Left the Gates of Death

The Fellowship  |  January 24, 2020

Black and white photo of Beni Virtzberg.
From Death to Battle

An Israeli soldier and forester, Virtzberg was also a Holocaust survivor and one of the first Israelis to write about his experiences during this dark chapter in history.

Born to a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, young Beni moved with them to Poland after the violence and anti-Semitism carried out by the Nazis on Kristallnacht in 1938. Living in the Jewish quarter of their town, the Virtzberg family was moved to the Srodula Ghetto after the Nazis conquered Poland.

Assistant to the Angel of Death

On August 1, 1943, the Srodula Ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis, with its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Beni’s mother was immediately murdered upon their arrival at the camp, but Beni and his father were initially spared, though separated. But as they were separated, Beni approached a Nazi officer and begged for his help. The officer turned out to be none other than the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele spared Beni’s father’s life and assigned the young boy to work in the Auschwitz hospital where the doctor carried out his gruesome experiments on the camp’s prisoners.

Beni served as Mengele’s personal assistant, running errands for the fiend. But this also allowed Beni’s father to be spared, and for the boy to smuggle him food.

Farewell to Father

The Allies began to close in on Auschwitz in January of 1945, so the Nazis sent the surviving prisoners on a death march in order to hide their crimes. Beni’s father’s health had failed and during the march the poor man collapsed. Young Beni watched in horror as a Nazi shot his father where he fell.

After the war ended, Beni made aliyah (immigrated to Israel). There, he joined Kibbutz Givat HaShlosha. He also trained with the Palmach, the precursor to today’s IDF, and fought with them during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. During the war, he helped break the blockade of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, and fought in many of the battles in the Negev Desert.

A Woodsman and a Writer

After his service, Beni worked as a forester, directing forestry operations in southern Israel, and developing an important irrigation system.

But equally important, Beni published a book in 1967 that told of his experiences during the Holocaust and in Israel, originally titled From the Valley of Slaughter to the Gate of the Valley. The book, reprinted this year by Yad Vashem as From Death to Battle, tells of his friends who also survived the Holocaust before fighting for Israel’s independence:

Ten children together left the gates of death, six of us were left, not six orphaned children but six fighters. We fought and will fight when necessary, so that Jewish children, wherever they are, shall never become orphaned as we were.

Dying just before he turned 40, Beni was survived by his wife Rachel, as well as his daughter Dahlia and son Ilan, who would become a well-known Israeli singer and songwriter. At Beni’s funeral, Be’er Sheva’s chief rabbi remembered this Israeli You Should Know by saying, “Eichmann killed him twenty-five years ago. But we only received the body today.”

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