Alexander Kuechel was born in Berlin in 1924 to a religious Jewish family. He went to a Jewish school as a child where he learned Hebrew and studied Jewish texts.1 In 1938, facing persecution under the Nazi regime, he prepared to immigrate to Palestine.2 However, in 1939, he and his mother were expelled from Germany to the Polish border, where his father had already been deported.3 After living in a ghetto near Kraków, Kuechel was deported to Blechhammer in 1942, and from there was transferred to different concentration and labor camps, including Faulbrück, Graditz, and Langenbielau.4
In an oral history, Kuechel reflects on how he survived the violence and hardship of the camps. He mentions those prisoners who “died within themselves”—that is, who lost the will to live. While Kuechel also describes elements of chance that helped him to survive, he attributes much of his “tremendous willpower” to his religion and to Zionism.
Kuechel's survival also shows how gendered roles and traditions in Judaism could shape Jewish experiences under Nazi persecution.5 To explain how he managed to survive, Kuechel pointed to the importance of tefillin—religious objects worn exclusively by men in Orthodox Jewish communities.6 Tefillin are small, black leather boxes attached to leather straps that contain biblical verses.7 Worn during weekday prayers, the tefillin are wrapped around the head and the upper arm and hand. The part of the tefillin featured here is worn on the head. The other tefillin in the set are worn on the hand. Kuechel recalled hiding this set throughout his imprisonment in several camps during the Holocaust.8
The origins of the tefillin can be found in the biblical verses written on parchment contained in the leather boxes. In one set of verses, Moses tells the Isrealites to commemorate the day that God took them out of slavery in Egypt with "a sign on your hand and a memorial [zikkaron] on your forehead that this law of the Lord is to be on your lips” (Exodus 13:9). In another set of verses, the faithful are instructed to pass down the Ten Commandments to their children (Deutoronomy 6:4–9).9
Kuchel's ritual use of his tefillin during his imprisonment offers a contrast to the everyday suffering of the camps.10 In his oral history, he recalls the Appell ("roll call"),11 when prisoners were awoken early in the morning and called outside to be counted—often in harsh weather. Kuechel describes the cruel beatings as well as the tragedy of seeing starving prisoners waiting to be counted and fearing where they could be sent in the future. In relating this routine violence and hardship, Kuechel attributes his survival in part to the practice of wearing tefillin.
After the war, Kuechel immigrated to the United States. In 1972, he wrote a poem titled "To Remember and Not to Forget" (Zachor v’al tishkach). The poem begins as a prayer: “I’m standing before thee, thy servant of Israel, thanking thee for my life, or rather for the so many lives that were given to me. And I wonder why me and not the others. And perhaps was I spared to remember not to forget?"12
How do these tefillin help us understand Kuechel's memory of his imprisonment? Can they tell us anything about how he understood his experiences as a religious Jewish man facing Nazi persecution? What can they tell us about the roles that religious objects and rituals play under extreme conditions?