Crossing the River or: The Shadow Still Lingers
First of all, I would like to thank Maastricht University for its kindness in inviting me to this distinguished event. A special thanks to Dr. Gabriels, who “discovered” me, and to Jacques Reiners and Jaap Jansen of Studium Generale who extended a warm welcome to me while hosting me and my wife Miriam.
I also greet the Honorable cultural attaché of the Israeli Embassy in The Hague who is attending this meeting today. I stand here as a survivor of the WW II atrocities. Mine is the story of a young child who at the age of eight suddenly fell innocently into the whirlpool of war, murders, killings and limitless evil. Please accept my brief narrative as a small memorial candle for all the victims of the brutal inhumanity of those years and for the wondrous forces of human vitality and rehabilitation.
Even after 74 years I look back wondering, still puzzled and unable to internalize the sudden, unexpected and irreversible changes in the pattern of my life that began in my hometown of Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, early in the morning of June 22, 1941, on what had promised to be a normal, tranquil day.
We had planned to leave on our summer vacation the very next day, the 23rd of June, having anticipated being away for a whole month or more. We were an ordinary family: my parents – my father was a teacher and writer, my mother a nurse and poet, my younger sister was only four years old and I was a boy of eight.
The sudden tidal wave which swallowed us up, together with the many other Jews of Eastern Europe, plunged our family straight into the vortex of confinement in a ghetto. While the gradual and systematic extermination of all the Jews across the provincial towns of Lithuania was being carried out, only three “lucky” ghettos were to remain for the next three years. Ours in Kaunas was one of those.
Those 1,140 days, 160 weeks, three years, have not left me to this very day. I could even give my talk a more accurate title: “The 74 years-long Shadow.”
Here may I add an excerpt, taken from my book:
One could look at what happened in terms of energy: a mighty evil invested tremendous energy in a system to produce death, conflagration, and slaughter, and left behind survivors with crippled souls and distress for them and their children, unto the third and even the fourth generation. So great was the destructive energy concentrated here…
The manpower in the ghetto was forced to work in various factories and workshops that served the German Army’s needs. At the same time, a gradual periodical “weeding out,” extermination acts that were called in general “Aktionen,” was consistently being carried out.
A general balance sheet: Before WWII, the Jews of Lithuania numbered about a quarter million or 10 percent of that tiny country’s population of 2.5 million. Only about 8,000 survived, 4%, the highest rate of annihilation in all the occupied countries of Europe.
Before the war, we in Kaunas were a Jewish community of 35,000 people. In the summer of 1944, only 5,000 still lived there. And they were destined for deportation from the burning ghetto to face an additional nine desperate months in the German concentration lagers (KZ).
Children: About 5,000 children under the age of 13 entered the Ghetto; only about 250 of us survived – 5%. Five out of every hundred. I am one of those five.
Our family balance sheet: Our extended family included seven families living in various shtetlach – townlets – spread across Lithuania. Thirty souls. Not to mention many additional families in Belarus. Out of them all, only I and my father survived. All of the others were led to mass graves near their towns and villages and massacred, mostly with the enthusiastic assistance of local inhabitants.
I shall not burden you with the detailed records of the events in our ghetto. The general pattern was similar to that which took place in other ghettoes. You can read about it in my book.
The Ghetto: You may well ask me – How did you feel, a boy of eight, nine, ten imprisoned, under the constant threat of death, a situation which lasted for three full years?
It is difficult for me to try to reconstruct my true feelings. I was like a little chick or a puppy, in a constant state of fright, always alert and cautious, as if each passing moment was the minute, or the second, before the hunters would finally reach me.
One day, during the third year of our imprisonment, when the rumors about the concentration camp gas chambers reached us, my little sister asked my mother, “Mama, does gas hurt?” And my brave mother answered as if she were completely cool and collected: “No, you fall asleep and that’s all.” And my Mother subsequently taught us a quotation from Lermontov, her favorite poet, about the advantages of falling into eternal sleep.
A dialogue between a mother and her children in the ghetto—unreal.
