A blind, penniless Holocaust survivor stumbles into England at the end of the war, half his family gone and his prospects nil. But what begins as a tragedy ends in triumph. Hershel Herskovic decided he’d continue living.
ix hundred boys in striped prison clothing and clumsy wooden clogs are roughly shepherded toward their end at the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Accompanied by 25 SS men, the ragged bunch are brought to a halt near the brick building and ordered to undress.
Hershel Herskovic tries to stay calm. Mustering his bravery, he composes a silent prayer: “Afilu cherev chadah… [Even if a sharp sword rests]” upon one’s neck, one should not despair of Hashem’s mercy. He repeats it once. And then again. And then again and again, to calm his nerves.
As they undress amidst a barrage of bloodthirsty blows, their fear gives way to a sad, stark reality. Smoke is belching from a plain looking chimney, a sickening smell they recognize instantly. Boys begin to cry, run around, and beg the sonderkommando for mercy. Some boys recite Viduy, while others sing.
Still, Hershel stays calm. A group of older Greek Jews suddenly joins them. They seem more out of place than the Hungarian boys of Hershel’s group, and even more flustered. Three SS officers appear out of nowhere. “The one in the middle was a doctor,” points out Reb Hershel, 70 years later. “He came flanked by two attendants.”
“All boys line up!” yell the Nazi murderers. One boy at a time, the Nazi officers feel the boys’ muscles for strength. Then they tell them to perform ten knee bends, run to the wall and back, and turn around. The lucky ones are sent to the right, while most of the group remains facing left. There and then, at the gateway to death, 51 boys are instructed to return to the barracks. Hershel Herskovic is one of them. In his rush to rejoin the world of the living, he stumbles out of the building with his unwieldy clogs the wrong way around.
“It was Simchas Torah,” he says, sitting at his son’s dining room table on a recent Jerusalem morning. His childlike smile, like a lighthouse beacon, shines through the angst. With a little prompting from his son, Rav Avrohom, he elaborates: “My birthday! It was as if I was born all over again — I was given back my life as a gift.”
When I first lay my eyes on Reb Hershel he is browsing through a sefer kodesh with his fingers. Large and heavy with thick dotted pages, the book is printed in Braille. And the realization sinks in slowly…. He is blind. As much as others might enjoy the sight of the brimming joie de vivre that rests on his face, Reb Herskovic does not notice the smiles around him. It is a genuine joy that comes from within. He fills the air with a quiet energy, spinning the tale of a time when things were different.
“I was born in 1927, and was raised in a small house in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia [later to become Hungary, and present day Ukraine] with no running water and pumps in the yard. My father, Avraham Simcha Taub, was a Belzer chassid who owned a flour mill outside of town. (His children were made to take on his wife’s, Sarah Herskovic’s surname, as a civil marriage was illegal with his Galician origin). “Shabbos and Yom Tov were always particularly happy days in the shtetl,” he says.
Born with fully functional eyesight, Reb Hershel’s memories must be vivid. When I ask him if he recalls any dominant influences from his childhood he shakes his head. “There weren’t any. I wasn’t especially close to my parents… I was always strongly independent.”
Independence notwithstanding, young Hershel was clearly imbued with core Jewish values. Close to 17,000 Jews lived in prewar Munkacs, and as the winds of enlightenment and Zionist ideology stormed through Eastern Europe, felling youth from the finest of families, this young man remained solidly rooted in its wake. Only 12 years old when World War II broke out, it wasn’t until 1944 that his childhood days were brought to their brutal close. But throughout his concentration camp tribulations, Reb Hershel’s faith never wavered for a moment. He attributes this to his cheder rebbis, who taught their students stories from Tanach. “The miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Kri’as Yam Suf, Har Sinai… they impacted me greatly. Hashem is always with us….” He breaks out into one of his trademark smiles as he gestures to the space beside him: “Even here!”
