Solly Ganor is a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. He was liberated from the Dachau death march by Nisei soldiers of the 522nd Field Artillery on May 2, 1945. Excerpts from the book Light One Candle by permission of Solly Ganor.
A Survivor's Tale from
Lithuania to Jerusalem
New York • Tokyo • London
For my mother Rebecca and brother Herman,
and all those who perished during the war.
For my father Chaim and sister Fanny,
and all those who helped me survive the Holocaust years.
For Chiune Sugihara, Clarence Matsumura,
and the men of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion,
my guide and my rescuers.
For my wife Pola and children, Leora and Danny.
1 The War of Independence 3
2 The Shtrom Clan 14
3 The Soul of a Human Is the Lamp of the Lord 33
4 Schrecklichkeit 51
5 The Seventh Fort 73
6 The Ghetto 92
7 The Five Hundred Intellectuals 106
8 Aunt Leena 134
9 The Big Action 152
10 Return of a Ghost 168
11 Winter 1941 190
12 The Book Action 206
13 The Children's Action 229
14 Evacuation of the Ghetto 249
15 Arbeit Macht Frei 261
16 Pigs 271
17 Scheherazade 283
18 Moll 291
19 The Present Is a Mighty Goddess 304
20 Christmas 1944 310
21 Vernichtung Durch Arbeit 318
22 The Death March 335
23 Liberation 344
A Remembrance 351
I would like to express my gratitude to Eric Saul, Lani Silver, and the
dedicated volunteers of the Holocaust Oral History Project of San
Francisco, for helping me confront my past. Thanks also to Yukiko
Sugihara and family, for helping restore my faith in humanity.
Grateful acknowledgment goes to my fellow survivors: Uri
Chanoch, David Granat, Aba Naor, David Levine, Chaim Konwitz,
Arie Ivtsan, Zwi Katz, and the many others who helped me to
remember clearly the Holocaust years.
Thanks to George Oiye for
the valuable information on the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and
to Lea Eliash for her memories of Kaunas.
Thanks to the Japanese American National Museum of Los
Angeles, the National Japanese American Historical Society of San
Francisco, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Museum of
Tolerance for valuable information.
Thanks also to Minato Asakawa, Philip Turner, and Joshua Sitzer at
Kodansha for all their help and advice. Lastly, a very special and
heartfelt thanks goes to Kathy Banks for the many hours of hard work
and tender care she put into helping shape this book.
Two diaries have been of invaluable help in checking facts and
dates: Josef Gar's The Holocaust of the Jewish Kovne, published in
Munich in 1948 and now out of print; and Avraham Tory's Surviving
the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary, edited by Martin Gilbert
(Harvard University Press, 1990).
Kaunas, Lithuania, is a little-known spot on the map for most
Americans. It looms large in my memory, however. It is where I
spent the greater part of my childhood, and where a large part of the
story that follows takes place.
In Lithuania, Kaunas has been known as the "provisional capital"
of the country ever since 1920, when Poland annexed Vilnius during
the Russo-Polish war. A minor war, by later standards, and only one of
many struggles that have torn the Baltic states over the centuries. In
Lithuania you don't have to look far for reminders of the bloody
history. Kaunas itself is ringed by old forts, built around the turn of
the century by a Russian Tsar. When I was about nine years old,
around 1937, my friends and I were thrilled to stumble upon the
skeleton of a Russian officer. He was in a cave in the woods surrounding
Kalautuvas, a little resort town a few miles downriver from
Kaunas. Around the earthly remains of this lonely soul, who died so
far from home, we concocted a whole history full of dash and
heroism and high tragedy.
By 1940 Vilnius was once again the capital of Lithuania, but
Lithuanians continued to refer to Kaunas as the "provisional capital."
It was a lovely city of nearly 120,000 people. More than thirty thousand
Jews lived and prospered in the town, my family among them.
For many years Kaunas was one of the few places in Europe where
the Jews were able to live nearly autonomously, and they built a
strong community. Its Yeshivas attracted students from all over
Europe. Its professionals and scholars and merchants played an
important role in the town's economy. Its cultural life was diverse and
sophisticated. I remember being very happy there.
I was eleven years old when Hitler marched into Poland. The
weeks and months that followed were fearful ones, as news of atrocities
against Polish Jews reached us and refugees began streaming
over the border into Lithuania. The Nazis had begun their inexorable
march across the face of Europe, and would soon put our old
Tsarist forts to hideous use. The next six years would turn out to be
far more terrible than even the grimmest pessimists among us could
In 1939 and 1940 Kaunas became a sort of way station filled with
people desperately seeking asylum from the Nazis. They sought help
from any country they thought might receive them. Most of them
were denied and were turned away by one government after another,
including the governments of the United States and Great Britain.
The one official who offered the Jews of Kaunas any hope was the
representative of a government which shortly became Germany's
strongest ally. That man was the Consul of Japan, Chiune Sugihara,*
who risked his career, his honor, perhaps even his life, to save more
than six thousand Jews.
*Sugihara's proper given name was Chiune, but I knew him as Sempo, a friendly nickname by which he was known in Lithuania.
In my memory of those years Sugihara stands out as a single light
in a sea of darkness. My family, for various reasons, was not among
the fortunate thousands he helped directly, but he remained an
inspiration to me throughout the terrible years to come-years spent
in the Slabodke ghetto and in the camps of Dachau.
How strange and wonderful it was to recognize Sugihara's ethnic
features again five years after I last laid eyes on him, and at the very
moment of my liberation. His eyes, and even something of his smile
were in the kind face of the G.I. who brought me back from the brink
of death. For it was a Japanese American, or Nisei, who lifted me from
a snowbank where German SS guards had left me for dead. The Nisei
soldier's name was Clarence Matsumura, and he was with the 522nd
FABN-the field artillery battalion of the famous 100th/442nd
Combat Team, a regimental-sized unit composed entirely of segregated
units of Japanese American troops. These men came both from
Hawaii and from the mainland, and many were volunteers. They
served on the bloody battlefields of Italy, France, and Germany. The
100th/ 442nd suffered more casualties and won more medals for its
length of service than any other American unit in the war.
The irony is not lost on me that even as Clarence and his kinsmen
were fighting and dying for the United States, many of their families
were incarcerated in American detention camps . Along with all
Americans of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the U.S.
mainland, the families of nearly half of these Nisei troops had been
uprooted from their homes and businesses and sent to live in tar
paper barracks in desolate areas. The United States called these
detention centers "relocation camps." Concentration camps under
I met Clarence Matsumura on May 2, 1945. Our paths didn't cross
again for thirty-six years. During those years I did not speak of my
wartime experiences with others, except among those few who survived
the ghettos and camps with me. Only they could understand. I
found out later that many of our rescuers could not speak of what they
saw either. But then, in 1981, Clarence Matsumura walked into the
National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco and
told his story to Eric Saul, a historian who directed the Presidio Army
Museum and later worked with San Francisco's Holocaust Oral History
Project. Eric knew of the role that the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion
played in the rescue of the infamous Death March from Dachau, but
Clarence was the first to come forward and tell his personal story:
"Toward the end of the war, when we'd finally broken the Siegfried Line and
the Germans were in retreat, three of my buddies and I pulled into a German
village called Wasseralfingen. There was a hill there that was covered with
artificial trees. These things looked like they were made of two by fours. They
had painted 'em green and laid them all out over this hill, which looked like it
was man-made, too. Grass was growing on it, but there were no ravines or any
natural markings like that. We went around and discovered a tunnel with a
great big wire fence across it. There were all kinds of people in there, staring
through the fence. We were staring at them, and they were staring back at us,
Orientals in U.S. Army uniforms. It took us a few minutes to realize these were
not German workers, but prisoners. Polish, Bulgarian, all different nationalities.
Inside the tunnel there was a railroad track, with bunk beds all lined up
and down one side. Down the other side piles of all kinds of machine parts
were laid out. An assembly line ran on the tracks, and it looked like they were
putting together 88 millimeter artillery pieces. Antiaircraft pieces, famous for
their deadly fire.
"These people in the tunnel were afraid to come out at first. We couldn't really
talk to them, because nobody seemed to speak English. We more or less figured
out what they were doing because we recognized the gun parts. Finally we
located a few doctors and lawyers who could speak English, and they explained.
The prisoners weren't starving like those we found later, but they were happy to
come outside into the air. They had been in that tunnel for so long.
"We didn't know anything about slave labor camps then. We didn't know
what the hell was going on.
"There were four of us driving around in a weapons transport, mostly on
Hitler's autobahns and at highway speeds. Sergeant Mas Fujimoto was
driving, and old man Tanaka, acting as observer, was up front, and then
there was David Sugimoto, the radio operator, and me. I was there as a
repairman. We were acting as forward observers. The Germans were retreating
so fast then that our infantry could hardly keep up.
"Later on we came to a really peaceful-looking town. It was called Dachau.
I had never heard of it before. Right in the middle of town was what looked like
a big factory, with a high fence all around and two big brick smokestacks in
the middle. Before we ever reached it we noticed the odd smell. You just can't
describe it, but you never forget it. The smell of decaying human flesh. There
were dead corpses all piled up everywhere in there. A lot of them in striped uniforms, many of them naked. This thing is right in the middle of town, and
there are dead bodies all over the doggone place. I was very shook up. I kept
trying to figure out what the heck is this doggone thing?
"We went out into the town, with some men from the battery who could
speak German, and started interrogating the townspeople. 'Where are the soldaten? The guards? Where did they go? Did you know there are all kinds of
dead people in there?' Right in the middle of town, and the townspeople
claimed that they didn't know anything about any of this. Then someone told
us the soldiers had marched a lot of prisoners out of town several days ago.
And that a day or two later the last of the soldiers came around and took all
the townspeople '.s animals and bicycles, and just took off.
"We took off after them, following the road the townspeople pointed out.
Farther along, toward some other villages, we started finding people along the
roadside. Almost all of them were wearing black and white striped uniforms. I
don't know how any of them could stand on their feet. They were nothing but
skin and bones. They couldn't speak. Most of them were lying on the ground,
many of them unconscious. We were supposed to be chasing down the SS, but
these people were starving. They were lying out on the cold ground. We said
let's get them into someplace warm, get them some food. We put them into
gasthauses, we put them into barns. We got them inside and got them blankets,
gave them water and food, but the rest of our guys kept bringing in more
and more people. They kept finding them along the roads. Pretty soon we ran
out of places. We went into the villages and got the Germans out of their
houses and brought these prisoners in. We put them in their beds, on their
sofas, wherever we could make them comfortable. The Germans didn't need the
doggone houses. These people needed the houses.
"The first thing we got them was water. But the thing was, a lot of them
couldn't swallow. They were starving, but only the strong ones could eat or
drink, and many of them had lost their teeth from scurvy. The really weak ones
couldn't even swallow water. You could give it to them, but it didn't do any
good because it just wouldn't go down.
"We contacted our mess crew to find out if there was any way they could
make the mush they fed us in the morning. We took powdered eggs and
whipped them up with water and then added more water to make them really
soupy. But only the strong ones could eat it. Nothing we tried seemed to work
on the others.
