Seeking Kin: When an Auschwitz selection was good news

Mordechai Eldar, shown here in November 1945 in Budapest, just over a year after his last-second reprieve from the Auschwitz gas chamber.<br />
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Mordechai Eldar, shown here in November 1945 in Budapest, just over a year after his last-second reprieve from the Auschwitz gas chamber.
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JTA’s new column, “Seeking Kin,” aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives.

BALTIMORE (JTA) — Next time someone remarks about the stress “killing” him, gushes “That was a close call!”, or exaggerates what clearly was not a “near-death experience,” relate Mordechai Eldar’s ordeal at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Oct. 9, 1944.

Eldar (then Adler) was herded toward the gas chamber and certain death. Guards’ instructions that prisoners memorize the hook numbers on which they’d hung their clothes was utter nonsense, Eldar knew. So was the “shower” toward which they trudged. He’d realized that hours after reaching the concentration camp on Friday night, May 26. Eldar and his brother Yehuda had asked veteran prisoners where their parents, Moshe and Gisella (also called Tova), were. The boys hadn’t seen them since arriving.

Pointing to the smoke rising from the crematorium chimneys, the other prisoners responded, “Your parents are going to heaven right now.”

That October afternoon — his 15th birthday, no less — Eldar faced his own execution, so despairing of hope that he didn’t pray for salvation. Instead, he addressed his dearly departed parents and brothers, Shlomo and Avraham. “I’ll be meeting you soon on the other side,” Eldar wailed.

German officers rushed into the room, shouting, “Achtung!” (attention). All movement halted. The officers passed among the naked men — between 700 and 1,000, Eldar thinks — and selected Eldar and 49 others, commanding them to wait by the door. Uniforms and shoes were thrown their way, which the men donned. Soldiers ordered them back to the main camp, approximately 500 meters away. Eldar was sent to Camp D; previously he’d been in Camp A.

He soon found himself in the section dubbed Canada, where hundreds of prisoners were sorting the possessions the Germans stole from Auschwitz arrivals.

Eldar, now 82, wants to locate any of the other men reprieved with him 67 Octobers ago. He’s met two: Mordechai Linder (who passed away this past summer) and David Leitner. In August, Eldar broadcast his appeal on the Israeli radio program "Hamador L’chipus Krovim" hoping that listeners can steer him to more.

In their 10-15 meetings, Eldar said, he and Leitner “speak about what we experienced, and always discover something new.” Another Israeli, Nachum Hoch, hasn’t yet agreed to meet, but Eldar is determined to get together soon. When they do, “I’d want to hug him, rejoice in the fact that we’re alive, tell each other our stories and compare what we experienced,” Eldar said.

“We went through [something] that only 50 people did. These are people with whom I shared the most exciting experience.”

Exciting?

“There is,” he said, “no other word for it.”

Theirs is a minute sub-group within the minuscule fraternity of Jews at Auschwitz selected for a life of slave labor (rather than immediate death in the gas chambers), explained Steven Luckert, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s curator of permanent exhibitions. In 17 years at the museum, Luckert has read accounts of only two people who walked out of the gas chambers. Luckert had not heard of the Auschwitz 50.

“To be that close to death and to be saved at the last minute is quite unusual,” Luckert says.

Eldar is asked how he first reacted to the stunning reversal of fate.

“Look, in such a situation, what does one think? First of all, we were hungry,” Eldar explains by telephone from his home in Herzliya, Israel. “We had not eaten. I remember that we were supposed to have gotten soup early that afternoon, but they didn’t give us, probably because we were going to be sent to die. [Canada] had plenty of food, which was taken from the arrivals, so [the workers] gave us … bread, chocolate — which I’d never even eaten at home before — and cake. I couldn’t believe that there were such things at Birkenau.

“We laughed, we cried and we hugged. I had no strength to dance. Everyone asked, ‘Where were you? What happened in the gas chamber?’ They knew where we’d come from. They couldn’t believe what we told them. They couldn’t believe that they’d freed us. But they saw that it was the truth.”

The next morning, the 50 men joined hundreds more prisoners marched under guard to a train resting just beyond Auschwitz’s main entrance, several hundred yards from the ramp of the Nazis’ selektzia of Jews for life or death. Their job: to unload mountains of potatoes filling a seemingly endless procession of rail cars. Through late November or early December, Eldar hauled the potatoes onto waiting trucks for transport — so he understood — to German soldiers at the front. Other prisoners dug through the snow and into the earth, forming pits for storing more potatoes. Anyone eating or pilfering the food was beaten. Eldar recalled a man 20 meters away being beaten and shot.

Having destroyed the crematoria and ceased the gassings, the Germans deported Eldar to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, a four-day journey. The train stopped often because of Allied bombings. With his car roofless, Eldar clearly could see the fighter planes, as he had while at Auschwitz.

A month later, Eldar was deported again, to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. On Passover 1945, it was bombed. Prisoners, including Eldar, ate the flesh of bomb victims. “You have to be in a certain situation to understand it,” he explained. “I also ate worms, snails, potato peels and things thrown in the trash.”

That spring, the Nazis forced Eldar on a three-day 35-mile death march to Gunzkirchen. Liberated there by U.S. troops on May 4, Eldar was immediately hospitalized with typhoid.

After a two-month recovery, Eldar returned to his Transylvanian village of Hosumezo, Hungary (now Rumania). Nearly all the 84 pre-war Jewish families, including his, were strictly observant. Moshe Adler always wore a streimel (fur hat) and a long, black kaftan coat to shul, and Mordechai had sported peiyot. Now everyone, including his 50 relatives in and near Hosumezo, was dead — all except Eldar’s two sisters, Ita and Sarah, and an aunt who returned. In January 1946, Yehuda found Mordechai in Germany. The four siblings who’d survived Auschwitz eventually sailed for Israel. Yehuda died seven years ago. Ita and Sarah passed away four months apart in 2010.

For 30 years, Eldar served in the Israel Defense Forces, retiring in 1978 as a colonel. He began a second career in the textile business and now works full-time as a construction company’s logistics manager. He and wife Rivka, a Jerusalemite, became great-grandparents in August. Their two sons and six grandchildren live in Yehud, near Tel Aviv.

“Everything is great,” Eldar declared late one Friday afternoon in September, sipping coffee at home. “I’m in the land of milk and honey.”

Please send a message to seekingkin@jta.org if you know of other Auschwitz inmates reprieved with Mordechai Eldar on Oct. 9, 1944, or if would like our help in searching for your own long-lost friends or family. Please include the principal facts in a brief e-mail (up to one paragraph) and your contact information.

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