“VESTI” - An Echo of the Catastrophe
November 22, 2001
Writer and publicist
THE SECOND ESCAPE
Amongst the many memoirs (and fiction and poetry), which are regularly published in the mighty, great Russian language in different publications in Israel, from time to time one comes across one or another book which is able to attract the attention not just of close relatives, brothers-in-arms and acquaintances of the author, but merits the recognition of a wider readership. Such an outstanding literary event in the eyes of a majority of readers and critics was, undoubtedly, Margolin’s In the Land of Zek, which opened the eyes of many outside the “evil empire” long before Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Margolin’s book revealed the monstrous camps, which had been so carefully concealed, the inhuman nature of the communist regime. Stern judges (not those like Beria, but those who comprehend the sense of literary endeavors) to this very day are united in their praise of the literary and perceptive achievements of Margolin in his memoirs.
But this time, the escape from the realm of the Zek was not out of Russia, but from Lithuania, occupied between 1941-1944 by Fascist Germany, no less evil and merciless as the Soviet “empire of evil." The tireless Alex (Alter) Faitelson has dedicated to this theme his more than six hundred-page account. A former prisoner of the cells of the Ninth Fort of sad memory, built and armored long ago in Kaunas in the days of the Napoleonic wars.
This is a completely original work. Neither thematically, nor in the manner in which it is set out, nor its architectonics does it follow the deeply perceptive memoirs of Margolin. Having matured over decades, filled with unarguable witness accounts, it will become, as I hope it will, as much of an event in the memorial literature, as that bitter work which sears the soul, In the Land of Zek, by his late fellow countryman.
It is very likely that Alex Faitelson did not have to ponder long over the title of his book on which he worked, uninterruptedly, all his conscious life – even when the chances of escaping the Fascist hell were slim for him and his comrades, when his hand was more likely to reach out for a rifle than pen and paper. Perhaps that’s why he gave it the simple name (not bothering with catchy titles), The Unconquered. Perhaps that’s why he found it necessary, because of what happened to him and his comrades at first in the ghetto, then within the walls of the Ninth Fort and even later, when they were free, to strengthen that title with the ambitious subtitle giving other promises, “A Chronicle of the Jewish Resistance.”
Neither more nor less: “A Chronicle of the Jewish Resistance." And this is written, it would appear, without the addition of the necessary limitation – “in Lithuania." As a matter of fact, such a title initially represents a problem. So that is what he is getting at! Could one person possibly, even one who participated in the heroic struggle against Fascism, one with undoubted research abilities and, oh joy, gifted with writing ability, could such a person really cover such a boundless territory? Will the courageous author cope on his own with such a vast topic, requiring an entire collective? After all, no matter how hard one tries to cover what is boundless, it cannot be done – Jews resisted the inhuman species throughout the whole of Eastern and Central Europe, not just in such a tiny clutch of land, drenched in our blood, as Lithuania.
But the more I read the book in detail, the closer I looked at the personalities who were active not just symbolically, but functioned directly, gun in hand, the more I learned about the heroes, not literary figures, but real people, who made history, and who in their lifetime (and here I have to bring in Alex Faitelson himself) or in death entered history, and not through the author’s imagination. No figment of the imagination, but history with all the rascals, traitors, including our own fellow-countrymen, Jewish policemen, those who worked for the Judenrat, agents of the Gestapo who ended up amongst the inhabitants of the ghetto. The deeper I penetrated the environment in which the cogs of hellish mass destruction ceaselessly turned, not just Lithuanian citizens but Jews, citizens of other nations subjugated by the Hitlerite invaders of their countries, the more I became convinced that the author was coping successfully with the aim he had set himself and he had every right to bring out as a subtitle the high-sounding notion of a 'Chronicle.' Because the heroic resistance against Fascism on the part of Lithuanian Jewry, the prisoners of the Kaunas ghetto, and in particular the courageous escape of those condemned to die in the unassailable Ninth Fort serve as an example. Faitelson, scrupulously, and in rare detail, revealed the mechanism of growing Resistance, described as a model of how the repulse was made and the struggle carried out by Jews against the Fascist beasts throughout the continent of Europe. Faitelson’s book extends well beyond its geographical framework. Basing itself on the facts of Lithuanian reality, in essence it does not confine itself to Lithuania. The problems set out and the value of the book
are not exhausted either by the thrilling plot in which a handful of prisoners, the so-called “corpse-burners," escaped from confinement. Like any unusual book, The Unconquered is independent of its genre, but carries within itself a charge of meaning which has a great generalized force. Faitelson relates not just the horrors which were undergone by innocent people under inhuman circumstances, but disperses the myth of Jewish humility and cowardice, of the inborn Jewish inability to stand up against force, of the herd syndrome, so that all Jews could do was bleat piteously when driven to the slaughter, a myth that comes from our enemies and those who are badly disposed against us.
