To Suha Najjar.
Thank you for the op-ed piece I noticed on the Michigan Daily website. In it, you eloquently describe the sense of loss you and your family must feel as a result of the forced estrangement from people and places of your ancestry.
I note from social media sources that you are scheduled to graduate from the University of Michigan some time this year. In that regard, and in hopes that it will help you and all of us, I propose to offer some advice or at least comments as you go on.
I have three children, each one going in a different direction. To each of them, however, I have asked the same thing: that in order to get things done, they learn to appreciate the perspective of those with whom they are interfacing, competing and negotiating. When one of them had a dispute with his section boss about the timing of a raise, for example, I asked that he put himself into the supervisor’s mind and absorb what she might have thought when they first discussed a raise.
Now, as you approach college graduation, I ask the same thing of you. It’s not difficult to absorb the sense of loss, of anger and dislocation that you and yours must feel as a result of the past 65 years of history. What I ask you to do is to appreciate the thoughts and motivations of those whom you oppose, my people.
My maternal family comes from a Lithuanian village on the banks of the Jura River. Both my maternal grandmother and grandfather were born in the town called Kvedarna in Lithuanian, Chweidan in Yiddish. A couple generations prior to their births, it had been part of East Prussia, and their grandparents moved to the town from Frankfurt am Main.
My grandfather was the youngest of eight brothers, four of whom had moved to America, and five (including himself) who had remained. Their father was a ‘dreyer’ — meaning that he guided a horse-drawn wagon from that town to the Latvian port of Libau, bringing produce to the port, and fish, etc. back to the town. With the outbreak of World War I, my grandfather moved to join his brothers in Chicago.
Three older brothers remained, one of them with two daughters and a son. The son, Gershon, would later tell interviewers involved with a Steven Spielberg project that from time to time, Lithuanian toughs would taunt him. ‘Go to Palestine,’ they’d say. ‘That is your country. This is ours.’
On June 21, 1941, German tanks pulled into Kvedarna, accompanied by Lithuanian toughs. Gershon fled to the attic of his house. He remembers the day as such:
Then they rounded us up on a Sunday, maybe a day later. That day was a horrible day. There was a Lithuanian by the name of Kolicius. He came into our house. My father was already in the alley. He told my sister that if your brother doesn’t come down, we’re going to shoot your father. My sister said to me, “Come down, Gershon, otherwise they’re going to kill Daddy.”
In short order, his sisters were raped and killed, his father taken away never to be seen again, and he himself was trucked to become a slave laborer nearby. In time, as Gershon recalls it:
In 1943, when they weren’t doing too well in Russia, they put us onto a cattle train and transferred us to Birkenau-Auschwitz. The train ride was a horrible thing. They rarely stopped to let you to get out into the forest, and then they rushed you back onto the train. It smelled terrible. People were doing everything in the boxes there. They brought a pail of water onto the train. Everybody started grabbing at it to get some water. They spilled the pail and nobody got any of the water.
It took about a day and a half to get to Birkenau-Auschwitz. When we jumped off the train there was a guy standing there; I’m sure he was Mengele. He looked you up and down and said, “You go here, and you go there.” There were some Jews who were helping the authorities, and they told us that the people who were going onto the truck were going into the ovens…
We stayed in Auschwitz-Birkenau for about six weeks. Then they sent us to work on cleaning up the Warsaw Ghetto. They only took Lithuanian Jews, Holland Jews, Hungarian Jews, any Jew who couldn’t speak Polish, to work at the Warsaw ghetto. They did not want these workers to get in contact with Polish people. All together, there were about 5,000 Jews working on cleaning up the Warsaw Ghetto. We cleaned it up by hand, passing bricks from one person to another.
The ghetto was destroyed in 1943. I was there for 13 months. It was very, very dirty. We were sleeping on floors that were crawling with lice. Typhus broke out. They didn’t have a crematorium. There were burning the bodies right next to our barracks. They were building a crematorium but it wasn’t ready until the Russians came in. We used to joke that today it is these dead, tomorrow it will be us. I don’t know how I am sitting here telling you the story of all these horrible things.
From Warsaw, he was taken to Dachau.
When the War came to an end, we were marching around in different forests. We were saved by one thing. The Nazis were marching us around. The guards wanted to kill us, but the officer said, “You’re not going to kill the Juden.” Then the Americans came and took him away in a Jeep. We spoke up for the officer who saved us.
There were 180 Russians working there on a big farm. The Germans took them out in a field and killed them all.
Liberation came from the Americans.
General Eisenhower came to visit us once in the Jewish camp. He said, “Don’t go back. You’ll be coming to the United States with us.” I think he had seen all the skeletons, all the death, and wanted to do something about it.
I knew I had uncles in the United States. My father had five brothers there. One of my uncles, he should rest in peace, he traced me in a magazine. They were listing our names in magazines. He started writing, and found me.
I would have gone to Israel. Many of my friends went to Israel.
In Chicago, Gershon’s aunts and uncles had for many years operated a cousins club. As one of his uncles told me years ago: “There were no dues. We all just met on a rotating basis at each other’s houses for dinner. Then someone saw Gershon’s name on a list and we charged dues, brought him here.”
In time, Gershon married another refugee, had two children and a number of grandchildren. Several of his contemporaries from Kvedarna found their way instead to Israel, where they and their families live today.
Struggling to redraw post-War and post-Ottoman borders, the Allied powers decided to allocate one piece of land for a Jewish state and another, larger part to be run by Muslims. Two generations later, you don’t agree with that decision. All you can feel is the loss of a family homestead, the anger against its new owners.
What I ask you to do, Suha Najjar, is to appreciate the perspective of those on the other side of your issue. Unless and until you and yours do that, all that will remain is war and death.
Incidentally, Suha, at the time of Israel’s creation, about 800,000 Jews were expelled from lands run by your co-religionists. We both know these Jews were welcomed into Israel. A similar number of your folks fled Jewish controlled areas, and were restricted to refugee camps.
Perhaps you should be angrier with those in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, etc. who refused — as the Israelis did — to absorb their co-religionists into their lands.
Doing that, however, would require understanding and absorbing the feelings and motivations of those you oppose. Tell me, soon to be college graduate, are you capable of that?
Gershon’s story is available at http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/kvedarna/kve-young.html
Elliot Eisenberg is an Ann Arbor resident.