With the permission of the author, we print some excerpts from a chapter of Zev Kedem’s book with the working title of Love in The Holocaust. The story of his survival as a child in the Holocaust is grippingly informative. Well under the age allowed by the Nazis, and through six death camps (one twice), Zev’s survival  can be described as “miraculous.” One purpose is for our knowledge and enlightenment today. Besides this book, Zev is avidly writing on subjects of human behavior and the Bible.

 

The Gambit

© This work is copyrighted and can be reproduced only by the consent of the author.

 

Instead of remaining safely under the hospital bed, I spent nights playing with my Prince under the barracks floor.  On hearing me approach the whelp got excited and licked my face as I slid under the building.  As Prince grew, so did danger to our rare friendship.  Regretfully, I realized that the lively young Prince could no longer remain under the building.  To remain alive, I must give up my best friend.  If discovered under the clinic, the fast growing pup would be the death of my mother and Dr. Gross. 

At the factory work bench my productivity suffered.  I wanted to keep the dog yet worried lest my Prince make a noise and was discovered in my absence. The worries were like the tyranny of the camouflage gang.   Lev urged me to be rid of the dog and I dreamed of a dark cave, to hide with my friend until war’s end.

The dark cave reminded me of the good times when I escaped the Ghetto and walked the streets of Krakow in search of food. I was young and still knew little fear of Nazis.

Chris Josephson (left - an "Ephraimite") and Zev Kedem (right - From Judah)

A friendly man invited me into his home outside the Ghetto. A hint of chocolate was enough for me to follow him without much concern. At the entrance to the building, the man looked carefully around; when satisfied no one was about, we entered the building and crept up stone stairs. Seeing no one in the stairwell, the man unlocked several locks in a reinforced metal door and led me past heavy curtains into a room to become swallowed by complete darkness. Strangely I was not afraid of the dark. Was this the safe dim cave I had dreamed about, to hide until the end of the war?

The blinds were drawn and heavy curtains prevented the least chink of light penetrating the darkness. Ponderously the man bolted the door, then fumbled around until a match illuminated the room. He lit a candle and invited me to sit in a large leather armchair.

When the strange gentleman disappeared into the kitchen I looked around the spacious apartment. After the crowded austerity of our Ghetto abode, his room felt like a vast museum. The walls were covered with beautiful paintings; the largest one dramatically covered the entire wall. In the corners stood sculptures and impressive busts on pedestals. The bookshelves were laden with gold embossed tomes and the sideboard with crystal bowls, vases and family photographs. The elegant carved black-wood paneled furniture reminded me of my grandfather’s once gracious home. Leather couches and armchairs stood at the edges of an elaborately designed Persian carpet. In the center stood a low Mahogany coffee table with a chessboard and large beautifully carved ivory figures ready to do battle.

The man reappeared holding a delicate porcelain dish decorated with a golden dragon. It was full of assorted, beautifully wrapped chocolates.  As he made his offering he bent over and whispered in my ear.

“Unfortunately we must remain very quiet. Do you play chess?” 

I knew the basic moves of the game but had no idea of strategy or how to win.

“At your age I was considered a master – but don’t worry we will have a fine game.”

Though very curious as to the identity of the kind man, and why he lived in eerie darkness, I understood the need for silence and asked no questions. With the tempting chocolates near, I was ready to play chess until the very last bonbon had been demolished.

At the beginning of the second game the master seemed to intentionally forfeit a pawn. Puzzled, I pointed out the mistake but he smiled, leaning forward, he whispered.

“Don’t worry. I want to teach you the Ruiz-Lopez gambit. By forfeiting the pawn early in the game I strengthen my strategic position and all being well, improve my chance of winning the game.”

It did not take long for the master to prove his point. On winning he offered another delicious chocolate to keep his young protégé content.

This odd game and its lesson remained with me during tedious hours at work, when the mind wanders and hands, with little conscious direction, produced piles of brushes for the German war effort.

After months in camp, a child is accustomed to the likelihood of dying while the mind returns to search for new ways to improve the quality of life and survival, seeking opportunities to get food, save energy, how to edge-out competition for a less exhausting work and ultimately, how to survive Nazi parasitization.

At work, imagination made hours fly, wove bits of information and experiences together until they crossed paths. One such flight of fantasy was that Prince and I escaped to hide in a dark, elegant cave where my chess-playing host awaited us with a selection of delicious chocolates. In the fantasy Prince using the Ruiz-Lopez gambit, vanquishes the dogged opposition to defeat the best German guard dogs.

Suddenly, imagination and the Ruiz-Lopez gambit offered a new winning strategy. To sacrifice a pawn early in the game seemed dangerous and against odds, but sometimes the strategy won the game. If the gambit offered a little more freedom and to rid me of the camouflage gang, then any risk to win the game was worthwhile.

