On New Roads to a New Life
And here I must again apply that old armor of mine-simply, not to tell those things that you don't need to know. If, God forbid, you were going to repatriate yourself, becoming a refugee like us, I would certainly share with you my hard-earned knowledge. I would tell you what one must do and what one must not do. But of course you do not have to repatriate yourself, so why should I bore you with all the details about stealing across borders and forbidden zones, traveling in great danger over strange and uncertain roads, and living in fear of being caught and dragged away, the devil knows where? Similarly, you don't need to know about lying around in passage points and refugee camps, about never having enough to eat or enough sleep, or about waiting, and knocking on closed doors, and in general living as a homeless person. And you absolutely would not want an account of the seven divisions of hell that a displaced person is required to go through.
No, I shall not bore you with any of it. For what purpose? You don't need it.
We were now already on the dark Polish ground, which was no worse than Lithuanian ground, soaked with Jewish blood. Here, too, one could find the wildest savagery and thievery, and, in addition, old-new anti-Semites and bandits.
How worn out, how neglected and gloomy the partially intact city of Byalistok looked to us now! We stayed for a few days in a Jewish community building, and in the market we bought whatever we needed and sold whatever we no longer needed. We also supplied ourselves with Polish currency. Without it, we could not go anywhere-one must have money, Polish money. And for good money, after long seeking and negotiating, we obtained large freight autos that would carry us further-to Warsaw and Lodz.
People told us that bandits and robbers were attacking people on the roads, that just a few days ago they had stopped and stripped naked some Jews who had been traveling through. We learned, too, that such outlaws still shot and killed Jews in today's free Poland. We were frightened, but...did we have any choice? We had set out on new roads, and we had to travel further, further, forward. There could be no turning back!
This part of our journey turned out to be uneventful, however. No one bothered us, no one detained us, and suddenly there we were in Warsaw. Warsaw-the city of ruins! I had seen a lot of ruins, but to the fearful devastation of Warsaw there was no comparison. You could walk on the streets and plazas for hours, and wherever you happened to look, from left to right, from front to
back, you would face a sea of ruined, battered, burned out, semi-collapsed, or entirely smashed up giant buildings, among which, here and there, a part of a wall had remained intact. Occasionally you would notice a comer of a brick wall with newly taped up windows and doors-a sign that people were settling in again. And even more appalling than the ruins of Warsaw itself were the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. That was where the historic battle of the ghetto heroes against the wild, bloodthirsty German armies took place. The god of destruction and atrocities seemed to preside there in solitary glory ....
From Warsaw, we journeyed onward to Lodz, and there we found ourselves staying for a few weeks. After the destruction in Warsaw, Lodz looked to us as though it had not been touched by the war. Only isolated destruction, like that of the temple, the historic old synagogue, and the former ghetto in Balut reminded us of the bloody Nazi rule. The city was alive and bustling, and amid the noise and rush we met hundreds of Lithuanians who were repatriating themselves, among them dozens of old and new acquaintances who had not returned to Lithuania after they were freed in Germany or Poland.
Here we found the first Jewish help station, the Jewish committee of Lodz. For our first three days, it supplied us with herring, and with some kind of American food in tin cans that was provided by Joint (the Joint Distribution Committee, an American organization created to help refugees). Our Kovno friends Reuben and Esther Siegel helped us to find a room, and here we made new documents for ourselves. Then we continued on our way.
Now we were riding on the train to Shtettin. According to our new Polish documents, we were going to settle and find work in the part of Poland that had been split off from Germany. We had been warned, however, that as we drew closer to the regional border, we would enter a territory of disorder and legal theft-an area where there was practically no difference between the role of Polish policemen and that of bandits. And that disorder we did, in fact, immediately experience in reality.
At night, on the train between Lodz and Shtettin, in the crowded, cold, and windy wagon car with its smashed-out windows, we sat, stiff and frozen on our backpacks. I listened all night long to the noisy pounding of the train's wheels on the tracks, noting how the wheels rolled and swallowed the distances in a steady, systematic manner. It seemed to me that that was also the way the wheels of human history turned. We were pursued, pushed from place to place; we wandered and wandered for thousands of years without a home, without a land of our own. In every comer of the earth our blood and our tears had been spilled, and they smeared the wheels of humanity's eternal movement. Our blood was spilled and the wheels rolled...and I made a point of writing my thoughts down as follows.
|The wheels are rolling
From human history
Unceasingly, thousands of years long. And under the wheels
Many nations are already lying
Shattered, crushed upon sand.
Those wheels have been enabled
We have long been lying
We have for all time,
Because blood and suffering
And they have assigned us the fate
For the whole world, six million
Do you even know of the suffering, That terrible bitter destiny
|Of the people that lost its home? Of the people that must endure Generation
upon generation of slaughter
From Hitler, and the teeth of savage beasts?
We too want and long to have
We just want to go home-
|(Written en route from Lodz to Shtettin, December, 1945)|
Eili, Eili and Ave Maria
But before I take my leave of Lodz, I want to tell the story of one of my most wonderful encounters-the story of meeting my cousin Chava Yellin.
My migration with the other refugees led me through the towns and villages of Lithuania, dragged me over closed borders, and brought me at a specific time to Poland. I traveled across half of Poland, and after a few weeks I arrived at Lodz.
I was straying around, a bit lost, through the streets of Lodz, when I came
upon a public announcement, in very large letters, pasted on a wall. I read it and learned that a few days ago, the celebrated singer Coloratura-Soprano Eva Yelina had performed a classic song program in Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian, and Russian. I thought to myself, What kind of miracle would it be if that was my cousin, the Kovno singer Chava Yellin? Is she alive? In Lodz? How does one find out? I must find out as quickly as possible!
I ran away to the editorial office of the Lodz Jewish newspaper, The New
Life, and I discovered that miracles do in fact happen. That very evening the editorial office would hold a celebration, a kind of banquet, in honor of the very successful singer Eva Yelina, who was none other than the woman of Kovno, my cousin Chava Yellin, the only one who remained alive of the great rabbinical and ritual slaughterer family, the musical Yellins. How did she manage to save herself? What happened to her? I had been clearly told, after all, that she had perished, together with many others, in the burning of the Kovno ghetto....
We met at the banquet. (It was a surprise that the hosts had prepared for
her. The two of us were led together to the banquet table, in the presence
of all the guests.) After the excitement, this is what she told me:
I sing, I go on stage and perform, I laugh, I talk to people, one acts a little bit crazy at times, but that horrible last image of the ghetto fire and the ghetto deaths remains constantly and everywhere before my eyes like a ghostly fire,
and it bums my brain and stabs my heart with glowing tongues of fire. One cannot endure such torture, such pain....
They set fire to the Kovno ghetto a couple of days before their departure.
Set fire and tore apart house after house, cellar after cellar, and in the smoke and flames they annihilated the remainder of those who were still alive. They were choking, they were burning, they were running in all directions, they were looking for any tiny opening that would save them, but...no! The murderers were standing around them, they were shooting, they were killing, they threw people into the fire.... And there my little boy, Dovidl, who was three years old at the time, and Joseph, my brother, both perished. Until that moment, all three of us had been able to stay together.
How can one forget such a scene? I was holding my little boy by one hand, and even now I can still feel the warmth and delicacy of his little hand. Joseph was holding and leaning on my other hand. He had been shot in his right foot, and he could hardly stand up by himself. His blood was gushing out, he was getting more and more pale, he fell, but he continued to clutch his fiddle in his hand. He did not want to let go of his fiddle, not even then.... We were looking for a place, any small comer where we could hide, where we could save ourselves. We ran, we hid ourselves among the burning ruins, we were choking from the smoke, we wanted to live, to live. I wanted to save the child, my brother, but....
