|By the writer Meir Yellin|
My dear Alex – Alter, as you are known in Yiddish, friends and acquaintances!
In the Ethics of the Fathers, that collection of folk wisdom, proverbs and advice on how to behave appropriately in the world, the different ages in a man’s life are given attributes, including the statements that “eighteen is for marriage," and that “forty is for understanding," meaning that at forty one reaches full understanding; “fifty is for counsel," meaning that at the age of fifty a person is worthy of being asked for his advice. And on to “at sixty a man attains old age." Why on earth should one be considered an old man at such an early stage? The reason is simple: the Ethics of the Fathers were composed several thousand years ago, when the average life expectancy was short. Seventy was considered “the hoary head." We have thus now reached the age attained by tonight’s celebrant.
What is the meaning of “hoary head”? Gray hair? At the time that the Ethics of the Fathers was written, this was an achievement. Our sages considered it a great honor to reach the age of seventy. Such a man was respected and esteemed, because he enjoyed God’s favor. Others should stand when addressing or speaking to him. And it is no small thing, to be endowed by God with the number of years granted to King David, who reached the age of seventy!
Today, at the end of the twentieth century, in today’s conditions and with modern medicine, it seems to me that any pipsqueak can reach the age of seventy. Today, therefore, if you want to be respected and held in esteem, you have to have actually achieved something by the time you reach seventy. So let us take a look at the history of our celebrant. When he reached the age of eighteen, which the Ethics of the Fathers saw as the age a young man was ready for marriage, he did this with his heart’s desire, Sima, a beautiful and talented girl who gave expression to her emotions and thoughts in poetry. He did this in the ghetto, behind the barbed wire. The young couple faced such tragic situations and such fateful decisions, of a kind that a person of forty, one who had reached understanding, that is, attained wisdom, could scarcely cope with and take the right decisions.
Alter’s generation, in fact our generation, was thrown at a very early age into the whirlpool of life and forced to fight for survival on a daily basis, to fight in every sense of the word. For this was the time when the Nazi beast roamed the world, with one chief aim in view – to wipe out the Jewish people off the face of the earth. Each one of us faced a struggle with destiny. And as the wise doctors of ancient times said, destiny takes the sense of those it wishes to destroy. Alex-Alter was among those who did not let destiny take their sense. He rejected the assumption that to fight with destiny, with man’s fate, was impossible, and one must come to terms with what happens. In the most tragic of situations, he searched for and found a way out.
We know many details of Alter’s fight against the Nazi murderer, and how, in the ghetto, he did not sit wringing his hands, nor did he wait for a miracle. He was one of the first to seek and find a way of fighting back. There were no weapons in the ghetto, but he made cold weapons. He deliberately went to do forced labor for the Germans, because this provided the opportunity to steal weapons and ammunition which, at great risk, he smuggled into the ghetto to build up the store of arms of the Anti-Fascist Fighting Organization, of which he was a committed member. He was one of the first to be filled with the burning desire to fight openly against Nazi Germany with the partisan units.
The first attempt to go to the Augustava Forest failed, and brought Alter and others to the Ninth Fort, where the Germans had decided to eliminate all traces of their terrible crimes – they forced the Jews to dig up the victims of the Nazi mass slaughter and burn the bodies. Alter immediately became the breath of life among those who decided not to give in to fate and its oppressors, in the form of the Nazi monsters. We know that the fantastic idea of escaping from the Fort became reality. This was the victory of the Jewish fighting spirit and Alter’s personal martial achievement.
I am skipping the details, since the most important of them are known. Alter has written a book, which is being published, on this period – recollections, historical review, research and conclusions. We will take this festive opportunity of wishing him success in soon becoming the author of a full-length book that will refresh and expand our knowledge of this tragic period in the life of the Jewish community in Kovno, the Jews of Lithuania in general and their history, steeped in suffering, during the time of loss and heroic struggle of the Nazi bloodbath.
Let us wish Alter that he reach eighty, the age of heroism, according to the Ethics of the Fathers, in the full physical and mental strength which have been his characteristic and have accompanied him throughout his life. May he and his life’s loyal companion Sima, with their children and their children’s children, reach the age of heroism and a goodly number of years beyond that, in good health and good spirits.