Mengele's Errand Boy

At 14, Beni Virtzberg was sent to Auschwitz, where he was chosen to serve Dr. Josef Mengele and thus managed to survive. But his memoir of the Holocaust, published in 1967, got lost amid the victory albums of the Six-Day War. Now, 40 years after his suicide, a new edition of the book will soon be out

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Last week, while emptying drawers in an attempt to find a copy of the suicide note left by her father in August 1968, Dahlia Virtzberg-Rofe' found two yellowed receipts.

One, from March 1967, was from Masada Press, and showed that the publishing house was paid 6,000 Israeli pounds by Virtzberg for his book, "Milayl Habedolah Ve'ad Laylot Hakrav" ("From Kristallnacht to the Nights of Battle").

The second, dated February 1968, after the book had been published under a new title - "Migai Hahariga Lesha'ar Hagai" ("From the Valley of Slaughter to the Gate of the Valley"), showed that he had paid off the remaining balance of 1,000 Israeli pounds.

"This was a significant sum for the family," she says now. "My father hoped that Moreshet, which was part of the Sifriat Hapoalim publishing house at the time, would publish the book. He also contacted the Israel Defense Forces Ma'arachot Press. But he didn't get anywhere with them. Eventually, he went to Masada. And they agreed to print the book for 7,000 Israeli pounds."

In the book, Virtzberg recounted his life story, starting from when he was 9 years old in Germany at the time of the Kristallnacht riots. His tale continues throughout the war years, and is told from the point of view of a boy who was saved from death in Auschwitz thanks to Josef Mengele, and arrived in Palestine in 1945 with other children who had been through similar experiences.

The climax of the book describes the youths' enlistment in the Palmach (the pre-state underground Jewish militia) and their participation in some of the fiercest battles of the War of Independence. Virtzberg believed that the book could rebut the prevalent notion in Israel at the time - that the Jews of Europe had gone to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter.

That notion is "a glib distortion that just goes to show once again that people are completely ignoring the psychological annihilation that preceded, with premeditation and systematic planning, the physical annihilation and made it possible," proclaimed the book's cover.

But in the end, Virtzberg's great expectations for his book were dashed. He had many accomplishments to show for his work as a forest ranger with the Jewish National Fund; he had a successful marriage and loved his two children.

He also had a good number of friends who were Holocaust survivors like himself. But, says his daughter, his book caused barely a ripple and failed to sell at a time when the stores were filled with victory albums about the Six-Day War.

About six months later, just a few days before his 40th birthday, he committed suicide with a gunshot to the head, on the balcony of his home in Be'er Sheva's Heh neighborhood, while his wife Rachel and their children, Ilan and Dahlia, then 17 and 10 respectively, were in the house. Conflicted emotions On the face of it, Virtzberg was a Holocaust survivor who managed to mend the rifts in his life and become an Israeli.

"Beni was talented," says Emanuel Mittenberg, 79, a retired bank employee and one of the heroes of the book. "He was great at drawing and marvelous at playing the harmonica. There were times, occasionally, when he felt down, but he always came out of it. He didn't have a lot of money, but he had a love for beautiful, aesthetic things. A week before he killed himself he wrote us a letter saying that this time the depression had gripped him hard and that he hoped to bounce back." "I don't think there was sufficient reason for him to commit suicide," Yaakov Zeide, a retired engineer who became friends with Virtzberg in 1945 when they arrived in this country, fought alongside him in 1948 and was later his neighbor in Be'er Sheva, said sadly this week.

Zeide says the book Virtzberg wrote brought him back to the inferno of World War II. "We couldn't understand why he shot himself when the children were in the house," he says. "It's hard to know what takes hold of a person at such a terrible moment, when he's depressed and under the influence of pills."

Zeide says he paid for the construction of the Holocaust memorial monument at the Be'er Sheva cemetery, where Virtzberg's name is also listed.

"Up until the whole thing with the book, Beni wasn't depressive," he says. "We were in the Palmach and we fought in Jerusalem and in the south and it was very tough and we saw friends killed, and he was okay. It was the book. For a long time he talked about his desire to document his life. I was in Auschwitz and in Dachau and I understood him. Writing brought him back there in his mind, and he stopped functioning. In the JNF they were thinking of transferring him out of his position and I was able to prevent it somehow, but I never thought he would kill himself."

For eight years, Dahlia Virtzberg-Rofe', a linguistic editor who is working on a master's degree at Tel Aviv University's School of Cultural Studies, has been trying to get a new edition of her father's book published.

"At best, I received rejection notices. Otherwise, I was just ignored," she says. "At Yad Vashem they told me they were giving priority to manuscripts that had yet to be published. I went to other publishers, who requested large sums of money to publish the book."

