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With Rabbi Teitelbaum in Bergen-Belsen

This article about Rabbi Teitelbaum of Satmar was written by a Hungarian Jewish writer, Dr. Ferenz Kennedy, and published in the Hungarian newspaper, Oj Kelet in 1959 while the rabbi was visiting the Holy Land. It was also translated into Yiddish and published in Dos Yiddishe Vort.

Dr. Kennedy, a secular Jew, was together with the Satmar Rebbe in the famous train of Jewish Hungarian personalities, who by virtue of Kastner's bribery, were taken to an internment camp in Bergen-Belsen, and then later released to Switzerland.

I should start by noting that I am not one of Rabbi Teitelbaum's followers, but perhaps I can contribute to portraying this unusual person by describing my experiences with him over a period of several months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where we were confined at a time and place that revealed a person's true personality.

Rebbe Teitelbaum

Fifteen years ago, on July 2, 1944, I first met the Satmar Rebbe at the Hungarian-Slovakian border in Madiarovar, where our train was stopped for two days. A decision had to be made about whether our transport train should travel to Auschwitz, Poland or to Auschpitz, Austira. This was the most important decision for the transport director to make. Each of us understood the difference between Auschwitz and "Auschpitz"....

Someone in our group heard from the conductor that his directive was to travel to Auschwitz. This meant that the transport train was heading to the Auschwitz extermination camp. You can just imagine how desperate we were when we found out about this.

In the meantime the transport train cars moved over to the sidetracks, and we spent two full days inside those cars in an area of three meters on the sidetracks. Along the side of the tracks we noticed a Jew with a nearly gray beard whose face made an enormous impression upon me. Both of his alabaster-white pointer fingers were inside his white vest while he was pacing ack and forth, murmuring his prayers or melodies, moving around like a wounded lion. I do not know whether he was reciting psalms or was thinking about our awful fate. I just saw that he was very upset, moving a few steps among the others with his head bowed. When I asked one of my friends about this man, he replied with certainty, "He is the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Teitelbaum! And whoever is with him most certainly has no worries."

I had never heard of a rabbi like him. The world of the Orthodox religious Jews was foreign to me, and I had never before heard of any Satmar rabbi. Therefore it was no surprise that as a skeptic I could not imagine how people could be so sure that because the rabbi was with us, we had every hope of surviving our Hell. However, I later realized that our hopes were totally justified.

The Hungarian police started approaching the train cars, but the S.S. ordered them away. During those dramatic hours, Dr. Kastner in Budapest intervened. Finally our train was redirected to "Auschpitz" instead of to the Auschwitz death camp. Auschpitz was supposedly filled, and therefore we were sent to Bergen-Belsen.

I lived with the Satmar Rebbe for five months in Men's Block E in Bergen-Belsen. I do not know how this happened, but it is a fact that the Germans themselves permitted him to keep his beard, which the rebbe concealed with a kerchief around his face, pretending to be suffering from a toothache.

The rebbe did not eat the camp food. He lived on water and cooked potatoes. As far as I know he fasted two or three days a week. You could hear his voice in the barracks almost all day long. It was not talking we heard, but his prayers and studying. He had a mournful tune and sobbing gestures that kept many of us awake late into the night. I learned those gestures myself, and for years I could hear it in my head as a sad memento of those tragic times. The rebbe's mournful tune made many of those living in the barracks nervous, but not me. I knew that the rebbe was using that tune to pray to G-d for mercy; he fought against the decree and prayed for rescue.

The Satmar rebbe was crystal clean even in the dirty barracks -- dirt and vermin had no power over him. He used to lay on his bed, and his wife and his attendant, a young skinny man, devoted themselves to him, helping him to have something to eat so he could continue with his religious activities.

His majesty and wonderful appearance amazed everyone. I admit that I too was affected by his influence and appeal. There, among the barbwire, the shadow of the Angel of Death was greatly weakened, and I began believing in heavenly forces. I often noticed that whenever Rabbi Teitelbaum recited his prayers, or whenever he simply sang his wordless tune, all of our eyes were filled with bloody tears.

On one summer day, I asked the rabbi's young attendant to obtain an autograph from the rebbe. The answer came quickly: the rabbi did not consider my request to be appropriate. The weeks passed, and the Satmar Rebbe patiently and modestly suffered and got through the difficulties. However, I once saw him lose his patience. It was when on a Sabbath afternoon when he was deep in study together with Rabbi Shlomo Zvi Strasser of Debrecin. The Satmar Rebbe's eyes sparkled, and the 90 year-old Rabbi Strasser yielded to the strong will of the Satmar rebbe.

I subsequently became very close to the Satmar rebbe, and this happened as follows:

I had the opportunity to win the trust of a few S.S. men through some bribery and got along with them very well. In exchange for the bribes I gave them, I received newspapers, and the S.S. provided Goebbels' newspaper, Das Deutsche Reich, as well as the Völkischer Baobachter, the Pressburg newspaper Grenzbote, and other German newspapers. In addition, the German S.S. men would occasionally bring me bread and medicine. However, the newspapers were the most important item, and were our intellectual food. In the camp the newspapers were very significant for us. We frequently derived encouragement from the various news reports, and awaited liberation.