"I remember holding these people up and trying to feed them broth. The word
came down that we shouldn't try to feed them solid food because we would only
harm them. Give them broth, they said, let them drink if they can, give them
mush if they can eat it. We were doing that day and night for several days. We
didn't know what else to do . All we could do was clean them up, give them
blankets, try to get some broth down them, spoon by spoon. The strange thing
was, there were only men there. I don't think I saw any women. But unless you
undressed and bathed them you couldn't really tell. They were so emaciated you
couldn't tell whether they were men or women.
''Did I talk about it with my family, with the other Nisei? No, I didn't talk
about it. How could anyone understand who didn't see it? It's not that easy to
talk about. It affected all of us. It took us a long time to get over that doggone
thing. We couldn't understand why people had to go and do things like that to
other human beings. You really can't explain how it is, when you've got all
these people, so many of them, and you're trying to help them and they're dying
right there in your hands. "
Ten years after that interview, in April of 1992, Eric Saul called me in
April is the most beautiful time of the year in Israel, just before the
harsh summer heat invades the country. The orange groves are in
bloom, and the sweet delicate bouquet of orange blossoms permeates
the countryside. This is the month of Passover, when we
celebrate the Israelites' exodus from Egypt some three thousand
years ago. It is also the month of Yom Hashoa, the Day of the
Holocaust, when the entire country mourns the Jewish victims of the
Nazis during World War II. On that day the survivors of the
Holocaust remember all their loved ones that perished during the
war. For many survivors, the dead include their entire families.
That evening I was sitting on my terrace in Herzelia, listening to
the waves wash ashore on the sandy beach below. It always has a
calming effect on me. Sometimes I imagine I hear a plaintive note
in the constant murmur of the water, as if the sea is reminding me I
wasn't true to her. For many years I was a merchant seaman, plying
the oceans of the world, until I left the sea for another woman-my
I'd been restless the whole day. During the war I'd developed a sort
of sixth sense warning me of things to come, an instinct for survival
that served me well in the camps and again during Israel's War of
Independence. It was an uneasy sort of feeling that something was
about to happen, and when the telephone rang I didn't want to
answer it. It rang several times before I finally picked up the receiver.
"May I speak to Solly Ganor?" It was a pleasant American voice. I
hesitated before identifying myself.
"I am here with a group of Japanese American veterans who were
among the liberators of Dachau in 1945," the man said. "I was told
that you were among the survivors of the Death March from Dachau."
My instincts had been right. This man with the pleasant voice was
going to stir up memories I'd kept carefully boxed off from the rest
of my life for nearly fifty years.
"Do you recall the name of the place where you were liberated?" he
asked. His name was Eric Saul, and he spoke quietly, with sensitivity.
I was silent for a long time, but my heart was thudding in my chest.
"I was liberated at a small village in Bavaria, called Waakirchen," I
"Do you remember seeing any Japanese American soldiers when
you were liberated?"
Did I remember? Did I remember? How could I ever forget the
very first face I saw, at the very moment I emerged from hell? But
something within me continued to rebel against this intrusion from
No one who wasn't there, no matter how sensitive or imaginative,
could have any inkling of what we went through. Those who were
killed in the very beginning were the lucky ones. Those who survived
year after year in the ghetto and then in the slave labor camps
around Dachau were ground down to less than nothing. And then in
the end, with Hitler's Reich crashing around the Nazis' ears, there
was the Death March. That final meaningless, grotesque, inhuman
I survived that march, but something inside of me died. Although my
body survived intact, my spirit was crippled. In my mind's eye I saw
myself as the trunk of a tree that had survived a forest fire. Black and
charred beyond recognition, with all my branches gone, I finally
managed to sprout new branches in order to live, but the old ones never
grew back, and thus I became a different, and somehow lesser, being.
"Yes, I remember the Japanese Americans," I finally said to Mr.
Saul. "I remember them well. As a matter of fact, they were the first
American soldiers I saw. They were my liberators."
Eric couldn't keep the excitement out of his voice. "After all these
years to find you here! It's a miracle! It's a miracle!"
''Yes, it is a miracle," I thought, still wary. I was groping for denials,
for excuses not to enter into this dialogue.
Eric sensed my reluctance. "Please, " he said. "They have come so
far, after so many years. All the way from California and Hawaii. Will
you come to meet them?" Eric and Lani Silver, director of San
Francisco's Holocaust Oral History Project, had organized this trip
for twenty-five liberators and their families. They were being
honored by Israel's Knesset.
In the end I relented. How could I not?
The next evening I found myself driving up the highway to
Jerusalem. I even brought some pages I had written a few years
before, about my liberation, but I was still debating the wisdom of
meeting with these men.
After I left Europe for Israel in 1948, I adopted another identity. I
seldom let my guard down, seldom admitted I was a Holocaust survivor.
There was no uniform way survivors of the Holocaust coped
with the past. Each one of us had our own ways of dealing with the
terrible wounds inflicted on our psyches during the war years. I didn't
believe those wounds would ever heal, even if we lived for a thousand
years . What I wrote down in my diaries during the war, what I wrote
down later, were private nightmares that I shared with nobody but
the one or two friends who survived those days with me. In the ordinary
world, in the daylight hours, I was not a survivor. I was somebody
Right after the war, while I was still in Europe, I went to work with a
U.S. Army screening team that was hunting down members of the SS
and other Nazis who were hiding among civilians in the displaced
persons camps throughout Germany. I acted as an interpreter. I
spoke Lithuanian, German, Russian, and Yiddish, and the rudiments
of English learned during my four years in the ghetto of Kaunas.
I lived to see some of the most vicious SS guards of the Dachau
camps tried and convicted by a U.S. military court, and then hanged
in the same room of the Landsberg prison where Hitler wrote his
infamous Mein Kampf.
I also lived to see the event that Jews throughout the world had
prayed for and dreamed about for nearly twenty centuries-the
rebirth of the State of Israel. I was actually on my way to Canada when
I made the decision to go to Israel instead, to help fight off the
massive Arab force which threatened to annihilate the State of Israel
at the very moment of its birth. By 1948 I had a command of English,
and I entered Israel with a group of Canadian volunteers. Israeli
immigration assumed I was a Canadian, too. Not that anyone really
cared where you came from.
Against all odds and despite the predictions of western military
strategists, Israel survived the Arab onslaught. Among those who
fought and died for her were many concentration camp survivors,
the majority of them sole survivors whose entire families had perished
I remember a fierce battle in the Galilee, when I came across a
wounded soldier and dragged him off to safety. He had an Auschwitz
tattoo on his arm. I dressed his wounds and tried to reassure him, but
he only smiled. "I witnessed the two things I wanted to see-the
downfall of Hitler and his Third Reich, and the establishment of the
State of Israel. Now I can die in peace."
Later that evening, after the fighting was over, I spoke to the
young doctor who had treated him, and discovered the soldier was
"I'll be damned if I know what he died of. His wounds weren't that
serious," the doctor said.
"There was nothing you could have done for him, Doctor. He died
with his family in Auschwitz a long time ago," I replied. He gave me a
puzzled look, as if to say ''You people are all nuts."
But I understood the dead soldier perfectly.
After fighting for Israel's defense I joined the merchant marine ,
and roamed the world for twelve long years. It was a kind of solitude,
a way to lose myself, a kind of fugue. I also think I wanted to see if the
world was as soulless and hostile as it seemed to be during all the
years of the war. Why had these things happened to the Jews?
I didn't really find answers there. I did find extreme poverty,
squalor, and disease in the ports and slums of Asia and Africa. I also
found people living under horrid conditions in the most enlightened
democratic systems of Europe and the United States-people
living in ignorance, suspicious of their fellow human beings,
resentful, bigoted, and looking for scapegoats to bear the brunt of
their anger and resentment. I saw cruelty and inhumanity among
And yet, amidst all that misery, I saw love and laughter, kindness,
generosity, magnanimity of spirit, and above all, hope. The same
kind of hope that sustained me during the long darkness of the
As the years passed my Canadian persona grew more comfortable.
The psychological game I played with myself was in many ways successful. I was able to compartmentalize my past, to treat it as if it
belonged to someone else. It existed in the pages I wrote over the
years at sea, but it was as if those were stories told by some third party
named Solly Genkind. I had changed my last name, as many
European Jews do when they return to Israel. I chose Ganor by
looking in the phone book. It was short, it started with G, and there
weren't many Ganors in the book. Ganor means "Garden of light." I
was now Solly Ganor.
My nightmares, however, still belonged to Solly Genkind. Many a
night I woke to the sound of my own screams, my pulse beating
wildly, my bed damp with sweat. At night the demons of the
Holocaust would come to hound me, and no daytime alter ego could
keep them at bay.
What happened in Jerusalem in the spring of 1992, when I met with
Eric Saul, Lani Silver, and the Japanese American veterans, can only
be described as a second liberation. As soon as I entered the lobby of
their hotel I noticed half a dozen Nisei in their early seventies. In
their midst stood a tall young American man in glasses-Eric Saul.
He came forward smiling, both arms extended in a gesture of
welcome, his whole being radiating kindness. I immediately liked
him. He introduced me to the group, who welcomed me warmly.
One had been with the 442nd; the rest were veterans of the 522nd
Field Artillery. I looked into their faces to see if the particular man
who lifted me from the snow so many years ago was among them. I
was sure that even after all this time I would know him. But I felt no
jolt of recognition.
Soon we were joined by others. Rudy Tokiwa, one of the leaders of
the group, was from San Francisco. He was a heavyset man on
crutches, a war hero decorated more than once for his valor in
combat. I would later discover that the Nisei had been covered with
Another man to whom I took an immediate liking was George
Oiye, of Los Altos, California-another decorated veteran. He found
a camera on a dead German officer, and he and Susumu Ito, another
522nd veteran, took many gruesome pictures of Dachau and its subcamps when their unit arrived there in April of 1945.
We retired to a corner of the lobby and I began reading an account
I'd written, describing where and how I met the men of their battalion.
As I spoke one more man joined the group. He stood next to
Eric Saul, watching me intently. He was very slim, in his early seventies,
with graying hair and glasses. My heart began beating faster. Was
it him? Was he my rescuer? So many years had passed-how could I
be sure? The group urged me to continue reading. When I got to the
part where I was lying half-buried in the snow, more dead than alive,
and the four men of the 522nd drove up, I looked up again and met
the eyes of the newcomer. They were filled with tears.
I stopped reading; I couldn't go on. I was gripped by such intense
feelings that I was unable to speak. I struggled with them, but to no
avail. After all the years of trying to suppress the unsuppressible, a
tidal wave of emotion erupted inside me, and I started weeping as I
had never wept before. There was no stopping me. The boy I had
buried deep within me all those years had come out of hiding. It was
he who was crying, while my alter ego looked on in astonishment. I
couldn't believe this was happening.
During the many years since my liberation I had never cried. I
couldn't. A psychiatrist once told me that the trauma of the Holocaust
had dried up my tears, that I was like an emotional amputee and
would probably never cry again. And there I was, sprouting new emotional branches, or perhaps reviving old ones that weren't really dead, only dormant.
Finally, with the whole group gathered around patting and comforting
me, I calmed down. Everyone was surprised at what had
happened. Everyone had tears in his eyes .
No one was more surprised than I at all this, and in my embarrassment
I tried to explain that this was the first time since my liberation
that I had been able to weep. Eric then took my hands in his and
smiled at me.
"Don't be embarrassed by your tears. You are among friends here."
