The Less Famous Scholem? Meet Gershom’s Brother, Werner

The renowned Kabbalah scholar's brother chose a very different path, at one point leading the German Communist Party

Gershom Scholem, who was born in Berlin in 1897, had three older brothers. The closest in age, and his closest friend of the three, was Werner, born in 1895.

Gershom Scholem (first from left) with his three brothers, dressed up in “Oriental” garb. According to Scholem’s handwritten description on the back of the photo, it was taken at the wedding of their “Zionist uncle”, Theobald Scholem. From the National Library of Israel archives

Quite a bit has been written about Werner, who eventually became the head of the German Communist Party and was murdered by the Nazis in Buchenwald in 1940. I once heard Prof. Mirjam Zadoff, the author of “Werner Scholem: a German Life”, say that “there was a time when Werner was the famous Scholem”!

In fact there is even a documentary film about him.

Werner Scholem giving a speech at “Anti-War Day” in Potsdam, Germany, 1925. From the private archive of his daughter, Renee Goddard, London

In 1911 or 1912 Werner joined the German Zionist youth movement “Jung Juda”, and convinced his younger brother Gershom (then Gerhardt) to do the same. The brothers’ Zionism was not to the liking of their semi-assimilated book-publisher father Arthur, and from then on the conflicts with the domineering patriarch continued to grow, culminating with the boys’ activism against the First World War.

Through his involvement in Jung Juda, Gershom became a Zionist activist and began his deep involvement in Jewish studies in general, and in Kabbalah in particular. In 1923 he emigrated to Palestine to become the head of the Judaica Department of the Jewish National Library (now the National Library of Israel), then headed by Professor Hugo Bergmann.

Werner’s trajectory was quite different. Within a year of Jung Juda he decided that Zionism was not for him and joined the youth movement of the Social Democrats. From there he moved further and further left politically. In 1917 he married a young working class political activist named Emmy, who was not Jewish, and the couple had two daughters.

The weddings of the Scholem brothers (“Betty’s children”) appearing in the Scholem family Bible. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1924 Werner was elected to the Reichstag as a representative of the Communist Party. There, as well as in the right wing press, he suffered from many base anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually anti-Semitism made its way into the party as well, as Stalin consolidated his leadership over international Communism. Scholem and his (mostly Jewish) comrades were accused of being Trotskyites and “ultra-leftists” and were expelled from the Party.

In the following years, Scholem actually did work with Trotsky, but eventually left politics and became a lawyer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they well remembered the young Jewish former Communist leader and Werner was immediately arrested, and ultimately murdered in 1940.

Emmy and their two daughters managed to escape to England. In 2012 I was privileged to meet the younger daughter, Renee Goddard, while at a conference in London marking thirty years since the passing of Gershom Scholem. During the seven years of Werner’s incarceration, his family made great efforts to have him freed, but to no avail.

In light of Werner’s personal history, I was quite surprised to discover that in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a copy of Prof. Solomon Schechter’s German book on Hasidism, Die Chassidim: Eine Studie Ueber Juedische Mystik (Berlin 1904), with Werner’s signature!

Werner had apparently purchased the book at the famous Berlin Jewish bookstore of Moritz Poppelauer (1824-1888), a well-known antique collector and publisher, who also authored an introduction to the Talmud. The bookshop, which continued to be operated by the family until the Nazis came to power, was not far from the Scholem home and Gershom purchased books there, as well.

When did Werner purchase this small volume on Hasidism? At what stage of his Jewish and/or political development?

Unfortunately, all we know for sure is that by 1923, Gershom already owned the book, as it appears on the inventory he prepared of his library in preparation for his move to the Land of Israel.

But when did Werner gift him the book and why?

Was it early on, in order to bring his younger brother closer to Judaism? Or perhaps at a later stage when Werner became a communist? At that point he may have decided that the volume was no longer meaningful for him, but that for his brother, the young scholar of Jewish mysticism, it would be important. Alas, to this question as well we have no answer.

As with Gershom Scholem, so too with Werner – sometimes the hidden is greater than the revealed. Sadly, today no one remains for us to ask. All that we have is their books, those they wrote or acquired, as a silent testimony to their fascinating lives.

Was One of Catholic Spain’s Prominent Religious Scholars Secretly Jewish?

