TRAIN PLATFORM in Celle, Germany, bustle. It’s a sea of duffel bags and travel bags, parents babysitting their little kids under the late-summer late-summer Sunday sun. The high-speed train will arrive soon and, no matter how the weekend was spent, it’s time to return home.
The train will first stop in Hanover, about 25 miles from the hotel. It will travel hundreds of miles south through Bavaria and the Alps in five and a half hours to its destination in Munich. From point A to far away point B, just like that.
But for one passenger, this is more than just a train ride. For Shaul Ladani, this is the story of his entire 86-year life – a life so wandering that it defies logic. On this day in northern Germany, perfect symmetry reigns for Ladani.
Eighty years ago, most of his personality was forged 11 miles north of Celle in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, whose shame is endured by the vast majority of those who suffered there. In Munich, Ladani’s story ends with another infamous crime committed decades later, at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
On this platform, Ladani might just be another old man walking away from the crowd. They have no idea that he survived the worst that humanity has to offer while keeping grace. They have no idea how often he managed to avoid death.
They can’t even know how many Ladani survived.
SHAULT OLDANI WAS special athlete. For Ladani, an Olympic racer, the longer the race, the better. He set records in the 1960s and 70s. The classic 47-mile route from London to Brighton? He won it three years in a row. In 1966, Ladani broke the 88-year-old US 50-mile record. In 1972, he broke the world record of 7 hours 23 minutes and 50 seconds (it still stands today) and won the world championship in the 100 kilometers (62 miles).
It wasn’t until he was in the Israeli army at the age of 20 that Ladani discovered his gift for stamina—and, as a result, an almost limitless ability to endure pain—during long marches. Back then, in the early days of the State of Israel, in the mid to late 1950s, army marches were covered on the radio and the public followed closely. It was not only training, but also cross-country racing.
“I was called the king of the march by the Israeli press because I was so fast,” Ladani says now, still full of pride.
He honed his skills by walking incessantly, even compulsively, over 20 miles a day. A generation of Israelis are accustomed to the sight of Ladani striding furiously along the roads of the country, furiously working with his hands and constantly touching the ground with one foot.
In the mid-1960s, he moved to Manhattan to study business administration at Columbia University. In addition, it was here that he met world-class race walking talents who raised his level. For Ladan, learning was not so much a means to an end, but the end itself.
He spent hours in city parks, on its streets, clearing his head and thinking about his dissertation. He eventually received his Ph.D. and went on to a long and distinguished career as a professor in Israel. His work mattered to him, but what he required walked.
He still does.
WITH SHAULE OF OLDANI, there is always a question of luck. Is he lucky he’s still here? Or was it unlucky that you had to endure so much?
He prefers to consider himself lucky.
“It didn’t take a single lucky break to survive,” says Ladani. “You needed a series of happy events. Luckily for me, I had them.”
He was 5 years old when he first needed luck to survive. It was April 6, 1941, while he was in the laundry room in the basement of his family’s house in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, when a German bomb tore through the house. It exploded, but in a different part of the basement, killing several neighbors who were looking for shelter.
Eighty-one years later, Shaul vividly recalls the scene: “The house was shaking. My mother fell on me to protect me. The steel door of the laundry room fell off its hinges, fell on my grandmother. But nothing really happened. her.”
This was the day when war came for Yugoslavia and the Ladani family. This was 19 months after Germany invaded Poland, starting a war in Europe, and 10 months after the fall of France and the flight of the British army at Dunkirk. Now, as they resisted fascism and the Hitler-allied regime, the Yugoslavs became a target. The Germans called the brutal bombing of Belgrade Operation Retribution.
Shaul’s family had to fear even more: Frankincense is Jewish.
Almost immediately, the German occupiers began rounding up the Jews, demanding that they introduce themselves. Frankins faced the first of several life-changing decisions: stay in Yugoslavia? Or escape to Hungary?
Hungary was a German ally, but, ironically, a safer place. Why do Jews run into the arms of an enemy, an ally of the Third Reich? Hungary was safer because it was enemy territory. German bombs did not fall on Hungarian cities, German troops did not terrorize the Hungarian streets. Frankincense also had roots in Hungary; Shaul’s parents and grandparents were born and raised in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were culturally Hungarian and spoke the language.
