A child survivor returns to open a building, and also reopens long-forgotten memories
(Continued form last week)
‘Miracles, I Saw Miracles’
Nissen Mangel was born on Oct. 31, 1933 (11 Cheshvan 5694) to Eliezer (Leizer) and Faiga (Freida) Mangel in Kosice, then Czechoslovakia. His paternal grandfather had been born in Sanz (historically a Polish city, but at the time in Hungary; today, it is Nowy Sącz, Poland) and moved to Kosice, where Mangel’s father was born. Jewish life in Kosice was a relatively new affair, Jews having been banned from settling there until 1839-40. Once Jews began moving there, their population grew rapidly.
“It was a very frum [religious] city,” explains Mangel. While the community felt the effects of the enlightenment and efforts to modernize Judaism, “we were much closer to Poland, and so it was much more of a Chassidic place. There were Munkatcher Chassidim, Belzer Chassidim. My family was affiliated more with the Stropkover Chassidim, [the Rebbe of whom] came from one of the sons of the Sanzer, the Divrei Chaim [Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, 1793-1876].”
While some of the big synagogues and many of the city’s Jews affiliated with the Neolog movement and a more traditional strain called Status-Quo, Mangel says that nevertheless, the vast majority of these Jews would be categorized as strictly observant today. “The whole standard of Yiddishkeit was on a whole other level.”
Eliezer Mangel was in the textile business, and owned a large store. He was a scholar in his own right and had been a student of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky (1867-1948) at the latter’s famed Galanta Yeshivah. When Dushinsky decided to leave for Palestine in 1930, he asked Mangel’s father to come along with him to help form his new yeshivah in Jerusalem.
“My father was already engaged to my mother, so he did not go, but this was the caliber of my father,” says Mangel.
They prayed at the large Chassidic kloyz adjacent to the big central synagogue, which although Orthodox, was considered a bit more modern. When it came time to go to cheder, Mangel’s father did not send him to the city’s large Talmud Torah but to a small private one run by a learned melamed, with maybe 30 to 40 young students.
“It was more personal, private attention, that’s why my father wanted me to learn in this cheder,” explains Mangel. “The Rebbe [teacher] was so efficient, so capable, he imbued in us yiras shomayim, fear of heaven. When we learned well, he tested us, and if we learned chumash well, or a Rashi, or a piece of Gemara, he would take us . . . he had a big garden with a lot of trees . . . he would hang on the branches of the tree cherries, connected by a stem, and hanging down. [When] we’d learn well, he’d take us to the garden, pick us up by our fiselach [feet] and say, ‘G d sends you these cherries because you learned so well.’ This inspired in us such yiras shomayim, awe of heaven, that G d is sending us these cherries, that we are in contact with Him. That was the difference between a cheder and a Talmud Torah . . . ”
Mangel is first and foremost a teacher, and so he continues the lesson his melamed taught him more than 70 years ago in Kosice. “It wasn’t even a cherry tree, so was this a deception? No, not at all. G d made our Rebbe his emissary to send us these cherries for learning well; it was all true!”
The Kosice he was born in had been in Czechoslovakia, but in 1938, as the world stood by and watched, Hitler annexed Czech Sudetenland, and sliced off the country’s eastern end, where Kosice is located. Hoping to entice them on to the Nazi side in the coming war, he handed it to Hungary. A year later, the Nazi puppet Slovak Republic was established under Tiso’s ostensible rule, and the remainder of Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by Germany. Thus, from 1939 until 1944, the Mangel family lived in Hungary. In a way, this complicated bit of geopolitical maneuvering saved them, at least for a time, for in 1942, Slovakia became the first Axis partner to consent for its Jews to be deported as part of Hitler’s Final Solution—Tiso going so far as to pay Nazi Germany per Jewish head deported. The Holocaust did not come to Hungary until 1944.
Life during those two years continued almost as usual for the little boy; he went to cheder, went to synagogue with his father on Shabbat, and while he knew there was a war on—he watched his father raising money to assist Jewish refugees who had escaped into Hungary—it did not affect him much. Then came the Friday morning in April 1944, when dark uniforms, glinting bayonets and shouting German soldiers suddenly came into his young life. He survived, he attests, due to “miracles; I saw miracles.”