We children went through those times in a kind of inner denial, living as much as possible inside an artificial bubble. This was a privilege our parents lacked. Even though they were blind regarding their destiny, still they were much more informed, for they knew and comprehended much more. It is for me an unbearable nightmare to try to imagine myself as a parent of small children in the ghetto.
Therefore, I was totally surprised when I found myself after 35 years of silence, able to reconstruct much of my life during those three years in the ghetto. It was as if I were under hypnosis, as facts that I was unaware of having kept inside me for so many years slowly began to emerge.
Let me try to give you sample recollections of those dark times.
First autumn, 1941. The Big Aktion.
I was eight and a half. One morning a command came for all of the Ghetto dwellers to report to a certain square (paradoxically bearing the name – The Democrats Square) for a census and renewal of identity cards. A dense mass of humanity: 30,000 people packed into one square – I had never seen such a sight before. This multitude remained waiting in the square the entire length of a cold day until the incomprehensible sorting process of “Links-Rechts; Links-Rechts” was completed.
The next day we observed that about 10,000 people – a third of our community — were missing; they had not returned home the previous night. But later in the morning we were shocked to see them being led up along a road that climbed up towards the higher grounds outside the ghetto. The destination was obvious, the Ninth Fort, the citadel of death, an infamous killing site.
All the rest of the ghetto dwellers, thousands of us, stood in the open spaces of the ghetto looking stunned, staring in disbelief at the gradual slow march of those who had undergone this selection, had been sorted into their destiny, and were surrounded by guards who were continually shooting into the air.
A mass of yelling and sobbing encompassed us all. I am still haunted by the sound of the weeping, the screams, the lamentation of the broken hearts of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, who could not believe the sight that they were seeing. Such a dramatic mass funeral of as-if-still-living people, I had never experienced – either then or later.
This was the first time that even I, a young boy, understood that we were just waiting for death. It was only a question of time until we too would be sent in that direction of doom.
Spring 1944, three years later. The Kinder Aktion.
My father had already been deported to Riga; my sister now aged six and a half was in hiding outside of the ghetto. I was almost eleven years old. Rumors from other ghettos had reached us that they were taking away all of the children and the elderly (those aged over sixty).
One day at dawn, a loudspeaker announced a curfew. Everybody should remain at home.
As if in seized by convulsions, my mother and I leapt up, darted into the dark, stuffed cellar and hid ourselves under deliberately piled-up junk, just as we had already done several times before. Through the open small window of the cellar we hear the agonized screams, dogs barking, the fierce shouting and cursing of the Ukrainian and German soldiers fighting with wildly brave, grief stricken mothers trying in vain to protect their children and not let them be taken away.
And then sounds of steps as the searchers approach the half open door of the cellar. The chilling sensation of no breath, no eyes, only the unbearable beats of the heart. They begin their search. Luckily, a wash tub falls on their head. It seems that they have no torch. They curse saying the following “poetic” words that meant for me, at that moment, a temporary salvation: “Wie am Niggers Arsh.”
They left the place, not before marking two XXs on the outside of the door with chalk. We were saved for the rest of that day, despite repeated waves of searchers.
But they came back the next day. Their statistics showed that many children were still missing. Again, wave after wave of searchers came. There were explosions from hiding places discovered in cellars and bunkers.
I am in a small room, the door of which is hidden by a big, heavy wardrobe. Minutes, seconds and nano seconds of horror. They enter and search, turning over all of the furniture, probing the beds, sticking bayonets into pillows and bed covers. And then I heard them – they were near the wardrobe. They stuck a bayonet behind it. I heard the scratches hitting the wooden door. But luckily they did not identify the different sound and left the room.
A third, equally grim day passed. And again I stayed alive.
Now I had an urgent need to escape from the Kinder-Rein tortured ghetto. Let me insert here another moment – my escape, as told in the prologue to my book.
I didn’t really want to leave that morning, to emerge from the dim warmth of Mother and our only room, to prepare to depart. But I had to. All the arrangements had been made, and now everything depended on getting past the sentries successfully.
It was a clear, crisp dawn in early spring and we may have had something to eat before setting out. The German officer was absent, and the roll call was supervised only by our people, with no interference from the guards. A few more steps and we had already reached the riverbank. Oars cut through the calm water, and I looked around me, wonderstruck. After years in the ghetto, suddenly a river, so much space, and me to sail upon it, like long ago at summer camp.
