JWR Pesach
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

It may not be recorded in any history book, dear reader, but for a few moments in a concentration camp, Jewish prisoners achieved freedom --- freedom of the spirit.

Shmurah Matzah

The Festival of Freedom in Block 20 ... Mauthausen, Germany: 1945

By Abraham Krakowski

I ROLLED THE WHEAT kernels over and over between my fingers. I had already popped one into my mouth and had made it last as long as possible. I ached for another, but I restrained myself, simply because of the bravado announcement I had so foolishly made in transit.

Our boxcar from Sachsenhausen lurched to a halt. The door slid open slightly and we had seen an open car loaded with wheat kernels standing nearby. Within easy reach were hundreds of kernels. We scooped up several handfuls of the stuff before the train began to move again. Someone sighed ruefully.

"It's exactly thirty days to Pesach," I said, breaking the silence. "We ought to save these kernels -- Who knows? Maybe we'll be liberated by Pesach, and we will use these for matzos mitzvah!

The mere mention of liberation and the festival of freedom was heady stuff, and none of the religious members of our group dared chew any more kernels, at least publicly.

But that was weeks ago. Liberation had not come. No one received food packages, as we had in Sachsenhausen. And at Mauthausen, the food was impossible. One loaf of bread was rationed for eight men. The daily soup was inedible. I had always managed to eat everything, even in Birkenau, but in spite of gnawing hunger I could not tolerate the Mathausen soup and vomited from it.

I was fingering the wheat longingly, weak, when Mendel Markus and the Rubenstein brothers approached me. The Seder night was two weeks away. I should ask the Block Altester [Senior], Atze Levin, and the Stuben Altester [Room Senior], Ernst Gottlieb, for permission to bake matzos, since I was on good terms with them. Markus and the Rubensteins would take care of the time and the place, using the washroom late at night so the SS would not find out. The only problem would be to heat the stove sufficiently so the baking could proceed quickly.

I could not share in their excitement. We were isolated slave laborers in a prison camp, surrounded by the SS men on all sides. Our only value to our masters was our skills in handling counterfeit money, not as human beings. I could not see risking our lives further just to bake matzos. And then, what about the prisoners who sleep near the stove! Some were only "half-Jews" and "quarter-Jews." We were so crowded that we practically slept in a heap. They would never tolerate the overheated stove. What would we do if an SS officer would make a sudden appearance? And how would we beat the kernels into flour! (That was a job I would relish, but how would we do it!) The plan was simply too fraught with doubt and danger.

Markus would not soften his stand. Is it only coincidence that these wheat kernels came into our hands a month before Pesach!

We finally agreed that I would present our dilemma to Reb Avigdor Glanzer, a Torah scholar whose word we all respected. (Markus was not on good terms with Glanzer, but he agreed to accept his decision.)

I told Glanzer the entire story, and he agreed with me fully. When I brought back his opinion to Mendel Markus, he spat out at me: "So now you'll have your way and we won't have matzos. Don't you realize that this is probably the last Pesach of our lives! You'll have some explaining to do in the Next World."

His words hurt, and I had to struggle with myself not to punch him. "You're a scoundrel for rubbing salt in our wounds," I shot back at him. "If you can talk that way, your entire religion is phony! I'm not stopping you from baking matzos. Why don't you approach the Block Altester and Stuben Altester, the way you ask me to! I, personally, don't see any mitzvah in risking our lives."

More out of desperation than conviction, I quoted the Talmud (Pesachim 43b, 91b) that draws a parallel between the obligation to eat matzos on Pesach and the prohibition against eating leaven. Anyone prohibited to eat chametz must eat matzos. "Could that apply to us!" I argued heatedly. "We couldn't live eight days without leaven. We'd starve. So we're not expected to eat matzos, either."

I realized the argument was faulty, so I added in parting, "Remember Chanukah! I didn't want to take chances then, either. So you lit candles on your own. Who's to stop you from baking matzos now?"

My answer to him was no answer to myself. I sought comfort from the Rubensteins and Glanzer. They were quick to agree with me that Markus was cruel, and that I should ignore his taunts. Glanzer was especially furious with Markus. Yet they voiced reservations.

"But still --" "Maybe we could still manage --"

"After all, the grain -- isn't it a sign from Heaven that G-d wants us to go ahead and bake matzos?"

"Look here," I insisted, no one ever thought Of baking matzos until I said it in that boxcar from Sachsenhausen. It was my idea, and now I say forget about it. As for G-d wanting us to eat matzos, His help can come in a flash, anyway. Let's just leave this to Him."

