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Fulek Zlatkin – Remembering a war hero

Chazal tell us “One who saves a single Jewish soul is as if he has saved the entire world”. Throughout our long history, there have been many notable individuals, heroes who tirelessly worked under all manners of duress, to save and support Jewish lives, to maintain Yiddishkeit and lighten the burden placed upon his or her, brothers and sisters. Through their amazing efforts, they were able to “save the entire world” – in a physical sense of literally extricating human lives from almost inevitable death and also by creating and opening up new worlds for people that weren’t priveleged to such opportunities. Leaders with the foresight to move communities to more benevolent surroundings where they were able to grow and prosper. Gedolim and Roshei Yeshiva who saw the need for Yeshivos and synagogues in areas that were previously unthought of as a “place of Torah”. All this in an effort to save the Jewish “world” in its times of need. Today, yiddishkeit thrives around the world – in the U.S., Eretz Yisroel, South America and even Europe, in large part due to the unbelievable measures taken by Jews who risked their lives during World War II to save their families, friends and others they might not have even known. From hiding away children, to bribing German officials, to merely providing an extra slice of bread to a starving inmate, such heroism must be continually recognized by all of us who have benefited from it and recounted for our own children, lest they forget.

A number of years ago, on April 3 – the 27th of Adar II, one such “war hero” passed away, although many, if not most, of the beneficiaries of Raphael (Fulek) Zlatkin ZT”L were not aware of him during the war, after the war and even by his passing. Fulek Zlatkin was a man of courage so rare that practically not a day went by, during the endless despair of the ghettoes, concentration camps and death trains, that he wasn’t risking his life to save somebody else. He not only gave to people who were starving for food, he also provided for the countless individuals who were starving for some trace of hope. It was that glimmer of hope that Fulek provided, that was to see them through until the days of liberation. When I met Fulek last summer for the first time, I was struck by his modesty and confidence, and was awe-inspired by the thought that not only did this man save hundreds of people, and ensure generations to-come of Jewish families, but I personally owe my very existence to this hero! Because 57 years ago, on a dreary day in a desolate factory in Auschwitz, one of those hope-starved people whose life was spared on account of Fulek Zlatkin, was my very own grandmother, Rochel (Rushka) Kurz.

Raphael Zlatkin was born in 1924 in the city of Zhichlin, which was located in upper Poland, not far from Warsaw. The people of Zhichlin were fiercely proud of their modest city and to be considered a “Zhichliner einekel” was a status to be included in a select group that looked out and cared for one another through the thick and thin. It was this status that eventually saved my grandmother’s life and although she wasn’t actually born in Zhichlin, her family’s large presence and prominence there was enough to be considered a part of them.

The city of Zhichlin had the dubious distinction of being considered a part of the “Third Reich”, due to its close proximity to the German border, however the Germans still felt it was foreign enough to “merit” having its own ghetto. It was there that the entire Jewish population of the city and the surrounding villages, my grandmother and her sister included, were packed into a small area under intolerable conditions. But this ghetto didn’t last very long as it was just a temporary measure until its inhabitants were sent out to concentration camps. In 1941, my bubby, Rushka, and her sister Bronchia HY”D, were separated from the rest of their family and sent to a small working camp called Inowroclaf, where they remained until 1943 when they were taken to Auschwitz. Rushka was put to work in a factory called Union where the inmates assembled hand grenades. Being from the among the youngest of the prisoners, she was assigned to the “kindertisch-kontrol” table, where it was the job of the young girls to examine the finished grenades by inserting long metal screws into the pin hole to see how tight or loose it was. Each girl had three boxes in front of her: the good grenades went into the box marked “Gut”, the ones that were too loose and couldn’t be fixed were marked “Auschutz”, and those that were a bit tight but needed a little more work to be loosened were considered “Nach-Arbeit”. The boxes marked “Nach-Arbeit” were then brought to a different area of the factory where two men had the extremely difficult and dangerous job of loosening the pin holes in fire.

These two men were brothers and were very friendly people. On one occasion, when Rushka was depositing her box of “Nach-Arbeit” grenades by their work area, one of the brothers looked at her and in guarded tones asked, “You look familiar, are you by any chance a “Zhichliner einekel”?” Surprised, she answered that she was and they proceeded to carry on a hushed conversation about their families. The next time she came by their area, one of the brothers secretly passed her a small parcel containing bread, two hard-boiled eggs and a note. “This is from Fulek Zlotkin,” he said. Fulek, himself, managed to obtain a job in the “magazine” – or storage area, where the kitchen supplies were located. At tremendous risk to himself, he would “organize” bits and pieces of valuable food items and smuggle them into his barracks. There, he had compiled a kind of “help list” and he selflessly divided up his booty to be distributed to those he could assist. In his note to my bubby, he wrote that he would help her as much as he could and if she knew of any others who needed a little more food, she should inform him. But most importantly, he told her to be positive, have hope and they would live through this terrible ordeal. My grandmother told me that this encouragement was truly a life-saver. Fulek continued to send extra food and soothing words, using couriers such as the two brothers and a kind young man by the name of Salek Atlas, for most of the last year of the war.