We disseminated the news reports every evening in to barracks among the detainees, and for that purpose the famous Hungarian Jewish playwright, Bela Zholt provided his commentaries and opinions on the dry news that the camp consumed with great curiosity. This is how we found out about the Allied invasion of Normandy. We heard the news about the capture of Warsaw and Paris, and we also learned about the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler.

One night the Satmar Rebbe sent his attendant to me to ask a favor: since the Rebbe's bed was far from mine, he could not hear the news reports that were being read in low tones. In addition, the rebbe did not lie in bed at the same time as the other detainees, therefore he requested me to give him the news before I informed the rest of the barrack. I was more than happy to agree to his request, and each evening at 6:30 I would go over to the rebbe's bed and report to him the most important news and political events. The rebbe closely paid attention and heard the news about the Allied victories with cold indifference and apathy. He commented that "we still need great mercy from Heaven to be able to be liberated from here alive."

The High Holy Days were approaching, and soon it would be Yom Kippur. Several of the barracks held prayer services, and in our barrack the Satmar Rebbe led the Mussaf service of Yom Kippur. Bela Zholt and Aladar Komlosh (two famous Jewish Hungarian novelists who were also interned in Bergen-Belsen) passed by outside. I approached them and invited them to listen to the prayers of Rabbi Teitelbaum, which was a deeply touching experience to see the rebbe wrapped in his tallis [prayer shawl], rocking back and forth with all his limbs and pouring out his soul to his Creator.

A few meters away, S.S. men were standing outside guarding the camp prisoners in the camp surrounded by barbwire, while inside we could hear the heartbreaking prayerful voice of the Satmar rebbe who was expressing age-old laments of the ancient Jewish prayers.

When we left the barrack, the cynical and assimilated Bela Zholt, who despite being so assimilated had tears welling in his eyes, said to me, "This is quite traditional, but it's very nice!"

Aladar Komlosh replied that if any prayers existed in the world, it was this true prayer service of the Satmar rebbe. We all felt we were listening to a holy Jewish prayer, and we could not remain indifferent to it.

At the end of November we heard reports that we would be liberated, and would be taken to Switzerland. Our hearts were filled with nervousness, fear, and apprehension. Our minds were filled with doubts as to the veracity of the reports, and the entire camp was in a tense mood.

We got ready to pack our bags and waited for the moment liberation would arrive. On that very day, filled with physical and emotional stress, the rebbe's attendant approached me and asked whether I still wanted the rebbe's autograph. Some five months had already passed, and we have lived through many difficulties. I had already forgotten about the whole subject. "Of course I would like to have the rebbe's autograph," I replied with a restrained smile.

This is how I obtained the rebbe's autograph in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The rebbe had not forgotten about the subject of my request during all those months, and as soon as it became "appropriate" he fulfilled my request.

Afterwards, when we were actually released and in Switzerland on one cold December night, we marched along St. Galen Street to the barracks that had been prepared for us. On the corners of the street we were met by fellow Jews who were unable to approach us up close, but tossed apples and sweets our way, and we caught them with both hands. However, these Jews who threw us gifts had one question: "Where is the rebbe?" Bela Zholt strode along side me, excitedly observing, "You see, Ferenz, I am nothing! No one knows me even though hundreds of thousands of people have read my novels and poetry. No one is waiting for me; they only know the rebbe. They are only waiting for him!"

Our group comprised more than 1,300 people, including various famous personalities from the Hungarian Jewish community. The majority of our group was of course assimilated and modernized Jews. There were very few Orthodox Jews. The transport comprised professors, poets, artists, community activists and leaders of the Hungarian Zionist movement and their families. The Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Teitelbaum, did not at all fit in to our community, whose major leaders were intellectuals and academics who believed that as soon as liberation arrived, they would be greeted with great honor. Yet suddenly here they were so bitterly disappointed since here in Switzerland almost no one paid any attention to them. Everyone was interested in the personality known as the Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Everyone wanted to know where he was in the transport, and how he was feeling. Everyone asked the same question: Where is the rabbi?

So we all realized that it was not the professionals and academics who were indispensable, but rather the quiet and haggard holy man.

In Switzerland we all parted ways, but for a long time thereafter until today, I think a great deal about the fascinating personality of the Satmar rebbe. I frequently still remember the following little philosophical ideas:

When we consider the significance of religion, and the fact that the Torah and faith is what has preserved the Jewish People over thousands of years of Exile, we must also realize that the Satmar rebbe is without a doubt one of the holiest individuals produced by the Jewish People, and is the greatest guardian to assure that the Torah of Moses is not forgotten, G-d forbid. It may be possible that we perceive him as being too fastidious, too stubborn about following every point of the Torah, but without a doubt he is the real and most loyal defender of the Torah, a true leader of the Jewish People!