A.B. Yehoshua , writer: Haifa, Autumn, 1999
…The Holocaust is a dark and bottomless abyss, endlessly churning up, like boiling lava, testimony and stories that stir our emotions and broaden our understanding in whatever form they appear. When such testimony is combined with talent as brilliant as that revealed by Shalom Eilati in his book CrossingThe River – and when, in addition, that talent is guided by an artistic sensibility capable of successfully navigating such a complex story, we are able to see, as we should, it plainly.
Amos Oz, writer:
Dear Shalom, Arad, 19 January 2000
After a long a delay, I have read Crossing The River, and several times since then the book has invaded my sleep at night, bringing home the terror and helpless longing of those times as if you had taken me there. The image of your mother, “Unrest,” as her friends called her, Leah the poet and lioness, I am unlikely ever to forget. Many moments in this book are etched with deep strokes and bold, with idylls embedded in the horror: the mysterious house on Mapu Street; the child who runs gleefully to the butcher shop early in the morning, before the forced evacuation to the ghetto; the first big Aktion. From all I have read about the Aktionen, and I have read not a little, your descriptions of this one and the one against the children are perhaps the most trenchant, for the very reason that you hardly ever raise your voice as story teller – you do not spare the details, “scenes,” fragments of memory – here, for instance, “we could make out, even from afar, eddies of uncertainty, backtracking, wavelike attempts in vain to veer to the left or the right,” where the word “wavelike” sharpens and intensifies the uncertainty. Or the description of the pains in your leg, the hot water bottle, and the camphor alcohol your mother obtained; the terrible partings – from your father, from your sister, from your friends, from your mother. And the tub you bury in the ground with the album of stamps at the bottom; the picture of you in the houses of the Lithuanian Woman’s and the Lithuanian Man’s – descriptions which are innocent of archetypal hatred, full of curiosity, forgiveness, and humor; the liberation, which starts with a curse in Russian, and your wanderings; your return to the ghetto, to the Lithuanian woman, to the “Jewish house”, and more; the “Schlachtensee” Camp – the entire underground labyrinth you run, until a new morning dawns.
You have written a piercing book. And please forgive me for my delay in writing this letter – I could not find time for your book until now.
(And of course I found those I knew the Schechanovitz-Wein family [of the Goldbergs] – and I knew nothing about it! How little we know of one another. And how much less than little we know about the survivors; how superficial and banal our knowledge is. I hope this book of yours is read by at least as many people as were killed, that it be known, by us and by them).
Samuel Bak, painter: Newton, MA, March 22, 2002
I owe it to the Mizvah of our mutual friend, Saul, to have in my hands your moving book. I am totally absorbed in its reading. You and I come from very close geographies, we are of the same age, and we share experiences that have left in us a wealth of familiar scars. That is why your book resonates in my soul the way it does. But there is more to it. Your book is beautifully written, and at times it abounds with details and evocations that give the daily experience of the Shoah an almost Proustian quality. It is above and beyond most Holocaust memoirs that I have read. I know that it is being translated into English, it certainly deserves an international audience!
I am permitting myself to dedicate to you a book of my story, and send it to your Jerusalem address.
With true admiration,
Hanoch Bartov, writer:
Shalom Eilati, warmest greetings, Tel-Aviv, 27 February 2000
I have before me the short letter you sent with your wonderful book Crossing The River; to my shame I see that it has been three months to the day since you wrote and I haven’t yet thanked you for this valuable book. It was very hard for me to read it, and I had to stop from time to time. Please forgive me.
This morning I finally finished the last lines of the book and I want to thank you for your creation—this chronicle of suffering truly becomes, in your hand, a piece of literature that is full of life, overflowing with sights and meetings with people who, even in those evil days, never lost their humanity, and who helped a small, lost child survive in a reality where the life of a Jew was no longer of any value.
