A Holocaust survivor once told me, “Every Jew who survived the Holocaust survived by a miracle.” Alexander Ungar survived by four miracles.
Alexander was born to an affluent, religious Jewish family in the village of Hidosholos in southwestern Hungary in 1906. He was married with three children by 1940, when he was drafted into the Hungarian army.
His father-in-law, fearing for his safety, insisted on taking Alexander to the Simonyi Rav, a rabbi known for the efficacy of his blessings. The Rabbi blessed Alexander and told him that whenever his life was in danger he should recite a certain Biblical verse and add the words, “with the intention of the Maharal of Prague.”
Alexander protested. The 16th-century Maharal of Prague had been a great scholar and Kabbalist. According to legend, he had made the Golem, who had saved the Jews of Prague from a blood libel. How could Alexander presume to say anything with the lofty intention of the Maharal?
The Rabbi acknowledged that of course he could not duplicate the mystical intention of the Maharal, but nevertheless he must recite the words in Yiddish, “with the intention of the Maharal of Prague” at the end of the Biblical verse whenever his life was in danger.
Alexander’s first assignment in the army was at the Hungarian Secret Police Station. He considered it a plum assignment because his aunt lived across the street from the station, and at lunch hour he could go and eat kosher food at her house. She gave him kosher sandwiches to supply him till the next day. Throughout the war, Alexander was able to keep kosher until he was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
In March, 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary. In April, Alexander was sent to a labor camp in Komaron. One day, on the seventh day of Passover, Alexander was ordered to join a group of 50 workers at the railroad station. The Nazis ordered them to load bales of hay and straw onto railroad cars to be shipped to the Russian front. The Hungarian authorities had always given ten-minute breaks every hour for the workers to smoke or use the toilet. The Germans, however, gave no breaks. After a while, the chain smokers started to smoke while loading the hay. Alexander warned them that the hay was highly flammable, but they ignored him.
The German guards accused the Jewish workers of sabotage.
Suddenly the hay burst into flame and started a huge conflagration. Fortunately, there was a fire hydrant nearby. The workers passed buckets hand to hand, and managed to extinguish the blaze.
on their honeymoon
The German guards were irate. They accused the Hungarian Jewish workers of sabotage. They ordered the men to line up in ten rows of five and shouted that they would all be executed. The guards lifted their guns and aimed them at the hapless Jews. Alexander, in the last row, kept repeating the verse that the Simonyi Rav had instructed him.
The minutes dragged on, but the guards did not fire. Suddenly Alexander felt someone behind him strike him on the right shoulder. He turned around and saw the Captain of the Hungarian Secret Police, for whom he had worked earlier during the war. The Captain, who had liked Alexander because he was an intelligent and diligent worker, asked him what had happened. He explained that it was not sabotage; otherwise they would not have worked so hard to put out the fire. Rather, smokers could not keep from smoking, and a burning cigarette stub had accidentally ignited the straw. Alexander succeeded in convincing the Captain.
The execution was cancelled, and the men went back to work. “This was my first experience with that prayer,” Alexander recounted a half-century later.
Soon after, the American Air Force was heavily bombing that part of Hungary. Alexander’s work brigade was ordered to clear away the rubble after each air attack. Whenever the air raid siren sounded, the Hungarian officers allowed the Jewish slave laborers to run out of the camp and seek shelter. When the Germans took over, however, they forbid the Jews from fleeing the bombardments. The camp was next to a munitions factory, and 2,000 workers were killed during one bombing attack.
As Alexander later related:
When the Germans prohibited us from fleeing the bombs, I used what few resources I had to dig a little ditch. Whenever they sounded the siren, I took my tefillin and Book of Psalms that I had with me, and went into this little ditch. Of course, it didn’t protect me very much. If I was in the ditch and the explosion wasn’t too close, then I wasn’t harmed. But, since this kind of bomb made a tremendously large hole, like a funnel, if it hit anywhere near my ditch, there was no way to survive.The bomb dropped right on the other side of the road, and killed both the German guard and seven of my friends.
