Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Saturday, 20 September 2008 12:05 UK

Auschwitz survivor comes of age

A Bar Mitzvah is a great milestone for Jewish boys and traditionally held around their 13th birthday. But for Arieh Czeislah there could be no ceremony as he was deported to Auschwitz. The BBC's Tim Franks has been to meet Arieh who is about to turn 79 and finally mark his passage into adulthood.

"You can try to ring me before you come," Arieh Czeislah told us. "But I may not hear my mobile, as I will be out on my tractor."

Arieh Czeislah
Arieh Czeislah was 13 when he was deported to Auschwitz

Arieh Czeislah may be turning 79 in two weeks' time, but his routine is as demanding as ever.

Every day he is out looking after his 120 cattle. During the summer there is no pasture to graze, so he has to heft 200kg of feed each day for his cows and calves to eat.

When we met I asked him how many people he had to help him.

It was the one point in our conversation when his wife, Leah, almost fell off her chair laughing.

It turned out Arieh does not really have help. Occasionally, someone part-time will turn up.

Concentration camp

Arieh greeted us, shirtless, in his front garden, on the small agricultural settlement in northern Israel where he has lived since 1950.

I wanted to return there at least once, as a free person, not as the number 9860, the number tattooed on my arm.
Arieh Czeislah
He took us into his tiny house. We sat on the chairs at the table that his father had brought with him to Israel from the family house in Kosice, in what is now Slovakia.

It had not been a straightforward journey.

In 1942, Arieh, his father and 40 other members of his family had been deported to the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Arieh was 13-and-a-half. He had not had his Bar Mitzvah because, by the time he was 13, it was too dangerous for the family to go out on the street in Kosice, let alone go to the synagogue.

Of the 42 members of the family to go to the camps, Arieh was one of just four to survive.

His break had been that he and his father had a skill that was useful to the Nazis - they knew how to rear horses. The camp commanders needed horses to transport wood to the crematoria.

After liberation, Arieh ended up in Italy. From there, he had sailed to what was then British-mandated Palestine. He was an illegal immigrant.

Victory and revenge

He returned to Auschwitz for the first time four years ago. The Israeli armed forces organise tours to the Nazi concentration camps for their soldiers.

Arieh at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
When Arieh returned to Auschwitz he felt both victory and revenge
A senior officer in the air force lives in Arieh's village. Arieh explained how the officer had persuaded him to come.

"We need witnesses," the officer had said.

"You have to tell my men what you went through."

Arieh says his daughters - he has three of them - were aghast.

"What is it good for?" they asked.

"Why go to these places where these terrible things happened to you?"

But Arieh was determined.

"All my life, I wanted to return there at least once, as a free person, not as the number 9860, the number tattooed on my arm."

So, for the first time in 59 years, Arieh walked through the gate to Auschwitz, the gate that proclaims arbeit macht frei (work makes you free).

Arieh says he felt it was his victory, and his revenge.

Bar Mitzvah

Since that moment in 2004, Arieh says that each time he has been asked to go, he has felt it has been his duty to agree, his duty to the dozens of people in his family who died, the dozens among the six million Jews.

He is bothered by the fact that all these years after the disaster of World War II ... people are still killing each other

On the last visit, three religiously observant officers asked him whether, after all he had gone through, he was a religious man.

Arieh told them that he was not religious but he respected those who were.

The officers asked him if he had ever had his Bar Mitzvah.

He recalled that his grandfather, who had lived with him in Kosice, had taught him how to read from the Torah in preparation for the Bar Mitzvah that had never taken place.

Last month, a group of officers had come to Arieh's village and talked to his daughter who still lives there.

They asked her to show them where the synagogue was. They would not, at first, explain why.

She pressed them. In the end they told her.

"We want to hold a Bar Mitzvah for your father, on Monday 22 September."

Retirement plan

"And what was your reaction?" I asked Arieh.

Tim Franks and Arieh Czeislah
Arieh (r) remains an incredibly active man, managing his own farm

Sitting next to him, his wife Leah quietly - and good-naturedly - sniggered.

"Ehhhhh..." Arieh began. "I feel a bit awkward that everything is being done for my sake. I'm used to working with my animals more than with people. I'm a bit embarrassed."

I asked Arieh when he would allow himself to stop working in the fields.

"I do have a plan," he told me. "I'm going to write a book about my life. I've already sketched out a few drafts."

Leah's eyes glittered in surprise. "Well, that I didn't know," she said.

Arieh says he is bothered by the fact that all these years after the disaster of the World War II, not just in Israel but across the world, people are still killing each other.

Arieh may be a modest and a quiet man, but at the moment he is about to have his Bar Mitzvah. There are things he wants to say.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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