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On Line to the Auschwitz Gas Chamber

On Line to the Auschwitz Gas Chamber

In search of my grandfather

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Auschwitz (Photo: Damian Searles)
Auschwitz (Photo: Damian Searles)

He had everything he wanted: a wonderful wife, a happy family, thoughtful in-laws, and a job that provided him with enough money to spend a good part of each day devoted to the study of Jewish scholarly texts.

My grandfather, Dovid Henoch Zaklikowski, or “Reb Henoch” as he was affectionately dubbed, was known in the community for his kind smile and generous heart. This is what I heard from everyone I asked about my namesake, my grandfather.

In a letter published in the Algemeiner Journal shortly after my grandfather’s passing, Moshe Yaakov Zambrovsky wrote, “We were from the same town. We went through the seven gates of hell together. Henoch was a man of kindness, a completely righteous man who saved many hundreds of Jews in the concentration camps, reviving them with bread even though he himself was starving. Even here in the United States, where he later resided, Henoch did many kind deeds and acts of charity for needy individuals. I will never forget his kindheartedness.”

When I began trying to piece together my grandfather’s life, this clipping was the only recorded memory I could find.

“He didn’t talk about his past life much,” my father, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov, told me. “He never discussed the Holocaust, his family or his parents.”

Early Life

My grandfather in his teens
My grandfather in his teens
The young Dovid Henoch grew up in the court of the Sokolov dynasty. His father, Moshe, was the beadle of the Sokolover Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Zelig Morgenstern, grandchild of the famed Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe. The Sokolover Rebbe was renowned across Poland, and many came to him for blessings, and especially for medical advice.

It seems, according to memories related by Hella Moshar, my father’s niece, that my grandfather was much like his own father, Moshe. “He had very dark skin,” she recalls. “The Sokolover Rebbe lovingly called him Moshe der shvartze—‘Moshe the black one.’ Grandfather was also a very modest person who didn’t give great importance to his personal needs. He kept to himself and did his work quietly. He was a good person, with a kind heart. I would call him a tzaddik, a righteous person.

“He always made himself available to listen to anyone’s needs. Even if it was in the middle of the night, he would respond with willingness and patience. He dedicated himself to serving the community, never requesting anything for himself.”

My grandfather's father, Moshe Zaklikowski
My grandfather's father, Moshe Zaklikowski
Her descriptions of my grandfather, Dovid Henoch, sound very much like those I’ve uncovered. A diligent student, when he finished his school studies in Sokolov, his father searched for a good Jewish school of higher learning for him to attend. His father heard about the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch Yeshivah school in Warsaw, and the young Dovid Henoch traveled to learn there. He remained there for two years, from 1928–9.

He married Miriam Chechler, the daughter of a wealthy family from the Gerrer chassidic dynasty, from the town of Krashnik. He settled in her hometown, where he continued his Judaic scholarly studies until the birth of his first child, Tzirel. At that point, his father-in-law gave him seed money to open a stationery store. The store was very successful, and Henoch had enough time to sit and learn Torah on the side.

Matzah in the Camps

He was determined to fulfill this divine precept even as he waited, knowing full well it would probably be his last. In 1939 the Nazis came along, and my grandfather’s life, like those of so many others, was destroyed. He was initially hauled off to a nearby concentration camp, and later transported to the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

Miraculously, he survived, despite finding himself—no less than three times—on the line headed to the gas chambers, a line from which almost no one ever returned. Zalman Shur, a friend of my grandfather, shared one of his stories with me.

“Your grandfather was standing in line at the infamous Auschwitz gas chambers. He knew exactly where the line was headed; there were no secrets. It was Friday evening, and as he and his fellow inmates waited, the sun began to set. Henoch stuck his hand in his pocket and gathered the scraps of hard bread that he had been collecting the entire week. Every day he rationed his already meager portion of bread, so that at the end of the week he could make the traditional kiddush blessing, sanctifying the Sabbath, over a few crusts of bread.1

“He was determined to fulfill this divine precept even as he waited, knowing full well it would probably be his last. To the utter amazement of those nearby, and despite their protests, he proceeded to recite the benediction aloud, as though he was standing at the Sabbath table. He ate a crumb, and shared the rest with those around him.

