They were mere boys—all under the age of eighteen—but in this particular case, their youth proved to be a liability, not the asset it had been under other circumstances. It was puzzling, really: Most camp commandants consigned teenagers sixteen and older to life, since they were deemed hardy enough for the slave labor force into which they were conscripted. But this camp commandant had drawn the line at eighteen instead, decreeing that all those who were younger be sent to certain death. His orders for additional selections grew more shrill and fevered with each passing day, multiplying the numbers that were fed into the furnaces. Perhaps it was the advent of the Jewish High Holidays that had unleashed his fury, or, in perverse irony, his own heinous way of celebrating.

It was the fall of 1944 at Auschwitz, and Hungarian Jews—the last nationality to be transported to the camp—had arrived in massive numbers. The furnaces worked overtime as the inmates were sped to their inexorable fate. Everything about the camp seemed so surreal—the perpetual fog cover of smoke and ash, the barren landscape of barbed wire and slime—that it served to mirror the prisoners' own profound sense of displacement and disorientation. Everything had happened so fast: being crammed into the cattle cars that had disgorged them at Auschwitz; the quick, merciless dismemberment of families as spouses, children, parents an siblings were torn apart from one another during the selections; being dispassionately stripped of the clothing and personal belongings that made them human, and the freezing-cold showers and assembly-line delousing that had followed. In the course of only minutes, the new inmates had lost everything they owned, everything they loved.

Already, some were engulfed by the horror, so studded by their sudden plunge into hell, so mummified into Muselmann (the walking dead), that they could barely remember their own names, Never before had the gas chamber's concrete floor shaken under the pounding of fifty pairs of feet stamping in unbridled joy. let alone the religious holidays. But there were those remnants, those few who still cared about observing the Jewish holidays; among them were fifty religious boys who had just been selected for the gas chamber and were now being herded into a bathhouse, ostensibly to take "showers." It was late enough in concentration camp history that they boys knew the truth. Gas would pour through the pipes, not water. It was a ruse that the Nazis used to disarm the inmates, to ensure their cooperation. But these spiritual heroes made a conscious decision not to give in to them, choosing defiance instead.

Amid the tumult in the bathhouse, one boy sprang up and shouted: "Brothers! Today is the holiday of Simchat Torah, when the Jewish world rejoices, having concluded the reading of the Torah over the past year, followed directly with the commencement of the new cycle of the Torah reading. During our short lives, we have tried to uphold the Torah to the best of our ability, and now we have one last chance to do so. Before we die, let us celebrate Simchat Torah one last time.

"We do not possess anything anymore," the boy continued. "We have nothing. We do not have clothes to cover us, nor a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) with which to dance. So let us dance with G‑d Himself—who is surely here among us—before we return our souls to Him."

Since it had first been erected and used, the gas chambers had absorbed a cacophony of human sounds—screams, cries, moans, benedictions—that would forever reside within its cold earthen stone walls. But never before had its rafters trembled with the pure, sweet strains of fifty young voices raised in fervent song, never before had its concrete floor shaken under the pounding of fifty pairs of feet stamping in unbridled joy. The boys pierced the heavens with their song: "Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu u'mah nayim goraleinu umah yafah yerushateinu…" (How fortunate are we and how wonderful is our portion and how beautiful is our heritage.)

"What is going on in there?" One scowling Nazi guard asked his comrade as they waited outside. "Why hasn't the gas been turned on yet?"

"It sounds like they're singing…and dancing. Are they crazy?" another guard said in disbelief.

"Go find out what's causing the delay," an officer commanded. "And get the commandant."

Summoned to the doors of the gas chamber, the commandant listened with growing fury to the incongruous revelry inside. He had watched Jews marching to their deaths hundreds of times before—some weeping softly, others reciting prayers—and he had relished these scenes. But this—this singing and dancing—this was unacceptable. He flung open the gas chamber doors and pulled one boy toward him.

"You!" he shouted. "Tell me why you are singing and dancing now."

"Because leaving a world where Nazi beasts reign is cause for celebration," the boy sneered. "And because we are overjoyed at the prospect of reuniting with our beloved parents, whom you murdered so viciously."

The commandant became enraged at the boy's contemptuous words. Obsequiousness…fear...last-ditch attempts to ingratiate one's self into his favour—those were acceptable modes of behavior. Insolence was not.

"I'll teach you a lesson," he screamed as the boys continued to dance and sing, heedless of his presence. "You thought that the gas chamber would be your last stop. You'll find out otherwise. The gas chamber would have been easy and painless compared to what awaits you now. I will torture each one of you with unbearable suffering. I will slice your flesh till you expire." The commandant ordered the guards to remove the boys from the gas chamber and place them in a holding block overnight. He planned to begin the torture sessions the following day.

But the next morning, his plans again went awry. A high-ranking Nazi officer had traveled to Auschwitz to round up slave labor for a work camp that lacked sufficient help. He needed to find several hundred young, able-bodied men capable of performing gruelling work under barbarous conditions. As he strode through the camp looking for prospects, the Nazi officer just happened to pass by the barracks in which the fifty religious boys had been temporarily housed. Their vitality undiminished by their overnight stay, the boys still radiated strength and good healthy. "Excellent," the Nazi officer smiled in satisfaction. "Exactly the type of boys I need."

The Nazi officer pulled rank on the camp commandant, who revealed nothing about his original plans for the boys' fate. He stood silently as the Nazi officer ordered the boys—and several hundred other inmates—to board the trucks that rolled out of Auschwitz into safer climes. Some say that the boys left the grounds singing.

Postscript: Survivors of Auschwitz report that all fifty boys survived the war.