Address by Dr. Shalom Kaplan-Eilati (*) on Behalf of the Survivors
Opening Ceremony of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day 2014
April 1944, the Kovno ghetto, Lithuania.
An 11-year-old boy dressed up to blend into the crowd, I joined my mother’s brigade, which crossed the river on the way to work. Her instructions were clear: on reaching the other side, like Lot’s wife I was not to look back. Walk straight ahead, into the hills; a woman would be waiting for me there.
Like Moses in the bulrushes, I was cast by my mother, the poetess Lea Greenstein, onto the shores of life. She gave me life twice, but was unable to save her own even once.
Two weeks earlier, the most horrific Kinder Aktion (round-up and deportation of children) took place in the ghetto. From my hiding place I heard the heartrending cries of mothers struggling with Germans and Ukrainian soldiers who kept returning, time after time. They dragged away bitterly sobbing children, and ripped toddlers out of their mother’s arms, assisted by terrifying wolfhounds. Their cries haunt me to this day.
I was fortunate to find shelter in a remote village with noble Lithuanians, who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. When evening fell I would leave my hiding place in the hayloft, and, facing my hometown, I would offer up a personal prayer for the wellbeing of my family and friends, wherever they might be. I didn’t know it, but at that time my mother had already perished in the conflagration of the ghetto. I also knew nothing about my little sister, whose guardians had handed her over to the Gestapo.
Only two members of our family of eighty survived: Myself, a child wandering the streets of the city alone and my father, author Israel Kaplan, a muselmann in Dachau. Immediately upon his liberation, frail and sick, he devoted himself to collecting survivors’ testimonies, thus contributing greatly to Yad Vashem’s database.
We were reunited after four years of separation. I immigrated to Eretz Israel, fiercely determined to rehabilitate myself. I went on to become a member of Kibbutz Tel Yosef, an IDF officer, I attained a doctorate in agriculture, contributed to developmental research in the Arava region, and took an active part in community projects. I’m a father of three and a grandfather of five, my wife a partner in life, and in shouldering the heavy load I carry with me.
Of some 5,000 children under the age of Bar Mitzva in my ghetto, 250-300 of us survived. Five out of every hundred.
I speak here tonight on behalf of my friends from the backyard, the adjacent empty lot, and my school. For three years inside the ghetto, I played, studied, sang and quarreled with them. And one after the other, they disappeared.
Mina and Zelda, Hans and Mossik, Arke and Maimke, and many more whose names I won’t recall. Why did I survive and not they? That is something I will never understand.
I speak here on behalf of the Jewish children who were persecuted everywhere. Most of them perished, some were hunted down, like my sister. We, the children who survived, bravely endured being hidden in difficult conditions, in total isolation for many months without knowing the fate of our loved ones. We coped with the continual terror of being found out, and discovered within ourselves the tremendous self-discipline required to disguise our identity in an environment where evil abounded – behavior that amounted to heroism.
Likewise, the actions of parents such as my mother, who dared to gamble, to part from their children and to send them on a perilous path, but one that held an infinitesimal chance of survival, those too were heroic.
What gave us the strength to keep going? It was the profound hope that redemption would come, that the demise of evil would occur. A deep-rooted faith that my mother had instilled in me from the start.
With liberation, we were reborn. Many of us kept silent when we arrived here, and remained silent for many years. The shadow of the Holocaust accompanies us even decades later. But we built new lives, we were fortunate enough to raise families and establish new generations, of which we are immensely proud.
From amongst us, the survivors, sprang pioneers and builders, intellectuals and men of action – the builders of this country and its loyal supporters. They are a testament to the enormous potential that was obliterated by the forces of evil.
My brethren, we are alive; My brethren, “Mir Zeinen Do!” (We are here!)
Holocaust survivors, my blessings go out to you.
My brothers and sisters in destiny, I embrace you.
(*) Author of “Crossing The River“, The University of Alabama Press, Second edition 2013