Shmuel Stern looked out from one of the prisoner kitchens at Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He had volunteered to work here in the hope of finding an extra potato peel to eat. What now drew him outside was an unaccustomed smell and sight—a plume of black smoke rising. This was unusual. For Buchenwald was not an extermination camp designed to gas and burn people, but rather a concentration camp, where one was weakened by work in the quarries or in the armaments factories in Buchenwald’s 130 satellite camps and extension units.
Stern was naturally curious about the smoke. He went out the door, into the frigid winter air. What he saw filled him with great emotion: a large burning pile of Hebrew prayer books, prayer shawls, and black felt bags to carry religious articles. There were also scores of tefillin, sets of two small leather boxes containing within them tiny parchment scrolls on which were written selected texts from the Bible. When prisoners arrived at Buchenwald, one of the first acts of dehumanization inflicted on them was the order to turn over all personal possessions, including, of course, religious articles. On his arrival, Stern also had to relinquish his tefillin, which were now burning, he assumed, somewhere deep in the smoky fire.
Stern stepped back and noticed how the tangles of long leather straps that stretched out from the tefillin burned brightly. Religious Jews at morning prayers use the straps to bind the tefillin, one around the arm near the heart, the other around the forehead.
At the edge of the fire he now noticed one tefillin box, a half of a set of tefillin, that had not yet been consumed. He looked around to be certain that kapos, the prisoner trusties who enforced camp rules, were not nearby. Then he approached the fire’s edge, bent down, rescued the tefillin, and hid it.
That night, he concealed it under his mattress, and he determined to put on the tefillin to pray in the morning. And yet, there was a serious problem, which now arose: How could he put on just one tefillin? Would it be permitted? The biblical commandment, from which the practice derived, stated clearly: “Bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” In Buchenwald Concentration Camp, at the end of December 1944, how could he, prisoner number 27613, scrounging, like all the others, for food to stay alive, how could he find the second tefillin?
Wearing tefillin, as well as all other aspects of Jewish religious observance, had been intensely important to Shmuel Stern as a boy and young man growing up with four sisters and three brothers in the small town of Nelipeno, in what was then Czechoslovakia. He had gone to heder, Jewish religious school, every morning from six to eight before he went to public school. After regular school concluded, he returned to heder to pray the evening service and to study there from six to seven at night. Stern had also gone on to study at the Hebrew Gymnasium, in Munkacs, where even the general subjects were taught in Hebrew in order to prepare students for aliyah, immigration to Palestine. He couldn’t decide if aliyah was for him. So many of the town’s young people had already gone off in far different
directions—to Russia to escape the encroaching Germans or to America, where some had found brides and bridegrooms. However, Shmuel Stern’s difficult decision was rendered moot when the war came to Nelipeno.
As he lay on his thin mattress that night in Buchenwald, Stern could remember the sights and smells of his religious home life and his town: the challah, the braided egg-bread that his mother prepared every Sabbath; the cholent, the traditional bean-and-potato Sabbath food she always prepared and kept warm in the stove in their small grocery store. He also remembered his hometown synagogue on Yorn Kippur, filled with fervent confessions and prayers, and the building’s aisles lined with memorial candles, each standing tall inside a pumpkin half-filled with sand so it would not tip over.
Stern was eighteen years old, and the notice drafting him into a Hungarian forced labor unit came on the last day of Passover, 1943. He managed to convince the Hungarian authorities that he was a professional electrician, and he worked as such in several factories outside of Budapest until October 1944. The Germans began to apply increasing pressure to implement the “final solution” to Hungarian Jews, including those, like Shmuel Stern, in the forced labor units.
Stern escaped with a friend and made his way to Budapest. They had heard that Raoul Wallenberg and other diplomats of neutral countries were distributing documents there that might protect them from arrest and deportation.
Although Stern did not secure protective papers, he did locate a safe house operated by Swedish officials—nominally neutral territory—and remained there for two precious months of refuge. Then, Hungarian Fascists, working on behalf of the Nazis and using the ruse that they were recruiting volunteers for work, broke in and arrested the refugees. Stern was packed, along with 94 others, into a locked railroad car. Eighteen excruciating days later, he arrived at Buchenwald.
Now, the day after he had found the single tefillin, Shmuel Stern had little or no expectation of finding a second tefillin box. He was marched to the munitions factory in nearby Magdeburg, one of the subcamps of Buchenwald, where he worked at electrical tasks in the making of ammunition. If he and the other workers could get away with sabotaging some of the military products, they would do so.
At the end of the shift, when they were marched back to camp, Stern saw a second remarkable sight: another prisoner holding in his hand an object that looked curiously like a tefillin piece. The additional miracle was that it did not duplicate what he had, but would now make a complete set-one box for the heart and now one for the head. Since the prisoner was not Jewish, Stern was able to trade a sweater for the second tefillin box.
The next morning, and each morning thereafter, first Stern and then the other Jewish prisoners who chose to borrow them, put on the tefillin and said their morning prayers, joyfully fulfilling, for the first time in months, these important
Stern kept the tefillin always with him when he was transferred to a factory in Polta, another satellite of Buchenwald. In the waning days of the war, Stern and his friends escaped from the factory and hid in a cellar for seven days. They emerged in April 1945 as the liberating American armies approached.
From Belgium, where his health was restored, to Brooklyn, where he arrived in 1946 to meet the only members of his family to survive (a brother and a sister who had emigrated in the 1930s), and through the years of marriage and raising a family in New York, the tefillin stayed with him. He deliberately allowed them to remain scuffed and refrained from repairing the tefillin, to preserve them exactly as he had found them at Buchenwald. Shmuel, now Stanley, Stern used them for many years as the centerpiece of a presentation he made to schoolchildren in the New York City area.