It was a very cold and snowy late afternoon when the prisoners of barracks 9 returned from their work. The bitter cold frost made the scrap metal stick to the men’s hands as the job required the prisoners to move mountains of metal from one place to another.
At times, it rained and the mud made it even harder to maintain a firm footing while pushing and pulling the giant scraps of iron that would be melted down to make more weapons for Hitler’s war machine. Some were sent to I.B. Farben’s factory to work, but even that meant slave labor.
The men were marched through the icy wind and snow flurries, clad in striped uniforms, ill-fitting shoes, thin jackets and caps while the bitter Polish cold numbed their arms, hands, legs, and feet. Rabbi Faerman thought back a few years prior to his fateful transport from Kiev to the hell hold of Auschwitz. He pondered on the memories of family around the Sabbath Table, the lighting of the shabos candles, the prayers, his wife’s borscht, cholent, or fish with rich farm butter with black bread and cheese. His old synagogue came to memory, with the rustic wooden benches, the wooden ark with the Torah scrolls, and the people who attended faithfully on the Sabbath and high holy days.
All these were just memories now. He looked around at the men in this marching group from barracks 9 and recognized a few from his town near Kiev. They had also attended the synagogue faithfully, celebrating the high holy days, enjoying life as they could in spite of the war. Now, they were all together in this place of suffering and anguish, where future dreams went up in smoke, where thoughts of family turned to ashes and dust as many became in this camp of death called Auschwitz.
The weary group of men passed under the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” above, with sneering guards and capos on the right and left. Those words just echoed another nazi lie. Yes, work would indeed make them free, free from the land of the living, free to return to the dust of the earth from which they were made.
As the men marched passed the gates, rabbi Faerman looked to the right at the railroad tracks that lead him and his family to this place of suffering and woe. He looked at the platform where he was separated from his dear wife and children, amidst growling, snarling dogs and screaming guards. He looked toward the crematorium chimneys that belched black smoke, where so many lives and dreams soared upward toward heaven. If only the God in heaven would someday bring justice to this act of human slaughter.
The group finally stopped in front of barracks 9. The guard counted the group and gave the report to the officer in charge. For rabbi Faerman and the others, it would be so easy to hate these monsters who called themselves “soldiers of the reich” but hate would eat away at their hearts and souls, and in the end, they would be just like them. No better than a capo with a truncheon, or guards and officers with mousers and lugers, or Dr. Mengele in his clinic of horrors. Either hate would conquer love, or love would conquer hate. The choice was theirs.
Rabbi Faerman remembered the teaching of Torah. After all, did not God love the children of Israel, even when they were rebellious after having received the law? God could have rejected his people, and selected another. But no, the God of the universe chose to both forgive and keep on loving his children. Yes, he knew that love was better than hate, in the end; justice would be in the hands of the Almighty one of Israel.
The hard thing to do in a place like this would be to put love and forgiveness into action. He knew what he had to do. He would not allow hate to conquer his spirit. He was a rabbi and represented the Torah of Adonai, he had to remember that.
The evening count was given to the commandant. After that, the men formed a line and their dinner of watery potato or turnip soup was poured into small bowls, together with a few ounces of stale bread and cold coffee. The lucky ones were in the back of the line. They would receive a bit more substance than liquid gruel, as the bottom of the pot revealed more potato or turnip substance which ended up in their bowls.
Sometimes, the camp cooks would boil the rotten potatoes and turnips, making the soup somewhat rancid and bitter. Those who were “unlucky” to be at the end of the line got the rotten mush. Many who were hungry enough to eat it ended up getting sick. The sick could then report to the camp infirmary, thus skipping a day of work. At times, it was a fateful decision, because the sick many times received a very bitter medicine, a trip to the gas chamber and up the crematorium chimney in smoke.
Yes, it was a hard life in camp, and many of those who would survive, ended up with embittered souls in skeletal bodies. Others decided to end it all on the electric fence by their own hand. The men entered barracks 9. One by one they found their way to their bunks. The bunks were three high. Usually three men slept in each bunk not to mention the lice that made their home in the mens' flesh and hair. Fortunately, in barracks 9 there were only 50 men at that time, making the barracks less crowded than usual.
The exhausted men sat down on their bunks. Some lay back and stared off into that seemed nothingness, trying to remember the pre-war years gone by, of family members gone by the way of ashes and dust. Some hoped of survival after this nightmare would be over. Others still held on to the hope of seeing loved ones again.
