Rabbi Lau with saviors 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
The Russian gentile who saved former chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau during the Holocaust was posthumously honored at Yad Vashem with the prestigious Righteous Among the Nations award on Tuesday.
As a young adult, Feodor Mikhailichenko risked his life to feed, clothe and protect the young Lolek Lau, who was 10 years his junior, in the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Last year, Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, finally succeeded in identifying Mikhailichenko after decades of searching.
The deceased Mikhailichenko's two daughters accepted the award, which honors non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, on their father's behalf.
More than 22,700 gentiles have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Mikhailichenko is the 164th Russian gentile to receive this honor.
About 200 people, including Lau's family and Israeli and Russian officials, gathered at the Jerusalem museum's Hall of Remembrance, synagogue and Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations for a memorial service and ceremony and to view Mikhailichenko's name on the wall listing the honored gentiles.
"I don't know if you can understand the feeling of a child all alone, and here is a man who owes him nothing," Lau told those at the ceremony about Mikhailichenko's heroic deeds.
"There are angels of death, but also angels of life, no matter how few, and one of the most prominent among them is this Feodor," said Lau.
Mikhailichenko, a Russian prisoner-of-war, and Lau, who had been separated from his brother in Buchenwald, were in the same barracks in the camp. Mikhailichenko used to steal potatoes, collect small rocks in the courtyard near their barracks and cook Lau soup.
He also once took a beige sweater from a corpse, unraveled the thread and used it to sew Lau flesh-colored earmuffs so that when Lau removed his hat as per the Nazis' command, his ears wouldn't freeze. When Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945, Mikhailichenko covered Lau's body with his own, acting as a shield to protect him from the gunfire.
After the war ended, Mikhailichenko wanted to take Lau back with him to Rostov-on-Don, his hometown in Russia.
But Lau, who was eight years old when Buchenwald was liberated, had promised his brother Naftali that he would go to Israel, so he and Mikhailichenko separated.
"I must not forget there is a place in the world Israel. He made me repeat the word 'Israel,'" Lau remembered, describing what Naftali had told him. "Tell people to take you there."
Over the years, Lau tried to locate his savior. Unfortunately, he had neither a picture nor a last name. Lau asked various people for help, and at one point a notice was printed in a local paper, but to no avail. One Russian dignitary told him point-blank, "There are more Feodors in Rostov than Danis in Tel Aviv," but Lau still hoped that one day he would succeed.
"He always spoke about him," Lau's son Rabbi David Lau told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "We always heard about the fact that he wanted to see him."
In fact, at one family birthday party, the children put on a play, and one of them played the part of Mikhailichenko.
Then in June of last year, 63 years after the end of the Holocaust, someone contacted Lau with the news: An American researcher studying Gestapo documents about Buchenwald had identified his rescuer.
For the first time, Lau said, he had known Feodor's last name. He got in touch with the Chabad emissary in Rostov, who found a lifelong friend of Mikhailichenko.
The friend told him Mikhailichenko had died of illness in 1993 at age 66. The friend knew of the little Jewish boy Mikhailichenko had saved and told the Chabad emissary that Mikhailichenko used to tell his daughters, "If he had not gone to Israel, you would have had a brother."
Soon after, Mikhailichenko's two daughters, Yulia Selutina and Yelena Belayaeva, came to Israel to meet the person about whom their father had spoken so fondly.
"Lolek, who father was so attached to - the child who he loved so much," Selutina told the crowd on Tuesday.
Selutina said her father had also tried looking for Lau, but had not been successful.
Lau spoke of the debt he owed Mikhailichenko for his selfless deeds, a debt of gratitude he could not quantify. Even though the gates of Buchenwald were inscribed with the words "Jedem das Seine," or "to each his own," Mikhailichenko had not lived like that, Lau said.
Pointing first to Mikhailichenko's two daughters, and then to his own son David and his nine-month-old granddaughter, Lau told a group of attendees outside the hall, "If not for their father, both this one and this one would not be here."