I looked at the faces around me and saw understanding and compassion
in their eyes. I suddenly felt very close to them. We seemed to
have bypassed that long process of emotional attachment that usually
begins new friendships, and I felt as if I had known these people all my
life. I felt tremendously uplifted, as if I had taken some potent drug.
There was a moment of silence, and then suddenly everyone was
talking at once, asking questions, recalling where they were at the
time of my liberation. They seemed to be affected by my catharsis, as
if they had been caught up in my emotional surge. Then Eric pulled
me aside and introduced me to the man who had actually unleashed
this flood of tears.
"Solly, this is Clarence Matsumura. We think he is the man who
Clarence, Clarence-that was his name!
We stared at each other, and then he smiled. I knew immediately
that it was him. He may have aged, but his smile hadn't changed. We
fell into each others' arms and it was as if the years simply melted
away. I felt weak and he was holding me up, just as he did then, forty-seven years ago, by the side of a road in Bavaria.
Later, as we sat and exchanged memories of that fateful day, he
showed me a snapshot of himself as a young soldier. I recognized him
immediately! If had any doubts at all, they evaporated then and there.
As I sat surrounded by my liberators, thoughts and feelings I had suppressed for years surfaced. My new friends had many of their own
stories to tell. I was told that one of the men in the 522nd's medical
detachment, Ichiro Imamura, had watched a liaison scout shoot the
chain off of one of the gates of Dachau. I heard that several men in
Charlie Battery-Minabe Hirasaki, Shiro Takeshita, and Raymond
Kunemura-had "liberated" a German chicken farm near
Waakirchen and made a lot of chicken soup to feed recently liberated
prisoners. We talked far into the night, until one of the group
reminded us that we were to attend an international press conference
that morning. I was to be included. Reluctantly I said good
night to my new friends and went to the room they had reserved for
me. I was gripped by a tremendous excitement and apprehension.
The idea that I would have to appear before so many people and in
front of cameras was terrifying. I remembered the previous year,
when I accompanied my friend and fellow survivor Uri Chanoch to
speak to a group of young Israeli soldiers about our experiences in
Hitler's camps. As soon as I got up to the podium my stomach was
tied in a knot and the blood pounded in my ears. I developed a splitting
headache and felt quite ill. I vowed I would never again attempt
such a thing.
The next day I was completely surprised by my sense of calm. I
answered endless questions that morning, and gave long video interviews
that afternoon to CNN, ABC, CBS, AP, and God knows how
many other reporters. And I actually enjoyed it. It was then that I
realized how greatly I had been affected by this second meeting with
my liberators. I felt that a new person had emerged, and taken over
the reins of my life.
The story of my reunion with Clarence sprouted wings. Few people
knew the story of these Nisei and their role in the liberation of the
camps, and many press agents and reporters interviewed us during
the eight days the group remained in Israel. Since then I have been
reunited with Clarence and others from his unit more than once, in
Israel, Germany, and the United States. I'm grateful for the time I've
been able to spend with them, and especially for the hours I had with
Clarence, who passed away in May of 1995, to my enduring sorrow.
Each time I have met with these brave men new memories and
recognitions and feelings have surfaced. Each time I have learned
more about my rescuers. I often wonder if their experiences in the
internment camps, and with American prejudice in general, didn't
create in Clarence and his kinsmen some extra spark of understanding
and compassion for those they rescued during the spring of
1945. Was there some special bond between the Nisei and the Jews
they rescued? I don't know. I do know that my own sense of kinship
with the Nisei and the Japanese is strong. This book is dedicated not
only to the memory of those loved ones who perished at the hands of
the Nazis, but equally, and with enormous gratitude, to Clarence and
all the brave men of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the famed
1 00th/ 442nd Combat Team, as well as to Chiune Sugihara, whose
shining moral example guided me through the darkest years of the
The Soul of a Human
Is the Lamp of the Lord
Hitler's army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days
later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Virtually all
of Europe was now at war.
The Nazis smashed through Poland with astonishing speed, and
soon refugees were showing up on our streets. By late fall much of
the community was involved in helping the Polish Jews streaming
into Kaunas, most of them destitute. My mother and my aunt
Anushka were on one of the committees formed to help the
refugees, and we often had several of them at a time for meals. None
of these people seemed to consider Lithuania anything more than a
Early that December Uncle Jochil, who had a refugee family
staying at his home, brought two refugees to our house. He was a
Polish Jew named Rosenblat, a middle-aged man with frightened
eyes. His daughter Lea was a plump little girl of eight with rosy
cheeks and smiling blue eyes. Our family agreed to put them up for a
I had to give up my room and double up with Herman, an idea I
wasn't crazy about. In fact I was quite annoyed. Rosenblat was a small,
nervous fellow, always furtively looking over his shoulder, and seemed
almost shifty-eyed to me. I wasn't very taken with him.
The title of this chapter is from Proverbs 20:27.
My resentment probably showed, for Mother soon took me aside
and explained that many Jewish families were taking in Polish
refugees, and that we all had to make some sacrifices for these poor
people who had lost their homes, their livelihood-everything they
owned. I felt guilty and promised to make amends.
It was Chanukah again, the festival of lights, and I was eleven years
old. As usual, relatives and family friends gave the children
Chanukah money, or gelt, and I had collected the handsome sum of
ten lit. I suppose I was still feeling a little ashamed of myself over
Rosenblat when a group of ladies showed up at our house, asking for
donations to help the refugees; on impulse I gave them all my gelt. I
immediately regretted it, but the ladies were quite impressed, and
assured me that the money would mean a visa and escape for some
The next day a new Laurel and Hardy movie was showing at the
Metropolitan. I was dying to see it, but now my pockets were empty.
Mother felt sorry for me and would have lent me the money, but
Father put his foot down.
''You must stick to principles," he declared. "Giving away all your
money was a noble sacrifice, but not when you come whining to us
for reimbursement." He had that note of finality in his voice that I
knew only too well. Knowing that he was right only frustrated me
more. Giving away that horse in Heydekrug had become a little
Waterloo in the short history of my life.
I had one hope left, my Aunt Anushka.
Anushka was then in her late thirties. There was a certain glamour
about her in my eyes. When she was in her twenties she'd had a passionate attachment to a married man, and never quite got over it.
She remained unmarried, what some people thought of as an old
maid, but she hardly fit the mold. She ran an elegant shop of
imported and gourmet foods, and led a lively social life among a
diverse group of friends. She had a large Christian clientele who were
among the richest families in Kaunas. If you wanted Beluga caviar,
French champagne, or fancy Swiss chocolates, you went to Anushka's
shop. She also catered to foreign embassies, who placed standing
orders for specific imported foods available nowhere else.
My indulgent Aunt Anushka knew how crazy I was about Laurel
and Hardy, and I was counting on her mercy. I made a date for the
matinee the next day with my friends, Vova and Izia.
It was cold when I set out that afternoon, but I was dressed warmly.
The snow felt crisp under my boots and shimmered white in the
afternoon sun. It was the fifth day of Chanukah, and all along the
streets menorahs shimmered in the windows of Jewish houses, and
Christmas trees glowed in the homes of the Christians. Aunt
Anushka's shop window was decorated with a string of colored bulbs,
and a contraption attached to her door played a merry tune when
you opened it. It was a gift from some inventor friend of hers.
When I walked in she was serving an elegantly dressed gentleman.
"Ah, my dear nephew came for his Chanukah money I bet," she
said in Russian, smiling at me . She'd either forgotten that she'd
already given me my gelt, or she wanted to save me the humiliation of
asking for a second donation. Perhaps she heard about my encounter
with the committee ladies. Whatever the reason, I wasn't going to give
her any argument.
"Come here and meet his excellency, the consul of Japan, Mr.
Sugihara," she added. I suppose I was staring at him. He had the
most interesting slanted eyes. I approached him slowly, and extended
"How do you do, Sir," I said politely.
He solemnly shook my hand, returning my open scrutiny, and then
smiled. There was humor and kindness in those strange eyes, and I
immediately warmed to him. I was reminded of what my grandfather
once told me: "Remember, the eyes are the windows to a person's
soul. If you look close enough you may see what is behind them." At
the time I had taken this as another of Grandfather's inscrutable
proverbs, but looking up into the consul's face I thought perhaps he
''You want to go to the movies," Aunt Anushka said affectionately,
"and you need a lit, right?"
So she knew. I nodded quickly, still glancing shyly up at Mr.
Sugihara. When Anushka turned to the cash register, he took a shiny
lit from his pocket.
"Since this is Chanukah, please consider me your uncle," he said,
extending the coin. I hesitated for a moment. I was eager for the lit,
but it seemed awfully forward to take it, perhaps even unprincipled.
But then principles stood little chance against Laurel and Hardy.
''You should come to our Chanukah party on Saturday," I blurted
out as I plucked the coin from his hand. "The whole family will be
there. Seeing as how you are my uncle," I added. I was suddenly flustered.
I don't know how such an idea entered my head.
Anushka had returned from the cash register and heard it all. She
was fairly gaping.
Mr. Sugihara's eyes twinkled. "I have never been to a Chanukah
party," he declared. "I would gladly come, but don't you think you
should ask your parents first?"
Aunt Anushka recovered herself. "I'm sure that his excellency
must be very busy," she said with some embarrassment, and I could
feel my own face redden. "But ... but if you're free and would like to
come, you are most certainly welcome."
Mr. Sugihara bowed.
"Please, you and your wife are most cordially invited," Anushka
"Then it's done," he answered. " I gratefully accept your kind
Then he turned to me and shook my hand once more. "I shall see
you on Saturday," his excellency said. I was more or less rooted to the
spot at this point, until I remembered with a start that the movie was
starting in just a few minutes. If I wanted to make it I had to run. I
took my leave as politely as I could, leaving Aunt Anushka to make
My aunt preceded me home that evening. When I entered the
house Mother stared at me expectantly, hands on hips, and Aunt
Anushka was grinning. I realized that I was supposed to explain my
outlandish behavior at her shop.
I felt uncomfortable and rather guilty in front of Father, especially
since I'd gone behind his back for the movie money. I was searching
my wits for an explanation when Father held up his hand. "It's all
right, Solly," he said kindly. "If you feel like inviting someone to our
party, I think it's more than all right. You should never feel guilty
about extending hospitality to strangers."
That evening at dinner Mr. Rosenblat began telling us the terrible
things they endured when the Nazis attacked Warsaw. A bomb demolished their house, killing his wife and older daughter. He and Lea, who were in another part of the house , were trapped under the rubble.
They were barely alive when rescuers found them three days later.
That was just the beginning of their troubles, for with the German
occupation began the systematic persecution of the Jews. A few days
after he and Lea moved in with relatives, two soldiers came in and
announced that they were confiscating the house for the German
army. When Rosenblat's cousin asked for a few days grace until they
found another place to live, one of the Germans pulled out his pistol
and shot the poor man right in front of his wife and children.
Rosenblat told us how Jews were being rounded up and sent to
German labor camps, how black-clad soldiers known as the SS were
terrorizing villages. ''You are crazy to stay here," he said bluntly. ''You
are sitting on a volcano which is about to erupt, and you are all
behaving as if you were living in America. I am getting out of here as
soon as I get a visa, and I don't care if we end up living with cannibals
as long as it's far away from the Nazis."