“Incredibly, at that exact moment the mechanism which operated the chamber of death malfunctioned. He and all around him were saved from death.”

The Budzyn concentration camp
The Budzyn concentration camp
This was not the first time my grandfather displayed self-sacrifice for Judaism during the war. Tzvi Krohn, who was interned in the Budzyn concentration camp alongside my grandfather, related:

“In the Budzyn concentration camp, we were supervised by Germans who had immigrated to Poland several years before the war. Henoch and I worked in the camp’s carpentry department, and one of our duties was to fix buildings for the German army located outside of the concentration camp. Conditions at Budzyn were not as difficult as the other camps we both endured for the remainder of the war.

“The Germans screamed at us nonstop. We began to call them the “shreiers” (“screamers” in Yiddish). We had no prior experience with carpentry, and were not working fast enough. Nevertheless, Henoch’s smile and upbeat mood were never far away. The soldiers would hit every other group, but Henoch’s smile often softened even their stone hearts, sparing us painful beatings.

“My brother worked in another factory, not far away, where conditions were even more lax than ours. Before Passover they baked matzah, the unleavened, cracker-like bread, and he was able to send us several of them. However, we still worried about how we would have strength to work.

They made us walk for hours and hours. Anyone who collapsed from hunger or fatigue was immediately murdered by the Germans. “One of the workers in the kitchen who had been friendly with several Jewish families in his city, and was knowledgeable of the Jewish holidays and their customs, approached us and offered to give us more soup on the holiday, and to save our daily bread for us until after Passover. We were shocked by his offer and knew he was placing his own life in jeopardy. It was well known that the SS officers strictly forbade the kitchen workers to change the portions or to give anyone extra food.

“The religious Jews in Budzyn gratefully accepted his offer, and felt that now they would be able to more or less survive the holiday. However, on the last day of Passover, the Germans decided to take us on a ‘death walk.’

“They made us walk for hours and hours. Many of the Jews, who had not eaten anything more than soup and some matzah crumbs for seven days, could not continue. Anyone who collapsed from hunger or fatigue was immediately murdered by the Germans. They rode on horses alongside us, and took pleasure in scaring us with the horses and with their wild dogs. This was a highly traumatic experience that I will never forget.

“When we finally arrived back at the concentration camp after the ‘walk,’ literally on the verge of death, we immediately devoured the bread that the kitchen worker had been saving to give us after Passover. But Henoch somehow summoned the fortitude and self-sacrifice not to touch the bread until after Passover ended.”

Hella Moshar, my grandfather's only living niece.
Hella Moshar, my grandfather's only living niece.
From Budzyn, Henoch was transferred to several concentration camps, where he endured the cruelty of the Germans, until he arrived in Auschwitz. “Upon arrival,” a survivor described to the family, “there was great confusion. Everyone was terribly frightened, not knowing what to expect next. Henoch turned to everyone and started screaming Minchah! Kumt davenen minchah!’ (‘Come and recite the afternoon prayers.’) The first thing he wanted us to do was to pray the afternoon services!”

On a visit to Israel twenty years after the Holocaust, Henoch told his niece, Hella Moshar, about his most traumatic experience, which she later related to me. “One day during Henoch’s ‘work’ in Auschwitz, one of those working with him called him to the side and told him, as gently as possible, ‘Your sister Esther and her two children were just taken into the gas chambers.’ He fainted, and came to with a burning desire to take revenge upon the Germans. But as a prisoner whose very life was in the hands of those monsters, what could he do?”

