The Final Solution Is Life
A Chassidic Dyansty's Story of Survival and Rebuilding
By Laura Dekelman and Rebbetzin Chana Rubin
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Selish Ghetto, Hungary: Erev Shabbos,
Friday, June 5, 1944 / Sivan 5704
I had barely rubbed the sleep from my eyes when the Hungarian gendarmes, supervised by the German SS, ordered us to evacuate our homes and line up outside. Our time had come to be transported out of the Selish ghetto.
With fear in his eyes, my new husband, R Menachem Mendel Rubin, the Muzsayer Rebbe, placed his two pairs of tefillin (phylacteries) back into the tefillin bag and packed them inside his rucksack. My mother, the revered Rebbetzin Hesse Teitelbaum-Horowitz, ztkl, and I quietly double-checked to make sure that we had what we needed for Shabbos, while my husband ran downstairs to the basement to dig a hole in which to hide our most valuable possessions. His eyes brimming with tears, my husband gently placed the last unpublished sefer (book) of my departed father, ztkl, inside the hole, along with some jewelry -- precious family heirlooms -- and sealed the opening as well as possible.
We were never to see those priceless items again. After our deportation, our gentile neighbors ransacked the apartment and basement -- as they did to the other Jewish homes in the ghetto -- and discovered the valuables. We can only surmise that the thieves stole the jewels -- the items of lesser value -- for their own personal enjoyment, and used my fathers precious sefer -- of infinitely greater value to us -- for scrap paper, or even discarded it right away. Years later we were to speculate that had we buried the items in the nearby Jewish cemetery, our treasures might have remained intact. The looters would never have thought to search there for buried valuables.
Other families sharing the house with us in the ghetto were also preparing to leave, as were the hundreds of others confined within the ghetto. The cruel irony of this situation was that I had grown up in this very house. For the other families forced to share our home with us, it was just a stopover until the next transport. For my mother and me, this place had once been our rebbishe home, and was now filled with a lifetime of sweet memories.
We bore no resentment toward our fellow Jews who had been forced into our home by the SS and the Hungarians. However, we resented the casual, almost easy way the uniformed gendarmes swaggered through what was truly and legally our house. They ordered people about arrogantly, knowing that no one would dare oppose them or even protest. Yesterdays enforcers of law and order had, seemingly overnight, turned into lackeys of the criminals. People all over the world should take this lesson to heart and remember it well!
Life and conditions in the ghetto were tense, yet somehow we did not truly realize the danger we were facing. One day, the alarming bellows of the town crier informed us that we were to be transported out of the ghetto and resettled. Soon afterward, we were given our departure date. Just a few days prior to our departure, the gendarmes told us that we would be taken to a labor camp called Könyörmezö, located somewhere in Hungary, where working conditions were not too difficult, and where families would be permitted to remain together. In reality, there was no such place. This fiction was part of the Great Lie invented by Eichmann. (In Hungarian it means the place of mourning.)
Upon hearing of our destination I felt relieved, believing that I would not be separated from my husband and my esteemed mother. We felt that no matter how difficult the conditions in the labor camp would be, with the help of the A-mighty we would survive.
Now, as we gathered outside, the morning sun blazed into my sleepy eyes and I could already feel the humidity rising on that early spring morning. Nobody thought, however, that this would be the last day we would see the sun rise over the Jewish community of Selish -- although the gentile townspeople were well aware of this.
We formed lines and were led by the gendarmes through town. A menacing gauntlet of townspeople lined the sidewalks and streets, many jeering and shouting insults as we walked past. Others, however, expressed sorrow and disbelief.
At first we hesitated, shocked by the hostility of the crowd, but our captors prodded us forward. Trying not to look at our tormenters, willing ourselves not to look back, we marched on.
Soon we found ourselves at the train station. Before us stood a long chain of cattle cars, and before we knew what was happening, the gendarmes started pushing us inside them.
We could not have known that this was just the beginning of our nightmare. I found myself being swept along with the crowd and tried desperately to hang on to my mother. Fragile as she was, I was afraid that she would be trampled by overwhelmed, frightened people, so I grabbed her arm and tried not to let go.