As we neared the other bank, my mother quietly removed the two yellow patches, the threads of which she had previously cut, and which were now fastened only with a safety pin. Her instructions were clear: once we reached the other bank I was to march without stopping through the Lithuanians standing there, cross the road, and go up the path that led into the hills. All alone, I was to walk without raising suspicion and without looking back. Further up the path, a woman would meet me and tell me what to do.
Everything went as planned, going deeper into the hills, farther and farther from the riverbank and my mother. Only then did a figure with a sealed face approach me and as she passed me she whispered that I should continue slowly, she would soon return and join me. A short while later I was following her, up a steep path, and I soon found myself in the house of an elderly Lithuanian woman, Marija.
All this occurred so quickly and so easily that I scarcely grasped what had happened to me in such a short while. To tell the truth, I am not sure even today, after these many years, that I have fully digested what happened to me that morning. But the next day I received the first letter from my mother, written on a rolled-up scrap of paper, to be read and then burned: “I watched you move away, my child,” she wrote, and I will never forget this, “climbing all by yourself onto the bank of the river, walking past guards and people on your way to freedom. A day will come when a film will be made about your miraculous escape from the ghetto.”
And then, another sight and sound, four months later, August 1944 — the Night of Liberation.
At that time I was being sheltered in a remote farm by a noble and brave Lithuanian peasant. Then, suddenly, the Front reached us. There were bombings and shooting all around and I found myself running, trying to escape. Chains of red coils chased me from all sides – It seems that I was right in the middle of a battlefield, caught between two military forces that were shooting at each other. I fell into an open pit – a kind of a shelter full of people trying to hide there.
Gradually the sounds of battle faded away and a heavy silence settled all around. What next? Suddenly steps were heard. Apparently, they were the sounds of soldiers approaching. But who were they and on which side? My worn out heart was pounding again, bouncing in my chest.
And then, as if in an opera, when the curtain slowly rises, we could see against the background of the early dawn the silhouette of a soldier approaching, nearer and nearer he got and almost stumbled into the pit. A loud curse was heard – “Yob tvoyu Mat!” It was in Russian! It had for me only one meaning – I have survived, I am liberated, I am free…I am alive!
At the age of 11 plus I found myself alone in my city, without parents or family. I was waiting for the possible return of my parents from the KZ camps – at that time I had no idea about their fate. Good people – a young couple of survivors- took me in. It was one year later, while I was living in an orphanage, that an astounding message reached me – my father was alive, survived Dachau, and in West Germany! He sent me a short message: “My son, I am alive. Try to reach me.”
He had miraculously survived four years of awful slavery in KZ camps beginning in Latvia, and later ending in the Dachau camps. He was considered a “Musselmann” – a living corpse. At the age of 43 years he weighed only 32 Kg. and was riddled with various diseases. It took him half a year in hospital to recover. But his spirits were good. As a historian, immediately after liberation he began to collect authentic testimonies from the survivors around him. Those documents are now a fundamental part of the files in the archives of Yad Vashem: World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem.
My mother managed to smuggle us, her children, out of the ghetto, each of us separately, to noble and brave Lithuanians who gave each of us a separate shelter. However, my little sister, sheltered by a Lithuanian couple for almost half a year, was given up to the Gestapo just several weeks before liberation.
But my mother, herself, it seems, perished in the exploding and burning ghetto during the deportation of the rest of its dwellers to Germany. And I, when later I visited the ruined ghetto, didn’t know that.
I dedicated to my mother the last lines of the introduction in my book.
Like Moses in the bulrushes I was cast by Mother onto the shore of life. I therefore dedicate this story to my mother, who gave me life twice, but was unable to save her own even once.
I began a long odyssey, crossing the Iron Curtain (including escaping arrest by the KGB), traversing Poland and the occupied military zones of Germany and Berlin, until I reached my father in Munich. After five years of separation, we celebrated our reunion for several weeks. Then, by chance, a rare opportunity arose for me to immigrate to Palestine, where I had uncles and aunts whohad gone there as pioneers. Incidentally, the British governement granted several hundred “certificates” to allow child survivors to go to Palestine.Therefore, I left my father once again in favor of the return to normal life and studies as soon as possible.
