Yosef Shapira, Who Survived the Holocaust Selling Cigarettes to Nazis, Dies at Age 85

The story of Shapira, who died last week, is one of the survival of a Jewish boy in wartime Warsaw and was the subject of the book 'The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square.'

Yosef Shapira, right, with a fellow cigarette seller.
Shapira family

Yosef Shapira one of the Jewish cigarette vendor boys of wartime Warsaw, whose exploits were the subject of a book published in Hebrew by Yad Vashem and later in English as “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square,” has died at age 85.

In the middle of World War II, which broke out when he was nine, Shapira joined a group of Jewish children who sold cigarettes to German soldiers in Three Crosses Square in the Polish capital.

Shapira took advantage of his non-Jewish appearance and hoped that his very fair coloring would protect him from the German roundups of Jews that were being carried out everywhere. His cigarette “business” was conducted in a purely German part of the square, he recounted years later. There was a soldier’s club there along with a movie theater that showed German films, and off the square there was a street with a German restaurant and a boulevard leading to the Gestapo headquarters.

Holocaust survivor Yosef Shapira, Lublin, Poland, 1945.
The Shapira Family

“The choice of the square was a good one from the standpoint of our personal safety, because it wouldn’t occur to anyone that Jewish children would dare engage in the cigarette trade there with German soldiers,” Shapira wrote in his Hebrew-language memoirs. “Me’ever hahomot,” (“Beyond the walls”). His cigarette businesses not only provided him with an income, but also gave him an effective cover for his Jewish identity. “When you’re selling cigarettes, you’re no longer wandering the streets. Even when a policeman stops you, at worst, he’ll take the cigarettes from you,” Shapira recalled in a 2005 interview with Haaretz.

Shapira was born in 1930, one of six children, to an ultra-Orthodox family. In 1940, when the Warsaw Ghetto was established, he and a sister would leave the ghetto and smuggle in bread for their hungry family. Later on, his parents, a sister and a brother would die of typhus and starvation. Another sister was sent to Treblinka. Shapira himself survived the roundups and the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a street child, moving from one hiding place to another, sleeping in parks in summer and stairwells in winter, always in danger of being picked up and at the mercy of others.

In the fall of 1943, Joseph Ziemian, one of the leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, the Jewish underground that had operated in the Warsaw Ghetto, spotted Shapira and his friends at work. Ziemian was surprised to find Jewish children living in a German area at a time when Warsaw was designated as Judenrein, “free of Jews.” He adopted Shapira and his friends, got them false papers and helped them find a place to hide. As a result, they survived the Holocaust.

“There were a lot of children like me who fled the roundups,” he told Haaretz, “but most of them didn’t survive. Why? Because it was enough for one Pole in the area who was anti-Semitic to alert the police and that was it,” he said. “We were saved because we understood that we couldn’t stand out and couldn’t wander around.”

Yosef Shapira
The Shapira family

Three of the other cigarette-vendor Jewish children were caught by the Nazis near the end of the war and killed. The others survived and most, including Shapira, immigrated to Israel. Their story was recounted by Ziemian in his book in Hebrew published by Yad Vashem in 1962, which was an immediate success and later published in English as “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square.” The book exposed a large number of Israelis to the story of Shapira, who was dubbed “the rhinoceros” in the book.

After the war, he made his way to pre-state Israel. On his first attempt into the country, at a time when the British who administered Palestine had curbed Jewish immigration, Shapira was caught and sent to a detention camp in Cyprus, but in December 1947, after the United Nations voted for the establishment of a Jewish state, he made it into the country, where he was reunited with two sisters who also survived the Holocaust. He married his wife, Esther, who was also a Holocaust survivor, served as a mechanic in the Israel Navy and later worked for El Al Israel Airlines.

Shapira died on April 25. He is survived by his wife, three daughters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.