Back to the Bunker: How a life-risking act by a Christian family during the Holocaust saved a family and built a thriving community a world away
By Binyamin Rose
ITRA, Slovakia Crammed uncomfortably in the front seat of a van, forced to sit at a 45-degree angle to avoid a head-on collision between my knees and the gear box, I'm surprised and relieved when my seatmate notices my pained grimace and graciously offers to share his legroom.
"Stretch your legs out, there's room here," says Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Landau, the spiritual leader of the famed Khal Veretzky (fondly known as "Rav Landau's") at the corner of Avenue L and East 9th Street in Midwod, Brooklyn.
Sharing tight quarters is part of the Landau heritage, as I would soon see for myself.
"It might be cramped here," I say, "but it's nothing compared to what your grandparents must have gone through." Rabbi Landau merely replies by exhaling and raising his eyebrows.
We are on the road to Nitra, a city of 85,000 at the base of the Zobor Mountain, for a reunion with the surviving member of the Slovakian family that kept the Landau grandparents alive for seven critical months during World War II. We were also preparing to step maybe for one last time into the bunker the size of a walk-in closet in which Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer's grandparents and eight other Jews hid for those seven months, some of them with Nazi soldiers literally sleeping on top of their heads.
We cross the border from Austria to Slovakia. The rolling, green fields of the Vienna suburbs have long since given way to the stark, grayish-brown backdrop of the Slovakian foothills. It's been an unusually mild winter in Europe. Every few miles you might spy a tiny patch of snow on the side of the road, barely enough to make a snowball. Every river we pass has no more than a thin veneer of ice on the surface.
As we exit Highway E-58 at Nitra and drive through town, several contrasts strike the eye. Virtually every building is different from the next. Zoning doesn't seem to be an issue here. Single-family, two-story stucco homes, some with balconies, abut fashionable, glass-windowed shops.
We leave the city center and pull up at a more spacious, modern home on a quiet, hilly side street. We park and enter the house, where we encounter another contrast. Rabbi Landau and his brother, Reb Yechiel, exchange bear hugs with the elderly host, whose family has been eagerly awaiting our visit, dressed in their Sunday best. The host is 85-year-old Frantisek Truska, who was a strapping teenager of 18 when he and his father dug the bunker.
The greetings are just about over, when a new arrival makes her entrance. Mr. Truska glances down at a bassinet holding Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer's 11-week-old daughter. His face visibly lights up. He may not know the baby's precise identity, but it's apparent that he too is experiencing nachas from a soul that may never have been born had it not been for him.
Seeing bearded religious men and an older, non-Jewish Slovakian share such warmth may be a stark contrast, but it seems par for the course in this continent, which seems to be perennially grappling between its checkered past and a more tolerant future.
In a few hours, that contrast would be hammered home, as Mr. Truska would join 16 others and be awarded the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem at a ceremony in the elegant Historical Building of the National Council of the Slovak Republic.
"In those times, humanity was overwhelmed by inhumanity, so it is only fitting to honor those who risked their lives to save others," said Ivan Gasparovic, president of the Slovak Republic, at the ceremony.
BETWEEN THE CRACKS
It can get crowded inside the famous shul, but like my front-seat contortions en route to Nitra, those tight quarters are nothing compared to what Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga and Rebbetzin Chaya Draizel Landau endured in the final days of World War II.
The Landaus moved to the Czechoslovakian town of Nitra in 1929. Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Landau, who was known as the Veretzkier Rav, served as the head of Nitra's rabbinical court until 1946, when the Landaus left for America.
Before the war, Czechoslovakia which had a German speaking region called the Sudetenland had been sold out by Western nations to Germany on the hypocritical and sacrificial altar of appeasement, in the hopes that this one move would satisfy Hitler's power lust. Hitler reneged on his end of the deal. By 1942, three years after the war began, the Nazi army grabbed all of Czechoslovakia and began deporting its Jews.
Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl, the son-in-law of the Nitra Rav, convinced the Czech government, with the help of $50,000 in bribe money, that its economy would collapse if it allowed the deportations of Jewish businessmen and factory owners. The Czechs conceded and did not subject the affluent to the deportations.
Even before this deal was struck to spare many Jews, Rabbi Landau had already experienced his first narrow escape from deportation to what would have been an almost certain death.