Rabbi Faerman looked around at the men. Most were Russian Jews, but some were Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Polish Jews. In spite of the language difference, they all had Yiddish in common which made a common linguistic ground. The other common ground was the misery and suffering they all shared. They also shared the faint hope of survival. Would they survive this camp of hell and see an end to this war? “Where was God in a place like this?” they all seemed to wonder. The Spirit of God was indeed here, as it was in the brick and mortar pits in Egypt, as well as in the Babylonian captivity, and with each and every Jew in every corner of the world.
Faerman turned to look out of one of the barrack’s dusty windows. He saw three stars in the now darkening sky. It was the first night of Hanukkah, the 24th of Kislev. He remembered many Hanukkah evenings at home. His wife would prepare a special dinner. His children, brothers and sisters would sit around the old wooden table. They would then take turns lighting the candles of the special menorah. His wife would light the middle candle, the Shamash, and would then take the first candle and allow the flame of the Shamash to give it light. All would then say a prayer and a blessing. There would always be a “story teller” who would retell the story of the Maccabees and how they drove out the Greek-Syrians from the land of Judea, and how the temple was cleaned and rededicated to the service of God. After dinner which always included potato latkes fried in shmaltz, the children would play games and search for pieces of chocolate hidden around the house. The special Hanukkah menorah was also lit in the synagogue. Families would often stop by in the evening to pray and read the Psalms. Some brought special gifts to the rabbi and his family. The eight days of Hanukkah were very special indeed.
Now, these barracks were Faerman’s synagogue, with 50 men who lost all hope. Battered and torn, souls ripped to shreds, living skeletons which were once robust and full of joy. He would be these mens' shepherd, whose job would be to comfort and give hope to these 50 sheep in midst of the wolves of the third Reich. Somehow, he would have to restore their faith. Yes, Hanukkah would be celebrated, and tonight, somehow, some way. He looked at the table which sat in front of the window. It was a large, long, wooden table where the men often sat, and talked about home. Some would just sit and stare into space, taking small bites out of small morsels of hard biscuits, which often times they would have hidden inside their ragged clothing.
The rabbi would often look out the window, his thoughts taking him back to Kiev, to his family, home, and humble synagogue. Auschwitz, however, was now reality. He needed only to look at the numbered tattoo on his arm, and at the men around him, the remnants of once strong, healthy children of Abraham. Rabbi Faerman once again looked up at the night sky, the few stars that were out seemed to look down upon the camp of doom, offering a spark of hope, hope to see an end of this madness and hell, an end to needless suffering and pain. Some how, the lights of Hanukkah would offer hope and triumph over this darkness and evil. As the Maccabean army triumphed over the forces of Antiochus Epifanes, they would triumph over the forces of the third Reich, and an end to the Antiochus of Germany.
The re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem offered hope to the Judeans back then. It would be no different now, even now in this time of agony and strife under the iron cross of the Reich. Yes, thought the rebbe, he would indeed celebrate Hanukkah, even here in these barracks of gloom, in this hell hold called Auschwitz with these 50 men, but how? He had no menorah, no candles, and no matches. He would exercise his faith, and like the prophets of old, he would just pray and ask the Eternal Holy One (Blessed be his name) for a miracle. He slowly turned and faced the men of barracks 9.
“Fellow Jews” he started, “Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. As Judah the Maccabee fought against the enemies of Israel, and achieved victory, so shall we, one day, be free of the Nazi yoke. Let us now celebrate this first night of Hanukkah.”
“And how, dear rebbe, do you intend to do that?” ask one man as he got off his bunk and walked over to where the rabbi was standing. “Do you intend to ask Herr Kommandant a holiday pass to go home to our families, if that is, they are still alive?” “No” replied a second man, “the rebbe will ask Herr Kommandant for some candles, matches, and maybe even a golden menorah.” The men were just shaking their heads, murmuring if indeed the rabbi had lost his senses. “Where is your faith?” replied the rebbe, “is there anything too difficult for God?” “Our faith” said the man who had come over to where the rabbi was standing, “went up in smoke, like our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, wives and children did as soon as they passed through those gates out there” he was now pointing out the window in the direction of the iron gates which spelled out “Arbeit mach frei”.
