From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Twelfth Man

It was Friday evening in May 1945, less than two weeks after the end of World War II. Shabbos (Sabbath) was being celebrated in a small synagogue in the Golders Green section of London. A man stood in the back of the synagogue, a lonely figure, clad in new, ill-fitting clothes. His face was pale, his body emaciated. After the service, the rabbi greeted the stranger, and invited the newcomer home to share Shabbos with the rabbi and his family. At the meal, with the sensitive encouragement of his host, the man began to tell a little about himself.

His name, he said, was Elimelech Kinderlehrer. He was an Orthodox Jew from the Polish town of Sosnoviec. When the Nazis conquered Poland, he and his family members had been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Transferred numerous times from one labor camp to another, he soon lost contact with his family. As far as he knew, his wife and children were dead.

A little more than two weeks before this Shabbos in Golders Green, Elimelech had been among a group of Jews forced to participate in one of the infamous Nazi death marches. His listeners gasped in horror, one question filling every mind: How was it possible that he was here, alive and safe?

The Germans, he continued calmly, battered from the east by the Russian armies and from the west by the Americans and British, realized that the war was going to end soon in a debacle for the Third Reich. The S.S. troops were taking their prisoners from the concentration camps in Poland to slave labor camps in Germany, because they feared the Allies would discover and liberate the captives. The emaciated Jews were marched by the thousands through cities, towns and fields. Those who were not strong enough to maintain the pace were shot. Thousands of Jews were killed this way, only days before the war ended.

Elimelech was among the marchers. At almost fifty years of age, with a history of more than four years in various concentration camps, he was fragile, weak and afflicted with stomach ailments that made it exceptionally difficult for him to keep up. As the walk wore on and his pain became more acute, it was becoming nearly impossible for him to continue.

His particular group was being guarded by eight Nazi soldiers. Desperate, Elimelech pleaded with one of them, “Please let me stay behind and rest for a few minutes. I am in terrible pain.”

“You want to rest?” the Nazi soldier roared. “I will kill you and let you rest forever!”

“Please, no,” Elimelech begged. “Let me stay here two minutes—then I will run and catch up with you.”

For some reason the soldier let him stay behind, but he warned him, “If you don’t catch up with us, I will come back and finish you off.”

Elimelech hobbled off to the side as the rest of his group continued marching. Hundreds of tired, jealous eyes peered at him. He took but a few steps and noticed a little shed just off the road. Hoping to find some respite from the cold and a place to sit, he opened the door and walked in.

There was just enough room in the shed to sit and relax for a minute or two. As soon as Elimelech entered, he heard a dog barking outside. He stood up quietly, made sure the door was closed and peeked out through the little window in the door. Just in front of the shed was a huge German shepherd, exhaling puffs in the cold air, as he barked fiercely at some people passing by.

Making sure the door was closed securely, Elimelech sat down quietly. In a few minutes he heard some Polish peasants approaching. As they came towards the shed, the dog began barking again. The peasants maintained a distance from the dog and continued walking down the road.

A short time later, with the dog still just inches away from him on the other side of the door, two Nazi soldiers came towards the shed. Once again the dog began barking thunderously. The Nazis stepped back, but Elimelech could hear one of them shouting in fury. “Where is that Jew?” the soldier yelled. “I told him to be back in two minutes.”

“I don’t see him,” replied his comrade.

“Maybe he is hiding in that shed,” the first soldier offered.

“Don’t be foolish,” the second said. “There is no way the Jew could have gotten past that dog.”

The first soldier seemed to be convinced. The two soldiers walked away and resumed their vigil on the Jews marching ahead. Elimelech heard them leave and breathed a sigh of relief.

But his relief was short-lived. He had not seen the German shepherd when he walked into the shed and he had no idea where the dog had come from; now he realized he could not possibly walk out for fear that the dog would attack him, or at the least, give away his presence by its barking.

He was so tired that within moments he fell asleep. As he lay slumped over, he dreamt of his father, who said, “Elimelech, do not be afraid. I promise you that either this week or next week you will be sitting at a Shabbos table with wine and challah (bread).”

Exhausted, Elimelech slept for a few hours. When he woke up, the dog and the Nazis were gone. Could he chance walking along the road? Surely, other soldiers would find him. Unsure of what to do, he stayed in the shed. A few minutes later, he saw a small group of prisoners come walking down the road. They did not look Jewish, and they were more robust and alive than the labor camp inmates. One of them noticed Elimelech looking out of the shed and immediately came running over.

“If you are hiding,” the man said with a British accent, “we can save you and you can save us.” He explained that his group of twelve British prisoners of war was being taken to an unknown destination, but that one of their mates had escaped. The German guards would soon count them again, and when they realized that one had run away, they might all lose their lives. The British serviceman assured Elimelech that if he would come along, the British prisoners would give him some of their Army clothes to wear and they would claim he was the twelfth man.

Elimelech thought about it and agreed. He reasoned that among the British group he might receive better food and possibly a chance at survival. He could see that the German soldiers treated the British better than they treated the Jews. The prisoners told him that he would have to act shell-shocked, as if he could not speak; otherwise his Polish accent would give him away and jeopardize all of them.

The twelve “Britishers” began their trek together, and a while later they were ordered to stop and identify themselves. One by one they called out their names: “Gilliam, Reese, Snider, Hodges . . .” and when they came to Elimelech, he just looked straight ahead as the others called out, “He can’t talk. He is shell-shocked.”

The Nazi soldier didn’t seem to care. He just told them to march on. For the next few days, the British soldiers protected Elimelech, their savior. Two days later, the war was over, and they were led to British headquarters and safety. When a British officer found out that his men had taken along this foreigner, he was furious. “He could have been a German spy!” he screamed.

The British prisoners, giddy with freedom and grateful to Elimelech, assured the officer that their “mute” friend could undoubtedly be trusted. For two more days, hundreds of erstwhile British prisoners were interviewed and allowed to return home, while Elimelech was left alone, a man without a destination. Eventually, a British officer asked him where he wished to go, and Elimelech said he wanted to return to Sosnoviec. The officer, out of compassion for Elimelech, discouraged him from going back because of the lack of stability in the area. He assured him that he would be taken to safety in England.

In England, Elimelech was given fresh clothes and asked where he would like to go. Elimelech said he had no relatives in England but would appreciate being taken to an Orthodox Jewish area. The officers made some inquiries and told him that there was a Jewish community in Golders Green. They gave him a ride there and dropped him off on a Friday afternoon. Alone, bewildered and directionless, Elimelech walked a few blocks and then saw the sign for the synagogue. It was the first time in four years he had been in a synagogue.

As he finished his story, he looked around the table at his deeply moved hosts and said, “And here I am at a Shabbos table, with wine and challah, just as my father promised me less than two weeks ago!”

Almighty God, who has made so many miracles, made a miracle for Elimelech as well—from a shed, a dog and eleven British soldiers.

Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn
Condensed from Along the Maggid’s Journey

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