Leo Laufer was 18 when he was first arrested by the Gestapo for the "crime" of smuggling food for his family into the Lodz Ghetto.
Along with 200 or so others, he was eventually transported out of Lodz in November 1941 to what would be the first of a series of labor and death camps in which he would spend the war, emerging as the only member of his family of Radomsker hasidim - he was the fourth of eight children - to survive.
That first work camp was called Ruchocki-Mlyn - mlyn is Polish for mill - and the task of these forced laborers was, unbelievably, to straighten a river, the Dolca River, so that the water would pick up speed and turn the blades of the giant mill there more efficiently. "Wherever there was a bend in the river, we filled it in so it would go smooth," he said 60 years later, in an interview he gave to the Dallas Morning News, the newspaper in the town where he would build his family.
The owner of the mill, a Pole of German origin named Buda, had evidently requested a slave labor force to do the work that winter. They slept in a barn, having first cleared out the manure left by the cows who'd been there until they arrived. And they died like flies.
A lot of them got lice, and then typhus. "In the woods to the left... there was a place... blocked in with cement," Laufer recalled in testimony he gave for a doctoral thesis. "And anytime somebody died out of these boys, we used to drag him down there, and we dug a hole, and we threw him in, and this was the extent of the burial."
Then they started dying of frost. "You can imagine, there was not any special type of clothes or gloves or anything... It must have been 18 or 20 maybe below zero... Some of the boys came home with their arms actually off. It was horrible."
By the time they left the camp, almost six months later, in spring 1942, fewer than 100 of the group were still alive. Words often failed Laufer in trying to describe the horror of the conditions - no opportunity to shower; the same clothes for almost six months; days spent working in impossible circumstances, scratching and picking the lice off their skin. "If I compare it to Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Dachau or all the camps that we were [in] later, there is no comparison," he said later. "It was beyond human dignity. I don't think a dog or a cat would live in this kind of condition."
Some of Laufer's colleagues may have survived the war, but if they did they never passed on the details of this first camp. Only he did - detailing its existence to Yad Vashem, to Martin Gilbert, in testimony to Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation and elsewhere.
He always agonized that there were innumerable other camps where Nazi victims lost their lives that have never been documented, the atrocities left unpunished, the dead never memorialized. History knows of Ruchocki-Mlyn because Laufer went back and found it, went back with his wife and his daughters, photographed it and spoke about it.
LEO LAUFER was my father-in-law. He died last week in Dallas and was buried, as was his wish, in Jerusalem.
He had triumphed over the most murderous excesses mankind has ever perpetrated, triumphed over hatred and self-pity and despair. Leo Laufer would not be beaten.
At our wedding in Jerusalem almost 20 years ago, he delivered a long and emotional speech - his Holocaust speech, we called it - in which I think he remembered to mention the happy couple once or twice, but we certainly weren't the focus. The focus was his own personal defeat of the Nazis.
His father, mother and siblings had all been murdered. But he had survived, through his wits and no small measure of luck and, crucially, an unbreakable will. And he had married a lovely Jewish girl from Texas, and they'd had four girls, and now the fourth of them, like the three before, had married a nice Jewish boy and would build a fine Jewish family.
His initial downfall, as a teenager trying to help feed his family in the ghetto, had been precipitated in part by a fellow Jew who wanted a share in the food smuggling and turned him in to the Nazis.
Most of us would have become bitter and broken at the betrayal; at the wrenching from his family; at the impossibility of survival in that first camp. But Leo did not allow bitterness or despair to overwhelm him. Not then and not ever. Not even when he knew for certain that his parents and siblings had been killed.
Somehow he kept himself one half-step ahead of death. There was the day at Auschwitz when, though weakened and swollen by malnutrition, instinct pushed him to reverse some of the numbers on his arm during a roll-call, and he thus saved himself from selection and death. And there was the day of his escape from the closely guarded death march out of Ohrdruf in spring of 1945 - he, two other Jewish inmates, and a savvy Russian fellow, Sasha, who showed them how to lose their noisy wooden shoes and spirited them into the woods.
His uncanny ability to find the best in people and build friendships kept him alive through the war and, after he was essentially adopted by two Jewish American soldiers, enabled him to make a new start in the United States.
And once he had achieved security and stability there, Leo started giving back, most especially by assisting Russian immigrant arrivals in Dallas - helping them find homes and jobs, helping them travel the same kind of life-reviving route that he'd been aided along.
Hugely conscious of the extraordinary gift of family, Leo provided everything he could for his, while spending much of his adult life searching for cousins and second cousins and any and every other relative who might have survived, and finding a cherished few, mainly in Israel.
Leo was a wonderful father-in-law - always supportive, telling me that I could do whatever it was I was attempting, and transmitting to me, I hope, some of his wonderful feistiness. He'd given the same feisty confidence to his daughters, and passed on the insistent commitment to helping others, which may explain why all four of them became social workers.
He was an exemplary grandfather, too - warm and proud and never critical. At his funeral, without having forewarned the parents, nine grandchildren, aged from 27 to 10, got up, one after the other, to say a few short words about their love for him.
That service was remarkable, mainly because something that for others would be natural - the marking of a life with a grave and a service - was exceptional for Leo, who'd had no grave at which to honor his murdered parents or siblings.
It was remarkable too, at least to me, because of the tolerance and respect shown by the members of the ultra-Orthodox hevra kadisha burial society, who answered their "Amens" to the kaddish delivered by his widow and four bereft daughters.
Leo Laufer passed away with his wife and daughters at his bedside, and was buried in the Jerusalem he venerated amid an outpouring of love and respect. His life was more than a victory over evil. It was a victory of the human spirit, and of an insistence, undimmed by the indescribable horrors he endured, on living with compassion and humility and generosity. If we can even begin to measure up...
May his memory be blessed.
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