| Encounters |

The Wedding Guest

Among all the sites of suffering he’d seen, he still remembered Gunskirchen clearly

As told to Riki Goldstein by Moishe Rosman

We were just beginning a regular Shabbos morning davening when a father and son whom I’d never seen before walked into our shul in Pomona.
I’ve been the shul’s gabbai for 17 years, so naturally, I did my thing — helped them find seats, and when davening was over, invited them to join us at the kiddush. They were happy to sit down with us. It seemed that their relative had just moved to our area of Pomona, and they were here visiting from Brooklyn.

WE all got talking, and the son introduced himself as Ari Scharf. He arranges trips to Europe for families who want to visit their ancestors’ kevarim and hometowns or to honor the memory of the kedoshim at the concentration camps. My own father, a native of Munkacs, survived the camps as a teenager, so Europe and Holocaust history are close to my heart, and I listened avidly as Ari began to share stories.

At first Ari spoke about Poland, about how the Yidden tried to survive against terrible odds, and about the few goyim who risked their own lives to hide them. Then he offered another kind of story, and the men around the table leaned in to listen.

“It happened in May 1945, after Hitler had already committed suicide and the Allies were all over Europe, just two days before the unconditional surrender of the German army on May 8. Nazis were still at large but were fleeing into Germany proper in fear. Russian forces were advancing from the East, brandishing their rifles like peasants on a rampage.

“Meanwhile, four young American soldiers from the US Army 71st Infantry Division got lost on a dirt road in Austria near the Mauthausen concentration camp. They wanted to turn around and rejoin their division, but something very disturbing on that road propelled them to drive on. They smelled a terrible scent in the air and suspected dead bodies, the site of some kind of massacre.

My father, Zishe Rosman a”h. He evaded the malach hamaves twice before being liberated

“Frightened but determined, they continued onward toward the horrific smell, and came across barbed-wire fences, another camp. It was a subcamp of Mauthausen, called the Gunskirchen Lager. Gunskirchen was something far worse than even Auschwitz — it was a death camp. When the four soldiers drove in, they saw skeletons piled up — and some still living but starved, left to die by the fleeing SS guards. The scene was petrifying, but the young soldiers couldn’t turn back. They let the dying inmates know that they were liberated and safe from their tormentors. They then called their commanding officer and the rest of their division to help them.

“What do you do with someone who is almost dead from hunger? The soldiers didn’t know, and some made the tragic mistake of offering their food, feeding them the canned meat (nicknamed Spam), which the US Army provided them to eat in the field. The commanding officer followed General Eisenhower’s orders to document the Nazi war crimes, and took photographs of the state of the camp, providing graphic evidence of Nazi horrors for posterity.”

Ari went on to say that he personally knew one of those first four soldiers who had stumbled across Gunskirchen and saved those people’s lives. This was Alan Moskin, a Jewish veteran, who was still alive and lived right near Monsey, in Nanuet.

There was a hush as the Shabbos morning kiddush crowd pondered what Ari had described. But the name Gunskirchen had struck me like a minor electric shock.

“My father was liberated from there,” I burst out.

The story of my father’s life was something I had heard many times. He was born Alexander (Zishe) Rosman in Munkacs in 1929, the middle child of nine in a family of Belz chassidim. His father and grandfather were wealthy merchants who owned lumber yards in the Munkacs region. When the Belzer Rebbe fled to Hungary on his way to Eretz Yisrael, my grandfather was involved in smuggling him out of danger.

Hungarian Yidden were safe until 1944, but when the Nazis invaded after Shavuos of that year, they disposed of its Jewish community with speed and efficiency — by that point, they had plenty of practice murdering Jews. My father’s entire family was killed in Auschwitz. He was among a group who were herded into the gas chambers too. They waited there for ten hours, but the gas did not go on. After this, the commandant unlocked the doors and allowed 52 Jews, including my father, to leave the gas chamber alive.

