Shabsi & His Holy Tefillin of Buchenwald

The Holy Tefillin of Buchenwald. (courtesy)
The Holy Tefillin of Buchenwald. (courtesy)

We all have stories – every one of us, especially those who survived the Holocaust. Sitting in Mrs Esther Barber’s home on a Monday afternoon, it is school holidays after all, eating corn thins with cheese and vegemite, I am transported to a time before my time, a life that I feel so vividly connected to as if I was born in the wrong century. Hearing Mrs Barber, who is such a charismatic, put-together, vivacious lady, share with me stories of her parents, how they ended up in Australia, life in Carlton, Bnei Akiva… every story is a tale within itself, a story worth writing, worth recording, worth reading, and most importantly worth remembering. However, now I will only share one story – an unbelievable one that I was sure had been written up but hasn’t been. A story of tremendous Bitachon (trust), commitment and dedication to G-d, a story that shows that no matter the pain, hardship, sorrow, suffering and hell that one can experience, the Pintele Yid (essence of a Jew), can never ever be extinguished, and that the connection between a Jew and Hashem is eternal. This is the story of the Tefillin from Buchenwald.

Before I begin this story, I need to preface that there are some cracks in the story. Unfortunately, the Tzadik of our story, Mr Shabsi Yosef (Yossel as he was formerly known) Kornwasser a”h, is no longer here to answer the questions and iron out the meticulous details. Yet, it isn’t the details of this story that make it special; it is the deep meaning and purpose behind it.

Shabsi was born in the Polish town of Sosnowitz (Sosnowiec) [1] to a Chassidic family, part of the Radomsker dynasty. The Radomsker Rebbe himself, Rabbi Shlomo Chanoch Hakohen Rabinowicz (1882-1942) was not only a charismatic leader for thousands, with Radomsk being the third largest Chassidus in Poland, after Ger and Alexander, but was also a successful businessman and millionaire. [2] With Shabsi’s father being a staunch Chassid and living relatively close to Radomsk, one can assume that Shabsi met the Rebbe. Living in a Jewish community of approximately 28,000 Jews, Shabsi was evidently surrounded by a rich and holy heritage that he held close to his heart. Yet everything swiftly changed; on Monday, the 4th of September 1939, the Nazis (Yemach Shemam – may their names be erased) entered Sosnowitz and immediately began a period of terror characterised by sporadic shootings, kidnappings, abuse, looting and destruction of Jewish property. From October 1940, the Jews from Sosnowitz were being transported to various labour camps; during this period, Shabsi, with two of his brothers, were sent to Buchenwald.

Shabsi, at this time, was a teenager ‘living’ in Buchenwald. Although there were no gas chambers, hundreds perished each month from disease, malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings, and executions. The bulk of the prisoners were starved and worked to the point of death. Operating under strict discipline from 1939 to 1945, Ilse Koch —infamously known as the “Witch of Buchenwald” and spouse of SS commandant Karl Otto Koch—exhibited extreme sadism. Prisoners were randomly sentenced to death, with Koch purportedly displaying a gruesome fascination with the flayed skin of her victims, crafting household items such as book covers and lampshades from this macabre material. [3] Being under such a constant watch, it was impossible to do anything other than what the Nazis wanted; if you disobeyed in whatever way, you were shot on the spot. Yet, despite being in such harsh conditions (to say the least), Shabsi managed to be the custodian and guardian angel of a teeny tiny pair of Tefillin. We are not sure how these Tefillin were smuggled into the camp, nor if it always belonged to Shabsi, but what we do know is that these Tefillin became synonymous with Shabsi (Yossel) Kornwasser. It is known that the head of the Bundist group, the secular Jewish socialist and workers union movement started in 1897, was in Buchenwald. He came to Shabsi and said, “Yossele, I see the determination and a light in the eyes of those who put Tefillin on; it gives them Emunah and belief, and I need that to survive; please let me put the Tefillin on.” Thus, these Tefillin became the Tefillin that ironically saved peoples’ lives. “You see,” said Mrs Barber to me, “Do you know what it meant even to have the Tefillin, let alone put them on? If the Nazis had found the Tefillin, they would’ve shot every boy until one of them would’ve said who it belonged to; that’s just how it was.” Nevertheless, the holy Tzadikim of Buchenwald risked their lives daily to put the Tefillin on. They didn’t even ‘put them’ on correctly; they maybe got 30 seconds with the precious holy Tefillin, and then it was swiftly passed on to the next Tzadik.