Accordingly, let me sign off this section of “Sights and Sounds” with an uplifting finale.
Spring 1946. I, almost 13, am close to “Bar-Mitzvah” according to our custom. We are 650 young children who had survived, orphans of the Holocaust, and been collected from amongst the ashes across the burnt European continent. We stand on several decks of the French ship “Champollion” and sing in unison a Hebrew song to celebrate the departure of the ship from the docks of Marseilles towards the new life that awaits us in Palestine. These festive, intoxicating sights and sounds have followed me until this very day.
From that point on, I began my slow resurrection, starting by plunging into a 7th grade class and mingling, an old man of 13, with children of a similar numerical age, but kids who had experienced a normal childhood development.
I never spoke about my life experiences. How could I align my saga with their perceptions?
I finished high school in a Kibbutz, completed my military service, graduated as an agronomist from the Hebrew University and later got my Ph.D. in horticulture (My thesis was, in layman’s terms – how green oranges become orange oranges) and became a lecturer in the Faculty of Agriculture. I married Miriam, and we are blessed with three wonderful children- two daughters and a son. Later, we moved to Jerusalem and I worked as an editor for scientific institutes. Quite an ordinary life.
For more than thirty years I concentrated all of my spiritual and mental strength on rehabilitation, on becoming “normal,” on trying to resemble the ordinary people around me as much as possible. I did not occupy my mind with memories.
And then, only then, slowly I began to feel an inner need to look back and to try to sum up my past experiences.
What was it that pushed me to look back after so many years? Let me share with you one of those episodes that served as a kind of writing on the wall.
In 1977, I was spending the summer in Washington, D.C., in an intensive Summer Course in Information Studies. I had received a special grant to stay in the U.S. for several months to pursue studies in Information Sciences, before being appointed to establish a certain information centre in Israel. It was a great challenge for me. I felt pressure from the teaching staff to do well. And I was alone, without my family.
One day, in the University library, I was quite tense and worried about an assignment that I had to prepare that day in a field which I had no experience in. While I was bent over my books, I accidentally caught a glimpse of another table where five students were preparing a common project, while joking and laughing. The students were a varied group of adults, including a marine officer and a nun. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind like a flash of lightning: “She, the nun, will not betray me.” It was a reflection of those constant considerations that went through my brain 33 years earlier. In terms of my escape, my mother had guided me that in case of flight, of an emergency while I was in hiding, I should try to reach a monastery or church. There, she told me, were some better chances to meet more humane people, to get help….
Astounded, I left the library immediately. I was stunned, shocked to realize that I still carried inside of me
such memories. Visions and reflections after so many years—could this really be happening? It was as if sub-consciously I was keeping in the back of my mind some pictures, like those that a museum stores in its deepest cellars.
And I had an epiphany –I have to begin to write.
In the beginning, it was very difficult. Sometimes I could not compose more than a page per week. I needed special conditions – a separate secluded space, special paper, pencil, pen. Later I moved to an old typewriter, page after page, version after version. It took me ten long years to finish the first draft of my writing and ten more to complete it. Altogether 20 long, difficult years.
At first, I had intended to write only for myself and my family – to let them know something about the unspoken past of their father. Even more than that – I did not consider my own poor memories as something meaningful to be told in public. I was saying – I was not tortured, I did not pass through the chimneys of Auschwitz, nor did the cursed Mengele sort me for death (like my close friends, my ghetto peers). What interesting tales could I tell?
At that time I had already read The Last of the Just by André Schwarz–Bart, along with works by Primo Levy, Semperon, Appelfeld, and Eli Wiesel. I did not feel able to match their monumental writing, (or equal the sharp biting into the flesh of Ida Fink’s short stories, which I see as some of the greatest). Yet slowly I began to envisage that my writing could be worth while, and could be shaped in a more literary way.
