A survivor remembers: Purim freed us &mdash at least spiritually &mdash from the pit of hell

We all sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day in Death Camp No. 4 of Dachau — the meager bread ration we received. It was my seventh month in a concentration camp.

“Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?” I asked my brothers in suffering, trying to distract them, and myself, from tormented thoughts and painful pangs of hunger.

“How do you know?”

“Who told you?”

“Have you been dreaming?”

“Where did you find a calendar?”

“It’s freezing! Purim can’t be for another month.”

“No, no!” others protested. “Srulik doesn’t make mistakes like that! We know him from before the war and assure you he has a good memory.”

“Crazy Chassidim!” yet others grumbled. “What’s the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Isn’t it always the fast day of Tisha B’Av?”

The debate gathered force among the block’s “mussulmen” — the 80 living skeletons crammed tightly into a half-buried hut, a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall, when we inhabitants of the block, now converted into an infirmary, lay tensely on our “bunks” — wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw — our eyes riveted to the curtain that separated the block elder’s spacious quarters from where we lay.

Suddenly, as if by magic, a silence blanketed the room. The curtain had parted, and the “block elder” stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly 24 hours.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight. Unable to think of anything else but eating, I began to calculate how much time remained until noon, when the “hot soup” — a nondescript, lukewarm liquid in which a piece of potato occasionally floated — would appear.

“Time to daven, Srulik.”

My friend’s voice shook me from my reverie. The pleasant memories vanished and once again I found myself back in the pit of hell.

Half-dazed, I picked myself up and said, “Yes, of course. Let’s wash our hands and daven.”

Then it struck me.

“But it’s Purim today!” I exclaimed. “We have to organize a minyan — maybe we’ll even remember a few verses of Megillahs Esther!”

I suddenly forgot my pain, my suffering, my hunger pangs. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we could fulfill as much as possible of the Jewish obligation handed down from generation to generation.

And then, as if to show that God particularly desires mitzvot Jews perform with true dedication, a small miracle occurred: a copy of the second book of the Bible, with the complete Megillahs Esther appended, was discovered by a member of the camp burial squad.

Our elation was immeasurable! Such a find was awesome! It could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in heaven and the redemption was about to begin. No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing a minyan and reading the Megillah, to the possibility of the Germans or a kapo deciding to drop in on our hut.

“Who will read the Megillah?” someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me, for I had become an adept reader of holy texts over the time I had been locked into the ghetto. Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like the other inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, I found myself sitting on the edge of my piece of wooden plank, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulke, reciting with my remaining strength, “and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

When I read aloud about Haman’s downfall, and that “The Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor,” the spark of hope deep inside every Jew’s heart ignited into a flaming torch.

When I finished, everyone cheered. For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the SS death camp had been forgotten, all the hunger and suffering had receded.

When people’s actions are pleasing to God, their enemies are reconciled to them. Even the block elder, who usually strutted in with an arrogant demeanor and scowling face, allowed a smile to play on his lips as he entered that day, and he handed out the soup without shouting or cursing at anyone.

Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like “Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!”

Instead of dwelling on the past or bemoaning the present, we began to dream about the future, to hope that soon the German demon would inherit his own downfall. And like a river overflowing it banks, the festive atmosphere and the vision of redemption burst out of the broken hearts of the camp inmates, and, one mitzvah leading to another, more acts of spiritual heroism followed. Someone decided to forgo a small piece of yesterday’s bread he had saved, and offered it to his comrade instead. Another person made a gift of a piece of potato.

These precious mishloach manot were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end, as compensation for reading the Megillah.

I thought to myself, “Dear God! Behold your great nation, which in an instant can transform itself from the level of wild animals tearing at one another, to the level of courageous men, faithful Jews …”

With great emotion I turned to all present: “Precious Jews!” I said. “Brothers in suffering! I don’t deserve this honor you have given me. Let us all have but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!”

i.i. cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, lives in Toronto. The above is adapted from his book “Destined to Survive.”