The Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust

Haifa woman whose father rescued many in Bratislava: "When there's nobody left to ask, you discover that you want to know."

Lodz Ghetto memorial 248.88 (photo credit: )
Lodz Ghetto memorial 248.88
(photo credit: )
Child Holocaust survivor Tova Teitelbaum is angry at the paucity of material about Jews who saved Jews. While there is no dearth of information about Jews who resisted the Nazis and died in doing so, most notably in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, very little has been documented about those who survived unless they went on to carve great careers for themselves after the war or became controversial figures such as anti-Zionist Dr. Marek Edelman, now 86 and believed to be the last survivor of the uprising. Teitelbaum has good reason to be angry. Her late father, Jonas Eckstein, was among those courageous people who risked life and limb on a daily basis to save fellow Jews. Although occasional mention of this period in his life had been made among relatives and close friends over the years, it wasn't something that his family dwelt on. While some families never overcome the scars of the Holocaust, for the Ecksteins it did not linger as part of their everyday lives, though at the Pessah seder when reciting the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the suffering that the Children of Israel had experienced at the hands of the Egyptians, Eckstein would add the line, "Even in this day and age..." Although he didn't talk much about the war, he had hoped to one day convey his experiences to his daughter, an English teacher, who as a student had been editor of her school magazine. Unfortunately, that never happened, and he had realized that it probably never would, especially after she moved to Israel from Australia, where the family had settled after the war. Eckstein started to write his autobiography, but the sentences are disjointed and there are no dates. "I wish I had listened to him more," says Teitelbaum in retrospect. Two years ago, she finally decided to write a book about her father's exploits. She had been spurred to do so while on a visit to Jerusalem from her home in Haifa. A conference at the Jerusalem Michlala on Jews hiding Jews had sparked her interest. Among the other attendees were a number of people who had lived in Bratislava during the war, and they spoke mainly about Rabbi Michael-Dov Weissmandel, who had been a leading figure in Jewish rescue operations, and though he managed to save many people including strangers, had lost his own wife and children. Teitelbaum commented that her father, who was likewise from Bratislava, had also been engaged in rescuing Jews. When she mentioned his name, there were several people who remembered him. Snatches of the stories she had heard in her youth began chasing each other in Teitelbaum's brain, and subsequently wherever she encountered people from wartime Czechoslovakia, almost all of them had heard about Jonas Eckstein, and some could even tell her about testimonial books in which his name appeared. The urge to find out everything she could about her father became ever stronger. Over the years, following her father's death in 1971, she occasionally asked her Austrian-born mother, Valerie, known to one and all as Wally, to tell her about those dark days - but the conversations were episodic and lacking depth - as if her mother did not really want to remember. Now, she is no position to remember. Teitelbaum has met with some of the people who were saved by her father, but they are of an advanced aged, and can't really recollect much. "When there's nobody left to ask, you discover that you want to know," she says ruefully. Never afraid of research, she went to Yad Vashem expecting to find some information in testimonies given by people saved by her father. If such material does exist, it wasn't cross-referenced, and Teitelbaum came away frustrated and none the wiser. Because her son Benny is a reporter and editor at Israel Radio's Reshet Bet, Teitelbaum is probably more aware than most people of the power of radio. It occurred to her that if she called Yaron Enosh, who has a daily program on Reshet Bet about people searching for information about relatives and friends, she might get a lead. And indeed she did. After telling what she knew of her father's story to Enosh, she received a few responses, the most valuable of which was that there is a geniza in Bnei Brak that stores Holocaust-related documentation about Orthodox Jews that cannot necessarily be found in Yad Vashem. Teitelbaum wasted little time in traveling to Bnei Brak. She found a file with her father's name, and inside were testimonies, photographs and newspaper clippings. She remembered that in January 1966, her father had come to Israel on a visit and had spent more time in Tel Aviv meeting people whose lives he had saved, than with his daughter in Haifa. There was a clipping about the visit in the Hungarian-language newspaper Ukelet. It was because of this article about Jonas Eckstein's arrival in Israel that so many people sought him out. Teitelbaum went through the files, photocopied almost everything and then made a list of all the names, and began tracking as many people as she could. Some had died in the interim. Others had memory lapses and could not really provide a coherent version of the facts, and some simply refused to talk to her. But there were a few people who were willing to share whatever they could remember, and with the help of her son, Teitelbaum started putting together a small collection of videotaped interviews. The article in Ukelet noted that Jonas Eckstein had hidden as many as 40 people at a time at a bunker in his home in Pressburg, the German name for Bratislava. It was not