I discovered that I had been a sharply observant child with a surprising memory. I carried inside of me a lot of memories, pictures, situations, smells and sounds that I was never before aware of. Step after step, during twenty long years, I was challenged by the gradual process, as if I was ripping off an old bandage that was already deeply rooted inside the flesh… Sometimes I found myself deep in weeping, groaning, reliving visions, situations that I had subconsciously buried inside me.
It was a traumatic experience. Retroactively, I can call it a long process of auto-scripto-therapy. My luck is that it was aided by a clinical psychologist. Otherwise, I am not sure that I would have been able to reach the goal.
Still, the main motivation to overcome all the obstacles ahead of me during the writing was my feeling that I had unknowingly been chosen to serve as a messenger of a mission, one that should not be abandoned, on behalf of my friends, children like me, from the backyard, the adjacent empty lot, from my school; none of them survived but me. For three years inside the ghetto, I played, studied, sang and quarreled with those children. And one after the other, they disappeared. That left me alone. I don’t know why.
What were the effects on myself of the writing and what did it do to me?
My book Crossing the River received many responses, some very heartfelt and surprising ones. My folders contain hundreds of notes from telephone calls and more than a thousand letters from engaged readers. This overwhelming encouragement has resulted in four consecutive Hebrew editions, two in English, and now a German translation is under way to be published – how symbolical! – in Berlin.
Readers even found in my book evidence about their lost and perished relatives since I could recount things about them for a period of several years after they had disappeared from the external world.
Yet the greatest reward for my undertaking comes when readers tell me that they have recommended the book to their children and have received positive feedback from them, members of the next generation.
And a good thing happened to me as well. Little by little, a certain relief overcame me. My friends and family members bear faithful witness to everyday changes in my behavior, my becoming more relaxed in manners, a less tense and more welcoming character.
Even difficult memories – even the most painful — were thrown off and laid down piece by piece. Now I can touch every subject, date after date, draw out each bundle separately. Accordingly, I have presented talks in high schools, a thing I would never have considered doing before. I see it as a sacred mission of fulfilling the commandment “Thou shall tell your son.” Who, if not we, the last remaining survivors?
A healing effect – energies were freed. I am less inclined to look back, there are more possibilities for, and willingness now, to look forward to new dramas.
As the next step, I have found myself involved with projects memorializing my parents.
With my father’s assistance, we have discovered in archives almost a dozen of my mother’s poems (in Yiddish) that were published in pre-war literary supplements of Kovno Jewish newspapers. I could add to it a bundle of meaningful letters from my mother to her sister in Palestine. All those, in addition to several essays about her poetry, were published as a bilingual book of Yiddish and Hebrew (Lea Greenstein. To Flicker).
As for my father, a historian and a writer (during his blessedly long life – he passed away at the age of 102 – he published nine novels), he never told me that much about his personal experience and suffering in the camps. After his death, I discovered among his papers a pile of old, untouched copybooks – a diary that he kept from the first days of his liberation, namely from May 2, 1945. It includes a detailed report about the last weeks of the KZ Dachau, the lethal Death March and the long painful first months as if free, but still in quarantine, with inadequate food and poor medical care, followed by a slow recuperation of half a year in hospitals.
When I went to Germany for the first time, I visited some of the Dachau KZ camps in which he was enslaved. Now I am occupied in deciphering his complicated handwriting – he was using a poor quality pencil on bad paper that he had miraculously acquired on the first day after liberation.
That unique document will be submitted for publication by Yad Vashem.
So, as you can see, subjects that could be put under the caption “Damage Control” still unwillingly occupy space in my mind and are still part of my life’s routine, even after seventy years.
But besides all this I try to lead an ordinary life as a husband, father, grandfather of five marvelous grandchildren, keep friends, take piano lessons, sing in a choir, do some sports and tend a small garden of flowers and fruit trees in the backyard of our house.
And still, I must repeat: unfortunately, to a certain extent, we the survivors of the Holocaust, are different and will always remain different. So will our children, and perhaps our grandchildren, too.
A shadow stretching over 74 years still lingers.
I conclude my talk.
The last line in my book says: “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
How hard it is to look behind and not turn to stone.”
Thank you all.
Maastricht, May 4, 2015
Eilati, S. Crossing the River. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008; 2013)
Published in cooperation with Yad Vashem, Jerusalem