Yom Ha’Shoa, commemorating Heroism, not only Victimhood

“Heroism is endurance for one moment more” – George F. Kennan

Growing up in Israel, in the early days of the nascent state, was heavily overshadowed by the horrors of the Holocaust, more so than it is nowadays. Then, unlike now, those who had lived through it, the Shoa survivors were everywhere.  They lived next door, on the same street or in the same town. Some bore the tattooed numbers on their arms; others had the hollow look and blank expression as if riddled by the reality of their survival.

To some Israelis, many were the lambs that went to the slaughterhouse. To me, they were the victims, the children, the babies and the elderly, those that were helpless and defenseless against the Nazi death machine. They had no choice and we remember each and every one of them always.

Those who did have a choice, however, those that lasted, came out of the abyss, resumed their lives and moved on, were the heroes of my childhood. I listened to their stories of endurance, survival and resistance; I gulped their tales of defeating death and overcoming the impossible. What else can such humans be but heroes?

Here is one such story of heroism and survival.

“On the 10th of May 1942, we found ourselves in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, in the midst of a terrible slaughter, in Volozyn, a slaughter whose survivors could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The loud knocks on the door, which woke me up from a nightmare, were also the explanation for my dream, as well as an omen of the end of the Ghetto in Volozyn. In fact, already a day earlier we had seen that the Lithuanian militia had encircled the Ghetto. They had also been joined by militants from Latvia. We, however, did not understand the meaning of such activities.

At four a.m., the drunken murderers burst into the Ghetto like a storm, firing in all directions and kicking the Jews out of their houses. They then gathered them into a large building and from there took them in groups to the cemetery, where they shot them. On the streets that led to the cemetery, there already lay the dead bodies of hundreds of men, women and children who, through illness or weakness, had not been able to walk, and so had been killed on the way to the killing fields.

In one of the yards of one of the houses, Jewish families had built a hiding place underneath a pile of firewood.

On the night in question, I slept in that house. When the drunken murderers attacked the inhabitants of the Ghetto that early morning, I ran with a few others to that hiding place. We climbed a ladder to the top of the pile and lowered ourselves into it. We then pulled the ladder inside hoping to hide our place. However, our footprints were visible on the grass, which was wet from the morning dew. These led the hooligans to us. They ordered us to come out. One of them even came down into the hiding place and kicked me out along with two others who did not come out straight away.

When I reached the top of the pile, I suddenly jumped onto a nearby roof and then to the ground, and started to run wildly. The hooligans shot at me and hit me in the shoulder. With the last remnants of my strength, I reached a little hut in one of the yards. The hut served as an outhouse. Without much deliberation, I jumped into the hole and sank up to my shoulders in excrement. The murderers would have never thought to look for me there.

In that state, as I was sitting in this hole full of stinking dirt and suffering from my injured shoulder which still had a bullet in it, I was destined to witness, through the cracks of the door of the hut, one of the most devastating scenes in our history.

Next to the large building in which they housed the Jews, there sat a German. His rank was “Gebis Komisar” (district director). He conducted, in the most organized fashion and with much “expertise”, the selection of the groups to be sent to their deaths in trenches which had already been dug in the cemetery.

From amongst the condemned, the Germans selected a few tradesmen to be spared. They were allowed to take their wives. One of the selected was a bachelor. Two women jumped at him, each claiming to be his wife. One had a baby in her arms. The man was allowed to take the woman without the baby. The Germans then snatched the baby from the arms of his mother, threw him in the air and shot him. He fell lifeless to the ground.

The atrocities which I was forced to witness continued through the morning and afternoon. The hooligans then went on their way. One could still hear shots in the Ghetto. Later, I found out that White Russian policemen had searched the Ghetto, shot the people they caught in hiding places, and looted Jewish homes.

At nightfall, I carefully came out of the outhouse hole. I went to the nearest house and climbed into the attic. Injured, dirty, and hungry like a dog, I lay there until Monday morning when I came out of my hiding place to try and find out what was happening. The noise of the crowds and the local policemen who came to loot the empty houses, however, immediately forced me back to my hiding place.

At nightfall, I regained my courage and went into the houses in order to look for clean clothes, and hopefully find a means to tend my wound, which was beginning to bother me. When I crawled out, I heard two shots and then someone shouting in Russian: “Again we shot two Jews” I ran back to my hiding place.

On Tuesday morning I heard someone climbing the ladder leading to the attic. From behind the open door that concealed me, I heard one hooligan telling his friend (who was waiting downstairs) “There is no-one here”. These were local residents who were happy Nazi collaborators.

In the evening, I went down and entered one of the houses. I found a piece of bread and a few cooked potatoes. I also saw there a discarded Sefer Torah in which the looters, it seemed, had no interest. An atmosphere of great sadness and abandonment cloaked me. It added to my loneliness and my heart’s despair.

The following day, I lost all of my strength, and I lay there half alive. The pain in my shoulder was very strong.

On Thursday, at twilight, I tried to come out of my hiding place, but could not move a limb. I managed to crawl to the attic window. In the street below, I saw a woman I knew. I wanted to call her, but I was too weak and too excited to be able to utter a sound. Later, I saw another acquaintance, a man I knew very well. Again, I was too weak to signal that I was alive.

Suddenly, I fell down and fainted.

I woke up to the sound of Yiddish conversation and strong hammering on the door below. Through the attic window, I could see men nailing up the door leading to the house in which I hid. I began to shout: “There is a Jew in here! Open the door!”

The men took me to the house in which the tradesmen lived. There were a few other Jews there who had also miraculously survived. Amongst them was a doctor. He managed, with a simple kitchen knife, to extract the bullet from my shoulder. In that house I also met a good friend of mine. I asked him how he had survived. He told me that the murderers had kept him alive so that he could bury the dead.

He had buried, with his own hands, his parents, his brothers and his sisters along with their children.

The Christian dwellers of the surrounding neighbourhoods told me later that the ground of the big mass grave was moving up and down for a long time after that dreadful day, as many of those buried there were still alive underneath.

I and a few other Jews who were not residents of Volozyn, decided to go back to our hometown, to Olshan. In normal times, it was a walk of about three to four hours. We walked for two days on side-roads and tracks, gripped by the fear of our enemy, which was lurking everywhere.

When we reached Olshan, the Jews there stared at us as if we had just returned from the dead. They had already heard about the destruction of the Volozyn Ghetto. They did not expect to see us alive.”

This hero was my father and this is but one of his heroic experiences during that horrific chapter in our Jewish history. What a blessing it has been to be his daughter, to bear with great pride his endurance “for one moment more,”  his determination to survive, to defy death and live to pass on his legacy to the world. On this day, as on every other day, his blood flows through my veins reminding me of our unwavering Jewish pledge: “Never Again!”

About the Author
Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks is an English teacher and a pro Israel advocate. She lives in Israel and has recently published her first novel, "On A Wing From The Holy Land."