A child survivor returns to open a building, and also reopens long-forgotten memories
Somewhere in northeastern Slovakia sits the village of Kurima; at least, that’s what it’s called. For centuries, Kurima was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before finding itself a part of the newly birthed Czechoslovakia in 1918. At the dawn of World War II, it was in a part of the country sawed off by Hitler to create the puppet state of Slovakia, led by Roman Catholic priest-turned-dictator Jozef Tiso, who happily collaborated with his Nazi overlords. Then, in 1942, its Jews were shipped away and the place that was Kurima disappeared, leaving behind a very different village bearing the same name.
These days, the original Kurima is accessible only via memory.
There was a time when Rabbi Nissen Mangel, 84, knew that place well. His maternal grandparents, the Sterns, were important members of the village’s Jewish community, and each summer of his pre-war youth he’d travel 80 kilometers from his hometown of Kosice, now Slovakia’s second-largest city, and spend a few blissful months there. His grandparents were well-to-do, their yard filled with ducks and chickens, and Mangel and his cousins would play with them in a stream near the house.
Of course, the village synagogue is long gone. Mangel’s ancestors’ graves have also been destroyed along with much of the Jewish cemetery, the headstones taken by locals to serve as foundations for the new Kurima they were building, the one barren of Jews.
At the end of 2017, Mangel—who as a child survived the Holocaust in six different concentration camps—returned to the country of his birth to speak at the dedication of the new Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center of Slovakia, located in the heart of the capital city of Bratislava. Mangel, a noted New York-based author, editor, teacher and scholar who, among other works, translated the Tehilat Hashem prayerbook into English, had been back for brief visits before, to Kosice and Bratislava, the places of his childhood, and to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where that childhood ended. But he travels less frequently these days, and since the purpose of this journey was to highlight the miracle of Jewish rebirth in 21st-century Slovakia, he wanted to find Kurima, the place of his fondest pre-war memories.
There is a tzadik buried in Kurima, Reb Mechele Twerski—a grandson of the legendary Reb Zusha of Anipoli—who passed away in 1856, and for some reason his grave was never destroyed. Mangel’s great-great-grandfather had given Reb Mechele aid and shelter when the great rabbi escaped there from the Russian Empire, ending up over the border in Kurima, and Mangel wanted to take the opportunity to pray at the gravesite.
Mangel expected to recognize nothing beyond the great tzadik’sgrave. But to his surprise, he found one more thing . . . the stream, right where he had left it.
“He was very happy when he saw it,” says Rabbi Mangel’s grandson, Ari Herson, 21, who accompanied his grandfather on the trip. “The rest of the time he was educating: pointing things out to me, addressing audiences. When he saw the stream was still there and started remembering, it took him back.”
For a brief moment, the survivor, who has spent decades speaking and teaching on general Jewish topics in addition to the Holocaust, caught a glimpse of his childhood—a time, as he put it in an interview earlier this month, before “my youth was snatched away.”
A Building in Bratislava
In 1944, together with his father, mother and elder sister, 11-year-old Nissen Mangel was caught, arrested and deported from Bratislava. He was first sent to the Sereď labor camp near Bratislava, then on to Auschwitz, Birkenau, Mauthausen, Melk and Gunskirchen, from which he was liberated in 1945.
After the war he returned to Czechoslovakia, reuniting with his mother and sister; but the Nazis had done their work. His father had managed to survive Auschwitz, and as the Germans’ retreated was taken further and further into Germany, only to be murdered trying to save a fellow inmate at the moment when he himself had a chance to escape.
His paternal grandparents had been taken away in 1941, for they still held Polish citizenship, and were sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where they were executed at Babi Yar. Along with the rest of Kurima’s Jews, his maternal grandparents were deported in 1942, most likely to either the Treblinka, or Maidanek death camps, and dozens more members of his extended family had likewise been murdered.
In 1948, just as Czechoslovakia came under the boot of Soviet domination, Mangel’s mother managed to send her two children abroad, herself remaining stuck behind the newly drawn Iron Curtain until 1951. Smuggled out of the country of his birth, Nissen Mangel didn’t dream of ever seeing Jewish life there again.
Forty-six years later, in 1993, Rabbi Baruch and Chanie Myers arrived in newly independent Slovakia to found the country’s first Chabad center. With the blessings of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—the couple began working to rebuild Jewish life in the country. In addition to his Chabad work, Myers was appointed rabbi of the local Jewish community, a position he continues to hold today.
Slovakia’s Jews are a hardy bunch. Nearly everyone is a child or grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, and when the Myerses arrived, they were greeted by a Jewish community that had also experienced a half-century of Communist rule. Their message those first years, says Chanie Myers, was “it’s OK to be Jewish.”
The couple opened a Jewish preschool, then a school and then a Gan Israel summer camp, all in addition to numerous adult-education classes and holiday programs.
