The personal tales of the torchbearers

Six men and women will light torches during Monday night's ceremony in memory of the six million.

torch lighting 88 (photo credit: )
torch lighting 88
(photo credit: )
Yad Vashem released the stirring life stories of the six survivors who were selected to light the torches during Monday night's ceremony at Yad Vashem in remembrance of the six million who perished during the Holocaust. The ceremony marks the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Uri Chanoch

Born in 1928 in Kovno, Lithuania, Uri studied at the local Jewish school and was a member of the Betar Youth Movement. In August 1941, Uri's family entered the ghetto. At the age of 13, Uri began working as a messenger in the German Work Office. He was recruited into the underground movement and risked his life stealing work permits that enabled many people to escape the ghetto and join the Partisans. During the German Aktions against the ghetto's children, Uri hid his 9-year-old brother, and despite receiving severe beatings did not divulge his brother's whereabouts, thus saving his life. In July 1944, the ghetto was liquidated and the few people remaining after the Aktions were moved in deportation trains to Germany. On the way, the women and children were removed in Stutthoff, Poland - including Uri's mother and sister. This was the last time Uri ever saw them. The men were transported to the Landsberg/Kaufering labor camp in Dachau. Several days later, all the remaining young children were sent to Auschwitz - Uri's brother, Dani, among them. Due to the oppressive work, starvation and beating, Uri's father's health deteriorated, and in October 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz. Uri was now left alone and tried to satisfy his hunger by eating salt and drinking water. As a result, his body swelled and he weakened, losing the will to live. At sick call, he stepped forward, knowing full well that this meant almost certain death. Fortunately, the Jewish assistants to the camp commander who recognized him from the ghetto intervened on his behalf, and the commander ordered Uri removed from the line and assigned him the job of cleaning the office. Later on, this allowed Uri to save the life of his good friend Chaim Konfitz, who had been seriously wounded in a work accident. Uri struck a deal with the camp physician, Dr. Zachrin, who agreed to save Chaim's life in exchange for a supply of tobacco for his pipe. Uri stole cigarettes and tobacco from the pockets of Germans who worked in the office at great risk to his life, and Chaim recovered. In April 1945, the remaining camp survivors were placed on a train to Dachau. During the journey, the train was blown up, and Uri managed to jump off and flee to the forest under fire. He hid in the forest until he was liberated by American soldiers. In 1946, Uri and his brother Dani, who had survived Auschwitz, came to Israel illegally on the ship "Wedgwood." He was recruited into the Palmach and fought in the 4th battalion which freed Jerusalem from the siege. He then became an officer in the IDF. For most of his life, he was an industrialist, and since retiring has been engaged in public service. Uri is married to Yehudit and has 3 children and 5 grandchildren.

Ester Burstein (Lipscyz)

Born in Lodz in 1923, Ester came from a long ling of rabbis on her mother's side. Her father was also a rabbi. Ester had two younger sisters. In September 1939, the Germans came to the family's home and plundered its valuables. A week later, Ester's grandfather was ordered to appear at German headquarters and provide them with the number of Jews living in the town. When the family were moved to the ghetto in March 1940, Ester smuggled in a copy of the Prophets and Writings, written on parchment, hidden inside a baby's pram. She and her sisters worked in a handicrafts factory, and their father served as a rabbi. In September 1942, Ester's father was deported and killed in the Chelmno death camp. Her mother died in the ghetto a year later, leaving Ester responsible for four young girls (her two sisters and two cousins). In 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz. After surviving several selections, they were taken out of the prison block and placed near the crematorium, with the instructions: "Either a train will come to take you to work, or you'll be sent to the crematorium." A day and a half later, they were deported to Christianstadt, a labor camp south of Berlin. Every morning, they marched seven kilometers to dig ditches for a water line. In January 1945, the girls were marched to Bergen-Belsen. They caught typhus, and her cousin died. Ester herself became very ill, and her friend, Erika Pakua, risked her life to get her half a cup of milk. Erika did not drink one drop from the cup. Ester remembers that acts of mutual aid like this were very common. Her sister, Channah died just after liberation. Esther weighed 27 kg when she was liberated. Although the doctors gave her no chance of surviving, Ester managed to recover. She left for Israel with her sister, Mina, in 1946, aboard an illegal immigrant ship. The ship was caught and sent to Cyprus. In 1948, Esther finally arrived in Israel. She settled in Haifa and studied accounting. She married in 1952, and moved to Bnei Brak. Ester has six children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Hedy Hirsch (Engel)

Hedy was born to a religious family in 1927 in Trnava, Czechoslovakia. With the outbreak of WWII and the German invasion, Jews began experiencing increasing anti-Semitism. Hedy's father's store was expropriated, and on Passover 1942, the Jews were taken from their homes. Hedy and her mother escaped to a shop owned by a Slovak acquaintance, who agreed to hide them in his home. Her father was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. The next day, the women escaped to Nitra, and from there they attempted to reach the Hungarian border. They were arrested by Slovakian guards, but they managed to escape and cross the border. Hedy and her mother reunited with her older sister, Edith, and they traveled together to Budapest using forged papers. Every night they slept in a different location: abandoned buildings, outside, and in cemeteries. They acquired the instincts of hunted animals, their senses honed by living in constant danger. They lived like this for two years. In 1944, Hedy and her mother tried to re-enter Slovakia, but they were arrested and put on a train to Auschwitz with no food or water. The journey took three days. On arrival, they managed to pass the selection and were sent to Lager C, where they experienced tremendous starvation, frequent selections and labor transports. In October, 17-year-old Hedy was selected for transport to a labor camp in Altenberg, Germany. Hedy asked the woman in charge of the block, with whom she had become friends, to include her mother on the list. The two were sent to work in an arms factory, where they labored for 12 hours a day. They remained there until April 1945. As the Allies approached, the factory workers were sent on a death march, without any food. On the night of April 12, they reached Waldenberg, where they were liberated by the Americans. Hedy, her mother and her sister returned to Czechoslovakia. In 1949, Hedy and her mother came to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. Hedy is married and works as an ECG technician. Hedy has four children and several grandchildren.

