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The Miracle of Block 11

Josef knew that the punishment for plotting to escape was death, but he continued to plan.

Menachem Rosensaft learns how his father survived the Holocaust.

October 1943. Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Three gaunt men huddled together inside a pitchblack, airless cell in Block 11. Narrow concrete walls, scuffed with the desperate scratches of previous prisoners, seemed to close in around them.

In hushed tones they discussed the only thing that mattered now—escape. But even if they found a way out, their fate was unclear. One thing was certain: The executioner would come for them.

Menachem Rosensaft sat in his office on the Upper East Side in New York City on a brisk January afternoon and stared at the book he held in his trembling hands. Tehomot u-shehakim read the Hebrew title, From the Depths of the Skies—the biography of an Auschwitz survivor named Zeev “Yumek” Londner.

Menachem’s stomach clenched as he imagined that dark, cramped cell, yet he could not get the image out of his head. A week earlier, he had never heard of Zeev’s biography. Now it was a precious key to his past: Zeev had been one of the three prisoners in the cell. Another was Menachem’s father.

Block 11, a stark brick building at Auschwitz, was known as the Death Block, where defiant prisoners were brought to be tortured and killed. According to camp records, Josef Rosensaft entered on September 30, 1943, and exited five days later. This much Menachem had known for most of his life.

But what happened during those five days? How did his father manage to escape?

From a young age, Menachem had overheard his parents and their friends, many of whom were also Holocaust survivors, sit around the dinner table and discuss their experiences during the Shoah, absorbing the adult conversation even when he couldn’t understand every word. Concentration camp. Unterkapo. Block 11.

When Menachem was old enough, his father sat him down and told him some of the stories. Vivid, gripping accounts that seemed to come from another world.

Like the story of Josef’s first escape. He was 32 years old in 1943, when the SS gathered his family and other Jews from the Bedzin ghetto in Poland and crammed them into a train bound for Auschwitz. He waited for an opportunity to flee.

When the guards weren’t looking, Josef slipped through an open window in the train compartment and dove into the freezing Vistula River. Swimming for his life, he was hit three times by German bullets, but somehow escaped and walked, bleeding and barefoot, back to Bedzin.

Only later did he discover that virtually all the Jews on that train had been sent directly to the gas chambers. Not long after his return to Bedzin, the SS liquidated the ghetto entirely, and once again, Josef was sent to Auschwitz. That time he couldn’t break away, though he certainly tried.

“Never forget,” Josef told his son, as if Menachem had lived through the Shoah himself. Remember the evil, so it shouldn’t rise again. Remember the strength that overcame it, and never let it wither. Remember the faith that sustained the Jewish people.

Menachem always thought he would have more time with his father, more chances to ask about the past and fill in the details. But in September 1975, at age 64, one year younger than Menachem was now, Josef Rosensaft died from a sudden stroke.

With his father’s words in mind, Menachem told the stories to his daughter, and hoped to share them with his grandchildren someday too.

He had grown up to become general counsel to the World Jewish Congress, an organization protecting the rights of Jews worldwide, and taught law-school courses on the topics of genocide and war crimes.

He had just begun editing a manuscript, a collection of essays by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, another way to honor his parents’ legacy.

He was born 103 years ago this month, Menachem thought, a few days before his father’s birthday, sitting at his desk, sorting through the stories he’d collected. The gripping narratives told of courage in the face of unfathomable terror.

He opened up his e-mail and found a new message from an old friend, Hannah, who was living in Israel. “I came across something you’d like to read, a book written in Hebrew and only available here. It has to do with Block 11 and your father. I’m sending you a copy!”

Block 11? Menachem could hardly believe it. After all these years, would this book finally shed light on the missing story? Within a week, Menachem received his copy. He sat in his office and flipped to the page Hannah had marked for him.

Rosensaft did not stop thinking about escaping, Menachem read. His father. He leaned back in his chair and turned to the beginning of the chapter.

Zeev Londner and his brother were only in their twenties when they found themselves in Auschwitz, in September 1943. They made close friends there with an older man—Josef Rosensaft.

Menachem’s heart raced. Josef was not just a brief mention in the chapter—he was the chapter. And in typical Josef Rosensaft fashion, he had crafted a plan to escape.

In October of that year, he told the brothers he knew a German doctor in Katowice, a city near Bedzin, a non-Jew who had offered to hide him before. The three of them would duck away from their work detail, hide in a deserted tunnel until the Germans stopped looking for them, and then make their way to the doctor’s house.

But the wrong person overheard Josef’s plan: an unterkapo, one of the Jewish inmates coerced by the Nazis—through a perverse system of threats and incentives—to supervise and spy on fellow prisoners.

He brought the three men to the camp’s officials, exposed their plan to escape, and shared the address in Katowice that they had been planning to flee to. A young SS officer named Otto Klaus seized Josef and the Londner brothers.

Josef knew that the punishment for plotting to escape was death. The three Jews would be sent to Block 11, Officer Klaus explained, while the authorities decided whether they would be shot or hanged.

Since it was a Thursday, and executions took place on Mondays, the men would spend the Sabbath in Block 11. They were jammed into the cramped cell with two other prisoners and awaited their fate.

On Monday morning, they could hear other prisoners being dragged from their cells, followed by gunshots. Josef bade his friends goodbye. “May we meet again in the next world,” he said. A minute crawled by. Then an hour. Still no one came for them.

Finally the officer in charge of Block 11 appeared at their cell. “Nothing will happen to you, not today,” he said. He unlocked the cell door and had them taken back to their barracks.

Menachem’s eyes flew over the Hebrew writing. According to the book, questions about what had happened—what saved the three men—stayed with Zeev long after he, his brother and Josef were separated and sent to different camps.

He finally learned the truth two years after liberation, in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, when Josef located him and told him the rest of the story.

Menachem held his breath as he turned the page, closer to the answer he had sought for so many years.

Josef weighed hardly more than 75 pounds when he was liberated from the notorious Nazi death camp in April 1945. When he was strong enough, one of the first things he did was track down his doctor friend from Katowice.

He told the doctor about his foiled attempt to escape from Auschwitz with the two brothers and their inexplicable release from Block 11.

“I know what happened,” the doctor responded. That October, he’d received an unexpected visitor at his door. SS officer Otto Klaus.

Armed with the address in Katowice, Officer Klaus had ridden his motorcycle to the Polish town, planning to expose and arrest the traitor who was willing to harbor three runaway Jews. But when the door opened, he stared at the doctor in disbelief.

He knew the man.

More than 25 years earlier, during World War I, the doctor had saved the officer’s father’s life. In fact, the two families had remained friends. Officer Klaus had a decision to make. Take the doctor into custody and turn him in, or cover up the incident.

That day, Officer Klaus returned to the camp and made his report: His investigation had not revealed any scheme to escape, he said. He vouched for Josef and the brothers and said they should be let go.

On Monday, the three men returned to camp. Their ordeal was far from over, but they would live another day.

Menachem finished the chapter and closed the book, feeling as though he had just been given a miraculous gift, as if he himself had been liberated somehow.

He was sitting at the dining-room table again, listening to another of his father’s stories. Given a new lesson he was meant to remember and pass on to his daughter and future generations.

In the middle of the deepest horror mankind had ever known, a spark of humanity had survived, powerful enough to move the heart of a Nazi officer, and to deliver Josef Rosensaft from a dark prison cell back into the light.

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