Faitelson’s passionate and uncompromising book, despite the wealth of archival material gathered in it from many countries, is not a dry academic treatise, though a great deal of interest has been shown towards it by Jewish and non-Jewish historians researching the Holocaust. Previous editions, though translated into Hebrew, English, French, German and Lithuanian, are not as complete as this one, and yet have rightfully evoked the critical acclaim of specialists. Let me produce just one example (an excerpt from a letter) from the pen of the well-known journalist Abe Grossman: “Such a book on the Catastrophe I have not yet read. Lithuanian Jewry owes you a great debt of gratitude. I can imagine how much of your own health has been the price of gathering this information and writing this soul-searing account. You have done for Lithuanian Jewry what Solzhenitsyn did for the Russian people.”
Yes, there aren’t that many such books, such books, with such content about the Catastrophe, nor can it be denied that Alex Faitelson’s services to Lithuanian Jews (and I add from myself, not just Lithuanian) are considerable. But of compliments and services he never thought. He felt the need to bequeath to the world a truthful, well-documented and unassailable testimony about the evil work of the Fascists and their Lithuanian supporters, whose zealousness at times exceeded the evil zeal of the invaders; an account not only of the courage and heroism of those of his own age, who defeated death, but of his own youth, his first love, of keeping faith with his own ideals – ideals of freedom and humanism, national equality and mutual understanding. There is no doubt that Faitelson has built a memorial to the bravest of the brave, the Maccabees of the twentieth century. He did all he could to ensure that not one of them will be forgotten and nothing will be forgotten. It must be said frankly, that all those of us who have undergone the harsh ordeal of the war, as well as those who have not been scorched by it, are lucky in having three separate characteristics come together in the person of Alex Faitelson: a fearless warrior, a penetrating and persistent researcher, and a very gifted writer-publicist. For many years he assiduously cultivated and seeded with fresh details and particulars which would not let him rest, such as the state of the world and the eternal subject of the struggle of good vs. evil. It has to be said that Faitelson developed and mastered this without letting himself be swayed by the opinions of others or by other authorities. As they used to say in Soviet times, without the velvet glove, not in accordance with the dictates of higher ideological authority, not in accordance with the drawbacks of what was correct on the day. He developed, deepened, enriched his book with the same militant zeal, with the sacrifice and courage with which, sixty years ago, he made preparations for the escape from the Ninth Fort – from inevitable death to a worthy life.
Figuratively speaking, having written his most important book, written out of his own sufferings, he completed the second escape of his life – an escape from that hell known as the repression of memory. And together with him, this escape was carried out by all those who appear in the pages of the book – those still living and those who have passed on to the next world, those who were at one with him in thought and deed, opponents and enemies, all those whom he describes in detail or only in passing (in words kind or unkind) in his unique and full work, deserving laurels. And what, in my opinion, is most important, together with him and all those who people The Unconquered, there fled from the repression of memory (equalled only by spiritual suicide), we, too, grateful contemporary readers of Alex Faitelson, having been given an opportunity to visit the past, something informative but painful.
One would like to believe that representatives of the younger generation who, alas, are not known to be great readers and fans of literature of this sort, will occasionally prefer to escape from escapist literature and destructive ignorance to the sources which enrich soul and memory, to imbibe the stories of our martyrs and heroes, laid up in store by Alex Faitelson for the brave and those who could not be defeated. For he continues to struggle with evil, which never passes.