My retort quieted them, but not my restless thoughts. That night I slept fitfully. In my dream, my deceased father and I were visiting the Holy Rebbe of Radomsk.

We stood at the table at which he usually sat. Next to him stood his son-in-law, Reb Moshe. (The Rebbe and his son-in-law were killed by the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, together with their wives. I had known that already.) The Rebbe asked me: "What are you doing about davening with a minyan? It's written: "'A whole thing, and not halfway.'''

I replied: "If it's at all possible, we see to it that when someone has to say Kaddish on a Yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a parent) that we get ten people together. We also manage an occasional Kedushah and Borchu."

Suddenly my father was not there anymore. I realized while dreaming that my father was no longer of this world, and I began begging the Rebbe to look into our situation, and that he should pray to G-d to help us. Then I told him the entire story of the grain and how Markus had chastised me, insisting that we bake matzos. I told him about my answer, the Talmudic passage I quoted, my argument. I asked him what he thought about the matter. He answered: "I shall tell you. As a matter of principle, you are correct, but you will remember your dear father labored to bake matzohs. And it's written: `And thus you shall do for all your generations.'"

With that, the dream was over.

The next morning I awoke full of hope that we would be freed. The words were echoing in my ears: "Thus you shall do for all your generations ... all your generations!" There would be more generations!

I could not wait to hear them call: "Everybody out of bed!" I ran directly to Glanzer and all but shouted, "Glanzer, we'll bake matzos!"

He stared at me, and asked: "What happened all of a sudden?"

I told him the entire dream and the impression it had made me.

"If that is the case, I have no counsel to offer and I am in agreement." he said " -- and very happy at that."

I went to Markus and the Rubensteins, and also told them the story, and that we would indeed bake matzos. I was so convinced that our liberation was at hand that no guns could scare me.

Glanzer, one of the Rubensteins, and I approached Atze the Block Senior for permission to bake the matzos in the evening after taps. He asked: And where do you expect to do all that!?"

We told him that the preparation would be done in the washroom, but we would like to have the stove in the room well heated so the baking could be handled with speed. We assured him that the whole operation, from beginning to end, would take only half an hour. He went with us to Ernst Gottlieb, the Room Senior. Both realized that we were serious. They agreed, and added: "Think of us, too."

We quickly began the detailed planning on how to accomplish our task. We washed four towels and hung them to dry on the wall surrounding the yard. After they had dried, we wrapped the grain kernels in the towels and took four hammers (we had access to tools) and beat the grain into a piece of paper. After several hours of arm-aching work, we'd collected about 200 grams of flour.

During the course of the day, we found a tin can which we heated through to make it kosher for Pesach use. By bedtime the stove was piping hot. When the light was turned off, some of those near the stove started to complain that it was too hot for them. Gottlieb raised his voice, "Krakowski is not to be disturbed in his work. Everyone quiet!" That was sufficient to silence the complaints.

We quickly went into the washroom. We prepared the dough in a bowl we had previously heated and cleaned, and whispering, with tears on our cheeks, we sang snatches from the Hallel prayer. The kneading and rolling took some ten minutes. We had a board for rolling out the dough, but we had to use an empty bottle as a rolling pin. I then stationed myself at the stove, and every minute or so, one of my co-workers brought me a matzah from the washroom. The stove was so hot that it took barely two minutes for six matzos to be done. I would slide one matzah on and take off another.

We stuck to our schedule, and the entire work was finished in less than eighteen minutes! We had baked sixteen matzos, each about the size of the palm of my hand. For the first time in years we went to bed happy.

The next morning we began writing down the Haggadah and its recounting of the Exodus from Egypt, piecing it together from whatever anyone could remember by heart.

In the evening, our Seder began. Again we slipped into the washroom. The previous evening we were six in the washroom; that night, fifteen. There were more who wanted to join us, but there was not enough room, and then, we were afraid that the SS might hear us. We started reciting the aggadah very quietly. Some of us could not contain ourselves and broke into sobs. As for me, I could not utter a single word.

When I had quieted down a little, I reminded the others not to forget where we were, and to try to be quick. After we recounted the Exodus from Egypt, we washed our hands and ate a piece of matzah. I permitted myself to save a piece the size of a fingernail, as a talisman.

At the conclusion of our Seder, after the traditional "Next year in Jerusalem," we said in one voice, as if it were part of the text: "If G-d will only free us now, we will have to make an even greater Haggadah."

Abraham Krakowski lives in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and is a proud father, grandfather and great-grandfather.


© 1998, Agudath Israel of America