In the flames and smoke the last Jews of the Kovno ghetto all perished.
Suddenly they noticed us. They tore little Dovidl out of my hands, they dragged Joseph away, and they threw both of them into the fire and the flames. I ran after them, I begged, I shouted: Dovidl, Dovidl, Joseph! Where are you? And then I heard a shot fired nearby. I felt a hard blow, and-I was lying on the ground and I couldn't feel anything anymore. Everything had been turned off and blacked out for me.
You ask, What happened to me later? How did I remain alive? Oh, there is still a lot more to tell.... Dovidl and Joseph were the last ones to leave me. Dovidl's father, Elihu Kaplan, the God-blessed artist with the golden painter-
hands, was gone right from the start. They caught him on the street in Kovno, and he was led away and shot. My father and mother were shoved into the mass graves in Ponavesz, and my sister Faigele and her husband and child were driven away and burned to death in Estonia. That was the kind of sad fate that was made for them...and I, the one shot but not killed, was finally dragged away to Germany, and there, together with thousands and thousands of others, I was driven from camp to camp, from hell to hell.... What should I tell you about the concentration camps? You know enough about it yourself! You went through it all yourself and survived it.
That was how I survived the winter-barefoot, half naked, hungry. The Russian armies were getting closer, but for us there awaited death in a limestone oven somewhere. We talked about the rumor that the Russians were already very near our camp.... Then, on the tenth of March, 1945, I decided to run away. 'Better to die in the woods, from a bullet, rather than here, in a death camp,' I said to myself. So almost barefoot, without a coat, in a tom dress, I shuffled along on the frosty, snowy, end-of-winter ground. I avoided the first posted watchmen, and it was near nightfall, and I was quite close to the woods, when I stumbled into four new watchmen, S. S. officers. Well, here there was no longer any reason to hope. In their nasty shouting, and in their brandishing of rifles, I could see death before my eyes....
I thought, 'It's no use...death .... The Russians, the liberators, are so close, possibly right here in the woods, and-here is the end, death....' I don't know why or how, but I heard myself singing 'Eili, Eili' (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). You know, the well-known song of Jewish suffering and mourning. I sang tearfully, singing for the last time, as though I was saying goodbye to the world. The sun was setting in red flames, and I once again felt so near and sharp the fiery flames of the ghetto, in which they, my last and dearest and closest, had so unmercifully perished.... Mighty, painful 'Eili, Eili' notes tore out of my heart, scattered over the barren evening field, and resounded in the nearby woods. I was sitting or standing on the cold, snowcovered ground and singing.
'Ah, she is singing, the cursed Jewess, she is praying to her God,' I heard one of the Germans say. 'Ave Maria you should be singing, you cursed one! Sing Ave Maria if you want to live a little longer! Well, begin! Enough already with your Jewish song. Start singing Ave Maria! One, two.... Don't you want to sing? Can't you sing? I will say three, and-finished. I will shoot you! Sing what I am telling you to sing! Can't you hear? Why are you looking at me that way?'
With my last breath I finished 'Sh'ma Yisroel,' and automatically, as though hypnotized, I switched over to 'Ave Maria.' Loud and silvery the notes resounded in the frosty air, and the murderers stood around me as though enchanted, without moving a hand or a foot. I finished singing, and began the same piece over again, finished and started over again. The Germans were
still standing around me with their mouths half open, overwhelmed and astonished. The singing and the bizarre surroundings had, it seemed, awakened something in their savage hearts, but who knows how long that would have lasted, and how it would have ended, if not. ...
Suddenly, like a thunderbolt in broad daylight, machine gun fire rang out, coming from the woods: Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, and hails of bullets were flying from all sides. All I managed to see was how the Germans acquired frightened faces, and began to run and jump in panic, as though beside themselves-! fainted and remained lying on the ground.
Then later, as if in sleep, I overheard Russian being spoken around me, and then I felt that they were rubbing my face with snow, and then I saw Russian soldiers. With friendly, smiling eyes they were looking at me, speaking as they might have done to a sick sister, and they poured a swallow of whiskey in my mouth. I revived and began to grasp what was happening. I was alive, I had been saved, I had been liberated from the murderers.... A Russian reconnaissance group in the woods had heard the loud sounds of singing, had set out in the direction of the singing voice, and had happened upon me and the Germans. That's what the soldiers told me. And there, lying dead, were three of the murderers, the fourth one having succeeded in running away.
So, what do you say about that kind of being rescued from certain death, at the last moment, by singing, and by singing 'Ave Maria' for the murderers? So, isn't there a miracle in that, or more than a miracle, or. ... I don't know. I don't know what to call it!
And how did it occur to me, anyway, to sing that 'Eili, Eili' song, at a time when the real and tangible, not the stage version, of death had touched my head with its wings? Does it mean that not 'Ave Maria' but rather 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' together with the last 'Hear, Oh Israel' were what saved me from certain death? Ha? What do you say to that? Do you understand anything in such matters? 'My God, my God,' 'Ave Maria'-I was lying in the snow, in the cold, half naked, with the murderers around me. I sang, sounds spilled out into the frosty air, into the woods, and-the rescue came.
What more should I tell you? In a word, the Russians carried me away in their hands, out of goodness and sympathy, and they took me to a military hospital. There I stayed in bed for six months and healed myself of the illnesses that had accumulated for those four bloody years. When I began to feel stronger, I would, from time to time, sing for the wounded and the sick there in the hospital. With what appreciation and thankfulness they used to receive me! They wanted to send me to study, to perform on stage, but I didn't want to...I didn't want to remain there, where the bloody destruction and ruins were so close before my eyes.
Yes, I did completely heal myself of all my illnesses in the hospital, except for the painful wounds that will remain in my heart forever. From that pain
and suffering in the heart we will never heal ourselves completely, never, and I am not thinking at all of returning to Lithuania, to my old home. After all, I do know for certain that my father and mother are not alive, nor is Elihu, nor Dovidl, nor Joseph, and not Faigele with all of hers, and no one from our family. Why should I go there? To see that Jewish cemetery, Lithuania? I have settled for the present in Lodsz. I have given a couple of concerts here, with great success, and I have many friends, and also musical admirers. At present I am a music teacher in the Jewish school, and later I will see. Probably I will have to set out again on new roads, just like others among the surviving J ws from the bloodied countries, whether Lithuania or Poland....
No, this is no kind of life for me, not in Lithuania and not in Poland, either! You know what? I will in fact go with you!
So spoke the singer Chava Yellin, my cousin whom I had given up hope of meeting among the living. Her rescue was a genuine miracle, a wonder, but. .. there isn't anything to wonder about. In fact, every one of our remnant refugees is a miracle, a living wonder. Whether their survival happened one way, or some other way, it nevertheless happened in bitter reality, not somewhere in a little fairy tale.
From that day forward, my cousin and I traveled together on the same road.
We went from Lodsz to Shtettin, and from Shtettin to Berlin, where we stayed in various refugee camps, and after that we went to Bremen. From there she departed for America.
Many comical episodes occurred during our migratory wanderings, beginning with the journey from Lodsz to Shtettin in the cold, windy train car with the smashed-up window panes. Here she became a celebrity. And the reason for her fame was that the entire fortune she had saved up from her concerts, amounting to a couple of thousand Polish zlotes, was stolen away from her, practically straight out of her own hands, without her noticing.
