Dr. Nicolai Sebastian and I met in Auschwitz when I was brought to his miniature “operating room” (originally a broom storage area at the end of our barrack), where a slotted bench served as an operating table.
The reason for our meeting was my messed-up knee, peeled to the bone, and possibly a broken knee cap — the direct result of a work accident caused by an activated whip in the hands of an SS guard. Nicolai tended to my knee as if I were his only paying patient. He bandaged the knee every few days with pieces of linen torn from dead prisoners’ shirts.
The environment of the German, uncivilized culture of Auschwitz did not allow cripples (like me) or sick people to participate. I was certain that eventually I would be sent back, dead or alive, to the crematorium. The length of my life — I was then a young teen — depended only on the frequency of Dr. Josef Mengele’s (“The Angel of Death”) coming to inquire about our health.
Meanwhile, I made myself useful in Nicolai’s “clinic” (called Krankenbau, K.B. for short). I helped with the care of patients. After work hours I helped by holding down people on the bench when the doctor operated on or amputated frozen and infected toes (infected boils also kept him busy) without numbing medications, which were not available to him. I also sharpened the handles of broken soupspoons to be used as surgical instruments. One day Nicolai was notified that Mengele was present in our camp and that he would soon come to visit and inspect our K.B. Nicolai dropped everything he was doing, lifted me up on his arms and deposited me in a neighboring barrack (called Block), where the Block leader was his friend. After Mengele left, Nicolai brought me back to the K.B. His face was swollen and marks of the impact of Mengele’s hand were visible. When I asked him, “What can I do for you,” his answer was short and crisp: “Just pass it on.”
When Mengele came back a second time for the selection of sick and weak prisoners’, the “Schreiber,” or camp clerk, was to write down the selected prisoners numbers. My number, B-6816, was among the ones designated for the crematorium. Nicolai and the Schreiber risked not only their positions and camp privileges, but they also risked their own lives when they conspired to save mine. The Schreiber had exchanged my prisoner number on that list with the number of another prisoner who had died that day.
Nicolai died by a Nazi bullet a single day before liberation, after a long death march from Gleiwitz, a work camp of Auschwitz, to Blechhammer, a concentration camp in East Germany.
Who was my “Holy Man?” Our ages did not match enough to be friends that conversed a lot. He was in his 30s, a medical doctor from Hungary. I was then 14 and a half, a raw kid, a confused prisoner of Auschwitz from a Polish-Jewish-Orthodox home. In early 1944, Nicolai was a doctor in the Hungarian Air Force. One day the Gestapo arrested him and he ended up in Auschwitz because one of his grandparents was Jewish. Followers of halacha, or Jewish law, would probably not accept him as a Jew. To me he lived as a Jew in his heart and in his soul and in his deeds. He died as a Jew in the forests of Selesia, together with 8,000 Jews, my fellow camp inmates who were executed when the Germans retreated from the advancing Russian Army on Jan. 26, 1945. He is one of the six million holy Jews — one of my brothers.
The “Holy Man” is you and me and every other person who remembers his or her obligation to society for all the benefits we have received from others to make us what we are. All that “my Holy Man” asks of you is contained in four little words: Just pass it on.
Menachem Warshawski lives in Delray Beach, Fla.