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Tefillin Owned by Alexander Kuechel

Tefillin worn by Alexander Kuechel during his time in a Nazi camp.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of Alexander Kuechel
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tags: belongings hope Judaism religious life Zionism

type: Equipment

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? 

For information on emigration to Palestine from Germany, see Chana Schütz, "In Spite of Everything: in Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation," ed. Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schütz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 123–42; and Hagit Hadassa Lavsky, The Creation of the German-Jewish Diaspora: Interwar German-Jewish Immigration to Palestine, the USA, and England (DeGruyter, 2017).

 His parents were born in Poland. See the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia on the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany.

Gendered roles and traditions in Judaism also shaped the experiences of women. For example, see the related Experiencing History item, Widowhood Release of Golda Leitman Weiss.

In Orthodox Judaism, tefillin are only worn by men. In the Conservative and Reform movements, they are also worn by women. The boxes of the tefillin are called "houses" (batim in Hebrew). Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, "Tefillin," Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 19 (MacMilllan Reference, 2007), 577–80. Chaim Kozienicki wrote about putting on tefillin for the first time at the age of 13 in his diary, written in the Lodz ghetto in 1942. While tefillin form an important ritual for Jewish people, Nazis sometimes used them as a means of humiliation by forcing Jews to pose with them.

Each verse is written on a separate piece of parchment held in the box on the tefillin worn on the head; the verses are written on one single piece of parchment held in the box for the tefillin of the hand. These verses are Exodus 13:1–10 and 11–16; Deutoronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21. 

Kuechel hid the tefillin along with this accompanying velvet bag. Kuechel also describes keeping a religious garment,known as a tzitzit, during his imprisonment. For other examples of Jewish prisoners in concentration camps who managed to keep tefillin, see Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps (New York: Sanhédrin Press, 1979).

Tefillin may not be worn on the Sabbath or on festival days. To learn more about following the Jewish calendar and observing Jewish rituals in the camp system, see Alan Rosen, The Holocaust's Jewish Calendars: Keeping Time Sacred, Making Time Holy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019). See also the Experiencing History item, Calendar from the Łódź Ghetto.

Scholar Moriya Rachmani describes rituals and other observances as "acts of memory" that provided means to survive during the Holocaust. See Moriya Rachmani, “Testimonies, Liminality Rituals and the Memory of the Self in the Concentration Camps,” Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust 30, no 2 (2016): 75–92.

For analysis of "camp time" and explanation of the Appell, see Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 73–81.

Kuechel reportedly wrote this poem after many memories of the war returned to him following his visit to a Holocaust memorial in Israel. The memorial featured the commandment from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 to remember Amalek. For more on references to Amalek, see the related item in Experiencing History, Silver Cup Made in a Labor Camp.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of Alexander Kuechel
Accession Number 1994.29.2
Date Created
Dimensions Height: 9.00 inches (22.86 cm) - Width: 6.00 inches (15.24 cm) - Depth: 2.25 inches (5.715 cm)
Object Type Equipment
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