‘Out of the Depths’: The Story of A Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home At Last
by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau
PREFACE TO THE ENLISH EDITION
On June 27, 2008, the telephone rang in my home in Tel Aviv. Naftali Menashe, news editor of one of the Israeli radio stations, was on the line. He asked whether the name Feodor meant anything to me, and, if so, who Feodor was, and what I remembered about him. Surprised by the call, I replied that Feodor was a Russian taken captive by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, in the same Block 8 where I was held toward the end of World War II. I did not know his last name, only that he came from the town of Rostov in Russia. “Why are you asking me about him?” I asked Mr. Menashe. He told me that the radio station had not received information from the Associated Press news agency about a Professor Kenneth Waltzer of Michigan State University in the United States. After having recently studied Gestapo documents at the Bad Arolsen archives in Germany, Professor Waltzer discovered that the Gestapo had kept records of the Russian prisoner who had protected a Jewish child in the block, a boy named Lulek from Poland. Waltzer also found that Feodor’s last name was Mikhailichenko, and that the boy was Israel Meir Lau, who eventually became chief rabbi of Israel.
That day, on Voice of Israel radio, I spoke of the great debt I owed Feodor. He had knitted me wool earmuffs so my ears would not freeze during the roll calls held before dawn, when we were forced to remove our caps. I recounted how he stole potatoes and made hot soup for me every day. With his body, he protected me from the hail of bullets shot at us from the guard towers on the day of liberation, April 11, 1945.
On the radio, I also spoke of my unsuccessful efforts over the decades to discover his whereabouts. I said that I would be happy to meet him, and would like to recommend to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem that he be granted the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations. I contacted Chabad of Israel and they put me in touch with their emissary in Rostov, Rabbi Chaim Friedman. He discovered, to my disappointment, that Feodor had died, but that he had two daughters in Rostov: Yulia Selutina and Yelena Belayaeva. They were thrilled to hear that the boy who had survived Buchenwald, of whom their father had spoken until his dying day, was alive in Israel, had become a well-known rabbi, and that, despite the more than sixty years that had passed, the rabbi still remembered their father and had been looking for him all that time. They gave the Chabad representative a copy of a film that Feodor had made for Russian television at the former Buchenwald site 1992, one year before his death. In the film, Feodor recounts that, every day, the Jewish boy had to clean the entire block, the courtyard, and the toilets in order to earn his bread ration. Feodor and his companions used to get up at five every morning in order to do the boy’s cleaning job. He explained, “The boy has no parents. At least he should have some time to play like a child.”
On November 27 2008, I was privileged to host Yulia and Yelena at my home in Tel Aviv. They had traveled to Israel from Russia, for the first time in their lives, to have dinner in our home, and to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, joined us that night and served as translator for Feodor’s daughters.
Toward the end of the meal, my sons and daughters arrived, along with their wives and husbands and our grandchildren, from all parts of Israel. I introduced them to Feodor’s daughters and said that it was largely thanks to him that this entire tribe had been brought into existence. The next day, I accompanied them on a tour of Yad Vashem, and they were deeply moved.
This story is yet another testimonial to the fact that the Holocaust is not only the heritage of the past but also has many implications for the present and the future.
All recent attempts that we have witnessed to minimize the Holocaust and even to deny it will not stand the bitter test of the reality that has affected all of humanity. Its lessons must serve as a warning sign for generations to come.