They would have escaped Yugoslavia across the Danube River and found a way out.
For two months, the Ladans lived in the city then known as Ujvidek (now Novi Sad, Serbia). But Shaul’s mother’s family was from Uyvidek, which increases the likelihood of their identification. They left in search of anonymity in Budapest at the end of 1941.
“At the end of January 42, my mother began to cry,” says Shaul, “and cry and cry for days. After some time, two children were brought to us, one of my age and six months old.
Shaul’s mother wept because her sisters, who remained in Uyvidek, were killed. They were among some 3,000 people killed by Hungarian soldiers in a three-day rampage that targeted mainly Serbs and Jews. The children brought to Ladani were Shaul’s cousins, hidden away when their parents were taken away and orphaned in the bloodshed. Six-month-old Martha Ladani will be raised as his sister; the other, Evi, was placed with relatives in Hungary.
Ladani’s life in Budapest was mostly tolerable. Shaul’s father, a chemical engineer and patent attorney, found a job and Shaul went to school. But the fear always remained; Father Shaul could be sent to forced labor in the Hungarian army and sent to the Eastern Front. Twice he was taken to a collection point to be shipped, but his employer, a pharmaceutical company, intervened.
“It was in demand as necessary for the Hungarian war effort,” Ladany says. “So they let him go. Again, good luck.
“Hungary treated the Jews badly,” says Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism and a Holocaust scholar. “Jews were placed in labor camps, treated harshly, deprived of their property.”
In 1944, when the Axis was losing on all fronts, Germany occupied Hungary to prevent its surrender, which meant the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Their fates were sealed when, in March of that year, Adolf Eichmann, the author of The Final Solution, arrived in Budapest.
“SS officers came to our apartment,” says Ladani. “They said, ‘You have two days to get to the ghetto.’
In just a few weeks, approximately 425,000 Jews were loaded onto trains and sent to Auschwitz, the German death camp in occupied Poland. Of the 755,000 Jews estimated to have been in Hungary during the German occupation, just over 250,000 will be alive when the war in Europe ends 14 months later.
Shaul’s maternal grandparents were among the dead.
But in the early summer of 1944, Shaul and his immediate family were on the road again.
WAR ACTIVITIES Israel Kastner are too complex and contradictory to do justice to them. What is significant about Shaul Ladany’s life is that Kastner, a Jewish lawyer and journalist, negotiated with Nazi officials to save some Hungarian Jews from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by trading their lives for gold, diamonds and cash. These Jews—about 1,700 in all—were able to leave Hungary by train to freedom. Incense was among them. Shaul says his family has now been chosen due to his father being a Zionist activist.
On June 30, the Kastner train left Budapest. Most on board thought that freedom meant a neutral country like Portugal or perhaps Palestine. But nine days later the train stopped near Celle at a camp called Bergen-Belsen, where they stayed while Kastner finalized his deal with the Germans.
During the war, 50,000 people were killed in Bergen-Belsen, not in the gas chambers, but because of the negligence and brutality of the Germans. Here Anne Frank died of typhus. When the camp was liberated in April 1945, the conditions were so abhorrent, so inhumane, and disease so rampant that the British liberators burned most of it to the ground. Most of those 50,000 deaths occurred in the last few months of the war, including thousands in the days and weeks after the camp’s liberation, too sick to be saved.
When Kastner’s train arrived at Bergen-Belsen in July, the camp was no longer what it should have been. The conditions were terrible, but there were more chances to survive.
Even all these years later, Shaul, who was then only 8 years old, remembers the constant hunger and cold, the endless Appelplatz or the daily roll call.
He also remembers how tomato bushes began to grow between the barbed wire and electric fences – in particular, one bulb, first light green, then bloomed to deep red, growing out of reach.
“After we got married, my father told my wife, ‘Shaul loves tomatoes,’” Ladani recalls. “Make sure he always has tomatoes.”
Shaul’s mother shared her meager rations to keep her children alive. One day Martha fell ill with scarlet fever. Despite this, the Ladani hoped to be released.
On December 4, 1944, the deal concluded between Kastner and the Nazis was completed…