In the grainy black-and-white photo taken by his Red Army liberators, 6-year-old Palo Shelah is almost swallowed up by an adult-sized striped prisoner uniform that falls below his knees. A cap on his head, he’s clustered next to a barbed-wire fence with a group of other children. He has been in Auschwitz-Birkenau for almost three months – one of the few young children found when the Nazis’ most notorious concentration camp was liberated.
It wasn’t a place intended for children to survive, or even be housed briefly; most were murdered upon arrival. But when Shelah arrived with his 11-year-old brother Samuel – they had been separated from their parents months earlier – an order had just gone out to stop the gas chambers. It was either November 2 or November 3, 1944. The gas chambers halted on November 3.
The boys and other prisoners didn’t know it – and the German Nazis who ran the camp were still in denial – but these were Auschwitz’s final weeks. A measure of chaos had descended on the precision of the death and slave-labor machinery, and the two boys were shuttled into a bunk with 15- to 18-year-old boys. There they were expected to sleep, cramped nightly five to a bed in triple bunks on straw mattresses with only lice-infested blankets to cover them.
Most of all, 75 years later, Shelah remembers the stench from the single bucket provided. “It was used all night long and someone usually had diarrhea,” says Shelah, now 81, a retired organizational consultant living on a kibbutz roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Another memory: waking up at 4 A.M. to stand in line for roll call, anywhere from one to five hours in the winter cold. Everyone had to be accounted for, including those who may have died overnight.
“I hadn’t studied even a day at school and I had to remember my inmate number by heart and in German,” Shelah says from the art-filled living room of his home on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. “It was an obsession of theirs,” he says, referring to the Nazis. “They feared that a prisoner would flee and tell others what they had seen.”
Now Shelah is telling the world what he saw in his new Hebrew-language memoir “Beyond the Bridge.” It recounts his survival of the Holocaust and his life before and after. It was published this month by the Moreshet Holocaust research center. The center, also named after Warsaw Ghetto hero Mordechai Anielewicz, is dedicated to the commemoration of Jewish-organized resistance during World War II and the Holocaust.
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The book, written in direct, clear prose, took Shelah five years to research and write. He wrote most of it by hand from his dining room table, his fluffy gray cat Nemesh (Freckle) sitting next to him. His wife Nira sometimes worried that her husband was losing himself in the work.
“Writing put me in another world,” Shelah says. “I was totally absorbed. Nira knew it and sometimes it scared her. She would call out to me, ‘Are you with me?’ Only then would she start telling me something.”
The life before
Shelah was born Pavel Schlesinger in September 1938 in southwestern Slovakia. When the deportations by Nazi Germany and the Slovak puppet government began in 1942, his father paid a smuggler to take him, his wife and two sons across the border to Hungary, where Jews had not yet been rounded up. It was a prescient move. About 80 percent of Slovakia’s 71,000 Jews would be murdered.
A sense of the enormity of the tragedy is brought home in Shelah’s family photos and letters in the book. A letter written by his maternal grandmother the night before she was deported with her daughter Olga says: “I write poorly because my hands are shaking, and Olga is already packing. It’s already 1 A.M. and I can’t think about sleep. This apparently is going to be a bitter night …. Pray for us, because you are everything to me in this world.”
Shelah’s family left just before Yom Kippur, telling neighbors they were going to synagogue in a neighboring town. “For me the time before the war doesn’t exist,” he says, noting that one of his first memories was as a 4-year-old making the journey to Hungary.
“I remember the barking of dogs and that it was very wet,” he says. The plan was to get to Budapest, where an uncle lived, but the smuggler abandoned them at the border, taking the family’s money and belongings. For a time, a mixed Jewish-Christian couple hid them in the Slovak town of Nitra.
So the family went on the move, eventually landing in a town where his father worked in forced labor at a brick factory. One morning in September 1944, when there was word of an imminent roundup, the boys’ mother dressed them in many layers and sent them to meet their father at the factory. She said she would follow them shortly.
To get there the two boys had to cross a bridge over a river. Their father wasn’t at the factory when they arrived and they waited until the evening, but neither parent showed up. The two boys later found out that both their parents, separately, had been arrested crossing the bridge.
“From that point on we were on our own,” Shelah says, raising his hands in the air as he makes a cup of coffee. Behind him sun pours through a kitchen window with a view to lush green outside.
The factory’s manager took pity on the two boys and let them hide in the attic. But after three weeks and increasing concerns for his own safety, he told them they had to leave and asked if they had anywhere to go. Samuel said they had an aunt and uncle in a village that turned out to be 30 kilometers (19 miles) away.
The two boys were told by the factory manager to follow a train track to the village, so for two days they walked that path, moving out of sight when German military transports went by. When they finally reached the doorstep of their aunt and uncle, Shelah’s feet were so blistered he couldn’t walk for three days. They arrived amid another scene of chaos: The aunt and uncle had found a hiding place for themselves and their young daughter and were planning to move there the following day.