The intoxification of hatred was visible in the eyes of both the SS and the gendarmes as we were manhandled onto the train. Stumbling and nearly tripping on the ramp leading into the cattle car, I gasped for air as I felt myself being hemmed in by the hordes of people behind me. I was later to find out that there were approximately eighty of us in each car. Even when cattle traveled in these cars, they were treated more humanely! Not too long ago, we were true, good, decent citizens of Hungary. All of this had changed overnight, and suddenly we were being herded into cattle cars by human animals.
As more people crowded in, panic overcame me. Wedged tightly among so many others, there was no room for us to stretch out and achieve any measure of comfort. From a distance, I saw others whom I knew from the kehillah (community), including my closest friend, Parry, and some of my other girlfriends from home. I wanted to call out to them, but they seemed so far away.
A single young Hungarian soldier, dressed in SS attire, was assigned to our car to maintain order. He was no more than 18 or 19 years old, yet his frozen expression and forbidding demeanor caused my blood to run cold. Carrying a loaded rifle, he took his place on a small wooden platform outside the car.
The Death Train
The doors to the boxcar were slammed shut with a chilling clang. After what seemed an eternity, we felt a sudden jerk and the train began to move. I grabbed my mothers hand. It was icy cold, even in the stuffy boxcar. I realized that my mothers lips were moving almost imperceptibly; she was saying Tehillim. Her inner strength and bitachon (trust in the A-mighty) never faltered, even inside this hell on earth. This was the mentality of the Sigheter House in which she grew up.
As the train began to rock monotonously, my thoughts temporarily wandered off. It had only been a few weeks since my husband and I had been wed in Nyir-Bator, Hungary. Despite the turmoil of the outside world, even with German troops in full control of Hungary, we had remained sheltered within our Chassidic lifestyle and circle. However, after a tense Pesach, we were brutally taken away from our homes and locked into a local synagogue. From there, we were dragged off to the Selish ghetto, and now we were being held under gunpoint in a crowded, sordid boxcar. All sense of civilization, humanity and logic had died overnight ... It was impossible to comprehend all that was happening ... except to say that is must be a Heavenly decree.
There was virtually no light in the boxcar. Except for the meager rays that streamed in through a small, barbed-wire-covered opening in the wall, it was dark and gloomy inside. Soon our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and my husband and I devised a way of keeping track of time by monitoring the varying degrees of light and darkness in the freight car.
At one point, the train stopped in Kashau, Hungary, and in the station a bucket of water was passed into our car. Try to imagine sharing one bucket of water among eighty thirsty people, including small, whimpering children! Now try to imagine that this was all the water we were going to get for many hours.
From what I could see through the open doors, the trainmasters seemed to be moving unusually fast in their efforts to rush us out of the station. It became obvious that the train we were on had to make way for the arrival of the following one, whose piercing whistle sounded from afar even as we pulled into the station.
Suddenly we heard soldiers marching quickly toward us. Seconds later, an SS man stormed into our boxcar. Smirking diabolically, he shouted, Juden! From now on, you are under the control of the German Government! You are to take orders only from us! We had been smuggled over various borders until we were handed over to the Germans!
Deathly silence ensued as the officer continued to glare balefully at us. Suddenly shouting into the silence, he promised to shoot on the spot anyone trying to escape. Then he wheeled on his polished heel and stalked out as abruptly as he had entered. In his wake rose the stunned murmur of the captives inside the cattle car.
Thoroughly shocked, my husband and I gazed numbly at one another. Tears welled in my eyes as I turned to my delicate mother, who also remained silent. What words could come at a time like this?
The doors to the boxcar were slammed shut once again, this time by our new German captors. A piercing whistle split the silence, and our train briskly pulled away. I shuddered with dread. What lay ahead?
Shabbos in the Boxcar
Although the unbelievable news that we were now under direct German rule left us in a state of utter shock, we remembered that it was erev Shabbos. We would have to usher in the Shabbos as best as we could under the circumstances. Long afternoon shadows had already formed inside the car, and we could tell that the sun had begun to set. It was time to welcome Shabbos HaMalkah, the Shabbos Queen.
There were various problems to deal with. The first was the dilemma of how to daven (pray) and to recite Kiddush in such an unsanitary environment. It is against Jewish law to daven in the midst of excrement and filth. My husband decided that we could observe Shabbos in the boxcar because the tiny corner in which we were wedged was relatively clean, although he cautioned us that it would be improper to mention the A-mightys holy Name in such generally impure surroundings.