“I remember our preschool had a Chanukah performance, and I notice this older woman, a child’s grandmother, in the corner sobbing,” recalls Chanie. “I got worried that something was wrong, and asked her if she was alright. She tells me, ‘When I got out of Auschwitz, I didn’t imagine I’d have Jewish grandchildren, let alone singing Jewish songs openly here in Slovakia!’ ”
After a bit of time, the Myerses rented space in the city center to house the Chabad preschool and varied other activities, where they remained for 10 years. About eight years ago, Chabad of Slovakia ran into serious financial trouble, forcing them to eventually evacuate their premises. It was a sad day for the family, who had poured all of their efforts into creating vibrant Jewish life at their center.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Chanie. “I remember standing with one of my children in the empty Chabad House after the movers finished and sobbing, telling her about all the good deeds that had taken place there. My husband and I just couldn’t get over it.”
Still, every Saturday night after Shabbat, she would scour listings for potential new spaces for their Chabad center. There was just one problem: They didn’t have the funds for it.
“I just couldn’t believe,” she says, “this was how the story would end.”
Elijah the Prophet Makes an Appearance
With their preschool now in their home, and the school and camp staff housed in rented apartments, things were getting desperate. Eventually, Chanie came up with a plan.
The rabbi had always been responsible for raising the necessary funds for them to operate, but now Chanie asked if he was alright with her approaching three potential donors with a pitch that they fund a new building. The rabbi readily, if skeptically, agreed. The first two donors she solicited demurred; however, the third yielded results. A string of leads led Chanie to representatives of an anonymous Jewish philanthropist who seemed willing to help.
She developed a strong rapport with the representatives, one of whom soon showed up unannounced in Bratislava to inspect Chabad’s local operation, arriving on the eve of Sukkot. After witnessing the whirlwind of activity bursting out of the Myers home, the representative agree to fund a new building, the necessary renovations associated with it and top-of-the-line children’s furniture for the preschool.
The final donation would amount to 2.6 million Euro.
“This was literally a blessing that fell from heaven,” says Chanie. “G d sent us Elijah the Prophet.”
The Chabad couple promptly purchased the former Hotel President at Drevená St. No. 4, a seven-floor structure in the heart of Bratislava. In the last two years, they have renovated it and brought the building up to code. Today, it houses a preschool, kindergarten, Hebrew school, classrooms, event space, tourist accommodations, industrial kitchen and the family’s home.
As construction and renovation moved along, Chanie would keep the philanthropist, whom to this day she has not met, apprised of the progress via email. Finally, as the finishing touches were being made and a grand opening planned, she wrote to him suggesting that perhaps they dedicate the building with the name of the philanthropist’s mother, grandmother or another relative, which no one could track back to the anonymous donor.
Chanie had, over a period of about two years, emailed the donor roughly every six weeks describing their progress, yet never receiving a response. But this time, she did, a simple one-liner: “God knows who I am.”
In the Place Where It All Happened
If there’s one person who believes in miracles, it’s Rabbi Nissen Mangel, who in the story of his survival sees the Hand of G d at play time after time. When Myers invited Mangel to be guest speaker at the dedication of Chabad’s new building, sharing the tale of its providential provenance, Mangel agreed. While he has slowed his pace of talks in recent years, speaking in Bratislava presented him with a unique opportunity for his own story of Jewish survival, coupled with the post-war story of Jewish rebirth, to meet in the place of their occurrence.
Mangel arrived on Dec. 15 with his grandson, and for the next week traveled to the concentration camps where he had spent time: Mauthausen, Melk and Gunskirchen. With the exception of Auschwitz, which he did not visit on this trip but has been back to before, Mangel had not seen the camps since the war.
“He started telling me stories I heard from him my whole life, but suddenly, you’re standing in the place where it all happened,” says Herson. “It was surreal and humbling.”
In one spot, he showed his grandson how many meters he and his fellow inmates had to run naked in the snow. In another, he marked the spot where he witnessed a commandant’s teenage son gun down 15 Jews for target practice, a gift for his 15th birthday. At Melk, a subcamp of Mauthausen in the Austrian mountains, he pointed out the towering height of the crematoria’s smokestacks, designed that way so that the noxious smells emanating from them would not bother the SS guards manning the death factory.
Feeling a responsibility to witness and recall for himself before speaking at the grand opening, Mangel wanted to visit all of the camps before his speech. So on Tuesday morning—the very day of the event—he, his grandson and Rabbi Myers traveled to Sered’, about an hour from Bratislava, where Mangel was interviewed about his experience by a camp historian.
“The goal of this trip was to help perpetuate Jewish life in Slovakia,” says Herson, “and visiting these places was a way for him to tell his story of the war and the years that followed.”
Later that day, Dec. 19, a ribbon was cut, and Mangel spoke in front of a spellbound crowd of 200 politicians, notables, and Jewish community leaders and members. Among others present who addressed the crowd were Slovakia’s minister of culture, Marek Maďarič; Bratislava regional governor Juraj Droba; president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Slovakia Igor Rintel; and president of the Jewish Community of Bratislava Tomas Stern. That evening, the eighth night of Chanukah, a menorah was lit by Rabbi Zeev Stiefel, director of Chabad of Central Slovakia.
With the organized mind of an editor, Mangel works to separate his role as an educator from the emotions such harrowing events naturally summon. When during his speech he choked up for a moment, he paused, took a sip of water, composed himself and only then continued.
“I think he feels there is a time and place for raw emotions, but when he’s speaking and educating, that’s not the place,” observes his grandson. “His message is: Yes, this happened and we must know about it, but we also have a mission now and need to look forward.”
By: Dovid Margolin
(To Be Continued Next Week)