New research suggests that Alfonso de Zamora may have remained true to his faith

"Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets..." (Source images: The Polyglot Bible, 1514, National Library of Israel & Alfonso de Zamora's translation of Mikhlol, 1527, National Library of France)

For centuries Catholic historians opposed admitting that a prized converso (a Jew who had converted to Christianity) may have actually maintained Jewish identity and practice in secret, regardless of whether he was forcibly dragged to the baptismal font or promised a high post in the Church hierarchy as reward for his heresy.

There were certainly Jews who willingly converted to Christianity, even rabbis such as Solomon HaLevi of Burgos who not only became a respectable Bishop, but an ardent promoter of discriminatory laws against Jews.

Solomon HaLevi of Burgos, later known as Pablo de Santa Maria, converted to Christianity and then persecuted Jews

However, most Jews who remained in Spain, referred to as “Crypto-Jews”, continued to covertly practice their religion in some form and pass it on to their children. Generations later, the descendants of these conversos continued to flee Spain and Portugal to other lands where they sought to live as free Jews.


The Yeshiva-educated refugee Catholic scholar

One of the Spanish “New Christians” most cherished by the Catholic authorities was Alfonso de Zamora (1474–1545/6). A graduate of the famous Campanton Yeshiva in Zamora, he first escaped to Portugal in 1492, but for unknown reasons returned to Spain around 1497 as a converso.

In a few years we find him in Salamanca as a teacher and a scribe until 1512 when he was transferred to the University of Alcala de Henares. His involvement in the editing of the first Polyglot Bible, his books, scribal and teaching positions raised his esteem and importance at the dawn of the Renaissance.

The first page of Alfonso de Zamora’s multilingual dictionary in the Polyglot Bible, 1514. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge

Throughout that almost 40-year period, he was employed by the highest Catholic prelates, the archbishops of Spain, right under the watchful eye of the Inquisition.

Indubitably he was famous.

Top clerics patronized him, hired him to copy Hebrew books, the grammar books of Rabbi David Kimhi (also known as “Radaq”), books about the Bible, including various commentaries, and so on. But as a “blemished” Christian, Alfonso was cheated in court when he tried to claim his rightful wages from the “upstanding” publisher.

Alfonso de Zamora’s signature (bottom right), on a translation of Radaq’s Mikhlol. From the Bibliothèque nationale de France; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

Alfonso could never become head of his department or immune from being summoned to the Inquisition. All he could do was release his fury in innumerable annotations on the margins of his copied books and in his “diary”, preserved at the Leiden University Library.


Textual hints and imagined students

Over the course of fifteen years, at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (now part of the National Library of Israel), I examined about 70 manuscripts written or edited by Alfonso de Zamora.

During these intense years I could not but conclude that the man’s notes, essays, poems, criticisms, bible commentary, historical records, books, and teaching curriculum reflected a tormented, resentful, bitter and penitent Crypto-Jew.

Alfonso de Zamora’s translation of the Book of Isaiah, the manuscript that sparked the author’s decades-long interest in researching the scholar. From the Historical Library of the Marquess of Valdecilla, Madrid, Spain; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

He wrote almost exclusively in Hebrew.

His poems called out for God’s help to heal his emotional and physical pain, to release him from cursed Spain, to punish the greedy and immoral Spanish society from the king to the Church clerics, the businessmen, and the farmers all the way down to the babies.

He attacked the Popes and the judges and mocked King Carlos V and his administration. He supported, at least in words, the revolt of the comuneros against the nobles and the king, and he attacked judges who had converted to Christianity and abused their powers to discriminate against conversos.

In his commentaries, Alfonso emphasized the ethical superiority of the patriarchs, matriarchs, and kings of the Jews over those of the Christians. He insisted that conversos hold on to hope that God redeem them and bring them back to Zion.

Redemption from the “Trouble,” i.e., the Expulsion, would come only when conversos kept God’s Laws – the Torah – as much as they could.

Illustration of an Inquisition proceeding appearing in the book Die Geheimnisse der Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

His advice to the conversos facing the Inquisitors was to stand tall and show knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, for their tormentors were ignorant and inferior. When accused of keeping Jewish customs like avoiding non-kosher foods, he advised to explain them away as stemming from health concerns rather than from religious practices. He encouraged them to continue keeping the Sabbath, to light Sabbath candles, to relinquish debts on the seventh year, and even to keep the counting of the Omer.

Lying to and confusing the Inquisitors was paramount to staying alive.

