The chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, visited the grave of Feodor Mikhailchenko - a Russian non-Jew who saved Lau from extermination at the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp during the Second World War. Rabbi Lau was then just 5 years old when he and millions of others were swept up in the Holocaust .
Rabbi expresses gratitude to his Gentile saviour
Visiting Rostov, Russia, on August 10, Rabbi Lau participated in a march that commemorated the 70th anniversary of a death march in Rostov in which Germany's National Socialist forces murdered more than 27,000 people, Jews and Gentiles together. The rabbi had visited Mikhailchenko's surviving daughters in 2008, after years of failing to connect with the heroic rescuer.
Rabbi Lau also prayed at the grave of Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Judaism. During Sabbath services at the Chabad of Rostov , Rabbi Lau “inspired listeners to become involved and engaged in Jewish life,” according to Rabbi Chaim Danzinger, head of the local Chabad center.
Mikhailchenko is numbered among the Righteous at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. Sent to forced labor in Germany during the war, he was 16 years old when he was arrested by the Gestapo in November 1943, charged with robbery and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he became prisoner #35692. There he joined a Communist resistance network which was led by German political prisoners. These prisoners managed to convince the Nazi camp commandant to set up a special childrens' barrack – "Block 8" - that accommodated youngsters who had been sent to Germany for forced labor. Mikhailichenko was put in this barrack.
In winter 1944-45 the concentration camps in the East were evacuated in the face of the advancing Red Army. Tens of thousands of inmates were marched westward in the so-called "death marches". A significant number of the survivors were Jewish children who had somehow managed thus far to survive. Among these children was eight-year-old Yisrael Meir Lau and his elder brother Shmuel. Their parents had already been murdered by the Nazis, and it was Shmuel who carried his little brother carefully hidden in a bag that he carried on his back. They arrived in Buchenwald early in 1945 as the tides of war had turned for the Nazis.
Rabbi Lau credits Mikhailchenko with saving him. In his book, Do Not Raise Your Hand Against the Boy, the rabbi said that Mikhailchenko stole food and cooked it for him despite the danger of being caught and then executed by the pitiless Nazis. The Russian protected the boy from the freezing cold as well. "Feodor, the Russian, looked after me in the daily life like a father would for a son. His concern and feeling of responsibility gave me a sense of security …" When the American liberators came to the camp on April 11, 1945, Feodor held him close to him and sheltered him with his body. It was a day Lau described as his "rebirth."
Rabbi Lau never again saw Mikhailchenko, but did not forget him. Several attempts to contact Mikhailchenko failed. Rabbi Lau only knew his first name and the fact that he came from Rostov. It was 63 years after the events, when Rabbi Lau had been appointed chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, that he was able to track down Mikhailchenko's survivors. With the help of Prof. Kenneth Waltzer of Michigan State University, he had managed to identify Mikhailchenko. He had already passed away, but his daughters remained. Mikhailchenko died in 1993 at the age of 66. It was in 2009 that he was inducted into the rolls of the Righteous for his heroism.
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