In honor of the 71st anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz tomorrow, January 27, I’ve asked – and am honored – to share this amazing story:
Shabbat B’shalach and the Liberation of Auschwitz
by Patrick Pinchas Feigelson
Having lived a significant portion of my life with two direct witnesses of the horrors of the Sho’ah , I think I have a primary (and growing) responsibility to pass on the message I received from them; a message made of words and silence, love and tears, fear and courage; a message that may not necessarily be found in books, movies, or museums.
My father, Raphael Feigelson, was born in Paris, where his father, Paul, forced into political exile, had come from Lithuania with his wife in the late 1880s. He was a metal worker, and he raised his son with the values of the union movement: social justice and education.
When World War II broke out, Paul started his own clandestine resistance with a newsletter, La Lettre de Monsieur Paul. Following in his footsteps, his son became one of the hundreds of students who marched down the Champs Elysées on November 11, 1940 — in theory to celebrate the end of World War I, but in fact to protest the presence of the Germans on French soil. He was only 14 years old. When the collaborators of the Vichy Government arrested his father, Raphael, for safety reasons, was sent to the city of Toulouse. There, while going to high school, he organized underground fighting among youths in the southwest of France. Imagine yourself, 17 years old, spotting a drunk German soldier in the middle of the night, knocking him down to steal his gun, a Mauser, and throwing him in the river. Imagine yourself, 17 years old, thinking, “When my father was my age, he killed people”…
In the spring of 1944, the French Nazi group, la Milice Française, caught my father and tortured him for one week before delivering him to the SS for more tortures. In June 1944, he was transferred to Compiègnes Prison. In the train, he tried unsuccessfully to escape. He was then sent to Drancy, the concentration camp outside of Paris from where Jews from France were deported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz.
My father was sent to Auschwitz in the last train that left Drancy, on July 31, 1944. Some 300 Jewish orphans were put in that last train to Auschwitz at the last moment, by the request of the SS chief of the camp, Alois Brunner, so that he could meet the quota of 1500 per train. Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, all these children were brutally thrown into the crematorium. Alois Brunner escaped punishment, and lived in Syria until his death in about 2010.
En route to Auschwitz, my father tried to escape again, but failed again.
My father’s number tattooed on his arm is B 3747. He talks about Auschwitz every day, one way or the other. I remember him telling about the work assignments like the Mine commando, the SS Kadduck, the underground resistance network (which he joined when one of the leaders recognized him from his Paris activities), Shmulevsky (the man who took the pictures of the crematoria that were sent to London), the smell of the burning flesh, the words ‘Shema Israel’ heard over and over and over, and much more…
As the Death Marches started in January 1945, a small group from the underground resistance network prepared a plan to escape. For two days they encouraged people to try to escape. It turned out that only those who tried, survived. Having worked in the Disinfection section, my father knew where to find sheets and clothes. At night, a handful of underground members left the camp, covered by white sheets to simulate the snow. Some of them, too tired, returned to Auschwitz. No more than six, exhausted, finally reached the Red Army, which had been stationed less than 60 miles east of Auschwitz since August 1944. (They had no instructions to go to Auschwitz.) The first Russians soldiers they encountered arrested them as spies. But the officer in charge was Jewish. He understood the Yiddish words that were spoken to him by the escapees. “Bist du a Yid?” he asks. And my father tells him the horrors. He tells him Himmler just sent a Commando of SS to destroy the evidence of the massacre. He tells him they must go there to liberate the camp.
The officer sought permission from his superiors to go to Auschwitz. After days without an answer, spurred on by constant pestering by my father and his handful of companions, the officer finally gave in. They arrived at Auschwitz on Saturday, January 27, 1945 – Shabbat Beshalach (13 of Shevat 5705), when Jews around the world read about the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, and sea splitting and the escape to freedom…
And so, as History goes, the Russians liberated Auschwitz… My father still has the military uniform and coat that they gave him then. I am personally very grateful that the ‘Frantsusky Partizan’ refused the honor of the invitation by Stalin to go to Moscow… Instead he traveled through the Ukraine and took a boat in Odessa to Marseilles. On the way, he wrote a telegram to General De Gaulle in Paris: “We, the first survivors to come back to France, miraculously saved, want to keep fighting…”
Right after the war ended, most survivors tried to find a place to live, and tried to live. My father kept fighting: He would go to meetings, schools, conferences, where he would explain again and again the dimensions of the horror. He would work with the American Joint Committee to rescue Jewish children. He would write newspaper and magazine articles, books, essays, poetry. He told me: No one would listen then, no one could believe; some of us even stopped talking about it because no one seemed interested. But he kept talking. He kept fighting.
I’ll conclude with a remark that my father shared with me when I read an earlier version of this text to him in 2001. He said:
“We don’t understand what caused the Sho’ah to happen and we are probably still very far from finding an explanation… but you know, we should also ask the question: What caused the Sho’ah to stop?”