If there was one place Reb Hershel remembers fondly from his youth, it was the family mill. The massive waterwheel churning water through the chutes made a pretty site, and he visited it often. The mill was six miles from town, and in the early years of the war, before the Nazis controlled Hungary, the borders around Munkacs were in a constant state of flux. At one point, the border ran right through the area, with Munkacs becoming part of Hungary while the mill remained firmly fixed in Czechoslovakia. As the Hungarian gendarmes made their way through town toward the newest front lines, Hershel slipped into the moving battalion and marched with them all the way to his favorite spot — the flour mill. The mill workers rubbed their eyes in disbelief when they saw Hershel walk jauntily towards them, and his family at home had a hard time figuring out where he had gone.
It was on the cusp of World War II that Reb Hershel became a bona fide yeshivah bochur, joining the ranks of Rav Yaakov Yosef Yungreis’ talmidim in Nyirmada. Always up for adventure, he was a willing emissary for the Rosh Yeshivah, relaying halachic sh’eilos and teshuvos between residents of outlying villages and the Rav, and informing them of the times of the incoming Shabbos.
These little outings weren’t without their risks, as the times were troubled, and many an anti-Semite was on the prowl just waiting to pounce. On one occasion, Hershel and a fellow yeshivah student were accosted by a huddle of fascist youth hungry for action. Finding him in possession of a written teshuvah, the hooligans shlepped him gleefully to the home of the local priest, convinced they had found damning evidence of treason. The priest couldn’t understand the text, but he understood enough to release them, realizing that these were no spies. The teshuvah in question was a response to a local farmer who had asked the Rav if a skunk found in his chicken coop rendered the rest of his chickens treif….
A spunky streak features boldly in Reb Hershel’s narrative, and it is evident that his courage served him well in the turbulent years to come.
From Munkacs to Hell
Reb Hershel Herskovic’s yeshivah bochur status was abruptly terminated. By Purim, 1944, only halfway through his second zeman, the Germans had taken control of Budapest. “The Nazi party simply took over. It was tragic — there was no need for an invasion at all,” says Reb Hershel. Further discriminatory laws were enacted on Hungarian Jewry, a salvo of stinging legal missiles. Things escalated rapidly. Within months, the Jews of Munkacs were rounded up. They were taken first to a ghetto, and from there they were moved to two brick factories on the outskirts of town. Deportations soon followed. Crowded into a small space, facing an uncertain future, the first deportation triggered rising hysteria as doomsayers predicted the worst. The Nazis, feeling that they were losing their grip (willing cooperation was a crucial component to their final solution), cunningly strong-armed the first wave of deportees into writing letters describing the pleasant location they were being taken to. They were then made to leave these missives behind them, littering the floors of the cattle wagons when they alighted at their deathly destination. When the train returned to Munkacs, Jewish subordinates ordered to clean out the train found these fictitious letters and took the placatory news back with them to the Jews still imprisoned in the factory buildings. The tumult within subsided rapidly — and the Germans were free to proceed with the ultimate annihilation of Munkacs with little further resistance.
Reb Hershel was deported with his family on a three-day ride from hell, reaching Auschwitz just days before Shavuos in the spring of 1944 (he still recalls the Hallel recited for Rosh Chodesh Sivan on the train). However ghastly things were on the inside of the train, nothing could have prepared them for what they were about to encounter once the heavy cabin doors slid open. A gruesome stench filled his nostrils, and Jewish workers clad in striped prison garb met them as they were rushed off the train. “I asked one of them where we were,” says Reb Hershel. “Eimek Habocho (valley of tears),” was his grim response.
Initially intact, the Herskovic family was soon dispersed. “At first I was made to stand with my mother and my siblings,” he says. “But three SS officers were facing the crowd on the platform, waiting to signal to us where we should go. Large rough cobblestones paved the ground, making it hard to walk… any thoughts of running were scratched at the start.” It is characteristic of Reb Hershel’s fire for life that he instinctively sought a way — any way — out. “I looked around me,” he said. “Barbed wire surrounded the entire camp. Electrified wire! Even if I could have found a way around that, there were armed gunmen standing in watchtowers placed at intervals of 20 to 30 meters along the fence. I couldn’t escape.”
