Who Knows Twelve? An Account of Passover, 1944 by Rabbi Aryeh Spero
Who Knows Twelve? An Account of Passover, 1944 by Rabbi Aryeh Spero

Volume 3 , Issue 5

But Yankel had not died.? He was still alive.? Against all odds, he had managed to elude death during his too long years at the world's most efficient death factory. He owed his life to his Uncle Shlome.

Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, back in December of 1942, Uncle Shlome and Yankel were selected to go into the line designated for work. Seeing two able‑bodied men, the S.S. desired to first extract from them as much slave‑labor as possible before assigning them to death. And most prisoners, after a few months of torturous labor and horrific conditions, did, in fact, become so weakened that they eventually became fodder for Auschwitz's ovens.

Uncle Shlome, however, had building and carpentry skills ?skills he had practiced for years back in Ostrin ?‑that the S.S. highly desired. A few days after his arrival, an S.S. officer called out to him: ?What skills do you have, Jew??

?Well, I was a carpenter and builder back in Ostrin, Poland,? he answered. It was quite obvious that Shlome was a physically strong man.

Calling over another officer, the first S.S. man told Shlome to put out his hands.

?Look at his hands,? the officer remarked to his companion. ?They are two to three times as broad as any I've ever seen. What he says must be true.?

?And look at the size of his shoulders,? the other responded. ?Here is a real mule.?

Shlome was not delighted at being characterized a mule, but if such perceptions could save his life, then, he was willing to abide such appellations.

Indeed, Shlome was as strong as an ox. Back in Ostrin, there were weight‑lifting contests where Shlome routinely displayed prowess beyond even those exhibited by normally powerful men. In fact, at one such contest, he lifted a one hundred sixty pound bag of sugar with his teeth.

?Follow me,? the officer barked.

Shlome followed and was handed a hammer, saw, nails and wooden planks. The officer then commanded: ?We see that you are strong, but let's see if you have any skill. I'll be back in an hour to see what you've made.?

Upon his return, less than an hour later, the officer beheld a consummately constructed cabinet, very professional in detail.

?What is your name??, the officer asked.


?Biarski, you will be our chief carpenter here in my section of Auschwitz.? Calling Shlome by his name and not merely by his number?‑as was customary?‑was already an indication of the officer's respect for this inmate.

?I will allow you to select six men to work under you,? he continued. ?But if their work is at all shoddy, it is you who will suffer the consequences. Understand??

?Yes,? Shlome replied. ?When can I begin choosing my men??


And so Shlome began searching for carpenters from the group contained in his barrack?‑they having to first demonstrate to him their building skills. It was a difficult task having to choose among so many because everyone wanted to enter the carpentry corp, since it would most likely mean survival.

He picked five men and then a sixth, his nephew Yankel. Yankel was not the best of carpenters although he had received some limited training as a boy while back in Ostrin, where he watched Uncle Shlome build houses. Yankel was his own flesh and blood and Shlome had been very close to him, his big brother,throughout Yankel's life.

Shlome desperately needed to save this member of his family in recompense for one he felt had died because of his own mistake.

Upon Shlome's arrival in Auschwitz, the normal selection process began. Incoming prisoners, however, were yet unaware that one line was for work, while the other was for immediate extermination. When the selection began, and Shlome's wife was placed in a different line than his, he asked his son to accompany his mother.

?Your mother will need assistance,? he told his son. ?I, myself, would like to go with her, but, for some reason, the guards won't let me enter her line. Please stay with her until things get settled and watch over her. After all, she has always looked after your welfare; now it is your chance to reciprocate.?

The youngster agreed.

But things never ?got settled? in the manner Shlome and others had calculated. Together with his mother, Shlome's son was immediately burned in the crematoria.

It was a couple of days before Shlome realized what had truly happened. He kept waiting to be reunited with his wife and son, but the reunification never materialized. Finally, word spread throughout the camp that the shipment of people who had been selected for the other line had been burned alive. The smell that Shlome had inhaled throughout the previous days was the smell of his burnt wife and son. He went delirious with guilt. He blamed himself for the death of his boy.

