Speech at Yad VaShem, April 2000
An evening dedicated to my book, Crossing the River, April 10, 2000
Let me begin with a few words of thanks from the bottom of my much-moved heart: first to the organizers of this event, the people at Yad VaShem;
…and already at the start I would like to point out, with wonder, how the world turns—the first of several such marvels that I will certainly mention before the evening is out. In March 1946, during the sixth journey that I describe in my book, I came to Munich, there meeting my father, Israel Kaplan—a teacher, writer, and historian, who was occupied with gathering testimony from survivors and publishing a journal, “Von Letsten Churban.” This material, collected under the auspices of the Historical Committee for the Central Committee of Holocaust Survivors (Sha’arit Hapleita), is now an honored and vital section in Yad VaShem’s archives. The archives also hold songs from the Kovno ghetto, which I brought with me then and gave to my father. And now, here I am, honored to be a guest of Yad VaShem in Jerusalem…
And a word of deepest thanks to my audience of acquaintances and friends who have troubled themselves to gather here from all over the city and country on behalf of my book and me. It is an honor unlike any other; it moves me deeply. And I would especially like to embrace, from where I stand but warmly, my friends from the Kovno ghetto, full partners in the chapters of my book. Your presence here is of special importance for me, showing that in writing what I wrote, I told a little of your story, too. No reward is greater than this. Bless you all for coming.
When the survivor emerges from the abyss—he finds himself alive, his life forever changed. He may not know it yet; perhaps he lacks for the moment the means to grasp the full import of his rebirth, even if it happens to him at an age when he is fully aware.
The meaning of survival comes together for him slowly, in different guises. At first in terms of physical survival — better food, clothing, shelter, a certain degree of freedom to move, and most important of all—removal of the constant threat against one’s physical existence, which underlies all the rest.
Together with this, and later, there is survival of the soul—restitution of the bond with the society in which one lives, locating and becoming reunited with near and dear ones, giving freedom to one’s longings for family members who may be alive here and there. And following all these, yet rising up together with them, an enormous pain engulfs one, deep and lasting, for the dear ones, family and friends, most of whom have disappeared, who are no more and will never return. It is a pain that gathers through the years and strengthens itself, like a mollusk in a conch shell, in an everlasting longing—extended, chronic, never to cease.
And the sense of miracle—the inexplicable wonder that will die only when we do—how is it that I was saved at all, how easily it could have been otherwise. The cold, spine-tingling calculation of the rate of survival—perhaps three in one hundred or even less—why then me of all people, why not the others who were with me? By the tens and hundreds come crowding the situations and scenes where a hair’s breadth of difference lay between life and death, a weak thin line that somehow staved off immediate destruction. And as the years pass, you attribute more and more of the life you are privileged to lead to that slender thread, and the miracle grows ever larger, ever more powerful.
And there is more, together with all this: remembering. A large and complex burden which you shoulder now and forever more, like it or not; it is with you whether you will it or no. It grows ever larger with the years, and heavier; it is a silent partner in all your future deeds, like a shadow you cannot part with.
Some suppress this burden—or seem to; some forget it—or seem to; and some toss it into the air at every opportunity like a juggler with a hot potato—unable to hold it, but equally unable to be rid of it. No matter what, from this point onward, a considerable portion of a person’s energy is consumed in constantly dealing with this many-tentacled octopus of remembering and memories.
And one familiar sign of this octopus-like reality is seen in dates. The year swarms with dates. The milestone dates of the first year, the second, third, and fourth years, all of them crowding into the calendar through the advancing years, one after the other, one atop the other, and there is neither relief nor release from them, as if they marked the granting of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Yom Kippur, or the Ninth of Ab.
It is enough to wake up in the morning and ask oneself, what day is today? Ah, on this day such and such a thing happened.
Nor does it matter that 55 or 60 years have passed since the event. Here we are, meeting on April 10. Why, in just two days, on the 12th of April, I am about to cross the river.
And only two weeks have gone by, for the 56th time—and there hasn’t been a year when it escaped me—since the most horrific Aktion of any I have lived through, the Aktion against children on March 27 and 28. Their voices echo still within me and around me no matter where I go. No part of the book was harder for me to put down on paper than the one describing the spring of 1944. The repeated attempts I made to write about it were, for me, small Aktions in themselves, so much so that I reached a point of exhaustion and weakness where, with a certain literary irresponsibility, I closed the subject by writing, “And I feel that I shall never finish this chapter.” Truth be told, [at first] I ended several chapters of the book this way.
But let me try to balance this picture—in the same month of April, April 26th, several years later, the ship Champollion (and what a fabulous and splendid name that is for a grand ship, one weighing 18,000 tons) reached the port of Haifa, with me on deck. This, too, is told in the book.
