In the summer of 1944, the Nazis were already on the defensive, as Allied forces led by the United States, Great Britain, and Russia continued their push into Europe, liberating countries one by one. As a result, the Germans were constantly disbanding satellite work and concentration camps and shipping the inmates off to larger camps like Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Mauthausen. Reb Yosef Friedenson z”l was then a young man interned in the Starachowitz slave labor camp, and when the camp was shut down, he was shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He arrived on the morning of Tisha B’av 1944, and was thrown into the garish existence and nightmare that defined Auschwitz.
R’ Yosse’le Perlow zt”l had assumed the mantle of Novominsker Rebbe from his father, R’ Alter Yisroel Shimon zt”l, in 1933. He was one of the illustrious chasidic leaders in Poland. He led his chasidic eidah in Warsaw, and since Yosef Friedenson hailed from Lodz, the first time he actually met him was the moment he entered Bloc 22 in Birkenau. Someone had mentioned to the Rebbe that a new transport had arrived, and when he heard the name Friedenson among the newcomers, he was eager to meet him, as he was well-acquainted with Yosef’s father, Reb Eliezer Gershon Friedenson z”l.
As soon as they met, the Rebbe asked Yosef if he knew anything about the whereabouts of his parents and some other friends and rabbanim from Warsaw. Unfortunately, Yosef did not have any knowledge or information to offer. When Yosef told him that he’d heard that one does not survive here (in Auschwitz-Birkenau) for more than a few weeks, the Novominsker Rebbe dismissed the despondent attitude and infused him with hope and faith.
“Chas v’shalom,” said the Rebbe. “One must not speak like that. Look, I’ve been here for a year already, and though I am not the world’s strongest man, I’m still alive. One cannot relinquish one’s emunah.”
Yosef didn’t have many chances to speak with the Rebbe after that, although he knew that the Novominsker helped as many Yidden as possible in his quiet, unassuming way. During work he didn’t talk much; rather, he murmured words of tefilah as he toiled. In the bloc as well, Yosef didn’t go over to him very often, since they were warned by well-meaning people in the camp not to go to the barracks, where several prominent rebbes and rabbanim were placed, so as not to draw the attention of the non-Jewish prisoners who might inform and cause them harm.
But one day the Novominsker Rebbe actually saved Yosef’s life. It didn’t take much to be punished in Auschwitz, and apparently the newcomer, Yosef Friedenson, had committed some “crime” for which he deserved a beating. According to camp rules, a Jewish kapo named Eisik came over and began beating Yosef violently. Fearing his wrath, the others moved out of the way, but suddenly, the Novominsker Rebbe jumped off his bunk and positioned himself between Yosef and the kapo. Without a thought to his own self-preservation, the Rebbe grabbed the kapo’s arm and shouted, “Eisik, don’t hit!”
For a brief moment, Eisik was shocked. As a Jew, he knew about the Rebbe and his sanctity, and perhaps it gave him pause. But he quickly regained his equilibrium and started screaming, “Go away, Rebbe. I have to do this ... if you don’t move, I’ll hit you too ...!” Rather than be frightened at the threat, R’ Yosse’le stood his ground and did not move a muscle. With an inner strength, the Rebbe called out, “Go ahead. Hit me, but leave him alone. He has just arrived in camp. Leave him alone, Eisik.”
Although Yosef says he doesn’t recall the exact details of what happened next, what he does know is that the violent and irrational kapo, still a Jew after all, was somehow scared off by the Novominsker Rebbe, and he capitulated.
The Rebbe helped Yosef up and took him to his bunk to treat him and help him get some rest. Then, he went back to placate Eisik. It wasn’t enough that he saved one Jew from a beating, he wanted to save another Jew from the sin of delivering a beating. He spoke to Eisik for a few minutes and when he came back over, he suggested that Yosef apologize to Eisik and promise to be obedient from then on. But before he had a chance to do so, the name Yosef Friedenson was announced and he was transferred from Bloc 22 to a different bloc. He never saw Eisik again.
(Faith Amid the Flames/ArtScroll Publications)