?God,? he wailed, ?Why have you positioned us to make decisions that mortal man is incapable of making, choices whose outcome we cannot anticipate? We make choices for good and they turn out tragic. My boy has been rewarded with death for protecting his mother,? he cried.

Shlome would never recover. The rest of his days were spent in mental agony, an agony surpassing the grief of other survivors who, at least, did not have to live with the knowledge that they had chosen mistakenly, so tragically.

With the opportunity to save one who had also been like a son to him, Shlome hesitated not.

?At all costs, I will save Yankel,? he declared inside. ?Is not our family entitled to at least some remnant??

Thus, Shlome taught Yankel. He guided him. And when Yankel's work proved less than professional, Shlome redid it. His son had been unable to protect his mother?‑his wife; he would, at all costs, protect Yankel.

He made sure that they were never behind in their work, for he, alone, was capable of completing the work of three normal men. With his bare hands he could easily crush or wring‑apart tightly fastened wooden structures. He was a modern Samson.

For the next year, Shlome and Yankel were forced to build the barracks and officers' quarters in their section of Auschwitz.

With the arrival of winter in 1943, they were given orders to leave main Auschwitz and were assigned to Buna, a satellite camp of Auschwitz. Buna was a work camp where munitions were built and where a large complex of S.S. quarters was situated.

Shlome and Yankel were marched daily, early in the morning, to a construction site six kilometers from the camp, where they built officers' headquarters and factories?‑a project directed by I.G. Farben, Inds., a civilian German contracting company. Yes, there was much profit to be made from free, slave‑labor.

?Watch out! Here comes Rakow,? Yankel warned his hauling buddy. Rakow was not Gestapo or S.S., but rather the on‑site company foreman. Rakow dismounted his bicycle and began?‑with delight?‑doing what he did everyday: kicking the hapless prisoners. Such was life at Commando 108, the construction site.

Day after day, uncle and nephew hauled bricks, sand and wood, by wheelbarrow but mostly by hand. In winter they began work while it was yet dark and continued right up 'till sunset, arriving back at the barracks after nightfall.

Food? What food! A piece of bread and foul soup, akin to slop.

?Biarski, come here,? the Buna S.S. officer shouted one morning. ?I want you to go to the stables to fix a broken door.?

Shlome followed.

After pointing out to Yankel what work had to be done, Shlome remarked: ?Commandant, the saddles on your horses are showing signs of wither and fray. After I finish my carpentry work, I'll see what I can do for them.? He had noticed a scissors and a jar of saddle‑polish atop one of the stable's cabinets. He didn't need more.

Three hours passed.

?Biarski,? the officer remarked, after observing the newly‑conditioned saddles, ?I see that you're a man of many talents. From now on, I want you to manage our stables.?

?What will my duties be, Commandant?? he asked.

?You will keep our saddles and riding boots in top shape, and feed our horses.?

Shlome consented and began walking away.

?Just one more thing, Biarski,? the officer called before Shlome had fully retreated. ?Do you know how to walk and exercise horses??

??Yes sir, I do.? It was true, he did.

?Good,? the officer exclaimed, ?we need a man like you. Get to work.?

Being in charge of the stables was a fortunate situation to be in. It placed Shlome in the position of being able to secretly pocket oats and other horse food, which he would later give to prisoners in dire, immediate need of sustenance. There were even potato peels, from time to time, that he was able to dispense to others. In return for supplying others with oats and peels, Shlome demanded nothing.

One such beneficiary of Shlome's kindness was Hershel Damanski, who had arrived in 1943 from the Lodz, Poland ghetto. Shlome, Yankel and Hershel had developed a close‑knit friendship. Damanski was still mourning the death of his father, who, like many others, had starved to death trading meager food rations for cigarettes.

Another year passed. New arrivals came. Yankel, Shlome and Hershel looked on as the new inmates entered Buna. Just as Yankel had done upon his arrival years earlier, these new prisoners pondered such theological and existential questions as: Why is this happening? Where is God? How can man be so bestial to man? Why was man even created? Of what purpose is this life?

However, after a couple of weeks, such high‑ponderings gave way to one thought and one practical thought only: When would they have the next piece of bread or bowl of soup? Bread and soup replaced all other thoughts. Bread and soup became God.

