is called “Mother.” Perhaps we can say that the Shechina came to the Rebbe and asked: Rebbe, save my son, Am Yisrael!
The Rebbe began calling out in a loud voice and Jews began awakening to teshuva and mitzvos. The Rebbe saved the Jewish people through the shluchim.
Without the Rebbe there wouldn’t be a Jewish people today. The Rebbe wrought spiritual resurrection of the dead.
Over the years, I went to Australia a number of times to give lectures. Many war refugees settled in distant Australia when America and other countries did not want them. Australia, being a huge continent, happily accepted them all. Jews from Poland and Hungary settled there.
I remember one Jew who had been religious and then dropped it all after the war. He did not believe in anything. He settled in Australia because he wanted to run away from G-d, to the farthest possible place. I asked him, “Did you succeed?” He honestly replied, “No. What can I do? I wanted to escape but the Rebbe, through his shluchim, pulls me back.”
This is the Rebbe’s work, to save hundreds, thousands! The Rebbe does not allow these unfortunates to escape.
This is a spiritual resurrection.
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