By Bracha Stock
On a cool summer evening, in the garden of my uncle’s home near the beach in north Tel Aviv, I first met my cousin Lifche. She had arrived that afternoon from Poland, the only survivor of our large family.
We sized each other up. Two girls, each 17, but worlds apart. Lifche looked so strange. Her pallor was sickly. Her body and face were swollen; her hair cut much too short. Her clothes, an old-fashioned gray, hung loosely. I felt awkward, with my healthy tan, mane of chestnut hair.
Lifche’s story was that of nearly all survivors of the Holocaust purgatory who arrived in Israel empty of hope or dreams, but found new life and energy in their new country.
“There once lived a little girl.” That’s how fairy tales begin. But this is not a fairy tale, it’s the story of a sweet, pretty Jewish girl in Warsaw before the war. This charming little girl had a warm and caring family, and then, she told me, one day…
“SEPTEMBER 1, 1939. The first day of school. A new bag full of books, notebooks and pencils; I’m entering sixth grade. But I never got to school. Suddenly, Warsaw’s skies were swarming with planes; the streets exploding with bombs. World War II had begun, and in a single day my secure and happy life had collapsed.
“In the beginning came the Ghetto, where my father was the first to die. He refused to touch food that was not kosher, and he died of hunger. My brother worked at forced labor for the Germans; I managed to leave the Ghetto secretly from time to time to steal potatoes and whatever other food I could find. Then my mother, two sisters and brother were sent to the gas chamber. One day, I jumped on the transport train to Auschwitz because I heard that my older sister was seen there. I was now 15. I tried to make myself look healthy and taller by stretching and pinching my cheeks, to be found fit for work. My sister died of typhus; I caught it, too, but survived. I can’t explain where I found the courage to face each morning, work the whole day and then fight for a place to sleep at night. To stay alive under inhuman conditions, yet to keep hoping that the nightmare would end, so I could live and tell the world what happened.
“Now the year is 1945, in the Auschwitz camp. The sound of cannons from afar. Could it be that the Russians are approaching? All at once, we get an order to get ready to leave the camp. Are we going to be freed? Could it be that we’ll stay alive after all? I consult my best friend. Should we try and hide in the camp? But where? Under the bed? In the toilet? Never! We’d be killed! I gather my courage to find the woman in charge of our block. I ask her humbly if I can change my striped pajamas, which make me itch all over, and the unbelievable happens. She gives me not only a dress and a sweater, way too big for my small frame, but also a pair of enormous shoes. I have to wrap my feet with rags to fit in them. We are ordered to form straight lines and given some dry bread and jam.
“Winter. Terrific cold. Deep snow. We march past the electric fence, long lines of prisoners, and alongside us vicious dogs ready to attack.
“Where are we being led to? I try to push my way to the head of the line, mostly out of fear of the dogs, and of the S.S. men who kept shouting ‘Aufstehen!’ (get moving!) With all my might I pull myself forward, so as not to be left behind. The dogs are ready for a kill.
“At last, we arrived in a village. There was a well in a yard. All the women in our group ran to it. I couldn’t move. I sat and kept thinking, ‘Now, how do I run away?’ Just then my friend came up to me, and I mumbled my decision to run. She thought I was mad.
“‘What are you dreaming about? You’ll be caught in no time, and killed!’
“At that moment I made up my mind. I said goodbye to her and started walking away from the village. The snow was so deep that I had to dig out each leg as I went, step by step. I saw a house in the distance. Through the stillness in the rear, I heard the Germans yelling, ‘aufstehen, aufstehen!’ I didn’t turn my head even once. Forward, only forward.
“Suddenly, I heard shots. I was sure I was being shot at and I pushed myself into the snow. I lay quietly. The shooting stopped. The stillness was absolute. Slowly I lifted my head, touching my body all over. Everything was in place. I was alive. Slowly I got up and walked to the lonely house. As I walked, a wave of unfamiliar happiness swept over me. This is me! I did it. How did I do it? How did I have the courage?
“I was free. The long suppressed tears flowed uncontrolled down my cheeks.”
LIFCHE’S FIRST evening in the land of her dreams was the beginning of her new life, and of the new name she chose: Lily. She joined a kibbutz, married, had three children and never talked about her experiences until the Eichmann trial in 1961.
But Lifche-Lily was not my first contact with the new immigrants who came from Europe after the war, many of them illegally, evading the British blockade. Right after coming ashore, volunteers took them into their homes.
This is how I spent six months of my adolescence sleeping on the stone floor.
We lived close to the Tel Aviv beach, and were asked – along with our neighbors – to shelter some olim for a while, until permanent arrangements could be made for them. We opened our home to a family of three, a couple with a small boy, while my parents, brother and I crowded into one of the two rooms in our apartment. My mother cooked for all of us, I washed the dishes, and my brother played with Alexei. My father worked hard to support us all. After our houseguests left us, we never heard from them.
“As mi gayt, gayt men,” my mother said laconically. (Once you go, you’re gone.)