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Saved From Nazi Firing Squad by Freak of Fate

Note: This story has been updated since first written. See the added details below.

In 1944, Radom, Poland resident Majlech Elencwajg and a number of other people stood before a Nazi firing squad. When the guards opened fire, the bullet that struck Majlech hit his forehead and he was buried in a mass grave under a layer of dirt. Yet, he was not dead.  The bullet had only glanced his skull and knocked him unconscious.

Upon regaining consciousness, Majlech dug himself out. He concealed himself among the other prisoners, most likely those who were working to bury the bodies. When S.S. guards changed shifts, Majlech was able to rejoin the remainder of the prisoners in the camp.

When the war ended, the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), stepped in to help Majlech and so many other displaced refugees re-establish their lives. In March 1946, it was reported that he was studying medicine at the University of Marburg in Germany. A scholarship from the UNRRA was covering the cost of his education.

Colorized photo of Majlech Elencwajg shortly after World War II ended.
Colorized photo of Majlech Elencwajg shortly after World War II ended.

Update:

I was contacted on July 26, 2023, by Majlech’s son Ari Ellen, who was in the process of writing a Facebook post discussing his father’s life. Here are some added details:

Majlech Elencwajg was born on July 17, 1922 in Radom, Poland. He was seventeen years old when World War II broke out and spoke little of what had happened once the war ended.

From July 1940 through December 1940, Majlech was among the many forced Jewish laborers that constructed the notorious Belzec extermination camp. It has been estimated that between 434,508–600,000 people were killed there.

Majlech Elencwajg's UN record card.
Majlech Elencwajg’s UN record card.

Ari learned of his father’s escape from death from one of his dad’s close friends more than thirty years ago, which I described above. Ari did add one important detail to the story: just as the guards were about to fire, his father leaped into the pit. As a result, the bullet grazed his skull and he survived. He stayed motionless in that death pit until nightfall, after which he climbed out.

Toward the end of the war, Majlech and his mother would be taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Upon their arrival, they were separated from one another. His mother had hoped that her Red Cross armband would protect her, but sadly she was taken to her death. Majlech’s youth was the sole reason that he was allowed to live.

After less than one month at Auschwitz, Majlech was transported to the Vaihingen forced labor camp near Natzweiler, Germany. Ari writes in his post, “A truly horrifying and brutal place with very high mortality rates. A place where prisoners were forced to work grueling 12-hour shifts with little to no food. Literally hell on earth.” Majlech was liberated from Vaihingen on April 7, 1945.

Vaihingen prisoner list.  Majlech's is number 43 and is highlighted in light yellow.
Vaihingen prisoner list. Majlech’s is number 43 and is highlighted in light yellow. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The original news story from 1946 stated that Majlech was studying medicine at the University of Marburg in Germany, but I was unable at the time to determine what had happened afterward. That’s because he boarded the USNS General R.M. Blatchford in Bremerhaven, Germany on January 10, 1952, and arrived in New York ten days later. He would then change his name to Mark M. Ellen, which he would use for the remainder of his life.

Manifest of In-Bound Passengers in New York City, January 20, 1952.
Manifest of In-Bound Passengers in New York City, January 20, 1952. Majlech’s entry is highlighted in light yellow. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Dr. Ellen would soon find his way to Cleveland, Ohio where he would complete his residency at the Cleveland Clinic. It was there that he met his future wife, Esther Sasson.

Esther and Mark Ellen on their wedding day.
Esther and Mark Ellen on their wedding day.

It should be noted that Dr. Ellen also served as a Regiment Surgeon for the First Cavalry Division of the US Armed Forces, and served in a MASH unit during the Korean War.

The Ellen family in Toronto in 2006.
The Ellen family in Toronto in 2006. Majlech/Mark is on the right.

Sadly, he passed away on November 1, 2011, at 89 years of age.

The Jerusalem gravestones of Esther (l) and Mark Ellen (r). His stone reads, "Mark Elimelech Ellen HaKohen son of Chaim Joshua and Sara Elencwajg." The inscription on the front says, "In memory of his family from Radom, Poland killed in the Holocaust."
The Jerusalem gravestones of Esther (l) and Mark Ellen (r). His stone reads, “Mark Elimelech Ellen HaKohen son of Chaim Joshua and Sara Elencwajg.” The inscription on the front says, “In memory of his family from Radom, Poland killed in the Holocaust.”

A special thanks to Ari Ellen for his help in completing this story, as well as for providing all of the images on this page. You can read his complete Facebook post here:

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