Now a new edition of "Migai Hahariga Lesha'ar Hagai" is about to be published by Carmel Press, after Virtzberg-Rofe' managed to obtain NIS 3,500 from Yad Vashem, NIS 5,000 from the JNF and added NIS 3,000 from her own pocket. She has also written a foreword and an afterword.

"I didn't want to fund the book myself because I understood from readers and researchers that it was of value and also because I'd already paid a steep emotional price," she explains.

"When my father shattered his world, he shattered mine, too, and it took me decades to get back on my feet. My feelings toward him were mixed: I was angry at him, and blamed him for the severe blow he had inflicted on my life and the lives of everyone in the family. But I also pitied him, and my heart went out to him. It was a jumble of conflicted emotions. This emotional tumult nearly paralyzed me, and so each time I received a rejection from another publishing house, or from some eminent person to whom I'd turned, I curled back up in my lair and it took me a long time before I could keep on trying."

Why was it so important to you?

"I was filled with a sense of mission, as if my father had entrusted me with his last wishes and sworn me to carry them out. It has to do with the way he chose to end his life. The only question left unresolved is why he deliberately chose to carry out his final solution in our presence. This question will never be answered, obviously. But perhaps because of the particular way he chose, his cry of agony continued to echo within me, it wouldn't give me any respite, and it made me aspire to soothe his spirit and finish what he had set out to do but failed to accomplish.

"Another motivation for publishing the book was a feeling of guilt, or to be more accurate, remnants of seemingly irrational feelings of guilt. As a teenager, I blamed myself and everyone around for not having prevented his suicide. My father was very lonely at the end of his life. We were all feeling a very heavy burden and fear that we kept hidden. And we had no idea how to cope with this situation. Maybe that's one reason why I married a man who is an activist in the mental health field. Zviel Rofe', my husband, also had a suicidal experience in his past, which he talked about in his books and in the media, and he helped me understand my father. In my heart, what I say now to my father is this: I did my best for your sake and mine; now the injustice is being remedied, and justice will come to light; you can finally rest in peace. Maybe now you'll leave me in peace."

Sent to Auschwitz Beni Virtzberg was born in the German city of Altona, now part of Hamburg, and was an only child. His father, Gabriel Gustav, a prosperous merchant, was a Polish subject who had settled in Germany. His mother, Rachel, was a university graduate who devoted herself to caring for her son.

In a 1929 photo, the mother is seen smiling proudly next to the baby carriage in which her year-old son Benjamin is asleep. The events of Kristallnacht in November 1938 interrupted the happy childhood of Beni, then almost 10, who attended the Jewish elementary school in Hamburg and was "Mommy's spoiled child," as he describes himself in the book.

His parents were arrested by the Gestapo, but subsequently released thanks to their connections, and the father continued selling menswear to loyal customers who visited his shop at night. An attempt to send Beni away on a Kindertransport to England was unsuccessful, and not long afterward his father was expelled to Poland.

In July 1939, Beni and his mother also left for Poland, and lived with an aunt in the Jewish quarter of Sosnowitz in southern Poland. In September, the German army occupied the city.

In August 1942, Beni and his parents were deported from the Sosnowitz ghetto to Auschwitz. His mother was sent directly to the gas chamber and 14-year-old Beni was separated from his dazed father, who was put on a truck. Realizing that he would never see his father again, Beni boldly approached one of the officers and asked in German for them to have mercy on his father. The SS officer he spoke to was Dr. Josef Mengele, but Beni of course didn't know this.

"His face was fair," he wrote in his book. "Along his left cheek was a deep scar that began at the edge of his left eye and ran down to his upper lip. His blue eyes were steely cold."

For some reason, Mengele responded to the Jewish boy's request and ordered the father to be assigned to a group of 17 youths who were put to work.

In the book, Virtzberg tells the story of his life at Auschwitz, where he acted as Mengele's errand boy and personal servant, and by virtue of this "status" was able to save his father three times from selections for the gas chambers.

It also helped him escape the danger of being subjected to brutal medical experiments, although every day he witnessed prisoners being "treated" by Mengele.

"I entered the patients' room and tried to speak with someone who had been operated upon, but in vain," he wrote in his book. "They didn't have the strength to utter a sound. Much later, when they started to recover, I discovered that they all were bandaged on the abdomen and on the penis.

Now it was clear what had occurred: Each had had one or both testicles removed ... I was summoned into the operating room. The last young man was lying on the table with eyes open; the surgery was done on him with local anesthesia. Now I understood what all the screaming was about, and the strange silences that followed: SS sentries surrounded the operating table with their guns pointing at the patient. They appeared to be enjoying a fascinating show. I glanced at Dr. Mengele's face: it was calm, as if he were performing a humanitarian, life-saving operation ..."