One day the siren went off and the airplanes flew overhead. I ran into the ditch, and started saying the verse. The bomb dropped right on the other side of the road, and killed both the German guard and seven of my friends.
Everyone in my labor brigade marveled at how I was not hurt. It was clearly a miracle. Soon after, another attack began. Everyone came running to me and jumped into the ditch with me. Even the dog ran to me for protection! It was unbelievable the way the dog behaved, as if he saw something. Maybe the dog saw the angel who was protecting me. Otherwise, why should the dog run to me in the ditch?
Potatoes for Passover
Afterwards, Alexander was deported to the infamous concentration camp of Buchenwald. He realized that his life depended on getting out of there by any means, so when the Germans started to assemble a transport of skilled workers, including auto mechanics, Alexander volunteered. The transport was sent to Tauchau, about seven kilometers from Leipzig, Germany. The factory in Tauchau manufactured the panzer faust, a hand grenade capable of blowing up a tank.
The director of the labor camp announced that he needed someone to take care of the boiler, a highly technical job. This huge boiler had several tall chimneys and provided all the steam for the factory’s operation. Alexander stepped forward and declared that he was qualified to take care of the boiler. As proof, he claimed that he had received a diploma in engineering from Germany, and he cited the date and place where he had passed his exam. The director immediately went to the telephone and called the institute. He verified that Alexander was telling the truth and was certified to handle the boiler.
Part of Alexander’s job was to check the chimney pipes so that the soot that collected in the S-curves of the pipes would not block the flow of the smoke. One day when he was checking the pipes, he noticed a square crack on the wall of the room. It turned out to be a large cement block. He determined to check why this block was different than the others. With great exertion, he managed to remove the block. He saw that it opened to an adjoining room that was being used to store potatoes.
Alexander had smuggled a Jewish calendar into the camp, so he knew that the holiday of Passover was just a week away. He thrilled with excitement to realize that he didn’t have to stay alive by eating bread on Passover. Here was an unlimited supply of potatoes!
But how would he get the potatoes out without being caught? Alexander devised a plan, but he needed help, so he asked another Hungarian Jewish inmate named Klein to assist him. He explained his plan to Klein, who eagerly agreed, because, like all the other inmates, he lived on starvation rations and was always hungry.
Because there was no fire in the boiler on Sundays, the following Sunday Alexander sent a note to the camp director saying that he wanted to go into the factory to do some maintenance work. The director authorized him to go into the factory, but he sent an SS guard to keep an eye on him.
As Alexander later told the story:
The SS guard came and escorted us into the factory. Klein said to me, “How can we accomplish what we want? The SS is right here! He’s watching our every move!”
I said to him, “I have a special prayer that I say in times of danger. And if we have in our minds that on Pesach we will try not to eat chametz, because we will be able to live on the potatoes, then we will succeed.”
“But what will we do about the SS guard?” Klein protested.
I answered that we will say my special prayer, and take the risk, and God will help us to succeed.” So we said the prayer, and went with the SS guard to the factory.
When we arrived at the factory, I said to the SS guard, “You know our job is to remove the black soot from certain areas of the boiler. You are dressed in a nice clean uniform. You better get out of here, otherwise you are going to be so covered with soot that you will look like a chimney sweeper.” The guard was very pleased that I was so concerned about his appearance. When he left the room, we went to the room with the loose block and we removed the block. Klein climbed in through the opening and went down to the potato storage and started shoveling out potatoes.
Suddenly the SS guard returned and asked, “Where is the other fellow?”
I said, “Can’t you hear him shoveling the soot? Don’t come in here because in a moment I am going to open the bottom of this pipe and you’re going to be as black as a chimneysweeper. I’ve warned you.” At once, the SS guard ran away.
