An address in Berlin
Shalom Eilati, a child survivor of ghetto Kovno, Lithuania, presents in Berlin the German edition of his literary autobiography “Crossing The River”(*) May 9, 2016
To all the good people that are summoned here to celebrate the birth of my book – my deepest gratitude.
My gratitude for the warm and generous words by the respected Prof. Monika Grütters, Minister of Cultural Affairs and Media. Her words are more meaningful for me than I can express; Similarly the Lithuanian message ( it appears as a foreword in my book), is similarly significant, a country that caused so much harm to my people, but also includes noble and most brave individuals like the six women and men, Righteous among the Nations, to whom I owe my life.
Thank you all and be blessed.
I try to look back on my life’s path, and am unable to comprehend it. I, the tiny random splinter, a chased lonely Jewish child of 8 to 11 years of age of ghetto Kovno, one of the two survivors of our 27 members of the family in Lithuania, one of the 250 surviving children of the 5,000 children that entered the ghetto, who passed so many whirlpools, deadly bottlenecks, stand here, in Berlin, recalling the past source of evil and death, on a day after the 71st Victory Day, and present my memoir in the German language.
I say in 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 there“.
I was dragged by Tyche or Fortuna, and found myself at last inconceivably, on the shore of life.
My attitude to Germans and Germany is complicated. My mother was born and raised in Kurland – a North Western corner of Lithuania, that was under German cultural influence. During WW I she finished a German oriented public school. She liked literature and poetry from her younger days. She read to me about the frightening Erl Kȍnig, (Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind) and sang with pleasure fragments from the opera Faust.
In the cinema we enjoyed the legends of the Brothers Grimm. ” Zieglein, Zieglein, bist du satt? – ich bin so satt, ich mag kein Blatt!« Later in the ghetto I sometimes dreamed to possess the magic Tischlein , Tischlein deck dich!…
But one day, on the 22nd June 1941 , all that was destroyed. German troops marched into our city, singing their military hymns. Oh Li la lo la la…and everything collapsed totally.
Once in the ghetto mother came back from her daily toil of cutting trees, with a rare shining face.” I had a word with our older guardian” – she told – “and we found much in common. At the end we found ourselves singing together “Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Tannenbaum, wie grün sind deine Blätter“.
My other memories about German and Germans are sadder. The Big Aktion in our ghetto in autumn 1941, that consisted in sending of a third of it – ten thousand children, men and women to their death – was regulated by two simple German words: Links – Rechts, Links Rechts…
The daily routine of the ghetto enriched our vocabulary. We, the children of the ghetto – 5,000 in the beginning and only 250 after the liberation – we got another kind of linguistic lessons. Please excuse me for the following several expressions of vulgarity.
Achtung; Raus; Donnerwetter; Verfluchter Jude; et cetera
But an extraordinary German lesson I did receive during the first day of the most dreadful of my ghetto experiences – the Kinder Aktion. I was temporarily rescued in the dark cellar where I lay hidden under a laundry vessel. Luckily, the hunters had entered without a flashlight. When some divine garbage fell on their heads they gave up their search by using an expression so vulgar that I prefer not to repeat it. You can read it in my book.
At the same time my father was incarcerated in the worst KZ lagers of Latvia (Kaiserwald) and ended , at the age of 42, as a “Musselman” weighing only 30 kg, in the Lager of Dachau. In his diary he describes the euphoria that gripped the half dead people around him during the first night after salvation. People were hysterical. They wept , laughed, prayed. Some began to sing the “International” or “Hatikvah”. At last, in bed after the lights went out, some people began to express their hyper-emotions by shouting mockingly the daily commands and curses of their persecutors:
Gong; Aufstehen ! Kaffee holen ! Antreten! Schneller In die Reihe !
Block 1,2 , Mützen ab ! Mützen auf ! Stillgestanden !!
Kommandos antreten ! Haver-Bau! Holzmann! Zammer-keller! Moll Nachtschicht !!
Links, zwoh, drei, vier ! Arschloch – Bewegung ! Zoo-Bande – Schneller, Kurzschritt vornehmen !
My mother’s perfect German helped her sometimes during Aktions. Several times it worked, but not always. On the last night of the clearing of the ghetto, she apparently decided not to join the evacuation to Germany, but to try to remain in a hidden bunker. When the explosions began, she may have approached one of the many guards, and pleaded with him to let her cross the barbed wire fence. She might have tried to explain to him in her excellent German, that she has two little hidden children in the city , beyond the river. Had she the chance to finish her plea, or did a single shot cut short her plea and life forever?
A year ago, at the end of my lecture at the University of Maastricht, a German student asked me what I thought about the present German generation. My answer was not unequivocal. I don’t have anything against the present German generation, which has no part in the awful acts of its people of the past. But when I meet a young German I can’t escape of immediately wondering who had been one of his ancestors. Was it by chance the one that killed my mother at the fence, or shot at the curly head of my little innocent sister of seven? An unsolved question that will always haunt me, will never fade away.
A word about my book. After 30 years in Israel I began to retrieve and write my memories. It took me 20 long traumatic years. A kind of Auto-scripto-therapy. I see myself an unchosen messenger by my youthful friends who did not survive, to tell about the last chapter of their short lives. In Israel my book “Crossing the River” has already gone through 4 consecutive editions, and in the USA two editions. I was inundated by hundreds of telephone calls and personal letters, not mentioning feedbacks on the Amazon. Teachers recommended the inclusion of the book in the syllabi of the middle schools, with the argument that it is a rare report of events, as observed and described through the eyes of a sharp eyed young boy with a remarkable memory. The Education Division of Yad Vashem prepared a series of educational lessons, based on the book, to be used in schools.
And now, the unbelievable paradox, oxymoron – my book of peril, appears in German, in Berlin…..
So, somehow, the ring closes. Could I try again to sing Oh Tannenbaum Oh Tannenbaum or to cite Ver reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Might be. I doubt.
At the end, let me share with you a most [lunatic] fantasy. .
After my escape from the ghetto, crossing the river, noble and brave Lithuanians saved my life. Different was the fate of my young sister Yehudith, almost seven. For 6 months she was sheltered by people. And then, a month before the liberation, they called the Gestapo.
While preparing this talk, suddenly the following thought crossed my mind. Might it have been, that the Gestapo man, instead of taking my schwesterl, almost at the age of seven, to the cellars of the headquarter, and seeing how sweet and cute she is, he put her in a temporary shelter, and on the first occasion he delivered her to his family in the Fatherland. To the frightened child they explained that all the Jews, including her family, disappeared, will never come back. So she grew up as an ordinary German girl. Although she might have recalled something of her dim past, with time it melted away .Having grown up in a devoted warm family, she had never enough motivation to check her earlier memories.
Now, being a grandmother at the age of 79, she might even live somewhere around. Who knows, even in Berlin…
A fantasy that is constantly with me.
(*) Shalom Eilati, Crossing The River, The University of Alabama Press, 2008; 2013
__________, Ans Andere Ufer de Memel, Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten JudenEuropas, Berlin, 2016