Alfonso’s Shema was different than the traditional text of this core Jewish prayer. He commanded himself and/or imaginary Jewish students:

“Hear, People of Israel … Know that YHWH who is our God, is YHWH the only One!”


Christian in name

His view of Christianity was clear and unapologetic. He emphatically stated that he did not believe in Christianity nor in the anti-Christ. Christians were those who worshiped mute idols, who would perish before YHWH’s magnificence on the Day of Judgment. Christian dogmas were to kill people. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was flesh-centered, lacking spiritual values. Christians indulged in gluttony; they were fat and boorish; he wished for their dwellings on earth to be destroyed.

At the same time, Alfonso’s public life exemplified pure devotion to his new faith.

Title page of the Polyglot Bible featuring the coat of arms of Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, who funded the project, 1514. From the National Library of Israel collections

He wore a cross and the manuscripts he produced for patrons were adorned with crosses at the top of the pages. One of his major jobs was to find “evidence” within the Hebrew Bible, that portended Jesus’s life and mission, especially in the Books of Isaiah and Daniel. He distorted the texts and took them out of context.

His Christian commentaries and compositions lacked clarity, consistency and logic. Sensing this discrepancy and detachment, he often excused his questionably-founded renderings by describing them as “the spiritual meaning” or as an “alternative.”

Handwritten excerpts from the Book of Daniel appearing in Alfonso de Zamora’s notebook. From the Leiden University Library; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

To survive his complicated life situation, he subconsciously developed a defense mechanism: Even though Alfonso de Zamora lived a respectable and successful life, he lived in a make-believe, dangerously fragile world.

In Hebrew, he wrote:

“It is better [to gain] freedom [through] resistance than [to live in] peaceful slavery.”

For Alfonso, life in Spain was tantamount to slavery and prison.

In another text, he declared, “We shall not tolerate the abominations [perpetrated on] the holy seed. We shall die before that!” He imagined himself taking up arms to fight back. Through personal notes and comments jotted in the margins of his manuscripts, his frustration is palpable, as are his resolve and hopes, despite knowing that they may forever remained unfulfilled.



Alfonso excused his stay in Spain by comparing himself to Joseph and Daniel, who remained in their respective lands in order to benefit the world by teaching the beauty of Jewish wisdom to the Gentile power structure.

He saw himself not only as a good, honest, and a faithful Jew, but as a man of noble ancestry, as he cited B. Kiddushin 71b: שתיקותיה דבבל היינו יחוסא, “When people keep silent in Babylonia it means a high pedigree.” He described this adage as “A parable for the wise.”

Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets which were lodged deep in his heart.

“Blessed is the One who gives strength to the weary and increases the might of the helpless. Blessed is YHWH forever, Amen and Amen!” The closing words of a 1527 Alfonso de Zamora manuscript. From the National Library of France; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Alfonso de Zamora recognized that in spite of his furtive life, he was a sinner. But he honestly believed that God would forgive him, as he turned to the divine attribute of compassion, saying: “Shaddai will forgive all my iniquities.”

With such belief, he could survive to his dying day.


The author has studied Alfonso de Zamora for two decades. Her comprehensive portrayal of Alfonso de Zamora’s evidence as a Crypto-Jew has just been published in Iberia Judaica XII (2021): 15-45. She has also recently published an historical novel based on de Zamora’s writings entitled Dagger in the Heart, which imagines the adventures of his children to leave Spain, the whereabout of his diary, and the murder of Archbishop Cisneros of Spain. Her complete study of Alfonso de Zamora’s writings is forthcoming.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

How the Jews of the Caucasus Used an Epidemic to Trick the Nazis

During the Nazi occupation, Muslims aided efforts to hide the origins of the local Jews, preventing the extinction of a community

German soldiers conquering the Caucasus. Photography: The German Federal Archive

In July of 1942, the German Wehrmacht began occupying territories in the northern Caucasus. Although this occupation lasted only a few months, the Jewish communities of the area were severely impacted. In villages such as Bogdanovka and Menzhinsky, where there were collective kolkhozes of Caucasus Jews (or “Mountain Jews”) and Ashkenazi Jews, large scale massacres were carried out by firing squads.

At first, the Nazis didn’t treat the local Jewish population any differently. They thought that their fate should be similar to that of the European Jews. The term “Mountain Jews”, commonly used by the Russians, disclosed the community’s origins. However, when German forces conquered the city of Nalchik, there were those who tried to challenge the community’s Jewish identity, in a desperate attempt to save it.

