Before entering Mauthausen, Eliyahu hid his precious tefillin by carefully tying them to his leg. At the selection, someone whispered to him to lie about his age and profession. Eliyahu, a 15-year-old yeshiva student, told the camp commandant that he was a 28-year-old tailor. “I was sent to the right, to life, while the other boys my age were sent to the left, to death.”
When sent to the shower, Eliyahu miraculously managed to hide his tefillin under a rock. “That was the last time I was ever separated from my tefillin. I kept them with me throughout the war, and afterwards. Today, I take them with me wherever I go.” He pointed to the small velvet bag lying on the counter.
“Dressed in nothing more than thin pajamas, we slept that night in the snow. It was our mattress, our blanket, and our food. Back home, a maid would polish my shoes. Now I had no shoes. Not far from us were what appeared to be five small huts. When I woke up, I was horrified to discover they were really five enormous piles of frozen corpses. There was no fuel to burn them.”
Prayer: Take Me
“The first morning in that hell, I donned my tefillin and begged God to take me. I could not stand the suffering. But although I was no better than the others, God wanted me to remain alive.”
Eliyahu remained alive, and continued to don his tefillin and recite a quick prayer each morning before setting out to work. He had to be careful – if the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.
If the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.
“The camp commander took tremendous pleasure in torturing the prisoners. Afterwards, he would return to his house, located on the camp premises, and, together with his wife, listen to classical music, to Mozart!”
Eliyahu recalled the special Divine providence in hiding his tefillin: “Twice a day, at roll call, the SS soldiers would surround us and check us with their dogs. Although these dogs always stopped to smell my leg, the one where the tefillin were tied, the Nazis never discovered my tefillin. I can only describe it as a miracle. There is no other explanation.”
Eliyahu spent some eight weeks in Mauthausen.
“The allied forces were closing in. One day, there was a selection. Most were sent to the crematorium. I was selected for life. Life? We were forced to march for 12 days in the heavy rain until we reached our destination, Gunskirchen. Of the 33,000 who left Mauthausen, 20,000 arrived in Gunskirchen.
“I had been positive there could be no place worse than Mauthausen. But I was wrong. Gunskirchen was much, much worse. The first thing the Nazis did upon our arrival was to set three huge German shepherds on my friend Chaim. They tore him to pieces.
“Gunskirchen was not a work camp. We did nothing all day, except remove the dead bodies from our barrack and wait for time to pass. A few times a week the Nazis would give us a bit of food and water.”
Eliyahu recalls his last day in the camp: “It was a Friday night. We were locked in our barrack, and had heard that the Germans placed explosives around it. They wanted to kill us and hide all the evidence. People were dying like flies, and I knew that if the Germans didn’t explode the barrack, I would die of hunger. I said to my friends, the Klein brothers, ‘If you’ll join me, let’s escape together.’ We began climbing over bodies to make our way toward the door.
“In front of the door, I saw a man named Yitzhak lying on the floor. He had converted to Christianity prior to the Holocaust. I bent down and asked him, ‘Do you want to return to the Jewish people?’ Although he was already unable to speak, his eyes told me that he did. My friends were upset with me. But I couldn’t leave him like that. I said the Shema with him. He died at the word ‘echad’ – one.
“We somehow found the strength – don’t ask me how – to break the door open and escape that death-filled room. Of course I had my tefillin with me. Once we were in the forest, we threw off our lice-infested prison pajamas and put on SS uniforms that we had removed from dead soldiers.
“Suddenly, we heard the sound of a car traveling. When we saw it was an American jeep, we emerged from our hiding place and stood at the side of the road. Three soldiers jumped out of the jeep, their guns trained on us, and requested that we show them our documents. Documents? We didn’t even have clothes, let alone documents!
“I didn’t have documents, so I showed the soldiers my tefillin. At first they thought it was a hand grenade! But then one of them recognized they were tefillin. He asked me, ‘Du bist a Yid?’ (Are you Jewish?)
“The Jewish soldier immediately phoned his commander and informed him that he had found the camp they had been looking for. ‘Please save the 35,000 Jews that are left there,’ I begged. ‘Most of them are on the verge of death. If you don’t get there quickly, most will die. Every minute is crucial.’
“The army immediately sent medical care to Gunskirchen, and in doing so, thousands of lives were saved. My tefillin saved my life, and the lives of thousands of Jews, because in their merit, the American army arrived at the camp quickly,” Eliyahu concludes with deep emotion.