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Jewish Religion and Zionist Activity in the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp

 a  “I was lucky enough—if I may be forgiven that expression—to have a former rosh yeshiva (director of a rabbinical academy) of Galician origin as a teammate. I can see us now, carrying bags of cement or large stones, pushing wheelbarrows filled with sand or mud, all the while studying a Law of the Mishna or a page of the Talmud. My teammate knew it all by heart, and thanks to him, we were able to escape. We went to Rabbi Hanina ben Dossa and begged him to pray for us. We accosted Resh Lakish. Would he use his herculean strength to free us? We wandered the alleys of Pumbedita and the hills of Galilee. I listened to sages debating whether the Shma Israel should be recited Standing up or lying down.

In the morning my father and I would rise before the general wake-up call and go to a nearby block where someone had traded a dozen rations of bread for a pair of phylacteries (tefillin). We would strap them onto our left arm and forehead, quickly recite the ritual blessings, then pass them on to the next person. A few dozen prisoners thereby sacrificed their sleep, and sometimes their rations of bread or coffee, to perform the mitzvah, the commandment to wear the tefillin. Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp. I said my prayers every day. On Saturday I hummed Shabbat songs at work, in part, no doubt, to please my father, to show him I was determined to remain a Jew even in the accursed kingdom. My doubts and my revolt gripped me only later.

Why so much later? My comrade and future friend Primo Levi asked me that question. How did I surmount these doubts and this revolt? He refused to understand how I, his former companion of | Auschwitz III, could still call himself a believer, for he, Primo, was not and didn’t want to be. He had seen too much suffering not to rebel against any religion that sought to impose a meaning upon it. I understood him, and asked him to understand me, for I had seen too much suffering to break with the past and reject the heritage of those who had suffered. We spent many hours arguing, with little result. We were equally unwavering, for we came from different milieus, and even in Auschwitz led different lives. He was a chemist; I was nothing at all. The system needed him, but not me. He had influential friends to help and protect him; I had only my father. I needed God, Primo did not.”

(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 82–83.)

For Jewish prisoners in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, who came from various religious currents of Judaism, it was mostly impossible to continue following the precepts of their religion. “I wasn’t able to study there, or keep the commandments, or pray. Anybody who knew prayers by memory, prayed. Great. What I could pray, I prayed.”[1] Some survivors report that in several blocks, on the High Holidays—Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur—a minyan was formed, in order to pray as required by tradition, while someone kept a lookout outside, in case the SS came. Anyone who came from a traditional religious background could try to keep himself going by continuing to pass on religious learning.  a 


Those who had lived as observant Jews before their deportation were in most cases accustomed to a strictly kosher diet. That was impossible in the camp, of course. Some tried to solve this problem by trading the non-kosher soup for bread. It is also said that eminent Hasidic rabbis, admorim (אדמו''רים), preferred to fast rather than eat the camp food, which was treyf, and thus they died of starvation in a very short time. In general, however, this acceptance of martyrdom as a Kiddush Hashem (קידוש השם) played no part among the religious Jews in the camp. And others again, who had been religiously observant before their imprisonment, doubted the existence of God when faced with Auschwitz, and lost their Jewish faith.


For non-religious Jews who were affiliated with Jewish political groups, it was easier to maintain a link with their origin by uniting in such ways, and create a supportive community with common interests. Also present in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp were Zionists, who held illegal meetings in the blocks to conduct Zionist training and helped one another.

(MN; transl. KL)


Albert Kimmelstiel, oral history interview [Eng.], June 25, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Gerhard Maschkowski, oral history interview [Ger.], June 29, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Ya’acov Silberstein, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 29–30, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.



Frankenthal, Hans: The Unwelcome One: Returning Home from Auschwitz. In collaboration with Andreas Plake, Babette Quinkert, and Florian Schmaltz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2002.

Wagner, Bernd C.: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945. Munich: Saur, 2000.

Wiesel, Elie: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969. London: HarperCollins, 1996.

[1] Ya’acov Silberstein, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 29–30, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.