Hershel Herskovic was sentenced to the right — to life, as was his father, two brothers and his eldest sister. His mother, Chaya Sarah, holding a nine-month-old baby in her arms, was forced to follow Mengele’s ominous finger, directing her to an untimely death. Shortly after, Hershel was separated from his father and his oldest brother, but they were reunited at the end of the war.
“We were 11 children before the Holocaust,” he testifies, pursing his lips. Seven younger siblings were sent to the gas chambers along with his mother. “It was a feeling of total loss,” he says quietly. Nevertheless, he was cautiously optimistic at first, believing the separation was temporary. But after coming in contact with crematorium workers, illusions were shattered. “We learned exactly what had happened to the rest of the family and knew what we were going toward.”
Luckily, due to their age, his group was spared harsh labor. They were sent, instead, under a kapo’s supervision, to do maintenance jobs in an adjacent camp that housed civilian criminals. Since the Aryan inmates could receive parcels from home, they sometimes gave the boys some food. Reb Hershel managed to get by, day by day, surviving through their tender mercies, and by carrying out some of his more audacious survival schemes.
A barrack at one end of the camp housed a company of SS soldiers with a wealth of food at their disposal. Hershel’s stomach grumbled harshly — food was life. He spotted a small window at the corner of the hut, and after careful surveillance, ensuring the field was clear, he sneaked through the window and smuggled some out. “I could have been hung if I was caught,” he acknowledges, “but I did anything I could to gain strength — to survive a few days more”.
His drive to survive was so ferocious, it almost bordered on the reckless.
“I was getting fed up,” he relates. “Auschwitz inmates received their daily food rations through the graces of their block heads — the kapos — and most of the food was appropriated before we ever had a chance to lay our eyes on it! We were left to subsist on mere crumbs.” Reb Hershel decided to approach Mengele and file a formal complaint. “I couldn’t speak German, but I figured Yiddish would do….”
Astonishingly, he is alive to tell the tale. The scene must have been beyond bizarre. A Jewish boy — with a life valued at less than a scampering beetle’s — approaches his murderous archnemesis to complain about the food. “I said I wanted to report criminal activity… that the kapos were undermining the war effort by stealing our rations and weakening the laborers.” Mengele wasn’t convinced by this legal rhetoric. He came right up to the young pipsqueak and let out some nasty obscenities, but he left it at that. He let him go. I query whether Mengele might have been simply stunned into inaction? Reb Hershel only raises his hands and laughs. It remains a mystery.
In January 1945, under the threat of the approaching Russian army, Reb Hershel was forced to join the infamous death marches out of Auschwitz. After being dragged through Blechammer and Mauthausen, he spent the final days of the war in Gunskirchen — where he lived to see liberation. At that point in time, anarchy reigned. Most of the commanding officers had absconded, leaving their prisoners to fend for themselves. They left no provisions, however, and inmates were starving. Days before liberation, Red Cross delegates reached the camp and began distributing food. Bedlam ensued. Reb Hershel got hold of a number of sandwiches that he tried to secure beneath the folds of his clothing, but, unfortunately for him, a crowd of irate inmates attacked him as they tried to release the coveted portions from his grip. A passing SS officer, one of the few left in camp, approached the seething crowd and raised a gun to Reb Hershel’s head as he attempted to maintain order. He didn’t shoot, but instead inflicted heavy blows to the front of Hershel’s skull. “I can feel it now,” he says somberly, raising a palm to his scalp as the memory returns to haunt him. He only experienced some dizziness at the time, but he contracted Typhus soon after. Even though he survived the disease, his eyesight then deteriorated sharply, and he eventually lost it altogether. Since blindness is not a natural result of Typhus, Reb Hershel is convinced that the Nazi’s beating had effectively blinded him.
