My dear father!
This morning I received the most beautiful gift of my life. It was a Red Cross telegram that you are alive. Never in my life and never in the future will I ever be as happy. I just sent you a telegram. When did you return to Czechoslovakia?Where have you been? Are you healthy? Oh, Father …
I am writing you, my dear father, from my new position here … I have twenty-nine nice children, mostly from Poland, ages eight to eighteen years. In the morning I am busy cleaning up, in the afternoon I teach again, Hebrew, Jewish history, and Swedish, the little I know, which is minimal.
Dina Kraus wrote this letter to her father from the sanitarium in Sweden where she was recovering, only four months after her own liberation, near death, from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in northern Germany. It expresses not only a delirious joy in finding a parent alive after the nightmare of the Holocaust, but also the pleasure and pride of returning to her profession as a teacher. The dedication to Jewish learning and practice, and the desire to share and transmit it even under the brutal conditions that prevailed during the Holocaust, may well have been what helped Dina Kraus–and many other religious Jews–remain alive through their ordeal.
Born in 1920 in Ungvar, a city in the Carpathian Mountains in what was then Czechoslovakia, Dina grew up in a strictly Orthodox family, excelled in her Jewish studies, and graduated from the Beth Jacob Hebrew Seminary, where she trained to be a teacher. She taught at Jewish schools, tutored privately, and then, as restrictions on Jewish activity increased, she returned home from Budapest to be with her family.
Following the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944, all the Jews of Ungvar were ordered in April to leave their homes. They were forced into a brick factory, used by the Nazis as a ghetto area. From here, when the deportations began, Kraus’s family was broken up, and she was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May. After several weeks, miraculously, she was able to discover and even communicate with her younger brother, Jidu, who had survived in the children’s block in Camp D of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Of this moment, she wrote:
Facing us came a group of small children carrying bricks. Among them was also my little brother in striped camp uniform …. We could see each other daily, throw letters to each other, and console and give hope to each other. He was so serious, sometimes I could not believe that he was my younger brother, who not long ago was the little, immature Jidu.
In September 1944, with the Germans relying more than ever on slave labor provided by the camp inmates, Dina Kraus was sent to a labor camp, Unterluss, near Hannover, in northern Germany.
Because of her fluency in German, she was assigned to be the clerk in the barrack and the distributor of the daily ration of soup. One day, as Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, approached, a group of girls in the barrack asked her if she would conduct a secret seder.
A seder, the central observance of Passover, features the recitation of the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, told in Hebrew texts along with commentaries and songs. Dina Kraus set about organizing the telling of the Passover story in the barrack. Like any good teacher, she prepared. She drew on her memories of all the seders she had attended and taught about, and she summoned up the texts and the liturgy from her memory.
Then, with a pencil, she wrote down extensive sections of the Haggadah of Passover: Hashatah avdei, l’shanah habah benai chorin – “This year we are slaves, but next year we will be free.”
It is hard to imagine the spiritual impact such words celebrating the promise of Jewish freedom had on the girls and young women in Dina Kraus’s barrack. Urgently hushed, hummed, and whispered under the noses of the camp guards, who would have punished them severely for this infraction, these words were likely also being uttered in similar secret seders throughout the camp network of the Nazi forced labor and killing centers in occupied Europe.
Kraus survived and was liberated by British troops at Bergen-Belsen, where she had been transferred after Unterluss. After liberation, she thought again and often about Jewish learning. For it now began to re-center her life:
In Bergen-Belsen I was deadly sick with typhus …. Only when the British left did I really know that I am alone …. Yet I was in a hospital in Malmoe Sweden] for three weeks, it was in a school. … Slowly I found in myself a wish to return to real life, and when I heard that they were looking for a teacher for the refugee children coming to Sweden, I signed up …. I am writing you now, dear father, from my new position.
Dina Kraus’s brother, Jidu, and her mother both were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She and her father immigrated to the United States in 1946. Her handwritten Haggadah is witness to the power of spiritual resistance in the shadow of death.