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I Swallowed Nails To Stay Jewish

Aharon Granevich-Granot

After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia after World War II, Alexander Feuerstein — Shulem Alter ben Aryeh Chaim, — knew that he would have to make a drastic move if he wanted to help save the vestiges of Judaism the new Soviet leadership was bent on destroying. He paid with his health and with every shattered bone in his body. But years later, alone in a senior citizens’ home with nothing but his tefillin, his Chumash, siddur, and Tehillim, he finally reaped the rewards of his bravery and sacrifice.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The smoke had already settled over Eastern Europe, and Shulem Feuerstein, who had survived slave labor camps in Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, returned to his home village of Koromla near Sobrance, Slovakia. He soon realized that he was the only survivor of an extended Orthodox family from eastern Slovakia and southeastern Galicia. One brother was shot in front of him when they were in a labor camp together; another brother was buried in a mass grave that he and his group were forced to dig before they were shot; his mother and sisters were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

There was no one left. Not an uncle, not a cousin. Shulem knew that only by remaining faithful to his Creator could he maintain the connection with his beloved, slaughtered family. Without that, death might as well overtake him, too. But the Communists had taken over Czechoslovakia, and were on the warpath to destroy any vestige of religion. He had survived the horrors of war. Would he be able to maintain his standards of devotion under the Communist regime?

Meanwhile, Shulem had set himself up as a supplier of goods between Slovakia and Prague. One night, as he was sleeping in the woods near Bratislava, close to the Austrian border, his siddur and tefillin at his side, he woke up to a painful kick in his side. He opened his eyes and everything went black. There, towering over him, stood a border guard smiling wickedly. “We’ve got you!”

“In that moment,” said Shulem Feuerstein, “I knew my life was teetering in G-d’s hands.”

Feuerstein passed away last week at the age of ninety-three, just weeks after Mishpacha spoke to him in the Jewish community center in Prague. His sparse funeral was arranged by Rabbi Menachem Kalcheim, Prague’s assistant chief rabbi and the person who discovered this hidden tzaddik seven years ago, quietly reciting Tehillim in the corner of his room in an old-age home.

Reb Shulem said he could still feel the officer’s jackboots in his ribs, even though over sixty years had passed. He quietly related his story, the understated story of an unsung hero, who anonymously dedicated his life to preserving Yiddishkeit in Czechoslovakia during those four dark decades under Communist rule.

He was caught by the border guards and arrested by the police. He had survived years of slave labor, seen his family go up in smoke. He had no one left in the world. And now, the last vestiges of his Jewish expression — his tefillin and siddur, which he had guarded so carefully — were confiscated. That was just the beginning.

“What do you have here?” the guard asked, grabbing the tefillin. “Apparently, you have gold inside these boxes. You’re smuggling gold.”

And he tried to pry them open.

“I couldn’t bear the desecration,” Reb Shulem said. “To see this non-Jew ripping apart the tefillin like that. I couldn’t restrain myself. I fell on him in a rage and knocked him down into a nearby reservoir. To this day, I don’t know how I did that.”

The police were enraged. They seized the miserable prisoner, beat him until he lost consciousness, and took him to Bratislava.

“When I came to, I felt as if my whole body was about to burst from pain. There were blows all over my body. They’d shown no mercy at all. I found myself in a very small, narrow cell, lying on the floor. It took me a few minutes to understand exactly where I was or how I got there. But soon enough I understood my dire situation.”

The StB (Czechoslovakian secret police) soon noticed that their prisoner was awake, and they whisked him away for interrogation. In front of his eyes, they broke open the tefillin, but this time he was handcuffed and couldn’t do anything.

“They started accusing me of spying for the enemy. They said it was not for nothing that they’d caught me near the border, and that I’d been planning to transmit information to the enemy.”

Shulem admitted to nothing and asked for his tefillin and siddur. But they continued accusing him.

“They told me that the siddur was actually a book of codes for espionage, and demanded that I reveal what the codes were. Of course I denied it, and told them that it was a religious book, the Jewish prayer book. But they pretended not to be convinced and kept tormenting me so that I’d reveal the spy codes written in the book. I had no chance at all of getting my things back.”

It was two years and a harsh prison term later when his siddur was returned, in shreds.

“I was wounded in every part of my body. I asked to see a doctor, but they laughed at me. In the end someone came dressed in a white suit. They told me that he was a doctor and took me to his ‘clinic.’

The clinic was a room full of hoses that sprayed him with icy water and then boiling water. The showers didn’t let up, and all the while his interrogators demanded of him, “Confess that you’re a spy and we’ll leave you alone.”

Reb Shulem quickly realized that he hadn’t been taken to a clinic but to an StB torture chamber. He understood that at the trial that yet awaited him, every confession for something he hadn’t done would only be held against him. He preferred to suffer and say nothing.

But his captors weren’t satisfied.

“They decided to force-feed me nonkosher food. I absolutely refused to eat. One day, some big burly fellows entered my cell and gave me the food. Of course, I didn’t touch it. I was weak, after several days of not eating. I was very hungry. But I had starved before in the camps, and I knew that the feeling of a gnawing stomach would soon pass. The strongmen informed me that this time, if I didn’t eat, they were going to feed me by force. ‘Try,’ I told them. So they tried.

“I mustered the last of my strength. I told myself, ‘They’re not going to force a Jew to eat nonkosher food.’ From the strength of my resistance, my lip was torn open”—here Reb Shulem interrupted his story to show me his torn lip—“see? I still have a scar from that fight.”

The situation was desperate. Reb Shulem was starving to death, wounded in every part of his body, and he had no wife, and no family who even knew he was missing. He could have disappeared off the face of the earth and no one would have even known. He repeatedly asked to see a doctor, but his interrogators ignored him. They continued with their fight to get him to eat their food. Reb Shulem had to do something drastic to change the situation; he was on the brink of death.

“Then I saw that in my cell there were a number of nails. I don’t know how it was that they hadn’t noticed them and hadn’t taken them away. I decided to swallow the nails, just to get them to stop trying to force me to eat.”

In critical condition, the prisoner was brought to a hospital for urgent medical treatment. His life was saved, but the torture didn’t stop.


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