Spring arrived, and with it Passover, 1944. The three men decided that somehow they would conduct a Passover Seder. More than ever before, they keenly felt a kinship and empathy with the story of the Hebrew bondage in Egypt. Were they not?‑these Jewish slaves of Auschwitz?‑ the modern day reincarnation of the ancient Hebrew slaves?

For days prior to Passover, they clandestinely tried to gather the items necessary for a Seder. Others joined in the project, a total of ten.

First, they needed matzoh, the unleavened bread of affliction.

?But matzoh is unnecessary,? Yankel aptly remarked, ?for is not the very bread we daily eat, the bread of affliction??

They needed maror, bitter herbs.

?No,? said Hershel. ?Is not our very existence the most poignant symbol of bitterness? Our existence here in Auschwitz, itself, surely qualifies as maror.?

They needed charoset, a mixture of crushed walnuts and apples mixed in wine, symbolizing the brick‑mortar carried by the ancient Jewish slaves.

?But certainly,? Shlome suggested, ?we do not need symbolic mortar when we are surrounded by the real thing, real bricks.?

?We'll need a Haggadah, the official book recounting, in detail, the story of our bondage and eventual Exodus,? another chimed in. ?And, woefully, none is available.?

?So we will recount our own experience,? interjected another. ?Is not our experience here in Auschwitz even worse than what our ancestors experienced in Egypt??

?It is true what you say, my friend,? an older man replied. ?But let us still, for the sake of tradition and continuity, pool together what each of us remembers from the formal Haggadah, and recite it.?

They concurred. And so each one took turns reciting a portion of the? formal Haggadah.

Shlome began: ?Our forefathers were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. But our Lord, our God, delivered us thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.?

Then Yankel recited: ?Behold the bread of affliction. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in want, come. This year we are slaves; may next year all be free. This year we are here; may next year find us celebrating in the land of Israel.?

And so they continued throughout the night, each one reciting the Haggadah portion he recalled.

Finally, they came to the concluding section entitled, Who Knows?

As was customary, a member would ask a question, and the others would correctly answer in unison.

?Who knows one?? Hershel asked.

?One is our God?, they answered.

?Who knows two??

?Two are the tablets of Moses,? they responded.

?Three?? ? ?Three are the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and?? Jacob.?

?Four?? ? ?Four are the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.?

?Five?? ? ?Five books of the Bible.?

?Six?? ? ?Six denominations of the Talmud.?

?Seven?? ? ?Seven is the Sabbath day.?

?Eight?? ? ?Eight is the day of circumcision.?

?Nine?? ? ?The months of pregnancy.?

?Ten?? ? ?The Ten Commandments.?

?Eleven?? ? ?Eleven are the stars in Joseph's dream.?

?Who Knows, Twelve?? the reader asked.

?Twelve are the tribes of Israel,? they sang. And then one after another, they began to cry. Uncontrollably. Those whose tears had been parched dry by the enormity of the suffering and brutality they witnessed daily, suddenly unleashed rivers of tears. The flood gates had been jarred. They were touched once again by emotions that had atrophied and lay deposited in the depths of their souls. But such is the resurrecting power of Jewish peoplehood.

?We are the tribes of Israel. We are the tribes of Israel,? they cried while raising their voices heavenward.

A few weeks later, Shlome Biarski and Yankel Palevsky were sent to separate work camps: Shlome to Ohredurf and Yankel to Krawinkel. They reunited in the spring of 1946 when Yankel was riding in a van near the Farenwald D.P. camp and, by chance, spotted a man on the road carrying a knapsack trying to hitch a ride. It was Uncle Shlome.

As soon as they were issued visas, they settled in the U.S., Shlome in Utica, N.Y. and Yankel (whose last name was changed to Peerless) in New York City. Each went into the veal business, headed today by Philip Peerless, Yankel's son. Both Yankel and Shlome are now deceased.

Rabbi Aryeh Spero is a graduate of Telshe Yeshiva and John Carroll University and has, over the past 15 years, served in pulpits in Ohio and New York. He is widely published in journals, newspapers and periodicals on a variety of religious, political and economic themes.

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