Survivor of Six Nazi Death Camps Tells His Story
At the age of 14, Moshe Avital stood before Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Mengele sent Avital’s father to the left, which meant death, and his brother to the right, which meant slave labor. After some hesitation, Mengele moved his finger to the right for Avital.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 430 Jewish professionals at the Museum of Jewish Heritage last month, the 88-year-old Avital said that there was one reason why he made it through the selection.
“I only attributed that to zchut avot,” he said, referencing the merits of his ancestors.
Avital spoke in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, at an event presented by the Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Manhattan Jewish Experience. He explained how he survived six deaths camps, and a five-week death march. On that march to Buchenwald, only 400 of 10,000 prisoners came out alive.
In the death camps, Avital saw people murdered in front of him, and also saw people commit suicide by running into electrified fences. The event moderator, Miriam Leichtling, asked Avital if he ever felt like giving up on life.
“I had a very strong spirit,” he said. “This I attribute to my family. I learned that there is a God, and that the Jewish people will go on living. … I felt that somebody has to survive of the family. That’s what kept me going.”
Avital’s fighting spirit first emerged when he was a public school student in Bilke, Czechoslovakia. He and a friend had payot in their hair, and other students often pulled on them in class.
“When we went out for recess, we beat [those other boys] up but good,” Avital said. “And they were crying, and they went to the teacher and complained.”
Avital’s father came to the school and slapped him in the face in front of his class, not knowing the true reason that his son resorted to violence. When his son told him that he was defending his Jewishness, Avital’s father said that it was important to keep a low profile.
On the last day of Passover 1944, the family was taken from their home and rammed into cattle cars. During his speech, Avital got teary eyed when he recounted what his father said in the boxcar.
One of Avital’s brothers had gone to Palestine in 1937, despite warnings that it was too dangerous. In the cattle car, Avital’s father said, “’I had 11 children. One of them was smart.’”
Avital told the audience that the conditions in the boxcars were unimaginable, and that the Jews were packed in like sardines, unable to move.
“They put in each car two containers: one for water and one for human waste,” he said. “After one day, the water was gone and the container for human waste was overflowing.”
His parents and many other relatives were murdered in Auschwitz. and he and his brother were sent to Plaszow, the concentration camp featured in Schindler’s List. One of Avital’s brothers ended up in the infirmary, and died. Although he’s not certain, Avital believes that the Nazis injected gasoline into his brother’s heart to kill him.
Another grueling tale was that of a rabbi who befriended Avital and prayed with him. A Nazi asked the rabbi where his god was, and the rabbi replied that God was in heaven. “And [the Nazi] started to scream at him, ‘no, I’m your god, and I can do with you whatever I want,'” Avital recounted. “He threw him down on the ground and with his boots was hitting him and hitting him until he stopped moving.”
On the death march, Avital said that he and his fellow prisoners wore wooden shoes and thin pajamas, despite the frigid weather. One man was asked to watch a Nazi’s suitcase. When another man saw that the piece of luggage had food in it, he ate it and discarded the bag. The Nazi couldn’t find the man who did it, and threatened to shoot every tenth Jew if the culprit didn’t reveal himself. Just before the shooting began, one Jew claimed that he was the guilty party, and was killed. Avital said that they never knew if he was the man who actually took it.
After being liberated, Avital was near death and was slowly fed cereal to nurse him back to health. He would eventually sneak into Palestine illegally, be imprisoned, and then freed by the Haganah. He later fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Avital, the author of several books, told me that two of his main concerns today are Jewish disunity and unfair criticisms of Israel.
Many people cried during the conversation and multimedia presentation, which featured pictures of Avital’s relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, Ultimately, Avital ended on a positive note, telling the crowd: “You would be surprised how much a person can endure, how much you can suffer and still stay alive.”