15 Minutes: Nissen Mangel, Auschwitz survivor

Some lose faith after experiencing horror. His faith only grew.

PHOTO courtesy of don murray

When Nissen Mangel arrived at Auschwitz at 10 years old, he was the youngest child at the camp. Now 84 and an esteemed rabbi, scholar, author and philosopher, Mangel travels the country telling the story of how he endured Auschwitz and four other camps, including near-fatal encounters with Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed horrific experiments on helpless prisoners. Mangel spoke with SN&R before a talk in Roseville. He told the 1,200-plus in attendance that some lose faith after experiencing horror. His faith only grew.

How were you brought to Auschwitz?

The Nazis came to Košice, the city I was living in, in Austria (now Slovakia), in 1944. They started to take my father, mother, sister and I to Auschwitz. Miraculously, we escaped and went to the capital of Slovakia. We crossed the border, despite the SS (Schutzstaffel) seeing us, and hid. Unfortunately, there were a few thousand Jews still there and eventually, the SS found us and took us to Auschwitz.

When we arrived, the “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele made the selection of who went to the gas chamber and who went to work. They sent any child who couldn’t work to die. I was 10 and obviously not capable of working. I said I was 17 since I had no chance. But 17 doesn’t look like 10. I wasn’t tall. Mengele burst up laughing, saying, “You don’t look older than 11.” Nevertheless, he sent me to work with my father. I can’t explain why. He sent over a million children to the gas chambers. Why did he spare me? I cannot say.

What did you undergo there?

My work was braiding long strings into fuses from a barrel of fabric. One day, I felt my muscles, arms and whole body seize up. A guard punched and kicked me. I was taken to a clinic, where Mengele and others thought I was contagious. They took me to a camp of hundreds of prisoners Mengele performed painful experiments on. There were many twins; after losing 10 million soldiers, Mengele wanted to know if he could make women have more than one baby. One day, Mengele wanted to see if he could send an injection from my neck to my brain. I screamed, “Experiment on monkeys, but not on me!” Mengele wasn’t used to defiance; he was like a demigod. “This child defies Mengele?” he said, took out a revolver and shot me.

I stayed alive and was certain they would send me to the gas chamber. But I recuperated and went back to work. Eventually, the Russians came to Auschwitz and I was forced into the death march.

I survived, and can only believe it was God’s intervention. Eventually, an American army liberated the next camp I was in. My father didn’t survive. But, my mother and sister did. Afterward, I studied in England with my sister until I came to Montreal. In 1961, I met a young lady in New York, where I’ve lived since.

Why do you share your story?

Germany in the 1930s was one of the most—if not the most—intellectually and scientifically advanced countries. And yet, it descended into an abyss humanity had never entered: A whole nation sent to kill a people for no crime whatsoever. Amongst the German-Jewish population were the world’s foremost thinkers. Einstein or Freud could have perished.

My survival—I can only attribute to a higher power. Their actions—I can only attribute to education without religion. Intellectual pursuits, if you stop believing in God, can plunge humans into vicious animals. We must teach morality, ethics and religion. I spread these messages since you cannot have science without morality, or humanity without ethics.

People have drawn parallels to the rise of Nazi Germany and the current administration’s anti-immigrant sentiments. What do you make of that?

There is no comparison to how the government treats immigrants in the U.S. There is no threat of extinction. But there are strange things happening today.

Hitler wanted to wipe off the Jewish people. So does Iran today, with Israel. Hitler’s main ambition wasn’t to conquer the world; it was to exterminate the Jews. But they had to defeat the United States and others. If Iran has the atomic bomb, they can intimidate the whole world like North Korea. The only thing I can plead with countries is to stop the bomb. In our time, Iran is the replica of Germany.

Otherwise, look for the countries calling groups inferior. America is built on immigration; nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. The economy requires immigrants, like new blood. If immigrants can be terrorists, I understand vetting. But we must be careful of people calling whole groups “terrorists”—to call a whole nation “bad people,” that’s a problem.

How did you cope with your experiences?

Since I was always a believer, I always thought the world would turn to good. Eventually, people came to their senses and came together. I believe there is someone that watches our path and will help bring us to the utopia of mankind and brotherhood I always hoped for. I firmly believe we can go from the biggest darkness to light and goodness in the world.

The night becomes darkest before the sun. We are at the end of the darkness. This is my fervent hope: We will enter a new stage of humanity. Not only did my faith not go away; my faith in God grew stronger.

What should people do when the last holocaust survivors pass away?

In Auschwitz, Washington and Jerusalem—throughout the world—there are museums that tell these stories. Some deny it ever happened; I saw it with my own eyes. I felt the pain. It will be remembered. We must remember. Without the memory, it can happen again. Why did it happen? If you only teach science without humanity, math without ethics or morality, even the most educated people can descend to the lowest levels. That’s what our testimony is.