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PURIM IN DACHAU

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Purim, the festive Jewish holiday, fell on February 23-24 this year. Here is a little story about the holiday written by my friend, Solly Ganor. Solly is a Dachau survivor, originally from Lithuania, and now living in Israel. He’s the author of the book Light One Candle.

Solly Ganor

Solly Ganor at Lager 7, an Outer Camp of Dachau, 1995. His own camp, Lager 10, was completed destroyed after the war.

By Solly Ganor on Saturday, February 23, 2013

 They arrived from Auschwitz in several groups. Each group counted about twenty people. Of course, they didn’t look like people. They looked more like walking skeletons.

They had triangular faces, with pointed chins and sunken cheeks. Even the lips had shrunken to thin blue lines. The only prominent features were their eyes; they were unusually large and with a strange sheen, almost luminous. They were known in concentration camp slang as “Muselmänner.” That was usually the last stage before death.

They spoke Yiddish with an accent that to us Lithuanian Jews sounded strange. They told us that they came from the ghetto of Lodz through Auschwitz, before they were sent to our camp. Our camp was known as the “Outer Camp of Dachau, # 10,” and it was situated near the picturesque town of Utting, by Lake Ammersee.

Our camp was sitting in the middle of a small forest with surrounding green meadows and beautiful landscapes. I remember the day when we were brought there, I thought to myself, “How can anything bad happen to us among all this beauty?” I soon found out that the beauty was in the landscape only. The Germans in charge of us were sadists and murderers.

The Lodz prisoners fell into the same deceptive trap. They thought that after Auschwitz, our camp looked like paradise. Most of them died soon after their arrival from hard labour, beatings, and starvation — still, they preferred to die here rather than in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

It was from them that we heard the incredible stories of gas chambers and crematoriums, where thousands of our people were murdered every day. Some of them told us that they were standing naked before the gas chambers when they were suddenly ordered to get dressed and were sent to us.

Towards the end of February 1945, there were only a few of them left alive. One of them was known as “Chaim the Rabbi.” We never found out whether he was actually a rabbi, but he always washed his hands and made a bracha, a blessing, before eating. He knew the dates of the Jewish calendar, and knew all the prayers by heart. From time to time when the Germans were not looking, he would invite us to participate in evening prayers. Our Jewish camp commander, Burgin, heard about him and tried to get him easier jobs. Many people died when they had to carry hundred-pound cement sacks on their backs, or other chores of heavy labour. He wouldn’t have lasted a day on a job like this.

The Rabbi once told me that if he survived he would get married and have at least a dozen children.

George Segal Holocaust Memorial

This figure is part of a Holocaust Memorial created by sculptor George Segal. It’s located on the grounds of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, San Francisco.

Around the end of February, we were given a day off. It was a Sunday. The camp was covered with snow, but here and there the first signs of spring were in the air. We heard vague rumors of the American breakthrough into Germany and a glimmer of hope was kindled in our hearts.

After breakfast, consisting of a slice of moldy bread, a tiny piece of margarine, and brown water, known as “Ersatz Coffee,” we returned to our barrack to get some extra sleep. Suddenly we noticed Chaim the Rabbi standing in the snow and shouting “Haman to the gallows! Haman to the gallows!” On his head he had a paper crown made from a cement sack, and he was draped in a blanket with cutout stars attached, made from the same paper.

We stood petrified before this strange apparition, barely able to trust our eyes, while he performed a dance in the snow, singing: “I am Achaschverosh, Achaschverosh, the king of the Persians.” Then he stood still straightened himself up, chin pointed to the sky, his right arm extended in an imperial gesture, and shouted: “Haman to the gallows! Haman to the gallows!

And then the rest of us began repeated “Haman to the gallows,” and we all knew which Haman he was talking about!

We were sure that he has lost his wits, as so many did in those impossible times. By now there were about fifty of us standing and gaping at the Rabbi, when he said: “Yiddn wos iz mit ajch! Haint is Purim, lomir shpilen a purim shpiel!” “Fellow Jews, what is the matter with you?! Today is Purim, let us perform a Purim Shpiel!”

Then it dawned on us that back home, in what seemed a million years ago, this was the time of the year when we children were dressing up for Purim, playing Draidlach, and eating Hamantaschen.

It took the Rabbi to remember the exact date by the Jewish calendar when Purim was. He then assigned the roles of Esther, Hamalka, Mordechai, Vashti, and Haman among the onlookers. I was honored to receive the role of Mordechai, and we all ended up dancing in the snow.

And so we had our Purim Shpiel in Dachau.

But that was not the end of the story. The Rabbi promised us that we would get today our Shalach Manot and we thought that it was hardly likely to happen. But, miracle of miracles, the same afternoon, a delegation from the International Red Cross came to the camp. It was the first time that they had bothered about us. Still, we welcomed them with open arms, because they brought us the Shalach Manot the Rabbi had promised.

Each one of us received a parcel, containing a tin of sweet condensed milk, a small bar of chocolate, a box of sugar cubes, and a pack of cigarettes. It is impossible to describe our joy! Here we were starving to death and suddenly on Purim we received these heavenly gifts. Since then we never doubted the Rabbi anymore. His prediction also came true. Two months later “Haman-Hitler” went to the “gallows” — shot himself in Berlin —  while we, those of us who were still alive, were rescued by the American army on May 2, 1945. I lost track of the Rabbi on our “Death March” from Dachau to Tyrol, but I hope that he survived and had many children as he always wanted. I always remember him when Purim comes around, for the unforgettable Purim Shpiel in Dachau.

Solly Ganor, Herzelia Pituach, Israel

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Written by Ron Greene

February 25, 2013 at 11:03 am

2 Responses

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  1. Such an amazing story!

    Von meinem iPhone gesendet

    Konstantin Mangold

    February 25, 2013 at 1:25 pm


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