It was winter, and he wore a gray overcoat that had seen better days. His fedora was pulled down low, suggesting shabbiness rather than shadiness. He approached me in the kosher market in Brookline, and, for some moments, walked alongside my cart, addressing me as “Rabbi.” He seemed to know that I was a survivor. There was something he needed to tell me.
“It was in Auschwitz,” he began, “we were all walking, a large group of us, by the trees near the crematoria. Around us a great bustle that day, a fearful busy-ness. There had been more people gassed than could be accommodated by the ovens, not enough places to burn all the corpses.”
He did not look into my eyes, and switched to Yiddish. “On our left, dug into the ground, a massive pit, stacked with the bodies of the murdered, burning, crackling, spitting flesh. The stench was overbearing. It lingers even now in my nostrils and will not let me forget.
“In front of me, among the others, a mother plods heavily, holding her infant. An SS guard spots her — I don’t think he said anything — seizes the infant from her and tosses it, alive and shrieking, into the burning pit."
He was shaking. “Dos hob ich gezehn mit di eygeneh oygen. This mine eyes have seen. I saw this, Rabbi. Never have I told anyone about it, until now.
“I cannot expunge this horror. I cannot live with it, it won’t let me sleep — it won’t let me die. The baby burns and shrieks, Rabbi, inside me. . . . ” He pulled the fedora down so low, with such force, that it touched his ears. And then he was gone.
I have since managed to verify the tale, although I never saw him again.
I was the same age as that baby, but I was in Bergen-Belsen and not in Auschwitz. In Bergen-Belsen the prisoners died, in the scores of thousands, of hunger and malnutrition and typhus, and not of the gas. And I survived because an SS guard furtively left Mother two bottles of milk every week.
I survived, I am sure, because G-d needed me to be there for the guy with the hat and the story, the guy who accompanied my food cart, if not me, in the kosher market. The food cart: the anti-hunger, the anti-Auschwitz, the anti-Bergen-Belsen (where in those last weeks, the prisoners resorted to cannibalism).
I survived so that I could tell you his tale, and mine, and the tale of the two SS guards, each wavering on the muddy precipice, each sliding in an opposite direction.
And I survived to ask you where you locate yourself on this precipice; to ask you which guard you emulate — to ask you whither you slide? Do you slide with the folk in Charlottesville who ranted that they were Americans who refused to be displaced by the Jews? Or do you slide with the folk in Billings, Mont., who when a family was threatened for displaying a Hanukkah menorah, placed a menorah in every window in the community?
Rabbi Joseph Polak, a toddler-survivor of the Nazi concentration camps Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen, is chief justice of the Rabbinical Court of Massachusetts and associate professor of Health Law at the Boston University School of Public Health. His memoir “After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring” won a National Jewish Book Award.