How My Parents Met in Dachau by Rabbi Yosef Wallis
Rabbi Yosef Wallis is the director of Arachim. He told Project Witness the following story about his father, Judah Wallis, who was born and raised in Pavenitz, Poland. Thanks so much to Rabbi Stephen Baars for sending me this powerful story.
Rabbi Wallis told Project Witness:
While he was in Dachau, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at my father, Judah Wallis.
My father caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he was disturbed to discover a pair of tefillin.
My father was very frightened because he knew that if caught carrying tefillin, he would be put to death instantly. So he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.
In the morning, just before the roll call, while still in his bunkhouse, he put on the tefillin. Unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered my father to remove the tefillin, noted the number on Judah’s arm, and ordered him to go straight to the roll call.
At the roll call, in front of thousands of silent Jews, the officer called out Judah’s number and he had no choice but to step forward. The German officer waved the tefillin in the air and screeched, “Jewish dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these.”
Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was placed around his neck. Before he was hanged, the officer said in a mocking tone, ‘Dog, what is your last wish?’
“To wear my tefillin one last time,” Judah replied.
The officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the tefillin. As Judah put them on, he recited the verse that is said while the tefillin are being wound around the fingers: ‘Ve’eirastich li le’olam, ve’eirastich li b’tzedek uvemishpat, ub’chessed, uv’rachamim, ve’eirastich li b’emunah, v’yodaat es Hashem—I will betroth you to me forever and I will betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice and with kindness and with mercy and I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know Hashem.”
It is hard for us to picture this Jew with a noose around his neck, wearing tefillin on his head and arm — but that was the scene that the entire camp was forced to watch, as they awaited the impending hanging of the Jew who had dared to break the rule against wearing tefillin.
Even women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, forced to watch this horrible sight.
As Judah turned to watch the silent crowd, he saw tears in many people’s eyes. Even at that moment, as he was about to be hanged, he was shocked. Jews were crying! How was it possible that they still had tears left to shed? And for a stranger? Where were those tears coming from?
Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, “Yidden, don’t cry. With tefillin on, I am the victor. Don’t you understand, I am the winner!”
The German officer understood the Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah, “You dog, you think you are the winner? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get a far worse kind of death.”
Judah, my father, was taken from the stool and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and two huge rocks were placed under his arms. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head — the head on which he had dared to position his tefillin.
The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”
Judah’s response was, “No, I won’t give you the pleasure.”
At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses , after which he would have been burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag, so people didn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness fully, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles, and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out again. Two months later he was liberated.
During the hanging and beating episode, a 17-year-old girl had been watching the events from the women’s side of the fence. After liberation, she made her way to the men’s camp and found Judah. She walked over to him and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?”
The rest is history. Rabbi Yosef Wallis’ parents (for this couple became his parents) walked over to the Klausenberger Rebbe and requested that he perform the marriage ceremony. The Klausenberger Rebbe, whose kiddush Hashem is legendary, wrote out a ketubah by hand from memory and married the couple. Rabbi Wallis has that handwritten kesubah in his possession to this day.
Please note: there is no connection between the featured photo and the Wallis family.