She had calculated that there would be thieves on the train, so she had hidden the money in a handbag, and the handbag she had hidden in a leather briefcase, and the briefcase she had held the whole time on her lap, pressed close to herself with both hands. You would think that would be safe. Surely nothing could be safer than that. But the next morning, she showed us that the leather briefcase had been torn! A brand new, strong leather case-how could that be torn so quickly? We took a look.... We looked inside...and there was no handbag, there was no money, and nothing else, either! Why, how did it all vanish? Now go ask the thieves! we said to one another. They clearly knew their business. Simply and delicately, they must have cut open the briefcase on one side, and with a couple of slick, experienced fingers, they must have taken out from inside what they needed, and.... That was how the singer Eva Yelina could hold her entire fortune on her lap, clutched tightly with both hands, and feel lucky that nothing would be stolen, even as everything was being stolen.
But what really turned out to be the case? Finally, my cousin the singer
confessed that besides her money she had had something else to protect-her voice. In the middle of the night, when it had got to be terribly cold in the train car, and the wind had been blowing and tugging from all the windows, she had covered herself with a blanket over her head, in order not to become hoarse. She had not fallen asleep, God forbid, and had not even taken a quick nap! She had only been protecting her voice, wrapped up in the blanket.... But for the thief, that had been sufficient. That had been all he was waiting for.
And we did laugh at her, and make fun of her misfortune, and of protecting her voice! She herself laughed, and joked with us. She certainly was a good-natured and life-loving person, though a bit absentminded. And, after all, she really did have something to protect, her magical, bell-like voice.... Being together with her made life much more cheerful for all of us on the empty migratory road. We would laugh heartily from time to time, and for a little while at least we would forget our many troubles and heartaches.
From Poland to Germany
We had scarcely entered the train station of Shtettin with all our packages and backpacks when a group of Polish police officers led us into a separate room and began going through our belongings. Although they couldn't find anything much to make a fuss about, they were obviously eager to take everything, whatever came into their hands. But we energetically protested that we would not remain silent about such bad conduct towards us. We pointed out that we had just been admitted to Polish citizenship, and we threatened to take our case to the very highest authorities. That attitude-and a couple of bottles of whiskey-helped us, and we were able to keep our baggage intact for a while.
During the week we spent in Shtettin getting orientated and making contact with various powerful officials and border supervisors, we had to live in a hotel of dubious reputation, in constant danger of police raids and searches. We were prepared for more attempted legal robberies by the police and their criminal associates, and even their Jewish partners and stool pigeons. We were aware that in the past, more than one refugee had been so thoroughly worked over as to be left stark naked. But our group, which now consisted of twelve men and women, had the good fortune to get away untouched.
I looked around at the city of Shtettin, and the entire huge territory that Poland had now taken away from Germany, and I saw that a major historic process was going on: The German population was being removed and tossed across the border to Germany. The scenes I saw in the city, and especially at the border points, were familiar, but the roles were reversed. Now hundreds and thousands of Germans, with children and wives, and sacks and packages and baggage, were being driven together to the exit points. The Poles were searching them and determining which few belongings they would be allowed to take with them. And I must say that the Poles had very little respect for other
people's wealth. If something pleased them, they confiscated it-whether it was money, or a watch, or a pair of shoes, or an outfit, or a shirt, or anything else, and especially if it belonged to a German, or. ..a Jew, even a Polish Jew. While the Germans in theNazi era had done such work in a disciplined way, according to orders, or permission from the high command, the Poles were now doing it in a chaotic way, according to their own initiative and covetousness.
The remaining Germans were beaten down and frightened that they would be expelled. They were driven to forced labor; they were often apprehended on the streets or taken from their homes, just as the Jews were not so very long ago. But I noticed that the Jews also lived in uncertainty. They feared Polish anti-Semitism and the murders and robberies that were still commonplace in the region. I met dozens of Jewish families in Shtettin and other places who spoke only Polish and lived disguised as Poles. They had pure Polish first names and family names.
If they knew that we were Jews, then we would not have been able to live here for even one day, many of them declared to me. They would have killed us, robbed us of our business or livelihood, or, in the best case, shunned us and caused us all kinds of trouble. What should we do? What can we do? We must suffer for a while. It might get better ... Or we might very soon go away .... Finally we finished our business in Shtettin. We got through to an honest influential person, a fixer. Woe betide us, he looked like a crook; nevertheless, we paid him a good bit of money, and he got us through the legal problems and reserved places for us on a transport of Russian military freight autos. At a happy moment the freight autos drove right up to our hotel. After still more negotiations between our fixer and the Russian auto drivers, we finally began to move away from Shtettin at nightfall, in the tension and confusion of heavy traffic. We were traveling directly to Berlin, but we were uneasy because we knew that there we would be facing that most dangerous place-another closed border, and this time between Poland and the Russian zone in Germany.
We looked around, to see into whose hands we had fallen this time, and it turned out that our journey to Berlin was to be a particularly jolly and spirited one: We were in the company of Jewish and Russian whiskey smugglers! The dozens of cans in our auto were filled not with gasoline but with genuine liquor. Using side paths, we stole across the border, and there, together with a few Russian border guards, we had our first real festive drink to our health. Well, so be it, we thought. Let's drink to our health. What harm can it do?
As long as everything goes smoothly ....
The guards didn't even look at our baggage or our papers, which clearly stated in two languages that we were traveling to Berlin to look up relatives who were probably dragged away there. While we were in the Russian zone in Germany, drinks to our health were taken every half hour. We stood around
more than we traveled, and we spent two nights sleeping wherever we could, in the stalls and barns of Germans. Then on the third night, we arrived, finally, peacefully, in Berlin, at the entry point, in the building of the former Berlin Jewish Community Center on Oranienburg Street.
Well, my good friend, did you have any reason to feel uneasy? one of the whiskey smugglers, apparently the eldest, said to us in a brotherly fashion. I did tell you right away that the Shtettin fixer, as you call him, is a good Jew. What's more, he is a very good friend of mine, and as you see, I got you across the border and brought you safely to the place where he told me to take you. Not even a thread did they touch of yours. So, is that bad? Are we bad Jews? Yes, he does take a little money, maybe a little bit too much, as you say-but that is his business, my dear sir, and he also has to make a living.... He does have a gifted hand. He has already sent hundreds of Jews across the border, and always safely. And what happens with others? Surely you heard, yesterday, how they left a group of Jews in the woods, naked except for their underwear. They took away everything they owned, to the last thread, and even the shoes off their feet. And who knows whether the other fixers themselves didn't have a hand in that, my good sir? Now, listen to me. If you need to exchange or cash in any currency, or even a few precious stones or jewelry, I can provide anything for you. I'll be here tomorrow evening again. You can get anything you need from me, and at a lower price than from others....
What are you now preparing to do? Are you not going to stay here with us? we asked him.
Oh, no, my good friend. In a few days, I am going back over to the other side. I still have to go there and back a few more times, and then, when we have finished all our business, we will come back to you, here. Rest assured, we will not remain there. That is not a place for a Jew to live. But for a while things are moving, the wheels are turning, we can still travel there and back, so we travel. Well, we really do have to go. Be well, all of you!
And in truth, a few weeks later I encountered the Shtettin fixer and that whole crew in one of my first refugee camps, in Shlachtensee, Berlin. It seemed that they had concluded their business on the other side. They had become D.P.'s (displaced persons) like all of us.
