Instead of a boy named Lulek, I was prisoner number 117030 - chief rabbi of Tel Aviv
Today, Sophie talks to a special guest. This man survived the horrors of the Holocaust. He went through the Ghetto, labor camp and finally Buchenwald – and all of this as just a little boy in the world of death. He lost his father, his mother and his brother in German gas chambers. Many times death has been close to him – but he escaped it. The cannons of the Second World War were silenced 70 years ago, so we invited him to tell us the story of his survival – the story of human monstrosity and acts of selflessness. Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, you are survivor of Nazi concentration camp. It is such and honor and pleasure to have you on our show today, welcome.
Yisrael Meir Lau: Thank you. You are very welcome.
SS: So as you know, Russia and the world are celebrating 70 years since the end of the World War II and the defeat of the Nazi Germany. If you don’t mind, I would like to take you back to your memories. So, what that means is that you were a really young boy when the war started.
YML: Two years old…
SS: Two years old, living in Poland, when Nazi Germany invades Poland – two years old is a very young age. Is there anything you remember about the start of the war?
YML: For me, the first picture I remember very well and very clear is in the age of five and 4 months - almost five and a half. All Jewish community of Piotrków Trybunalski was gathered near the Great Synagogue. My father was the chief rabbi of the city, the last one, at the age of 50. He stood in the center, and the Gestapo officer Herdorf and his great dog that was always with him, he came from the back and beaten him on his back. Father almost fell. Why did he do it? First of all, to keep the moral of the community low as possible, but the excuse was that my father didn’t shave his beard. The older Jews had to shave their beards in the ghetto. My father was afraid that this will break a little bit the moral of the community. They used to see him as the spiritual leader of the city, a nice man, very nice, very-very charming person. So he didn’t shave – that’s why he was beaten in the eyes of everyone. This is the first picture I remember, because as a child, your father is the hero of the city, of the whole community, and of course of the family, and he’s almost falling in the eyes of all the community. This is a picture I cannot forget.
SS: So, your memories are only clear from the time where you were already living in the ghetto, or do you remember anything before ghetto? Do you remember how you got to the ghetto, do you remember what thought of Germans before you ended up in the ghetto.
YML: Look, in that age and that day, they took my mother, my brother of 13 years old, Milek and me, to the Synagogue. There was many other people. This was one of the actions to send the people in the Synagogue by train to Treblinka. We didn’t know where we are going. I do remember very well that at night of that particular day, two Gestapo people came to the Synagogue – it was dark – they stood at the door and they called a list of names. People who are free to go back home yet. Why these people? Everyone had his reasons. One of the names was LauChaya – my mother. My mother didn’t go out till they will call the names of her two children. The list is over, finished, and they didn’t mention our names. She wanted to use the darkness – and mother is a mother, she won’t lose her children - she took my brother in one hand, me in the other hand, close to her, close as possible. She asked us to be quiet, don’t say a word, and then tried to go through the two German officers of Gestapo, to go out. One of them paid attention that there was too many people here. He didn’t see a thing, but he felt more than two legs going out of the Synagogue. With both hands he lifted them up and then with one hand he pushed my mother and me out on the street – we fell in the water there. With the other hand, he pushed my brother back to the Synagogue. We never saw him since then. My life, my brother’s life were of a second – if you were on the right side or on the left side, or you are a believer, but you don’t understand what’s going on.
SS: Do you remember how they moved you to the Ghetto? Do you remember the life in the ghetto? Who you were living with, and were you completely separated from the Poles at that time?
YML: The last order had to arrive to send the rest of the Jews to Treblinka, to the gas chambers – which we didn’t know that they exist – speaking about a new settlement and so. My father has said to my mother: “I have arranged for you an attic in one of the buildings in the city, on the last floor, there’s an attic in the ceiling – the two you, you and Lulek” – me – “…you have to hide there with other people, ten people.”
SS: Was this empty building, it wasn’t in the ghetto, it was just in the city?