Most wonderful of all is the way your sensitive soul survived, remembering everything, and your extraordinary ability (which has been laboring with the material for thirty years, or so I understand from reading) to faithfully bring to life, in the smallest details, your own history – through which a man like me, born in Israel, sees the story of the entire [Jewish] community of Kovna, the story of thousands and thousands of Jewish children, most of whom have disappeared as if they had never been in that inferno. Your book extends a hand to them all, and, thanks to your literary talent, this book is worthy of being numbered with the best of our literature in this murderous century. With deepest respect and gratitude,
Prof. Avner Holzman, writer and teacher of Literature, Tel-Aviv University:
I am a child of the Jewish people
(Excerpts from a literary review, published in Iton 77, Literary Monthly, July 2002)
…. The book Crossing The River deserves a more objective reading, so I would like to examine it more deliberatively, asking a few questions about the secrets behind the power of this creation, both as literature and documentary. Why do we feel clearly that a special achievement has been attained in comparison with many other important books of witness? What is the nature of the complex artistic work that has been wrought here, since it is clear that the documentary story before us is endowed with manifestly aesthetic qualities? What insights remain with us when we finish reading? Why is the impression that this book makes so deep, when with all that is terrible and wonderful in it, we have heard and read the like, after all, at least so far as the dry facts are concerned?
To confront these questions head on, I propose to describe Crossing The River as a structure consisting of four strands, one atop the other, each one portraying one of the fundamental characteristics of the book.
The first strand is at the base of all the others: accuracy, specificity, and faithfulness to fact. Shalom Eilati’s writing possesses a kind of translucence, thanks to which he manages to revive before our very eyes the world of Kovno’s ghetto through his body, with its characters and its events, large and small, with unforgettable clarity.
The detailed factual basis and adherence to it … is presented to us through the agency of an active artistic consciousness. This is the second strand: the narrative voice, the point of view, the complex composition in which the story is organized.
…. The third strand discernible in the book, which also derives from the author’s consciousness, is the reflexive one, or literary self-awareness. I mean by this the level of reference to the very act of telling the story. Crossing The River is a book that documents to a certain extent the very process by which it was written.
… On top of this, and in connection with literary self-awareness, it is noteworthy that the book is underpinned by a rich network of allusions and references to books and works of art, and they are always significant.
…..These three strands – the meticulous factual description, the complex structure of points of view, and literary self-awareness – lead, so it seems to me, to the fourth strand, the principal one, which hinges on a seemingly simple question: why was this book written? That is to say, what drove the effort, undertaken over so many years, that Shalom Eilati invested in putting the story of his life on paper with such a considerable talent for literary self awareness. What is its point and purpose?
…. This is the personal story of another child, but both the child and the man also see themselves always as a part of a larger group of some sort, large or small, and this sense of belonging is the mainstay of their identity. And indeed, the book is a constant blend of the private and the collective.
…. Crossing The River is, over and above its other excellent qualities, a memorial to a remarkable woman, the poet Leah Greenstein-Kaplan, who rises up from these pages in all her nobility and gentleness, her wisdom and resourcefulness, her devotion and heroism….The beautiful monument to her memory that he has raised in his book has touched and will continue to touch the hearts of many, because whoever reads about her here will be unable to forget her, for her son has granted continuance to her soul.
Prof. Myra Sklarew, Poet, writer and teacher of Literature, American University, Washington DC
Dear Shalom, 16 March 2005
I have finished reading what you have sent and find it absolutely amazing. I will talk with you at more length about my impressions but let me say a few things here and now. First of all, the translation is superb. There is not a misplaced word. It is seamless and excellent and beautifully written. I teach a translation seminar to graduate students so the issues of bringing a work from one language (and culture) to another are ones that I think about often.
I have read many accounts of the Holocaust in Lithuania, including the Kovno Ghetto Police journals which were translated by my friend Sam Schalkowsky who was in the Kovno Ghetto. Perhaps you know of him. But I have never read any that were like yours. I cannot imagine how a child, as you were then, could have such understanding and awareness and precision of memory. I must ask that when you did finally return to Lithuania, was it as you had remembered it? Were your memories accurate, do you think? Were there areas of experience that came back to you during your return visit that you had earlier not had access to? Did you remember the Lithuanian language? How was it that you understood as much as you did during the time these events were happening?
