A TALE OF THREE JEWS – א געשיכטע פון 3 יידן
Sam Bialek was born Shmuel Bialek, March 6, 1920*, in Czestochowa, Poland, to Yacob and Cygleh Bialek. At that time, Czestochowa was a town of about 130,000 people, 30,000 of which were Jewish. Sam was one of 6 children: Yeshaia (‘Shayeh’), Shmuel, Yosef, Faigeleh, Hanna and Gitteleh. Sam’s father worked in a factory, making wooden picture frames for paintings of The Black Madonna. Czestochowa is the location of a Roman Catholic shrine and place of pilgrimage in honour of a painting of Mary, named The Black Madonna – so named for the colour of the oil paint that aged in such a way that, over time, the flesh colours turned black. ‘Miracles’ and ‘deliverances’ of national and personal nature are ascribed to this painting, hence the reverence shown to it.
*Sam’s Identity Card reads October 22, 1920 as his birthday, but in his audio testimony, taken for the Pittsburgh Holocaust Commission archive, Sam stated his birthday as March 6, 1920. Later, Sam told me that, when asked for his birth date, he would try to ‘make himself younger,’ if he thought it might be expedient, in some way. [This explains the several, different, birthdates I became aware of, over the years.]
Sam’s father, Yakob, was a member of some early Zionist organisations and the family were members of a local shtible. Sam attended cheder, on the weekends and attended public school on weekdays, until he finished 4th grade.
On September 4, 1939, a massacre took place in Czestochowa which became known as ‘Bloody Monday’. The Nazis had arrived on Sunday, September 3, 1939 and because of a false accusation that some Jewish people had killed some of them, a pogrom resulted. Jewish people – including Sam and his family – were rounded up and were held in a local building for four days – without food or water – while they were all searched for weapons. Anyone found having a knife or ‘weapon’ was killed. Approximately 300 Jewish people were killed that tragic episode.
In August, 1940, Sam was among the approximately 1,000 young Jewish men from Czestochowa who were taken to the Hrubieszow ghetto, in the Lublin region. In early 1940, about 6,000 Jews and refugees were confined there and used for forced labour. Sam was part of a work force that had to convert an army barracks, thus creating the famous death camp, Majdanek. Most of those young men did not survive the experience, but Sam did.
Czestochowa Deportation, 1942
In 1944, Sam was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp for a short time. There, he shared a block with Leon Blum. Leon Blum was a French socialist politician and three-time Prime Minister of France.
(Blum was heavily influenced by the Dreyfus affair of the late 19th century, and a disciple of French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, and after 1914 became his successor. Once out of office in 1938, Blum denounced the appeasement of Germany. When Germany defeated France in 1940, he became a staunch opponent of Vichy France. Tried by Vichy on trumped-up charges, Blum was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp. Buchenwald was a Class II camp for hard-core political prisoners, mainly Communists, who were considered to be harder to “rehabilitate.” Consequently, conditions in the Buchenwald camp were more severe than at Dachau and Sachsenhausen, which were Class I camps, where many prisoners were released after being brain-washed into accepting such Nazi principles as obedience and hard work. The sign over the iron gates at both Dachau and Sachsenhausen read “Arbeit Macht Frei” or Work Brings Freedom.
The phrase “Jedem das Seine,” which is on the gate into the former Buchenwald concentration camp, means “To each his own,” but it has the connotation of “everyone gets what he deserves.” Buchenwald was the only concentration camp to have this sign on the gate into the camp.)
Another person who shared the same block as Sam and Leon Blum was Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD). Sam remembered Thälmann being shot by the Nazis, while he was there.
In December, 1944, Sam was transferred to Dora-Mittlebau, where he worked in a large, underground tunnel and where, among other things, the V2 rockets were manufactured. While there, Sam was beaten by a guard and as a result, lost the hearing in one ear.
In early April, 1945, Sam was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where he stayed until its liberation by the British on April 15, 1945.
There were many threats to survival after the camps were liberated. For one thing, well-meaning Allied soldiers were giving solid food to the emaciated prisoners, whose digestion systems were not able to cope with it. As a result, approximately 28,000 people died in Belsen after it was liberated. Sam instinctively knew this and would only accept watered-down milk, at first. He also tried to warn other prisoners. However for some, their hunger was too great and they suffered as a result of trying to eat the soldiers’ rations. Even after the liberation, Sam remained in Belsen for nearly a year.
Throughout his experiences during the war, Sam would lay down at night, begging God that he wouldn’t have to wake up the next day. Like others, he questioned the existence of God. If there was a God, how could He let all this happen? Why didn’t He stop it?
Sam’s Identity Card after liberation
After the war, and after regaining strength in a DP camp, Leon Blum invited Sam to go and live and work with him, in Paris. Sam declined and instead, became involved in helping people across the border from Germany to Austria 1946-48, as part of the Bricha. The Bricha was a group of Jewish partisan survivors who decided to try to get to Palestine via various routes, including Romania and Italy. Once in Italy, people would have to wait for boats to Palestine and evade the British blockade. Some of these stories are well-known!
