Recovering and Living with Holocaust Years
A concise version of talks during a book tour, USA, April-May 2009 – Video & Text
Thank you all for meeting me today. My heart especially goes out to my fellow- holocaust survivors, that attend this meeting. I salute you with all my heart. My special tributes to the representatives of the second and third generation of survivors that are here. By my personal experience I know what a burden fell on their shoulders, unwillingly and unexpectedly, without their own choice. Excited I send greetings to my friends and family that I see among the respectable audience here.
Let me open by reading a fragment of my book: [Preface]
I belong to the rare sub-group among the Shoah survivors – the children survivors. Every survivor has a special story of his miraculous remaining alive after all that he has experienced. Jewish children that survived of my age group (and let me grimly note – there are now almost no survivors younger than 66 old anymore….)- those ex-children more than others probably, shlep for their entire life the most unbelievable stories about the miracles that enabled them to stay alive, most of the cases paying unwillingly the price of orphanages and traumatic abandonment for the rest of their lives.
Let me introduce myself: Born in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, to an ordinary modern couple – my father a writer and teacher, graduated in history at a Lithuanian University (his thesis: “The Spanish Inquisition”…). My mother an autodidact poetess, that as a mother of two – me and my younger sister – studied and was graduated as a nurse. The sudden war forced us, in the summer of 1941 into the ghetto. Six months later, after surviving miraculously a terrible Aktion with a third of the ghetto population – 10,000 people killed, my father was deported to the Riga ghetto, Latvia, and we didn’t see him in the coming years. My mother was left with two small children and cared for them under severe, inhuman conditions. But she managed to provide us with food and safe shelter as much as she could, while going out 4 days a week for heavy work in a felt-factory (“Filz-Fabrik”) brigade. Moreover, when she sensed that the awful danger of snatching children – a “Kinder Aktion” – might occur in our ghetto just as it happened elsewhere – and it happened indeed – she was brave and decisive enough to gamble and send her children to risk hiding in shelters of brave Lithuanian people. The final result of her gamble stands here in front of you.
At this point I have to state here quite clear and sound – I owe my life to five noble Lithuanian people. Many years later I managed to locate 3 of them and register them in the major Jewish National Memorial Institute – the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they were declared as “The Righteous Among The Nations”, and trees were planted in their name. The other two I am still trying to identify and look for their traces. Until now in vain.
After the liberation I returned from the distant village, where a noble and brave farmer gave me a safe shelter, back to my town. I found my ghetto totally burned down. None of my people were around – the ghetto people had all been deported to Germany on the very last days of the German occupation, and all the houses were exploded and burned, together with the many people that were hidden inside and underneath. It seems that my mother was among those people… What was the fate of the rest of my family? My father was deported to Germany. He survived the heavy work in the death camps of Dachau, was liberated by the armory units of the 3rd American Army, under the command of Gen. Patton and miraculously remained alive. My little sister, who was in hiding in another house just near mine in the city, was handed over to the German Gestapo, after living for half a year with her so-called rescuers. ….
Do I have a clear answer to the riddle of my survival, a child of eleven? I could guess that it was a combination of vitality, constant alertness, ability to act independently even when alone, not losing my head in complicated and dangerous situations. Unfortunately all that is not a sound recipe for survival. Also sheer luck was not enough. The Germans were smart, murderous and cunning. I should add – although I talk about the peril of a young Jewish boy, I imagine that such peril and suffering happened and still occurs to many other boys and girls in other parts of this cruel world. My heart is with those youngsters. I wish and pray that such happenings would not happen again – never again, wherever, everywhere…
A young Jewish couple who came out of their hiding place took me to their new home for a time. Later I lived in a Jewish orphanage for a while. With the help of good people and the gracious aid of Abraham Klausner, the chaplain of the American Army that was stationed in West Germany, I have gradually migrated to Poland, Germany, and reached Munich. There my father lived as a war refugee. On March 1946 we met again, after a separation of 5 years. Soon an opportunity came up to move to Israel – then still Palestine. After only 3 weeks together, my father and I departed again. I went by a ship to Israel, and there I live ever since, 63 years already, for good.
My more detailed happenings in the various hidings, the liberation by the Red Army, the later peril and adventures along the long route until I met my father – all that and more you can, if you wish, read in my book.
