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When Rabbi Herschel Schechter entered Buchenwald he found a frightened eight-year-old boy amongst a pile of corpses. The rabbi burst into tears and then, hoping to reassure the child, pretended to laugh.
"How old are you?" he asked the child in Yiddish.
"Older than you."
"How can you say that?" asked the perplexed rabbi.
"You cry and laugh like a child," replied the boy, "while I haven't laughed for years. I don't even cry anymore. So tell me, who is older?"
The astute rebuke was made by a child who would later become Israel's Chief Rabbi - Yisrael Lau.
"Yes, we both came from Lodz and were together in Buchenwald before I was sent to a labor camp," says Joseph Gelbart, today a resident at the retirement home of Beth Protea in Herzliya.
At the outbreak of World War II, Joseph was one of 13 children. At war's end he was left with two siblings. "My mother, my six sisters and four brothers all perished," says Joseph, struggling to hold back the tears. "It's difficult to talk about," but he persists, because the story he wants told is how he found his beloved wife.
In February of 1940 the Germans set about creating a ghetto in Lodz in the most run-down districts of the city. Most of the 30,000 apartments in the ghetto were a single room and few had running water. The use of electricity was forbidden in the Ghetto between eight in the evening and six in the morning. Some 160,000 Jews were moved inside the ghetto, and following the closure on May 1, the German police were ordered to shoot without warning anyone who approached the barbed-wire fence which surrounded the ghetto. It was to one of these apartments that the Gelbart family moved and 19-year-old Joseph took a job as a postman.
"The money we received was ghetto currency and what you earned was only enough to buy a loaf of bread that had to feed six people a day. We tried to make a life as best we could. Shabbos was important and there were concerts, classical and folk. We used to talk a lot about Zionism and settling in Palestine. Did we know what was happening outside the ghetto? We had to be very careful. Radios were forbidden and anyone caught in possession of one, would have been shot."
When Joseph decided to marry Nomi, his mother at first was wary - "How can you marry in these times?"
"On the other hand she realized, that maybe it was not such a bad idea. Life had become so unpredictable, that maybe one should enjoy whatever one can. And so, after a simple marriage ceremony, I moved into Nomi's apartment, which she was sharing with her brother."
Little did Joseph know that when he stepped on the glass at the conclusion of the ceremony, the shattering into splinters was no less a reminder of the destruction of the Second Temple as a portend of what was to befall his family and the millions of Jews all across Europe.
It began with the deportations. "They used to come with dogs, shouting "Raus Jude, raus" -"Out Jews, out." The childrenâ€¦. the childrenâ€¦.crying, screamingâ€¦ it was terrible." The image that still haunts Joseph was the lines, "like sheep going to the slaughter while parents held their children's hands as they walked to the waiting buses."
In 1943 it was Josef's turn to join that line. Tearfully he bid Nomi goodbye, never knowing if he would ever see her again. Joined by her brother, "we walked to the bus that took us out of the ghetto to the train station en route to Auschwitz." For both Joseph and his brother-in-law their journey could so easily have ended at the notorious death factory. "Fortunately we were both fit and the Germans could tell by our appearance. This is what saved us," he says. "I used to play a lot of sport, particularly soccer, and so we were selected for a labor camp." They spent only three hours at Auschwitz and then were herded back onto a train, destination unknown.
The irony was that the tracks led to an area well renowned for its cultural life. Goethe, Schiller, Franz Liszt and Johann Sebastian Bach had all lived in Weimar. It was said that Goethe used to climb the Ettersberg and sit and work under a beech tree. Was it somewhat paradoxical, a startling contradiction that this should be the place that the Nazis had chosen to establish Buchenwald (Beech Wood) and where the train bringing Joseph and his brother-in-law finally stopped?
The camp had been built by prisoners in 1937 and during that entire summer it was reported that the SS forced the prisoners to use their "free time" to carry huge stones from the quarry to the camp. Those who carried stones too small were shot. Later, dozens of prisoners were chained to huge four-wheel carts and forced by the SS to sing while pulling enormous loads to the camp. They were humiliatingly referred to by their sadistic guards as the "Singing Horses."
Such was the music that carried across the Ettersberg in 1943 - the legacy of Liszt and Bach! The official goal of Buchenwald was the destruction of the prisoners by work. Fortunately this was not to be Joseph's fate. After five weeks he was again on the move, this time "to a munitions factory where the prisoners lived in barracks in the factory's huge compound. The complex operated 24 hours a day and we worked long shifts with only meager rations of soup to sustain us." The workers were finding it impossible to work under these conditions and "one day I was approached by three desperate boys who appealed to me to ask the 'Director' for more food. I said "Are you crazy? They will shoot me." They looked at me as if there was nothing to lose. Joseph understood.