Life After Liberation

My grandmother in Poland
My grandmother in Poland
My grandfather, together with all of Polish Jewry, was forever changed when the Nazis marched into Krashnik on September 15, 1939. Almost his entire family was murdered by the Nazis, and he endured their cruel acts in concentration camp after concentration camp. At the end of the war he may have been physically alive, but he was a broken man. His wife and children had been murdered. His perpetual smile disappeared, along with so many other smiles across Europe.

Some time after the war he was introduced to Mattel Rozenstein, a girl from Lublin, the daughter of Miriam and Avraham. Before World War II they had lived on the outskirts of Lublin and had been wealthy landowners. But now, only two out of the family of nine siblings had survived the war. The family hid in barns, and in the floor under planks of wood, going from one home to the next. Some family members joined the Partisans, others were ratted on and delivered into the hands of the Germans by the ones who had hidden them.

While hiding from the Germans, Mattel promised herself that if she survived the war she would marry only a religious Jew. When the war ended, she reunited with the only other surviving members of her immediate family, her father Avraham and brother Yechiel.

My grandmother's father, Avraham Rozenstein
My grandmother's father, Avraham Rozenstein
Henoch and Mattel married in Lublin. As with many marriages at the time, he was significantly older than her—by thirteen years.

It seems that once Mattel’s father passed away, they began the next step of their journey. This time they headed towards a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, hoping to continue from there to safer havens.

“On the way to Germany,” a survivor told me, “we arrived at the border when it was already late at night, and the immigration office in the train station was closed. We were instructed to get off the train and wait in the outdoor station until morning, when the office would reopen. With us were many children and women. It was a bitterly cold night, and strong winds blew around us.

“Your grandfather placed himself in grave danger—for there were no Jew-lovers at that time in European countries—and went to the police station. He demanded that the police check everyone’s papers immediately and permit the train to continue. At first the officers were unmoved, so he began to scream at them, ‘And if it was your daughters, would you let them remain outside in the freezing cold the entire night?!’

“At that point, some of the officers had mercy and went with him to the train station, where they checked the papers and we were able to continue on our journey.”

Someone Cares

My grandmother in the Pocking Displaced Persons camp in Germany
My grandmother in the Pocking Displaced Persons camp in Germany
Henoch eventually arrived at the Displaced Persons camp in Pocking, Germany, run by the Americans and the American Joint Distribution Center, where his son Moshe was born.

It was there that the Sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, sent Henoch a knife and instructed him to learn the art of ritual slaughter. He learned well, and this would later become his source of livelihood in the United States.

From Pocking he moved to Munich. Henoch remained in Germany at the urging of the Sixth Rebbe, who encouraged him to continue his involvement with the local Jewish community. In January 1950 a telegram arrived at my grandfather’s home, informing the Jewish community of the Sixth Rebbe’s passing: Admur nistalek Shabbat. Halevayo mochor chatzot—“The rebbe passed away on the Sabbath, [and] the funeral is tomorrow at midday.”

Having attended the 1928 wedding of the Sixth Rebbe’s son-in-law and future successor, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and hearing of his great piety and scholarship, Henoch accepted him as his new leader.

The new rebbe’s kind and empathetic letters left Henoch with the feeling that he had a truly caring family member in New York. The Rebbe concerned himself with Henoch’s health and livelihood, and advised him concerning his emigration to the United States.

“Your wife should have an easy birth, and she should give birth in the proper time; the child should be strong and healthy, and you should know no more sorrow, heaven forbid,” the Rebbe wrote to Henoch when his wife was pregnant with their daughter, later named Miriam after her grandmother, born on June 26, 1951.

Life was not easy for my grandfather, physically or emotionally. He was beset with worries about his health and his future. In a letter dated April 17, 1951, the Rebbe instructed him to try to replace his current feelings of fear with the “fear of G‑d.” The Rebbe suggested studying and contemplating G‑d’s greatness, and how the entire world is in a constant state of divine providence, as found in chassidic teachings. In doing so, he’d “exchange” one fear for a better one.

