THE HOLY MAN OF AUSCHWITZ
Dr. Nicolai Sebastian and I met when I was brought to his miniature operatory (originally a broom storage area at the end of our barrack) where a slotted bench served as an operating table. The reason for our meeting was my messed up knee, peeled to the bone, and possibly a broken knee cap – the direct result of a work accident caused by an activated whip in the hands of an SS guard. Dr. Nicolai tended to my knee as if I was his only paying patient. He bandaged that knee every few days with pieces of linen torn from dead prisoners’ shirts.
The environment of the German, uncivilized culture of Auschwitz did not allow cripples (like me) or sick people to participate in that chosen civilization. I was certain that eventually I will be sent back, dead or alive, to the crematorium. The length of my life depended only on the frequency of Dr. Mengele’s (the angel of death’s) coming to inquire about our health.
Meanwhile I made myself useful in Dr. Nicolai’s “clinic”. I helped with the care of patients. After work hours I helped by holding down people on the bench when Dr. Nicolai operated on or amputated frozen and infected toes without numbing medications. I also sharpened the handles of broken soup spoons to be used as surgical instruments. One day Dr. Nicolai was notified that Mengele was present in our camp and that he would soon come to visit and inspect our clinic. Dr. Nicolai dropped everything he was doing, lifted me up on his arms and deposited me in a neighboring barrack (called Block) where the Block Leader was his friend. After Mengele left, Dr. Nicolai brought me back to the clinic. His face was swollen and marks of the impact of Mengele’s hand were visible. When I asked him, “What can I do for you?”, his answer was short and crisp: “Just pass it on.”
When Mengele came a second time for the selection of sick and weak prisoners, the “Schreiber”, the camp clerk was to write down the selected prisoners numbers. My number, B-6816, was among the ones designated for the crematorium. Dr. Nicolai and the camp “Schreiber” risked not only their positions and camp privileges, but they also risked their own lives when they conspired to save mine. The “Schreiber” had exchanged my prisoner number on that list with the number of another prisoner who had died that day.
Dr. Nicolai Sebastian died from a Nazi bullet a single day before liberation after a long death march.
Who was my “Holy Man”? Our ages did not match enough to be friends that conversed a lot. He was in his 30s, a medical doctor from Hungary. I was then 14 and a half, a raw kid, a confused prisoner of Auschwitz from a Polish-Jewish-Orthodox home. In early 1944, Dr. Nicolai was a medical doctor in the Hungarian Air Force. One day the Gestapo arrested him and he ended up in Auschwitz because one of his grandparents was Jewish. To me he lived as a Jew in his heart and in his soul and in his deeds. He died as a Jew in the forests of Salesia together with 8,000 Jews, my fellow camp inmates who were executed when the Germans retreated. He is one of the 6 million Jewish martyrs — one of my brothers.
The “Holy Man” is you and me and every other person who remembers his or her obligations to society. All that “My Holy Man” asked of us is: Just pass it on.