In the history of our family this was the first Shabbos when candles were not lit, even though we had brought some with us. My mother and I beckoned in Shabbos, as did many of the other women. Together, my mother and I recited part of the berachah (blessing) without mentioning the A-mightys name. The holy words were mixed with our tears, and soon the car was filled with the sobs of other pained, heartbroken women and children. I located the two loaves of challah that my mother and I had baked prior to our journey, and I gently took them out, taking great care not to break the soft braided loaves which were still intact.
A horrible thought came to mind. We were the last transport out of Selish. For the first time in hundreds of years, Selish was void of Jews except for the few remaining in a bunker or two. All of the shuls would be empty; the Torah scrolls and prayer books would remain idle.
Throughout the night I dozed fitfully. Towards dawn, I came fully awake and found myself bathed in perspiration. This, combined with the unpleasant damp morning chill inside the boxcar, made me shiver. I worried about my mother becoming ill under these appalling conditions and prayed to Hashem to have pity on her.
The men were davening Shacharis. Just as on the previous evening, each man davened alone in his own cramped Eastern Wall seat. Afterwards my husband told me how difficult it had been to stand for the Shemoneh Esrei in the midst of the wall-to-wall crowd, adding that it helps to keep ones eyes closed in such a situation.
Although by this time we had precious little water left for quenching our constant thirst -- let alone for washing -- my mother poured a bit of her tiny portion over her fingertips as required prior to reciting her morning prayers.
Sometime during the afternoon, my mother recounted a very special story which filled us with hope. When her father2 was a small child, one Pesach he accidentally blew out a candle during the seder. His mother worried over the incident and said that snuffing out candles in such a fashion was not a good sign. The boys father, my great-grandfather,3 turned to his wife and told her not to worry; he promised that their son would someday light nice candles. And so he did. Years later, my grandfather fathered two special sons, my two uncles: R Chaim Hersh Teitelbaum, the Sigheter Rebbe, ztl, and R Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, ztl, who were both to become leading lights in their generation.
In the zemer for motzaei Shabbos we say, Bmotzaei yom menuchah, hamtzei leamcha revachah (At the end of the Sabbath, bring your people relief). Never before in our lives had this prayer been so important.
The Awful Truth Revealed
Sunday, June 7, 1944
After another seemingly endless night of semiconscious slumber, I peered through the dark at my gruesome surroundings. Soon I saw the first rays of sunlight poking through the small, barred opening in the wall of our freight car. I heard others moaning in pain or crying in discomfort as they slept. Some who had just risen began to recite the morning prayers.
Overnight, the odor in the boxcar had become even more unbearable and nauseating than before. In later years my husband often said that the Germans had purposely planned to make the journey as miserable as possible in order to ensure that the weak Jewish victims died swiftly in the cattle cars. For those who managed to cling to life, the horrible conditions were so degrading that many of the imprisoned travelers lost their dignity and their will to resist.
My husband stirred and awoke in this sea of human misery. Sickened by the horrible odors in the cattle car, he opted not to put on his tefillin because of the filthiness of our surroundings. I remember him telling me that he would not put on the tefillin until we got off the train and were in a clean environment again. Little did we know that the Germans would take away his tefillin -- along with everything else we owned.
Next to me, my mother was also awake. She looked extremely pale and was moaning softly. Tears filled her weary, bloodshot eyes. Although extremely weak and uncomfortable, she did not complain.
My husband managed to remain next to me on the other side, and he leaned back against a corner of the cattle car. His face, usually filled with vigor and energy, looked ashen and sallow. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, and I could tell that he, too, felt acutely uncomfortable. As frightened as I was, however, it was still a comfort to know that my husband was by my side. We tried to uphold and strengthen one anothers morale and belief, although we felt impending danger ahead.
By this time, the muffled whimpers of babies and children were coming from various sections of the car. Soon the whimpers turned into wails, and the din became nerve-racking. As my husband and I exchanged glances, I saw an expression of sadness and concern in his eyes. Those poor children! How could their parents adequately explain to them what was happening? Many were too young to understand.