In camps of D.P.'s - of refugees
In my time as a refugee, I passed through most of the D.P. camps in the American, English, and French zones of Berlin and the rest of Germany. My experience began at the exit point of the former Jewish community house in the Russian zone of Berlin, where a few hundred uprooted Jews were waiting to be sent further, into the American or English zone. At first, people moved along according to a specific order, with appropriate visas to the Berlin UNRA (United Nations Refugee Agency) camp in Tzelendorf, but suddenly there was a stampede at the exit point because of Russian searches. In fright and
haste we ran away from the community house and crowded into the refugee camp in the French sector of Berlin. After that, we went to the very large UNRA camp in Shlachtensee, in the American sector of Berlin. Between one and two thousand uprooted, fleeing Jews from various countries were in that camp at the time.
Then we went on to the extremely large refugee camp in Bergen-Belsen, in the English zone. Eight, ten, up to twelve thousand Jews were wandering around there-from Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Balkan states. All were seeking a new home in the Land of Israel, or...if not the Land of Israel, at least some other place.
Then came the Jewish refugee camp Landsberg, not far from Munich, in the American zone of Germany, and then a glimpse of a dozen other larger and smaller refugee camps-Tzelsheim, Santatilin, Femwald, Ealtzen, Peldoting, Dachau, Laiphaim, and other such places on the cursed soil of Germany, where a quarter of a million uprooted, homeless Jews sat as though on hot coals. It was already a year, two years, three years after the liberation, and they still had not found a new home-not in the Land of Israel, and not anywhere else.
They did not shoot Jews in the refugee camps, they did not bum them, and they didn't let them die of hunger and illness (as they did in the German concentration camps). But was a refugee camp any kind of life for those excessively tortured souls who yearned for a home, for a friendly atmosphere, for their own place, and for a normal human life?
An embodiment of exile and the diaspora of Israel stood before my eyes as I sat in the refugee camps. I saw the worst of what Jewish refugees had to face: landlessness, homelessness, oppression, shame, underestimation by one's neighbors, and upon all of those, the shadows of a bloody past.
But at the same time, I also saw a powerful, lively portrait of the Jewish community spirit at its very best. It consisted of brotherly help from Jews sown and scattered across the world. Sometimes the help came from Joint or the ORT (Obshestvo Remeslenofo zernledelcheskofo Truda, which is Russian for The Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor). Other times it came from HIAS (the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), a uniformed Israeli soldier, or a member of Haganah (the Jewish military forces) in civilian garb. Still other times it came from a Jewish committee, a rabbi, or a prominent personage. Or an American Jewish soldier might offer encouragement and comfort. As though having foreseen what the long journey of the Jewish people would require, destiny had thrown down on the road towers of light and hope. It had prepared Jewish stations of first aid. How could it be otherwise?
I remember, with joy and reverence, the Jewish consul, as we used to call him in the Berlin refugee camps. This was the Boston rabbi Joseph Shubow, a chaplain in the American army in Berlin at that time. He did not have any official or direct connection to refugees or refugee camps, but wherever there
was a problem or an injustice, Rabbi Shubow was already present and providing whatever was needed-whether it was a food package, or clothing, or a warm, brotherly word of comfort, or a way to connect with relatives in America. He would wage battles for our rights and interests in the camps, run to the camp leaders with demands to improve our conditions, and in general defend Jewish honor.
A man with a fiery temperament and inexhaustible energy, a hot-blooded Jew, a Zionist, and an outstanding speaker, our Jewish consul used to do the best he could to lift our spirits and reawaken our hope and sense of self-worth. His hearty talk and the Friday night prayer services he conducted-along with his concrete actions to help everyone together and each one individually-engraved his image in the hearts of us all.
Wherever you are now, Rabbi Shubow, do you remember us, the lonely, wandering refugees, with all our requests, both big and small? The requests with which we burdened you so often, and which you always tried so hard to fulfill? Do you remember us as well and as clearly as we remember you, American Rabbi Shubow-our uncrowned Jewish consul?
Every refugee camp was a state unto itself, with a Jewish management committee, a police force, a common court, an appeals court, a kosher kitchen, a children's kitchen, an infirmary, laundry, bath house, a tailor and shoemaker, and many managerial officers of all kinds. And cultural life-without which no Jew can really live-was also well developed in every refugee camp. There would be a school or schools for children, a kindergarten, a library, sports clubs, and a radio center. The larger camps would have a folk university, a newspaper, a cinema, and a theater. There would be a mostly Zionist education for the youth, and kibbutzim and organizations of all kinds intended as preparation for the Land of Israel. Nor were there lacking yeshivas, religious schools, synagogues, or religious kibbutzim.
Vocational schools were founded as well-courses for mechanics, chauffeurs, electricians, carpenters, plasterers, millers, smiths, radio and telegraph operators, and many others. Without a vocation there can be no emigration: that was the warning so often given to the young among the refugee remnants. After all, if we were to build a future life in the Land of Israel, we had to prepare ourselves for that.
A state was being run, a world unto itself, separated from its surroundings, without any land under its feet-with only a burning, seeking look to the future. And the people of that state: Who were they, and what were they? What were they feeling in their hearts and souls?
I often talked with my comrades and acquaintances in the camps about the intellectual shock of witnessing the Nazi era and the soul-altering effect of having survived it. Here is what an elderly former teacher said once, at one of
our teacher conventions:
I am afraid to talk about that. There is a lot to talk about, but if I were to speak with brevity, I would say that whether we are imprisoned in a concentration camp or free in a city as refugees, our greatest danger lies in our enforced idleness, in our enforced begging for money-our dependence on help and support. From that arises our so-called demoralization and everything that goes with it-the black market dealings and the disturbed rushing and hastiness. It is at the root of the entire camp psychology, and unfortunately, it is still very much a part of our post-war lives in the cursed, bloodied countries. Much blocked energy has collected in our souls, and now, here, in our uprooted state, that energy is spent in abnormal ways, in negative actions. That is the path to demoralization, if you have such fondness for that word.... Quite otherwise would it be with us in normal circumstances. Then our energy would spill out in work, in building, in creating! Then there would be a normal prosperous life. But here? What can you do here?
We are not sacred, not a holy people. True, we have suffered. We have been tortured and bloodied. But we have not all become saints, exalted, made decent and improved, and we need not, and dare not, present ourselves as such-to the world or to ourselves. We are not that, because taken all in all, the human person remains the same as always. True, individual persons or specific groups may have experienced a soul upheaval that has brought them to a tremendous inner transformation, yet human beings as a whole have not changed, or have changed very little. Both their intellectual outlook or their conduct remain more or less the same. It seems to me that those who were bad people before the ghettos, camps, gas chambers, and crematoria are still bad people. And those who were basically good, honest, and disciplined are good, honest, and disciplined now as well.
Essentially, human beings always remain as they are. The masses remain masses, with all their nuances and shadings of the bad and the good. They retain the same tendency toward upset, dejection, demoralization, and low self-esteem, and the same level of idealism, belief, exaltation, combativeness, self-sacrificing, and decency. And that is the way we are also, today's concentration camp victims. Everyone like a human being.... But what is the purpose of talking about whether we are good or bad? We can get worse, a lot worse, if we do not get away from here as quickly as possible. We must leave, and as soon as we can!
At that point, his voice changed. He became excited, and added with strong emphasis:
We must get away from here! In extending our stay here, in the camps or in the city, among yesterday's murderers, and on the cursed soil-therein lies for us our present temptation to negative actions. If, God forbid, we do not resist the temptation, then we can be presented with the greatest disaster, the greatest danger of demoralization and dejection. Here there are already
some-true, only a few, but some-who want to marry German women. German abominations: Sisters and daughters of the murderers of our children, of our fathers and mothers, of our men, women, brothers, of all our people! And doing business with the Germans? And being friends with them, settling among them? Is that good? Isn't there in that the greatest danger for us, and the deepest insult to our sacred ones, those who died?