Chasia Bornstein (Bielicka)

Chasia was born in 1921 in Grodno, Poland, to a traditional family. When she was 12, she joined Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement, later becoming a leader. In June 1941, Chasia enlisted with the Grodno Underground. When the ghetto was established in November, she kept the youth occupied, preventing them from roaming the streets with nothing to do. She read them stories and talked about immigrating to Israel, thus planting hope and strength in the hearts of her young charges. At the same time, the Underground helped the numerous refugees arriving from Western Poland. Chasia was also part of the attempts to organize a ghetto uprising. As part of her underground activities, Chasia was sent to Bialystock, where she worked on the "Aryan" side using name of a young Polish woman - Helena Stasziwak - as an alias. With the failure of the uprising in Bialystok, she joined another of her comrades as a courier for the partisan brigade hiding in the forests. During the day, she worked as "Helena" for the family of an SS officer, and at night she smuggled weapons, armaments, food and medicines, and gathered intelligence for the partisans. Together with other couriers, she also organized a cell of Germans who helped the partisans. Thanks to a map of Bialystok Chasia prepared for the Red Army Command, the city was captured without losses. For this, she and her fellow couriers were awarded the highest commendation given to civilians. At the end of the war, Chasia opened the first orphanage for Jewish children in Lodz. For the next 18 months, she wandered through Germany and France with the children. In 1947, she boarded the ship "Theodore Herzl" with more than 500 children in her charge. The ship was caught by the British and sent to Cyprus, where Chasia continued to run educational activities in the youth camp. After six months, the group managed to reach Israel. To this day, she maintains warm relationships with many of the group's members. Chasia married and made her home on Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan. She worked as an educator and an art teacher at Tel Hai College. She has three daughters, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Menachem Frenkel

Menachem was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1936, to a religious family. When the war broke out, the family tried to escape to England, but failed. They journeyed to Montelimar in southern France, where his father found work in a nougat factory. In July 1942, Menachem's father was taken to a labor camp, and from there to Drancy and Auschwitz, where he died. Some two months later, the French police came to arrest the family. They were sent to the camp in Venissieux. At that time, three organizations - the OSE (Children's Aid Society), Amitie Chretienne, and the Jewish Underground in Lyons - were working to remove some 100 Jewish children from the camp, Menachem and his sister among them. They were transferred to Chateau de Peyrins, a private institution run by Madame Germaine Chesneau, where they spent the next year and a half with 108 Jewish children. Menachem's name was changed to Marcel Faure. He has no recollection of studying there, but he does remember that they worked in the vegetable garden, celebrated only Christian holidays, and food was scarce. One night, when Madame Chesneau noticed that one of her workers hadn't returned at night, she feared the woman had been arrested. She quickly arranged for all of the children to be dispersed to nearby villages. Menachem was sent to the village of Rosans to live with the Hughes, a couple with no children. His sister was sent to a monastery. Menachem was hidden in the attic but supplied with plenty of food and even began to study again. He remained in Rosans until the end of the war. In May 1945, Menachem's mother and sister came to get him. The family came to Israel aboard the "Mataroa" in September 1945. Menachem studied in several residential schools in Israel. In 1955, he completed his studies and was inducted into the "Nahal" Brigade, where he met his wife. They married in 1957 and were among the founders of Kfar Maimon. Menachem worked as a marketer and agricultural consultant for watering systems. The couple have four children and two grandchildren. Today, Menachem is a volunteer with the civil guard. Madame Chesneau, the Hughes' and the priest Alexandre Glasberg of the Amitie Chretienne organization have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Kalman Bar On

Born in May 1930, in Ilok, northern Yugoslavia, to an Orthodox family, Kalman had 4 siblings, one of them a twin sister. His father and two of his brothers died of illnesses when he was a child. In 1943, Kalman was sent to study in a yeshiva. Two years later, he returned to his family in the ghetto. In June 1944, he was deported with his family to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the railway platform, his mother heard shouts of "Zwillinger-raus!" (Twins-out!). Holding both their hands, she pulled Kalman and his sister out of the line. By the time the three could figure out what was going on, everyone else had disappeared - Kalman's grandfather, cousins and their families. They never saw them again. Kalman was separated from the others and taken to the "Twins Block." There he met a dwarf by the name of Leush Peled, who was also his distant relative. Their familial relationship and shared plight bonded the two together, and they looked out for each other from then on. Kalman was put to work in the guardroom. This posting provided him with opportunities to hide precious food scraps, which he shared with his cousin Leush. He was subjected to medical experiments, receiving numerous injections. In July 1944, Kalman learnt that his mother and sister had been transferred to the barracks next to his. He began to throw food to them over the fence. One day, a party was held for SS soldiers in the guardroom. Kalman was placed against a wall and shots were fired between his legs and hands and near his head. Suddenly someone shouted: "What are you doing? He belongs to Mengele!" The shooting practice ended abruptly and Kalman was released. During the death marches, Kalman hid for a week under a bunk, until he was liberated on January 27, 1945 by the Red Army. He wandered alone for months until he found his sister. His mother had died before the liberation. Kalman arrived in Israel in 1947. After his discharge from the IDF he went to work for El Al, where he served as chief quality control officer and later as head of the Australia and New Zealand offices. Kalman is married and has twin sons and one grandson.