Rav Sholom Noach Landau, one of Rav Yechezkel Shraga's three grandsons and dean of Yeshivah Ohr Shraga and Mesivta Bais Aron Tzvi Veretzky, is also the family historian, basing his information on written records and recorded testimony he took directly from his grandfather. "My grandfather told us that deportations were handled in an organized manner, on a street-by-street basis," he said.
There's nothing like location when it comes to real estate. Since the Landau home in Nitra was one of only two houses on their block, it somehow fell between the cracks. Those in charge of the first stage of deportation thought the street was on the list for the second stage, and by the time the second stage started, the Nazis thought the residents on that little street had already been taken.
There was still one last holdout category of Jews who could beat the deportations. Certain rabbis deemed to be community assets were exempted, but to prove their worth, they had to work for the Czech government. When it appeared that his own deportation was unavoidable, Rabbi Landau visited a high government official to see if he could be classified as a community asset. When he announced himself at the official's office, an assistant asked the bearded rabbi to wait while he conferred with the official.
"My grandfather overheard them talking behind the closed door," recounts Reb Sholom Noach. "He probably wants me to give him a work furlough,' said the official. 'I can't do that. Look at him, with his beard and side curls. I can't just give him a furlough. Tell him I can't help him."
The assistant exited, but before he could say a word, Rav Landau announced, "Tomorrow I will be back without a beard and peyos [sidelocks] and in work clothes."
Reb Sholom Noach relates: "My grandfather told me the high government official actually left his office, picked up Rav Landau, kissed him and said: 'Rabiner [rabbi], if you could do this, you will save yourself and be a role model for other rabbis in the city. As long as they're ready to work, I can save them too."
Rav Landau had to shave his beard and shorten his peyos, but he was able to at least salvage his moustache. He was also fortunate that during the next year, as he toiled in Czech labor camps, he was able to establish a kosher kitchen, and the workweek did not include the Sabbath.
Rav Landau's son, Aron Tzvi, who later became the Veretzkier Rav and rosh yeshivah, was his only surviving child. In 1942 when Aron Tzvi was 14, he escaped Nitra right after morning prayers on the fast of17th of Tammuz, which commemorates tragedy. Secrecy was paramount, so he didn't even inform his parents of his plans.
He trudged on foot for a month to Neiheisel, just over the Hungarian border, a village he remembered from a visit he took with his mother in 1936 when he was just eight years old. It was midsummer. The corn and wheat fields stood tall with their ripening crops just tall enough to camouflage the young Aron Tzvi during the day. At night, he plodded through woods, mountains, and valleys. "He always told me the fear was unbearable, especially when he would hear dogs barking from the farmhouses at night," says Reb Sholom Noach.
The fear intensified when he made it to Neiheisel, knocked on a door he thought belonged to his cousin Lipa Loyash, only to discover an intimidating non-Jew glaring at him from the other side. He ran for his life, finding refuge in the local synagogue. Once there, he was reunited with his cousins. After being passed along to several relatives, he was finally caught and sent to a concentration camp. But he survived the war spending some of it alongside the Klausenberger Rebbe and was finally liberated from Felderfink.
In the meantime, the summer of 1943 quickly turned into 1944, and the Germans' fortunes were turning as well. The Nazis were on the retreat on every front. Sensing an opportunity, the Czechs took advantage of the German disarray to attack the Nazis. In response, the German army stormed into Nitra with a vengeance and started deporting all the Jews.
By this time, as many as ten bunkers had been built as hiding places for Jews, but most of the hidden Jews were ferreted out and deported.
Rav Landau turned to a non-Jewish friend named Jan Truska with a plea for help. Truska and his wife, Jozefina, agreed to hide the Landaus on their farmhouse on Nitra's outskirts. Together with his son Frantisek, Jan and two other Jewish men dug a bunker in a sub-cellar, underneath the basement of the home. Two weeks later, the bunker was ready, just in the nick of time, as the deportations were ready to begin in earnest.
Jan and Jozefina are long departed, but Frantisek was just 18 when he put shoulder to the shovel, and he still remembers that era.
"If the Nazis had found out that they were harboring ten Jews in their house they would have skinned them alive," says Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer. Today, 68 years later, Mr. Truska finds it easy to articulate why his family risked their own lives to save Jews, even if the answer is difficult for the listener to comprehend.
