My interview with Holocaust Survivor Shalom Eilati, author of Crossing The River #NationalHolocaustMemorialDay
This interview first appeared in the Baptist Times online a couple of years ago.
Crossing the River…Again
Crossing the river of memories again that make up Shalom Eilati’s story as a Holocaust survivor is still exceptionally painful for him. At least one of my questions he cannot bring himself to answer directly, but refers me to the beautiful book of his story, Crossing the River (The Alabama University Press, 2008). For Shalom as for many survivors the question was, could he look back without being turned into a pillar of salt? Without being destroyed?
Shalom was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1933. He experienced World War II as a child between the ages of 8 and 12. At the end of April 1946 he arrived in Palestine.
I first met Shalom when he came to speak at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Centre in Jerusalem, last year. I have stayed in touch with him because these stories of ordinary people caught up in what has been called ‘the second original sin’ need to retold and remembered
I did a long interview with him via Skype on his 79th birthday and we have also corresponded. This is something of his story for you to read on Holocaust Memorial Day.
How did it begin for you, the war, where there was nowhere to escape to and no way of escaping?
It was like being overwhelmed in a flood. It was blow after blow. It was bad news and worse rumours one after another. It took a while to realize there was nowhere to escape to and no way of escaping.
You were soon showered with salvos of regulations as Jews in Lithuania: what were some of them?
We weren’t allowed military equipment, radios or any other electronic equipment. We couldn’t leave lights on at night, have newspapers or literature that might inform us. We couldn’t leave the city or make telephone calls. Only a few shops were left open to the Jews, and we were only allowed in the streets during certain hours. And even then we could only walk on the street, not on the pavement. If we passed a German soldier we had to remove our hats and bow. Jews continued to be shot daily in the streets, in the doorways of houses, through lighted windows. All of those decrees and orders as well the same from on now were worded with the same brutal ending:” Violators of this regulation will be shot” – wird erschossen werden – plain and simple.
When did your childhood end for you?
There are words that still freeze my blood if I hear them, like Achtung, or Aktion. Aktions occurred regularly in the ghetto, when men, women and children were rounded up, sorted and taken away to be executed. For a short while I guess I lived in make-belief. But then I realized as an eight year old, Germans were really killing Jews. I realized it was only a question of time when that would be what would happen to me and my family. It was like a slow suffocation.
Some of these experiences came back to haunt you many years later?
In my dreams the feelings of being chased, of being sorted out as a candidate to be shot or gassed, still haunt me 70 years later. These feelings are familiar but unwelcome visitors still in my mind. Even in my waking moments something can act like a trigger and take me back. Crowds, queues of people walking in the same direction, or a row of busses that wait to collect children from school……
Loss followed loss, beginning with your Father being taken away?
The losses for me began with the executions of my acquaintances. The father of my close friends Arke and Maimke ( who were later gassed in Auschwitz) was among the first of thousands that were collected and shot in Fort VII, during the first 2 weeks of the occupation. Later it was repeated by our nearest friends, relatives and neighbors that were sent to the IXth Fort in the Big Aktion, in which a third of the ghetto imprisoned people, 10,000 by number, were sorted out and shot in 2-3 days within walking and hearing distance of the ghetto. It just went on and on. Relatively the evacuation of my father to Riga had another kind of impact. My mother was left alone to take care of her two children, me ( 8 ½ ) and my little sister Yehudith ( (4 ½ ) during the next two years, while she had to go daily for work. Still we were lucky to receive casual letters and messages from him. We had hope to be reunited – which almost happened during the last phase of our ghetto. But in the end he was sent to the concentration (Kz) camps of Dachau, in Germany. Somehow there he survived.
The story of your sister leaving: can you share that with us?
This is the story Shalom cannot bring himself to retell. In the book it reads as a lamentation. There is no other word for it. He talks about his three years in the ghetto as always being on the verge of being forced into one of two deaths – to stand at the edge of a pit or be carted to the gas chambers. The children were being targeted. His mother planned a way out , by placing her children with local Lithuanians. His sister was the first to leave.