Many believed that the Polish Jews exaggerated their stories to gain
greater sympathy from their Lithuanian hosts, and in fact my sympathy
for this man's family was at war with the notion that he was
embroidering his tale. Surely the sorts of persecutions he described
couldn't happen in the twentieth century! In any event, these were
the sorts of horror stories that belonged to another place, that happened
to other people.
This is not to say that the exploits of the German army were
unknown. The lightning moves of the Wehrmacht were becoming a
fixture in newsreels at the Forum and the Metropolitan, and in some
ways their victories had about them the air of a fictional thriller,
bound up in my mind with the Hollywood plots that followed them on
screen. The Germans had meticulously filmed their great blitzkrieg on
Poland, and footage appeared in the movie houses almost as regularly
as accounts appeared in the newspapers. The German army had swept
through Poland with a speed that astonished the world, and their swift
Panzers and diving Stukas became fixtures in my imagination. I had
long been a fan of military history, and the strength and discipline of
the German army inspired a certain dreadful awe in me. On screen
and in print they were like something out of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.
Saturday morning Mother finished preparations for the Chanukah
party. Once again she jokingly complained about my rash behavior in
inviting the Japanese consul. We had to add all the leaves to the big
mahogany table and take out her best tablecloth and cutlery. But she
was clearly intrigued by the exotic Mr. Sugihara, and both she and
Aunt Anushka were curious to meet his wife. They told the rest of the
family that a special guest would be coming, but refused to disclose
who it was.
The candle-lighting was set for six in the evening. Anushka arrived
with Mr. Sugihara and his wife Yukiko precisely at six. Mrs. Sugihara
was dressed in a very elegant black dress, and Mr. Sugihara wore a
formal striped suit. Both looked very distinguished, and their appearance
with Aunt Anushka was a total surprise to the rest of the guests.
The last thing they expected was this elegant Japanese couple. Mr.
and Mrs. Sugihara both spoke German and Russian, so they were
able to communicate freely with the other guests.
To make our refugee, Mr. Rosenblat, feel at home, Father chose
his daughter Lea to light the candles. Lea was very bashful in front of
all the people, but she did it gracefully, taking the shammes and
lighting the candles one by one. I helped her say the prayer. Praised
are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, in this season . . . It is You who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, light up my darkness ... . Afterward Uncle Jacob took out his harmonica, and we all sang Chanukah songs.
While Lea lit the candles, Mr. Sugihara stood near me and watched
very attentively. Later he told me that they had a similar candle lighting
ceremony in Japan. He wanted to know more about the
tradition, about the historical background of the festival.
I told him the story of how Judah Maccabee led his men into war
against the powerful Greeks, who had defiled the temple, and how
their tiny force defeated the much greater armies of Antiochus.
Judah and his followers liberated Jerusalem, and set about rededicating
the temple, but when they went to light the lamps they could
find only enough oil to burn for one day. Keeping the faith, they
used the one small cruse they had, and God made the oil burn for
eight full days. This is how Chanukah became the festival of lights.
Each evening the shammes, the one candle used to light all the
others, was used to light one more candle, until on the eighth day all
eight candles were burning.
The tables were laden with the best of food and drinks, including
some Japanese food which Anushka supplied from her shop. We also
had veal with small roasted potatoes, roast duck in orange sauce,
and many other wonderful things.
Mr. Sugihara also asked me about our family life and my hobbies.
When I told him that I collected stamps, he invited me to come and
visit him at the consulate. He said he would give me some stamps
After everyone had eaten, Father rang a little servant's bell and
asked for everyone's attention. "I want you to meet Mr. Rosenblat and
his daughter Lea, who recently escaped from Poland. Mr. Rosenblat
wants to say a few words."
Mr. Rosenblat looked nervous, and a bit out of place in the elegantly
dressed crowd. Father had given him one of his suits, but it was
too big and he looked waifish in it.
Mr. Rosenblat spoke in German, hesitantly at the beginning, but as
he warmed to his subject a hush fell over those present. He became
so emotional describing what was happening to the Jews in Poland
that he broke down and cried. Mr. Sugihara listened attentively, a
look of dismay on his face.
After everyone rose from the table, Mr. Rosenblat cornered our
guest. Mr. Sugihara asked Rosenblat for other details about conditions
in Poland under the Nazis, which Rosenblat eagerly supplied. I
guess it was part of the consul's job to get firsthand information on
the German occupation of Europe. Rosenblat implored Sugihara to
issue him a Japanese visa, but the consul sadly shook his head,
explaining that his government had refused permission to issue such
visas, not even transit visas .
Father was distressed to see Rosenblat hounding our guest, but he
said nothing, and Sugihara seemed sympathetic enough. He invited
Rosenblat to visit him at the consulate. He was pessimistic, but he
would see if there was any way he could help him.
To my astonishment, Father then told Sugihara that he had visas
for the United States and had been seeking a buyer for his business.
Father had a brother and sister in the U . S ., and I knew there had
been talk of going there, but this was the first I'd heard of any definite
steps toward leaving.
Mr. Sugihara studied Father for a minute before answering.
Choosing his words very carefully, he said, "If I were you I wouldn't
worry too much about the business."
My father seemed quite disturbed by this response, but we would
all come to wish he had taken that advice more seriously.
Outside, fat flakes of snow were slowly drifting to the ground. A
somber mood had fallen over our party since Rosenblat's speech, but
Father, Mother, and Anushka, as proper hosts, did their best to dispel
it. Sugihara himself, with his diplomatic training, was good at shifting
the conversation to happier topics, and the other guests were
relieved to follow his lead. Things were, after all, relatively quiet on
the western front. Russia had sealed a pact with Germany, much to
the world's surprise, and everyone was certain that Hitler would not
affront the Soviets with further incursions into Stalin's backyard. In
any event, Lithuania had already handed over to Hitler its one real
plum, the Baltic port of Memel.
At the end of the evening Mr. Sugihara came up to me and shook
my hand good-bye.
"I thank you very much for your invitation. I would have been sorry
to miss our conversation about the Maccabees and the miracle of the
"I'm especially happy to have had the opportunity to get to know
your charming family," he went on. "It is the first time I've had the
pleasure of visiting a Jewish home, and I hope it won't be the last," he
smiled. Again I felt a great warmth toward this man. He spoke to me
as an equal, rather than as a child, and I liked the feeling.
At the door he added, "Don't forget to visit me at the consulate. I
believe you may find some of the Japanese stamps quite interesting."
As we entered the new decade and the early spring sun began to thaw
the ground, more and more refugees streamed into Kaunas, bringing
with them more horrifying stories. The refugees besieged the
embassies in town for visas, but the only ones able to emigrate were
those who had a lot of money, and not many did. Mr. Rosenblat petitioned many consulates, and continued to return to the Japanese
consul seeking help. But Mr. Sugihara had received strict instructions
from his government not to issue any visas to refugees.
Rosenblat couldn't understand how we could be so apparently
indifferent to what was going on around us. However, beneath my
parents' apparent calm I sensed a growing uneasiness. There were
too many refugees flooding our country not to be apprehensive
about what drove them over the borders with little more than the
clothes on their backs. Occasionally Father would hear about
someone who might be interested in buying his restaurant supply
business, but nothing ever came of it. Outside of what we read and
saw in the newsreels, and the many new strangers in the streets, life
went on more or less as usual.
That spring I visited Mr. Sugihara, as he had suggested, to collect
the Japanese stamps he promised me. He received me graciously, and
gave me a full envelope of them, all different sizes and colors. Most of
them bore the Japanese emperor's face.
He wanted to know whether Mr. Rosenblat had obtained his visa,
and when I told him no, he shook his head.
"Things are bad. Very bad," he said quietly. "Something should
really be done."
Before I left he asked me to take a message to my father. It was
short. He said, "Tell him the time to leave is now."
Then he looked at me sadly and there was compassion in his eyes.
Again I was struck by his unusual kindness.
"I hope that he'll take this advice, for your sake ," he said.
When I returned home I gave Father Mr. Sugihara's message. He
was visibly shaken, and that night he had a long discussion with
Mother, who had great reservations about leaving Lithuania. Father
was clearly very worried, and although he argued with Mother's inclination to stay on, he had doubts as well. "What will I do in America?
How will I earn a living? I don't know the language, and at my age I
would never get a job. I'm ready to sell the business at any price, but
no one seems to be in the market."
Mother, whose entire family was in Kaunas, abhorred the idea of
moving to the United States. The fact that we would arrive there penniless, unless we sold the business, only strengthened her resolve to
stay put. She was certain that the Nazis wouldn't risk confronting the
Russians over Lithuania, but the idea of Russian intervention hardly
assuaged my father's concerns. He had nearly as many trepidations
about the Russians as he did about the Germans. The Bolsheviks had
long since put a price on his head.
Mother scoffed at his concern. "That was twenty years ago, and the
country was in utter chaos. Your position under Kerensky was a fairly
minor post. You weren't a big shot. You can't believe that the Russian
government has kept track of you all these years?"
Father always relented a little in the face of Mother's apparent
logic. "Nevertheless we're leaving as soon as I can unload the business.
Once things calm down a little, I'm sure I'll find a buyer."
I often thought that things would have turned out differently if my
father had gotten Mr. Sugihara's message firsthand. He might have
sensed the consul's urgency.
As the first crocuses popped out of the ground and the trees began to
bud we began to think of Kalautuvas, and as usual made plans to
spend the summer there. We invited Mr. Rosenblat to join us. He
thought we were insane.
By the end of March thousands of Polish refugees were in
Lithuania, frantically trying to find a way out. With few exceptions,
none of the western countries were willing to grant them asylum. We
continued to give groups of them meals, as did other Jews in the
community, and I remember them sitting in our parlor talking in
the curious dialect that was so different from the Yiddish spoken in
Lithuania. It was only gradually, as refugee children showed up in
my classes that spring, that I began to catch on to it. Even the schoolboys
spoke of nothing but visas and how to escape from Lithuania.
They seemed like people possessed, like people from a different
Then Denmark fell, and Norway. More and more of the Jewish
community of Kaunas was catching the "escape fever" from the
refugees. Our visas to the United States were burning in my father's
pocket, and he made desperate efforts to get rid of his restaurant
supply business, asking only enough to secure our passage through
neutral Sweden and give us a modest nest egg.
Then the letters from Father's family in the States turned into
urgent phone calls, asking us not to delay any longer. Father was
finally convinced, and Mother gave in too. We were just going to walk
away from the business. Finally, the very day Father was to go out and
purchase tickets, he received an offer.
It was from a man named Fisher, who had worked with Father
some years back. He had recently returned to Kaunas looking to start
a new enterprise. Father couldn't believe his good luck. He sat up
with Fisher half the night going over the books. Fisher seemed to
think that the local panic was just that-panic. There had been Jews
in Lithuania for the last five hundred years, he said, and they would
be here for another five hundred. He was so confident and convincing
that Father almost had second thoughts.
He would receive only twenty percent of what the business was
worth, but it was more than he expected. There was a small catch,
however. Mr. Fisher wouldn't have the money until the end of June six
Father's hopes were completely dashed. Under the circumstances
it was a terribly long wait.
Meanwhile, however, there were rumors that the Nazis were trying
to negotiate with the French and the British. The Russians had occupied
eastern Poland, and there was apparent peace between Hitler
and Stalin. Perhaps the dreaded invasion of Lithuania would be a
long time coming, my parents said. Having that money in the States
would give us a decent start, a fighting chance at a new life. As soon
as we collected it we would leave the country immediately.