One method exists to save ourselves, and that is to get away from here, from this cursed land. And only one land exists for us-the Land of Israel (Eretz-Yisroel in Hebrew), the land of our origin, of our intellectual and physical rise. There, and only there, can we again become normal and healthy, and free ourselves from the whole complex of being camp people, refugee remnants, martyrs, and enforced idlers, dependent on begging and support from UNRA and Joint. Only there can we shed our tragic outlook. We must get away from here to Eretz-Yisroel, and quickly, as quickly as possible! If not, then our ultimate fate is death-first intellectual and moral, and then physical. By all roads, by every means, we must go to Eretz-Yisroel. We must shout to the world:
Take us away from here! Let us out of here! Here, in the rotting state that Europe is in, where it still stinks of Hitler and the Nazi spirit, what awaits us is dejection, and in the best case self-annihilation. Let us go from here to Eretz Yisroel, to life, to our own land and people, to our future!
That speech entered deep into our hearts. It had been thought through and painfully considered. I remember it clearly, that speech of his, and I also remember how another person, an Israeli guide, quietly added:
First one must live. Afterwards one can philosophize. We must live! And living here, in the current camps, means preparing oneself for a renewed life in Eretz-Yisroel. There is no other way. Living here means reeducating the children and the youths who have shown themselves to be sufficiently neglectful and wild in the course of these bloody years. We must give them instruction, teach them to have a vocation or a profession in hand. They must acquire agricultural training and become accustomed anew to cultural and creative activity. Living here means getting married, raising families, and distancing ourselves from the past with all our strength, and with the greatest effort. To live means to give birth to children, to educate children, and to create a new and healthy generation. And living here-that is only a temporary thing, a transition. One must look ahead to the eternal, to Eretz-Yisroel. And living there, in Eretz-Yisroel, means joining with the people, the land, and the foundations of our permanence. It means building, doing, creating, and working, both for oneself and for the rise of the whole nation. There is nothing to be afraid of in our enforced camp idleness and our uneasiness. That is a temporary phenomenon, which will quickly disappear in Eretz-Yisroel. We Israelis know it very well, and you will see it also. No one is superfluous there, no one. But also here, for the present, one must live with some kind of order, with
inner discipline, with endurance. That everyone must understand and know. First live, live like a human being, and then the rest will come naturally.
He is right, I thought to myself. First live and afterwards philosophize. And I saw and felt how the people of our nation in the making wanted to live, wanted again to be like all people. They hastened to live with all their strength and all their senses, with every fiber of their souls. Their instinct, their inner drive toward life did not leave them alone for a minute. On the contrary, it awakened in them hope, faith, and new energy.
The sharpness of the thoughts of that time have already been somewhat tempered in me, but while I was still in the refugee camps, I wrote down what I felt in the measured lines of the poem Hope, which appears further on.
For now, though, I want to step aside and let another survivor tell about her experience.
|On illegal ways to Eretz-Yzsroel... Surviving small Jewish children, orphans, roam around in Europe and cross oceans in order to come, finally, home to their own country. (1947)|
The story of how I tore myself away from the bloody hands of the Germans was one of the thousands upon thousands of true miracles that happened to each one of us, the survivors, my friend Golde Chaitovich (or according to her husband's name, Golde Lachberg) told me. And I know, after all, that it was not intelligence, and not bravery, and not any carefully thought-out plans that could have saved us from those beastly teeth and claws. Sometimes daring could have helped, or boldness, or dexterity in maneuvering, or just a
little bit of luck, or all of those things together, which we call predestination or fate. It sometimes could help, but also the reverse. It sometimes could lead more quickly and more painfully to the end, to death...and that is how it was, in fact, in my own story.
It began in the same way as with all the Jews of Kovno under the German rule. From the street, my husband, David Lachberg, was caught and dragged away into captivity. In the end, he died during the seventh action. I with my child, a little girl, remained alone. We ran away as far as Yanove; we wore ourselves out along the way, until we fell into the hands of the Lithuanian 'police officers' and were brought into the seventh action ourselves. But we, a few women, were finally released. I could have returned to my pillaged and ruined home, but my child had already spared herself any further suffering and pain: She had given up her childishly pure soul. Like a little candle, the child was extinguished in my hands, worn out from lack of nourishment, and from stomach typhus. That is how I lost my little girl; Maryashe was her name.
Now I was completely alone and lonesome. I did keep contact with my brother, Israel Chaitovich, and his wife Tselia and two grown children. All of us were driven into the Kovno ghetto, where we lived together, ate together, and...went hungry often. My brother was a quiet, modest person. He was not one of the greedy types, not one of the 'hustlers' in the ghetto, and for that reason it became incumbent on me (great heroine that I am!) to bear the full responsibility of providing for us. I traded various household goods for food, and smuggled food and firewood into the ghetto, carrying heavy packages on my shoulders after a hard, exhausting workday. I constantly put my life at risk.
But there was nothing that was too hard for me. I still had my brother and his family, so I wasn't that completely alone.... By that time, though, wealready knew that all Jews in the towns and villages had been killed, and for my part, I hardly had any hope at all that my father and mother, or my three sisters with their husbands and children in Abel, could still be alive.
However dark and sad life in the ghetto may have been in general, it was hundreds of times darker and more difficult for a single woman living alone. Such a woman was selected for the hardest work detail and the worst working conditions, and was most often sent out of the ghetto to concentration camps. There was never anyone who could undertake to protect such a woman. That is, in fact, how it was for me. After a couple of years, when I had been worn down by back-breaking labor on the Kovno airport and other work, they took me and a group of other women out of the Kovno ghetto and sent us to work camps. First we were in Kaidan, and after that in Ponavesz. The Kovno ghetto seemed like a garden of Eden compared to those camps. But what could I do?
Our bitter slave labor in Lithuania stretched on for months as the Germans lost ground and the Russians drew ever closer. Then on the 18th of July, 1944,
we were dragged away from the Ponavesz camp to Germany, to the notorious death camp Shtuthof, near Danzig. At the same time, the Kovno ghetto was liquidated. My brother and his family had remained hidden in a bunker there, and they, like several thousand other hidden Jews, died in fire and smoke when the German, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian murderers tore down and burned the houses.
In Shtuthof they sorted us out again, and divided us up-who would go to the gas chambers and crematoria, who would go to the hunger death, and who would go to be tortured in the work camps. I was still sufficiently strong, so I fell in with a group of women assigned to dig trenches and underground bunkers in the vicinity of Danzig. We were five hundred women assigned to that detail. We were half naked during the winter, without underwear, without coats, or in thin, tom little coats, and in canvas-covered wooden shoes. The cutting cold and frosty winds at the edge of the Baltic Sea were especially frightful, unendurable. We were frozen and soaked through, both day and night, in the cold barns and thin tents, and in addition, we were hungry (oh, how hungry!) and beaten almost to death by the German watchmen and work overseers. For an entire winter we were driven to hard and exhausting work. Every group of six women was required, in the course of one day, to dig out a trench or pit of specified length, width, and depth, and to even out the walls and spread down the earth as a floor. And woe betide those who could not do it! Until late into the night, they were forced to stay there and work with their last bit of strength while murderous blows and lashes were administered from all sides. They would fall down in a faint, half dead. With my last bit of strength, I would make every effort to work. I would work without stopping to the point of breaking down in order to avoid the extra blows, and...I don't know myself, and cannot now comprehend, where I got the strength to endure all of that. And a lot of women were, in fact, unable to endure it-they have remained there forever, dead from hunger, cold, or weakness, or felled by a bullet, or by savage beatings.