At the time, there were thousands of Jews in the city. With heavy bombardment underway, the Nazis ordered the Jews to register with the SS unit that accompanied the German military. The esteemed Efraimov and Shaulov families were the first to be executed. A group of local Jewish leaders, headed by Markel Shaulov, tried to save the community from the threat of annihilation by attempting to convince the Nazis that the Mountain Jews weren’t actually part of the Jewish race. They instead claimed to belong to the Tat people, one of the various ethnic groups living in the Caucasus.

As part of this effort at benevolent deception, the Jewish leaders made use of their excellent relationship with the local Muslim community. The head of the Kabardino-Balkarian National Council appealed to the Nazi command and requested that they treat the Mountain Jews as one of the ethnic communities of the Caucasus.

The German army, which, for political and military reasons, adopted a cautious approach toward the local Muslim population, delayed execution of the order instructing the annihilation of the city’s Jews for a period of two months. During that time, German research institutes, headed by the Reich Genealogical Office, studied the issue. Questions were raised regarding common origins with European Jews, while religious symbols, literature, traditional clothing, customs, and spoken language were also examined. The entire Jewish community tried to cover up any indications of its true identity. Many Jews hid and buried books and sacred objects in the courtyards of their houses.

Rabbi Nachmiel Amirov

During this period, a famous event transpired, which is mentioned in several autobiographical accounts of the period. These accounts concern an attempt to secretly remove Torah scrolls from the local synagogue. A group of men, led by the city’s chief rabbi, Nachmiel Amirov, staged a funeral in order to conceal the Torah scrolls and bury them in the ground, while wrapped in funeral shrouds. The fictitious funeral procession advanced toward a cemetery which was located near German headquarters. In order to keep the Nazi SS officers away, the funeral organizers convinced them that the deaths were the result of a typhoid epidemic, which had indeed become widespread during World War II. These rumors of disease caused the SS soldiers to keep their distance, and the Torah scrolls were successfully buried.

The efforts to delay the resolution of the question of the community’s Jewishness finally saved most of the city’s Jews. It wasn’t long before the German army had to withdraw its forces from the Caucasus, following its defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad. However, during this brief period of occupation, the Nazis were able to loot property, harass Jews, and send many to forced labor.


Leaving Auschwitz Twice

In 1945 he left the infamous camp on a death march; 40 years later he came back - and left - a free man

“I am doing what very few people did. I am walking out alive.” Fred Bachner leaving the crematorium on his 1988 visit to Auschwitz. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

My grandfather and father, Abraham and Fred Bachner, survived Auschwitz, but the exact fate of their beloved wife and mother, Erna Widmann Bachner, has remained a mystery for more than 75 years.

Erna, or “Mutti” as she was known to my father, was transported from Chrzanow to Auschwitz on February 18, 1943, but after that, the only “record” that remained was the word of someone who told my father that he saw Mutti as she was herded to the gas chamber.

Looking and inquiring for decades, my father held out hope that by some miracle his Mutti had not been murdered.

Erna Widmann Bachner. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

In 1981, my parents attended the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. At Yad Vashem, my father put an engraved stone as a marker that Esther Widmann Bachner was one of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Nearly forty years after her murder, this gave my father some closure.

Stone in memory of Esther Bachner, placed by her son at Yad Vashem in 1981. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

In 1988 he wanted to say goodbye to Mutti at the place she was murdered and took my mother and a video camcorder to Auschwitz.  He was always a logical pragmatist and until I listened to his testimonial, I never knew that he had actually long wondered if Mutti had somehow miraculously survived the camp.

Fred and Ruth Bachner at Auschwitz, 1988. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

Although I was always told Mutti was murdered at Auschwitz and saw the memorial plaque in the synagogue we attended, I also always held out hope, wondering if she had survived. Even 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, whenever I read a story of survivors finding one another, I always thought of Mutti and how painful it would have been had she survived yet never been found by her family.

This idea haunted me until I recently read the following two sentences in Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945:

“February 18, 1943:  1,000 Jews are deported from a labor camp in Chrzanow to Auschwitz.  All the deportees are killed in the gas chambers.”

The question whether or not Mutti survived finally seemed to have a concrete answer.



Walking around Auschwitz four decades later, my father pointed out where the orchestra had played, where the selection process had taken place, and where the gas chamber and crematorium were.

