A survivor once said to me, “How can I tell people my story? I myself can’t believe my experiences!” The tragedy of the Holocaust is one that is impossible to grasp in its full magnitude. The destruction and horror lasted so many years and involved so many countries that its scope is simply beyond our comprehension. Paradoxically, the only way to grasp the larger picture is by seeing the smaller pictures—learning the stories of individuals and communities that offer a glimpse into this dark time in our history. Many survivors committed their experiences to writing, but Reb Simcha Dobner of Boro Park, a survivor from Poland, documented his story in a detailed diary of words and drawings.
Reb Simcha was a 20-year-old bachur when the Nazis invaded his small Polish hometown of Rejowiec. Like so many other Polish Jews, he had heard of Hitler, ym”s, and his threats, but he had no idea of the terror the future would bring. His diary records the shootings, roundups and public humiliation of Jews who watched in pain and shock as their Polish friends and neighbors become thugs. Poles who had received favors from Jews mocked their Jewish neighbors as they looted their homes, ransacked their shuls and directed the Nazis to Jewish hideouts.
Rejowiec was transformed into a ghetto, and Reb Simcha was forced into the ranks of slave laborers who worked ten-hour shifts with little or no food. On Chol Hamoed Pesach 1942, he returned home from his shift to find that almost everyone in his town, including his mother, had been rounded up for deportation. He tried desperately to find her but never saw her again.
Throughout the war, Reb Simcha miraculously escaped the jaws of death again and again. He once contracted typhus and spent two weeks in the ghetto infirmary, delirious with fever. One morning during that period, he awoke with an urge to find food. On shaky legs, he ventured outside in search of something to eat. When he returned a while later, he learned that the SS had burst into the infirmary and shot all the patients. This was just one of the miracles he experienced and transcribed after the war.
In 1944, Reb Simcha was deported to Auschwitz. He became ill and was marked for extermination. However, another prisoner, a glazier from Rejowiec, knew of his artistic talents and recommended him to the block commander as a sign maker for the buildings. His condition improved, and soon his artwork was in demand by all the block commanders.
One day, he was working on signs in a concrete bunker intended to protect the German guards from Allied bombings. Suddenly, the air-raid sirens sounded. Jews were not allowed to seek the protection of the bomb shelters, and a voice over the loudspeaker called out, “Alle Juden heraus—all Jews out!” Reb Simcha ran to his shed just as the bunker was blown apart by Allied bombs.
After the war, Reb Simcha, the lone survivor of his family, was taken to a Swedish hospital, where he spent a while recuperating. He continued to draw, using his talent to record historical images for posterity. There is a 1946 photograph taken in Sweden that shows him sitting at a desk in front of a wall adorned with his watercolors. Next to sketches of murderous Nazi soldiers there are declarations such as Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker and Am Yisrael chai – the Jewish people are eternal.
The Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center is privileged to have Reb Simcha’s work as part of its collection. His story, like those of so many others, is filled with sadness and loss. Ultimately, however, he clung to Hashem and was zocheh to rebuild.
When pictures tell a story, they are indeed worth a thousand words. But when they have the power to convey the nitzchiyus of klal Yisrael, they are priceless.