I will come back to you about specific parts of the manuscript in a little while. But I thank you for sharing it with me. It is beautifully written with keen awareness, with intelligence. I think there must somehow be a publisher here who would find a home for the book. Have you tried the Oxford University Press?
Have you any specific questions for me about the manuscript? I’d be happy to look at additional chapters, if you wish.
With kindest wishes,
This is a story that must be told, March 2, 2009
By Irvin Telder (Phoenix, AZ, USA)
I had the privilege to meet Shalom Eilati, a distant cousin of a lifelong friend, while in Jerusalem a number of years ago. Shalom is one of a handful of child survivors of the Kovno Ghetto during the Holocaust, and Crossing the River is Shalom’s vivid personal recollection of his experiences as a child in the ghetto; his escape – arranged by his mother – and hiding with brave Lithuanians for the remainder of the war; and his perilous journey – alone at 12 years of age – across Soviet-occupied Lithuania and Poland until he reached freedom in West Germany. From there he reached British-occupied Palestine a few weeks before his 13th birthday.
This book is much more than “just another Holocaust survivor’s story.” It is beautifully written in compelling language that often borders on the poetic. The unbelievable he describes with amazing clarity and detail. The unimaginable he leaves to the reader’s imagination.
Shalom shares with the reader his struggles to answer questions that, ultimately, are beyond answer. At the same time, he tempers his story with connections to his life (and the life of the Jewish people) in Israel and beyond after the war. It is a story that encompasses both the horrors of the Holocaust and the hope and rebirth of an individual, the Jewish people, and all of humanity after such an unspeakable experience.
Crossing the River is in its third printing in Hebrew in Israel. Vern Lenz’s translation into English is vibrant, and the University of Alabama Press is to be commended for publishing a book that needs to be read by this and future generations.
Fascinating read, April 9, 2009
By D. J. Baker (NJ, USA)
Crossing The River affected me in a way no other book I’ve ever read has. The events in these early years of Shalom’s life are so intense, sometimes so horrific, that it helps me to comprehend how, after so many years, they could still be recalled in such detail. Such experiences are seared into one’s memory in a way as indelible as the numbers on the arms of camp survivors. It reads like a novel in many instances, and yet, is all too real. For me it brought a new connection to the Holocaust since Shalom is a cousin I’ve yet to meet. I learned of him and other relatives unknown to me about 18 years ago when contacted by a cousin researching our family tree. That was when I first learned that I had 11 relatives who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Shalom’s book has been another major part of the evolution of my feelings of being connected on a more personal level.
A Very Special Holocaust Memoir, April 13, 2009
By Saul Touster (Boston, MA, USA)
Among Holocaust memoirs, this book is very special. The story, a very readable account of a boy who at eight survives the Nazi destruction of Lithuanian Jewry and comes out at war’s end at twelve — all seen through the child’s eyes –is compelling in itself. The first part tells of his life among the murderous events of the Holocaust. After liberation he finds himself alone, family gone except for his father, who he learns has come barely alive out of a concentration camp in Germany. In the second part we follow the boy’s search for his father. Taken up by the Brichah, the underground flight westward of Jews still in turmoil and in danger in the east, he finds his father in a DP camp. In the third part, he makes his way alone to Palestine where he will build his life. What is really special is the fourth part, where the grown man, Shalom Eilati, having become a successful scientist, returns to Lithuania to the sites of his terrors and survival as a way of resolving still haunting questions that trouble his memory. This last part is a kind of prism through which we sense or see all the previous parts of his journey of survival. Eilati tries to establish truth in his childhood memories, and do justice to the people and events that marked his survival. This account goes far toward answering the question we, outside the events, might ask: what is it like to live with the memory of such terrors and miraculous survivals? I understand that the book’s original Hebrew was considered powerful and beautiful, and went through several editions. This translation is worthy of that original. Through it we see something of how it is to live through and with memories full of nightmares, and yet find in memory itself a clarifying — perhaps even a redeeming — prism.
