Several days after Shavuos, in early June of 1944, the Germans took some 5,000 of us by train from Auschwitz to Warsaw in order to clear away the ruins of the Jewish ghetto that had been reduced to rubble by German shells and bombs in Nisson of 1943.
Besides removing the rubble of the ghetto houses, we had to seek out the bunkers, the secret hideouts in which Jews hid from the Germans. We had to search the bunkers for objects that were left behind, sort them, and give them to the Germans. The work was unbearably hard.
As we worked through June and July, the days grew unbearably hotter, with the sun beating down upon us most of the day. Very often we had to clear away the remains of Jewish martyrs who had been inside the buildings when they collapsed. Some of them had been burned to death by fire.
The Germans gave us a very hard time. They kept us working till we were exhausted. If they didn’t like something we did or didn’t do, they beat us cruelly with clubs or with their rifle butts. A Jew’s life meant nothing to them.
Local conditions were very difficult. The food the evildoers gave us was very meager and could not nourish a healthy person, much less so an undernourished forced laborer. Sleeping conditions were terrible. All in all, our stay in Warsaw was like being in Gehinnom.
The Tzadik Reb Abba Halperin tells, “I worked in the ghetto kitchen and heard that there was a chassidic rebbe, a holy man who refused to eat any food about whose kashrus there was the least doubt. I was occasionally privileged to sneak some raw potatoes to him to keep him from starving. His extraordinary behavior at the risk of his life every day earned him a reputation as a holy tzadik. Consequently, many people respected him and followed his advice.
“In the seven weeks we labored there, the only days we had it somewhat easier were Sundays, when many of the guards were off duty getting drunk. On Sundays we were most of the time assigned to removing all the garbage that had accumulated and depositing it outside the camp. The guards were so cruel that when we sometimes finished ahead of schedule they ordered us to carry the garbage to the other side of the camp in order to deprive us of the opportunity for additional rest.”
Reb Aharon Nussenzweig recalls, “One Sunday I noticed some activity at one of the sheds. I saw some Jews walking around outside it and I approached them and asked what was going on. They told me there was a pair of tefillin inside, and invited me to step in and put them on. In the shed I saw the Kloizenberger Rebbe holding a pair of tefillin which he handed to people to put on for a minute. I took my turn in line.
Because the day was almost over, not everyone there got to put on both shel yad and shel rosh and to recite all four parshiyos while wearing them. Some people got to wear either the shel yad or the shel rosh and to recite as little as the first sentence of Shema. Twice during our weeks in the ghetto did I have the privilege of donning tefillin this way.”
Early on the morning of Friday the 8th of Av (July 28, 1944), the Germans ordered all the prisoners to get ready to leave the camp. Rumor had it that one “block” (a shed in which prisoners lived) of prisoners would remain in Warsaw. Nussenzweig considered remaining with that block, if he could learn which block that would be, rather than leaving with the rest of the prisoners. He decided to ask the Klausenberger Rebbe what to do.
He recalls, “I found him davening with great intensity. He was reciting the Ovinu Malkeinu entreaties that are recited from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur and on public fast days. He was so deeply absorbed in prayer, weeping profusely in deep emotion, that he was oblivious to everything around him. I stood there for a long while as the scene etched itself into my bones forever. Then I returned to my block, and put my trust in HaShem to guide me onto the road to life.”
We left Warsaw on foot heading toward Dachau. The criminals imposed a goal of 35 kilometers to be covered every day. We were wounded from beatings, hungry and thirsty, and weakened from the seven or so weeks of forced labor.
Nevertheless the criminals forced us to maintain a rapid pace, occasionally forcing us to run. Many of us did not have shoes worthy of the name, the sun beat down upon us vigorously, and we were not allowed a drop of water at any time.
Nor Any Drop to Drink
S.S.-men moved ahead, behind, and alongside us in jeeps and on motorcycles, herding, urging, driving us on. Many of the original 5,000 collapsed and breathed their last on the roadside, mostly from the horrible thirst that accompanied us all the way.
Along the way we would pass a river or a stream, but the accursed resho’im would not allow us near the water. They warned us that anyone approaching the water would be shot immediately. Needless to say, this made us thirstier and made walking all the more difficult. Many people were driven by their thirst to delirium. They could not control themselves and risked approaching a river or a stream to obtain some moisture.