Perhaps unable to face the parting he lost himself in games with his friends. Suddenly realizing he might miss saying goodbye, and unable to bear that either he ran to the gate of the ghetto, but he was too late, he had missed the leaving. He never saw her again, as the Lithuanian family who hid her for several months gave in to fear and handed her over to the Gestapo.
This is what he writes.
‘And I came too late. Dear little sister. I cannot pardon myself for not coming on time to part with you; I cannot forgive myself for being the one of us two who remains alive. I would crawl on my knees like a pilgrim, I would go to the end of the Kola peninsula for solace and forgiveness.’ (p. 109)
You were a diminishing population in an ever-tightening noose. How did you escape?
During the children’s Aktion, the deepest of the horrors that I have experienced, we found out that children were torn from their mothers’ arms, clawing and wailing.
Shaun Dear, who among the prey could dare to observe visually the hunt?…eyes closed, we listened, heard, were later told…
Children dug out of cellars. Some in shock didn’t hide, and were collected like abandoned eggs. The dread and terror was beyond telling. The children’s Aktion continued for three or four full days, until the numbers that were known to the Germans were hunted down. Somehow I survived those mad terrifying days, each of them by a sole miracle that I’m not able to explain or understand. After that my mother arranged my escape, hidden in a work group, crossing the river that separated the ghetto from its surroundings, and then walking out of the group to a planned point of meeting. “ON THAT MORNING I DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE AT ALL. I REALLY DIDN’T want to go. But I had to”. (p.135)
Once you had escaped what was it like to live with the constant fear of being handed over to the Gestapo?
I could not believe this world outside the ghetto was real. I was filled with an immense and constant anxiety, deeper even than I felt in the ghetto. I poured it all into daily letters to my mother, and sorting out again and again my stamps collection that I took with me. These letters to my mother enabled me to continue. One day in my hiding I had a final meeting with her when she slipped out of the work brigade. I also hoped, as did she, we would meet ‘after the storm’. We never did.
When liberation came Shalom’s questions to those he met where ‘ have you seen my sister? Have you seen my mother?’ When his father finally tracked Shalom down the young boy was met by a ‘Mussulman,’ a wreck of a man. Even that meeting was, therefore, bittersweet.
At the end of April 1946, still just twelve, Shalom found himself in Palestine. This is what he says.
I wasn’t evacuated. That term doesn’t fit the situation. I was raised from my youngest years to think about Palestine as our final goal. Magnified by the grim experience of the Holocaust years , the image of the promised Land became a source of longing and hope. A source of security, warmth, intimacy, national identity, and pride of belonging to what became a flourishing pioneering society.
You describe writing about your experiences much later was like removing old bandages that had long since merged with living flesh…
I struggle to find words to describe it. It was a painful cleansing process. I was overwhelmed and surprised by how much memory of it all I contain… sounds, smells and sights. It was like living the whole thing over again.
Looking forward what would you like to say to us?
I would like to say that hatred and animosity do not lead to any good results. That the ancient holy sixth commandment, ‘thou shalt not kill’, is still the right way to act. I would like to say that every nation deserves a safe corner in the world for its entity and existence.
As I write this with Shalom I am struggling with the right words to end. Yad Vashem as a site is built on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. The name is taken from Isaiah 56:5, ‘And I shall give them in My house within My walls a memorial and a name (a ‘Yad Vashem’)…that shall not be cut off.’
Of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust 1.5 million were children. They are trying to record all the names and personal details of the victims in the Hall of Names before it is too late. They currently have recorded 4.2 million names. A famous Jewish rabbi called The Baal Shem Tov once said, ‘in memory lies the secret of redemption.’ That is my hope and prayer as we seek to build bridges today.
You can buy Shalom’s book on Amazon, here is the link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Crossing-River-Shalom-Eilati/dp/0817316310/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422347475&sr=1-1&keywords=shalom+eilati+crossing+the+river