"We really didn't think we were doing anything so special," Mr. Truska explained last week, as his granddaughter interpreted. "Our family had an appreciation for life and we wanted to save lives. We liked people and we didn't differentiate between one person and another. We felt if we didn't save these people, then even more people could die. We also realized that if these people could be deported to die, the same thing could happen to people like us, under different circumstances."
INCHES FROM DEATH
The sub-cellar was substandard. It was a tiny, cold room nine feet by twelve feet, and only seven feet high, with no plumbing or running water and only a seven-watt bulb for light. Even if there had been an opportunity to light Chanukah candles that year, there was so little oxygen down there, even a match wouldn't have remained lit.
"Ten years ago when we came here for the first time, the bunker was smelly and musty and the cement was wet like liquid," says Reb Yechiel Landau, as we all step inside the bunker. Reb Yechiel and his brother Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer stand next to each other, an arm's-length apart, and take up almost the entire width of the room. "Can you imagine ten people living down here for seven months?" marvels Reb Yechiel.
The bunker had a manhole-size cover that was kept open for air when the coast was clear, but the Jews had to keep on guard 24/7 and close the trapdoor whenever they feared a "visitor." When the trapdoor was closed, they had a little revolving peg the size of a cork that gave them about two square inches of air.
Food was under ration at the time. Mrs. Truska bought food and medications illegally and when none were available for purchase, she would try to steal some from the Nazis. Every day she would drop a bucket of food into the bunker and retrieve it at the end of the day, along with another bucketful of waste. Despite the danger of capture if their voices were heard, not one day passed without a Torah lecture in the bunker. Rav Landau, being an ardent student, had taken two sacred works along with him and he also wrote original scholarly commentary and kept a diary.
This status quo continued from the fall until around Chanukah, when the noose tightened a notch.
Germany was still in retreat and needed a base in the Nitra vicinity for their headquarters. Nazi troops took over the Truska home, forcing the Truska family to move to the attic while the Nazis commandeered the first two stories and parked their army jeeps and vehicles on their farmland. Guards searched the house periodically. They knew there was a basement, but didn't know about the existence of the sub-cellar.
One day, Rav Landau peered through the diagonal "window" and saw two German soldiers walking in the yard holding a newspaper. He overhead a chilling conversation. The soldiers were discussing a recent news article detailing deportations of Jews from various cities with the surprising finding that more Jews were deported than originally thought. They were jubilant, thinking that these regions were totally Judenrein (free of Jews).
"My grandfather heard one of the German soldiers telling the other, 'If I were to find a Jew today, I'd break him in half,'" says Reb Sholom Noach.
In the bunker that night the topic of conversation was, If we do survive which seemed highly unlikely to them at the time how will ten Jews live in a world without co-religionists?
THE LAST GASP
The Nazis, needing more lebensraum on the Truska farm, took over the basement as well. Fearing that the Germans would find the bunker's entrance, Jan Truska hauled barrels to the basement, lining them up 20 wide and 10 deep, covering the hole to the bunker. "There were ten Jews hidden maybe 12 inches below 50 Nazis, and the Truskas were moser nefesh [risked their lives] every day," Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer recounts.
Dozens of German soldiers were sleeping in the basement every night. The soldiers would return from their duties, cold, hungry, tired, and mad. Many hadn't eaten all day. When they saw barrels, they figured there might be food inside. One night they started jumping on the barrels and banging them. "Empty barrels make a lot of noise," says Reb Sholom Noach. "Can you imagine the fear of the Jews sleeping and sitting right below that? They couldn't cough, sneeze, or even breathe out loud."
On a dark, sad Purim night, when it was quiet upstairs, Rav Landau delivered a sermon.
King Achashveirosh told Mordechai that anything written and sealed with the king's seal is irrevocable, yet the decree against the Jews of Shushan was ultimately revoked. Rav Landau explained that when the word "king" is mentioned in the Scroll of Esther, it is a reference to the King of the Universe. The dialogue between Achashveirosh and Mordechai was being played out in Heaven. The Divine was saying: "You know what? I can't revoke my decree, but I can push it off." World War II, said Rav Landau, was the realization of the original Purim decree, as men, women, and children were led to the slaughter, just as Haman had hoped for more than 2,000 years prior.
One month after Purim, salvation arrived. On the second day of Passover, the Truskas came down to the bunker excitedly and announced that Germany had lost the war, the Nazi soldiers had fled, and everyone could come out of hiding.
