In the mid-1980s, my father was on holiday in Florida. As he sat by the swimming pool, a gentleman in a lounge chair next to him started a conversation. Both men, in short sleeves, had unfaded Auschwitz tattoos on their arms.
According to Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939 – 1945, published in Canada in 1989, “2000 Jews given Nos. A-7741 – A-9740, after selection from the RSHA (Reich Main Security Office) transports from Hungary are admitted to the camp.” Among those saved from the gas chambers were my father (A-9573) and Mordecai Hauer (A-9092).
As their conversation continued, both men came to the startling conclusion that they were in Auschwitz and its subcamp, Jawischowitz, at the same time. They worked in the mines filling coal quotas under the duress of hunger, weakness, inadequate clothing and tools. Shifts were extended if the quotas were not filled.
After a pause, in a quiet voice, my father asked Hauer if his memory of the hanging of a young Polish boy in front of the prisoners was real. Hauer confirmed that this incident occurred and it was his friend, Israel Katz, an 18- year-old, who was hanged following an unsuccessful escape attempt.
To keep a promise to his friend, Hauer was compelled to write his memoirs. In Of Mad Dogs, Shepherds, and Sheep, he says “Israel Katz, dear friend, if God permits me to survive this hell, your name shall not be forgotten. I’ll tell every man, woman, and child who will listen, the way you lived and died. So help me God.”
After Hauer’s death, his manuscript was edited by his son, David Hauer who told me of his father’s death from heart failure at the age of 82 in 2008. David was overwhelmed at the time of his father’s death by a feeling that he must honour his father. How could he possibly honour his much beloved and admired father after his death? David knew that his father’s manuscript was collecting dust in a closet. He set out to help his father fulfil his promise. Over a 10-year period, David pored over his father’s manuscript and in 2018 he published Of Mad Dogs, Shepherds, and Sheep.
Hauer’s story begins at the Franz Joseph Hebrew Teachers Institute in Budapest. He is 18, the son of a well-to-do, observant Jewish merchant from a small, rural town in Hungary called Goncz. During the war 200 Jewish families from Goncz were sent to a ghetto in the city of Kassa. For a short time Hauer’s family was together but in May, 1944, Hauer, along with his mother, sister and two brothers, were sent to Auschwitz.
Trying to understand a survivor’s life before the war is an important part of Holocaust memoir literature. In his book, Hauer describes his life in Goncz which revolved for most townsfolk around the Catholic church and its bells. We learn about the people in the town, including Ilana, Hauer’s early love, Father Lasko who hid six Torahs in his church, and the poignant betrayal of Andy, the accordion player who was cruelly beaten to death by the Hungarian gendarmes.
The reader becomes intimately involved with Hauer, his adolescent years, his strict father, loving mother and close knit family. Hauer had a sense of moral justice; as early as age eleven, he insisted that a poor man should pay less in his father’s hardware store.
Describing the social fabric and history of the times, Hauer’s story is full of colour, showing the feelings and experiences of a young man on the brink of adulthood.
Many Holocaust memoirs talk about life before and during the war. Very few talk about returning home. Hauer describes fully the emptiness and the loneliness from the loss of his family and the brutally ripped apart Jewish community. It was for him as if nothing of his previous life had existed.
In Of Mad Dogs, Shepherds and Sheep, Mordecai returns from the camps to Goncz. There he meets the few returned Jews who are bent on revenge and getting back stolen property. They want him to stay, to demand compensation and to seek revenge. Hauer knows that this path is not the right one for him.
Leaving Hungary, Mordecai found work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA) in two Displaced Persons camps in Germany where he met and married Marsha.
Emigrating to Israel in 1948, they joined a collective farming community where life was hard, satisfying and charged with the excitement of creating the new Jewish state. Eventually the couple had three children, David, Ira and Michelle.
Tragedy struck when the tractor Mordecai was driving triggered a land mine. An orthopedic surgeon in the United States offered an innovative procedure that could only be performed in his hospital. Hauer moved his family to New York where, after successful surgery, he decided to remain in New York and resume his education.
Learning was a lifelong endeavour for him and he was studying for his PhD when he had his fatal heart attack.
In the book, his son recounts that Hauer was always a man searching for knowledge through his studies in history, philosophy and Judaism. He became a renowned and inspirational teacher and then a principal of two Hebrew schools on Long Island. He also taught western civilization and philosophy at Queens College.
The book’s message of forgiveness is a tribute to a happy, engaging, charismatic man who made good on his promise to his lost friend. Displaying remarkable insight and compassion during unimaginable adversity, Mordecai Hauer’s message of hope touched my heart.
Of Mad Dogs, Shepherds and Sheep can be ordered online via Amazon in hard copy or Kindle edition.