Rabbi Faerman looked into the face of the man who was now standing next to him. Something in him seemed familiar. Sometimes it was hard to recognize people as the toil and the hardship of labor camps had wasted human bodies. The man was also looking deep into the eyes of the rebbe. “Avram?” said Faerman quietly, “is it you, who so faithfully attended the synagogue in Kiev for so many years?” “Yes” replied the man, “but I am just the shell of the man I used to be. Now I am alone, family gone, up the crematorium in smoke. Yours too I suppose.”
Rabbi Faerman didn’t wish to ponder the fate of his family. Perhaps they too had joined Avram’s, victims of the third Reich’s murderous plot to silence all Jewry through the “final solution”. As rabbi, however, he must at all cost, keep the faith, so that faith might overcome fear and hate. Faith must endure and overcome the walls of Auschwitz.
“Avram”, the rabbi now grabbing his fellow prisoner’s hands, “for the sake and memory of our loved ones, for our faith, to honor tradition, we must celebrate Hanukkah like in times before dear friend”. Avram looked into the eyes of his rebbe, he slowly nodded his head. “Let’s pray then rabbi” “and let’s invite the others too”. Slowly, both men turned to face the other men of barracks 9. All the men were standing now, all eyes glued on the rebbe and Avram. “Men” said rabbi Faerman, “tonight we shall celebrate Hanukkah, yes, we need candles….so…we shall pray for candles, who will pray with us?” “Those who wish to also join us in prayer, step forward to join us at the table.”
The rest of the men looked at each other, slowly, they nodded and walked over to the table, soon, there were about 30 men around the table. The rest stood by their bunks, but also in the spirit of prayer. All eyes were now glued on the rebbe.
“Let’s pray” said the rebbe in a quiet but firm voice. “God Almighty, God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, praise your Holy Name We come to you now, your chosen people, to ask for a miracle in the midst of suffering and despair so that we might celebrate this time of the Festival of Lights that reminds us that you have not abandoned your people, and that somehow, you will set us free from this place. Please send us some candles, just a few, to light and honor this time of Hanukah….amen”
“Amen” echoed the rest of the men, who up to now, followed along in silence slowly rocking back and forth in a steady motion. Now, they all returned to their bunks to settle down for the night. Rabbi Faerman returned to look out the barracks window. In the distance, he saw the faint outline of a man walking toward the barracks, illuminated by the search lights of the camp. He knew it was time for the guards to come around and check the barracks.
Sergeant Muller was the regular guard who would come. He was a fat, stout man with cruel lips who take pleasure in shouting “juden schwein” (Jewish pigs). At times, he would call out the whole barracks into the cold night air, line every man up and then punch every third man in the stomach. He would then take count and abruptly turn and walk away, leaving behind a faint smell of schnapps.
But this figure was not sergeant Muller. As the figure got closer, the rebbe noticed that it was a tall, thin figure of a man walking slowly in the new fallen snow. This Wermacht guard was obviously a new one. Rabbi Faerman watched through the window as the new guard stopped in front of barracks 9, looked around and just stood there for a few minutes, kicking the snow with his boots. The search light in the guard tower passed over barracks 9 momentarily, then he called out;
“Herr Rabiner, hier komt” (come here rabbi) He stood there in the cold evening night air, a soft wind blowing some snow around his boots. How strange, thought the rebbe, never had a Nazi soldier called him by “Herr Rabiner”. He then saw that the guard had noticed him at the window. He motioned for him to come out with his gloved hand. The rabbi slowly opened the barracks door; a gust of wind swept inside followed by a flurry of snow. Slowly, the rebbe went outside to meet this strange new wermacht guard.
The rebbe and the guard were now face to face. Clad only in his scant jacket, rabbi Faerman seemed to ignore the cold being intrigued by this new guard. Dressed in his heavy coat, helmet, belt, boots, and rifle, this guard had a serene look on his face. Somehow, his face did not reflect hatred of the chosen people. The new guard spoke in a quiet tone, but first looking right and left as if to be sure no one else was listening. “I’m Sergeant Kohler, Herr Rabiner. I’m replacing Sergeant Muller” “What happened to Muller?” asked the rabbi. “Sent to the front, for reasons that are not really important” replied Kohler. “Rabbi” continued Sergeant Kohler, “not all Germans love Hitler and hate the Jews, some like me, feel just the opposite.” Rabbi Faerman stood there in the icy wind and snow hardly believing what he had just heard. A Nazi soldier, a camp guard, a soldier of the third Reich saying that he loved the Jews! It seemed strange that in this desolate place of misery, suffering, forced labor and human carnage that there could be a tiny bit of mercy, love, and understanding.