And so we walk about, we survivors, our bodies filled to the brim with memories, associations, and dreams without end. And from time to time the oppressive question returns—who to tell, and how? Who still wants to hear? How to pass it on? So complex and painful are these questions that the individual succumbs to what seems to be the easiest immediate solution—to be silent.
So this is the many-dimensioned, multi-layered result of survival, with all its various meanings for me, to this very day—a long and intricate wake that will apparently stay [with me] forever. I call it the “long, 50-year-old shadow.”
It is the nature of a shadow never to let go. It finds expression in the course your life takes, in the setting up of your home and family, in the raising of your children and children’s children, in all your walks and ways, your preferences, your sacrifices, at all times and in all places.
And still the great question returns, this demanding question that never lets up: what have we done with the second chance we were given? Does our life justify this great, this infinite privilege granted us, that of remaining alive?
Much remains hidden from sight, whispering and insistent. It cannot be ignored. It is important that society be aware of the presence of these difficulties. I feel that they have not found expression, nor received enough attention over the years, not in the literature and not in public discussion.
In my book I mention a fictional movie I saw in which an alien baby lands on the earth inside a capsule made of a special metal. A farmer finds him, takes him home, and raises him as his own child, but the hands of the child grasp a piece of the same metal that comes from out of this world. The scrap is in his pocket always, attesting to his special identity. Thus are we, we surviving children, who, unlike 97% of our friends, came back and were launched into the world where we now live. We carry within us something that sets us forever apart from those around us. This something, moreover, is even in some measure an inheritance, to our sorrow, for our children. Even if you try—try very hard—to “be like everyone else”—you will never again be “like them,” in spite of all your efforts.
For one does try hard, and one’s efforts are many—but at any given moment, each one of us is, in fact, a kind of secret agent, living a double life in the full sense of the word. There is the outward life, the normal one seen in the office, on the street, in the family; the other life is hidden deep under seven seals; you do your best to look upon it only in the dark of night, making it as little a part of you as possible, for the sake of your sanity and the ability to carry on.
In my own case, it was only after 30 years of silence and dedication to building a career, raising a family, and running after every lofty ideal of those days (the kibbutz, settling the country, taking a typically Israeli name, cultivating the desert, and others) that I began to discern the nature of the piece of metal in my hand—how it wounds, and burns, and cuts. It was only then that I decided—and I owe deep gratitude to those who encouraged and supported me in those attempts, most of all to my wife Miriam—to take apart that agonizing scrap, to turn it into separate details and scenes so that I could perhaps live with them and find them, perhaps, not dangerous to touch. It was a long and painful process, and it took more than twenty years. The result is before you.
It may seem that I told my own story, that I saved my own soul. But I want to encourage other “children” like myself. Each of them, by virtue of being saved, has his own tale—for else he would not be with us. And I want other “children” to learn from my story—to express themselves, to tell, to write. To stop being silent. In this connection, a word to Yad VaShem—along with all the honorable and important goals that you struggle for—I find missing one more venue in your institution, a unit that would aid and encourage survivors to write down their memories. Not only to erect a memorial, not only to record and document witnesses, but also to extend a hand to those who hesitate, who grope in the dark looking for help writing the first draft; to prepare them for the enterprise of writing, even if the result is not at first intended for publication. First and foremost, help them write. (For after all, the number of those in need of such aid, in the way of the world, is dwindling and disappearing, which calls for haste…). And every additional personal testimony is an additional weight on the scale against the evil of those who deny the Holocaust in various ways; and after all, the command “you shall tell your son ” is doubly urgent.
I wish to close here with a few lines from my book (page 95), where I an my friend Ruti, a baby born in Tel Aviv who was thrown in with us in the ghetto and emerged thence without parents and almost without an identity. We went to the Museum of the Diaspora to comb through the collection of photographs by Kadish, a unique man thanks to whom we have much visual documentation from the ghetto:
In silence we leafed through the albums that they brought to us; taking us back in time as through a tunnel – dozens and dozens of photographs from the ghetto. In entrances, on the way to work, seated at table, or in cultural assemblies, so many faces—smiling faces, faces shedding light, eyes bright and trusting; people I didn’t know in the ghetto looked out at us with piercing gazes, like the matrons in the paintings by Yossl Bregner. Ostensibly strangers to me, nevertheless I felt immensely close to them. […]
But no, neither of us found anyone we knew there. […] The collection of photographs we left behind us like a stack of unidentified bodies, and they call after us, don’t leave us alone; call us by name.
This is what I have tried, in some small measure, to do.