YML: In the city.
SS: So it was before the ghetto?
YML: Before the ghetto. She asked him – “why don’t you come with us? Why should you stay? We will be in the attic, where will you be?” He said – “Look, the German knows me. They know me personally. They will not leave the city before they find me. People who have a chance to hide themselves and to save their lives, because of me, the digging after me will be deeper and deeper. They will catch some people who had a chance to escape. So I cannot endanger lives of other people to save my own life. I will wait for them, with Torah scroll, in the gate of the Great Synagogue. I will not hide myself, I am the spiritual leader, the chief rabbi here”. When the Germans came into the room where we hidden in that attic, she prepared honey cookies – she knew that I love it – to push in my mouth more and more cookies….
SS: So you wouldn’t cry.
YML: So I cannot cry, I cannot ask even “Mama, what’s happening?” – and they were in the room. I had an apple. One of the people there took from me my apple, he was very hungry, starving, he was ten years old. I was five, almost and a half and he tried to eat the apple when the Germans came in. So he couldn’t eat it to make noise, and he couldn’t take it out – they will catch him as a thief. So he had to keep it hours in his mouth. Fifty years later, when all Jewish men came from London to my office in Tel-Aviv as chief rabbi, fifty years later: “I came to ask you for apology. I stole your apple from you, that the mother has prepared for you. I was already with no father and no mother, nobody prepared for me some food. So please, forgive me, before I give back my should to the Lord Almighty, I came to ask you for forgiveness.” When we went out from that attic…
SS:Did you go out yourselves, you weren’t forced out?
YML: …With my mother.
SS: Okay, so she stuffed you with honey cookies so that Germans didn’t find you at that point?
YML: They didn’t find anyone in that attic. We are survived there. When we came down, my brother came from the work, and we have discovered that father is no more in the city. He was taken with all the community by train, later on we discovered it was Treblinka, and we didn’t see him anymore. I know from few survivors from Treblinka that he met my brother there, Milek, 13 years old, and they were pushed together to the gas chambers. Father was fifty, my brother was thirteen. So my mother, my brother Tulek was sixteen and a half, and me, were taken to the Ghetto, from our home in the Pilsudskiegodwadzieścia jeden - Pilsudski street 21, next to the Synagogue, we were sent to Jerusalimska Street in the ghetto.
SS: So you didn’t have any contact with non-Jewish citizens of that city at that point?
YML: If they can be criticized today, retrospectively – we were the doctors, the physicians – the jews in the city - industrials, we gave them food and health, Many of us were educators in the gymnasium. There was a hospital in the city. The head of the hospital was dr. Abraham Greenberg – Jewish. The Jews saved their lives. For thousand years Jews lived in Poland, thousand years of settlement, of Jewish civilization. And when the time came for “final solution” as the Gestapo called it, the liquidation of the Jewish people, I don’t remember our neighbors to come and to assist us.
SS: So like you say, you were only six years old when you were moved to ghetto with your mother and your older brother. Did at that point you and the remainder of your family make sense of what’s going on, of the horrible process that laid ahead? Did you understand whaat was happening?
YML: No. We always lived in a hope that after that selection when they took my father and my brother Milek, we have a chance to survive. Why? No explanation. I don’t know why. But this is a matter of fact. They were taken away, they didn’t return, they didn’t come back.
SS: Before the concentration camp, there was a labor camp, right?
SS: You were only seven. What kind of labor could you do, a seven year old boy in labor camp? What was it like?
YML: There were very few children in Częstochowa. By the way, when we had to leave the ghetto, because the Russian aircrafts were close to bomb Piotrkow and to liberate the city – it was November 44 – they pushed us very-very fast to the train station, and separated women and children on one side, men on the other side. We understood that we are not going on the same train, but to the same destination. There will be a divide of the trains…
SS: Why this separation?