The coast wasn't entirely clear, however. The Russians had entered Nitra. As Rav Landau walked down the street, a Russian soldier halted him. Rav Landau didn't speak Russian, but he understood the soldier to be asking where he had come from. Of course, he told the truth. "I was in a bunker."
This turned out to be politically incorrect, because to a Russian soldier, a bunker was synonymous with an enemy foxhole. The soldier wanted to shoot Rav Landau, until a bystander who knew Russian explained what the rabbi had meant when he used the word "bunker."
Suddenly, the demeanor of the Russian soldier changed. His harshness melted into mercy and he pulled out a loaf of bread to give to Rav Landau.
Rav Landau's explanation that it was Passover and bread is leaven only served to insult the soldier. "What do you think, my food's poison?" he spluttered. "I'm also Jewish. You can eat my food."
Via the interpreter, Rav Landau proceeded to converse with the Russian-Jewish soldier, explaining the meaning of Passover. While for some reason, this soldier was familiar with other Jewish holidays, he had never heard of Passover. Now he knew.
THE VALUE OF SAVING
The Landaus assumed that they had lost all of their children. They were unaware that Aron Tzvi had survived. Every now and then, reports would filter in that another young man was making his way home to Nitra. Time and again it wasn't their precious Aron Tzvi. Time and again their hopes were dashed to the point that Rebbetzin Landau said, "I don't want to hear these rumors anymore. I can't take it."
"My grandfather told me he noticed one day that their mailman's hands resembled my father's hands," says Reb Sholom Noach, "so he actually paid the mailman to place his hands down on the table so he could pat them and my mother could gaze at them."
This may have just been a Divine message, because a few weeks later, Aron Tzvi returned. "My grandfather was sitting and studying when he came in," says Reb Sholom Noach. "At first, he didn't even recognize his son, because of the passage of time and his disheveled appearance after years of being on the run."
A year after the war, the Landaus moved to America. Reb Aron Tzvi eventually married Rebbetzin Shprintzy. She developed an unusually close relationship with her mother-in-law, who still bore occasional scars from life in the bunker. "She was afraid to go down to the basement by herself, so whenever she needed to go there, I would go with her," remembers Rebbetzin Shprintzy Landau. "She was very special to me, and so was my father-in-law."
For a period of time, the Landaus kept contact with the Truskas by mail, but once the Communists gained a powerful foothold in Czechoslovakia, Mr. Truska asked them not to write anymore as it would be too dangerous for the family to be seen receiving regular mail from the United States.
Over the decades, the two families lost contact. Still, before Reb Yechezkel Shraga passed away, he instructed the family to one day reestablish contact and to do something special for the Truskas to show their appreciation.
And in 2002, they set in motion the process that came to a climax last month.
A contingent from the family returned to Slovakia (in 1992, Czechoslovakia split into two countries the Czech Republic and Slovakia), not quite aware how difficult their quest would be. "We had no idea where we were going," admits Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer. "My father [Aron Tzvi] had given us some directions and landmarks, but when we got to Nitra, we discovered that whatever sections used to be the suburbs had become the middle of town. Nothing matched up. We couldn't put two and two together."
All the Landaus knew is that they were looking for a World War II bunker on the outskirts of Nitra. They hired a local driver and told him they were looking for the Truskas. The driver began looking up names in the phone book, and called all of the Truskas until he hit the jackpot.
"Yes, we're the ones!" said the man who turned out to be Frantisek Truska. He promptly gave the driver directions to his current residence, and waited outside to greet the Landaus on their arrival. Once inside his home, he pulled out a letter that Rav Landau had sent to the elder Truska in 1946, describing how he was trying to rebuild his life after losing all of his children in the Holocaust.
"My grandfather wrote him that the Jewish nation is blessed because they have a G0d who gave them a Torah, and if you immerse yourself in Torah learning, it helps you forget all of your hardships and reinvigorates your life," says Reb Sholom Noach.
Then, Frantisek broke the bad news. He had sold the farmhouse some 20 years ago and the entire neighborhood had changed so much since then that he couldn't even give them proper directions.
He did make one request though, when told that the Landaus had come to show their appreciation to him and his family: "I want the Truska family to be included among Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations. Try to do that for me."
