I COULDN’T believe my ears. If I read the body language correctly, my interlocutor’s level of belief wasn’t much greater. After all, it is now 68 years since the end of the Holocaust — and even longer since Cantor Zachary Kutner was in Auschwitz — but just now, something clicked. Something dawned on him.
It took some 70 years for the realization, not, perhaps, of the facts themselves, but of their weight.
In a mixture of anguish and wonder — sort of counting them up as he went — he told me, “Actually, I survived Mengele’s selection six or seven times!”
Dr. Josef Mengele was the Nazi who stood at the entrance to Auschwitz before whom paraded the dazed, starved, brutalized Jewish survivors of the foodless, waterless, toiletless, seatless, roomless, dignityless train rides to Auschwitz.
In this endless parade of innocents, some people were turned to the left and some to the right. A few to life and most straight to the gas chambers.
The man who made the selection was Josef Mengele. Obviously, there could not be more than one selection for the doomed. And for the rest? Those who were selected to work — to do the brutal work of removing the dead bodies from the gas chambers, and of burning them in the crematoria — almost all ended up dead in the end.
How, then, could one person survive a selection by Mengele six or seven times?
We can obviously excuse the likes of Cantor Kutner for not grasping the rarity and significance of this for decades. This is the story as he told it to me as I was incongruously, peaceably, removing my tefilin from my arm the other day at the end of the morning prayers.
Kutner had been enslaved by the Nazis to work in a hand grenade factory. His job was to produce the necessary, poison powder. After six months in the labor camp, the slave laborers were sent to Auschwitz.
There, Mengele selected this transport for life. However, these prisoners were given no work for six months. They were idle. They did nothing.
This was a variation on Mengele’s brutal “medical” experiments on twins and others. Kutner and his cohorts — some 65 of them — were among the others. Mengele, Kutner surmises, wanted to see what the effect of the poison powder was on the prisoners. No safety gear, such as masks, had been provided.
Mengele took a look once a month. He came to the group of 65 and selected a few men for death each month. All were forced to stand naked and be looked over. Kutner passed the inspection some six times, once a month.
Hence, he survived Mengele’s selection six or seven times.
I never saw a facial expression like Kutner’s as he told me this: an impossible combination of shock, gratitude, wonder and horror. He survived the evil Nazi Mengele — more than once.
WITH this introduction, a question raised by this week’s Torah portion is now understandable. That question is: Are there levels of evil? Once a person has clearly moved beyond the right and the moral, are there significant gradations? If a person is a serial killer — he’s already murdering people — are there deeper depths to which he can fall?
Clearly, yes. As if it were not bad enough to become a mass murderer, such as Mengele and countless other Nazis, it was possible to be still worse: To kill babies by throwing them alive in the fires, for example. Or, to put people to work with poisonous materials without safety gear; or, deliberately to kill children in front of their parents.
Yes, it could be worse.
Or, for another example, to torture people in “medical” experiments for months, until finally, in ineffable pain, the people expired. Yes, torture and other brutalities can accentuate evil.
They can take the depths of depravity still lower.
The issue is raised in this week’s Torah portion, which, after all, records the mass enslavement of the Jewish people by Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. The Jews were slaves already — brutalized, robbed of freedom, of dignity, of normality, of family life.
Could it have been worse?
YES, observes Rabbi Naphtali Z. Y. Berlin, the “Netziv” (1816-1892).
First, “the Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing harshness” (Exodus 1:13) — and crushing slavery, one might think, is as low as it could go.
The next verse: “They embittered their lives . . . ” (1:14).
Netziv takes this to mean: Crushing work can be made still worse by adding indignity to it. Under Joseph, the Hebrews in ancient Egypt had risen to a lofty status. They did not engage in the manual labor of farming or construction. They were what one might call the upper or upper middle class of the day. Then, when everything changed, and the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, the Egyptians did not just put them to work.
The Egyptians stripped them of their dignity.
They put on the Hebrews the lowest of the manual labor: brick making, hoeing, physical labor of the hardest kind.
Not only that, but for the few amongst the Hebrews who had been accustomed to manual labor, the Egyptians made it so backbreaking that it wore down their bodies and sapped every bit of energy, health and dignity.
“All this,” writes the Netziv, “was to degrade their mind and strength.”
To dehumanize them.
And the ultimate dehumanization?
To kill their future, to murder their male children. “If it is a son, you are to kill him” (1:16).
In theory and practice — in theme and reality — some of what happened in Egypt foreshadowed what happened in the Holocaust.
Kill the Hebrews, kill the Jews.
But degrade them, too.
Strip them of life.
Except, somehow, the Hebrews survived.
Just as, somehow, the Jews did too, millennia later.
Yes, survived even the absolute evil of the Mengele selections — six or seven times!
We have an eyewitness, a neighbor, right here, in Denver.
We retell the story of the exodus from Egypt thousands of years later.
The least we can do is to listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors, mere decades after the fact, while we still can.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News