Sam had contacts within the border police and was able to get many survivors across the German border into Austria. He never accepted money for doing this, though I understand that he may have been involved in handling other things, as part of a sort of ‘black market’. He referred to himself as a ‘bootlegger.’ Sam didn’t go to Israel, himself. The reason for this was that Sam had some friends that had gone, but had come back because of the difficulties they’d encountered. They advised Sam to go to America instead. So he did! However, Sam’s only surviving brother, Shayeh, did go to live on a moshav, in Israel.
Some time after settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, Sam eventually did go to Israel, to visit Shayeh. While there, an unexpected event took place: A Shiddach! Sam was – rather purposefully – introduced to a young lady (by her mother), named Shoshanna Gutt, and 10 days later, they got married!
The wedding was on October 21, 1956, at the Chief Rabbinate’s in Tel Aviv. Very soon after the wedding ceremony, Sam had to return to Pittsburgh, while Shoshanna – Shoshi – followed later, on an ocean voyage which took eight months.
Sam and Shoshi’s Wedding invitation
Shoshanna (Shoshi) was born in October, 1933, in the Sadofsky Hospital, a small, maternity hospital, in the Old City of Jerusalem! Shoshi’s parents, Hannah and Arieh Rechshaffer, came from the Galicia region of Poland, making their journey to Israel by boat in 1932. They came to Israel in order to join the rest of Hanna’s family, who were pioneers. One of Hanna’s brothers, Yisrael Gutt, had built the second motion picture cinema in Israel, the famous ‘Cinema Zion’, in Jerusalem.
(About the Cinema Zion, Jerusalem:
In 1917, owner Israel Gutt gave the name “Zion” to a silent movie shed built next to a square in Jaffa Street five years before, on a lot previously owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. Piled snow brought the shed down in 1920, and a new 600-seat theatre was built there instead. A stage was added, for opera and theatrical performances, chandeliers were hung and central heating was installed.
Zion Square was a focal point for Jerusalem’s outdoors life. There were quite a few cafes and businesses there, but the theatre that gave the place its name, also gave it its spirit. In October 1967, three Arab youths placed a bomb in the theatre, during the early evening show. The charge was discovered and removed in time, and the late show took place as scheduled. The next day, in a show of solidarity, Mayor Teddy Kollek proclaimed: “No one will scare us away from our movies.” Five years later, Cinema Zion was closed down. The building was demolished in 1979, making room for a bank).
Sadly, when Shoshi was a very small child, her parents divorced, leaving her to live with her mother. Hanna had to go out to work, so she often left Shoshi home alone. When Arieh’s new wife found out about it, she reported this to the authorities and Shoshi was taken to a ‘youth village’ kibbutz called Meir Shfeya, near Zichron Ya’acov. Back then, it was referred to as ‘Har Yeladim Shfeya’ (Young People’s Mount, Shfeya). During those years, Shoshi was able to visit her mother, from time to time.
Meir Shfeya Youth Village
After her years on Shfeya, Shoshi became old enough to begin to work, and took various jobs, including being a governess to a German family. The position was only open to someone who spoke German, which Shoshi didn’t! When asked if she spoke German, she replied, ‘Yes!’ She was given the job and was able to learn the language by interacting with her young charges! Finally, though, when old enough to enter National Service – and because of her circumstances – Shoshi was able to work with the Israeli police force, instead of joining the Army. She was stationed in Abu Gosh. This was after the foundation of the modern state of Israel, in 1948. She ended up working all over the world as an undercover agent with Interpol, bringing international criminals to justice!
At some point, after her wedding to Sam, and her arrival in Pittsburgh, she met Dr. Dan Bravin. Bravin was the youngest of the four sons of an official of the largest of eight synagogues in their native town of Kreitzburg, Russia. Dan, however, became a believer in Yeshua (Jesus) and later, after moving to Pittsburgh, became the leader of a congregation of Jewish believers in Jesus. He would share his faith with Jewish people by visiting homes and going door-to-door. He heard about Shoshi and visited her, speaking to her in Hebrew about Jesus, the Messiah. Bravin’s message did not impact Shoshi at that point, however.
Sam’s mother tongue was Yiddish, not Polish, while Shoshi’s was Hebrew. By this time, Sam knew some English, while Shoshi knew none, except for the expression ‘OK’ (which sometimes landed her in trouble)! Besides the linguistic and cultural obstacles, Shoshi was quite a bit younger than Sam. Nevertheless, they began to forge a life together in America and in 1958, their only daughter, Adeline, was born!
Years passed. Even though Sam had questioned the existence of God, he became a very important member of his local Orthodox shul. Shoshi also became involved in the Sisterhood. Adeline – Ade, as she was called – was very bright and talented and grew up as a typical American girl of her era.
Without going into too much detail, there came a point, in her mid-teens, at which Ade began to search for more meaning in life. After trying many things, including drugs, occult, etc., and not finding the answers and fulfilment she was looking for, she began to despair and, sadly, began to contemplate taking her own life.