When the opportunity arose, Joseph approached the Director. "I was shaking in my boots. I managed to explain in halting speech that we were working long hours and we would be able to work better if we had more soup. To my absolute astonishment, instead of a bullet to the head the Director gave immediate instructions for all the prisoners to receive extra rations of soup." This was a far cry from Buchenwald. The reason for the Director's behavior was not kindness! The Germans needed urgent munitions for a war that was no longer going their way. Joseph and his fellow prisoners were the beneficiaries of these changing tides of fortune.
In the twilight days of the war "we were assembled and told to march. Where to, we did not know. Of the original 3,500 prisoners, there were only 1,800 of us left. For three weeks we walked, covering 50-60 kilometers a day, stopping at villages in the night. It was terrible and hunger was driving people to desperation. I know of three prisoners who attempted to escape. Only one succeeded. The other two, one of whom I remember well because he was such a big, strong fellow and also from Lodz were caught. They were dragged into the woods and shot. I never saw the actual execution, only heard the gun fire."
Eventually the column arrived at a village. The situation had become so hopeless "that it became apparent that we were all going to be shot. We heard the village leader appealing with the Germans not to execute us and that his people would provide food. "We will give you all food, whatever you want, please, don't shoot them." The German in charge agreed and soup was brought. Some of us were sleeping in a stable and got talking to one of the locals who told us that he had heard on the radio that the American forces were nearby. We pleaded with him to get word to the Americans and he got on his bicycle and rode off to alert them of the plight of Jews nearby. When the American forces arrived the next morning, our German guards had either disappeared or changed into civilian clothing, posing as ordinary civilians."
THE WAR was over but now a new journey began for Joseph, no longer for survival, but to find out whether any of his family had survived. He made his way to Prague where he met with the Jewish organization helping the DPs (Displaced Persons). "They gave me money to buy a bus ticket to Lodz. I thought that would be the best place to start my search and made my way to our house, where we had lived before moving into the ghetto. I knocked on the door and a lady opened. Her husband was at work and I broke into tears as I explained that this was our house. She allowed me to walk around the apartment; said something about a Jewish family having been very good to her daughter before the war. I opened cupboards and looked all over for some trace connecting this home to my family. Nothing! I was distraught. I asked whether any member of my family had come around asking the same questions. She shook her head."
Following advice, Joseph returned to Germany - to another DP camp. There he met a friend of his from before the war who told him that he had met his brother, who today lives in Brooklyn. "He also said that he had heard that a large group of women had shortly after the war been taken from Ravensbr ck to Sweden. I had heard that Ravensbr ck was a concentration camp primarily for women and so, at least there was a possibility my wife was alive and safe in Sweden."
There was great excitement in the camp when Ben-Gurion arrived with a Jewish American officer. "He addressed us on what was happening in Palestine and encouraged us to come.'We need you, we want you, make Israel your home.' I needed no encouragement, but first I had to find my wife." So Joseph approached Ben-Gurion's companion, the American officer, and asked him in Yiddish if he could help. "I told him my wife might be amongst some former Ravensbr ck women prisoners in Sweden. "Give me her name," he said. "Next week I will be in Stockholm and will make some enquiries. Don't move from here. I will be returning within the month."
A month later the officer returned and "told me he had seen the list of all the women that had been brought to Sweden and 'Your wife's name was on the list.' I broke down sobbing like a child. The impossible had happened. We had survived."
How to get to Sweden? Not so easy. Following advice, Joseph made his way to Bergen Belsen, then occupied by the British army. "I met some friends there and was then told by a woman officer to wait until the next group of DPs were transported to Sweden and that I could join them. It was a strange feeling - living in a former concentration camp, voluntary, and I spent two months waiting for the transport to leave. What can I tell you? When I finally set eyes on my wife? We hugged and kissed and just couldn't let go..." related Joseph, sighing heavily.
Bruised and battered by man's inhumanity to man, the young Gelbart family were still to experience further hardship on their journey to Palestine.
"We arrived in Haifa Bay on the 'Arlosoroff' and were stopped by the British and redirected to Cyprus. We spent two and a half years there before the State of Israel was declared and we finally arrived in Israel."
Nomi Gelbart passed away a few years ago, and the couple are survived by two daughters and seven grandchildren, all living in Israel.
Joseph's second brother who survived the Holocaust settled in Jerusalem. It was a fitting finale to one family's tragic saga that at Joseph's nephew's Bar Mitzvah, the rabbi who officiated was none other than that eight-year-old Lodz boy who had been in Buchenwald with Joseph and would later become Chief Rabbi of Israel.
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