Rescuing a Rabbi in Buchenwald

Stand for Israel  |  August 7, 2023

A young Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and his brother Naftali after liberation from Buchenwald, 1945
(Photo: Yad Vashem)

Born to a Christian family in Rostov, Russia, 16-year-old Feodor Mikhailichenko was too sick to evacuate when the Nazis overran his city. Arrested by the Gestapo, the boy was sentenced to forced labor, ultimately arriving at the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943.

It was in Buchenwald where the very few Jewish children who survived the death marches from camps in the east arrived. One of these children was eight-year-old Israel Meir Lau. Israel’s father, the rabbi of their town in Poland, and one of his brothers had been killed by the Nazis. Israel, his oldest brother Naftali, and their mother survived, only to be sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. There, Mrs. Lau made the ultimate sacrifice—sending her youngest son with Naftali, ensuring he had a chance to live. The boys’ mother did not live, however, as she was selected to be murdered.

Israel and Naftali survived, the older brother carrying the small boy on his back. The two survived the death march, only to be separated when they arrived in Buchenwald. But little Israel would find another protector in the children’s barracks—Feodor Mikhailichenko.

Feodor risked his own life to sneak out and steal potatoes, then secretly light a small fire to cook them for Israel, keeping the boy nourished as those around them starved. Feodor collected bits of yarn and string and knitted ear warmers for Israel, keeping the boy warm during the brutal winter. In April 1945, as the U.S. Army arrived at Buchenwald to liberate the camp from the Nazis, Feodor sheltered young Israel as they watched the troops approach. As Israel would later remember: “Feodor, the Russian, looked after me in the daily life like a father would for a son.”

After liberation, Israel was separated from Feodor—not knowing at the time they would never see one another again. But Israel was reunited with his brother Naftali, who had also survived Buchenwald. The two made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), where young Israel Meir Lau would study and become Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. Serving as Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, as well as Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, this survivor of the Holocaust was also appointed chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.

And Rabbi Lau never forgot the boy—the Russian boy named Feodor—who had helped him survive. But Lau didn’t know Feodor’s last name, so for decades he searched for his protector—visiting the Soviet Union and even having an ad placed in a prominent Soviet newspaper. But Feodor did not come forward.

It wasn’t until 2008 that a researcher in the United States managed to identify Feodor as Feodor Mikhailichenko. By this time, Feodor had passed away. But Rabbi Lau managed to contact Feodor’s daughters.

And just like Israel Lau, Feodor Mikhailichenko had never forgotten those years in Buchenwald concentration camp. He had told his daughters about his survival—and he had told them about the little Jewish boy from Poland. For years, Feodor had tried in vain to find the boy… but never had. But, in 2009, 64 years after he and Israel Meir Lau had been liberated from Buchenwald, Feodor Mikhailichenko was named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for risking his own life to save the life of a small Jewish boy who would one day become a rabbi.

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