We immediately took a wheelbarrow that we usually used to remove trash, and placed it under the funnel, and opened up the bottom of an underground pipe that we had discovered, and the potatoes tumbled into the wheelbarrow. From there we took the wheelbarrow to another underground pipe and hid them there. We made two trips with the wheelbarrow, which was quite a lot of potatoes. We returned to the camp without the SS guard suspecting anything. On Pesach, we ate our potatoes.
Bright as Daylight
When the American army approached the area of the factory, the Nazis ordered the inmates to evacuate. They delivered a speech in which they said that this would not be a Death March. They assured the inmates that they had done an excellent job in the factory and would receive special treatment. “Of course,” Alexander later remarked, “we never believed a word the SS said.”
When it was time to evacuate, the Germans lined up the prisoners in rows of five across, in order to easily notice escapees. Accompanying every fifth row was an SS guard with an automatic rifle. The Commander announced that if anyone tried to escape, they would find him and kill him on the spot.
Alexander and his friend Klein started walking. Klein asked him, “How will we escape this one?”
Alexander replied, “We will say the special prayer with real feeling, and God will help us.”
The march was accompanied by a wagon that carried some food and blankets. Fifteen prisoners — three rows of five — were needed to push this wagon. Every hour the shift of those pushing the wagon changed. Alexander noticed that while the guards were careful to count the prisoners in every marching row, they didn’t count the prisoners who pushed the wagon. And whenever they stopped to change the prisoners pushing the wagon, they allowed everyone to rest for ten minutes.
Although they were starved and exhausted, to their own amazement they ran with vigor.
Around midnight on that dark, moonless night, it was Alexander’s and Klein’s turn to start pushing the wagon. They were resting in a ditch they had found. Alexander told Klein that they should lie down in the ditch and pretend to sleep. When the call came to start moving, they should remain in the ditch. If the Germans noticed that two men were missing and found them in the ditch, they could say they had fallen asleep. But Alexander assumed that the Germans would not notice so soon, and this would be their chance to escape.
They stayed in the ditch and kept reciting, over and over again, the special prayer. When they could no longer hear the sound of the men walking in the distance, they jumped up and started to run in the opposite direction. They took off their concentration camp uniforms, leaving on only their shirts, and ran. Although they were starved and exhausted, to their own amazement they ran with vigor.
Whenever they heard a vehicle approaching, they jumped off the highway and hid on the side of the road. After a while a car approached with such weak headlights that they barely had time to jump off the road into the embankment. The car stopped directly above them. Afraid that the occupants of the car had seen them and that they were about to be killed, Alexander fervently recited his special verse.
An SS captain and sergeant got out of the car. The sergeant said to the captain, “It’s impossible for the prisoners to have come this far, because they were tired and they would have had to run fast to cover this much distance. We must have passed them. They must be behind us somewhere.”
The captain replied, “Anyway, it’s so dark we can’t see a thing. We have some flares. Let’s shoot up some flares and make sure that as long as we’ve stopped here, that they’re not here.”
It was as bright as daylight. The SS men looked straight at us and said, “It looks like they’re not here.”
The sergeant took the flares out of the car and shot them off right above the two escapees. As Alexander related:
It was as bright as daylight. I was saying the verse with all my might. The SS men looked straight at us and said, “It looks like they’re not here.” We had become invisible to them! The captain said, “All right, let’s go back to the car. Probably we passed them.”
Alexander Ungar survived the war. His wife and three children perished. He immigrated to the United States in May, 1947, settling in Queens, New York. There he married and had two daughters and three grandchildren. He lived to the age of 91.
Judaism is not Harry Potter, and the verse was not a magical incantation. I do not presume to understand how the blessing of a holy person, carried on the recitation of certain words, could save a life. Nor do I understand why Alexander Ungar was saved while millions of others were not. But one thing is clear: Despite having lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust, Alexander Ungar remained a devout, believing Jew.
He concluded his unpublished memoirs with these words:
When my daughter Oriana asks me how I can believe in God after the Holocaust, I answer, “How can I NOT believe in God after all the miracles I experienced?”