One day, she did decide to end it all. On her way to accomplish this, she passed by the home of a lady named Betty, who had been her babysitter when she was young. Ade decided to stop and say one, last ‘goodbye’. As it happened, Betty, who had struggled with her own addictions and had also desperately searched for answers and help, had committed her life to Jesus two weeks earlier!
When Betty shared about her new-found faith in Jesus with Ade – and about all that Jesus had done to change her life – Ade realised that Jesus, Yeshua, was indeed the Redeemer and promised Messiah and committed her life to Him, as well!
From that moment on, Ade’s life began to radically change! She no longer behaved as she had before. Her language changed. She was no longer depressed. The list goes on and on! It wasn’t long until Shoshi, seeing all these amazing changes and seeing God’s Hand in Ade’s life, began to learn more about Yeshua – and His fulfilment of Biblical prophecies, in the Hebrew Bible – and realised that she needed what Ade had found! Within a short period of time, Shoshi also became a believer in Jesus and committed her life to Him.[After becoming a believer in Yeshua, Shoshi remembered her visit from Dan Bravin and realised what he had been trying to tell her. By this time, Bravin was quite elderly. Shoshi was able to find out his whereabouts and eventually visited him in the nursing home where he was living. When she reminded him of who she was, he reached over to a small cabinet of drawers that was full of indexed cards. He found the card on which he had recorded details of their meeting, all those years previously! There was great rejoicing in his room, that day!]
But what did Sam feel about all of this??!! He had survived the unspeakable experience of the Holocaust! Not only had he overcome the temptation – common to Jewish survivors – to reject the idea of God, he was an important member of an orthodox synagogue! How could he face his Rabbi and community? How could his own wife and beloved daughter betray him, his family, the Jewish people?
However, instead of reacting adversely, strangely enough, Sam seemed to graciously accommodate these two, with their newly-found faith! While he didn’t accept all of this as being ‘for him’, he could see the profound differences in the lives of Shoshi and Ade – and even, in his own way, supported them! Whatever flack he might have been given by his Rabbi, or the community, Sam never ‘took it out’ on anyone – such was his grace!
In time, Ade married a Messianic Jewish (believer in Jesus as Messiah) man and began having children of her own, giving Sam and Shoshi the nachus of being grandparents! All the while, those around Sam continued to share their witness and faith with Sam, who gently and quietly resisted entering into discussions about Jesus.
Well, many years passed, and eventually, Sam’s health really began to deteriorate. He had suffered very much as a result of his torturous experiences during the war. He had sustained injuries from being beaten by a prison guard, and his lungs and skin were affected from the extreme conditions and starvation he had endured. (Oh, and did I tell you that he also escaped execution by firing squad twice?!)
Eventually, when quite elderly, Sam was taken to the hospital one last time. He was extremely weak, unable to breathe on his own or talk. He was connected to many machines that delivered life support, and given medication, but his body was no longer rallying as before.
By this time, I was not living in Pittsburgh, having moved to London a few years before. But my family had bonded to the Bialeks – as they did with everybody – so that Sam, Shoshi and Ade were considered part of our family.
While Sam was in the hospital, this final time, my parents went to visit him. He could not speak and so, with what little strength he had, he would try to write on a large pad of paper. His writing was a hybrid of broken English and transliterated Yiddish – with, sadly, poor spelling as a result. One had to have a bit of ‘seichel’ to decode Sam’s communications! That day, my parents only stayed a short time, not wanting to tire Sam out.
Two days later, my parents went to visit Sam again. This time, when they entered the hospital room, Sam’s facial appearance was completely transformed! He was, somehow, radiant! Something had happened to him!! Oh, he was still hooked up to all the machines…and he still couldn’t speak, but he was DIFFERENT!
My mother, seeing such a change, asked Sam what had happened!
As you will see from the photo below, Sam had accepted Jesus as his Messiah! He received new life for old! This little orthodox Jewish Holocaust Survivor found eternal life in Yeshua, before he died, and was transformed.
Here is a ‘translation’ of what you see in the photo:
‘I EKCA LAST FRIDE TH MASH JEWIS IN HOSPITAL’ (trans: I accepted last Friday the Messiah Jewish in hospital)
Then my mother circled the word ‘EKCA’ and asked what that word was.
Sam then wrote: ‘I GETD FRIDE IN HOSPITAL JESUA’ (trans: I ‘getted’ Friday in hospital Yeshua)
After which, my mom wrote, ‘WAIT UNTIL CHRISSY HEARS’
Approximately a day and a half later, Sam passed away, on January 26, 1993. What a life to have led and what a story to be told – but the most important part of all is that Sam found peace with God, by accepting and embracing Jesus as his Messiah, before entering into eternity.
So this is an amazing tale of 3 Jews: An Orthodox, Polish Holocaust Survivor, An Israeli Kibbutznik and an American ‘Child of the Fifties’. All three came from completely different eras, cultures, experiences, mother-tongues – but all needed, and found the same Peace and Truth that they were searching for, in the person of the Jewish Messiah: Yeshua – Jesus.