Our day began at 5:30 a.m. At 6:00 we had to assemble for the appel no matter what the weather. We had to stand for sometimes three hours. We were then sent to wash. In the winter the water was nearly frozen. Breakfast consisted of something called black coffee. A thin, diluted soup was served at 1:00 in the afternoon, and supper consisted of more of the same. Once a week we were given a loaf of bread mixed with sawdust and some sausage or cheese and occasionally margarine or jam. Once a month we got cigarettes.
We suffered terribly from sickness in the camp. Dozens contracted typhoid fever and we had no real medical care. A friend caught pneumonia. When she died, the workers came with a wagon, threw her body on top of the waste barrels and took her away.
What happened when it was Shabbos and Yom Tov?
On Shabbos those with work assignments tried to do as little as possible. This was the first time since I was three years old that I was not able to light candles. I promised myself that if I ever got out of there, I would light an extra two candles to make up for all the missed weeks. Some said Tehillim by heart, but otherwise it was hard to tell it apart from any other day.
There were men who had come from Holland. They had a Chumash, a shofar and a machzor for the Yamim Nora’im. It is impossible to know how they kept these things in Bergen-Belsen. The man with the shofar lent it to the Satmar Rebbe for Rosh Hashanah and we actually had a minyan in his barracks. The Rebbe’s barracks was turned into a shul, with one side partitioned off for the women. About 200 people from the transport came to daven on Rosh Hashanah.
On Yom Kippur we assembled again. The Rebbe spoke at length before Kol Nidrei. I no longer remember what the Rebbe said, but I remember what he meant and this has remained with me always.
How long did you remain in Bergen Belsen?
In August, three weeks after our arrival in Bergen Belsen, there was a selection during the morning appel. We had heard many rumors about selections and we smelled the odor from across the fence. However, since we had not seen any visual proof, we chose not to believe. Mengele himself came to preside over this special occasion.
Mengele and all the members of his entourage were dressed in fur-lined jackets. They walked up and down watching us shiver in our thin clothing, mocking us in our misery.
The Germans had agreed to send a group of 300 prisoners to Switzerland in exchange for supplies. It should have been a happy time for those being freed but instead it was like a living death. In his selection he forced apart husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters.
One night I crept into the tiny latrine in our barracks. Suddenly I heard the sound of crying and sobbing. There was a window above my head in the latrine, but I was too short to reach it. I don’t know how I dragged myself up there but I knew that I had to see from where those voices were coming.
A crowd of people were being led across the compound to the crematoria. Some were screaming Shema Yisrael, others were saying goodbye to each other. “I hope I’ll see you!” brothers shouted to their sisters. “I hope you’ll survive!” Mothers called out names: “Moishe, are you here? Faige, are you here?”
It was unbearable. I couldn’t listen but I couldn’t tear myself away. I promised that if I ever got out of there, the extra candles I would light each Shabbos would be in memory of them.
The next morning we were awakened at six as usual and stood during appel as on every other day. But it was not like every other day; it was Tishah B’Av. A towering flood of fire was gushing upward from the crematoria.
Our release from Bergen-Belsen was a sudden surprise. One morning in December 1944, after the appel, the kapo announced that we should pack up and be ready to leave at a given time. That’s all; there was nothing else. We were freed k’heref ayin — in the blink of an eye. We were released on the eleventh of December, 1944.
What message can you impart to today’s generation?
As the years go by, I see more and more how true it is that one should listen to the z’keinim. I trusted my parents, but I didn’t understand everything they said. Now I see that the wisdom of a zakein is more than a young person can possibly know.
It is my parents who have gone before me every step of my life, lighting the way over the obstacles ahead. I see their faces continually in front of me. It is because of their guidance that I have been able to carry on my father’s heritage and to fulfill my mother’s requests. It is because of them that I am still baruch Hashem, going forward.