My Neighbor
by Levi Bookin:

I used to sit next to a spritely old fellow in the synagogue, and became aware of the fact that his wife was in a wheelchair. He told me that she had many mini-strokes from the beatings she had received at Auschwitz. My wife, who is a caregiver, tells me that she has often come across such cases.

He had been a male nurse in a mental hospital in Israel for many years, and had grand plans for his retirement, including voluntary work at the hospital, and study. But, as he said to me, he ended up nursing his wife.

Eventually, when he found that he could not cope, he put her in the geriatric ward of a good retirement home and visited her every day. Once he was satisfied that she was well cared for there, he sold the apartment that had been his pride and joy, and moved into a mini-apartment in the retirement home.

I kept contact with him and, little by little, retracing our steps many times, I became aware of their incredible lives.

He lived in an area of the Carpathian Mountains, which was sometimes one country or another, depending which way the wind was blowing; but at the beginning of the period in question, it was Hungary, and he had Hungarian citizenship. He received his draft papers and when he reported, he was sent to a labor corps camp. In the village, he met the family (hereinafter "the family", of which his eventual wife was a member. They were very kind to him in many ways. For example, they supplied him with bread, which was recorded in a ledger, and then claimed he had paid.

Eventually the camp became a Labor Camp where he was a prisoner. He said that the Hungarians were worse than the Germans. At least the Germans allowed them the minimum calories necessary for work, whereas the Hungarians would steal whatever was edible in the soup, and leave mud behind for the prisoners. I asked him whether he was ever sick. He replied that if had been sick, he would have been dead. He said that cold was something he had been used to all his life. As a child, he had to go through the snow with bandages for shoes.

Eventually, they were marched out of the camp and down to Serbia (1, 000 kilometers), where he worked in a quarry, but then they were marched up again as far as Flossenburg, where he was set to work in a ball-bearings factory. He told me with glee that it was his pleasure to sabotage as many of them as possible, in spite of the death sentence applicable.

Then they were sent off to march again, apparently a death march. I asked him whether he had ever expected to survive. He had not; he just prayed all the time that they would shoot him accurately, and not just hit him on the head with the butt of a rifle and leave him to die.

I asked him whether he was aware of what was happening in the war, that the Allies had landed in France, and that the Russians were pushing the Germans all the way back. He said he knew nothing, until one day, probably in the Sudetenland, as if at a given signal, the guards took off their packs, changed into civilian dress and fled.

The marchers reached a village where the people gave them a little food and told them to move on fast (they were afraid of the SS showing up). My friend found a French POW camp, now in the hands of the Red Cross, who took one horrified look at their lice and fleas and ordered them to undress so that they could burn the clothes along with the vermin.

Subsequently, he made his way back to his village, and found that none of his family had survived. He then went to the village where "the family" had lived that had been kind to him in his days in the Labor corps, but he was told that they had all been taken to Auschwitz.

As a citizen of Hungary, he then made his way to Budapest and, incredibly enough, in the street, he met a relative of "the family" who said that one daughter had, in fact, survived and was recuperating in Prague. So he made his way to Prague, found her, and they decided on two things: 1) they would be married; 2) they were going to Palestine.

At this point it was not so easy to leave, and they were on foot through the mountains when they were stopped by a Czech frontier guard. "Why are you trying to leave our beautiful country, now that we need everyone to build it up?" My friend explained how they had spent the war, and they now wanted to go to a country of their own. The guard said "In that case, you are on the wrong path!" and showed them how to cross the border

They made it down to a camp at Bari, and from there to Israel. They have two daughters, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren -- the old lady said that these were her revenge on Hitler for all the members of her family he had wiped out.

She died a few years ago, but the man has not lost his twinkle. He does voluntary work, and he studies, but he is losing his vision, also due to a blow from a guard long ago.

I feel that it is a privilege to know him.

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