The last Jew living in the city of Auschwitz dies at 72

The man's name was Shimshon Klueger, and he lived, said Polish guides at the concentration camp, as a recluse in a basement hovel. He was alone, tortured, and still believing, like some tormented character out of an Elie Wiesel novel, that the war continued to rage on.

Michael Berl, director of Morasha Heritage Seminars, a Jerusalem-based center that runs Holocaust educational programs to Europe, first heard of Klueger about a decade ago.

Visiting Auschwitz, Berl asked one of the guides whether any Jews still lived in the city. He was told that there was one man, but that it was impossible to see him.

"All the guides knew of him, but they said no one could talk to him, because he was locked inside his room and would not come out."

Berl went looking for him anyway.

"That year we were traveling with a young woman whose father was a survivor, and had given her some money to distribute to two Jews in Poland," Berl says. "We found one person in Warsaw, and then when we heard of Klueger, she insisted she wanted to give the rest of the money to him."

Berl found the man's home.

"It was down a whole mess of steps, off a city street, in this beat-up looking hovel. He lived like a hermit, actually. Were I a policeman, I would have walked by this place 100 times a day and never thought that someone actually lived there…It looked like it was in such a shambles."

With the girl in tow, Berl went to the door, knocked, and stammered something in Yiddish. Klueger replied: "Gay avek, gay avek!" ("Go away, go away!")

Berl left, after depositing a few coins in a wooden bowl outside the man's door. It was the same bowl used by townspeople to leave Klueger food, coffee and water over the years following the war. "I remember hearing the creak of the door, and looking behind me and seeing a hand go out reaching for the bowl," Berl says. "And that was it."

Every year since then, Berl would inquire after Klueger. He learned that Klueger was a Belzer Chassid before the war, and that his family had lived next to one of the town's synagogues.

Two years ago, Berl was told that the elderly Jew had been taken from his home and placed in a local hospital. He died earlier this month at the age of 72 — the last Jew of Auschwitz.

Berl, just by chance, was there to bury him on a sunny June afternoon a little over two weeks ago. He was there along with 34 senior high school students from the Ramaz Upper School in New York City, tracing modern Jewish history among the cemeteries, death camps and desolate synagogues of Poland.

"The townspeople knew Klueger was a Jew, and they knew there was a rabbi in Krakow," Berl recalls. "So when he died they called the rabbi — his name is Sasha — who knew I was in the area with a group of religious kids from New York. He tracked us down on a bus some four hours out of Krakow."

The group was asked to go to Auschwitz to make a minyan, and give the man a halachic Jewish burial. The Krakow rabbi, a young rabbi who had not yet had experience ritually preparing a body for burial, was walked though the process, via cell phone, by Vicky Berglas, a historian for the group and a member of the burial society in Karnei Shomron. Though it was close to Shabbat, the group decided to make the journey to Auschwitz to bury Klueger.

"Berl asked if there was anybody on the bus who didn't want to go do this," says Benjamin Yunis, a 17-year-old Ramaz student. "Nobody raised their hand."

As to why he was interested in going four hours out of his way to bury a man he never heard of or laid eyes on, Yunis says: "I thought it was the right thing to do. The least that we could do for the last Jew in Auschwitz was give him a proper Jewish burial."

The Jewish community in the southern Polish village of Oswiecim was founded sometime in middle of the 16th century. In 1921 it numbered some 5,000, constituting 40 percent of the town's entire population.

When Berl and his group arrived at the old Jewish cemetery in Auschwitz, there were a couple of non-Jewish townspeople on hand, a Jew from a neighboring village, the rabbi from Krakow, and Polish pall-bearers brought in to perform the burial.

"They wore these strange-looking black capes and hats," Berl says of the pallbearers. "It looked like it was something right out of the Middle Ages. We got off the bus, had a rabbi with us and took over from there."

The students, says Yossi Weiser, the Ramaz rabbi accompanying the group, very much wanted to bury Klueger.

"Michael [Berl] told us on the bus the man's story, how he hadn't left his house in years, was a broken person, a tortured soul," says Weiser. "Obviously he was haunted by what he saw. One can only imagine what this poor man was thinking. The kids felt we had to do something for him if we could, and that burying him with a minyan would be a beautiful thing."

The students lifted the coffin, placed it into the ground, and threw the dirt and clay on the casket. The rabbi gave a brief eulogy. The El Maleh Rachamim prayer was chanted, followed by Kaddish.

"The Kabbalah always speaks about gathering the sparks of holiness," Weiser says. "When you go to Poland, and see evidence of unfinished lives that were not brought to completion, when you go into the old shuls where things are ruined, you feel that there is holiness lying around that has to be picked up and brought to its completion.

"Like this man, something had to be done to bring things full circle. That he had more than 30 Jewish youths by his grave who will now remember him — that was something."

Berl, who has traveled to Poland more than 20 times, says this particular experience "knocked me out. I was helping perform a Jewish ritual that will never again be performed in this city. There will never be another Jewish burial in Oswiecim. It means that the door is closed on this town — finished. Another door in the history of Polish Jewry has been slammed shut."