Inside the crematorium, my mother – also a Holocaust survivor – can be seen on the video reading a plaque on the wall and getting emotional.

My father, on the other hand, is very matter of fact and businesslike.  As he walks out of the crematorium he says, “I am doing what very few people did.  I am walking out alive.”

As he walks out the main gates, his hands are raised, he is smiling, and he looks victorious.

Fred Bachner walking out of Auschwitz a free man, 1988. From footage of the visit

I can imagine my father saying, “This time I am walking out free.”

My father, who survived Falbruck, Graditz, Annaberg, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Dachau, gave several testimonials and spoke about the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for decades until he passed away in December 2008.

I watched his testimonials about his life before the Holocaust, listening to the grueling details of being forced out of Berlin, his birthplace, and settling in Chrzanow, where he had to work for the Germans. It was from there that the Nazis took him and transported him and his family to the concentration camps.

Over the years I heard his message of strength, perseverance, and love. I long ago embraced them, and they are now part of me.

My father did not talk in terms of dates so I do not know the exact sequence of events and the dates on which he was transported from one camp to another.

Several times he said:

“I lived hour to hour and day to day. I told myself, ‘I made it through this day and now I have to make it through the next day.’”

I imagine it would have been difficult to keep track of time and there was little to differentiate even which month it was.  Surviving was what mattered. The date was insignificant.


More questions than answers

I know my father was taken from Chrzanow to a concentration camp on February 18, 1943, the same day his mother was taken to Auschwitz.

On September 30, 1944 his transport from Annaberg arrived at Auschwitz. In his testimonial, he recalled the infamous death camp as a place:

“Where the ovens were burning 24 hours a day and starvation, beatings, and hard labor were a constant. My Mutti (Mother) was sent here… and I was pretty sure she was murdered in the gas chamber. I knew I was one step closer to death.”

Crematorium furnaces at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945 (State Museum in Auschwitz). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies; available via the NLI Digital Collection

While at Auschwitz, he was selected for forced labor at IG Farben and then worked on the railway.

“Food was scarce and all we had were the clothes on our backs that were wet from the snow and rain so we took the paper from the bags of cement we had to carry and wrapped it around ourselves underneath the clothes. It made walking difficult, but we were happy for the little warmth it gave us.”

Though the Germans are known for their perfect penmanship and meticulous recording keeping, in the case of my father detailed accuracy seemed to take a back seat to the more pressing task of murdering Jews.

Besides the dates detailed above, we only know a few other specific dates from that indescribable two-year period of his life.  He left Auschwitz on January 28, 1945, arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945 and was liberated on May 1, 1945.

Death march

Things changed dramatically in January 1945, as the Russian forces approached.

Russian troops in World War II. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) at the National Library of Israel

Worried about leaving behind any proof of their crimes, the Germans dismantled the gas chambers, burned documents, and removed evidence. Thousands of prisoners – the Nazi criminals’ greatest liability – were evacuated out of Auschwitz in the middle of January. They left not knowing where they were going, with no idea how long and brutal their journeys – which came to be known as “death marches” – would be.

I knew my father was on a death march out of Auschwitz and it seemed that he went directly to Dachau.  I recently listened to a testimonial that I had not heard before. The interviewer asked my father the name of the camp he marched to from Auschwitz.

I now know that my father was sent on a death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen with a group that started out with over 1,000 prisoners according to his estimate.

Wearing only striped pajamas and wooden shoes, holding one loaf of bread, they trudged for 170 km.

Rare photograph of prisoners marching to Dachau, 1945. Courtesy: Maria Seidenberger / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Anyone who was not walking fast enough or fell to the ground was shot in the head by the German soldiers. Frozen corpses with bullets in their heads lined the entire route and were a constant reminder to either keep up or die.

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months that 20th century Europe experienced, with blizzards and temperatures as low as -22° F (-30° C). Snow covered the ground between Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen.

My father remembered the prisoners somehow dragging their skeletal bodies.

“…we walked for days – how many I do not know. The Russians had detected movement and planes were flying all around, dropping flares to see if it was troops moving. The flares lit up the sky like fireworks and fortunately they did not think we were the German army and attack us.  We came to a barn and were permitted to lie down in straw and rest up for a couple of hours. I made a friend and we kept together and promised to help each other as much as we could.”