Painting by Ava Hegedish, who in 1939 watched ships reach Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and anchor in the middle of the river when the passengers were not allowed to disembark because they were Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They were being sent down the Danube to perish in the Black Sea. Painting while in hiding, Ava intentionally bathed her “ghost ship” in sunlight to create a contrast with the dark reality of what she had seen.

Long before the Ghetto residents reached Plaszow concentration camp the Nazis confiscated all their worldly possessions, homes, clothes valuables, their paintings and jewelry. They were systematically parasitized only because they were defenseless and born as Jews. New camp arrivals were stripped naked for delousing and were searched for smuggled diamonds hidden in their body cavities. If parasitized prisoners were lucky, they received in the showers ice-cold water, not the lethal Cyclone B gas. The Nazis Holocaust culture left nothing to the prisoner, not family, children, freedom, not even his name. The captive was only allowed to speak to a German when specifically ordered to do so. If inadvertently the captive dared to use his name that announced his Jewish origins instead of the dehumanizing camp number, if he was lucky, he was beaten within an inch of his life.

The captives worked in stone quarries, road construction, building and diverse war production under brutal German whips. At work, prisoners knew that the starvation rations would not keep them alive for more than two months. The camps were cut off from information of the outside world.  There was not place to escape. The German armies controlled Poland and the surrounding countries. If a prisoner was given shelter or was helped, anywhere in Europe, the rare gesture endangered the host’s family.

I noticed that for weeks the same Germans were on duty at the camp.  They had a fixed routine that reduced danger of my capture.

Lord Goeth encouraged his Nazi officers to apply ruthless discipline. The young SS-Untersturmfuhrer roamed the camp bristling in uniformed authority. Being young he was a loose canon capable of random cruelty and killing. Yet to me, from behind the hospital shutters, he appeared as a pimply youth far from home and mother, though still capable of official murder. Most important, he kept to a strict routine each morning.

If only this young Nazi, like the German truck driver from Katowitz, would turn a blind eye to the existence of a nine-year-old on his way to work, I might be rid of the obnoxious camouflage gang. But to turn a blind eye, he must first see me, and with his SS training he was more likely to first shoot and perhaps ask questions later – unless....

I wove reality and fantasy together, adjusted different scenarios until a crazy idea materialized: how to be rid of my nasty protectors, save my Prince from electrocution and protect my mother and Dr. Gross by using the Ruiz-Lopez gambit strategy. It was not clear whether Prince, or I, were to be the sacrificed pawn.

Only once had I met face to face with an SS-man at the brush factory during the first year in the camp. It still seemed extraordinary to be alive.  Encouraged by the first success and youthful zeal, I decided to try again. This time, to a confrontation at my own initiative, despite the Untersturmfuhrer standing orders to kill young children in the camp.

Next morning, outside the clinic, as usual I waited for the camouflage gang to appear. The SS-man approached on his usual inspection route.  From the distance he seemed in a relatively relaxed mood. The impudence of the gambit obscured my usual fears. Years of training by the  Holocaust culture made me indifferent to danger and the risk of my own choosing was scary but also exciting.

As the German bore-down, the camouflage gang appeared and nervously wanted to depart for work. Instead of camouflage, I stepped out of their circle and headed for the approaching German, enjoying their consternation and my audacity.

The road emptied of prisoners when the SS-man stalked. As the showdown neared, trusting in chutzpah, competent spoken German and the Ruiz-Lopez gambit, I did not hide. The gang moved off to work expecting to hear shots fired.

Presenting my friendliest smile I approached the SS officer and ignored orders forbidding prisoners to speak first to a German. 

“Isn’t it a pleasant morning, Her Obersturmfuhrer? I have found an injured puppy. He must be saved from getting electrocuted again. Will you take him back?”

“We have been looking for him.”

“He is safe. I will bring him to you.”

The SS-man took my Prince with a rope tied around his neck. Then remembering his duty:

“Do you work in camp?

“In the brush factory. I make more brushes than any one in the workshop. I am the best brush maker in camp and being small, eat very little.  Now I must run before I get into trouble at work”.

I sprinted off without looking back. Expecting to feel a bullet between my shoulder blades. Still alive, I jumped for joy as I scampered to work. At the same time I was sad to give up my Prince as the gambit. The consolation was that Prince would get better food than we, the camp inmates.

This was my second encounter with the SS since my arrival in the camp more than a year earlier. I was still alive. My survival chances had improved considerably. Should this SS-man see me again as a small but productive worker, likely he would not shoot. I had no intention of mentioning the incident to my mother.

The Ruiz-Lopez strategy proved itself. I was free to cross the camp alone, free of the gang of tormentors.

The gambit made me think about the secretive chess teacher. Was he still among the hiding Jews in Krakow? or had he been massacred with the many others on the sacrificial mound?

Months later, on the wintry death-march from Auschwitz, I was to meet the fully-grown Prince again, my old friend with the white star on his forehead. -