It was early, maybe 7 a.m., when several SS and Gestapo officers entered the Mangel home. Before the Nazis had come into town, his father had prayed in the synagogue every morning, but after their arrival he dared go only on Shabbat, and so was in the midst of his prayers at home when they entered. Mangel was asleep, as was his older sister. Their mother had gone to the market to shop for Shabbat, following the halachic precept that it is worthy to begin Shabbat preparations earlier than usual. Accounting for three of the four Jews living in the home, one officer shouted asking where Frau Mangel was.
“My father told them that she went out to shop,” says Mangel. “So they woke up my sister and yelled, ‘Go fetch your mother!’ I jumped out of bed at the same time and told them I’m going with her. They pushed me down and told me to go back to sleep. I jumped back up again, and they pushed me down, and then I started crying. My father told them, ‘Why don’t you let him go? Can’t you see they’re always together?’ So the Nazi yelled at us to get out of there.”
The two siblings searched for their mother through the entire marketplace, which was teeming with thousands of Jews doing their Shabbat shopping. Just as they prepared to give up, telling each other she had probably headed home already, they saw her emerge from the crowd holding baskets filled with fruits and vegetables, fish and meat. Her surprise at seeing her children turned to fear when they informed her that the Gestapo was in their home with their father, and she urged them to all run home together.
“I told her, ‘What’s the haste? You’re out, we’re out, maybe Tatty [father] will come out?” remembers Mangel. “She said, ‘If Tatty goes to Auschwitz, I’m going with him.’”
Eliezer Mangel owned the multi-apartment building in which he and his family lived, and his tenants were all Jews except the property custodian. The custodian’s daughter, named Ivanka, worked at a tavern not far from the Mangel home, and so there they ran, hoping she could go to the house to see what’s going on in their stead. “The tavern was filled with drunkards, and she tells my mother, please let me serve them all and then I’ll go,” he says. “We waited there for half an hour; my mother was on shpilkes [Yiddishfor needles.]”
Finally, Ivanka went to check, but at the corner, even before she had the chance to turn onto the Mangel’s street, she sees Eliezer Mangel. While the Gestapo waited for the rest of the family to return, they ordered the senior Mangel to consolidate his heavy, carved wooden furniture into one room. Protesting that he could not do it alone, they permitted him to go out and hire some extra hands to help him, which he had every intention of doing. Then he realized his entire family was out, so why should he return to the waiting Nazis, and that’s when he saw Ivanka on the street corner.
“There were miracles throughout this story. My mother went early to shop for Shabbos. I insisted on going with my sister—why during a time of danger would I go with my slightly older sister and not stay with my father? Then that my father convinced them to let him hire help, and like that we were out,” says Mangel. “But it was all miracles.”
That very day the family headed to a relative’s home in the suburbs, where roundups had not yet taken place, and soon thereafter, they escaped over the border into the Slovak Republic, taking cover in Bratislava until they were caught.
Mangel says that in returning to these places, he feels an obligation to recite the Kaddish prayer on behalf of the millions of souls who perished there, but at the same time to pronounce: “Blessed are You, G d, our Lord, King of the universe, who wrought a miracle for me in this place,” a blessing made not only on his own behalf, but on that of his children and descendants.
But it is the renewal of Jewish life in Slovakia that moves him most—the work that the Myers have done to bring Judaism to a place where he had seen it almost entirely eradicated.
“When I was incarcerated in Auschwitz as a boy, I did not think I would ever leave there—if not through the chimney,” Mangel told the audience at the ribbon-cutting. “I did not I think that I would one day return to the country of my birth, and I certainly never dreamed that in the city of Bratislava I would find an active Jewish community. That I would be in Bratislava speaking to a room full of people at the dedication of a new Chabad center, for that I can only say: Hodu LeHashem ki tov ki le’olam chasdo—‘Offer praise to the L rd for He is good.’ ”
Back in New York, the rabbi adds:
“The world builds museums, edifices to memorialize the Holocaust. These are very important and can be very inspiring, and I don’t want to take away at all from that work. But they are still dead edifices. The Rebbe wanted to build human edifices and not just focus on the past, on what Hitler did, but on the future, to build living museums, living edifices, filled with active Jewish life.”
By: Dovid Margolin