Alas, there was no room for the nephews. The next day they were left alone and spent their days roaming the nearby forest, returning at night to sleep in the empty house. One day during their wanderings they were called back to the house by a neighbor who said their uncle was looking for them.
His uncle's choice
When they arrived, they found their uncle under arrest by the Nazis. They had orders to arrest three people at that address; their uncle had said the boys were the missing two. He handed over his nephews in order to keep his wife and daughter safe in hiding.
But Shelah says he bears no ill will toward his uncle, whose name was Sandor Reitman – who ended up dying in a death march.
“It was normal for the time that people were forced to make decisions between terrible, unimaginable options,” Shelah says. “With all the pain involved, I imagine him thinking that surely our parents were no longer alive, so what future lay ahead for us? And it was either ‘we’re caught or they’re caught.’ In the rationale of that period, he made the right choice.”
Shelah writes of being crammed into a cattle car that would take them to Auschwitz: “All I could see were people’s legs.” He also remembers waiting for what seemed like hours on the train once they arrived.
“The rumors were that the camp staff had no instructions on what to do with new prisoners,” Shelah writes. As he found out later, their arrival coincided with that of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who ordered a halt to the murder of the Jews in the gas chambers. At the time, Himmler was negotiating secretly with the Allies, hoping to save himself after the war, says Gideon Greif, a professor of Holocaust studies at Ono Academic College.
Greif is an expert on Auschwitz and the author of the book “We Wept Without Tears,” which came out in Hebrew in 1999 and English in 2005. That work helped inspire the 2005 Hungarian film “Son of Saul,” which tells the story of one of the Sonderkommandos, Jews who in an attempt to save their own lives helped dispose of the bodies of the victims of the gas chambers. Greif says that when Shelah and his brother arrived in the camp’s final months, the situation was “changing from minute to minute,” but most Nazis were still in deep denial, refusing to believe they were losing the war.
That’s why, even though Auschwitz was not meant to accommodate children – Shelah says in the book he was terrified he would fall into the latrines – the Nazis would assign him to a barrack and tattoo his arm with a prisoner number. He was too young to work so he spent his days walking around the section of his camp at neighboring Birkenau.
But his brother was assigned to work with the teenage boys in their bunk sorting through the belongings of Jews who had been murdered. Most of the small number of children at Auschwitz at the time had arrived with their mothers and were housed with them in the women’s section.
Shelah subsisted on one piece of bread a day; he was revolted by the daily allotment of soup. One of the most emotional moments in the book comes when he describes being scooped up by a teenage boy, a former Slovak neighbor who would not survive, and they and Shelahs' brother Samuel rushed to the fence that separated Shelah’s section from the women’s camp.
On the other side was his mother. But, as he writes, “she couldn’t come near us, touch us, talk to us, comfort us … she only saw the two of us for a moment.”
He adds: “Today, as a parent I can’t imagine the storm of emotions that must have raged inside of her. She wouldn’t have known when and if our liberation would come. She could die, we might die. Anything was possible.”
The two boys saw their mother one other time at the fence. This time she managed to throw them 12 sugar cubes that fell into the snow. His brother found them all, so they divided them up and devoured their treasure.
On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. The brothers remained there for their first few weeks of freedom, but now with better food and kind treatment by the Russian soldiers.
The famous photograph of the liberated children at Auschwitz became a source of some contention between the two Shelah brothers. Shelah says his late brother Samuel, known as Shmulik in Israel, was convinced that the boy in the photo was himself, not Palo. Palo Shelah says he preferred not to argue the point with his brother. However, he believes – based on their ages at the time, 6 and 11, and the small size of the child in the image – that he is the child in the picture.
His father had also been in Auschwitz and his mother was later transferred to Bergen-Belsen in northwestern Germany. Both survived after long recuperations, and the family was eventually reunited.
Shelah asked a professor friend, an expert on decision-making, to get back to him after reading the book. The key question was: What are the odds of a family of two parents and two children staying alive at different concentration camps and different places?
Shelah’s father’s entire family was murdered, and on his mother’s side, her sister and her sister’s daughter survived – the ones who remained in hiding and in whose places her two boys were taken to Auschwitz.
After the war the family returned to what was then Czechoslovakia. But in 1948, Shelah’s brother Samuel, then 15, immigrated to Israel with a group of other youths; Shelah, then 10, later followed. Both were settled on different kibbutzim and their parents would follow but lived in Nahariya in the north.
Shelah and his wife have four children and 10 grandchildren. A few years ago their oldest son said that for his 50th birthday he only wanted to visit Europe with Shelah and retrace his steps during the war. Most of the family joined.
On a wall in Shelah’s home hangs a photo of him holding a baby granddaughter who was with the family on the trip. The two are smiling, and Shelah is standing on a stretch of green grass. In the background, beyond a fence, is Auschwitz.
Shelah is aware of the contrasting images in the photo. “Everything depends on the period in time you live through,” he says. “In normal times, nothing like this would have happened.”