Gripping Memoir of a Childhood in the Kovno Ghetto, May 12, 2009
By Ben Gotz (NJ, USA)
This book is a gripping and beautifully written memoir of Shalom Eilati’s life from 1941 to 1946 when he was 8 to 13 years old. Unlike most memoirs about the holocaust written by survivors, Shalom Eilati presents a very detailed and vivid recall through the eyes of a child. This is not only Shalom Eilati’s story, but the story of the handful of child survivors who against all odds were shepherded to safety by resourceful family members and brave righteous gentiles. As a child survivor myself, I feel that this book is a must read for child survivors and their families, as well as the families of those who perished.
A most powerful memoir, May 20, 2009
By Z. Braun (New York, NY, USA)
“Crossing the River” is a powerful and impactful memoir written by Shalom Eilati. Shalom is a special man who has taken his memories and pain and has created a picture for us all who read the book. This picture of life before the Kovno ghetto, during and afterwards defines and describes with clarity and emotion a most horrific time in Jewish history and in Shalom’s personal family history. For an eleven year old boy to fight to save his life with the help of numerous righteous individuals and loose his closest family members is hard for us to imagine but critical for us to know about and keep in our memories.
Thank you Shalom for this powerful, painful telling of YOUR story. The eloquent writing and descriptive vocabulary add much to the picture of hardship, loss, pain and also HOPE that you have given us.
Crossing the River, May 22, 2009
By Mary Granger (LA, CA, USA)
I read portions of this amazing book as it was being written as I am related to the writer, but when I read it in total it took on a life of its own…I couldn’t put it down. The writing itself is so incredible, I could feel as if I was there every step of the way, I could see what was merely described in words as if I was seeing it as pictures. This book should be widely read.
Best Holocaust memoir, July 4, 2009
By Linda Halabe –
I’ve read many Holocaust memoirs but for me this is absolutely the best. First of all, the author is my age so answers that old nagging question -“What if?” The manner in which he writes is so natural as he recalls his childhood, questioning his memories and decisions and expressing both his pain and his joy. From the beginning I was totally immersed in his first impressions of a war suddenly on his doorstep (warplanes appearing in the sky over a tennis match), his first worries (is it still safe to observe the world from his windowsill?). I was stunned by the prosaic events surrounding the move to the ghetto, the decisions to be made between what they must have and what must be left behind, and the fact that the ghetto was part of the city in which they lived. I read this not only as the child I might have been but also as a mother and as a sister. Eilati presents to us not just the terrors of the ghetto but also the every day activities of adults and children forcibly removed from their normal lives. Then he takes us beyond the ghetto walls to the months he spent hiding among strangers and his wandering following Liberation. We are always aware of the psychological damage that persists but awed by the resilience of the human spirit. Since I first read Hersey’s “The Wall”, it has lived with me. This too is a book I will not forget. The difference is – this is not fiction.
A Must Read, July 9, 2009
By Barbara Aharoni (Plymouth, MA, USA)
Unlike Anne Frank, Shalom Eilati was a child who miraculously survived the Holocaust. He has written a detailed masterpiece of personal memories and rediscovery. His true story bears witness to, and honors the memories of, the thousands of Lithuanian Jews who perished; including members of my own family mentioned in his book. I agree with the other reviews posted about how this book draws you into the world of the Kovno ghetto. I was astounded by his details and desriptions right from the first page. You feel you are there with him seeing all through his eyes, feeling all the emotions. This book should be added to high school Holocaust reading requirements along with “The Diary of Anne Frank”. It is a remarkable, beautifully written account and a triumph of the human spirit.
Heartbreaking and Riveting, December 28, 2009
By Gila Fortinsky (Larchmont, NY)
“Crossing the RIver” by Shalom Eilati is a magnificent book. I have read many Holocaust books and none have more profoundly taken me into the life of a child in the Holocaust than this one. My mother is a Holocaust survivor, and in fact, survived the ghetto on which this book is based. I couldn’t put this book down and spent nights seemingly reliving the events depicted.
The tale of a boy surrounded by so much evil, who somehow, by luck or by miracle, survives to bear witness is, in and of itself, moving. But the eloquence and detail with which the story is told, makes it not just a story, but a transforming event, one which stayed with me long after I finished reading.