When it was time to reassemble the next morning, my father’s friend said he could not go on and was going to hide in the straw and stay in the barn. My father tried convincing him to continue.

“When we march away, they’re going to set this on fire.  It will burn with you in there. My friend stayed and there was no doubt in my mind he died. Imagine my surprise when I saw him at the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel in 1981.”

On cold blistery days in New York, I think of my Dad trudging through the snow on a death march.

I am bundled up in a down coat, hat, gloves and boots and cannot fathom how my father, or anyone could have survived days and miles of walking when they were starving, emotionally and physically abused, sick, and frostbitten.  I ask myself how my father, who was 19 years old at the time and had been in concentration camps for almost two years, had that enormous desire to live.

He had defied the odds. He left Auschwitz with thousands of prisoners and was one of only a few hundred who made it to Gross-Rosen.



They finally arrived at Gross-Rosen, which was chaotic, dirty, and so overcrowded there was no room to lie down to sleep. With word that the Russians were approaching, my father knew the Germans would evacuate Gross-Rosen as they had Auschwitz.

“I made it through that horrendous death march when I didn’t know if I was dead or living. I didn’t know if I had it in me to survive another death march and I didn’t want to find out that I didn’t.”

My father saw a large crowd waiting to be transported by train out of Gross-Rosen.

“I did not know where they were going and did not care where they were going. I knew my chances of surviving Gross-Rosen or another death march were slim. I needed to get myself on that transport out and I did. I squeezed myself into the group and onto the transport.”

The transport, an open railroad car with no room to sit down, was headed to Dachau.

It was the middle of the winter and it was snowing.

“There was nothing to eat, and the only way to get water was to tilt your head back, open your mouth and catch whatever amount of rain or snow that you could… The area was being bombed and we felt the earth shaking. Sometimes the train did not move for days. I wondered what is going to happen to us… People all around were dying.  Those who had enough strength to lift the bodies picked them up and tossed them over the top of the car.”

I hear my father say those words and am struck by how nonchalant he is in the testimonial talking about how the dead were handled, especially compared to his 14 year-old self who had felt compelled to find a way to bury the corpses he saw thrown into piles at the Trezbina labor camp, just a few kilometers from the Chrzanow ghetto where he and his parents were living.  He returned to Trezbina with a horse and carriage and brought the deceased to the Jewish cemetery in Chrzanow.

It did not matter that he did not know them, not even their names. He was upholding the Jewish commandment of honoring the dead with a proper burial.

Cremation of corpses on pyres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945 (State Museum in Auschwitz). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies; available via the NLI Digital Collection

Then, just a few years later, after being immersed in a world where starvation, beatings, murders, gassings and cremating human beings was a daily reality, my father, like many others, became desensitized and immune. I suppose if they hadn’t, it would have been even more difficult to survive.

My father recalled it taking around 12 days to arrive at Dachau, but did not know for certain. He was transported  in an open rail car that was standing room only when it left and had plenty of room to sit when it arrived. He weighed 80 pounds and was barely alive.

Fred Bachner’s Dachau arrival document

It seems plausible that he could have arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945, as indicated on the official paperwork. There, likely hoping to be selected for work instead of death, he claimed to be an auto mechanic. He was given two weeks to rest and regain some strength before he was sent to Muhldorf, a sub camp of Dachau to work building a factory.

Liberation for some

My father survived the death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen, and the later transport from Gross-Rosen to Dachau. The dates and places are not of paramount importance. To have survived either of those journeys is amazing.  To have survived both is a miracle.

Fred Bachner at the gates of Dachau, 1988. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

With the allied forces approaching, the Germans began evacuating Dachau in the middle of April and my father was sent on a transport heading towards the Alps, where the prisoners would likely be shot. It was six years since my father had to flee his home in Germany. He had spent the past 27 months in concentration camps.

A firm believer in “taking things into your own hands,” he later recalled, “I made it this far and now was not the time to give up.”

Undoing the wire on one of the small train windows, my father leapt from the train to freedom. He hid in a barn for a few days and came out when he saw white flags.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination and death camps. In a sense, that day marked the beginning of the end of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, for millions of victims, January 27, 1945, was a date completely devoid of meaning. For some, like Mutti, it came far too late.

For countless others, it was just another day. Some, like my father, would not be liberated until weeks or even months later. Many were not even that fortunate; murdered in the waning days of the war, before they could once again know freedom.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.