YML: Why? Because the women and the children go to a place where they have no chance to survive. They are not constructive, they are not productive, and they don’t work – babies. I went with my mother. I was seven and a half, but I was like a five years old: no food, no medical treatment for years. I went with my mother. My brother was taken to the other side. He was 18 and a half – he is a worker. So my mother understood at the last moment, by instinct, that they have a chance to live, at least longer than we. She pushed me, she threw me away, like a ball, to my brother, and called him: “Tulek! Take Lulek!” And my brother said: “What should I do with the child?”. He was thin, 18 and a half. But she was pushed already to the train, the gates of the train were closed. Last picture we remember, it was fog of the locomotive and beyond this fog we saw mother.
SS:You never saw her again.
YML: We never met anymore. This was the last picture we remember. She just saved my life in a second. If I would go with her, I wouldn’t give you an interview in any time, any place. She saved my life, in that instinct of a mother, the last moment: “If my brother is there and she’s here, who has better chance to survive? The man. Take him!” And he had a very difficult job to protect the young brother in a sack on his shoulder…
SS: So he was hiding you?
YML: …Because he understood that the moment they discover that there’s a child, It’s either a bullet...or they would save the bullet, they don’t even need it to get rid of me. In one beat I will be liquidated.
SS: Did you feel the danger? Did you feel like you had to keep quiet, you couldn’t cry, you couldn’t scream?
YML: I was seven and half…
SS: So you understood everything.
YML: ( The men came to Częstochowa – the work place – there were very few children like me there.
SS: Were they all hiding?
YML: All hiding.
SS:So you were in the labor camp, hiding.
YML: They went to the work and I was under the bed. A new, commander of the Gestapo arrived to theCzęstochowa, his name I remember to this age, Kiesling was his name. He was told that there are few children there, that their relatives, fathers or brothers, they take some bread to bring to their relatives, the children. “Who needs children here?” - Częstochowa is a weapon factory that the German needed. But child cannot bring any fruitful work. He asked the leader of the Jewish part of the camp to bring the children. There were about 10 children. And he stood opposite to us, with Jewish leader, they spoke German. I knew only polish. But I know that he said: “Why do I need these boys? They cannot help the Third Reich with anything. The German Third Reich needs people who can be constructive, not these “dreckig dicke junge” – this was the expression in Deutch. In this very ugly world, children who don’t bring any use, they must get rid of them. When they talked, they didn’t look at us, and I made a small hill from earth and stones: naively I thought that if I stood on the hill, I will be a little bit taller, and maybe I will convince him that we are productive. First speech in my life…
YML: I gave already in my life thousands upon thousands. This was my first speech. I understood that I have nothing to lose, because the Jewish leader explained us, he said:“you are not productive. We must get rid of you”.
SS: The Jewish leader?
YML: He translated to us in polish what Kiesling said to him. I, on the hill - let’s call it a “hill” - I opened my mouth and said: “You have a mistake. We are very useful!”
SS: But what was the reaction of the German officer when you’ve said that?
YML: An opened mouth: a child speaks, dares to speak to him!
SS: Did he smile at least?
YML: But this itself wasn’t enough. In my brother’s coat there was hidden a diamond that my mother carried to the Ghetto – in his coat: “in case you need to save your life or the life of the child, use this diamond, I don’t need it.” And the second diamond was hidden by a dentist in the Ghetto in the hole between two teeth of my brother – he used it later to save my life. These two diamonds, one of them was in Częstochowa, another in Buchenwald, to say that I’m polish child and not Jewish, helped to save my life – with that speech.
SS: But that speech also helped to stay alive at that labor camp at that particular moment?
YML: This speech at least postponed it – he didn’t kill us on the spot. He was amazed – a child, a Jewish child, dares to speak to him! And this was the end of 1944, the 6th year of the war – and still, Jew has opened his mouth and said something.
SS: So, how exactly did you end up in Buchenwald – did you go with your brother, were you taken there alone?