Saying they would investigate the subject, the Landaus bid Frantisek goodbye and got back in the car. "We're driving down a country road," says Reb Sholom Noach. "We see a young girl who looks American to us by the way she's dressed, so we stop, roll down the windows, and ask: 'Do you speak English?' She says yes. We tell her we're looking for a house that belonged to someone named Truska that has a bunker in it.
"Her eyes open wide. 'That's my father's house!'"
In a few minutes, the Landaus were meeting the new owner, Dr. Martin Bednarik, who told them that he discovered the bunker when he had bought the home and had contemplated demolishing it, but then had second thoughts. "I heard that there were Jews saved here during the Second World War," Dr. Bednarik told the Landaus. "I wasn't sure if it was true or not, but I figured if it is, why would I want to destroy such a sacred place that saved people? I want to keep something like that in my house."
On that 2002 visit back to the bunker the first such visit in 57 years the Landaus found the hideout exactly as their grandfather had described it. The trapdoor was still there, and so was the round peg that was removed to let air in when the trapdoor had to be closed. There were even World War II shell casings scattered throughout the yard.
On our visit, Dr. Bednarik was obviously proud of his tastefully renovated home, which still conceals a tiny bunker in the sub-cellar. The old Truska farm is indeed the center of Nitra's suburbia. All of the homes have grassy lawns and brick walkways and red, barrel-tile roofs. When asked if he was equally proud of having preserved a piece of historical heritage for the Jews, Dr. Bednarik suggested what he did was not only for the Jews. "We are compassionate people," he said. "This bunker is a part of our history. We are proud of the lives that our people saved."
THE FINAL ACT
About six months ago, Yad Vashem informed the Landaus and Truskas of the good news. A man from Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, was able to verify the account, and the Truskas would now be entitled to inclusion in an upcoming ceremony to honor other Righteous Among the Nations.
That ceremony, tearful at times and joyous at others, was held last Wednesday night. Seven members of the Landau family attended, including the newest arrival, 11-week old Chaya Draizel, named for her great-grandmother who had been confined to the bunker. For the Truskas, in addition to Frantisek, his daughter and son-in-law and his two granddaughters were on hand.
Families had been broken by the war. The Landaus lost a total of 104 family members. But this was a night of reunions fortuitously following the ninth yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rabbi Aron Tzvi Landau.
As an added tribute, the Landaus presented Frantisek Truska with a silver menorah symbolizing the light that he and his family had restored to the Landaus.
What the Truskas never imagined was that their risky campaign would culminate in a Brooklyn landmark. After moving to America, Rav Landau established his own community in Flatbush in the early 1950s, because he didn't want to encroach on anyone else's kehillah. Prior to that, Rav Landau, who was the only man to ever receive rabbinic ordination from the Minchas Elazar of Munkacz, served as a Halachic decisor for the previous Satmar Rebbe, the Divrei Yoel ztz"l. Their association began when Rav Landau's father, Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Landau, a rabbi in Chust, was instrumental in helping the Satmar Rebbe obtain his first rabbinical post. Later, Rav Landau merited being a study-partner of the Satmar Rebbe.
At a 1967 dedication at the old shul, Rav Landau spoke passionately, saying he was praying to the Almigty that his synagogue remain open for services day and night.
"That was a wild dream in those days, because there were not many Jews in Flatbush," observes Reb Sholom Noach. Certainly the "minyan factory" that is Landau's today seemed a distant dream. "But the Almighy listens to every prayer of a tzaddik [truly righteous person], and about 20 years later it was fulfilled."
In addition to the shul, Rav Landau built the community's first public mikveh with the assistance of Rav Solomon Scharfman, then spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Flatbush, and the area's first Yiddish-speaking yeshivah, elementary and high schools, and summer camps in the Catskills.
As Binyamin Zev Levy, an elderly member of the Nitra Mount Kisco, New York community who remembered Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga, recently told Reb Sholom Noach, "Every time I hear about the shul, the yeshivah, and the all the mosdos [institutions], I say, the Almighty repaid your grandfather in the most befitting way for his years of mesirus nefesh [self-sacrifice] and ahavas Yisrael [love of one's fellow man]."
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Comment by clicking here. Binyamin Rose is an editor at Mishpacha magazine, where this first appeared.
Binyamin Rose is an editor at Mishpacha magazine, where this first appeared.
© 2012, Mishpacha magazine