We used to hear, on a daily basis, shooting from the front lines. The Russians were approaching, and so the Germans took to driving us farther and farther, ever deeper into Germany. There are no words to describe the heartlessness and the savagery of the German drivers. They would force us to cover twenty-five or thirty kilometers per day. Our strength was drained out of us. Along the way, dozens and dozens of women stopped in their tracks, unable to go further. They were shot on the spot, or were collected like trash and taken away to the 'death sanatoria' (death camps), where they were injected with poison. Of our group of five hundred, no more than one hundred to one hundred and twenty women survived. Our bread rations were coming to an end. We were not getting any food. We collected whatever we could on the roads and in gardens-frozen and rotted beets, cabbage, and potatoes-and we ate it. Many of us fell down from weakness and illness. I felt that I also would not
be able to hold out much longer. I already saw the end, how I would be lying, without any strength left, on the road, and how I would be shot, or taken away to a death camp.... And such a sharp feeling, such a strong drive to live arose in my heart! There was a powerful will to continue to live, a will to see freedom again, or at least to have a good look at the collapse, the final downfall, that was moving toward our heartless enemies, and that was already so close, so near ... An incomprehensible boldnes's and daring woke up in me. I had a quick talk with my comrade Henye Halsfein, and we both agreed to run away. To run away, tear ourselves away from the murderous hands, to save ourselves and not wait until we no longer had any strength left!
We heard that they were driving us to a specific place called Praoust where they had a huge annihilation camp. People said that they were now driving all the remaining Jews in the area to that place. My friend and I decided not to wait any longer. At night, when everything was quiet and the watchmen had turned their attention away for a bit, we slipped out like two shadows from the bam where we were supposed to be staying. We ran and got lost, blundering along, for a whole night. At every step, we thought that they were chasing us, that they would catch us and shoot us. Eventually we found an open bam, and in fright, with pounding hearts, we hid ourselves there for two days, until ... the hunger, oh! That terrible, gruesome hunger drove us out to look for a piece of bread. We took up our courage and rubbed off as much as we could of the Jewish marks on our clothing, then covered the rest with our kerchiefs. We set out to go to German farmhouses. For a couple of weeks, we worked for the farmers at their hardest jobs in exchange for something to eat, but nowhere did they ever allow us to spend the night. We didn't have any documents to show, and our appearance must have been a bit too suspicious. In the snow, cold, and wind, we spent the night outdoors like dogs, or worse than dogs. Finally we stumbled upon a group of German soldiers. They took to asking us who and what we were, and they came very close to deciding to hand us over to the Gestapo. Fortunately, they got thoroughly drunk, and then, miraculously, we were able to get ourselves out of their hands and run away.
Our desperation had now reached its highest point. We did not have any idea where to go next. We were being sought, pursued. All around us there were heartless enemies. There was not even a tiny bit of help or sympathy. Where could we go? How could we get there? Feeling that we had no other way out, we decided on a daring step-a step for which we could instantly pay with our lives, or...maybe save ourselves.
We were able to drag ourselves as far as the nearest town, called Shenek, a couple of hundred kilometers from Danzig. There we sought out the mayor, the Burgermeister, at his home, and in an invented language like broken German, I told him that my friend and I were Lithuanian women who were driven into Germany to work. 'We have until recently been working on a farm near where the major battles are now taking place,' I said. 'During the bombard-
ments, our boss, the owner of the farm, was killed. The farmhouse, with everything in it, including our documents, was destroyed by fire. We barely escaped with our lives, and fled from that area, and from the Russians, and now we don't have any place to go to .... We want to stay here, in Shenek. We don't have the strength to run any further, and we want to obtain, from Herr Burger- . meister, temporary documents, bread cards, a place to sleep, and also work.... Yes, our names are...I am Yadviga Stankovich, and my friend here is Helena Mayevski.... Yes, we are Lithuanian women from the Kovno region. We have been already more than a year in Germany ....'
I don't know whether we were supported by the accumulated merits of our ancestors, or whether one of God's angels led us on the right road. Perhaps we should just be grateful for the natural fact that thousands and thousands of Germans and their workers, coming from various countries, really were running from the Russians at that time, deeper and deeper into Germany, and they addressed themselves to local mayors in exactly this way. But the miracle was that without any lengthy inquiries, we were given invaluable papers with authentic non-Jewish names. We also received food, and work in a genuine German hospital. At first, I did not believe my eyes and ears, but it turned out not to be a dream: I was getting enough bread, and other things to eat with it, and I was working in a hospital, doing all the dirty work together with a couple of dozen poor Russian women, and I had iny own little corner in a camp of a thousand foreign worker slaves (not Jews, God forbid!) who were not being shot-they were Russians, Poles, Lithuanians. Such luck! But then my Russian friend happened to tell me that not long ago they recognized a disguised Jewish woman in camp, and the Germans immediately led her outside and shot her.... A shudder went through my whole body. I wept and mourned in my heart, but I remained outwardly cold and quiet, and continued to play the role of a Lithuanian Yadviga who barely knew a few words of German. That's how a few months went by, and each day looked to me like an eternity in my difficult, desperate role.
'Only endure, endure!' I would say to my friend Henye. I used to exchange a few words with her now and then, in secret. 'Only remain quiet, with strong nerves and a clear head! Just don't let anything slip out! Don't accidentally let fall a word or a gesture!'
Suddenly, in the middle of the night, our camp was awakened, and we received the order to get on the road again. We were told that 'Ivan'-meaning the Russian army-was now very near, and we must leave as quickly as possible. They drove us over forty kilometers, and on the way, we ran away again. I don't know where we got such extraordinary strength and courage, or such leadership capabilities. This time Henye and I went with three Russian women with whom we had become friends, and I, 'Yadviga, who knows a little German' became the leader of the group. We were not running away from the Russians, but just the opposite: We were running away from the Germans
and toward the Russians, and I took our group in that direction. Finally, we came to a village and a rich landowner's estate about fifteen kilometers from Danzig. We couldn't go any further. The whole area was encircled and under the control of the Russian army, and here, on this spot, an unceasing bloody battle was in progress. Bullets were flying over our heads without letup, grenades and bombs exploded at every step, and we all nearly perished in the frightening attack of fire. Fortunately, we found an open cellar in the abandoned and half-ruined courtyard of the rich landowner, and we crawled into it. The courtyard was filled with bitterly fighting German soldiers at first; then, after a powerful firestorm bombardment, the Russians broke in; then the Germans pushed them out again; then the Russians broke back in. Three times in succession, this territory changed hands.
We were lying hidden in the cellar together with many of the local inhabitants. All at once we sensed that the house and cellar were in flames. Pieces of burning wood fell from above us. The door was on fire, and the room filled with smoke, enough to choke us to death.... We rushed to the only exit, the tiny cellar windows. We managed to creep out. But in the tumult and panic I lost my friend Henye. I looked for her, I called-she was not there. And the hail of bullets and the cannon fire-it did not stop even for one second. No more Henye, I thought. She's been killed, burned up, choked to death by the smoke in the cellar, like others, and not able to crawl out.... I remained with two of my Russian friends. We hid in a hole in the ground, a kind of bunker. All around us were hails of bullets and bomb splinters, burning and gunfire, and I, a lone Jewish woman, was caught in the claws of the beast, of the German soldiers and S. S. officers.