uncommon for Orthodox Jews to engage in sport there. Jonas Eckstein had been a member of the Hakoah Sports Club which was active in Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. His favorite sport was wrestling, and he was good at it. According to the article in Ukelet, his background as a sportsman had given him a number of invaluable connections, including in the police, and for some considerable period, he was free to come and go as he pleased. Somehow he was able to set up a communications network with the outside world, keeping Jews beyond Europe aware of what was going on. In the early 1940s, groups of Jewish children from Poland crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and found their way to Pressburg, where Eckstein took it upon himself to hide them. When the coast was clear, he sent them to Hungary, where there was still relative calm. He kept track of these children and wrote to them regularly, because they had no one else to write to them. They had lost touch with their parents, who had either been murdered by the Nazis, or were in concentration camps or in hiding, with no knowledge of the fate of their children. Eckstein thought it was imperative that these children should know that someone cared about them. He continued to maintain contact with them after the war, and when he came to Israel, his briefcase contained many photos of his "children" and "grandchildren" that they had sent him over the years. The Hitachdut Olei Czechoslovakia organized a reception in his honor and sent out invitations to all its members, and of course to Eckstein's "children." More than 300 people from all over Israel showed up. One of them, a man by the name of Natan Friedman, sent a letter saying how overjoyed he was to be able to greet him in Israel. Friedman recalled that in 1945, following his liberation from a concentration camp, he had come to Pressburg and bumped into Eckstein in the street. Sick and broken in spirit, Friedman was totally depressed. Eckstein had taken him home for a meal. There were other people from concentration camps around the table. Comforted by decent food and the sight of other survivors, Friedman regained his will to live. He described the Eckstein house as "a great restaurant where the best meals were always served." It was always open to the sick and the downtrodden, and often provided more than food. Eckstein had given Friedman a considerable sum of money, which Friedman initially refused to take because he had no way of repaying it. But Eckstein was insistent, and after a few months, Friedman was in the happy position of being able to give it back. Eckstein was also able to arrange false documents during the war, and due to his connections, he was permitted to take food to Jews who had been imprisoned in jails or in labor camps, and was thus able to smuggle letters in and out. A document from another source relates how Eckstein managed to get hold of a big, fat duck for Succot. The duck was duly koshered and prepared. That night, German soldiers came to the door. Eckstein managed to get most of the people in the house into a bunker in the cellar before the Germans entered. The same document goes on to reveal other aspects of traditional Jewish life that continued despite the Nazi presence in the city. On Shabbat, they would light a memorial candle, so as to have light. Eckstein thought it was dangerous to have a light that would be visible from outside, and demanded that the candle be extinguished. The other members of the household refused, saying "It's Shabbos... We can't." But Eckstein knew that the saving of life took precedence over the observance of the Sabbath - and he snuffed out the candle himself. What pained Eckstein was the need to send his small daughter away. Tova Teitelbaum, born Gerta Eckstein in 1942, was a baby who cried a lot. Her crying endangered the lives of the people whom her father was trying to protect. The only solution was to find somewhere else for her to stay. Eckstein chose the distant village of Lamec, on the outskirts of Bratislava, where some good hearted Christians cared for her. Teitelbaum went to Lamec a few years ago to look for the people to whom she owed her life. She found the daughter of the family (who has since died), who told her that because the Germans went from village to village searching for Jews, her mother was afraid that the baby would be discovered. The woman's father was an engine driver, which entitled his whole family to a free pass for travel on the railways. So the woman, who was then a young girl, bundled up the baby and travelled all over Czechoslovakia with her until she could no longer do so because the frequency of her presence on the trains aroused the suspicions of railway personnel. So she returned to Lamec, rented a room, and pretended that the infant was her illegitimate child. Meanwhile, both of Teitelbaum's parents had been caught by the Nazis and sent to Theresienstadt. After the war, her father came to look for her and found her. There are many gaps in the story that Teitelbaum hopes to fill. She remains optimistic because almost everyone she speaks to gives her a lead to someone else, and every scrap of information is valuable. The Jews in Czechoslovakia were well organized, she says, which is why people like her father were able to carry out their operations for a relatively long time. The combined network of contacts enabled them to foil the Nazis again and again, albeit not indefinitely. Teitelbaum intends to keep going with her project, not only to honor her father, but to honor all Jews, especially Orthodox ones who engaged in saving Jews. History has not given them their due, she says, and erroneously portrays them as having gone like lambs to the slaughter. She wants to tell the other side of the story.