It was the worst decision my parents ever made.
We decided to spend the last weeks before our departure in
Kalautuvas. A few days after we arrived at the cottage, however, new
rumors began to circulate: Soviet troops were supposedly taking up
bases in Lithuania. Although the Lithuanian government, headed by
President Antanas Smetona, continued to tell the population that we
would remain independent, Lithuania's long history with Russia suggested otherwise.
Father was very upset at this tum of events, given his old score with
the Russians. But Smetona continued to reassure the population, and
again my parents waited. "Another four weeks and we are off," they
Then the western front erupted like a volcano. The Nazi armies
attacked Holland, occupied Belgium without resistance, and
smashed their way into France, scoffing at the supposedly impregnable
Paris fell on June 14, 1940. The next day the Soviet army marched
into Lithuania. We were trapped.
Despite Father's fears, nothing much happened the first few weeks of
the occupation. Like my mother, most of the Jewish population was
more relieved than apprehensive. As bad as the Russians were, they
were more or less a known quantity and they didn't single out the
Jews for persecution as the Nazis did.
The Soviets took over all government institutions, and nationalized
large corporations and factories, but otherwise they allowed the population to go about their business. Father began to calm down a little,
but with the Soviet takeover the deal with Mr. Fisher fell through.
Since Father dealt in food commodities, he soon found himself
doing business with the Russian army, which was happy to deal with
someone fluent in their language.
After a while life settled into a new routine. People began to relax a
little , and they began to think that all the stories of Soviet terrorism
were exaggerated. Many in the Jewish community began going out
again to coffee shops, movies, and the theater.
As the days passed, Father's fears about his Menshevik past abated.
Perhaps the Soviet secret service was not as efficient as their reputation
suggested . But then the Russians began massive deportations.
They assembled their lists of "undesirables," including a large
number of prominent citizens-men in government and business,
Christians and Jews, as well as Zionists and other "counter-revolutionary" elements in the Jewish community. Without prior notice,
without trials or sentencing, people were rousted from their beds in
the middle of the night and barely given time to dress and pack a few
belongings before they were put on trains bound for Siberia. Among
the gentiles were former government officials , members of rightist
parties, and known anti-Russian elements. Although it was eventually
established that a greater percentage of the deportees were actually
Jewish, the Christian population would later claim that it was
"Bolshevik Jews" who had sent Lithuanian Christians to Siberia.
Father now decided that we would leave Lithuania no matter what.
His inquiries became more and more desperate , but leaving Soviet occupied territory was as difficult and complicated as he had feared.
Since the occupation, the only route out of Lithuania was through
Russia. We had to have a transit visa in addition to our United States
entry visas which were now useless . They were stamped in our
Lithuanian passports, which the Russians had declared invalid .
Other foreign nationals, the Poles included, managed to get visas
to various destinations in Africa and South America, but it was too
late for us. My parents now faced the appalling fact that Sugihara had
been dead right. Delaying our departure on account of Father's business
had been a colossal blunder.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Father joined
the long lines of people desperately seeking assistance from any consulate that might help.
One day Mr. Rosenblat came to our house with a young student
from the famous Telzer Yeshiva. Rosenblat was very excited. It turned
out that the boy was a Dutch citizen, one of many boys from Holland
and western Europe who had been sent to study in the Hebrew
schools of Kaunas. Now the Nazis occupied their homelands, and the
boys were trapped.
On behalf of the students, the Dutch consul made inquiries and
discovered that two Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, Surinam and
Curacao, didn't require visas for immigration. Permission to enter
was granted at the discretion of the Dutch governor. A putative "end
visa" for these colonies, from the Dutch consul of Kaunas, would be a
start. In fact, the consul agreed to issue visas to these colonies to
anyone who asked for them.
That left the problem of the transit visa. There was only one consulate
that might help. With a transit visa from the Japanese,
Rosenblat said, the Soviets might allow the refugees to pass through
"And that's where you come in. You know Mr. Sugihara. You should
go and explain to him our desperate situation. Perhaps he will give us
transit visas now. He is our only hope."
Father was exasperated. The whole business sounded terribly complicated and far-fetched, and Mr. Sugihara had already told us that
the Japanese government was adamant in refusing to issue visas. Why
should that have changed?
Ordinarily I would never interrupt such a conversation, but I piped
up. "Surely if anyone might take pity on us it would be Mr. Sugihara.
I'm sure if there is any way he can help, he will," I said.
It was worth a try, at least, and Father agreed to visit Mr. Sugihara
the next day.
Other Polish refugees also came by, pressing Father to intervene
with the Japanese consul. One of them told Father he might be able
to buy Polish passports for us. They would be costly, but he thought
he could get them.
Father was encouraged by this news, and promised to do his best to
persuade Mr. Sugihara. Suddenly there was hope for us again.
Early the next morning, Father and I, Mr. Rosenblat and his
daughter, and the Dutch boy all went to the Japanese consulate.
Mr. Sugihara looked weary, but he greeted us cordially. He had
even saved some stamps for me. He had just returned from seeing
the Soviet authorities. They had extended his stay, so the consulate
would remain open another three weeks.
Father told him of the terrible danger we were all in, that our only
hope of escape was through him. Then he showed him the visa to
Curacao in the Dutch boy's passport. Would that be sufficient for a
As it turned out, Mr. Sugihara had already made his decision. Since
the Soviets took power he had received many delegations of refugees.
For days they had gathered outside the consulate-families with children,
women with infants in their arms. The Japanese government
continued to refuse permission to issue visas, but he and his wife discussed the situation, and agreed that his humanitarian duty was clear.
It overrode the policies of governments, Mr. Sugihara said. He would
issue visas despite the instructions of his superiors.
"But first we must find out whether the Russians will honor a
Japanese transit visa. The Soviet consul promised me an answer
today," he said. And with that he excused himself and went to the
telephone at his desk.
All of us held our breath, our eyes fixed on Sugihara's face, as he
spoke into the phone. Many lives hung in the balance. Suddenly his
face lit up with a radiant smile, and he raised a triumphant fist in
Mr. Rosenblat's eyes were brimming as Mr. Sugihara rang off.
Without further ceremony, the consul ushered us into his office and
stamped all of our passports.
Tears streaming down his cheeks, Rosenblat grabbed the consul's
hand and began kissing it before Mr. Sugihara could pull away. It was
a deeply emotional moment, and Father too had tears in his eyes
when he shook Mr. Sugihara's hand.
"I am honored and privileged to stand in front of a true humanitarian,
who considered the interests of others before his own. God
bless you," he said. It was the shortest formal speech Father ever
made, but I knew it came straight from his heart.
Mr. Sugihara looked at Father sadly and told him that his visa
would not do us much good, because the Soviets were issuing exit
permits for foreign nationals only. Father didn't want to mention anything about the promised Polish passports, not until they were in our
Before we left he gave me an envelope with stamps and shook my
hand. Again I felt a bond with him. He looked at me a moment and
then said, "Vaya con Dios." I didn't understand what the words meant,
but somehow I felt their intent, and during all the years of the war I
Vaya con Dios. Go with God. I don't know why he said it in Spanish,
but the words were from the heart, and to this day those three words
invoke deep feelings in me.
Even while we were saying our good-byes to Mr. Sugihara and his
wife, the Yeshiva boy was waving his hat out the window at someone
below. When we came downstairs there were dozens of boys, all in
their black coats and hats, converging at the gate.
At home another crowd of refugees was waiting, and when we told
them the news they all rushed off to the Dutch consul to get their
visas to Curacao. The next day all hell broke loose as throngs of people
crowded before the Dutch and Japanese consulates, some of them
standing in line all night.
Father was disappointed, but not really surprised, when the man
who promised to sell us Polish passports never showed up. Now he
knew that the man had only promised the documents so we would go
to Sugihara. He didn't know that Father would have done it for him
Others told us about the continuing scene at Mr. Sugihara's office.
Day after day he sat in his shirt sleeves, signing visas, barely able to
keep his eyes open, he was so weary. Long lines of people stood for
hours and even days outside the gate. During the three-week period
before he left for his next posting in Berlin, he signed more than six
thousand visas. It was rumored that even as the train departed he was
still signing visas and handing them out the window. In the end he
gave one of the refugees the visa stamp, so they could forge visas for
I passed the consulate once during those last weeks and saw Mr.
Sugihara leaning wearily against a windowsill, taking a break. He
spotted me, and waved. It was the last time I ever saw him.
It was many years before I learned the fate of Sempo Sugihara and his wife.
From Kaunas they went on to represent japan in Berlin. The end of the war
found them in Prague, where they were arrested by the Russians as enemy
aliens. From there they were deported to Siberia, where they spent a year and a
half in a prison camp. It was only in 1947 that they were able to return to
Japan, where they were disgraced for defying the Japanese governments orders
and saving thousands of Jews.
In I 985 Sempo Sugihara was recognized as "Righteous Among the
Nations" by the Yad Vashem institute of Jerusalem. He died the same year.
Several years after his death, the Japanese government finally apologized formally to his widow and son, and Sugihara was posthumously awarded the
Nagasaki Peace Prize.
I will never forget the man with the kind eyes whom I met the winter of
1939. Vaya con Dios, Sempo Sugihara. I am sure that you have a prominent
place in paradise.
Months passed. Chanukah of 1940 was a somber affair. The prayers at
the lighting of the Menorah had an air of desperation about them. It
appeared that 1941 would be a dismal year. Grandfather Getzel had
died shortly after the Soviets took over, and Grandmother followed
soon after. The remaining family-uncles, aunts, cousins-often
gathered together to comfort each other. That spring I came down
with terrible stomach pains, which were diagnosed as appendicitis. I
had an appendectomy and was hospitalized for a miserable week.
Late in May events took a darker turn.
Not long after the Soviets entered Lithuania, my brother Herman
became friendly with a young Russian captain. It turned out that he
was an officer in Soviet intelligence. My brother was twenty years old
at the time, and a prime candidate for the military draft. He was
handsome, charming, and streetwise and when the captain found out
that he was fluent in Russian, German, and Lithuanian, he assigned
him to his intelligence unit.
Herman never told my parents exactly what he did, but he would
frequently disappear from home for days at a time.
Then one Saturday, toward the end of May 1941, Herman
appeared at our door. A number of the Shtroms had joined us for the
traditional Saturday meal of cholent, but Herman seldom joined such
family gatherings. When father looked at him questioningly, Herman
said, "I think this is the last time we will ever see all the family
together under one roof."
He admitted that he had seen Father's name on a list for deportation
months before. He kept this to himself because he didn't want to
worry us, and he convinced the captain to hold off the arrest order.
Herman and the captain postponed Father's arrest for the better part
of a year before the captain's superiors found out about it. The
captain was immediately transferred to Uzbekistan, and Herman was
dismissed and put on the rolls to be drafted into the infantry.
My father received this stunning news with a certain sober gravity,
perhaps because he'd felt it looming for so long. He may well have
been in a mild state of shock. Mother, however, was distraught and
immediately rushed to telephone her cousin George Shtrom,
begging him to intervene.
George was a businessman, one of Ichiel Shtrom's successful sons.
Despite his affluence, and perhaps because of his liberal upbringing,
he was a supporter of the socialists and communists, and among his
friends he was known as a champion of the underdog.
