Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2020

A Sack Full of Memories, by Zwi Levin, as told to Joe Reich

Yesterday I attended a birthday party for one of our small neighbours.  It was just what you’d expect: a gathering of friends and family and the relaxed bedlam of a bunch of four-year-olds hurtling about, testing out the new toys and scoffing a generous spread of delicious treats.  Just what you’d wish for any child: an exciting day from which to make memories of a secure and happy childhood.

But we know that around the world and even here in Australia not all children have what ought not to be a privilege.  That’s what makes it hard to read a memoir of a childhood that was not like that at all, knowing that there are today children enduring great hardships and witnessing acts of hatred and violence.

Over the years I have read a fair few memoirs of the Holocaust, all of them testament to the indomitable will to survive, and yet each one unique in its own way.  This year, my reading has a special resonance because 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The authors who are telling their stories now were children when they were caught up in these monstrous events.

Zwi Levin was a small boy when war broke out. And even though I thought I knew about the Holocaust, his remarkable story of survival taught me many things I did not know about events on the other side of the Iron Curtain, a curtain which shifted like a malevolent wind in the period when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact broke down and the neutrality treaty between Germany and Russia was over.

Baltic States (2006)

Zwi Levin’s mother Gitel was born in Vishey in southern Lithuania, and his father Yitzchak was from Bielsk Podlaski in north-eastern Poland.  Theirs was, at a time of arranged marriages, a love match kindled by the proximity of the two towns and a chance meeting when Yitzchak went into the haberdashery where Gitel sold buttons.  Although he came from a wealthy and illustrious family who were horrified when he married a girl ‘beneath him’ and without a dowry because she had run away from home rather than marry her family’s choice of husband, Gitel’s strength of character and determination turned out to serve her in good stead when she became sole breadwinner and protector of her two children.  And it was thanks to reconciliation with her family that she happened to be in the Soviet sector of Lithuania when Germany declared war on the USSR — because the Soviets provided transport to get civilians out of the way.

The initial German occupation of Poland took place while the Pact was still in force.  The Germans invaded from the west and very quickly introduced repressive measures against the Jews — including building the Warsaw Ghetto.  Thousands of Jews fled to the Soviet-occupied east swelling the population of Bielsk Podlaski, some of them fleeing further east into Russia where not all of them survived Russian suspicion that they were spies or enemy aliens. But Zwi’s family stayed where they were:

We were not fearful when the trucks rolled in.  The Russians were the new rulers, and while they had their own idiosyncrasies, such as the Communist state, they were not any more overtly anti-Semitic than they had been when they had previously ruled Poland, and they were not on the pathway to murder their Jews, unlike their Nazi allies at the time. (p.40)

So the family adjusted, as people have to do when they live in small countries buffeted by a geographical position amid more powerful nations.  And by the time Gitel’s parents in Lithuania extended a hand of reconciliation the USSR had invaded Lithuania too, and so it was possible to cross the border to visit them.  Yitzchak went first to ensure that the grandparents would accept him as a husband, and when he returned to run their fuel-supply business, Gitel went with the children.  While they were there, they visited the town of Yurburg — close to the border of what is now shown as Kalingrad on the map but was then East Prussia i.e. German territory — to see their uncles and aunts and cousins.  This family reunion saved their lives when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, breaking the pact with the USSR by invading along a 2,900-kilometre front — which included eastern Poland.  Yitzchak, still at home and running the family business in Bielsk Podlaski, was deported to the extermination camp at Treblinka 2 and never seen again.  The entire Jewish community was exterminated.

But in a daring escape, the uncles in Yurburg commandeered vehicles and the family fled eastward, inadvertently separating Zwi from his mother and sister.

My journey was one of many across into the Soviet Union from nations like Poland and Lithuania that only days earlier had been under Soviet rule.  The Russians feared civilian deaths in the hands of the attacking Germans and wanted to rescue key workers, unarmed families and those at greatest threat.  They evacuated people, entire factories and vital equipment away from the advancing German forces.  To their everlasting credit, they did not exclude the Jews.  In parallel were those making their own way, pushing carts, trudging for miles, hitching rides on any moving vehicles.
I was part of the greatest migration the world has ever known, with an estimated sixteen million people moving eastwards away from the invading German forces in that last week of June and early July 1941.  This I didn’t know — all I knew was I was alone without my mother, sister, and, of course, without my father. (p.56)

They were within an hour or so of the German invasion.  Again, ‘luck’ intervened when they were able to board what was probably the last train from Vitebsk (in Belarus) and Uncle Yosef hauled little Zwi aboard at the last moment when he had lost the grip of whoever was holding his hand.  The Germans captured 12,000 Jews in Vitebsk and nothing is known of their fate because none of them survived.

