Joy in Dachau

The hunger for books competed with the hunger for bread.

dachau 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
dachau 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
There I sat in the Holocaust archives of Yeshiva University. I started to cry as I picked up one page from the box labeled "1945" from the section on the Orthodox Va'ad Hatzolah Rescue Committee's activities in the Displaced Persons (DP) Camps. The librarian thought I must have come across a description of starvation, or the death of a child, and came to see what was on the page that I was holding. "What is so emotional about that?" she asked incredulously. "That" was an order form for books for the DP camps in Germany. But it represented a whole world lost - and the struggle to regain it. I recollected this episode as January 27, World Holocaust Memorial Day commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, approached. Not all Jews were liberated that day. After the liberation of Auschwitz, the war and the killing of Jews continued. Dachau was liberated only on April 29, 1945. Hitler died a day later, and the Axis surrendered on May 8. Auschwitz was liberated early, since it was in Poland; Dachau, in Germany, much later. That archived list of books reflected the tragedy and hope of those survivors. I HAD embarked on my own archival research on survivors after reading the magnum opus of Esther Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust. In the final chapters, which deal with liberation and life in the DP camps, she analyzes a short letter written in the summer of 1945 by a survivor in Dachau two months after his liberation. Rabbi Mordechai Slapobersky had written to his brother in Jerusalem, describing his plight. "Thank God, I am alive. God has rescued me from the lion's mouth. But what am I when I am the only one left of my entire family? I haven't heard from my wife and eldest daughter. My other two daughters were burned in the Amalekites' furnace. Of all the rabbis of Lithuania, not one remains." His youngest daughter had been born in the Kovno ghetto "with a birthmark on her back, a yellow Star of David." He had hidden in a bunker with her, his middle daughter, and others. Tragically the infant died in his arms when she cried and was smothered for fear of giving away everyone else, and the middle daughter was brutally taken away. His wife and eldest child were murdered elsewhere. While in slave labor he was forced to make tefillin straps into shoe straps. "All that has happened to me is not fit to write on a paper," he said. The letter from Dachau continues. "For now the Americans are supporting us, and flesh and skin have formed on the dry bones with which we were left." A sad letter, but not remarkable. At least so I thought until I read Esther Farbstein's analysis which mines this short epistle to plumb the critical role of books for this lonely scholar, and, by extension, for his lonely people. With a historian's keen eye, Farbstein zeroes in on key sentences that unlock the past and future of Rabbi Slapobersky: "We have no religious books here. Just the other day an American rabbi brought us some tractates of Talmud, and I felt great joy." IF ONE volume was the occasion for great joy in the Dachau DP camp, I could imagine the ecstasy that the order form I was holding was able to bring: it meant whole shelves of religious books had been requisitioned for the survivors. Farbstein uses Slapobersky's phrase - "I felt great joy" - as a springboard for an erudite analysis of Jewish books before, during, and after the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust the bookcase formed the heart of Jewish homes. The study, and even care, of religious books was given priority. You don't place anything on top of a book, do not sit on it, and you kiss it if it falls. A person carrying books in a narrow passage has the right of way. Rescuing books from fire and water takes precedence over other valuables. Before the war, the Nazis bragged about destroying Jewish books. Those volumes they did not burn, beginning in 1935, they collected in "Operation Rosenberg," in which they confiscated over a million books, storing them in a five-storey concrete structure in Offenbach for what was to be proof of the urgency to extirpate not just the Jews, but Judaism, as represented by its books. During the worst moments in the death camps, Jews took risks to obtain books, or even pages of books. David Weiss Halivni, a scholarly 16-year-old, saw an Auschwitz guard lunching on a sandwich wrapped in a page of the Shulhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). "I fell at the feet of the guard; the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this page from a book I had studied at home. The page became a rallying point. We looked forward to studying it whenever we had free time." 'LIBERATION FOUND the Jews cut off from their entire previous world - and bereft of the Hebrew book," observes Farbstein. Ironically, the first books to arrive were from the Offenbach collection. There were even Torah scrolls in Offenbach, still open to the Torah portion that had been read the week the scrolls were confiscated. When we view photographs of famished figures who survived Dachau, their hunger for food is blatant. More difficult to discern is their hunger for books. As I sat in those archives I held in one hand an order for victuals: sardines - 4,000 cans; chocolate - 5,000 bars; rice - 2,000 lbs.; prunes -1,000 lbs.; farina - 2,000 lbs. In the other hand, I held the order for books: Pessah hagadot - 1,000; daily prayer books -3,000; Bibles - 800; mishnayot - 800, and smaller numbers of more esoteric works. I COULD envision Slapobersky, who established a yeshiva and rabbinical court in the DP camp, lobbying for books because the scarce monetary resources had to be divided among competing needs: medicine, food, clothing - and books. "How great was the yearning and thirst for books. The books from overseas did not arrive quickly, and if a book did come, hundreds of hands reached out for it," wrote another Dachau rabbi, Shmuel Rose. The survivors prevailed upon the American authorities, with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee, to publish several Talmud tractates for use in the DP camps. The title page was illustrated by an image of a wagon loaded with bodies for the crematoria, along with a rising sun over Jerusalem, and the phrase: "They almost wiped me out, but I did not abandon your commandments." In that modest letter postmarked from Dachau, Rabbi Slapobersky left us a record of how much joy - "great joy" - one book brought him after liberation. In addition, reinstilling the love of learning in the camp yeshiva, he served as a religious court judge and was especially involved in freeing agunot (women whose husbands had been lost in the inferno), enabling them to remarry. He moved to Israel in 1946, where he married a survivor and served as rabbi in a moshav near Rehovot. He and his second wife did not have children. Rabbi Slapobersky died 1967. Thank you, Esther Farbstein for granting the rabbi a bit of posterity and eternity. An evening devoted to Hidden in Thunder will be held Sunday, January 27, in the Michlala at Bayit Ve'gan, Jerusalem, 6:30-9:30