During the presidential reign of Antanas Smetana, the communists
of Lithuania had not fared well. They were suppressed and
many of them were arrested on flimsy pretexts. Some simply disappeared, never to be seen again. George helped these people in many
ways, and spent large sums of money helping the families of those
sent to prison.
Thus he became a close friend of Shnieckus, a first secretary of the
Communist Party who rose to power when the Soviets occupied the
Baltics. George Shtrom immediately appealed to Shnieckus, who
promised to look into the matter of Father's deportation.
Aunt Anushka's birthday that June was a far cry from the festive
parties usually thrown by our family and friends. My cousins and I
had the whole birthday cake to ourselves, for none of the adults
seemed interested in eating that night. Mother didn't touch her
dinner, and every few minutes my father would look at his watch.
Cousin George telephoned to say that we should start without him.
When he finally arrived we knew that the news was not good. He
barely kissed and congratulated Aunt Anushka before he took my
father into the adjoining room. With a thumping heart, I slipped
behind a curtain and eavesdropped.
George came straight to the point. "I am terribly sorry, Chaim, but
there is nothing anyone can do. You are on the list as a counter-revolutionary and an enemy of the Soviet Union. The party bosses are
furious that you are still at large. Even Shnieckus was reprimanded
for trying to interfere. I wish I could have done more, but the orders
are going to go through."
He put his hands on my father's shoulders. Father's face was ashen,
and his voice was hardly recognizable. "My God. I've been such a
fool, clinging to this fool's paradise for so long, and now everything is
George took my father's hands in his own, and said forcefully,
"Chaim, listen. All is not lost. There is a chance they will send you to
the southern regions, to a village where your family can stay together.
The climate and conditions there are much better than in the gulags.
I am sure you will all weather this. Just don't give up! Never give up!"
Then he added, more quietly, "Where there is life there is hope."
How many times in the years to come would I hear that phrase
repeated! A silence fell in the room when George and my father returned.
That same evening we packed knapsacks and small bags with items
we would need for immediate survival: food that wouldn't spoil, warm
underwear, hats and gloves, an extra pair of comfortable shoes.
Father and Herman lined their clothes with rubles.
We said little to each other. My mother was silent and pale as a
ghost all that night. From time to time she would wipe her eyes as
Herman sat with her, holding her hand. My sister Fanny gathered
together a few sentimental things to pass on to her friends, and left
the house to call on them one by one.
Only my father sat alone in a corner, stoically reading a book. It
was after midnight when Fanny returned, and Father announced that
we should all get some sleep. We didn't undress. We just took off our
shoes. When they came for us, we would be ready.
The Death March
By the middle of April 1945, German troops were withdrawing so fast that
the Allied ground troops could hardly keep up. Motorized units began ferrying
the infantry east, toward Munich. The Allies wanted to give the
Germans no opportunity to regroup and entrench themselves.
By this time the 522nd had been attached to so many different battalions it
was famous. Its artillery provided accurate supporting fire for assaults on
Mannheim, Heidelberg, Rothenburg, and Morlbach. Its forward observers
and scouts acted as the eyes and ears for the advancing Third and Seventh
armies. Driving over the remains of Hitler's autobahn, often at highway
speeds, they zig-zagged over the German countryside, going for weeks with very
little sleep. Clarence Matsumura, Norm Funamura, Herb Kumabi, Yosh Arai,
Mas Fujimoto, and David Sugimoto were patrolling in a radio equipment
weapons transport when they approached the outskirts of Munich.
"When we first crossed over into Germany nearly everything had been
bombed flat. It wasn't until we reached Bavaria and the area around Munich
that I suddenly noticed birds singing. For weeks, every night there had been
gunfire and bombs going off and my ears were always ringing. After two or
three days the ringing went away, and thats when I started hearing birds sing.
I hadn't heard any birds in two months. Then I started hearing this strange
sound which turned out to be rabbits. Rabbits crying for their mates . ...
"Near the end of April we entered a really peaceful-looking town called
Dachau. I had never heard of it before."
April 24, 1945, was our last day of work. A great urgency was in the
air-confusion among the Germans, excitement mixed with fear
among the prisoners. That morning I was led out from the O.T.
kitchen to dig a pit, and for a while I thought I was digging my own
grave. It turned out to be a trench for an anti-tank gun.
Early that afternoon the Germans brought everyone back to camp.
All the prisoners, including the sick and the dying, were told to
report to the appell platz for a special roll call. It was an anxious
moment for us, but we also sensed confusion and insecurity among
the Germans. I thought of the "Big Action" in the ghetto in 1941, and
remembered an arrogant Rauca standing there in his glossy boots,
determining who would live and who would die with a casual wave of
his hand. The Nazis were the masters of the world then.
One thing hadn't changed: the Germans' insistence on order. They
counted us endless times. God forbid that anyone should be missing.
There were only six hundred of us in the camp, but it was late afternoon
before they were satisfied with the count. We were then given
some meager rations and told we would be evacuated the next
No one could sleep. I crept outside several times to make sure that
the Germans hadn't run away, but the tower guards were still there,
and there were extra patrols at the fence.
Early the next morning we were given our usual watery kaffee ersatz
plus a little extra bread. The Commandant made one of his few
appearances, looking haggard. He told us we were going to march to
Dachau and had nothing to worry about, so long as we were orderly.
Anyone who broke ranks would be shot.
It was a beautiful day when we marched out, escorted by a new SS
squad. In the beginning they tried to keep us in formation, but no
amount of cursing or kicking could keep the starved prisoners
marching in proper fashion. Soon we were a disorderly mob shuffling
toward Munich, and the SS stopped trying to order the ranks.
Their great efficient engine of destruction was falling apart. It was a
messy business now.
Father, Bertholt, Yisheshe, and I all managed to stay together. I was
surprised that Father and I could keep up as well as we did, but we
carried little with us. All I had was two blankets and my precious
diary. Yisheshe was the one who tired easily. Apparently his twenty-five
lashes had done some permanent damage to his legs. After four
hours of marching he simply sat down. We struggled with him, trying
to drag him along because the guards were beating those who
stopped altogether, but he begged us to leave him alone.
We were surprised a short while later when a truck moved along
the line picking up those who could no longer walk . We helped
Yisheshe and a few others climb aboard. I was sure that they were
going to be taken somewhere and shot. They just didn't want to do it
out in broad daylight, where German civilians might see. I watched
the truck pull away, with Yisheshe waving from the back. He even
tried to smile, which completely broke my heart.
There were several air raids the first day, but they were low-flying
bombers attacking trains and military convoys. At one point the
planes attacked a train moving along in the distance. The locomotive
received a direct hit, leaping off the tracks and blowing up in
a cloud of steam. The Nazi beast was disintegrating before our very
The next day, as we passed through a suburb, we could see the
furtive parting of curtains as German civilians peered out at us. To
our surprise a few of them came out and tried to offer us bread, but
the result was disastrous. Hundreds of starving inmates would
descend on the benefactor, often knocking him or her down . The
bread was immediately torn to pieces, and the guards set upon the
mob. Each time this happened several more bodies were left by the
side of the road.
As hungry as we were, we stayed away from these mad rushes. I
have to admit it was not only compassionate, but daring for these
civilians to venture out offering bread. This was the first time we'd
seen German civilians up close, outside of one or two in Utting and
those in the Organization Todt, and the latter were as callous as the
SS. I always wondered how a whole nation could be evil. Apparently
this one was not.
In the late afternoon we stopped for a rest, and to our great relief a
truck came by giving out bread rations. The guards said they would
shoot anyone who became disorderly, but there was still an anxious
crush in the bread line. Father, Bertholt, and I all got portions. We
ate every crumb.
Despite the losses along the way, our numbers were increasing.
Prisoners from camps all over the area were now joining our ranks.
We were converging on Dachau.
It was late in the afternoon before we arrived at the gate , which was
inscribed with the cynical phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei ." The watch338
towers at Lager Ten were puny in comparison to the formidable
It was the first concentration camp the Germans built, and it had
seen so many months and years of brutality that one could almost
feel pain emanating from its walls. You could feel the evil in the
place, as if Lucifer himself was in residence. I felt a wave of fear and
loathing pass over me when we went in.
They led us straight to the opposite end of the camp and told us to
undress. They said that we were going to shower and then they would
issue us new uniforms. I clutched my diary. I was going to lose it
again, after all my painstaking work at Lager Ten. Father and
Bertholt were giving each other nervous looks when suddenly the
capos were on us, shouting and swinging their sticks.
The gas chambers. The transition from life to imminent death was
so fast I barely had time to contemplate it. Some of the Poles who
had worked at Auschwitz told us that the victims of the gas chamber
suffered terribly before they died. That when they opened the door
afterward there was a pyramid of people piled up in the middle. The
gas spread from the floor up, so the victims climbed on top of each
other trying to get one last breath of air. I thought of Cooky in
Auschwitz. I thought of the suffocating pit at the Ninth Fort. Father
was squeezing my hand so hard he almost broke it, and Bertholt had
gone almost rigid with fear. My gut tightened into a huge knot, and I
closed my eyes.
Then I heard my father laughing. I was certain that he had lost his
wits. "Look, look!" he shouted. "Open windows! We're going to have
a shower after all!"
Relief flooded over me even as streams of lukewarm water began
flowing from the nozzles along the wall. I even began humming a
tune as the water washed down the crust of dirt that covered my body.
They gave us reasonable portions of bread and margarine that
evening, and then led us to an empty barracks. It was aboveground,
and the spring air moving through the windows was chilly but fresh. I
plopped down on the first available bunk, filled with an unreasoning
happiness. I barely had time to wonder what force of nature made us
cling so hard to a miserable life before I dropped into a deep and
When the capos woke us the next morning I opened my eyes to discover
a mob of new prisoners. They were everywhere, crammed two
and three to a bunk and sleeping on the floor. We discovered that we
had been among the first to enter the camp. Those who arrived in
the middle of the night got neither a shower nor clean uniforms, and
the place reeked.
When we first arrived the camp was clean and orderly, with capos
and SS enforcing their usual iron discipline. Overnight the situation
had changed completely. Thousands of inmates from the eleven
satellite camps in Landsberg and Kaufering were now being held
here, and it was pandemonium. We emerged from the stinking barracks
and hardly recognized the place. Torn clothing, old shoes, and
all kinds of rubbish filled the yard. The system was utterly breaking
down. There were rumors that we would be exchanged with German
prisoners of war, and that Red Cross representatives were due in the
camp any minute. Others said that we would march to the Swiss
border for the exchange. Whatever course destiny would take, we
knew that the end was near.
Soon afterward we lined up to receive our rations for the march.
To our astonishment we received a whole loaf of bread, a tin of meat
weighing a kilo, margarine, and jam.
And among the new crowd in the yard I met two friends we
thought were dead. One of them was Yisheshe. He was so happy to
see us that he fell into our arms and began to cry. The other was
Like Yisheshe, he found someone in power at Lager Four who
knew him and got him an administrative job. The easy work, the
extra food, and the better conditions soon brought him around.
Although he was still thin as a rail, he didn't look like a musselman
anymore. Father cried when he discovered Jacob alive.