In October 1945, in the aftermath of the war, the Russians closed the border at Munkacs, as it was now part of the Slovakian border. His father managed to persuade the soldiers at the crossing to allow young Hershel through, and he made his way via Prague to the UK. But his father and older brother remained trapped on Russian soil. Throughout the years that followed, Reb Hershel made many attempts to extricate his father from behind the iron curtain, even appearing on the BBC as part of his campaign. “I visited him twice,” he says, adding solemnly: “Today is his yahrtzeit.” After the Six Day War, the USSR relaxed the rules a little, and his brother was allowed to follow him to London though he immigrated, eventually, to Israel. His father, however, remained in Munkacs to the day he died.
Blind or not, Reb Hershel could not be stopped. Both Reb Avrohom Simche and Reb Dovid Yosef, two of Reb Hershel’s sons, have vivid recollections of riding on their father’s bike as they vacationed in Suffolk, England. “We had a large country house with surrounding grounds,” says Reb Avrohom, and my father would ride down to the village on a tandem bicycle seating us children behind him. When we reached a busy road, my father would pause to ask whether a car was coming from the right or the left. I would direct him and on we went.” Reb Herskovic also possessed a one-seater and had no qualms riding completely solo
He frequently flies alone, too. A stewardess once asked him in a surprised tone of voice, “Are you traveling alone, sir?” “No,” he replied, “I have angels guarding me….”
Leaving his war-ravaged childhood behind, Reb Hershel forged his new path through life with the same fearless spirit that had kept him alive in the camps.
As a young refugee in postwar Britain, Reb Hershel came up against a formidable refugee board keen to set him up for life. Turning a disadvantaged, blind Holocaust survivor into a prosperous lawyer would be a colorful feather in their cap — or so they thought — for a weary tug of war ensued. Flying against their best intentions, Hershel insisted on resuming his yeshivah studies — studies that had been so cruelly cut short by the fires of World War II. At one of his frequent reviews by the refugee board, one of the members remarked that he had come without his walking cane. Hershel pithily replied: “The walking cane is white — the color of surrender, and I have no intention of surrendering!”
He won the upper hand in the end, attending the well-known yeshivah in Staines (a town to the west of London), of which he has fond memories. He did continue from there, however, to study law. It was as an aspiring law student that he met his British-born wife, Daphne Woolf, who approached him at a talk for blind people, offering her help as a reader. This encounter blossomed into an engagement, and they enjoyed a loving marriage until her passing at a young age, in 1978, from cancer. Left with four children — the oldest of whom was only 14 at the time — Reb Hershel kept the family together with his indomitable spirit.
His foray into the legal world proved to be short lived and he soon left law school to start dabbling in rental properties, building up an independent business. Friends were openly skeptical. “How on earth will you check out what you are buying? You can’t see?!!” Unfazed, he replied: “If I can’t see, Hashem will see on my behalf!” In recent years he shares his time between London, Eilat, and Jerusalem.
Considering his double cause for celebration come Simchas Torah, I ask whether Reb Hershel marks this Yom Tov in a personal way. He shakes his head, unassumingly, but his son intervenes. “Every year on Simchas Torah,” he says, “the shul would be agog with dancing, and my father never failed to perform his signature stunt. Waiting for his chance, he would get up onto a table and perform a headstand — just like that, in the middle of shul. That’s when we knew — he was remembering his birthday.” Reb Hershel nods in mischievous agreement. “Yes… it’s true. I did headstands!” And a vibrant smile flashes through the room. “Every ten years I hold a Seudas Hoda’ah in remembrance of my special deliverance,” he adds, and reveals plans to hold the next one, G-d willing, in 2015, to mark his 90th birthday.
A favorite vort of Reb Hershel’s expounds on the verse: “Hashem Elokai yagihah chashki… [Hashem lightens up my darkness]” (Tehillim 18:29). “If Hashem lightens it up, how can it be dark?” he asks, and answers poignantly: “Hashem can spread light within darkness.”
In Reb Hershel’s worldview, evidently, the past holds the key to a promise of a better future. The present is something he obviously cherishes, and as he breaks the bonds of his personal darkness, he lights up the world every time he chooses to smile.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 529)