|Writer and publicist|
Letzte Neus January 14, 1994
The Time of Storms and Fights
Alter (Alex) Faitelson is an author and writer, who has collected testimonies from the appalling period of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania: ghetto, concentration camps, labor camps, partisan units fighting the oppressor, the active participation of Jews in the partisan combat, in the Jewish partisan units, small and large groups of fighters.
This is a book of his recollections of being saved from Kovno ghetto. It should be said in advance that the greatest virtue of this 410-page book is not its literary and artistic aspect; nor does the author pretend to be a literary writer.
So much material on the grim and shocking subject of the Holocaust has already been written and told in memoirs, journals, chronicles, historical documents. And yet this book stands out both in its factual nature and in the way it describes the authentic story of a firebrand saved from the fire, not as one thousand and one miracles, but – and chiefly – thanks to his heroic part in the partisan battles, in organizing and getting Jews out of the ghetto, his arrest and escape from the infamous Ninth Fort, in which he was the initiator and leader of the escape of over sixty prisoners.
The facts and events are too many and too complex to try and tell them in stenographic shorthand. And there is no need to do so. In this case, all that is needed – and this is the book’s main quality – is a degree of courage, of the daring and risk needed to organize and carry out the escape, and to lead (successfully) most of the escapees to the forest, and to join, he himself and them, the partisan unit.
You read and are shocked together with the author. And incidentally, it is most characteristic that he does not use the word “I." There is no sign, no hint or pretension to present personal experiences, acts of heroism. More than once he experienced and overcame the fear of death and actual executions without mentioning his name. One sees clearly that the interest of the author is to give an exact report: when and how the events took place. It can be said that in terms of the report, the form of the protocol, everything is presented to the reader with precision, backed up by documentation.
Faitelson writes and explains it with exemplary precision, although he is not a writer. Hence the masochistic, painful pleasure, the smallest of shocking details, and he addresses the reader directly.
The phrase “not by might nor by power but by my spirit” can be read here as “both by might and by spirit.” Faitelson and the other Jewish partisans succeeded in saving themselves from the deportations, with strength, belief and dependability. Especially today, fifty years later [now already sixty years – A.F.], it is important to read and learn about these Jews who were sentenced to death in the ghetto, their heroism, their daring, their strength of spirit and soul…
Certainly, as they say, luck also played a part in that illusory atmosphere, beyond any limits, that prevailed in particular in the Ninth Fort.
It took place in 1943, when the Nazi hangmen already knew their war to be lost. The prisoners were working at that time digging up the dead Jewish victims from their graves and burning them, in order to erase the traces of their murder. Sixty-four starving prisoners in leg irons, chained to each other, beaten and dressed in rags, with no place to lay their heads, under heavy military guard, and under pressure of the threat that once their job was done they too would be put to death and buried, and others would be brought along to dig them up and burn them. One book is not long enough, and certainly not one newspaper article, to go into all the details. The facts are of the greatest historical significance. When the world is the way it is, then writers, artists – not only Jews – will have a source of material to create great and unforgettable works of art.
It is worth adding that the fact of the escape from the Ninth Fort was of significance to the Gestapo, who guarded and were responsible for the prisoners and their work – similar to the significance of the fall of Stalingrad, it put their lives at risk. The idea of the escape was led by the prisoner Alex Faitelson, aged all of twenty, a proud, intelligent and daring young man from Kovno. You look at him, today aged seventy, married (incidentally, his wife Sima followed the same route, with and without him – ghetto, forest, partisans), a father and grandfather. You look at him and do not believe your eyes: A living man? A miracle? A legend?
It is worth pointing out that even for the right to be a partisan, a freedom fighter among non-Jews, considerable Jewish blood was spilled by members of the partisans themselves, who tortured, with or without excuse, their Jewish comrades in arms against the Nazi murderer.
Alter’s words to one of the prisoners, who hesitated or feared to take part in the dangerous step of escaping the Ninth Fort, are interesting:
“How do you want to die? To be burned here, or with a weapon in your hand?”
For life was in any case not life. Faitelson came down on the side of the mission, the honor of the Jewish people, courage, for the sake of the lives of the next generations. He fought for the honor of the Jew and the Jewish people, being annihilated before his eyes in many different forms of death.
Faitelson speaks of others more than of himself, also mentioning the name of Chaim Yellin, a talented and very serious man, a Jew and a fighter. Everyone from Kovno, and not only from Kovno, speaks his name with respect because of his actions in the ghetto, the dangers he ran in organizing groups of Jews to go out to the forest. Thanks to his daring and fearless actions, in the complicated situation of the time inside and outside the ghetto, and his relations with “good” Lithuanians, dozens of Jews were saved. He himself did not survive, but died a hero’s death at the hands of the murderous Nazis. Chaim Yellin – man, friend, writer, fighter, beloved, loyal in his behavior and in his often fateful decisions.
The book is to be read in a single breath: it should be found in every home. After reading it, it is impossible to return to those irresponsible and false words: “They went like lambs to the slaughter."
The book is an important and weighty historic document of Jewish heroism and struggle, reminding us that “I shall not die but live," and that (or): “In their death, they commanded us to live."