YML: When the aircrafts of the Soviet Army came close to Częstochowa, the Germans took us to the train. On one station the door has opened a little bit and I heard my name – “Lulek!” – My brother called. He knew, in last trains, that we, women and children are in the front trains. Every station his friends helped him to open the door, He smuggled himself downstairs only if he knew it was night stations, in the dark. He went under the wagon, to one wagon, opened the door and cried: “Lulek!” – no answer. He went back and two friends lifted him up. Second station, to the second wagon, the third wagon…he found me in the seventh wagon. I jumped upon him with a pillow, in his arms. He told me: “shhhh!” and he pushed me down under the wagons and, using elbows and knees, we started to go: “Jeden – means one – dwa, trzy, cztery, pięć, sześć, siedem!”- “siedem” means “seven” and then the two guys pulled him up and he pulled me – in the dark, we were together. He embraced me and we cried. That meeting saved my life again - because from that wagon where children were kept – no one survived. They went, probably, to Ravensbrück. I have not a single message from any of the people who were there, people whom we knew from Częstochowa. None of them survived, and I was with my brother. And we went in and we saw on the shield: Buchenwald. They said this is our new settlement, concentration camp near city of Weimar, North-East Germany. My brother understood that this place is only for men, workers. When they will see a child of seven and a half, looking like five-year old, I didn’t have even one tooth, like a baby – he was afraid that they will kill me on the spot. He took out from the sack his belongings and said to me: “Lulek go in”. He closed it, put it on his shoulders, and he smuggled me from the train wagon into Buchenwald.
SS: So, in Buchenwald, like in labor camp, you were hiding?
YML: It wasn’t a labor camp, it was concentration camp…
SS: No, like in labor camp…
YML: No. Something different happened here. This was the end of the war already. We didn’t know that, but Germans knew. In Buchenwald, there was a big group of Gestapo people, the staff of Buchenwald, and many-many prisoners from all nations. KonradAdenauer, later the first Chancellor of West Germany was a prisoner in Buchenwald. German, because he was anti-Hitler, as the mayor of the city of Koln. He was a prisoner. Léon Blum, later – a Prime Minister of France; some communists, two Nobel laureates in literature, one from Spain, one from France – not Jewish, but they were prisoners in Buchenwald. Polacks and Germans, Russians of course... Now, when we came out of the train, there was an oven and we had to throw all our belongings into the oven. So that we were naked, shaved – not to bring in viruses and microbes, not to endanger the life of Gestapo staff. We had to get rid of all of our belongings. He had to throw the sack into the oven! I remember it and even now I can hear it in my ear, three words: “Lulek, chodz tutaj!” – “Come here” in Polish. I came out of the sack, and we entered in bath, with dark water and already ugly, shaved, got injections against malaria, dysentery… The physician who gave the injections was also a prisoner, a communist, not Jewish, from Czechoslovakia. It was like a mass production. One arm after the other, one arm aftehr the other: “Schnell! Schnell!”– “Faster, faster!”.
SS:Did they use to burn out numbers on you?
YML: Not yet, after that. But he lost an arm – because I was in the line, and I was very short, so he didn’t see an arm. He looked down and saw a child. He asked me: “How old are you?” in German. I said “fifteen” – because my brother told me to double my age. “I asked you how old you are!” – I told him “fifteen” again. “Who is this one?” – He held his hand on my shoulder. “This is my brother”. “How old is the child?” “-He told you, fifteen”. “Look, I am a communist, I am Czech, I am a physician, not a murderer. If I give him this portion of injection, he will die on the spot. This body cannot carry such portion. Tell me the truth, how old is he?”. He said “Seven and a half”… So when he saw that no one’s paying attention, he threw out half of the injection and the other half he gave me. Then we received numbers. My broher and me, häftling– it means prisoner – eins eins sieben null drei null – 117030.
SS: This was your number?
YML: That was my name, not Lulek, not Lau – just häftling, the prisoner, the great criminal, seven and a half years: 117030, my brother was 117029. But every prisoner had a piece of clothes in his sleeve. It was of red color, with black printed letter: P – for pollaks, R – for Russian, G – for Germany…and “Juden”. The diamond helped again.