One day in late 1944, as the girls sat by their table sorting the grenades, one of the German obermeisters, or overseers, happened by on a routine inspection. The girls always felt pressured and tense when he came by, and Rushka accidentally placed an “Auschutz” grenade into the box marked “Gut”. Immediately, the meister began barking orders for her to get up from the table and screamed menacingly, “For sabotage, you are to be punished!” He checked the number on her arm with the number on his clipboard and without a thought, crossed it out, thus sealing her fate. No amount of apologies or begging would change the evil man’s mind and he forcefully pushed her to the door where she was to wait until a wagon would come by and take her away. Standing there, knowing that she was to be taken to her premature death in the gas chambers, the young girl began crying. Some time had passed, when out of nowhere, Salek Atlas happened to walk by the doorway where she was standing. Why he had just happened by at that exact moment, my grandmother will never know, but Salek recognized her and asked what had happened. Through her sobs, she told him, and he said he’d be back as soon as he could. Salek had obtained a carton of cigarettes from Fulek, who was a master at bartering, and this was considered the most precious commodity in the camps. The Nazis had no need for the scraps of food that Fulek organized, but cigarettes were rare enough in wartime and for this even they could be bribed. He would give out these precious items to people who would use it as was necessary to compensate the German soldiers for favors rendered. A carton of cigarettes was an enormous ransom, but saving a life was of utmost importance and Salek knew what he had to do. Salek found the meister, and after brief negotiations and an exchange, saw to it that Rushka’s number was reinstated on the list. As the wagon was nearing to take her away, he ran over, took her by the arm away from the doorway and helped her back to the table. Not to worry, everything was taken care of thanks to Fulek.

Just as the war was nearing its end, Fulek was put on a death train to be taken to an unknown, yet deadly, destination. My grandmother was told after the war that he somehow managed to pry open the door and jump off the moving train but a Nazi soldier saw and shot him right there. She was under the impression that he had perished and she was truly grief-stricken. However, one day, two years later, at the Jewish Committee building in Munich, she, along with my grandfather, R’ Alter Kurz Z”L whom she had recently married, came across Fulek’s brother, Duvid, who told them that Fulek was alive. He was extremely sick and was in a hospital in Vienna, and they were able to make contact with him. He was overjoyed to hear from my grandmother and soon after his recovery, he travelled to Munich to see and be reunited with her once again. It was a bittersweet reunion, as were most reunions at that time, for both of their families had been almost entirely wiped out and only just a handful of “Zhichliner eineklach” were to have survived through the war. He stayed with them for just a short period of time, as not long after that, my grandparents were issued visas and arrived in the United States.

It was not until 50 years later that through a strange set of circumstances, my bubby Rushka met up again with the man who saved her life, Fulek Zlatkin. Fulek had married, and he and his wife Gertie moved to Montreal where they were blessed with a beautiful family. He was a respected member of the community and through a mutual friend, Chayale Makover Sherman, he and my grandmother met in Miami Beach, Florida. Thereafter, they became good friends, once again, and our entire family got to meet and know Fulek. He would come in from Canada for family simchos and I would enjoy listening to him relate stories of how he helped my grandmother during those dark days of the war. He was 76 years old when he passed away and is buried in Montreal.

Some people’s actions are recognized universally and they become very well known and popular because of it. Fulek Zlatkin was not this type of person. His extraordinary acts of heroism, the multitude of people he helped and gave hope to through his “network” of helpers and his overall attitude of placing the lives and needs of others before his own, were not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement or a need to “look good” in the eyes of others. Rather, it was a sense of purpose that fueled Fulek. He recognized that by being in a position where he could ease someone else’s hunger or save a fellow Jew by bribing a guard, it infused him with a feeling of responsibilty that caused him to jump into action when it was needed. It wasn’t important that every man or woman, boy or girl he helped knew from where the help was actually coming. If that person needed a little bit of extra food to tide him over, Fulek made sure to provide him with it. If someone’s belief and strength was ebbing, Fulek took it upon himself to provide extra encouragement, a note or brief message that would see the person through the difficult period. Fulek was a “war hero”, but not the kind of war hero that books are written about or films are made of. He was an unknown hero to the outside world, but he literally meant the world to those unfortunate Jews inside the camps who were assisted by and had the merit of knowing Fulek Zlatkin. May his many deeds of chessed allow his pure soul to rise to a lofty position from where he can once again assist his brothers and sisters, helping to bring Moshiach speedily and in our days.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Lifestyle Magazine, Brooklyn, NY.


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