NEW YORK — My father decidedly did not want to be in Auschwitz.
True, few Jews had any desire to be there, but my father actually did something about it.
Deported for the first time from the ghetto of his hometown of Bedzin in Southern Poland on June 22, 1943, he dove from the Auschwitz-bound train into the icy Vistula River. Hit by three German bullets, he managed to return to the Bedzin ghetto. He subsequently discovered that virtually all the Jews on his train, including his wife and her daughter, were sent directly to the gas chambers upon their arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
Less than six weeks later, during the liquidation of the Bedzin Ghetto, my father avoided deportation to Auschwitz once more by escaping to the nearby town of Zawiercie. In late August 1943, however, he arrived at Birkenau as part of a transport from Zawiercie.
I knew that shortly thereafter, he spent five days, from Sept. 30, 1943, until Oct. 4, in the notorious Block 11, the so called Death Block, in the main camp of Auschwitz, but I never knew how and why he made it out alive.
I discovered the details of father’s improbable first survival at Block 11 (he would be imprisoned and tortured there again the following year for some six months) in a book that was recently published in Israel, “From the Depths to the Skies” (in Hebrew, “Tehomot u-shehakim”), by journalist Moshe Ronen. It is a biography of Auschwitz survivor Zeev “Yumek” Londner who, after Hebraizing his name, rose to become Colonel (Aluf Mishne) Zeev Liron, one of the highest ranking officers in the
Israeli air force in its formative years. In September 1943, my father, then 32, along with Yumek Londner, 21, the son of a close friend of my father’s, and Yumek’s brother Moshe (Moniek) found themselves together in Birkenau. As Liron tells the story, “Rosensaft did not stop thinking about escaping.”
My father told the Londner brothers that he had developed a friendship with a German SS doctor stationed in the city of Katowice, some 10 kilometers (about 6.14 miles) from Bedzin, who had offered to hide my father and members of his family. Now my father plotted for the three of them to escape from their work detail, hide in a deserted tunnel until the Germans stopped looking for them, and then make their way to the SS doctor’s house in Katowice where they would be able to stay, at least for a while.
When their scheme was betrayed to the Germans by a unterkapo, an assistant to one of the inmates assigned by the camp’s administration to supervise his fellow prisoners, my father and the Londner brothers were taken from Birkenau to Auschwitz where a young German SS officer named Otto Klaus interrogated them. The punishment for even plotting to escape, Klaus told the three Jews, was death. “We are now going to take you to Block 11 and decide whether you will be shot or hanged,” he said. “But prisoners are only shot on Mondays, and as today is Thursday, you will spend the next several days in Block 11.”
A page of the Block 11 registry reproduced in the book confirms that on Sept. 30, 1943, my father, Josef Rosensaft, number 140594, and the two Londner brothers arrived at Block 11. There, the three were put into a small cell with two other prisoners. Liron recalls that my father quipped with “black humor” that it was a shame they didn’t have a deck of cards to pass the time.
On Monday morning, they heard prisoners being taken from other cells, followed by gunshots. Liron remembers that “Yossele” — my father — bid his friends goodbye, telling them that they might meet again in the next world. But no one came for them. After an hour, Jacob Kozelczyk, the kapo in charge of Block 11, came to their cell and hugged them. “You’re heroes,” he told them. “Nothing will happen to you, not today.” Later that same day, they walked back to Birkenau along the same path now taken each year by the Jewish youth who come to Poland on March of the Living. The registry confirms that they left Block 11 alive on Oct. 4. When Liron met my father again two years later in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany, my father told him that following the liberation, he had looked for and found his SS doctor friend from Katowice who cleared up what had been the mystery of the three young Jews’ survival. The unterkapo who had betrayed my father and the Londner brothers did not know the name of the man who was going to hide them but he gave Otto Klaus, the young SS officer, an address in Katowice. Intent on exposing and arresting the still anonymous traitor, Klaus rode his motorcycle to the address and rang the house bell. When the doctor opened the door, the two stared at one another in disbelief. More than 25 years earlier, during World War I, the doctor had saved Otto Klaus’ father’s life. The two families had remained friends. Now Klaus had a decision to make, and he made it. Instead of taking the doctor into custody, Klaus returned to Auschwitz and reported that his investigation had not uncovered any scheme to escape, that the unterkapo had lied, that my father and the Londner brothers were therefore innocent of any crime, and that there was no legal basis for executing them.
And so it is that I can now tell my grandchildren that their great-grandfather survived Block 11, which made it possible for their grandfather to be born, because a young German SS officer named Otto Klaus had at least one spark of decency, of humanity, left within him at Auschwitz in the first days of October in 1943.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)