But here, standing before him, was such a person, perhaps someone like Oskar Schindler, who also took a stand to help save Jews. Indeed, God had sent this Wehrmacht soldier to this camp, to these barracks to ease, maybe just a little, the suffering and misery of God’s chosen people. Sergeant Kohler continued to speak; “I too have suffered loss in this war” he said slowly, “my mother, father, and two sisters died in an allied bombing.” “We all suffer in this war, both your people and mine.” “Wars are to be fought between armed soldiers, not innocent people whose only crime is to be part of a culture rich in the knowledge of science, art, history, and a profound knowledge of God.”
“I am sorry for your loss” replied the rebbe, still shocked at these words coming out of this guard’s mouth. The sergeant slowly nodded his head. Then, the sergeant reached into his heavy coat pocket and took out a small cloth sack. He stepped back a few steps as the tower search light passed momentarily over the two figures standing there in the snow and wind. He looked around to be sure no one was watching, he threw the sack down into the snow, and kicked it with his boot toward rabbi Faerman.
“I too know of your holidays” he said. With these words, he nodded to the rebbe, turned and walked away. Rabbi Faerman stood there in the wind and snow, looking down at the small cloth sack which was by his feet. He picked it up and quickly returned to the barracks. Inside, the men had now gathered around wondering what had happened outside. The rebbe was still in a daze, marveling at this encounter with the new guard, a guard with compassion toward the chosen people. He went to the long table by the window and untied the sack, emptying the contents onto the table. Out of the sack fell 9 semi burned candles of different sizes. There was also a small box of matches. The men of barracks 9 were now all gathered around the table. No one said a word. They just looked at the candles and the sack. Rabbi Faerman finally broke the silence. “Let’s thank Our LORD God of Israel for answering our prayer” The rest of the men nodded some now smiling for the first time in months. The men joined together in the spirit of prayer.
“O God of our Fathers, Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we thank you for answering our prayer, for sending us these candles, for sending us this guard with compassion toward your people, so that together, we might celebrate this Festival of Lights, bringing light to this place of darkness and gloom” The rebbe paused for a few seconds, then he continued. “We also ask for protection for Sergeant Kohler, allow him to survive this war, and to start life anew…as we also will do….amen” The rest of the men also echoed their “amen” in unison. Avram looked at Faerman then looked at the candles. Tears came to his eyes, to think that in this place of grief, there was a tiny bit of humanity.
Rabbi Faerman then lined up the candles on the table, putting the tallest candle in the middle, and the 8 smaller ones, 4 on each side of the middle Shamash. He then lit the middle Shamash. The rebbe proceeded to pick up the end candle, and handed it to Avram. Avram nodded, and then lit the end candle with the Shamash, thus welcoming the first night of Hanukkah, a Hanukkah in Auschwitz, a light of hope in a camp of death.
Slowly, the men returned to their bunks. No one talked, they just wondered in awe at this moment of bliss, amidst death, dying, and misery, the two lit candles gave hope to the barracks of men who had lost all hope. The seemingly hopeless future was now changed by the first lights of Hanukkah. The Maccabean Jews had won their struggle against their cruel and ruthless enemy, Antiochus Epifanes. Adolf Hitler was just another Antiochus who, in time, would fall. England, Russia, and the United States were closing in on the armies of the third Reich. Very soon, the time of Jewish suffering would be over. Liberation was near.
Rabbi Faerman looked out the barracks window again. The evening sky was now lit with the stars of heaven. He watched as the tall, thin figure of sergeant Kohler walked away into the distance. “May the LORD God of Israel bless and keep you Sergeant Kohler” said the rebbe quietly. “And may you live to see the end of this war.” Rabbi Faerman watched as the figure of this new Wermacht soldier slowly disappeared in a swirling gust of wind amidst the flurries of snow.
AUTHOR'S ENDING COMMENTS;
Many people say, especially those who were there, that one can never know the suffering of those in Auschwitz, and the rest of the camps of death unless you were there for real. The “Final Solution” and all the “killing ways” did not silence the Children of Jacob. Israel outlived the Reich, Hitler, Goebels, Eichmann, and all those who wanted to see the end of Jews. This was just another way the Satan came up with to try to rid the world of God's chosen. One would like to think that there might have been such a guard as Sgt. Kohler, just a tiny bit of humanity among all the demonic guards from hell. Only those who were actually there would know for sure.