” ….. The Holocaust is a dark and bottomless abyss, endlessly churning up, like boiling lava,...” So opens the known Israeli author A.B Yehoshua in his introduction to my book. Indeed it is an endlessly churning lava. For thirty years I led an ordinary life of building a scientific career, establishing a family, acting as much as possible as a reasonable parent, building a cozy home. And still the early memories did not leave me. But then came a time, that I felt compelled to sit down and very cautiously, very slowly and carefully, for a whole twenty years, to try to reconstruct my personal happenings during the Shoah years.
וָתבַט אשתו מאחוריו ותהי לנציב מלח ” (בראשית יט, כו) ……” “…But Lot’s wife looked back ,
and she became a pillar of salt ” (Genesis, 19:26) I found that the sayings of the bible, that describe the escape of Lot and his family from the upheaval of Sodom, and the bad end of his wife, Eshet Lot, presents an emotional situation that I am familiar with. And indeed I have used that fragment as a kind of a motto to the epilogue of my book. Would it not be too dangerous to look behind, to open again the lid of the Pandora box?
For many years my early memories did not trouble nor engaged me too much. Deep in my heart I knew that one day, far beyond the horizon, when retiring, I’ll sit down and try to record my main memories for my children. As the ancient command says: Ve Higgadta Le-Binkha” – “Thou shalt tell your children“. But events turned out differently, and one bright day I felt compelled to sit down and begin to scribble. It began by writing notes a page a week. And even that was quite hard, as if I – a professional editor – were almost illiterate. It took me ten full years to compile slowly the first draft of my recollections. It consisted of incidental fragments, without any clear chronological order. only afterwards was I able to move to another phase in my writing – to try to combine the various pieces of the composite mosaic into a more literary version, that you can see today in the bound English edition. This second phase of literary elaboration took me another ten years. So, all in all, it took me 20 full years of slow and gradual writing, until I had a final manuscript to offer Israeli publishers. Let me share with you a little about that phase of writing. As I have noted already, acting as an editor, after writing a Master Degree thesis (“The adaptability of vine rootstocks to the extreme conditions of the Arava desert conditions“) and a PhD dissertation (“The biochemistry and physiology of the coloration process of the peel of the Israeli orange”), I am not the most illiterate person. Still, that kind of writing happened to be most traumatic for me. Slowly, (I cite) ” like removing old bandages that had long since merged with the living flesh” I proceeded in my work.
It was traumatic indeed. Unexpectedly I slowly discovered that deep under an unseen lid I keep an immense inventory of memory, fragments. Sometimes even the smell and the sound of these forgotten memories were retrieved. I met situations that surprised me, even brought tears to my eyes, and long minutes of sobbing. I met situations full of sorrow, remorse, anguish and pain. As years pass, the experience and memories of those years, like a shadow, lengthen, do not fade away. Until this moment there are still fragments in my book that are hard for me, the author, to pass by, not to say to read again… The writing process demanded very special conditions. It included the total solitude in an empty apartment (for years I became an “apartment-sitter” for my friends), special writing devices (an old typewriter or a pencil plus eraser), very slow progress.
What gave me the strong motivation, obstinate intention to go on, not to give up in spite of the hardship, the inconveniencies, the economic sacrifices? First of all it was the feeling of conveying a message. To forward the tale of my people, their peril and pain. To add a little grain to the scale that challenges the villainous Shoah deniers. But more than everything – I found myself being chosen for unexplained reasons to be the representative, the “Shaliach” of my friends, the kinderlech of my house, the friends of the neighboring yard with whom I played and quarreled and competed and laughed for three imprisoned ghetto years – none of them, not even one, survived and returned to life like me. Until this very day it is still the great unexplained puzzle that doesn’t leave me – why me? – “Lama Ani” – of all the other children of the ghetto? Arke and Maimke, Moishele, Zelda and Mina’leh, , that I mention in my memoir, and many many others. Not to mention my little sister, Yehudith, who did not even complete her sixth year of life… Of the 5,000 children under Bar-Mitzvah age (13) that entered our ghetto in August 1941, by 1 August 1944 (the liberation day of Kovno by the Red Army) approximately only 200 – 250 children survived. That means about 4 percent, four of each hundred children. And I am one of those four… Each one of them has a most unique and unconceivable story of survival. If all those stories of rescue were brought together in one book, it would read like tales of fantasies and miracles. May I add to the reasons for completing the book – people noted it – that without having intended to do so, I have created a memorial also for my mother and her heroic deeds. As I noted in my foreword: “She gave me life twice, but was unable to save her own even once”…
“Benefits”. Once the manuscript was completed, and was published in Hebrew in Jerusalem, my life has to a certain extent unpredictably changed. An unseen burden was removed from my shoulders, and I found myself much more relieved. Unseen monsters that occupied unknowingly my subconscious, that troubled my nights, that made me a tense and strict person with my family and friends, slowly faded . Friends, my dear wife and wonderful comrade Miriam can testify – the man has changed. I became a little more tolerant not only of myself but of others as well. I began, for the first time, to talk about those years in high schools. I volunteered to meet students and tell them a little. After many years, the hidden chapters of my tale are now retrievable, like various volumes of books on a shelf, without much effort. I have experienced a process of scanning and mapping painful pockets in my memory, a process that would grant me much more strength in the days to come.
