Experiencing emotional visit to Auschwitz with his grandfather
SYNAGOGUE: Chabad Lubavitch
HOMETOWN: Cherry Hill
FAVORITE HOLIDAY: Sukkot
Laizer Mangel grew up on his grandfather’s chilling stories of surviving the Holocaust against all odds. The 22-year-old listened to Rabbi Nissen Mangel, 83, a highly accomplished Chasidic scholar, writer and speaker, who is spiritual leader of a synagogue in Brooklyn, as he told that as a 10- year-old he evaded imminent death at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Like it was his own memory, Laizer has known that the camp entrance was where the infamous “Angel of Death” Dr. Joseph Mengele improbably selected young Nissen to live rather than die in the gas chambers.
“I always wanted to visit the places where my grandfather went through hell,” said Laizer, who in June became the first of his generation in the family to become an ordained rabbi.
That opportunity arrived in March. Laizer, along with two of his cousins from Ohio, accompanied their grandfather on a trip to Poland with 300 fellow Chasidic men. A world traveler in the service of Chabad, Laizer said it was an experience like no other—powerful in ways he could not have predicted.
“Instead of feeling emotionally somber, depressed or sad, my grandfather was walking around with a triumphant step and a message of how survivors rose from the ashes,” he said. “He was very proud of the fact that he was standing with his three grandkids where the Nazis tried, but didn’t succeed, in wiping out the Jews.”
As for Laizer, he didn’t want to leave his grandfather’s side the entire time.
Among many emotional highlights, Nissen stood at the very spot where Mengele did his selections 73 years earlier, describing the anguish his family went through waiting to learn their fate and the many times G-d’s presence kept them from death. With a large crowd of men in traditional garb gathered around him, the elderly rabbi spoke in Yiddish, taking his time unraveling the stories. A video, recorded by his grandsons and translated into English, went viral on Facebook almost immediately upon its release. At last count, it was shared more than 800,000 times worldwide. A part two of the video will be released during Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Another highlight, also widely shared on social media, transpired during one of the few instances when Laizer wandered from the group. Having brought his tefillin along, Laizer saw an opportunity to perform the mitzvah at that gloomy spot. Catching the eye of Jacob Marder, a high school student from Abington, PA, who happened to be visiting with a group of North American Jews studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Laizer made his offer.
Jacob, who had wrapped tefillin only twice before, was extremely moved.
“It was such a sad place,” said Jacob, 15, who is back stateside. “Everyone in our group had just been crying. Then to have that moment of spirituality, being able to wrap tefillin in a place where millions of Jews were killed, was absolutely amazing and just really liberating.”
Laizer noted that his full name, Eliezer, is on the tefillin bag. His namesake is his great-grandfather, Nissen’s father, who perished at the camp.
Now back in Cherry Hill, Laizer said media worldwide have been contacting his grandfather and the three grandkids, attempting to get them to do interviews about the trip. Otherwise, life has returned to normal. While living in his childhood home, he is currently at work preparing for the opening of a summer camp he runs in Morristown, NJ for 14-yearold boys. Nissen, too, is back at his shul in Brooklyn.
Laizer is both amazed and gratified those videos and photos of the trip have touched so many people worldwide. And while some question where G-d was during the Holocaust, he is convinced his grandfather is proof of the Almighty’s presence.
“People always have a right to question that, but every single person who survived did so by miracle and by G-d being by their side,” he said.
For a video of Nissen speaking about his experience, go to https://youtu.be/pZVIgQGjG6s