World War II and the Holocaust Years
Jacob: If you'll want me, I'll continue telling what happened, but that is the most important for me to talk about. Well, I am not an actor, not a talker, but you children-Joshua, Rachel-asked me to tell you my story, and I'm trying to do it, on the background of the historic events what happened that time in Europe.
I'll start this part under the name World War II and the Holocaust Years. I survived. You see your mother survived. You two, our children, are with us right now. When we came to America, your mother and myself, after the Holocaust years, and I had no job, nothing special what to do, not knowing the English language, and I was able to use the pen to write. So I put my ideas and the events what happened on paper. I had some materials what I kept during the Holocaust years. How you call it, this kind of day to day?
Rachel: A diary.
Jacob: A diary, pieces of paper. Finally, here in America, in the beginning being a Hebrew teacher and having free hours-the Hebrew school was the afternoon; I was a Hebrew teacher in Pawtucket, Rhode Island-so I have plenty of time before noon, and I wrote a book in Yiddish. The book was published by organization of Lithuanian lantsmen. Lantsmen means people who came from Lithuania a time ago. Especially, one man helped me to publish the book in Yiddish. And it was written an introduction to the book in English, a good introduction, I suppose.
I would like to ask you, Rachel, in order to have better understanding, to read the introduction, the English introduction. And then I will tell you, if you want, what happened to us during those days. Will you,
please, Rachel, take the book and read the introduction? You want the microphone? I'll give it to you.
Rachel: The forward of the book is written by Barry Siegel, your friend.
Out of the millions of Jews who came under the Nazi yoke, only a few hundred thousand remained alive. Of these, only a few thousand found refuge in the new land and returned to a normal life again. Out of these, only a few score have told the world of the martyrdom of the six million Jews caught in the heart of Western culture.
The author of this autobiographical story, Mr. Jacob Rassen, is one of those few.
He refuses to forget all that was done to him and to his, and he refuses to let us forget. All during the book, one has the feeling that the author is not merely telling a story but that he is fulfilling a mission-a mission and a promise which he has made to those who perished, that he will keep their memory before the world as long as his tongue will serve him to talk and his hands to write.
As if he was aware of his mission in some mysterious way, the author kept a diary in which he recorded the events, scenes, and impressions from the first day, when bombs fell over Lithuania and Latvia, in 1941, to the last day of his wanderings, in 1946.
I said that the author kept a diary, but the word hardly fits his collection of episodes, descriptions, and poems. It is more than a diary; it is a record of a soul in anguish. And no ordinary diary has ever been written under such circumstances. One sees the author buried the strips of paper under the roots of an ancient tree. He smuggled them through the searches of the Nazi guards. To be discovered meant loss of life, but to lose these notes meant loss of purpose to the author.
Who else but a person convinced of his mission to preserve the memory of martyrs would keep such a diary at such a risk?
The story begins on a day when, out of the clear skies, bombs began to fall to drop over the busy city of Kovno, the capital of Lithuania. The undeclared war against the erstwhile ally had begun. The Nazi blitz against the Soviet Union was in full force.
Caught unprepared physically and mentally, people were confused and panicky. The purpose of the enemy was fully realized. A confused enemy is half conquered. Panic is a powerful weapon. The Russian garrison abandoned the city and left the population unprotected and undefended. All who feared the Nazis moved in the wake of the Russian military divisions. People took to the highways on foot, in cars, and in all manner of vehicles, leaving behind home and lifelong savings. Most of these people were Jews.
What took place in Kovno also took place in other cities and towns, and the stream of refugees grew into a mighty river along the roads of Lithuania, Latvia, and BieloRussia-a mighty but helpless river of scared humanity.
Bombs falling overhead, and hatred raising its ugly head on all sides. With the retreat of the Soviet armies, all kinds of fascist groups crawled out of their holes and showed their hideous faces in the open. These homegrown fascists proved to surpass their German masters in cruelty and in monstrosity. They sniped at the refugees and incited the populace.
The river of fleeing humanity did not go toofor. Soon it was realized that the enemy had formed a steel ring all around the retreating Russians and the refugees following them. All avenues of escape were sealed. The Jews knew too well what to expect now.
From then on, the author unfolds an unbelievable tale of deception, insults, cruelty, decimation, slave work, systematic
unreal as a nightmare. The mind simply cannot fathom these inhuman cruelties. Nor can the mind grasp the depths to which man can fall in degradation. Even now, with all the facts known, all this still seems unreal.
How can a man betray another human being for a prize of a pound of tobacco? How can human beings pursue a human being with bloodhounds and make a game of it? And what is even more difficult to understand is the strength of the.frail human body to survive all this.
Mr. Jacob Rassen tells of day-by-day life in the ghettos of Dvinsk, Riga, Kovno, and other Lithuanian and Latvian cities. He tells of the periodic sortings of those who can still be allowed to live and those who cannot be fed any longer. He tells of the tricks by which men and women were led to their deaths without a chance to resist. The victims were always told of a new plan and a new opportunity before they were carried off, and when they realized the truth, it was too late. You read of a man who lived all alone for weeks in a hole of a haystack, like a rodent, crawling out at night to steal food. You read, and you will never forget, of the seventeen-year-old girl who plucks the petals of a daisy and asks herself.
- Will they kill us? Will they not?
An echo of the good old days, when girls her age would pluck the petals of the flower asking:
-He loves me? He loves me not?
The author calls by name men and women who died heroic deaths refusing to mar the image of their Creator. And he calls by name others who sold themselves to the enemy for a part of a pot of thicker soup and an extra loaf of bread.
You read a pathetic chapter in which the author, a well-trained agronomist and specialist in form husbandry, goes back to the open fields for two short, heavenly weeks. He is released as a slave laborer to a former during the busy season in the field, but he would be a happy man to
remain a slave laborer forever, because well does he know what awaits him at the end of harvest season. Life in the ghetto would be a thousandfold harder to bear after this short return to decent living.
You read of the two yearnings that jill the hearts of the degraded wearers of the zebra suits and the badges of shame. These two yearnings are: Freedom and Revenge.
In fact, the two go hand in hand. There is no sense in gaining freedom unless this freedom is used for revenge on the enemy. Revenge is not merely a word; it is the essence of life and the motive for the will to live.
And in this lies the key to the greatest puzzle in the tale of horror that reaches us from this book and from other accounts. One is always puzzled by the fact that so many found the strength to carry on with a semblance of living in the face of such hopeless reality. The answer is found in the pages of this book.
The promise of Revenge! To remain alive means the chance for revenge; hence, we will not give up.
Revenge for murdered parent, wife and child, friends and relatives. With this promise, one could suffer degradation; one could face hunger, beatings, and all manner of indecent torture. With the promise of a chance at revenge on the enemy, one was ready to attempt escapes, risk capture, and take as well as lose lives.
The author tells of his and his friends' escapes, some unsuccessful and resulting in undescribable sufferings. There was, finally, one successful escape that brought the long-desired chance for revenge.
The chapters telling of the guerrilla period and the experiences of the author are the most heartening ones. Living in the forest, hunting the enemy and being hunted in return, is no bed of roses. But dangerous living as it is, there is in it none of the hopelessness, none of the pity and the despair and the helplessness, of the ghetto or concentration camps.
These chapters of life with the anti-Nazi guerrillas, written by a Jewish guerrilla fighter himself, are the high points in the book. One wishes there were more of these chapters, more of the adventures and more of the tales of revenge.
The war ended, it is true, with the defeat of the enemy. But the Jews returned not as victors but as mourners. They returned to their native homes and found none. Gone were the familiar and beloved faces. Strangers inhabited the homes of their fathers, and these strangers did not look with favor upon those who came back. Many of those now reaping the fruits of victory were collaborators with the Nazis, but this does not prevent them from inheriting Jewish homes and enjoying Jewish wealth. The worst of it is that it is done openly, while the administration pretends not to know the truth.
How disappointing and how tragic!
So the author, who miraculously escaped death a hundred times, who fought for the liberation of his homeland, who longed for the day of returning home, cannot pick up the interrupted web of life in his native country. He turns his back on the land drenched with the blood of his beloved ones, and on his neighbors whose hands are soiled with plunder, and he faces a new life in a new land with a renewed hope.
* * *
Two elements are entirely absent from this memoir. There is little bitterness and no despair, though we could expect both in a work of this nature.
Mr. Rassen does not accuse the American Jews of indiffirence or of criminal neglect, as others have done in their bitterness. I have always questioned the wisdom and the justice of such accusations whenever I come across them, in talks with refugees and in print. The author is a mature man, and his judgment is mature. He knows well
the catastrophic nature of the events in Europe, which the Jews of America could hardly have prevented or checked. They were unexpected, and as unbelievable as the havoc wrought by an earthquake or a flood.
Moreover, Mr. Rassen has some kind words for the
e./forts of the agencies set up by the Jews of America-such as the joint Distribution Committee, the HIAS, the ORT-and for the e./forts of individual American Jews. In particular does the author appreciate the work of Rabbi joseph Shubow of Boston, who was the chaplain in the American zone of Germany.
The other element, despair, is entirely rejected by the author. In the most crucial days of his wandering, hiding and coming to grips with the enemy, he never allowed himself to succumb to despair. Hope is the watchword of this man, who alone remained out of a large family and a wide circle of friends. There is a very touching chapter in which we are told the story of a man, alone in this world, and of a woman, alone in a strange, hostile land. They were both alone with memories of loved ones, memories one must try to submerge in order to continue living. And continue living they must, or their miracle of survival is meaningless. And so the man and the woman join their spiritual and their physical resources, and they establish a new household, a family, on the ruins of that period. A son is born to them, and they call him Yehoshua (Joshua), which means God will help. And this son, who bears the name of a grandfather who lived the life of a scholar and a just man and died the death of a martyr-this boy, joshua, will continue the golden thread of Jewish hope in life.
You have here the elements out of which great epic poems are created.
And the book ends on a hopeful note. The final chapters bring us to a DP [displaced person} camp, where some very urgent activities are taking place in great secrecy. The group
of about one hundred and fifty young men and women is about to start on an infinite journey that will take them home. In the darkness of night, this group will leave by way of the underground toward the land of their dreams and the land of their only salvation. There are guards to elude, boundaries to cross, obstacles to overcome, risky crossings to take, and also the danger of being deported to Cyprus.
Yes, all this and even greater dangers are to be expected. The group knows it, is prepared for it, but is not held back by it. No one says, I would rather stay here in Bergen Belsen or in Landsberg, where I am safe, at least, and where I can get my daily meals. I shall therefore not risk my life on a journey to the unknown.
No, no one says that, because the will to live, to start a new, normal life in the Land of Israel is greater than all the possible dangers of the underground journey.
The Will to Live. This can be chosen as the main motif of the book. As long as the remnants of Israel cling to that will to live, there is no reason to despair.
The wounds will heal under a new sun, and new roots will thrive in a fertile soil-not drenched with the blood of the martyrs but filled with a hope and faith for regeneration, peace, and survival.
Providence, Rhode Island
Jacob: Well, thank you, Rachel. Josh, maybe it's not necessary at all to continue my story, because the introduction to the book gave you understanding what happened-what I myself and my family in that time and my whole generation of that time went through. So if you excuse me, we'll finish on this.
Josh: I think-let's hear the details.
Jacob: You want in details?
Josh: The whole story, for the family, for the future.
Jacob: Why? Tell me, Josh, why do you want to know about this whole story? You tell me. I was the talker all the time. You talk for a while.
Josh: I think it is important to have an accurate history, once and for all. I'm interested in this. I think sometime other people will be interested, too.
Jacob: The children, your children?
Josh: You wrote your story, but you wrote in Yiddish, and many of us aren't able to read it in the original. And frankly, there is no one who is really able to translate it. So we need to hear it from the author.
Jacob: So you want me to continue? We are approaching now the most-I would say the most tragic and the most emotional part of my life story. I called it under the name World War II and the Holocaust Years.
Well, the World War II broke out upon us, upon our heads, as suddenly as it can be. I mentioned it in the beginning of the book. I call it like a storm; like a rainstorm in the middle of a sunny, bright day, it fell upon our heads. We didn't expect it. And I mentioned, I think, when I came back from Moscow-three, four days before the outbreak of the war-nobody suspected that events like this could happen. I haven't heard in Moscow from my brother, from his friends, the surrounding. Certainly, we haven't read in the papers, and I haven't heard in Lithuania, that war is approaching.
So it came to us suddenly. It happened on Sunday morning, June 22, 1941. June. About four o'dock in the morning. With outbreak of
the day and still sleeping, being in the beds, we heard suddenly bombs are falling, and the whole house was shaking, the windows.
We jumped out of our beds. God, what happened? What is going on? And the whole city ofKovno was trembling. Across the street, some other people opened their windows, sticking out and asking me, and I am asking them, What happened?
One neighbor says, The Russians, they are exercising maneuvers, fighting, air-fighting maneuvers over the city. And that is the reason. We could expect this.
Some says, What are you talking about? Look, a cloud of smoke you see here, and it looks like buildings are burning there.
Anyway, it was a panic, confusion, not understanding what is going on suddenly, about four or five o'clock in the morning on Sunday, June 22, 1941. Nobody even dreamt that war will start. And what kind of a war!
Well, it didn't take long. The telephone rings, and my good friend Jacob Aleski, who was the head of the ORT organization in Lithuania, engineer Jacob Aleski, calls me. You know what is going on?
War broke out between Germany and Russia, and the Germans are bombing Kovno, other cities, and probably the neighboring surrounding countries-Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and other places.
Well, it was a fact. World War II broke out. In my life and during my life up to this day, I went through four wars: two major wars and two small wars. The major wars were World War I, when I was a child, and we were expelled deep into Russia, and World War II, right now. And between, there were two small wars.
One was with Poland, as I told you before. The Polish general Zeligowski captured the area ofVilna and Vilna itself The relation between the two countries were always war-like relations; and meantime, there were some kind of attacks from the Polish into Lithuanian territory, and we Lithuanians, we are mobilized to resist the Polish. It was not a big war, but we were mobilized, and I was in the army. As I told you, I was a reserve lieutenant; I graduated from the military school, so I was mobilized, too, although not sent yet to the front.
The second small war was concerning the zone of Memel. In
Lithuanian, the city is called Klaipeda. Memel was taken by the Germans for a couple of hundred years, historically speaking, and the Lithuanians take it away from Germany after they became independent. It was resistance, and it was small, so to say, attacks from each side. Another small war.
Now the Second World War started. Certainly, we jumped out of
the beds, and we started in confusion doing something, and the main thing, what to do? We know what the Germans did already in Poland, and what can we expect them to do here? On the other hand, to pack and to run? My God, my God, to pack and run is easy to say. We lived in a place established and everything, and suddenly to run away? Where? For what purpose?
I forgot to tell you, before that, historically-you know it, probably-the Germans attacked Poland in 1939, in August 1939, and they called it a blitzkrieg. They occupied Poland in a few days. It was some resistance, and despite that there was no good relationship between Poland and Lithuania, a stream of Polish refugees and remnants of the Polish army fled into Lithuania. And hundreds of them, thousands of them, came with the soldiers disarmed by the Lithuanians; thousands of vehicles, motor cars, trucks. Then some rural population tried to escape. They came with their cattle, with their animals and civil population, among them mostly Jewish people.
That was like the introduction we could expect when we ourselves will become refugees. We, the Jewish people in Kovno and all over Lithuania, accepted the refugees from Poland as our brothers. We found place for them to live. As a matter of fact, in our house were stationed two refugees, Jewish refugees, from Poland. We tried to find work for them. At that time, ORT still existed, and ORT tried to find work for them, to teach them new jobs, and they lived the life of refugees in Lithuania. So we knew what means to be a refugee, to start running. Anyway, the first day of the war, Sunday, June the 22nd, the Russian military tried to encourage us. We'll resist! We won't let the enemy occupy Lithuania, our frontier country.
As a matter of fact, the Russians were building, reinforcing the frontier line, for the last year. They bought thousands and thousands of tons of stone and cement, and everything was going to the frontier, to
reinforcing the line. And so we know the Russians are preparing, but nobody thought that war will still come, will break out. As a matter of fact, as I told you before, my brother, as a so-called capitalist bourgeois, who lost his property, got a job as an agent of stone buying. I helped him in this way, and he was buying stones all over Lithuania to transfer it, to deliver it to the frontier, millions of tons of stones.
So we know Russians are preparing, and they encouraged us to stay. Through the radio, they gave us instructions how to build temporary shelters in the ground or to strengthen some houses, some foundations. So we and together with the neighbors around started to build a shelter in the backyard of our house in Kovno.
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