Yalkut Moreshet, nos. 60 and 61
October 1995 and April 1996
So much has already been written about the Ninth Fort at Kovno, and especially the legendary escape from the factory of death, that all these books – memoirs, literature, theoretical research – could provide the foundation for a special section in a well-endowed library.
One of the new books on this subject, perhaps the newest of them, is The Time of Storms and Fights (originally called in Yiddish In Storm on Garengel) by Alex (Alter) Faitelson, published in Vilna by the Lithuanus Press in an edition of five hundred copies.
Today, when discussing any aspect of the Kovno Ghetto, the tragic life within it, the uprising of the prisoners, we cannot fail to mention the Ninth Fort and therefore also this book, since Faitelson’s book is a serious attempt to include everything written to date, in memoirs as well as scientific researches and documentation, on the Ninth Fort and the escape of December 25, 1943.
In the bibliography attached to the book, eighty-eight items are listed. This is a considerable volume of literature. The author has not only read all the books included in this list, but has also studied them in depth, investigated them, compared different sources, generalized and emphasized those points which have helped him to uncover the objective truth. Since the subjective basis of memoirs in unavoidable, the question is what is the degree of this subjectivity? In dealing with this question, the book transcends the bounds of a mere book of reminiscences.
The escape from the Ninth Fort is far from being a minor episode. It is an epic event encompassing many elements and problems that cannot be reduced to the framework of the place alone or the particular period of time when the preparations for the escape were made and the escape itself took place.
The book encompasses life (if it can be called life) in the Kovno Ghetto, the rebellion movement in the ghetto and outside the barbed-wire fence that surrounded it. It encompassed the struggle of the partisans, the mutual relationships between the anti-Fascist lighting groups, the members of the different political movements, the fate of the survivors of the death fort and so on.
Many chapters in this epic are absolutely clear, but there are others which have become legends, for many reasons – first and foremost, because it was both necessary and convenient for someone. The author pays special attention to these episodes. Thus, for example, the explosion at the Fifth Fort, in which two of the ghetto’s prisoners died, has developed into a beautiful legend.
The harmonious accord between the various political factions in the Kovno ghetto – whether they had communist leanings or were Zionists – in planning and carrying out the fight against the Nazi murderers, has become legendary.
The warm camaraderie and dedication displayed by the representatives of the different nationalities in the struggle against the Nazis has become legendary.
The accord between the prisoners of the Ninth Fort, those who burnt the corpses, in planning the escape, has become legendary.
A cloak of secrecy envelops the march to Augustovo Forest, and so on.
Alex Faitelson has set himself the task of stripping these stories of their aura of legend and uncovering the truth.
If we are to believe Faitelson, the explosion at the Fifth Fort was nothing but an accident, rather than a planned act of terrorism. And incidentally, we have no grounds for not believing Faitelson.
If we are to believe Faitelson, not all the Zionist groups in the Kovno ghetto were ready to join the active and open struggle against the Nazis, A considerable number of them ignored this struggle on the grounds that it was likely to help the Soviets or that, in their opinion, the Soviets were no better than the Nazis.
He also discusses in a comprehensive and exhaustive way the dismal march to Augustov Forest, which claimed so many victims. What was it? Asks the author – an error or a military exercise? Was it in fact justified, considering the large number of victims?
Opinions on this have so far been divided. Some find one answer acceptable and convenient, while others accept a completely opposite view. The author weighs in the balance first one answer and then the other, analyzes the various events and the facts, draws conclusions and points the finger of blame.
Do we accept his opinion? Perhaps he does not know everything. Perhaps there are more facts, information contradicting or confirming and complementing Faitelson’s conclusions.
I find no basis to doubt the correctness and reliability of the author’s conclusions in this matter. Faitelson proves convincingly the existence of the germs of anti-Semitism among the ranks of the Soviet partisans. Not only has this question not yet been mentioned in Soviet literature, but it has even been concealed and hidden away. On all sides we have heard only paeans of praise to what has been called the “friendship of nations."