Mengele, so the book relates, remained loyal to the intelligent youth and bolstered Beni's standing in the camp. Beni's father was imprisoned in Block 28 and on a number of occasions, the boy was able to get food to him surreptitiously.

He also describes Adolf Eichmann's visit to the camp. (Years later, when Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem, Virtzberg made a special trip whenever he could to observe the proceedings. It was around that time that he also made up his mind to write down his own personal testimony.) The boy somehow managed to survive until late 1944 and to help his father, who kept growing weaker.

In January 1945, at the height of winter, with the Soviet army approaching, the Nazis took the prisoners on a forced "death march." Beni's father was so ill by that point that right at the start of the trek he sat down on the frozen ground. Beni carried his father for as long as he could, until the father's strength gave out completely. A Nazi officer pointed his weapon at him.

"I saw a white flash from his rifle and Father fell down dead, lying in his blood," Virtzberg wrote. "Father, whom I'd managed to save from death three times. His soul hovered above me as I marched on. Sometimes I imagined that my father and mother were walking side by side together with me and holding me up to keep a murderous hand from cutting me down, too."

Shock waves

In November 1945, after a few months in Italy, Virtzberg arrived in Palestine as part of the Youth Aliyah program.

"We came into the Haifa port at seven in the morning," he wrote. "People thronged the piers. Hundreds and thousands of people. Had so many people really gone to the trouble of getting up so early just to see us, the first child survivors of the Nazi inferno? A sea of hands are waving handkerchiefs at us. Is it possible that they are all Jews?"

Thirty-five children with certificates (i.e., immigration permits) from the British arrived on board the Princess Kathleen, including Natan Kleinberger, now a retired judge who was Virtzberg's friend and is another main character in the book. Kleinberger, born in Poland in 1929 and liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp, remembers how when they arrived in Haifa, someone at the port peeled a grapefruit and gave him a slice.

"Beni and I kept in touch for years," he says. "There was no way to know that he was going to kill himself. He was like all the other guys. One thing set him apart though: He hid the fact that he was born in Germany and acted like he was one of us, from Poland. He didn't speak Polish, but he knew Yiddish. In the 1948 war we met often in the course of the battles. We were assigned to guard the pumping stations on the way to Jerusalem, and when my girlfriend was injured in an accident I wanted to visit her but there was no car I could use. Beni went with me on foot all the way there and back; it was a gesture that really impressed me. I was seriously wounded in the war, I lost both hands and an eye, and afterward I studied law and became a district court judge, and we somehow kept in touch through everything. I don't remember him as a depressed person, and his suicide sent shock waves through our group of friends."

Gideon Sapir, who worked in the JNF office in Be'er Sheva, was born in Berlin 84 years ago. Sapir was in charge of planting at the Har Hanegev Field School and proposed that his friend Virtzberg work in research. During the last part of his life, Virtzberg, a bookish autodidact, oversaw the research department of the forestry division in the southern region and introduced new irrigation methods in the Arava. Sapir recalls that Virtzberg became depressed during the Eichmann trial.

"The past weighed on him and he had trouble coming to terms with the fact that he had survived. For some unknown reason, Mengele treated him well, and it's a bit of a riddle. Beni felt guilty and thought that perhaps he somehow could have prevented his father's murder. The day before he killed himself we were supposed to go for an excursion to Masada, the two families, and he said he didn't feel well. He had a big Webley pistol that was our defensive weapon at work, and that's what he used."

Virtzberg met Rachel Issachar (Bashari) in the Palmach when he was serving in the Fifth Battalion, Company Alef. They took part in battles and helped escort convoys to Jerusalem and in the Negev, where four of Virtzberg's comrades were killed. Rachel Bashari, who came with her mother to Palestine in 1930 when she was a baby and was orphaned at age 10, now resides in an assisted living facility. She declined to be interviewed for this article. Her daughter, Dahlia, relates that when Rachel lived with her mother in the Sha'arayim neighborhood of Rehovot, she attended the kindergarten of educator Dr. Maya Rosenberg, which was run like a children's house on a kibbutz. For every 12 children there was someone in charge, and the kids studied and played together all day, and also helped prepare the meals.

"That's where my mother got a good basis in Israeli-ness, which turned her into a sabra."

After their discharge from the army, Beni and Rachel married in Jerusalem in June 1950. A year later, their son Ilan was born. Ilan is now a musical producer, musician and composer, and has written two songs about his father. "My father carried these monsters within him that did him in," he said in an interview a few years ago.

"A child absorbs everything, and this world was conveyed to me, too, though not with the same intensity." Ilan Virtzberg apologized, explaining that it is hard for him to talk about his father. His sister says that he, like their mother, has repressed the painful episode. "The problem isn't so much the agonies as it is the repression," he said in that earlier interview.