What more is there to talk about? I can't describe it in words, and an outsider who has not been through it cannot conceive of what I experienced in those terrifying days, for as long as the Germans controlled that spot. We took shelter with Germans again, and again they drove us, the foreigners, to work. We cleaned and cooked for German soldiers. But I felt that their hours were numbered, that they would not be in charge for long. And that was in fact the case. One evening, as we were preparing supper and baking potato pancakes for the officers, the Russians renewed their offensive. They carried out a daring and stormy attack, and a short time later the Germans were in headlong flight, confused and frightened, and didn't bother to eat their potato pancakes. They compelled us to run away with them, to save ourselves from the Russians, but we, my Russian friends and I, stole away at the last minute and disappeared. We heard from a distance that they were calling to us, shouting, threatening to catch us and shoot us. We were hiding in a stall, under straw and trash, and shaking with terror.
We remained lying there that way all night long, in fear and desperation, under direct fire from both the Russians and the Germans, all the while not knowing who was in control of the place, whether the Russians or still the
Germans. In the morning, after such a long and noisy cannonade, it became dead silent, and the stillness cast upon us a new fear. We didn't know what it signified. We were afraid to stick our noses out and take a look-in case we might fall again into the hands of the murderers, the Germans. But suddenly a distant outcry in Russian reached our ears: Vichodite, vichodite! Nye boites! (Come out, come out! Don't be afraid!) We, and dozens more with us, sprang out of our hiding places. The Russian soldiers greeted us, and...now we were liberated! After four years of slavery, torture, and slaughters, we were now no longer in the hands of the murderers. The 18th of March, 1945, is when it happened. So I am one of the lucky ones. I lived to see freedom, lived to see the downfall of the German murderers, our annihilators.
So what more is there to tell? I hastened with all my strength to go home to Lithuania. I still hoped that maybe after all...maybe a miracle had occurred. Maybe someone in my family had survived. And there I was again in my homeland, in my birthplace, Abel. In the nearby town of Rackishok I asked about my people, and I searched, but-useless hopes. No one was there, no one. There were no Jews; all were dead, annihilated. Somewhere in the mass graves near Rackishok, thrown away without a decent human burial, rest my father and mother, Yehoshua (Joshua) and Eete-Leah Chaitovich, as well as my sisters Chaye, Chana, and Henye, with their husbands and children, and more and more of our own, relatives and friends. And what should I, the only survivor of the family, do there, on the graves, in the Jewish cemetery? Could I live there, stay there any longer? So I had a good, long cry on the great ancestral grave, and I began to run again. And look-!run, I am still continuing to run....
That was the story that Golde Chaitovich told. She and the members of her family who perished were good acquaintances of mine, from the past. She alone has remained of her large, many-branched family, as have I of my own family.... At a meeting of the surviving remnants of Kovno we met-that was predestined. We got married. She is now my wife. She is the mother of our newborn child.
Yehoshua (Joshua) is the child's name. Yehoshua-that was the name of his grandfather, a learned scholar and a member of the Jewish enlightenment who died a martyr on the way between Abel and Rackishok, in Lithuania. Yehoshua-God's help. That is what the name means... May the child grow up, and may he be a healthy, honest person, a fine person and a good Jew, no worse than his grandfather, one of the great number of Jewish martyrs and saints. May he, the grandson, born after the annihilated generations, carry forward rising new generations.
Here is the poem Hope that I wrote as a refugee looking to the future:
|A man who has fled to the forests,
A woman who also lived to see freedom
The two of them met with each other
To build a life that was new.
Two single, lonely, tiny little remnants
No more home, no roof, and no land...
Behind them-only graves and ruins,
The only things they still own-
The drive to live, and faith-
No corner of our own, no table...
They've given birth to a child there
That child growing there carries hope
|They are escorted by shades of the past,
The memory of those deaths still hurts,
But that new life already calls them,
Demanding resurrection and a future.
The wounds are still fresh and deep,
That's who we all are-the remnants
|(Written in the Bergen-Belsen refugee camp, Germany, 1946)|
Who is he- A man who has fled to the forests?
Who is she- A woman who also lived to see freedom?
Who are they-the Two single, lonely, tiny little remnants... Of great families that have perished?
Who are they-all of those people about whom there is so much talk in the measured lines of the poem I wrote as a refugee?
That is he; that is she. I am that man, and that is my friend-my wife.
They-all of those people in the poem-are the survivors. They are the unexpected fragments, the split-off branches, the weakened and dried-out thorns and twigs from the chopped-down Jewish tree. They are the solitary remnants who have by chance saved themselves from the ghettos, death camps, slaughters, actions, gas chambers, and crematoria. They have escaped from houses set on fire, from bombed-out bunkers, and from death by hunger, cold, and illness. They have survived medical experiments, slow torture, and bullets and grenades and encirclement in the woods. They have slipped from the hands of the German, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, and Rumanian murder battalions, and they have fled-from whom and from what not?
These single little remnants-one of them is a man whose wife will never come back from the bloodied mass graves, another is a woman whose husband was torn apart forever, and still another is an isolated father, or a childless mother, or a homeless child, an orphan who remained alive without a single relative or friend. Another is a person who has returned from hiding in the woods, or from Russia, and another is a survivor from a death camp who had hoped to find someone or other of his family still alive, and-the miracle
did not happen. No one is alive any more. That's who they are-the solitary remnants.
Certainly they want to live and build, these lonely, isolated people. They are going to establish new families. They get married. Middle-aged survivors get married because they want to free themselves of loneliness, and of the terrible ghosts of the dead. They want to build a home, a family, and fill up their life again. Younger people get married because they want to put an end to the emptiness of their shattered existence. They want to find a little joy and tenderness within the created circle of man, wife, child, and home. The deepest and strongest instinct in human beings, the life instinct, drives theJ;Il to get married. The lonely remnants in the refugee camps are driven to begin life anew, to build new families, and-to cast out the shadows of their bloody yesterdays.
They are creating a new family. On the chain of our inheritance, a tiny ring...
Oh, the loneliness and quiet of the wedding ceremonies in a camp hall, in a Joint building, or in a rabbi's study-those ceremonies where none of the guests are related except by marriage, and where the rabbi must both conduct the service and act as father of the bride. Those ceremonies where the wedding music comes only from the memory of a ruined past-how much human tragedy lies therein, and at the same time, how much comfort, good sense, and strength! Do you understand that? Have you ever been at such weddings?
And children are born, new Jewish children...dozens, hundreds, and maybe thousands of fresh and healthy Jewish children in the refugee camps, and in the private dwellings of the wandering remnants. They are born on ships with illegal emigrants to Bretz-Yisroel, in the confinement camps on Cyprus, and all along the whole long, wandering road. And when children are born, wherever they are born, there is again joy, and hope, and the foundation for further survival.
What else can give warmth and encouragement to the tortured souls of these remnants, if not a child? What else can lift up anew, with light and joy, their hearts, if not the laughter of a child?
And what else can bind them again to life if not the feeding of a newborn child?
I have seen, in the camps, the painfully longed-for love with which oldyoung mothers nurse their infants. And I have seen in the camps' child-homes and family circles how tenderly and devotedly mothers whose own children have gone into eternity feed lonely little orphans. You have to see it, and feel it, in order to understand it.
Six million Jews were killed, a third of our people. The stems and roots of millions of Jewish families have been cut down, leaving only scraps and twigs. But...new life already calls them, demanding resurrection and a future.