SS: The one that your brother had in his coat.
YML: My brother had it here.
SS:In his tooth.
YML: …And someone a took from a piece of cloth from a Polish dead prisoner. He took the “P” and put it on my sleeve.
SS: So he saved your life third time?
YML: And for many-many others. The piece of bread here and there, and piece of a potato here and there, whatever. He was in such situation, and I came in Buchenwald as Polish child. The story was that my parents were killed in Warsaw by the bombing of the Nazis and I was smuggled among other Jewish children to the Umschlagplatz from the Umschlagplatz to the train, from the train they brought us here. So they took me to the Russian PoW barracks #8…
SS: So you were separated from your brother at this point.
YML: Separated from my brother. He went to barracks #51, jewish barracks, I was in barracks #8, where I met a Russian young boy, 18 and half years old, from Rostov-na-Don.
SS: Feodor Mikhailichenko.
YML: Feodor. I didn’t know about Mikhailichenko until 2008, but I knew Feodor, he was like my brother, like my father, my bodyguard, and he helped to protect my life.
SS: So he took you under his wing.
SS: Were others also nice to you or he was the only one who was taking care of you?
YML: Mainly him. They’ve all were very cooperative. In the a year before he died - it was 50 years after the liberation - the Russian television took him to Buchenwald, and made a film where he told about his experiences. He says there that German knew that I’m young. They said “If he don’t work, he will not receive 150 grams of bread a day. He will die of starvation.” So, my work was to clean up, daily, the whole barracks, number 8, arrange beds, mattresses, and to clean up toilets, which were pits. I had to clean it. Fyodor told that to all his friends, the Russians, he brought them all together and said: “Lulek has no father, probably has no mother. Now he’s going to lose his childhood also. We can save his childhood, at least, if not his parents. We will do the job instead of him.” They woke up one hour earlier, at 5 o’clock, before the work, and they’ve cleaned the barracks, the mattresses and the pits outside, so I can be free not to go to work. These were the Russian boys, friends of Fyodor. When Fyodor was on his way back to Russia, a bus came to take Russian prisoners to Russia, someone came to the hospital, and told my brother: “Lulek is together with Fyodor in the bus, which goes to Russia”. He came, saw me in the bus next to Fyodor and said: “Lulek, you promised me that you will go with me to the land of Israel, what are you doing here? You promised me!”. I said: “I promised you and I keep my promise”, “- But what is this suitcase you have?” “- This is not mine, it’s Fyodor’s, he asked me to assist him” - and I opened the suitcase and he saw nothing that belonged to me. It was months after the liberation, in Buchenwald. This was the day I separated with Fyodor.
SS: You never saw him again?
YML: July 2008, 63 years after the liberation, after separating with Fyodor, the Radio of Israel called me: “What does name Fyodor means to you, chief rabbi Lau?”. Fyodor! It was five in the morning: “Why do you ask about Fyodor?” “-There’s a professor; yesterday he made a conference and announced that he found the one who saved the life of chief rabbi Lau”. He saw the document from 1945, by Gestapo from Berlin to the authorities of Buchenwald: “You have to investigate, why prisoner of war, soviet man by the name of Mikhailichenko Feodor is endangering his life to protect the life of a jewish child Lulek. Maybe, there is some Jewish blood in Feodor and he was cheating us saying that he’s Russian. Maybe, he’s partly Jewish. Investigate.” So the Gestapo head, in his mind, in 1945, before the defeat of the Nazis, “why is this Russian boy sacrificing himself for the life of the Jewish child?”. This was the first time I’ve heard the name Mikhailichenko. I phoned to one of Chabad, asking if they have someone in Rostov. They’ve said: “Yes, rabbi Friedman”. . One of the people there, in the Jewish community, an old guy fainted: “FeodorMikhailichenko is my best friend! We played football together before the war. When he came back from the war, he used to speak all the time about a child Lulek, the jewish child that he protected and he saved his life, endangering his own.” “Take me to him” - said Friedman to that man. “But he passed away from cancer. He was 64 year old. But he has two daughters: Elena and Juliya, I’ll take you to them.” They’ve shown rabbi Friedman the film about their father, Feodor, in Buchenwald. You asked me about other friends. Feodor says in this movie that the only time he was beaten in Buchenwald was not by the German, but by his soviet friends. Why he was beaten? He stole from the Gestapo a bicycle, he wanted to give me, as a child, the experience to ride a bicycle. He rode the bicycle and I was sitting behind him and he fell and we were injured and I had blood here, on my face - I was bleeding. His friends have beaten him, they were angry: “Why do you make Lulek suffer? Why didn’t you take care of the child? Look at his face, he’s bleeding because of you!”. That’s what he tells in the video.
