Monday, June 21, 2010
Crossing the River by Shalom Eilati, Hebrew edition1999, English edition 2008
This engrossing memoir is about the author’s experience, first as a resident of the Kovno ghetto, then as a hidden child, then as a young refugee who boarded a ship with other children to settle in Palestine shortly after the war.
The author, whose European name was Sholek Kaplan, was born in 1933, the son of a historian and a nurse, who, at the age of eight was forcibly moved with his parents and younger sister into the confines of the Kovno ghetto. Eilati remembers many details and he brings the experience of living in the ghetto to life: the conditions at the beginning, the successive purges of the Jewish population by the Germans and the strategies the residents of the ghetto devised to avoid being shot or put on a transport.
Eilati most specifically writes about his family's experience and in large part the memoir is a tribute to his mother. His father was shipped off to Latvia. His mother angled to be on the brigade to work at a factory outside of the ghetto. There she made connections with two local Lithuanians who each arranged to hide one of her children when it looked like the ghetto was going to be liquidated. Eilati writes movingly about the fear and the vigilance that was with him constantly, making the point that it is hard to shake those feelings over half a century later.
When Lithuania was liberated by the Soviet troops he was on his own again, barely 12 years old, looking to find his scattered family. Eventually he was contacted by an emissary from his father who was recuperating in a hospital in Germany and after many more terrifying days trying to surmount obstacles crossing out of Soviet territory, they were reunited.
The final chapter is an epilogue where Eilati describes two trips he took back to Lithuania, both to Kovno and to the shtetls where his extended family had lived. He writes openly about how he had buried his experiences for thirty years and then it took twenty years to write the memoir. It was only after he was immersed in writing it that he felt motivated to revisit the country of his birth and he describes both the old and the new, the attempt to find documents, and the overwhelming grief he felt at seeing marked mass graves and knowing that there were many more mass graves unmarked.
For more information about the Kovno ghetto, click here.
To view Shalom Eilati deliver a talk about his experience and his book at a meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York click here. (The talk is spread out over three videos.)
To watch a video clip of a trip to Kovno narrated in Hebrew that includes photos taken in the ghetto and at the burial site and memorial superimposed on the same buildings and spots today, click here.
Kaplan from Vidukle – a rabbi (author’s paternal father)
Israel – his son; author’s father; married Leah Greenstein
Libe – his daughter; married to Shmuel Sidrer
Moisheles and Shloimeles – their sons
Rivkeh and Zionah– their daughters
Rachel – his daughter; married to Ya’akov
Shalom Zvi Greenstein – author’s maternal grandfather
Leah – his daughter; married to Israel Kaplan; author’s parents
Sholik – their son; author (took the name Sholom Eilati in Israel)
Feige – his daughter
Rochel – her daughter
Cheina - his daughter (Helen in America)
Idel – his son
Sarah – mother’s cousin
Friends and Aquaintances
Mishka Kapulsky (his grandparents – Melzer)
Bella, Eta, Noimele Gurvich (their mother was a doctor)
Mottel Podliash – married to Hinda (his second wife)
Beila – his daughter
Arke and Maimke – her sons
Izzia and Shulamit Rabinovitz
Muki – their son
Dr. Haim Nachman Shapiro
Nahum and Magna Diener
Zipporah Heiman – husband Eliezer
Yasha and Hasia Goldberg
Yolik – her grandson
Jean Pierre and Henrietta Kahn
Green Hill, Kovno
Schlachtensee Camp for Displaced Persons
UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration)