Scouring archives and databases searching for historical resources to confirm my mother's testimony about her Holocaust experiences in Kovno, Lithuania, I was thrilled when I came across this book by Joseph Gar, published in Germany in 1948. I gleefully downloaded the entire book from the electronic archive of the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Also available in the YIVO archive).
This book was written in the years just after the war and was based on interviews with Kovno survivors after their liberation. Most of these survivors were housed in the numerous Displaced Persons (DP) camps set up after the war mostly in the American Zone. Most Kovno Jews were in DP camps in southern Germany, with large numbers in the Landsberg DP camp, 100 km west of Munich. My aunt, Rivka (Sidrer) Baran, a survivor from Kovno, told me that her father, my paternal grandfather, Feival Sidrer, knew Joseph Gar. We assume that he possibly knew him from the Ghetto or from the DP camp, and perhaps even gave testimony to Gar for this historic account.
This is a photo of Joseph Gar in the uniform of the Lithuanian military, 1919. He was one of the volunteers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who joined the military to fight for the Independence of Lithuania. My own maternal grandfather, Jacob Santockis, was also such a Savanoris, as related in my book, A Holocaust Memoir of Love and Resilience: Mama's Survival from Lithuania to the USA.
My mother told us that the Savanoriai were highly recognized and honored in Lithuanian society. In fact, the President of Lithuania recognized them each year at the Independence Day parades and honored them with a medal and other benefits. However, Gar writes about the 70 Savanoriai who were to be shot at the Seventh Fort in July 1941. They were collected and taken away from the massacre site but were later murdered. Nevertheless, my grandfather was lucky. He was not taken to be murdered, perhaps because he showed the shooter the medal that was in his pocket; this shooter sent him to the Gestapo jail instead. Wanting to retrieve this medal for our family, I purchased one from an antique dealer in Kaunas during my roots trip in 2017. I will never know if it was my grandfather's actual medal, but it does not matter. But, now I wonder if perhaps my Santockis grandfather knew Gar from their military service.
Joseph Gar was born in 1905 in Kovno to David Leib Gar and Esther Fainberg Gar. His Lithuanian name was Josifas Garas. He lost his wife (nee Shapiro) and baby daughter Gitele (b. 1940) during those years of horror. Gar was a writer and editor of various works before and after the war. Right after liberation he returned to Kovno and helped establish a children's home for those children who were saved by Christians. He eventually came to Israel but left in the early 1950s, immigrating to the USA where he worked as a research associate for YIVO, documenting the history of ghettos and concentration camps. In 1966, he edited a Bibliography of Articles on the Catastrophe and Heroism in Yiddish Periodicals, a joint project with YIVO and Yad Vashem. He also narrated various stories about the Holocaust. Joseph Gar died in 1989 in the USA.
As I perused Gar's 400-page tome, I groaned as I realized the job ahead of me. I realized that I would have to reactivate my Yiddish language brain cells which had been lying dormant for too many years. My Yiddish neurological language center was formed at my birth, in the Displaced Persons Camp in Landsberg, Germany after the end of World War II.
While many children born to Eastern European immigrants or refugees might have acquired varying levels of spoken Yiddish, my mother was adamant that I become literate in reading and writing and in the beauty of the literature and culture. So, for seven years I attended Yiddishe Schule in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Sponsored by the Arbeter Ring (today, the Worker's Circle), I studied the classic works of Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Menachem Sforim, and others, and participated in numerous cultural events all in Yiddish. It is hard to imagine that I did this all after regular school hours.
With the deadline looming for the publication of my book, I bit the bullet and dove into Gar's Table of Contents to find the chapters and topics that related to events that Mama mentioned in her testimony. While I trusted Mama's memory, I wanted to ensure that there were other sources that corroborated her memory of those horrific years - and Gar's opus was one of them.
Slowly, I began the painstaking process of translating those paragraphs and chapters with the aid of one electronic and two hard copy dictionaries. I was worried that the task was beyond my capabilities despite my years in Yiddishe Schule. However, I was pleasantly surprised that my literacy skills were alive and that I could still access those dormant cells, even after all the years of learning additional languages.
I was grateful to Mr. Gar for his efforts at collecting information from survivors right after the war and documenting their horrific experiences before many went silent. As I read the relevant chapters pertaining to my mother's account, I learned that Mama was very accurate in her memories. But I learned much, much more in the process.
After publishing my book, I closed Mr. Gar's book until the pandemic forced me to reopen it. I realized that I needed a Covid project during our isolation. Thus, I decided that I would translate the entire book as a gift to the world, or, more realistically, to whoever might be interested. Thus, I embarked on the mission to complete the translation of every page. I was convinced that it was good for my brain cells - and my sanity.
Fast forward to January 2022 when I was encouraged by JewishGen's Yizkor Project to publish the translated book. Suddenly, my work moved from a brain exercise to a more serious goal to offer Joseph Gar's work to a wider audience.
I was most impressed by Gar's details in this book, which were clearly based on interviews with Litvak survivors from Kovno and his own experiences. Many of the Litvak survivors were housed in the Landsberg DP Camp. This camp was famous for its size and the myriad of institutions which offered social, cultural, memorial, religious, educational, and sports initiatives. All the DP camps saw innumerable marriages, and the largest baby boom in the world. I was one of those baby-boomers.
Not only is this book a chronology and description of events, but it also details the inner thoughts, behaviors, and emotions of the Jews at every stage of their mental, physical, and spiritual suffering. It describes every horrific or heroic event, the daily struggle for survival, the fear, the desperation, the ghetto conflicts, and all the Jewish institutions that were established and functioning during the 3 years of the existence of the Kovno Ghetto. But even more, Gar succeeded in transporting the reader to the Ghetto to feel the angst, the fear, the anger, the exhaustion, and the injustices. He describes multi-faceted human behaviors under the most unconscionable and unimaginable conditions. Gar certainly did not shy away from exposing and criticizing the ugly underbelly of human behavior which shows itself when people are under existential threat. He causes the reader to contemplate: what would I have done under those conditions? Historian Peter Hayes believes that such questions cannot be answered by those now living in liberal and law-observing societies. Of course, no one knows how they would behave under these unimaginable life-threatening circumstances, where right is wrong and wrong is right and certainly, no one should judge.
There are other testimonies and publications about the horrors that befell the Jews of Kovno. But, as my university professor said, research is the continuous addition of another brick that creates a complete wall. I am pleased to know that my translation of this book will serve as an additional brick for English speakers to access details about the Holocaust in Kovno, Lithuania.
This translation was completed without any financial remuneration. After this labor of love, and after learning more than I ever would want to know about the day to day organizational, physiological, psychological, social, and emotional challenges of the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto and beyond, I am left with only one question: Why was I the first one to translate this work to English - after 74 years? While JewishGen did post an online translation of Gar's chapter headings, I am honored that I was able to share all of Gar's words and make them available to the English-speaking world.
Thank you for your interest in this tragic period of history.
Dr. Ettie Zilber, translator/editor
Phoenix, Arizona, 2023
Translating an historical book that deals with a tragic and very personal family history is not just an academic exercise it is an emotional one. Some of my mother's and father's families survived, but most did not. Their stories appear on each page of Gar's magnum opus. Thus, for me, this project was truly a labor of love and deep pain.
Every word on every page of Gar's book brought me closer to visualizing the daily challenges and horrors of their lives between 1940-1950. And, on each page, I found myself wishing my parents were alive so I could ask them about this or that event. Or perhaps to ask forgiveness for not understanding their trauma earlier. Sadly, I could not.
Thus, I dedicate this labor of love to my Kovno family who miraculously survived the Shoah: my mother, Lottie (Zlata Santocki) Sidrer, my father Louis (Liova) Sidrer, my surviving aunts, Nechama (Santocki) Shneorson, and Rivka (Sidrer) Baran, my surviving grandparents, Chaja (Kamionski) and Feival Sidrer, and to those who were brutally killed: my maternal grandparents, Eta (Zivov) and Yakov Santocki, and their two daughters: Ida and Genya Santocki. I pray that they are all resting in peace together again.
I would like to acknowledge my wonderful aunt, Reva (Sidrer) Baran. She is my father's younger sister. She survived life and labor in the Kovno Ghetto, the Kinder Action, the train transport, Stutthof Concentration and Labor Camps, the Death March, liberation, post-war reunification, and immigration to the newly established State of Israel.
Her numerous anecdotes about the family's war experiences helped me write the family memoir. And her help was invaluable for this translation, as well. Whenever I had a question about life in the Ghetto, or the experiences of liberation and reunification, I would call her. When I was stumped for a word or a concept (these were often in Russian), I would check the time zone difference between Arizona and Israel and plan my call for help. She immediately gave me the answers I needed- with no hesitation. Her memory and her mind are still so sharp at 92 it is impressive. She even recalls some of the song lyrics which appear in the last chapter of Gar's book. We are blessed to still have her with us. She is an inspiration.
And, I am so grateful to my loving husband, Yakov (Jake) Zilber, born and raised in Israel, who was always willing and able to help me translate some colloquial or Biblical Hebrew phrases with which I was not familiar.
I would also like to thank JewishGen for their tireless work in helping historians, genealogists, and researchers gain access to Yizkor books and data bases which bring us all closer to our ancestry and heritage. It was their offer to publish this translation which motivated me to complete it.
A graysen dank aych alemen. (thanks to you all)
Ettie (Sidrer, Santocki, Kamionski, Klempner, Kawoyko, Chodosh, Disner) Zilber
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