Zwi’s journey with his uncle and two cousins took them through Minsk and Moscow and ended up deep in the USSR in Kovylkino, Mordovia about 500km west of Moscow, while his mother and sister ended up in Saransk, about 100 km further west.  A chance remark from someone who saw Uncle Yosef with his ‘three’ sons in Kolylkino alerted Gitel to the possibility that this ‘third son’ was her lost child, and miraculously they were reunited late in 1941 after being separated for nearly six months.  The oncoming winter and the threat of starvation in a place not coping with the sudden influx of refugees then took them 3,500 km further south towards Asia, to Fergana in Uzbekistan.

Zwi acknowledges that reconstructing this astonishing journey, of hardship, hunger and intense privation, was achieved with memories both flawed and authenticated by documents, and with memories and research by other members of his family. Joe Reich, his relation by marriage* and and co-author, has this to say about the process:

I am reminded that recent successful books recalling the Holocaust have been fictionalised to fill the gaps with drama, narrative, speculation and to include dialogue that cannot be verified.  Zwi has avoided all such inventions.  It is likely that Zwi and his sister Helen were the only children to survive Bielsk Podlaski, and it’s even more likely that Zwi may well be the last living survivor of that community.  Regardless of his primary wish to tell his story to his family and friends, I believe there was an obligation to share it with us, a mitzvah.  (p.238)

As Zwi says in his first chapter, he wrote this memoir because it concerns him how quickly the world moves on…

I have enjoyed living in Melbourne, for this city, which I have made my home for most of my life, has allowed me to breathe the air of freedom, to make my way among the least judgemental and friendliest people on earth, to create a home and family, to practise my beliefs; and yet I note that Melbourne has recently been displaced as the world’s most liveable city by Vienna, Austria — a decision demonstrating once more how quickly the cracks of history are smoothed over by time, and how the world forgives and forgets. Austria is the country that spawned Hitler and rapturously cheered the arrival of the Nazis; and Vienna, a city glittering with broken glass on Kristallnacht, a city whose art galleries fought to keep stolen artworks as their own, a city whose Jews were expelled or dragged to extermination camps, is now considered the best place to live on this planet. (p.2)

***

Apart from the vivid testimony of survivors who were there, the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to mass murder at Auschwitz is a remarkable photo album which documents the arrival and selection process in 1944 of Hungarian Jews.  Although it is hard to look at the  faces of the people in these photos, to do so is a way of showing respect to their memory.

As survivor Roman Kent said at the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz:

We cannot — dare not — forget the millions who were murdered…
for if we were to forget…
the conscience of the mankind would be buried alongside the victims.

And it was people like these who presided over the atrocities and knew exactly what was happening…

Image credit: map of Baltic States: By NormanEinstein, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=810328

* Joe is Zwi’s ‘mechitin’, a Yiddish word that has no equivalent in English, meaning the father-in-law of one of Zwi’s married children, with thanks to publisher Anna Blay for explaining this.  (See her comment below).

Author: Zwi Lewin, as told to Joe Reich
Title: My Sack Full of Memories
Cover design: Citrus Graphics
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2019
ISBN: 9781925736267, pbk., 238 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Hybrid Publishers, from Fishpond:My Sack Full of Memories, and all good bookstores.

 


Responses

  1. Wonderful post, Lisa, and I particularly respect what’s said about the filling in of missing bits by fictionalising them. I’ve been a bit worried recently about the number of fiction books generally coming out set in the Holocaust, almost seeming to glamorise it. That’s not how we should be reading about it, and this book sounds like essential reading.

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  2. Great post Lisa. It seems it is people removed from the holocaust experience or so called ‘third-generation’ who write these ‘fictionalised’ accounts. Reading them makes me feel uncomfortable at times even violated. This one is truly remarkable and a tribute to the human spirit.

