Y israel Leib was four years old when the winds of war blew over Europe.

Though he was only a small boy, he remembers well the faces of the townspeople as they crowded around a newsstand anxiously reading the headlines. Some of them would simply glance at the words and walk away in disgust. Others would carefully read each line, trying to discern some hidden message in the text.

Many in the small town were shocked when Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland, while others had been stocking up on food items for months, readying for the long war. Here and there, families tried to emigrate to Palestine, America, Britain — or anywhere that would take them.

But for little Yisrael Leib, life carried on. His toys and games were far more interesting than the long faces of the adults who surrounded him. And anyway, why were they so worried?

His peace was soon shattered when the Germans conquered all of Czechoslovakia. A short three years later, Yisrael Leib and his family were standing in line at the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, waiting for their turn to face the Nazis’ minister of death, Josef Mengele.

Yisrael Leib watched what was happening intently. On a little podium sat an evil-looking man, Mengele, who directed people either to the left or right. Yisrael Leib noticed that the healthy fathers, mothers, and young men were directed to the right, while the older people, the sick, and the young children were directed to the left. It didn’t take long for Yisrael Leib to figure out what was happening: Those directed to the right would live. Those directed to the left would die.

This evil man does not like children, Yisrael Leib thought. He is probably going to send me to the left, unless I look older.

So Yisrael Leib straightened up his back, pinched his cheeks so they took on a red glow, and set his face in a serious visage to make himself look older.

But when he reached Mengele, the evil monster took one look at him and pointed left — death. The little boy, shocked to the core, put his head down and started walking toward his death. But then something stirred inside him. He rose his head and suddenly walked back to the monster.

“Why? Why do you want me to die? I am just a child and I want to live,” Yisrael Leib said. The Nazi soldiers surrounding the evil doctor could not believe their eyes. How dare this impudent Jewish boy challenge the authority of the Nazi officer.

Mengele took one looked at him and screamed, “To the left!” pointing in the direction of the condemned. Yisrael Leib, his end sealed, slowly started walking back to the line of martyrs. But then, as if in a dream, he heard the murderer’s voice again. “To the right!

No one could understand what was happening. But Yisrael Leib quickly obeyed, running to the other line. For the next three years, the little boy worked like a slave, eating potato peels and something they called “soup” to stay alive. Though he was grateful to be among the living, he knew that his end could come at any moment. All around him Jewish inmates were dying of starvation or sickness — or at the whim of a sadistic Nazi soldier.

Yet Yisrael Leib survived. After the war he found himself alone, his entire family gone. He was placed in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where he slowly started to come back to life. He enrolled in school and eventually left the camp and settled in a German town. Being a bright and gifted boy, he made great strides in his studies and was accepted to the chemistry department of a prestigious university.

All alone in the world, Yisrael Leib was eager to cast off his Jewish identity. “If that’s the fate of Jews,” he would say to himself, trying to soothe his pangs of guilty conscience, “to always be despised and persecuted, their lives hanging on a thin thread, I’d rather live as a German.”

Twenty years passed and Yisrael Leib, who now called himself Otto Fort, quickly advanced in his profession and became a top chemist. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 670)