The Germans kept their word and immediately shot anyone who got near the water.
We marched on like that all day Friday the 8th of Av, Shabbos the 9th, and Sunday (the fast of Tisha B’Av) – July 28, 29, and 30, 1944.
For Them to Drink, But Not for Us
On Sunday the evildoers cruelly drove us to exhaustion in order to cover the allotted number of kilometers as quickly as inhumanly possible so that we might reach a town.
The Germans wanted to reach the next town on the road so that some of them could get some part of their Sunday off and get drunk.
They parked us outside the town of Sochatchov on a plot of land alongside the bank of a stream under the open sky. The Germans ordered us to sit on the ground and stay there until the next morning. Nor did they forget to warn us against the serious crime of even trying to take water from the stream; whoever dared violate this would pay with his life.
Nevertheless, here again there was no shortage of people whose thirst overwhelmed their common sense and who crawled to the water, making every effort not be observed by the S.S. guards. But the accursed Germans spotted them and shot them with their machine-guns, and set their murderous dogs on them. It was obvious that they were determined to let us die of thirst by marching us beyond endurance and keeping us from water, for no one could survive this treatment much longer.
The Kind Italian
Shortly after we arrived there, soldiers of a number of nationalities passed by Greeks, Italians, and others. An Italian major perceived what a horrible crime was being perpetrated against the thousands of prisoners, that they were cruelly and inhumanly being denied water. He took pity on the prisoners and yelled at the S.S. guards for their cruelty. When they ignored him, he threatened to shoot them.
At that point, they ordered us all to our feet and marched us several more kilometers. Approximately two hours before sunset we arrived outside the town of Lovitch, between Sochatchov and Kutna.
The Germans parked us in a wheatfield whose crop had already been harvested. The stubble protruding from the ground stabbed our bodies and made it extremely painful for us to follow the German order to be seated on the ground. The senior German officers headed for Lovitch to take their pleasure in the local bar and left us in the care of the lowest-ranking soldiers. They were certain that, exhausted and thirsty as we were, we would not last the night.
The Rebbe’s Story
“The Rebbe once told me,” relates Shimshon Shmaya, “that on that Tishah B’Av he removed his shoes because they contained leather, and walked barefoot.
An S.S. guard noticed this and sadistically forced the Rebbe to walk-run on the shoulder of the road so as to tread on the stones and the thorns that littered the roadside. He later told me that he recited Kinos from memory all along the way, and that toward evening, when they stopped in a field, a miracle took place and water surged up from the ground, and they were able to quench their thirst.”
Along the road that day, the Rebbe was shot in the arm while trying to hide. He quickly rejoined the marchers and stanched the wound with leaves.
At the cornerstone laying for the Tzanz Medical Center in 1980, the Rebbe declared that he decided then – if HaShem would let him survive – to establish a medical institution for Jewish patients.
Empathy and Water
Greatly perturbed by the terrible thirst all were suffering and the real threat of death that the Germans were imposing on their prisoners, the Rebbe kept warning people around him not to risk their lives for water. And he asked them to pass on this warning to others. He was certain, he said, that HaShem would not forsake them and they they would have water soon.
Soon the word spread, “He says to dig for water!” All over the wheatfield people were digging – one with a rusty spoon, another with a stick, most with their bare fingers.
Every centimeter they dug cost energy they so desperately needed. But their thirst overrode every other consideration, even – for some – life itself, as described above. One after another, they kept digging, centimeter after centimeter, down to a depth of about 20 centimeters. Suddenly a stream of water some 30 centimeters high shot up into the air. Soon the whole field seemed to be full of water fountains. And the Jews drank their fill.
The S. S. guards came running, furious. They watched the spouts spread throughout the field in frustration. Ultimately the German sadists were awed. They could do nothing about the spouts but fill their canteens from them.
This article, published by the Yated Ne”eman E-Mail Edition, was written by Rabbi Nochum Leifer from the testimony of Mr. Aaron Nussenzweig, Mr. Boruch Tessler, and Mr. Moshe Weiss; from Mr. Shimshon Shemaya’s recollections of the Klausenberger Rebbe’s testimony; and from Mr. Abba Halperin’s testimony as transcribed by Mr. Elimelech Stemmer.