One of our fellow travelers on this terrible journey was the tzaddik, the Dayan of Üjlak. At some point that morning, my husband noticed that the Dayans kapote, or robe, had become tattered and torn to shreds in the crush. I noticed this also and, concerned about the Dayans dignity, reached into our baggage to find another kapote for him to wear. By chance, I pulled out my husbands beautiful new Shabbos robe, which was decorated with colored flowers. It had been a wedding present, and was still brand new.
The Dayan of Üjlak wore that robe when we arrived in Auschwitz. He was still wearing it when he was led into the gas chamber building to hand over his soul to Heaven.
It is written that the clothing of a Kohen helps to forgive our sins. One can similarly say that the kapote, along with countless other tzitzis and clothing of other tzaddikim, testified in Heaven to the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators, and to the noble martyrdom of their victims.
At some point that morning, our train stopped at a station where we were able to discern a sign with the words Nove-Sacz printed on it. We were in the famous town of Sanz, Poland, where my husbands great-uncle, R Yitzchak Tovyeh Rubin, ztl, and his famous great-aunt, Rebbetzin Chumele, zl, had lived. If only we could have stood before the tomb of the Sanzer tzaddik for a few moments!
Harsh reality hit us as we understood the implications of the words on the sign. My husband turned pale. Why were we in Poland when we had been told that we were going to remain in Hungary? Were our captors perhaps taking us to a work camp in Poland instead of to Könyörmezö?
My husband was peering through a small crack in the wall and talking to someone outside. Moments later, he crumpled down next to me. His face was ashen. My heart began to pound.
Almost choking on his words, my husband said, I just learned that we are not being taken to a work camp, but to an extermination camp in Poland.
Shock waves shot through me.
What are you talking about? I whispered back, not wanting my mother to hear. Whom did you hear that from? Wide-eyed with fear, he replied, I heard this from the teenage Hungarian guard who has been riding with us. He was outside on the platform and saw me looking out through the small opening. Our eyes met, and he approached me. He spoke to me in Hungarian through the little crack.
Haltingly, my husband disclosed what had been revealed during this conversation. The sneering guard told him that all of us had been fooled. The reality was that in a few hours, our train would pull into the extermination center known as Birkenau (which, we would later learn, was a subcamp of Auschwitz). All of us would be reduced to ashes by nightfall.
What are you talking about? I protested. You dont believe him, do you?
Yes, I do, he replied. I have every reason to believe him.
Why? I asked in astonishment.
It was the expression in his eyes, answered my husband. The intense hatred he feels for me, for you, for all the Yidden (Jews) on this train is very obvious; the way he smiled when he said we would all be reduced to ashes before nightfall.
This is too incredible, too bizarre to believe! I argued. Why would they tell us that we were being sent to a work camp and then send us somewhere else?
They lied to us and we all fell for it, perhaps because we wanted to believe we were not in such imminent danger, my husband explained.
I wondered whether we were the only Jews on the train who possessed this horrifying information. I felt the blood draining out of my face.
Tears were streaming down my husbands cheeks. He turned to me and said, We must say some final words to one another now because I dont know if we will ever see each other again once we leave this train.
I could barely speak after hearing that. My entire body was shaking, and I found myself sweating and in tears.
We opted not to tell my mother, although we suspected that she might have instinctively known of our impending danger because of the intense way she was saying Tehillim.
Many piercing questions plagued my mind. How could this have happened? How could I, a young Chassidic kallah (bride) from a rebbishe background wind up in a filthy cattle car bound for a death camp?
I vowed that no matter what lay ahead for me or my family, I would never forget my yichus (lineage) and Chassidic upbringing. The words and lessons taught me by my esteemed and holy parents would remain with me and I would come to rely on my memories to get me through whatever lay ahead. Above all, I would remember that Heaven rules over all of us, even in the cattle car, in that place called Birkenau, and anywhere else the SS might take us.
My husband nodded and began to quote from Tachanun.Habeit miShamayim ureei, ki hayinu laag vakeles bagoyim ... (Hashem, look down from Heaven and see: although we are degraded, debased and insulted, taken like sheep to the slaughter ... we dont forget Your holy Name, Hashem!)
1. Called Sevlüs while under Czechoslovakian rule, the towns name was changed to Szöllös [in Yiddish, Selish] -- its name before World War I -- after the Hungarians took it over years later.
2. My grandfather, the famous Rav of Sighet, known by his sefer (book), Kedushas Yom Tov.
3. Known by the name of his famous sefer, Yetev Lev.