Baking matza - the bread of faith in the labor camps

This Passover, gather your family and tell this story. How, in each generation, Jews are persecuted, saved, and are stronger in our faith.

Rabbi Eli Hecht ,

Flash 90

Every once in a while you read or hear an incredible WWII story and wonder if it is true. Did this story really happen? Recently I was introduced to an incredible story by the person to whom it happened.

I heard this story during my visit to Miami Beach, Florida, while visiting my parents of blessed memory. Miami is famous for its winter resorts. My parents would spend their winters there with many friends. Some were Holocaust survivors. Many elderly Jews leave the New York area during the cold winter to live in Miami Beach. Some Holocaust survivors meet in synagogues or gather on a boardwalk that stretches a few miles along the Atlantic Ocean.

One day my father asked me to join him on the boardwalk for a stroll. We walked along the ocean, stopping to meet friends and family. At the end of the boardwalk I met a distinguished person, Rabbi Landau. He was sitting by himself engrossed in thought. We sat next to him and began a friendly conversation. We spoke in Yiddish and English.

I asked him “Foon Vanet is a yid? - from which country are you?” He answered “Auschwitz”. I thought I heard wrong. Auschwitz is the place where Nazis had built a concentration camp. It was the largest death camp in Europe, responsible for killing millions of people.

How could have he come from such a horrible place, I wondered. I thought the devil himself lived in Auschwitz. The killing grounds were his playground and no good had ever been there. Certainly no Jews ever lived there, or so I thought.

I was shocked when Landau enlightened me with the following facts:

Auschwitz was called Osptitzin in Yiddish. It was a wonderful little town that had a nice Jewish community consisting of 8,000 souls. There were Jewish children's schools (called cheder), synagogues, kosher shops, and mikvehs – ritual baths. It had great rabbis, teachers and a thriving economy. When the Germans entered Auschwitz in 1939 they burned down the synagogue.

Landau was a teenager when Germany invaded Poland. Together with many Jews he was taken to labor camps and then to concentration camps. Starting in 1940, Landau was taken to labor camps at Sakrau, Germany, then to Blechhammer and Wiesau. After years of hard labor he was transferred to the concentration camp in Bunzalu and Terezenstat. Miraculously, he and a few friends stayed together and lived through those horrible years.

During those awful times he prayed daily and even had a pair of tefillin. I don’t know where he found the strength to pray every day.

“Many of us were worked to death. Others died of starvation or from beatings. We worked on building the now famous German autobahn – super highway – that runs through Germany. We also built a large ammunition factory for the German war effort. You can imagine how terrible we felt doing that!” Landau said.

“In 1942 to 1944 I was held in a work camp called Wiesau. We were kept alive as long as we could work. There I lived in daily fear of being killed. We were about 26 to 50 persons to a barrack. Our sleeping quarters were miserable. The mattresses were a small sack of straw. In the winter we had a small stove that heated the room. Most of the time we were starving and ill-treated.

“When the holiday of Passover came about I decided that I must have matzah, the unleavened bread of faith. I wanted very badly to celebrate the Passover Seder with matzah. I told my closest friends that we would try to get some flour and I would risk my life to bake matzah for Passover.”

Landau described the camp’s conditions:

“We worked from early morning to late night and then we were locked up for the night. If we were lucky we would not be disturbed or beaten. So life went on day by day. We became so disoriented that after a while we didn’t even know what day it was. But then in 1942, I still remembered to count the days until Passover.

“At work, we would be given a cigarette a day and a small piece of bread. At night, we would be given a cup full of liquid called soup. This was our rations. It was a meager existence.

“We decided to keep our cigarettes and barter them for flour from a Czechoslovakian worker. At first we thought it wouldn’t work out but as the saying goes ‘when there is a will there is a way.’ Our fellow workers let it be known that they could get a cigarette for flour and, miraculously, an ounce of flour appeared. Soon we had a bit more, enough to supply a matzah or two for our Seder – Passover meal.

“Now we had a fresh problem. How would we smuggle the flour into our barracks? If anyone were caught smuggling they would be shot. The following plan was instituted. We would bring the flour into the camp at night by hiding it in our clothing. At the bottom of our pants we made a small hem. In there we would put a few sprinkles of flour. We tucked our pants into our worn out shoes. Then we returned to the barracks. We would be searched and allowed in. Miraculously the flour was not discovered. Then very carefully we would empty and shake the flour out of the ends of our pants. Slowly but surely we had flour for Passover. Imagine, here we were in the terrible labor camp thinking of only one thing – to have matzah for the holiday.

“The night before Passover we heated up the potbelly stove until the top was burning red hot. Very very quickly we mixed the flour and water and kneaded the dough. In just a few minutes we had baked 2 or 3 matzahs. I thought to myself if I can only stay alive to keep on doing my religious duties.

“I sorely missed my family and remembered my Yeshiva friends and teachers. Our great family Seders were now a thing of the past. Living in the past kept me alive in the present.

“In 1945, I was moved to the concentration camp in Terezenstat. I was part of a death march where most of the participants died. The Germans moved us hoping that we would all die. They wanted to destroy all the evidence of their crimes. But G-d did not let that happen.

“I became very sick and almost died. On May 8th, 1945 I was liberated by the Russians. After regaining my health I was determined to keep on going. I met a woman who survived the Auschwitz death camps. We had similar goals and were determined to start a family. I married and created a family.

From a small group of survivors we grew into thousands. We built schools, synagogues and saw the rebirth of our people. As I have retired I spend my winters in Miami Beach.

The Rabbi gave a sigh and his remarkable story came to an end.

I thought, imagine here was a real person who suffered years of labor and concentration camps. His main message is that “As long as man feels that G-d is with him he can make it through any Holocaust.” He arose from the ashes and looked ahead, rebuilding his family legacy.

This year when Passover comes, gather your family and tell them how, in every generation, Jews are persecuted and saved. Yet we become stronger in our faith.

Think and take courage. If the Rabbi could make matzah in a labor death camp, then surely we can find time to have a Seder in our homes.

On Saturday night, March 27th, Jews worldwide will celebrate the Passover holiday. When we eat our Matzah break off a piece, share it with our neighbors telling them that the message of liberation is for all people.

We are now living through a pandemic and hopefully it will soon come to an end. The new vaccine is nothing short of a miracle. Miracles never cease.

A happy Passover to you all.

Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice–president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past–president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, CA which houses a synagogue, day school, nursery school and chaplaincy program