My grandmother with her son Moshe
My grandmother with her son Moshe
In another letter, dated September 2, 1951, the Rebbe wrote to Henoch, in reply to his dilemma as to whether he should remain in Munich for Rosh Hashanah, or head to the United States as soon as possible. My grandfather had obtained a visa for himself and his family, but it wasn’t easy. He had finally passed the mandatory medical exam, one he had failed several times in the past. Remaining in Germany for Rosh Hashanah might jeopardize his visa, but would also give him a few extra dollars to have in his pocket upon his arrival in the United States, as there would be a greater demand for poultry for the holiday.

The Rebbe wrote that he remembered my grandfather and his family in his prayers, and “G‑d should grant you all [you wish] in a way that is good for you in physical and spiritual matters. And you and your family, may they be well, should be written for a good and sweet year. With blessing to be written and inscribed for good.”

The blessings warmed Henoch’s heart, once again reminding him that across the Atlantic there was someone who cared about him.

At the end of the letter, the Rebbe advised him regarding his predicament: If he was certain that he could stay in Munich over Rosh Hashanah and the visa would still be valid—without the need to retake the medical exam—then he should stay. Otherwise, he should leave for New York before the holiday, which is what Henoch ended up doing.

Life was not easy for my grandfather, physically or emotionally. He was beset with worries about his health and his future. Upon Henoch’s arrival at Ellis Island, he called Lubavitch World Headquarters, known today as 770, to inform the Rebbe of his arrival. The Rebbe was not there; however, the one who responded to the phone call said he would pass on the message.

A few days later, a letter from the Rebbe arrived to Ellis Island, written during the High Holiday period, an extremely busy time for the Rebbe: “I received the message that you have arrived with your family at the shores of the United States. May it be G‑d’s will that everything go well and easily; you should quickly gain admission into the country.”

At the end of the typewritten letter, the Rebbe added in pen: “Please give my regards to all our Jewish brethren who find themselves on Ellis Island, with the blessing to be signed and conclusively sealed for [a] good [year].”

For the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, Henoch was hosted by HIAS in a Manhattan hotel. Nevertheless, Henoch trekked to Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for the joyous event.

He arrived in the middle of the dancing. During the dancing, the Rebbe pulled over Henoch, like a father to a son, and began dancing with him. A broken man’s heart began to heal. That night, tears of joy rolled down Henoch’s face, as he was welcomed to his new life, to a new beginning.

From that day on, Henoch did not make any major decisions without first consulting with the Rebbe for his blessings and advice. He did not have family of his own to turn to, but the Rebbe “adopted” him, providing him with encouragement and assistance. When times were hard, the Rebbe sent him money without his even asking for it. The Rebbe offered him a loan to cover the down payment when he purchased his home. And once, when Henoch was ill, after being discharged from the hospital he received a message from the Rebbe, “I want to see Zaklikowski when he comes out of the hospital.”

A New Life—in Brooklyn

My grandfather in the United States of America
My grandfather in the United States of America
“He was the Lubavitcher amongst us,” recalls Mr. Eli Gelbert, “even when he lived in Brownsville and prayed at the Gerrer chassidic synagogue.”

Mr. Gelbert described my grandfather as “a varmer yid, a warm Jew, who didn’t need much to be happy and was unusually honest.” But one question he could not answer was why my grandfather always prayed in a synagogue populated by followers of the Gerrer chassidic leader, when he himself was a Chabad disciple. It would have seemed a more obvious choice for him to pray in a Chabad synagogue.

The answer came from Mrs. Bina Farbiyash, who together with her husband Ovadya had introduced my grandparents to each other. “Prior to leaving his home in Sokolov to learn in Warsaw,” she related, “Henoch’s mother instructed him to pray in eigene shtiebach—‘our synagogues.’”

My grandfather was fulfilling the only last testament he had from his mother, who was murdered by the Nazis. In this way he kept and cherished the memory of his kind and pious mother.

