Bearing Witness: Stories Behind the Artifacts in the Yad Vashem Museum Collection

Chess pieces carved by Elhanan Ejbuszyc in Auschwitz from his block leader's club

Chess pieces carved by Elhanan Ejbuszyc in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the pen-knife used to carve themChess pieces carved by Elhanan Ejbuszyc in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the pen-knife used to carve them Chess pieces carved by Elhanan Ejbuszyc in Auschwitz-Birkenau Chess pieces carved by Elhanan Ejbuszyc in Auschwitz-Birkenau Elhanan Ejbuszyc, Lodz, prewarElhanan Ejbuszyc, Lodz, prewar

Elhanan Ejbuszyc, a talented carver of miniatures, was deported from the Lodz ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944, where he was imprisoned in Block 20. The block leader was known for his cruelty, particularly for using his club to beat prisoners who got in his way. Rumor had it that he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife and children. 

 One day Ejbuszyc took a chance and offered the cruel leader, who habitually bragged about his prowess at chess, to carve chess pieces for him. He dared to suggest that the block leader's club would be perfect for the task because it was round and thin. His hope was to temper the block leader's treatment of his fellow prisoners. To his surprise, his offer was received positively, and the leader even gave Ejbuszyc a pocket knife to carve with, not without a warning that if he didn't complete the task within four days and return the knife, he would be put to death.

For the next few days Ejbuszyc was allowed to stay in the block and carve the chess pieces instead of going out to work with the other prisoners. He was pleased that he had managed to grant his fellow inmates a temporary respite from the dreaded club, but before he managed to complete the task, the prisoners were summoned to a "selection" and a group of them, including Ejbuszyc, was sent to the Goerlitz labor camp. He managed to hide the chess pieces, the pocket knife, and what remained of the club, and take them with him to the new camp.   

In his testimony Ejbuszyc describes how he completed the carving of the pieces in the Goerlitz camp:

"…I brought them [the chess pieces] with me to Goerlitz and gave them a final touch-up (of course, as much as the limited camp conditions allowed). Towards evening, after we returned from work, we would eat vegetable soup and  rest next to the chess game in progress, following closely. We discussed chess moves and strategies, how to enhance the game, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching. Sometimes the head of our block who was responsible for keeping order got drawn in too, and we were all sorry when curfew was announced and we had to return to our wretched reality and the knowledge that soon we would have to rise to another day of forced labor.

In conclusion, what I achieved – turning a tool of punishment into a tool of peace after breaking it into pieces and carving chess pieces from it – was to give my fellow Jews a rare chance to forget their pitiful circumstances for a while. That brief moment of solace that I managed to bring to my fellow sufferers filled me with such joy – this was my reward…"

Elhanan Ejbuszyc remained at the Goerlitz camp until May 1945, when he was liberated by the Red Army.

Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection,
Donated by Elhanan Ejbuszyc, Israel