The sky turned darker as we lined up in rows of five, and as we
marched out of the gate, leaving Dachau and all it meant behind, it
started to drizzle. On the road the marchers became a long column
that disappeared into the murk ahead. Beside Jews, there were
Russians, Ukrainians, and prisoners from other east European
Yisheshe had decided to stay back in camp with those too ill to
march. He knew he wouldn't be able to get very far. I was afraid of
what they might do to the sick who stayed behind, a fear that Father,
Jacob, and Bertholt shared. Except for that moment of bliss after our
showers, the place filled me with foreboding. It was in terrible disorder now, but there were still enough SS surrounding the camp to
kill every inmate there. At least on the march we'd be on public
I also felt that with so much food we could easily make it to the
Swiss border. Strangely enough I believed this story. If they wanted to
kill us, they would have done it a long time ago. Why would they
waste so much precious food on us at the end of the war? What we
didn't know was that the Nazis had one last, mad plan to hole up in
the mountains of Tyrol and put up a last-ditch defense. We were the
slave labor who would build the fortifications. The Allies even got
wind of the plan.
Almost from the beginning it was an arduous march. The drizzle
quickly penetrated our thin garb, and the temperature began to
drop. Father, who had somehow gotten himself a coat at Dachau,
dropped it on the road the first day. It got too wet and heavy to
We emerged from the suburbs of Dachau and headed south. With
the arrival of cold weather we ate much more of our rations than we
intended. The guards were increasingly nervous, beating and cursing
the stragglers. Many of the guards had dogs on leashes, big German
shepherds and some especially vicious Dobermans. The dogs barked
and snapped constantly, and often lunged at prisoners who strayed
The first night we camped in a wooded area, putting some of our
blankets on the ground and the others over us. They were almost as
damp as our uniforms, and we huddled together trying to retain a
little body heat. The cold was a particular affront. It was almost the
end of April.
During the night some of the Russian prisoners tried to get at our
food, but we chased them away. In spite of our weariness none of us
really slept. The cold rain completely penetrated our blankets and
clothes, and throughout the night we could hear the dogs barking
and the intermittent sound of rifle fire. Either prisoners were trying
to escape, or the SS were taking potshots at the clumps of sleepers.
The next day we marched out early. The drizzle stopped, but the
sky remained dark and lowering. There must have been many thousands
in our column alone, because on one long, straight stretch the
mass of people moving behind and ahead of us reached as far as I
could see. A biting wind kicked up, adding to our misery. I asked the
prisoners around us, most of them from Lager Ten and Lager One, if
they knew whether David and Abke were on the march . No one
knew, although a few knew David's father Melechke, and said he was
somewhere in the crowd.
The little food we had left we hid under our clothes. The Russians
in the column were becoming more daring, and would actually
attack other prisoners for their food.
When we stopped for a break I took out the tin of meat they'd
given us at Dachau. Out of the corner of m y eye I saw a Russian prisoner
running straight for me. I clutched my tin and quickly stuck out
my foot. He went flying. He was cursing when he rose from the
ground, ready to jump me, but Bertholt had also risen to his feet. He
hit the Russian flat in the face with his open hand, and my attacker
fell over as if he'd run into a brick wall. He staggered back up with
fear in his eyes, then ran. Bertholt grinned and said that apparently
he hadn't yet lost his touch. For a while the Russians in our group
We passed a road sign that said we were twenty kilometers from a
place called Wolfratshausen, wherever that was. Many of the weaker
inmates were now falling by the wayside, and we heard shots behind
us. There were no more trucks to pick up sick prisoners. The SS were
taking care of them with guns and dogs. It was a bad omen, and
demolished my theory that the Germans wouldn't shoot prisoners
where the civilian population might witness it.
Jacob was growing weaker by the minute, so we took turns supporting
him, two on either side. By the time we stopped for the
second night we were exhausted. Once again we marched into a
wooded area, and we just dropped where we were standing. It wasn't
raining, but a cold wind had kicked up and quickly penetrated our
sodden blankets. We huddled together, teeth chattering.
Again we spent a miserable, sleepless night. I began to think that
Yisheshe was right to stay behind. Joining this march had been a horrible
The next morning the Germans lined us up again and led us out to
the road, then suddenly chased us back into the woods. In a minute
we heard the roar of planes over our heads, and long bursts of
cannon fire ripped through the trees. Our attacker seemed to think
we were German troops. Fortunately, no one in our immediate group
was hit, although other inmates around us took casualties.
We remained in the woods that day, trying to recover our strength.
From a distance we could hear faint explosions, and as they continued
and the volume increased we realized they weren't bombs.
Then one of the Russians came crashing past, laughing and singing
like a madman.
"What is it, comrade? What's happening?" my father shouted
"That's field artillery! The front is upon us! It's the Americans!" he
shouted back, throwing his hat in the air.
My heart was racing. Had the unbelievable hour come?
Father, Bertholt, Jacob, and I threw ourselves on each other,
laughing and crying all at the same time. We were hugging and clapping
each other on the back when Jacob fell back against a tree. He
had a funny smile on his face, as if he were drunk. Then he slid to the
ground. Suddenly we all stopped laughing.
"What is it Jacob? What's the matter with you?" Father cried. Jacob
just kept smiling foolishly and said nothing. I looked into his eyes
and saw them moving about erratically, as if he were unable to focus.
There was a strange brilliance in those eyes. I had seen it before. It
was the radiance of a soul about to leave a tortured body.
"Oh no! Don't die now Jacob! The Americans are here! They're
coming! They're coming!" I screamed.
Suddenly Father grabbed him in his arms and started sobbing.
"Don't die Herman. Don't leave me now, my son! I won't let you!
You will not die, you hear me?!"
I stared at Father, my heart twisting in my chest. This time his mind
had definitely snapped.
Father clutched Jacob to him, rocking him and calling out
Herman's name. But Jacob's eyes had turned glassy. Nothing was
behind them anymore.
The rest of us fell into a numb silence . Then Sugihara's last words
floated into my head. "Vaya con Dios, Jacob," I whispered. "Vaya con
We left him sitting underneath the tree, the smile still on his lips.
Perhaps he saw a better world on the other side, I don't know. I
closed his eyes. I didn't want him looking at this miserable world
Father wept for a long time, and then turned mute. He didn't say a
word the rest of the day.
That evening, as we sat eating our last rations, a Russian prisoner
came running from out of nowhere and snatched Father's tin of
meat from his hands. Father didn't move a muscle. Bertholt and I
chased after the thief, but a dozen of his comrades rose up and
blocked our path. It was senseless to try to fight all of them. The short
distance we ran made us realize how weak we were.
The artillery fire we heard that morning died away. Either it wasn't
field artillery, or they had moved on , and once again we were
plunged into a dark world ruled by Dobermans and SS .
After nightfall the guards marched us out once again. We started
to think that they had no idea what they were doing. Someone had
given them an order that no longer had any relevance, and they were
mindlessly following it. And so our column marched through the picturesque Bavarian countryside, littering the roads with the bodies of
the some of the last Lithuanian Jews in Europe.
The next day it began to snow.
At a certain point my senses began to dim, I suppose from
hunger and exhaustion and the endless numb repetition of putting
one foot in front of the other. A dreamy quiet seemed to have settled
over the ranks, and even the occasional rifle shot toward the rear of
the column seemed very far away. Father, Bertholt, and I moved
along in silence, among a large body of prisoners. We were like a
column of gray ghosts shuffling along, heads down.
I don't know exactly when Father dropped away. It could have been
an hour before I looked over at the man walking beside me, and discovered he was a stranger.
The last one to leave me was Bertholt.
When my father disappeared I turned in my tracks, confused. The
others in the column parted and moved around me. I wanted only to
lie down on the ground and drift away. Death held no horrors now.
There were too many others who had gone before me. We must have
lost a thousand people that morning alone, the guards shooting
them where they fell. At the rate it was going they would soon run
out of ammunition.
But the dogs were tireless, and I did fear the dogs.
"Hold on," Bertholt said. ''You have to fight to stay alive. Liberation
is on its way. You know it and I know it. What would your father say if
he saw you giving up? You've got more strength than you know. Stand
up. Keep moving."
One of the curious things about starvation is how the largest,
strongest men among us were more susceptible than those who were
slight of build. It simply took more calories to move a bigger frame. It
was hardly an hour after Bertholt spoke to me that he suddenly stumbled
on something and fell. He couldn't get up. I bent toward him,
and dizziness overcame me. I stood there helpless.
At first Bertholt's face registered surprise, then fear. He was simply
unable to rise to his feet. Then something passed over his face, a kind
"Go on, Solly. Go. It's no good."
I stood over him, trying to clear my swimming head. Then, as if out
of nowhere, a huge Doberman leapt on Bertholt and went straight for
his throat. There was a horrible noise and then blood everywhere on
the wet ground. I stumbled away, my own blood pounding in my ears.
After that my mind cleared a little. We passed through a little town
called Koenigsdorf. On either side of the road the buildings were
completely dark. Blackout curtains. Except for our column of ghosts
not a soul was in sight. Even the SS guards were exhausted. Nearly all
of them were older conscripts, and we had gone a long time without
rest. Occasionally I could hear one of them cursing his superior officers
and the elements. It was the first day of May, and a soft blanket of
snow was starting to collect on the Germans' beds of daffodils and
There was a gap in the blackout curtains of one sagging old
building we passed by. Through it I saw an old man dozing in his
chair, a big book open in his lap. A small fire in the fireplace sent
flickering lights and shadows over the walls. It was warm and painfully
ordinary and it was the closest thing to paradise I could imagine.
Finally the order came to stop at a small clump of woods. I found a
spot under a tall pine and wrapped myself in my wet blanket. I was
alone now, the last of my group. Out of all of those who were better
and braver and smarter than I, I was alive. Why me, God?
The snow continued to fall, covering everything, including me. I
fell asleep. During the night I could hear shots. The guards must
have been firing at the sleeping prisoners. No one had the strength
to try to escape now. I was too exhausted to care.
I awoke with a start. It was well past dawn, and the sun had emerged
from the clouds, glittering on the white fields around me. There was
something else, something strange that immediately alerted my
senses. It was the silence. There wasn't a sound anywhere, no shouted
orders or barking dogs. It was as if I were the only one left in the
world. Not a soul was in sight.
I must be free, I thought with mild surprise. Watch it, Solly, a voice
in my head replied. Don't lose your sanity now.
Still nothing moved. I could see huddles of prisoners covered with
snow all around me, but nothing stirred.
Up on a rise I could see an overturned cart, the horse in the
harness lying dead in the road. As I got closer I saw the body of a
dead civilian. There was an old folding chair, some kindling, and an
aluminum canteen full of potato peelings in the cart. In the
German's pockets I found a knife and a cigarette lighter. It was everything I needed.
I moved to the horse and cut strips of meat from his belly, then
pulled some splintered boards off the wagon. I had to stop every few
minutes and rest. Finally I retreated to the woods with my booty. It
seemed to take forever to build a fire. When it was finally lit I cooked
soup. I thought of nothing but the soup. I became an extension of
the soup. I couldn't think or feel anything else.
Below me, on the road, a tank appeared. Then what looked like a
jeep. I closed my eyes, waiting for a bullet to put me out of my misery.
Then I heard someone speaking English. When I opened my eyes,
four men in khaki uniforms were approaching. They looked
unshaven and tired. Their oriental features astonished me. They
looked like Sugihara and his family. I stared at them, unable to grasp
the situation. Japanese? I continued to sit and stir my soup. My throat
constricted. I dared not think, and could not speak.