(It appears that the camp commandant had gone away on vacation, and Dr. Mengele yemach shemo took charge until his return. With permission from Berlin, he sent 3,000 boys in my father’s age group to the gas chambers: 1,000 on Rosh Hashanah, 1,000 on Yom Kippur and the last 1,000 on Shemini Atzeres. On Shemini Atzeres, when the commandant returned, he got into a power struggle with Mengele, and asserted that it was his job to gas Jews. When he took back his command, as a display of his authority, he had the gas chambers unlocked and chose 52 boys to leave alive. This was the last day the gas chambers were operational in Auschwitz. The next day, the Nazis began to dismantle them and cover up their crimes as the Soviets were rapidly approaching from the East.)

When the American soldiers pulled up to Gunskirchen, the stench was unbearable. Still, they called the rest of the division to help

In January 1945, the Nazis forced some 56,000 prisoners out of Auschwitz on a death march deeper into German-held territory. My father was in a group that had to walk over 300 miles (500 km) to the Mauthausen camp in Austria. Mauthausen had a notorious “staircase of death” leading to a quarry where prisoners were made to work.

My father was not held there for long; soon he was cleared out again, marched to a satellite camp called Gunskirchen, a place where people simply languished until they starved to death. My 15-year-old father watched men walking around, falling and expiring on the spot. He said most of the guards were older German men, 50- to 60-year-old sadists.

By the spring, the US Army had reached this part of Austria. The Nazis were not waiting to greet them. The guards of Gunskirchen had picked themselves up and fled to Germany, not bothering to tell the prisoners they were free. When the four 71st Infantry Division soldiers stumbled upon the barbed-wire fencing on May 6, my father had just left. Two months away from his 16th birthday at the time, he had realized that they were left unguarded and walked out of the camp in a desperate search for food. Not long afterward, he too was given some canned meat, and ended up so sick he was hospitalized for six months.

I needed to speak to the soldier who had liberated Gunskirchen, who had seen the specific hell my father had endured. After Shabbos, Ari Scharf gave me Mr. Moskin’s number. I got in touch by phone, telling him that my father was liberated from Gunskirchen on that day.

“I was 18 on May 6, 1945,” he told me. “I had just joined up and was sent to Europe.”

His stories started to pour out. He had advanced through a ravaged continent, part of the forces pushing the Nazis back until their eventual surrender on May 8, but among all the sites of suffering he’d seen, he still remembered Gunskirchen clearly.

We spoke on the phone a couple times that summer, but our arrangements to meet up did not work out. The following Pesach, my daughter became engaged. I picked up the phone to Alan Moskin again.

“My daughter is getting married in July,” I told him, “and I want you to come to the wedding and sit at the family table as a special guest of our family.”

Mr. Moskin was thrilled to attend my daughter’s wedding and see the generations of those he helped liberate. (I’m on the right, and my brother Lable is on the left)

Alan agreed to come, and on the big day, my friend’s son drove to Nanuet and brought the elderly guest to Yeshiva of Spring Valley’s wedding hall in Monsey. He was dressed in a suit and tie, with his army medals on his suit jacket, and his army beret. My brother and I were waiting there for him and greeted him with hugs.

At the kabbalas panim, we seated Alan at the head table. All the rabbanim present thanked him for his role in the liberation and offered him their blessings. At the dinner, we had a little dance with him at the table, and my brother and I made time to chat with him. I had thought that at his advanced age, he might have wanted to leave after not too long, but Alan stayed for pretty much the entire wedding. I don’t think he had been at a religious wedding before. He loved it, and only asked to leave at 10:30. He was very moved to see the family that my father had established.

My father was not there; he had passed away in 2017. But 77 years after that young recruit helped those barely living survivors, I wanted him to see the fruits of what he had done — to enjoy the children, grandchildren, and future generations of a Gunskirchen survivor.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 939)

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