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Simchat Torah in the Nazi Labor Camp

Simchat Torah in the Nazi Labor Camp

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The desolate streets of the Częstochowa Ghetto in 1944.
The desolate streets of the Częstochowa Ghetto in 1944.

Until World War II, the Polish city of Czestochowa had been a bustling center of Jewish life. Then came the bitter day when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the fall of 1939, before Rosh Hashanah, the Nazis entered Czestochowa and began persecuting the Jewish population.


The ghetto, one of the largest in Poland, was established in April of 1941, and the first deportation started in September of 1942, on the day after Yom Kippur. The Nazis had just dispatched over a quarter million Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. To them, the Czestochowa Ghetto, with just 50,000 Jews, was small potatoes. During the course of that year, the Nazis and their willing lackeys arranged several “aktions,” in which they rounded up the Jews for deportation and extermination. But most of the Jews were deported in that first "Great Aktion,” when they were brutally taken in cattle cars to the Treblinka extermination camp.

The Germans left several thousand Jews in the ghetto. They had to work from morning to night in the factories near Czestochowa. One factory produced metal and another made bullets. Merciless SS officers stood over the workers and did not allow them to stop working for a moment.

Unique among the Jewish workers was a shoemaker. An expert at his craft, he was assigned to repair the shoes and boots of the Nazi soldiers and officers. In order to fulfill his duties, he was granted special freedoms, and was allowed to walk between the nearly empty ghetto and the labor camp, where the surviving Jews were now confined.

His name was Aryeh Szajnert, and he was more than just a shoemaker. A native of the city, he had excellent connections and frequently used them to better the lot of the poor prisoners. It was not uncommon for him to enter the camp with packages of food and other goods.

It had happened once that Aryeh saw five girls being taken for hard labor. One of the girls, Baila Zyskind, had arrived at the camp from Majdanek crying, fearful of what lay ahead. He stepped in and apparently bribed people for the remainder of the war in order to keep her and her fellows from hard labor.

And so it was that just before Rosh Hashanah, the shoemaker arrived at the labor camp with a shofar. It was with bittersweet feelings that the Jews clustered into the shoemaker’s small workshop during the brief midday break to hear the muted shofar blasts. How did he lay his hands on the precious artifact? No one knew.

One day, during the holiday of Sukkot, rumors began to swirl. "The shoemaker is late. He has not yet returned from the ghetto. Who knows if he is OK?"

It was usual for the shoemaker to return late, after the inmates had been given their meager rations. He would go directly to the camp kitchen, where a modest meal had been reserved for him.

But this time, when he finally arrived, he did not go to the kitchen. Instead, he went to his workroom, where he was seen doing something behind a large wooden plank.

Word soon spread that the shoemaker had managed to smuggle a small Torah scroll into the camp! “When Simchat Torah comes, we get to dance with an actual Torah scroll," said the shoemaker, his eyes ablaze.

Despite the badgering and questioning, the shoemaker refused to say how he got the shofar and now the Torah scroll. But word soon leaked out.

The Nazis had appropriated a large warehouse on the outskirts of the ghetto, where they collected Jewish sacred objects. The warehouse was heavily guarded, making it almost impossible to take anything out of it. Placing his life on the line, the shoemaker was able to bribe the officer in charge. And that was how he got the shofar.

In order to get the Torah scroll, he promised the officer that he would make a pair of fancy boots for him, just like he had made for the most senior commanders. The officer let him take a Torah scroll.

The shoemaker chose a small scroll and wrapped it around his body so that he would avoid attracting the attention of the guards.

The shoemaker had acted at the last possible moment, as the Germans were already beginning to burn the sacred objects in the warehouse.

"How can we possibly hide the Torah?" The shoemaker asked the group of young men who would meet for services every Shabbat in a hidden corner of the barracks.

Someone had an idea, and the group set to work. They plied a plank off of one of the wooden bunks and made a space in which to put the small Torah scroll. The plank was then returned to its place.

The night of Simchat Torah arrived, and the sense of excitement rose. The inmates silently made their way to the place where the Torah scroll was hidden. They feared that the guards would find the Torah, and that their lives were in jeopardy. As a precaution, it was decided not to remove the Torah from its place. Instead, the plank was moved to the side, revealing the sacred parchment.

A survivor later testified: “On that Simchat Torah we held the traditional Hakafot dances in our barracks. But they were not done in the usual way. The Torah lay in hiding, and we danced around it humming the joyous Simchat Torah tunes under our breaths. We entered in small groups, and mutedly circled the bunk. One by one, we then bent over to kiss it before exiting."

Aryeh (who later assumed the name Arnold Steiner) survived the war. On the very day that the Russian Army freed them Jan 20, 1945, he married Baila (now Barbara). They made their way to the US, where they raised their family.

Miraculously, the Torah survived the war as well and was brought to Israel by Rabbi Noach Adelist. It is now housed in the holy ark of the Gerer synagogue in Bnei Brak.

Arnold and Barbara Steiner.
Arnold and Barbara Steiner.

(Translated and adapted from Sichat Hashavuah 1293, with additional information supplied by Marvin Steiner, son of Aryeh Szajnert.)

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Helen Dudden United Kingdom October 16, 2017

It still is a very special story. Courage and determination. Reply

Karen Joyce Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA via jewishriverside.com October 11, 2017

Beautiful story of ccurage. I had tears in my eyes when I read this. Not just the story, but also my ancestors lived in that city and only one that I knew of survived. Thank you for this story. Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol October 27, 2016

Faith and courage. Never to lose faith and let evil rule the world.

My thoughts and prayers go to Israel, what ever comments, the Jewish faith existed before time began. Reply

Shoshana Scranton October 27, 2016

Simchat Torah The article about the saved Torah scroll is a treasure. Question: What were the Ukrainians doing in Poland in 1942? When did the Nazis invade the Ukraine? Thank you. Reply

Emil D Pimentelli Round rock,Tecas October 26, 2016

It was a miracle from Hashem to save theTorah Scroll.
EP Reply

Esther October 23, 2016

Beautiful and empowering story about the spirit of our people... Reply

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