SS: Unfortunately, I think our interview has to come to an end, but I just have one last question - do you remember the day you were liberated?
SS: Can you tell me, shortly, about that day and your impressions of that day?
YML: The American army under general Patton was bombing from the air, the Germans were shooting their machine guns from their stations. Fyodor understood that any moment the bomb can fall on our barracks and all of us will be killed. He took my hand and said: Lulek, run with me!” And we ran towards the gate. We were not far from the gates, barracks #8. There was already a heap of corpses and injured people who also wanted to get out, but the gates were still closed. The heap of bodies of injured people, screaming, bleeding - this is the last moment I remember Fyodor at that day. I lost him, he lost me, but he was covering me with his body from bullets: “Come with me”. Then the command car broke in, an American command car; one of the first command cars was with Jewish chaplain, rabbi Hershel Schachter, born in America. He knew Yiddish. He came in for the first time in his life, an American man, sees the heap of the corpses and a pair of vivid looking at him. It was me. He told this story to President Ronald Reagan when we have met together with President, in 1983. He said, “I was behind the heap of the corpses at the gates to Buchenwald, and American command car broke in…” On that day of liberation, April 11, but 38 years later, in 1983, we have met survivors and the two of us, in the capital city of Maryland, together with President Reagan, rabbi Hershel Schachter told the story, when he came in to Buchenwald, saw the heap of corpses - the story which I knew, but I thought that it is my imagination, a fantasy. But he told it, he was an adult, he was a chaplain, an officer of the American army - he saw someone looking at him with vivid eyes, he was afraid that it was a German that wants to kill him. He took out his pistol and very carefully went around this heap, and he saw a child, hiding himself, full of fear. He understood that child here, in this end, must be a jewish child .He took him in his arms, braced him and started to cry. But when he saw that the child is full of fear, so afraid of him - a new uniform, iron hat and pistol in his hands - he was afraid that another one comes to kill him. This was the end of the war, but he didn’t know that this is the end of the war. He started to smile to the child to show him that he’s a friend. So he asked the child in Yiddish: “How old are you, my child?” The child answered: “What difference does it make? I am older than you”. He was completely sure that I went mad. “Why do you think that you are older than me?”. “-Because you smile, and you laugh and you cry, like a child. I didn’t smile for years and I don’t even cry, I didn’t cry for a long time. So tell me who is older?”
SS: That’s what you told him?
YML: That’s what I told him. At that moment, when he told this story on the stage, Reagan was there, the U.S. Navy’s orchestra . played the Song of the Partisans - “Don’t say that this is my final way, we will always be here”. At that moment this was the sign for me to come from behind the curtains onto the stage, and I came up, I hugged rabbi Schachter. President Reagan - and all of the microphones, there were 400 TV channels represented in that capital center - it was Capital Center for Baseball - he said and everyone could hear: “Let me touch a living legend”, and he came to me to shake my hand, it was very-very…
SS: Emotional. Rabbi Lau thank you so much for this interview.
YML: Thank you. You are very welcome.
SS: We wish you all the best.