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Yom Hashoah: Rosh Hashanah 1944 from Mekadeshei Hashem by Rabbi T H Meisels

The Nazi commander of the Auschwitz had determined to keep alive only those boys between the ages of 14 and 18 who were big enough and strong enough to work. The others would be sent to the crematorium. In the large parade ground behind the camp blocks some 1600 boys who had hitherto managed to escape a selection were assembled. The commander directed that a vertical post with a horizontal bar affixed at a predetermined height be planted in the ground. Each of the boys was forced to pass under the bar. Everyone who’s head reached the horizontal bar was to be sent to a work detail. Those who were not tall enough were to be destroyed. Some youngsters, knowing what was intended, tried to stretch on their tiptoes to reach the bar and were bludgeoned to death on the spot. At the end of the selection, the 1400 boys who had not passed the test were imprisoned in a special cellblock under the guard of the Jewish Kapos. They were to receive no further food or drink, and it was understood that they would be sent to the crematorium the next night. Generally, the crematoria at Auschwitz were operated only during the night hours.


The next morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, fathers or other relatives who had heard of the fate that awaited the children, tried to persuade the Kapos to release them. The Kapos replied that an exact count had been taken of the boys, and they would have to pay with their own lives if even one were found to be missing. Some of the relatives still had valuables concealed in their clothing or on their bodies, and they offered them to the Kapos in return for the lives of their children. Even those who had absolutely nothing with which to redeem their sons somehow managed to secure small valuables from other prisoners who wish to help. All that day of Rosh Hashanah the Jews clustered outside the doors of the cellblock bargaining with the Kapos. Succumbing to greed, the Kapos agreed to release some of the prisoners. But, they warned, for each prisoner released they would have to seize some other Jewish boy who had managed to reach the bar, so that the count would be full when the block’s inmates were taken to the crematoria.

Although they knew that their sons’ lives would be spared only at the cost of others, fathers made what ever deals they could to save their own children. All this bargaining went on in full view of the camp inmates. The SS guards, Rabbi Meisels writes, generally remained at the periphery of Auschwitz and allowed the Kapos to maintain control of the inner blocks. While he was observing this mad trafficking in human life, Rabbi Meisels was approached by a Jew from Oberland who said, “Rabbi, my only son is in that cellblock. I have enough money to ransom him. But I know for certain that if he is released, the Kapos will take another in his place to be killed. So, Rabbi, I ask of you a halachic question. Render a judgment in accordance with the Torah. May I save his life at the expense of another? What ever your ruling, I will obey it.”

I pause the story here to call attention to the fact that even people suffering the ravages of Auschwitz had such a commitment to Jewish law that a father would not ransom his only son’s life, risking the life of another, without asking a halachic question!

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