While still in Munich, Henoch printed a scholarly volume on slaughtering, called Beit David. He shipped most of the copies to be sold in New York. When he arrived and the distributor wanted to reimburse him for the books, he said that he preferred to be repaid with Jewish scholarly texts. Thus my grandfather filled his library with Talmudic volumes, enabling him to sit and learn in his free time.

The new American couple asked the Rebbe for a blessing to have another child. Mattel had experienced difficulty giving birth to their previous children, and the doctors said she could not give birth again. The Rebbe blessed them, and Mattel became pregnant. The Rebbe guided her all along, instructing her to be careful not to lift heavy items, and to rest.

A son was born, and the Rebbe directed the couple to name him after either Henoch’s or Mattel’s father and grandfather. They named him Avraham Yaakov, for Mattel’s father and grandfather. Avraham Yaakov is my father.

Living in New York, and with the birth of his new son, Henoch began a new stage of life. Once again, he became known for his kindness of heart. He arranged for others’ employment, and would quietly assist those in financial need, once leaving a large portion of his paycheck in someone’s home when he noticed their impoverished lifestyle.

When Henoch fell ill, he requested that their children not inform the Rebbe, because “I do not want to cause him any grief.”

My grandparents at the wedding of their eldest living child
My grandparents at the wedding of their eldest living child
“We never knew he was sick,” says Gelbert, “until he did not show up to synagogue for several weeks. Then we went to go visit him in the hospital shortly before he passed away.”

When Passover approached, Henoch requested that the doctors permit him to go home to spend Passover with his family. Seeing his great persistence, the doctors allowed it.

A short while before he passed away, he once again begged his doctors to permit him to join the large children’s parade, in salute to Jewish unity, outside of Lubavitch World Headquarters on the holiday of Lag BaOmer. As was the tradition, the Rebbe, of righteous memory, would be presiding over the parade, and my grandfather did not want to miss a chance to hear the Rebbe’s talk. It was the last one that he participated in.

Back at the hospital, my grandfather made several requests of my father. Amongst them: He did not want anyone to remove items from the house during the lifetime of my grandmother, Mattel. In addition, the Lubavitch custom is that a mourner leads prayer services for the entire year after the parent’s passing. My grandfather requested that my father not argue to lead the prayers, in the event that someone else in the same synagogue also needed to lead.

On the sixth of the Jewish month of Tammuz, 5740 (1980), my grandfather passed away at the age of seventy.

My father, like his father, does not speak much about himself. I have come to terms with it, and in many ways admire it. The actions we do speak for us, and they should be speaking volumes. My grandfather never calculated how he would be remembered, but his kind actions, good nature and sensitivity speak for him today, more than thirty years after his passing. The most powerful lesson my grandfather imparted is that we need to do what is right, and the rest will follow.

Footnotes
1.

When one does not have wine, one may sanctify over bread.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Rose Angel Australia June 12, 2016

My Dad Emil Halbreich has passed away. We must never forget the Holocaust Reply

Rose Angel Sydney, Australia August 4, 2015

May the writer of this article be blessed and never lose the memories of their loved ones. God has a plan for us all. My wonderful father Emil Halbreich is now 92. He will never forget. Rose Angel . Sydney Australia. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 31, 2012

Rose Angel, may G-d bless your father And you to have peaceful years only ahead of you. Amen. Reply

Rose Angel Sydney, Aust August 31, 2012

My grandparents died in auschwitz. But my father l My father Emil Halbreich lived through auschwitz, he is 89 and lives in brisbane Qld Australia Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA February 10, 2012

We have to remember that in translation, The word, "Malfunction", itself, could mean many things. Remember that in Yiddish, a word can have 7 meanings. (In English, sometimes, more.) So, no matter in what way it malfunctioned, be it a mechanical or a human failure, it stopped for a while. That's all we readers need to know. I know it felt terrible when my story was printed of how I came back to Judaism from a stint with Xtianity because a Catholic girl told me my heritage had been stolen from me and took me to Chabad and sat with me so I wouldn't feel ill at ease, and then a blogger said it couldn't be true and thought I had made it up. I know how terrible it feels, because here you go telling a very hurtful part of your life, and someone has the chutzpah to pooh-pooh it all. Sad. Reply