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    • Well, I have never thought that any group of people ‘own’ a story, but there is something in my heart that revolts when someone exploits the trauma of other people to make money from it. I think that True Crime is a tawdry kind of voyeurism, I think that novels like Emme Donoghue’s Room exploit the story of a victims of terrible crime, and I was appalled by the way Helen Garner wormed her way into the bereaved family for her book Joe Cinque’s Consolation. For Heather Morris to do that too in the guise of friendship for a Holocaust victim is a shameful episode in Australian publishing, and now to follow it up by exploiting the story of a woman now dead and unable to speak for herself, well, it beggars belief that anyone could be so crass.

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  3. I was greatly saddened to see that my own children, whom I thought I’d raised to have empathy and respect for the suffering of others, have been saying they’ve had enough of hearing about the Holocaust at school. Is it because it is done as a tick-box exercise at school, or should I be truly worried? Maybe that’s what this recent surge of Holocaust books is designed to do: appeal to the younger generations? Not sure if it’s the best way…
    And yes, I agree that there are many other genocides we should also be hearing about – but that’s just it, ALSO, not instead of. We shouldn’t forget any of these. But, it seems, we do. We move on to the next sensationalist news story or celebrity gossip… Grrrrr!

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    • Hi Marina, I share your concern. I know, (from research that’s been done) that Australian high school students get tired of hearing about Indigenous dispossession and the Stolen Generations, and the researchers found that the reason for this was that well-meaning teachers from primary school onward, covered the same topics over and over again on commemorative occasions, mostly because their own knowledge was shallow and so the content tended to be repetitive. The solution is IMO not to appeal to young people with fairy floss versions of the story but for schools to design a coherent curriculum that covers the issues in a sequential way, building on knowledge that becomes more sophisticated as students become older.
      But of course it becomes more difficult if it is true that children are reading less than they used to. If they only read 6 books each year and one of them is about the Holocaust every year, well, of course, it’s a problem not easily overcome.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, once again, Lisa, for such an in-depth and caring review of this book.

    Just one little correction – Joe Reich is not Zwi’s son-in-law but his ‘mechitin’, a Yiddish word that has no equivalent in English, meaning the father-in-law of one of Zwi’s married children (I don’t remember which one).

    By the way, Joe is writing another book that he’ll bring to us soon.

    Regards Anna

    Anna Rosner Blay Managing Editor HYBRID PUBLISHERS PO Box 52 Ormond VIC 3204 Australia

    Tel: (03) 9504 3462 See our website at: https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au https://www.facebook.com/HybridPublishers/

    >

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    • Thanks, Anna, and thanks for the correction too…I’ll correct it now:)

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  5. Re a coherent curriculum, the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick does wonderful work with students and teachers from every part of Victoria – well worth a visit.

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    • I’ve learned a lot from going there as an adult too.
      But Marina is in Europe, and I don’t know how curriculum is managed there, or how much is mandated and how much is discretionary. But I would expect that there would be organisations there that offer guidance to schools about it.

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  6. We are writing on vital topics this week, atrocities that are difficult to keep foregrounded so as not to be repeated. You know I agree with you entirely about the undesirability of the Holocaust being used as a setting for fiction, however well intended. While I have my own opinions about right wing Zionism, I love that Melbourne is a Jewish centre and I had not considered what it meant when it was replaced by Vienna as the ‘most liveable city’.

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    • You know, what amazed me about Vienna, and not in a good way, was their failure to acknowledge their past. Australia isn’t good at it either, but knowing what I knew about Vienna I had intended during our four days there to visit the Jewish memorial because I expected there to be one.
      We were staying in the Graben, the tourist heart of the city, and I spied a large monument in the middle of the road and set off to see it, assuming it was a memorial to the Jews. It turned out to be a memorial to victims of the plague. Vaguely disconcerted but assuming that the memorial would be elsewhere, we ended up at the Jewish museum. Where there was not one acknowledgement of the Holocaust on Austrian soil or anywhere else (or if there was, it must have been very inconspicuous because I was looking for it). It was just an exhibition of Jewish craftsmanship from the past.
      Well, it turns out that there was a memorial elsewhere, but it had taken so long to build it that it was too new to be in our DK Guide. It was unveiled in 2000, and we were there in September 2001. And that says so much IMO, that despite Austria’s pivotal role in the genocide, it took half a century for them to get round to it.

      And it’s high time we attended to our own failure to acknowledge the past in a publicly visible and enduring way…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] A Sack Full of Memories, by Zwi Levin, as told to Joe Reich […]

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  8. […] My Sack Full of Memories […]

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