In 1945, when the Allied forces were approaching, scared that the inmates of these camps would be liberated and would speak about the atrocities that ensued, the SS initiated the infamous “death marches”. Occurring in harsh winter conditions, these marches were brutal; those collapsing or lagging behind were simply shot. Shabsi, together with his brothers, were in no state to start such an ordeal; exhausted and starved, he told his brothers, ‘If you think you are going on this death march, I myself will kill you’ Shabsi had a premonition that they would not survive it. Thank G-d his brothers Meilich and Simcha listened to Shabsi, and they decided to ‘play dead’ and hide under the bodies of those who perished. Finally, after what probably felt like an eternity and perhaps was (we are not sure), the Americans came and liberated Buchenwald on the 11th of April 1945. An American Chaplin and Rabbi, Herschel Schacter, was there when the camp was liberated. Amongst the survivors of Buchenwald was young Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau who later went on to become Chief Rabbi of Israel. When asked by Schacter how old he was, Lau responded, ‘I am older than you; I don’t cry anymore.’ Another survivor, Shabsi’s close friend, Nosson Werdiger, was, as Mrs Barber recalls from Shabsi, ‘skin and bones, and more dead than alive,’ Werdiger had no strength left. Determined to ensure Nosson remained alive, Shabsi and his brothers forced and held their friend up as they left the camp.

By the grace of G-d, Shabsi and his two brothers who were with him in Buchenwald all survived. They then went to seek refuge in Switzerland. However, they were having a difficult time getting in. The Kornwasser boys, all smart and witty, responded to the Swiss government, ‘Imagine if we go to the newspapers and tell them that Switzerland is turning back refuge boys from the camps and not allowing them in…’ Quickly, they received their permits and arrived in Switzerland. The brothers, who had gone through hell on earth, still believed in G-d strong like never before. They held Minyanim, kept Shabbas and Kosher. One Shabbas morning, Shabsi was looking for a tenth person for the Minyan; he then saw a Jewish friend whom he knew from the camps. By this time, he had completely disregarded religion and was smoking a cigarette, ‘Eh, you don’t need me,’ his friend responded, ‘of course, we do,’ answered Shabsi, ‘we need a tenth person to say Kaddish!’ After hearing this, how could his friend refuse. He ‘joined’ in their Minyan, still smoking his cigarette. ‘Okay,’ said Shabsi, ‘Now we need someone to Lein. Come on; you can do that. It is your specialty.’ Indeed, Shabsi’s friend had a beautiful voice. Begrudgingly, he put down his cigarette, Leined, and from that moment on, he never broke Shabbas again.

“Shabsi was an extremely charismatic, outgoing, friendly and kind person; no one could say no to him,” his nephew Yitzchak Barber told me. Barber was once at the Lubavitcher Rebbes (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)) Ohel (gravesite), when Rabbi Lau, child survivor of Buchenwald, was there. Barber said to Lau, “Warm regards from my uncle in Australia,” Lau immediately responded, “This must be from Yossele Kornwasser,” Lau instinctively knew.

When in Switzerland, Shabsi went to a Sofer to get the Tefillin checked. However, when the Sofer opened the Tefillin, there was barely anything inside; the letters were all cracked and faded, the Tefillin clearly had gone through trauma. ‘More than that’, the Sofer explained, ‘the words of these Tefillin were eaten by body lice…’ One can only begin to imagine what stories these Tefillin would tell us if they could speak. The sacrifice that these holy Jews went through in hiding, protecting and using these Tefillin. The countless dirty bodies that hid and were willing to risk their lives just to cling to this physical, tangible representation of their faith despite the hell on earth they were experiencing. These Tefillin are one of the holiest pairs of Tefillin around. I am sure every Jewish male who risked their life for this holy pair of Tefillin entered the most highest and sacred place in the world to come, with all the Tzadikkim, including Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabeinu.

Understanding the mutual relationship between the Jewish Tzadikim of Buchenwald and the teeny tiny holy Tefillin is essential. Both needed each other; both infused each other, invigorating each other, and saving each other. These teeny tiny ‘boxes,’ that were not even technically Kosher, only received their immense holiness and sanctity because of the holy, sincere Jews that were willing to risk their lives to put them on. Barely able to even say half a Bracha, just to have a moment with the holy Tefillin was worth everything.

The Tefillin carried the people, but it was the people who carried the Tefillin.