I found myself looking for other children survivors like me, each of them, as I mentioned before, bearing his unique story of rescue (otherwise they would not be here). We began to meet, to share stories. Many of them had not yet told their tale completely to others. We had larger meetings, similar to the blessed activity of the Hidden Children World Federation that encompasses dozens of such national associations all over the world. Its headquarters are located here, in the U.S. And I went, for the first time, back to Lithuania – (it is difficult for me to call it “homeland”, but still it is the place where I had spent, for better or worse, my first and most meaningful 12 years). More than that, I returned for a second and a very fruitful visit. Its results you’ll be able to meet in the epilogue of the book, that was written recently.
Another kind of benefits was the later discoveries and deep impressions received from readers. Letters, telephone calls, follow me until now from deeply moved readers. Besides general compliments, I especially treasure getting more information regarding events or people that I mention in the book. Excited people found belated and unexpected trails of their vanished dear ones, with whom they lost contact several years before my testimony. Some of these nameless persons suddenly became alive, people identified their dear ones in my text. I could tell you much more, but our time is limited.
At this point I would like to send a message to the survivors among the public here: sit down and tell your story, either by writing or by recording. Talk about it, don’t give up. Even if it hurts – and it hurts indeed – the final results will justify your efforts.
Let me add here a fragment of the book that describes the last Yom Hakippurim , in the ghetto. September 1943. [ Yom Kippur (p.96)]
A long chain of miracles – “Nissim” in Hebrew – happened to me. Some bigger, some smaller, but as Nissim should be – always unexpected, and unexplained. From the age of eleven, when I had to leave my mother, I am actually on my own. Much later I learned that besides my mother and little sister , we have lost in the mass graves of Lithuania all our other 6 families , 27 souls. Only I and a holocaust ravaged and exhausted father have survived.
I would like to end this meeting by citing a song, one of the more beloved by me of the ghetto songs. Those songs, mostly compiled by unknown or non-professional people, served as a kind of moral outlet and encouragement for the imprisoned community . As it is said in my book: ..” The songs were a kind of underground communication for a persecuted community trying to keep its courage up.”
The following song describes, in a lamenting tone, the daily routine of the brigades that go to work, wearing yellow patches, and bravely confronting their fate. And then the final and most optimistic verse says (my free translation): ” ….A day will come and we shall overcome, and reach a springtime of victory. Then we shall stretch our limbs and sing a new song of liberty. Jewish Brigades, cheerful and happy, marching without patches, back to our homeland again… ” Allow me – if my emotions will enable me to read, or even sing, that last verse in the original Yiddish, as a symbolic tribute to my perished people in ghetto Kovno, in Mame loshn – my mother tongue:
מיר וועלן נאָך דערלעבן ברידער,
אונדזער פרילינג , אונדזער זיג.
דאַן אויסגלייכן וועלן מיר די גלידער
און שאַפן א נייע פרייהייטס ליד.
יידישע בריגאדעס, אויסגעפוצט אָן לאַטעס,
מארשירט, מיט פרייד און גליק
אין אונדזער היימאַט-לאַנד צוריק.
(א’ אקסעלראד; נעימת שיר לכת פולני)
Thank you all, and be blessed.
Toda. היו ברוכים, תודה .
Special Addition to my talk in NYC:
….And last and not the least I greet with much respect and pleasure my good friend, the honorable Ambassador of Israel to the U.N., Prof. Gabriella Shalev, who shares with us this evening. At this point I have to add something personal and emotional. While preparing the draft of my forthcoming speech, I surprising stumbled at my phrase: “….to the honorable ambassador of my country Israel, who shares with us this evening”. I gazed at the text that I had just written, and for a moment I was stunned: The Ambassador of my country, Israel…. “My country Israel !!!!.”….
Suddenly, more than ever before, I felt that after all my wandering and crossing of rivers and oceans, I have found my home.
…..שהחייני, וקיימני, והגיעני לזמן הזה!