The author also deals with certain people about whom fixed ideas have been formed over the decades: some have been described as near saints, others as villains. Faitelson corrects these impressions, bringing evidence to back up his claims.
There are not a few legends of this sort. At the beginning, or soon after, certain people were wrapped in a cloak of secrecy, surrounded by an aura of heroism and decorated with literary descriptions. Over time, with the increase in writings about the Kovno ghetto, the Ninth Fort, the Partisan movement, this cloak became gradually denser, more impenetrable, and it is now hard to break through it and reach the nugget of truth. I feel that Faitelson’s attempt to extract the truth from the dross that has accumulated should be welcomed.
However, a moral question arises here: is it indeed morally acceptable to remove the hero’s halo from a person who has worn it for so many years, especially when this person is no longer alive? Does this exposure not detract from the weight of the Holocaust, from the story of our sufferings and our acts of heroism?
Here I must express my personal opinion. Let us leave legends to literature. History must be disinterested, objective, especially when without “improvements” the history of the Holocaust is full of anguish, suffering and heroism. Everyone who died in the genocide of the Jewish people, everyone who miraculously survived and remained alive, who suffered the inhuman agonies, everyone who underwent even one day of the genocide of the Jewish people exemplified the spirit of heroism. We do not lack heroes and martyrs.
Obviously other opinions are also possible.
Alex Faitelson’s book presents a diary of the epic story of the escape from the Ninth Fort. Here we can create for ourselves an approximate picture of what took place in the Ninth Fort day-by-day, hour-by-hour. An “approximate picture," because it is simply impossible to believe that an outsider who was not there at the time, in the maw of the death fort would be able to penetrate the innermost thoughts and experiences of those who burned the corpses, and the logic underlying their behavior.
The author does not limit himself to the war years only. He follows the fates of the prisoners of the fort after their escape from the death factory too, and this is something completely new among the memoirs of the Kovno Ghetto and the Ninth Fort. We know something of those prisoners who returned to the ghetto. But we know almost nothing of those who fled in other ways after escaping from the fort: Rabbi Shusterman, Vladimir Sankin, Dr. Nemionov, and in particular Anatoli Garnik – these are all great personal tragedies within the totality of the general tragedy.
The work of tracing what became of the boys from the fort has just begun, and its end is still far ahead of us. This work must be continued.
Faitelson’s book has provoked a considerable response in the Jewish world. The Yiddish edition has sold out and the Hebrew edition (1,000 copies) has also been widely distributed. I have read many positive and enthusiastic reactions to the book, written by ordinary readers. Some of those readers went through the Hell prepared for the Jews during the years of the war, others had only read or heard of the inhuman sufferings of their Jewish brethren.
I also came across responses in the Jewish press, or to be exact, in the research papers of Jewish historians who had already published essays on the Kovno ghetto and uprising at the end of the 40s. These historians are faithful in many cases to the fundamental perceptions which arise in their books from that time, in which the epic of the Ninth Fort is described slightly differently than in Faitelson’s book. Opinions are divided mainly over two issues: a) the activities of the Zionist organizations in Ghetto Kovno; b) the personal role played by Alex Faitelson in planning and carrying out the escape from the Ninth Fort.
The Hebrew edition has been rounded out by the inclusion of written reactions from living witnesses, former corpse-burners, prisoners who escaped from the Ninth Fort and documents and pictures connected with the events described in the book and Faitelson’s role in organizing the escape from the death fort.
It is good that a debate is taking place which may lead to the objective truth. However, in this case the tome of some of those involved in the debate arouses anxiety and doubt. One senses a lack of respect for different opinions and a degree of vulgarity. Moreover, the various claims are not based on facts and documents.
I do not claim that The Time of Storms and Fights is perfect in every respect. However, this book raises problems deserving attention that is serious, scientific and, more important, without anger and without prejudice – solid, relevant and sober consideration. What is unreasonable should be rejected, but in order to establish a basis for this rejection, the questions remaining in doubt should be discussed. I am certain that a serious approach (putting aside personal pretensions) will reveal the treasures awaiting us in this book, and pictures, facts and ideas that are worthy of a separate monograph.
May 18, 1995