Moish February 9, 2012

re:Mechanism I imagine the man on the on the line had totally no clue why the line stopped. he imagined it was malfunction.. but he would never know.. I am sure he was never granted a tour of the the way it worked. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA February 9, 2012

I believe this story, and it is heartbreaking. Thomas, they had more than one way to kill Jews. Another was by fire. So, what you mentioned was probably only one of the ways. I know what. You want to know how it could be? Go there and find out for yourself. As far as my own story goes, my grandmother and grandfather were able to get out before it all began. He was a bookbinder, and one of the few who could read in Polish, I assume. Many things happened to make him realize something evil was in the works, so he was able to get out, with my grandmother and 7 children. One was born on the boat, and one in America (my mom). My grandmother's sister had just bought a very expensive house and didn't want to leave it. She, and a couple of my grand-uncles, including some Rabbis, were killed by the Nazis. I don't know how they were killed. Reply

J.Sperber Encino, CA October 28, 2011

Auschwitz Thank you for sharing this sad and inspiring story. Reply

Anonymous brooklyn , ny October 28, 2011

great lesson As usual great lesson to be learned, always written well. There is a saying in yiddish, 'do not ask questions on a story'..keep up your great work, many people told me they were moved by this story. Reply

Mel Snyder Stoneham, Massachusetts October 27, 2011

reply to anonymous, Australia I am no authority on concentration camps, but from my readings, it appears that the gas chambers were used on two sets of victims. The first and largest were those who were separated as they disembarked from the cattle cars, and, because of age or infirmity or having children, were deemed not fit for labor. They were sent immediately to the gas chambers.

Much more random were Jews who, after weeks or months of labor, were picked out at morning lineup as unfit for continuing labor, and sent to the gas chambers. In the rare instance when such inmates were in line but the gassing stopped because of a power failure, the inmates were returned to their barracks. If they appeared able to work on a subsequent muster, they were passed over.

That's my best explanation of the story here. I'll believe anything a former inmate with tattooed numbers on his forearm tells me. And you should, too. Reply

Anonymous perth, WA October 27, 2011

gas chamber I've talked about this subject with one of my friends whose father died in Poland. I asked her why didn't they fake the documents, or left overseas? She simply replied , because they didn't believe such things can happen ... so there is something to learn from this, learn to believe! Reply

Anonymous Australia October 26, 2011

re malfunction What an inspiration to read of this strength of character and commitment.
Very interesting article. Thank you.

Re Malfunction Comments: Please excuse my ignorance, but if there was a malfunction (of whatever kind) of the system how would that mean that "Many people escaped death because of such power failures." I have not heard of such escapes. Would it not be merely a delay? Reply

r goldman jhb, sa October 26, 2011

Amazing generation! Thanks for sharing these stories of faith and connection to the Rebbe. We have such a powerful past, and these stories strengthen our faith.!

Unbelievable the suffering that they went through and the strength of character to continue trusting.

May you be reunited very soon with Moshiach. Please share more stories. Reply

Mel Stoneham, Massachusetts October 25, 2011

Gas chamber malfunction If the electrical system failed, and the fans could not clear the poisonous gas from the chambers, the bodies soaked in bodily secretions couldn't be removed and the chamber hosed down and recycled for the next victims. Many people escaped death because of such power failures.

Since you asked. Reply

Anonymous slc, utah October 1, 2011

Shalom! i was moved to tears with your history and read this just prior to Yom Kippur. And will forever remember this and pray a prayer for your family as well. Reply

Thomas Brown New York, NY September 11, 2011

Mechanism? You write: "...the mechanism which operated the chamber of death malfunctioned."

Well, ... there was no mechanism.
It is narrated that an SS man opened a simple cover, lying on a chimney, and poured Zyklon B into the chamber.

How could there be a malfunction of a "mechanism"? Reply

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