We know how holy the Mitzvah of Tefillin is; it is mentioned in the Torah numerous times (Exodus 13:1–10, Exodus 13:11–16, Deuteronomy 6:4–9, and Deuteronomy 11:13–21) and in the holiest prayer for Jews, the Shema. One of the main ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged young males (Bochrim as they are known) to do Mivztoyim (outreach) was by going out and putting Tefillin on any Jewish male over the age of Barmitzvah. Tefillin is such a holy, special and unique Mitzvah (like Shabbas candles for women) that penetrates and lights up the soul; from the Mitzvah of Tefillin, who knows what Mitzvah will be next.

Unbeknownst to Shabsi and his other two brothers, another group of their brothers (three boys) who were sent to Auschwitz also miraculously survived. After the war, the two groups of brothers astoundingly discovered each other in Switzerland – a story for another time. Unfortunately, Shabsi’s parents and three sisters perished. Yet, each group of brothers was determined to go to the designated destination each group had decided on, one group to Los Angeles and the other to Melbourne. Shabsi migrated to Melbourne and moved to the popular Jewish community at the time, Carlton. Later on, once he married Rebecca New A” h, they moved to St Kilda East. Barber described just how close Shabsi was to all his friends, they were inextricably connected and bounded to each other, through their collective trauma and experiences. Indeed, it was through their comradeship that kept them all alive. Though Shabsi would have sleepless nights, screaming in his sleep, as Rebecca would recall, he had such passion and love towards everyone, especially Hashem. Coming to Australia with nothing but the clothes on his back, Shabsi worked tirelessly and became a success in his own right. Life was, of course, far from easy, with many challenges, but Shabsi always had a smile on his face. This was the same with his gorgeous wife Rebecca, whom I also personally knew and remember fondly. Every Friday, she would take a group of us girls from Beth Rivkah to the Montefiore Home, where we would sing and dance for the residents and have a pre-Shabbat party. Barber chuckles that the mother’s association of Yeshivah College used to ask Rebecca why they were not making any money during lunchtime when they were selling hot dogs. “Rebecca could not hold herself back, and when beautiful young Neshomos (pure souls) would come to her and say they were hungry or didn’t bring lunch, she just couldn’t resist.”

In 2014, Shabsi passed away, and a mere few years later, in 2019, Rebecca did. Both were incredible people in more ways than what can be described here; their legacy is forever remembered and never forgotten. Their house on the corner of Balmoral and Balaclava needed sorting. Their neighbour and Shabsi’s good friend, Avi Kimmelman, handed Yitzchok Barber a bag of old photos to sort through when he was in Melbourne. He returned the bag to Sydney and gave it to his mother, Esther. Esther was going through the photos, and suddenly, she felt something heavy at the bottom; she looked and saw two sets of Tefillin, one a regular pair and another – a teeny tiny, fragile and frail pair. She was shocked, to say the least; what were two pairs of Tefillin causally doing at the bottom of a bag filled with photos? She got both of these Tefillin checked by the local Sofer in Sydney, my father-in-law, Reb Shlomo Israel. The first pair he checked was all good and Kosher and seemingly was Shabsi’s regular Tefillin that he used daily; the other pair, Reb Shlomo described as Tefillin with so much history that he was not even going to risk anything and open them up. Otherwise, he was sure that they would disintegrate. Both such special and holy pairs, the one that Shabsi used daily, was given to Yitzchak Barber, who uses it whenever he goes on Mivtzoyim and continues to propel the Mitzvah, inspiring all those who put it on. The other pair, which sounds so casual and nonchalant but is far from it, THE pair of THE Tefillin, is on display at the Kesser Torah College School in Sydney. There is an inscription right behind the holy pair of Tefillin, and this is what it states: “And all the nations of the earth will see that the name of Hashem is called upon you, and they will fear you” (Devarim 28:10). “Every day, the Kornwasser brothers risked their lives in the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp to put on Tefillin. Standing up against all odds, this simple act became their source of strength, a small yet meaningful defiance that ultimately proved victorious in the face of oppression.”

May the holy Tefillin continue to be a source of inspiration to the Jewish nation; at a time like this, we need it now more than ever – ‘Mi Keamcha Yisrael,’ ‘Who is like you, the nation of Israel?’

We are so lucky, but G-d, You are luckier!




About the Author
Born and raised in the heart of Melbourne's Jewish Community, Chavi now resides in Sydney (Bondi) with her husband Ezry and works as a Jewish Studies Educator at Moriah College. Chavi has completed her Masters in Secondary teaching with an undergraduate degree, majoring in History and Philosophy. Chavi is passionate about the Chassidic masters and the mystical teachings of the Torah.
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