Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

Yom Kippur, 1944 by Leon Thorne

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

 

Each year since my liberation in 1944, I rise in my Synagogue on Yom Kippur and recite The Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a man who I saw only twice in my life.  I do not know much about him; I never even learned his name, but I came to consider the story which he told me, and the request he made of me only hours before his death as a last will and testament which he desperately wanted me to carry out.

I met him in the fall of l942 at the Janov labor camp, where more than 300,000 Jews were to perish before the war was over.  When I was there, the camp had 12,000 inmates, whereas the accommodations had been designed for barely 5,000.  The barracks were so jammed with humanity that there was no room to sit, much less to stretch out on the floor.  As a result, many of the inmates, including myself, preferred to spend the nights outdoors, even when the weather was cold, as it was on that damp and chilly night, three days after Rosh HaShanah.  I felt one of my fellow inmates huddle close to me in the dark for whatever heat my emaciated body had to offer.  Each person has his own way of reacting when he feels he has reached the end of the road.  I wanted nothing more than to be left alone, to sit without moving and to let my mind go blank.  But the man beside me appeared to be driven by a compulsion to talk, regardless of whether or not anyone else would listen.  Speaking in a faultless German with the merest trace of a Czech accent, he told me his story.

Before the war, he had lived in Bruenn, a large city in Czechoslovakia, where he had owned a bank and much real estate.  Along with countless other Jews, he had been deported by the Nazis to Poland.  It had all seemed very strange to him, for until that time he had not been much of a Jew at all.  In fact, he had despised his Judaism and had been convinced that the sooner the Jews forgot their Jewishness, the better it would be for everyone.  Accordingly, he had his two daughters baptized in the Catholic faith when they were born.  For some reason which he never explained to me, he and his wife had not formally converted, but they had accompanied their children to church every Sunday and stayed with them throughout the service.

I must say that, at first, I scarcely listened to the man’s recital.  I did not even turn my head in his direction.  What was the sense of this confession?  What was there to talk about?  By this time, I told myself, not only his wife, but even his children, little Jews whom all the baptismal water in the world could never have turned into Aryans, had probably been killed.  Before long, he, too, would be dead – and how much time did I have left myself?  Surely, there was never a time when talking made less sense than on that cold autumn night, when everything seemed about to come to an end.

But then, as if he had been able to read my thoughts, the former banker from Bruenn began to explain why he felt the need to tell me – to tell someone – the story of his life.  He was aware of the fate that lay in store for him.  Now, before he was killed by the Nazi murderers, he wanted to atone for the sins which he felt he had committed against his religion and his people.  How could he be able to do that in this place and at this time?  Why, it was all very simple.  He would draw up a last will and testament.  He had graduated from law school, he told me, so he should certainly know how to do that properly.

Since he had no one left in the world, this will would leave his entire estate to the Jewish community in Palestine.  True, the Nazis had taken his property, but he was convinced that, eventually, they would lose the war, and the money that could be realized from his houses and chateaus in Czechoslovakia would come in very handy when the war survivors rebuilt the homeland of the Jewish people in Palestine.  This way he would atone for his past indifference to the fate of his people and for his former violent opposition to Zionism.  Then, too, his will would include a clause to the effect that, on one day each year, someone should stand up in the synagogue and recite the mourner’s Kaddish for himself, his wife and his two children.  The fact that his children had been baptized at birth made no difference, he said.  In his will, he would declare them posthumous converts to the Jewish faith; surely such an act would be in accordance with Jewish law.  After all, despite their baptism, his two daughters had been murdered because they had been Jews.

He fell silent for a few minutes.  It seemed to me that he was weeping quietly.  Then he began to speak again, with increased intensity.  In order to make his will, he said, he needed only two things:  first, a piece of paper on which to write it, and second, a person to whom he could entrust the document.  He already had a pencil, he told me, holding up a stub so tiny that I could hardly see it between his thumb and index finger.

He proposed to name the World Zionist Organization as his executor.  They would surely know how to dispose of his assets in the best interests of the Jewish people.

“But to whom can you give your will to keep until the war is over and it can be sent to the World Zionist Organization?”  I asked.  “How do you know that any Jew in this place will be still be alive then?”

“I will give it to you for safekeeping,” the banker replied without another moment’s thought.  “If and when the time comes that you are about to die, you will turn it over to someone else whom you consider honest and reliable, with instructions that when he feels that his time has come, he, too, will turn it over to someone who is likely to outlive him.  Look, I know that I can’t last much longer.  Even if they don’t kill me, I will die in a few days.  I am at the end of my strength.  Now if I could find some paper, write out my will and hand it over to you, I would be able to die in peace.”

I turned toward him and for the first time saw his face by the light of a weak bulb outside the barracks.  He looked not much older than forty, but his long, thin face was a mask of agony.  Yet, despite his filthy prisoners’ rage, his matter hair and the stubble that grew thick on his hollow cheeks.

I promised to do as he wished.  He asked me what my name was.  I told him, and at the same time assured him that he was not necessarily at the end of his endurance that within ourselves we have secret reservoir of strength which we are not even aware of until we need to draw upon them.   Nevertheless, I said I would do my best to find a scrap of paper for his last will and testament when I went out on my labor detail the next morning.

When we parted before dawn to return for roll-call, we agreed to meet again at that same place.  I would surely have the paper for him.

As fate willed it, we were not able to keep our rendezvous.  Several days later, early in the morning, our battalion passed through the gate of the camp on the way to an “outside” work assignment.  Suddenly, I heard a voice calling my name.  I turned around; it came from somewhere behind the fence near the gate, the place where they kept the inmates who were to be shot that morning, after the others had gone out on their labor details.  There I saw him again, the banker from Bruenn.  Our eyes met, and he gestured with his hand as if he wanted to write.

“Remember?” he shouted to me through the fence.  “Paper!  Paper for the will!”  The guard beside me shoved me forward.  As I moved away, I could still hear the banker behind me, crying mournfully “Kaddish!  Kaddish!  Remember, Thorne!  Say Kaddish for my children!”