One of the men came up and knelt in front of me. He gently
touched me on the shoulder and said, ''You are free, boy. You're free
now," he said, and then smiled. That smile has been with me ever
since. It wreathed his whole face and made his eyes nearly disappear.
When all I did was stare he removed a chocolate bar from his
pocket. "That's for you," he said kindly.
I was groping for my English, actually wanting only to fall on my
knees and kiss his feet. "Who ... are you?" I whispered.
Now he was surprised. "Hey," he called back to the others, "he
"Who? ... " I said again.
"Americans. Americans," the angel said. "Nisei. Japanese Americans.
My name is Clarence," he added. "What's yours?"
I almost gave him my camp number, as I always did to the authorities.
But I am free now, I thought. The realization filled me with a
kind of panic.
"Solly," I managed to say, and took another swallow of soup. There
was a big chunk of tough horsemeat in it. I chewed on it. It felt good
to chew. I continued to eat my soup, while somewhere inside me a
small boy named Solly from Kaunas, Lithuania, was slowly going
insane with joy.
The soldiers had a smoke and patiently waited for me to finish. I
put the chocolate bar into the knapsack. You just don't eat treasures.
"That's good," Clarence said. ''You probably shouldn't eat that yet.
We'll take you to our unit and they'll take care of you there.
The soldiers helped me to my feet and led me to the jeep. A
sergeant named Fujimoto was driving. Clarence sat beside me and
kept smiling reassuringly. ''You'll be all right. You'll be all right. Just
Then we were in a camp, and there were American soldiers and
MPs and prisoners in striped uniforms. My legs turned to rubber as
we headed for the field kitchen. The men set me down, and Clarence
brought me a bowl of soup. "Better than horse soup," he said.
Then he squatted beside me, lit a cigarette, and told me that he
and his buddies would be moving out soon. To Berchtesgaden. They
were going after Hitler.
I was taken to a barn and given a German army blanket. The soldiers
kept moving in and out, bringing in more and more prisoners
from the road.
Toward evening Clarence appeared again and knelt down at my
side. "We have to go now," he said, clasping both my hands in his.
"Thank you, thank you," I whispered, clinging to his hands. Then
he was gone.
It was one of the ironies of freedom that many prisoners died within
one day of their rescue. Many had lost their teeth from scurvy, and
they were perhaps the luckier for it. Many of those who could still
chew overate, and the richness of the American rations killed some
of them outright. Some had a kind of toxic reaction even to moderate
quantities of food. Others developed intestinal problems. Some
simply choked to death. The lucky ones were nursed back to health
with broth and soft, simple foods like pancakes and mashed potatoes.
We were like newborns.
The next day we were fed again. I was already regaining some
strength, and I set out to explore the place, to see if I could locate
anyone I knew from the camps.
We were in a small town called Waakirchen. The Americans were
everywhere, and American tanks and artillery continued to move east
on the main road through town, pursuing the last remnants of the
German army. The soldiers showered the civilians along the way with
cigarettes, chocolates, chewing gum, packets of crackers. I remember
watching one soldier leaning out of a tank turret eating an orange. I
hadn't seen one in years. He pulled out a section, stuck it in his
mouth and sucked out the juice, then spat. The pulp landed on a
bush not five feet away from me . I was stupefied at the waste of such
precious fruit, and without thinking twice I scooped it up and
popped it into my mouth. It was delicious. It makes me squeamish to
think of it now, but these Americans were not ordinary human
beings. They were like gods.
It was in Bad Toelz, just outside Waakirchen, that I spotted a familiar
figure eating something out of a can. It was David Granat. I hadn't
seen him since he left for Lager One outside Dachau, trying to get
back with his father. We fell into each other's arms and cried our eyes
out. Then we laughed. The last time we cried together we were
cleaning the washroom of the Organization Todt.
We sat on a small bench outside a building, letting the sun warm
our bones. Spring had resumed again, as if there had never been
snow on the first of May. It was too late, of course, for those who had
frozen to death on the march. Another of God's cruelties, I thought.
David had seen Yisheshe, and told me that he was well, although
he still couldn't walk. Abke and David Pozeitser had survived. So had
Meishke Olitzky, a boy we called "Bumpa." I told him about Bertholt,
and about Father.
He looked at me aghast. "For God's sake, Solly. Your father is alive!
I saw him only an hour ago, and he looked very much alive to me!"
I stared back, disbelief and joy flooding over me. Then I realized
that this had been the missing piece, the cloud that had darkened my
joy at our long-awaited liberation. David grabbed my arm and hauled
me from my seat. We started running.
David led me to what had been a German army hospital. When the
Allies arrived the beds were full of wounded German soldiers, mostly
officers. The Americans put the Germans on the floor, and gave the
beds to the concentration camp victims.
I spotted my father in a corner, and was rushing to his bed when an
army doctor stopped me. He told me in broken German that I must
not wake him. "But that is my father, sir! I thought he was dead!"
The American looked pleased. ''You know English? Good. Stick
around, all right? Half the time I don't know what these people are
saying. You can translate.
"But let your father rest. He was vomiting his food so I had to give
him an injection."
For the remainder of the day I stayed on the doctor's heels, translating
the Yiddish that most of the patients spoke. I kept tiptoeing
back to look at my father, just to make sure he was still breathing.
Finally, toward evening, he began to stir, and I sat down by his bed.
When he opened his eyes he just stared at me, his eyes filling with
tears. Then he took my hands in his and held them. I don't know how
long we sat there , not speaking, just holding hands and weeping
together. Like the broths and bland foods that slowly brought us back
from the threshold of death, the idea of life outside the camps, life
without the Germans, had to be slowly and carefully digested.
Now that I'd found Father I could cautiously crack the door and
peek into the future. All I could see there was the blinding light
It is not possible in one volume to tell the stories of all those whose
lives touched mine in the ghetto and the camps of Germany. Only
a few survived, but the many who perished live on in memory.
George Shtrom, who tried to help my father with the Russian authorities
in 1941, was murdered at the Lietukis garage massacre that same
year. George Shtrom ' s wife Jennia perished in an outcamp of
Stutthoff, two weeks before the liberation.
Uncle Itzhak Shtrom made it across the Russian border during the
schrecklichkeit of 1941. He spent the remainder of the war in a village
in Siberia, returning to Kaunas after the war. He died there, of a
heart attack, in 1946. His daughter Frieda died of meningitis in the
ghetto. His wife Sonia and daughter Miriam were worked to death in
an outer camp of Stutthoff. His son Arik was killed by Lithuanian partisans in 1941, as was my mother's cousin Sonia Weiss. Sonia Weiss's
daughter, Irena Weiss, survived the war and is a professor at the
University of Vilnius .
Itzhak's sons Zunie and Milie managed to escape from the ghetto
in 1943, joining the partisan movement and fighting against the
Germans. Both survived the war and emigrated to Israel in 1972.
Milie died there a few years later. My cousin Zunie still lives in Hulon.
Uncle Jochil and Aunt Dobbe died in a camp near Riga. Fima and
Miriam perished in their ghetto hideout in July 1944.
Aviva's grandfather Chaim died in his bed in the ghetto at the
beginning of 1944.
Rose Gutman was the person who gave me my first lessons in
English in the ghetto. She and her granddaughter Ruth were both
killed during the "Children's Action" in March 1944.
Cooky Kopelman's father was sent to Auschwitz during the
"Children's Action." Cooky died there a few months later. His
mother, Vera Shore, died in Stutthoff.
My friends Izia and Vova Glass (Gladzookes) perished in a camp in
Little Ronnie Temkin was discovered hiding at Maria's cottage. He
was taken to Auschwitz. Maria was caught smuggling weapons to the
anti-Nazi partisans and was shot by the Gestapo. Jasha Temkin died in
an attempt to escape during the last days of the ghetto.
My mother' s cousin Dora Trotsky, her husband Isaac, and son
Mulie were hidden by a Lithuanian family before the Germans evacuated
the ghetto. While trying to escape from the Soviets in 1946, they
were caught and sent to various camps in Russia. Mulie, who was
fourteen years old, was sent to Siberia. For eight years he managed to
survive terrible conditions there. He spent a total of twelve years in
concentration camps. He emigrated to Israel in 1972, where he died
twenty years later.
My sister Fanny and my Aunt Anushka both survived the war.
Anushka was liberated from an outer camp of Stutthoff and returned
to Lithuania, where she died in 1969. My sister Fanny was shipped
out of Stutthoff by the SS and put on a barge, presumably to be
drowned in the Baltic Sea. When the barges were inadvertently
bombed by the British, most of the women were killed or drowned.
Fanny's swimming skills saved her. She was picked up by a German
navy patrol and brought to British-occupied Kiel. She married Sam
Skutelsky from Riga and moved to the United States. Both died in
the early 1980s. Their son Robert, my only living nephew, lives in
My mother's cousin Pola Ginsburg was drowned in the Baltic,
thrown overboard by the SS. Her son Vova survived the war and was
liberated from Kaufering in May 1945. He and his wife Ibbi emigrated
to England where they live to this day.
My cousin Margaret Shtrom-Kagan and her brother Dr. Alexander
Shtromas were hidden by Lithuanians prior to the return of the
Russians in 1944. She and her husband Joseph Kagan escaped
Lithuania in 1945, and emigrated to England, where Joseph was
eventually knighted and then given the title Lord for his contributions
to the British economy. He died recently in London. Margaret
Kagan now lives near Boston. Her brother Alexander teaches peace
studies all over the world.
Those from the ghetto and camps who were liberated with me in
1945 remain my closest friends. Uri Chanoch, Aba Naor (Abke
Nauchowitz), Chaim Konwitz, Arie Ivtsan, and Zwi Katz all emigrated
to Israel. David Grant and Israel and Efraim Gruzin all live in
Baltimore, Maryland. Miriam Rogol Pfefer lives in Paris; Izke Rom in
Munich. Mike Oliver (Meishke Olitzky-"Bumpa") lives in Carson
City, Nevada, and David Levine (Pozeitzer), Abke's cousin, lives in
My brother Herman, who disappeared behind the walls of the
Seventh Fort in 1941, was seen by a friend a year later, marching with
a group of Russian prisoners of war. That was the last we heard of him.
My father died peacefully in Tel Aviv in 1966. He survived the war,
thanks, in part, to the boots we got from Metek Joskowitz. Metek's
brother's name was Chaim.
ABOUT SOLLY GANOR
After his liberation from the Nazis in 1945, Solly Ganor
decided not to accompany his father to Canada; he chose instead to
go to Palestine and join the fight for the independence of Israel.
Upon victory and honorable discharge from the army in 1949, he
joined the Merchant Marine and fulfilled his desire to see the
world. He spent twelve enjoyable years on ships, and by the time
he left to marry his wife Pola, he had attained the rank of chief
Solly Ganor next spent three years at London University
studying Russian, German, and English literature, as well as Slavic
languages. Completing his studies, he and Pola went back to
Israel, and he managed a textile factory owned by his wife's family.
After fifteen successful years in the textile business, Solly and
Pola then decided to make another change. They sold their shares
in the company and moved to La Jolla, California in 1977. They
lived there until 1984, and since then have divided their time
between the United States and Israel.
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