"With me, the things are repressed and what I try to do is to bring them to the surface and experience them ... and now that I think about it, these songs are another means to that experience. I think I might be seeking to suffer from it even more, because I feel like I didn't suffer enough when I fled from it." Tormented spirit As Dahlia Virtzberg-Rofe' remembers it, her father was hardly ever at home, but he did return from work every night just in time to read her a bedtime story. He was more of a weekend dad. She says her mother told her that even before their marriage, he endured periods of depression, but not to the point that he couldn't function.

"We always said at home that Ilan was Mommy's boy and I was Daddy's girl. I remember that after the book came out, there was a very brief buzz. We drove to the Sheraton Hotel for an evening of interviews with Shmuel Shai and at the Hilton he was interviewed by Aryeh Avneri. Dad was on cloud nine. He envisioned his book as following in the footsteps of Andre Schwarz-Bart's 'The Last of the Just' (1959), which was the first best-seller in Holocaust literature in France and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt there, and the Jerusalem Prize." And then, in February 1968, he fell into a depression.

"He didn't work and he spent most of the time in bed," says his daughter. "He was treated by a psychiatrist in Be'er Sheva and was put on medication. The morning of that awful day, I wanted to buy ice cream. It was summer vacation and I was afraid to ask him for money because the mood he projected was very intimidating. I mustered my nerve and asked him for 30 agorot. He had a leather, horseshoe-shaped wallet and he opened it with shaking hands and gave me the money. 'Tell me, Dahlia, does my condition bother you and Mommy?' he asked, and he didn't mention Ilan, who was in a band and used to go straight from school to rehearsals. I told him it didn't bother me at all and that he'd have to ask Mommy how she felt."

She remembers having a very oppressive feeling during those months, "like a big boulder crushing a small heart. My mother was very nervous because she was sure he'd be fired and we'd have to go on the dole. She came from a background of poverty. My mother didn't really understand what clinical depression meant. Her husband was lying in bed and didn't feel well and she wanted to solve the problem. Psychiatric hospitalization was perceived as a stigma in a small city where everyone knew each other. That evening, my father's cousin was supposed to come over to talk to my father and try to get him to consent to be hospitalized. My father beat him to it."

After reading Amos Oz's book "A Tale of Love and Darkness," Virtzberg-Rofe' sent Oz a letter which was also published in the collection "Shikum Vehahlama Bivriyut Hanefesh" ("Rehabilitation and Recovery in Mental Health," 2007).

"My father was already terribly ill," she wrote about his final days. "Like a ghost that occasionally ventured out of the bedroom, pale as death, his tormented spirit evaporating from one moment to the next, and already dead in his own eyes."

And then they heard the gunshot.

"We all ran to the kitchen balcony (we lived in a small three-room apartment then). My father was lying on the floor with dead, wide-open eyes. The balcony railing curved over the tiles and my father's head was lying on the curve in the railing as if it were a pillow. A large pistol from the time of the War of Independence was clutched in his hand, and the entire right side of his head was shattered. A widening puddle of blood surrounded his head like a flaming halo and blood was sprayed on the railing, too ... Within seconds, the house was filled with lots of people. Neighbors and more neighbors, then the ambulance crew and policemen. I didn't witness everything that happened after that because pretty early on they put me in my parents' bedroom and shut the door and ordered me not to come out." Breakdown and recovery Dahlia was angry for many years, while her brother, Ilan, immersed himself in music.

"Mother still functioned as a housewife, but most of the time she lay in bed and I took care of her," she says. "We never really processed the tragedy." As she was studying for her matriculation exams, she suffered her first emotional breakdown.

"I disconnected from reality," she says. "I was hospitalized in the youth ward at Abarbanel Mental Health Center for a few months, and the one who saved me was Dr. Alexander Zeidel."

About a year later, she got married, but soon divorced, and at age 21 she suffered another breakdown. Dr. Zeidel saved her life this time, too, she says, by making sure she was admitted to the youth ward rather than the closed ward. For the next 11 years, it was "quiet": She earned a bachelor's degree in literature at Tel Aviv University and worked as linguistic editor for a local Tel Aviv newspaper as well as for Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv and various publishing houses. Among other projects, she edited textbooks and Hanna Segal's book on Melanie Klein.

In 1995, she had a breakdown from which she was able to recover, and in 1998, she was hospitalized once more. "Since then I've been okay," she says. Before the onset of the last crisis, she had begun her romance with Zviel Rofe', an activist for the mentally ill in Israel who was the first to publicly declare that he had suffered from mental illness during his military service.

"Since we've been together, I've been the very symbol of sanity and stability," she says.



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