Thousands of new families, and also my wife and I, and our child-our
new family-are blossoming out from the bloodied ruins. The children are the link in the chain of two worlds. They are the tiny new ring on the chain of our story.
The thousands of children of the surviving refugees are the foundation stone for generations to come and the remembrance of generations that perished.
And now I see before my eyes, concretely, the Jewish faith, the inexhaustible Jewish strength, the stubbornness of Jewish eternity ...
I am casually walking, on a summer evening, over the streets of the great Bergen-Belsen refugee camp. All around is the usual daily picture: Two-story stone block houses, built for the military, where now live, in very crowded conditions, uprooted Jews-lonely people, family people, kibbutz people, and all sorts of other refugee remnants.
On the streets and in the doorways, people are standing in groups. They are talking, telling stories, hearing news. Other people are strolling, carefree, or they are bustling, preoccupied, carrying pots of food, dragging packages, preparing to travel. Some seem engrossed in business, while others are working at open windows, either at their old trade or some new occupation. Still others don't want to be bothered-they are resting and gathering their strength.
Children are running about with small dogs. Athletes are coming back from a soccer match. Loud women's voices ring out, and youths laugh. They throw
words around and play with their hands and eyes. From a window comes singing, talking, and laughter-a youthful kibbutz is holding a meeting there.
And just then, a couple of freight autos drive up. They stop at every blockhouse and throw out, onto a side path, bread, tin cans, and paper boxes-those are the food portions that the elder of the block house must distribute to the inhabitants.
I am approaching a large blockhouse and want to go into a kibbutz to see a good friend of mine, but the watchmen won't let me. No, right now one can't, they say. They tell me I can come tomorrow morning if I wish. Nevertheless, I succeed in calling my friend to come outside, and he takes me in, reassuring the watchmen that I am one of theirs and they don't have to watch out for me.
So what is happening there?
Nothing.... Jews are traveling to Bretz-Yisroel. From the refugee camp Bergen-Belsen, on the cursed German land-to Bretz-Yisroel. That very night, in fact, they are setting out on the road, illegal, without passports and visas, through secret paths and trails. From here, from this very house, they will quietly, individually and in small groups, go out and travel away. Up to a half-dozen borders and zones they have to slip across before they come to the sea, to a harbor, the port. And other hundreds, from somewhere else, are heading for the same place. A ship is waiting there, somewhere-a hidden old ship that will take all of them onboard, by night and in secret, and carry them to Bretz-Yisroel. Yes, you have to steal into Bretz-Yisroel, into the only land that is our own!
As many as a hundred and fifty people are leaving this place today. Mostly they are young people, boys and girls, but more than a few are married couples, some with children. Some middle-aged Jews, already in their forties and older, are leaving as well. One thought, one will, one striving, dominates all of them-to get to Bretz-Yisroel as soon as possible, to get settled there, and to live, work, and build. They have made their preparations; they don't need anything, and nothing frightens them. Nothing can stop them from going to their goal. Now they are almost completely packed and ready. Their belongings must go into one small bag that they can easily carry on their back or on their shoulders. They, the wanderers, must be nimble and mobile-so they are now working at the final arrangement of their bags, making them smaller and lighter.
I have heard about them, heard a lot about the stubborn illegal BretzYisroel travelers. I have seen them, individually, in disorder, and they looked to me like simple, ordinary people. But here, in the mass, it is entirely different. They are something, it seems to me, with a will of steel and a tough hide. Their fortitude is strong enough to break down all obstacles and temptations, however great they might be, and however long they might persist.
I look at the faces and movements of the travelers. I look into their eyes and
their souls. They get ready for their long journey (and what kind of journey!) with a willingness to let everything go, to leave everything behind. Inside they are feverish, inside a fire is burning, but. ..what external calm, restraint, and firmness! What fortitude streams from them! Does it spring from stubbornness and determination, or from martyrdom and lack of caution? Or from landlessness and longing? Is it, at its root, idealism? Self-sacrifice? Faith? That very complicated, immense fortitude, the fortitude that, over the course of dozens of generations and thousands of years, has led an uprooted and scattered people through fire and water and blood: What is it?
You see, my friend says to me, that group, with the children, is going out first. Soon there should be an auto coming to drive them off to a specific place, to the train. They have all been provided with the best documents. As a matter of fact, I, too, was supposed to travel with that group, but they wouldn't let me. You know, of course, that my wife is still too weak, and our child too small, not yet one year old. We have to wait a little longer. What can you do? But I hope to travel quite soon, with another group.... So, let's go say goodbye to those who are leaving!
Weak and small I felt myself to be, in comparison with them, seeing how they were packing their backpacks, how they were becoming illegals traveling to Eretz-Yisroel, how they were setting out on new roads. My road, meanwhile, remained steady. I was to go in another direction. I could only admire their fortitude, and regret my own weakness. I saw, of course, that it was an extraordinarily difficult, long, and risky journey upon which they were embarking with so much fervor and determination. But I also saw that everything was well organized, that the leadership was firm and the discipline outstanding. And I saw, above all-boldness, courage, belief, and hope, hope, hope....
A successful road and happy future to you, my dears!
Deep and broad has been the disaster to our nation. But the wandering tribe of the refugee remnants, for whom the old home has vanished forever, carries within itself hope and strength. It travels onward to its new home, to the land of its striving, revival, and rebuilding.
They are still on the way to the land of their future. There is no foundation there yet, no land under their feet, but...they keep going, with such an immense will to live, such faith and stubbornness boiling in them - WITH SUCH FORTITUDE !
|I am leaving you, Europe, forever
With hatred and without so much as a fare-thee-well!
There will remain that bloodied cemetery,
The pain in the heart is coming with us.
And again I shall be wandering through countries...
|God's world is so very beautiful and spacious!
But everywhere I go, I am a foreigner
Where shall I put up my tent?
You carry me, ship, through broad seas
We are escorted by bitter memories
Waves are roaring, storms are rushing,
I am already tired of being driven,
|(Written en route, Bremen Harbor, Summer, 1946)|
Jacob and Goldie Rassen emigrated to the United States from the port of Bremen in Germany in August 1946, leaving a month after the birth of their son Joshua. After passing the Statue of Liberty and arriving in the Port of New York, they were greeted by Goldie's family members including Jacob and Francis Hiatt, Al and Dorothy Hiatt, and Sidney and Mildred Hiatt.
They settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. Jacob and Goldie Rassen lived in Worcester from 1946 to 1956. A second child, Rachel, was born in1949.
Jacob and Golide Rassen worked diligently to begin a new life and find new work. Over the next decades, they were able to create a successful and secure home for their second family. Jacob worked for several years in the offices of the Whitney Box Company, then began teaching Hebrew in the Worcester Ivriah School (Hebrew Academy). Goldie Rassen became a teacher at the Beth Israel Synagogue.
In 1956, the Rassen family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, then to Boston, Massachusetts in 1957. Jacob and Goldie Rassen continued to teach. Golide attended and graduatedthe Hebrew Teacher's College.
In 1986, they moved to San Francisco. Jacob was diagnosed with cancer in 1986 and passed away the following year. Jacob survived to meet two grand children and participate in their early education. Goldie Rassen lives in San Francisco.
Jacob's passion to tell the story of the Lthuanian Jewish community contin ued throughout his life. He and Goldie traveled to Israel on many occasions, especially to participate in the annual Independence Day marches from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Jacob continued to enjoy his interest in agronomy, planting fruit trees and small orchards in Worcester, Boston and in California.
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