8. Josef and Rebecca

8. Josef and Rebecca

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After

Josef and Rebecca

In 1996, I decided to participate in the March of the Living, an international program that brings six thousand Jewish teenagers and a thousand adults from forty-five countries to Poland to retrace the death march from the concentration camp at Auschwitz to nearby Birkenau. The group then tours Poland visiting the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps and other sites of Jewish interest. Finally, we travel to Israel for Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

Three months before the march, we were all given identification cards and told to take good care of them, that they were important and that someday we would do something with them.

I was given a copy of identification card #07175, issued 22 September 1941, by the Nazis, to Josef Bau, a Jew living in Krakow. It said that Bau was born in Krakow on June 18, 1920, exactly one year and five days after my father was born in Brooklyn. Josef went to Hebrew High School, was in the Boy Scouts and worked as a draftsman at the hard labor concentration camp in Plaszow.

I learned that Bau was at Plaszow when he fell in love with Rebecca Tannenbaum, also a prisoner. They met one gray morning when he stood outside, holding up a blueprint frame toward the low autumn cloud. His thin body seemed overburdened by the weight. She asked if she could help him.

“No,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the sunshine.” Then he said, “Why don’t you be my magical sunshine?”

They were eventually separated when the Germans constructed an electrified fence between the men’s and women’s prisons.

Undeterred, Josef found a dead woman’s dress in the clothing warehouse, and after roll call in the men’s lines, he would go to the latrines, put on the long gown and place an Orthodox bonnet on his hair. Then he would come out and join the women’s queues. With thirteen thousand women prisoners, he would pass into the women’s compound and spend the night sitting up in Hut 57 keeping Rebecca company.

Josef married Rebecca on a fiercely cold night in February. As there was no rabbi, Josef’s mother officiated. Their wedding bands were crafted in the prison workshop out of a silver spoon Mrs. Bau had hidden in the rafters.

Ten minutes after the wedding, Josef was discovered missing from his barracks. Unwilling to compromise the women in the barrack, he kissed his wife and ran from the hut.

In the fence between the men’s and women’s camps in Plaszow ran nine electrified strands. In spite of this, Josef launched himself high. He landed on the wires and hung there. He thought the coldness of the metal was the first message of the current. But there was no current. He vaulted into the men’s camp.

As I traveled through Poland, I found it hard to connect with Josef Bau and his young bride, Rebecca. I couldn’t relate to their lives in this horrible place. Instead, all I wondered about was where they had lost their lives, where they had been exterminated. Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka — so many dead, so much unbelievable suffering.

On our first evening in Israel, we were asked to take out our identification cards. We were asked to think about our “Krakow connection” as real people: How old was Josef Bau when the war interrupted his life? What kind of life was he leading at the time? How would it have been similar to my own life? What kind of a life would he have had if he had survived?

Shortly after, we arrived at Atlit, the displaced person camp near Haifa that was run by the British after the war. We were welcomed in a small auditorium and the speaker introduced the guests who had joined us that night. They were the Krakow Jews whose identification cards we had carried all these months.

I stood there in utter disbelief — Josef and his bride Rebecca were standing there, right in front of me. I had not passed them in the ovens of Auschwitz or at the ash heap at Majdanek. Tears rolled down my face.

Slowly, I went over to meet Rebecca and Josef, sitting with their two daughters. Josef had survived Auschwitz and Rebecca had been a “Schindler Jew,” on that fortunate list that spared her life. They reunited and made a life together in Israel.

They couldn’t speak English, and I do not speak Hebrew, but that didn’t matter. For me, nothing needed to be said.


~Mark I. Farber
Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul

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