As his parents were being murdered in Auschwitz, the five year old Ephraim Shtinkler-
Gatwould end up spending two years imprisoned inside a coat-closet in a Polish family’s apartment.
It was in that closet that he ate, drank, grappled with lice and breathed naphthalene – all without
so much as coughing or sneezing or uttering a single word. He slept with his knees curled up in
a sitting position. Whole days and nights he would spend in the dark, motionless, taking in the
conversations outside his little sanctuary, listening to the family exchange words with SS agents who
would exterminate him within the span of seconds if they but discovered him. These weren’t healthy
conditions for a five year old’s development, to say the least. Our estimate is that most children
could not survive in such circumstances, and that those who could would remain forever tortured.
Most families who risked their lives hiding Jewish children lived in crowded
conditions, often sharing a single room with friends, relatives and neighbors. The child, a
fugitive from Nazi justice, would usually be kept a secret even from most of these coinhabitants,
as most of them would otherwise have run straight to the Gestapo for sheer bigotry and material gain. Today, there’s hardly a father or a grandfather who would believe that Ephraim sat still and silent over the course of those two years.
I could hardly believe my own ears when Ephraim recounted his story. As we sat together in my kitchen in 2005, on a tempestuous winter night, I searched for any sign of a wounded and tortured soul, the kind I would have expected from the war veterans I’d written about all these years. But I found nothing of the kind. Instead, his casual smile evoked something entirely different –
He learned the precise date when his mother was sent to the gas chambers when he visited the camp in later years.
As if Hadassim had reduced his childhood trauma to an amusing memory. If this is what
happened, I thought to myself, our school’s success had indeed been unparalleled.
Ephraim came with the first eight Holocaust children in August, 1947. It was for
them that WIZO celebrated the founding of Hadassim on Normandy. “It was worth the effort just for him,” Helena Glazer, president of World WIZO told us after reading this chapter in her Tel Aviv office. As she turned page after page, she kept whispering “Unbelievable, unbelievable…” as she wiped tears off her face. And there were many like him to arrive at Hadassim. He was a pale, blond child with brown eyes and Slavic features – handsome, in short – who seemed to have emotionally
distanced himself from his past, who seemed ready to embrace life (“we have everything to look forward to!”). It might have been his DNA, it might have been the closet that been his abode, and it was probably also the immediate influence of Rachel and Jeremiah’s educational ideology, which encouraged us to embrace the future. He was alive by dint of his hair color and facial features, by dint of a Polish family’s superstition -- that Jesus had commanded them to save a Jewish boy at their doorstep from certain death. He remained alive by sheer discipline and plenty of luck.
It occurred to me that luck – or fate, more precisely – was the name of the game
that God had played with us in the years 1939-1945. Though Einstein could never accept
notion that “God plays dice with the universe,” it became clear in the middle of the 20th
century that our maker was doing just that – with a vengeance. The Holocaust finally ended for Ephraim when he was seven years old, parentless, illiterate, his childhood so far eviscerated. Yet he had gained incomparable survival insights. He’d conversed with spiders, learning the lessons of endurance from them, learning to depend on his own mind, to ignore open wounds and not to scratch the scarred-over ones. Hadassim taught him to let the scars go.
Avinoam Kaplan was his first instructor. The first time Kaplan met with the eight
children he showed them a bunch of small animals, pulling them out of his pockets one
by one, including spiders. “These are my best friends,” Ephraim yelled out, and Kaplan
chuckled because he thought the boy was making some kind of a joke. Kaplan would
later tell us that he loved Ephraim as a son, and this is also one of Hadassim’s miracles:
teachers were to their students as parents.
While we were serving in a paratrooper unit together, I once asked Ephraim how
he survived the Holocaust.
“That’s a long story,” he answered.
“Well, I have time.”
“Then use it for more constructive things.”
“Like what, for instance?”
“To make plans for your vacation.”
While we were growing up together, Ephraim thought it better not to tell his story,
that there were more “productive” things to be getting on with. Now, at the age of 68, his
edge softened a bit, he was more willing to explore his earliest trials. I was so grateful
that I wanted to hug him, but I was afraid that even that would cut the conversation off
Who would have believed that this Holocaust orphan could serve in one of the
finest battalions, that he could spill blood with his brothers in ‘67 and ‘73, that he would
go on to take a bachelor’s in chemistry and biology and master’s in botany (in Kaplan’s
footsteps), that he would then study computer science and attain a senior position within
the sophisticated Israeli aviation industry? It was men like Ephraim, born of the
Holocaust but bred in Hadassim, that allowed the Israeli state to endure the multiple
threats against her.
After our first interview with him, we called him to go over certain details
regarding his childhood survival. “How are you doing?” We asked.
“Couldn’t be better!”
Was he exaggerating? Was it possible he was merely hiding behind psychological fortifications? To our eyes, Ephraim had always embodied the “nice Israeli” archetype. We asked him how Hadassim had helped him, how he made the transition to the “normal” Israeli persona. “We came into an atmosphere where the past was dead, where we were now reborn in our true homeland. Almost nothing was said in Hadassim about the “thing” that happened. During the Holocaust, everything was forbidden (except some very limited things) but in Hadassim everything was permitted (except that which was forbidden). So almost overnight we found ourselves in unadulterated freedom, something that even normal children rarely experience. That freedom neutralized the otherwise inevitable compulsions and fears -- of the unknown, of trying new things – that children of our
backgrounds would have. Unfortunately not many other survivors were so lucky. The
nurturing and encouragement we received at the get-go from our first counselor, Malka
Kashtan, helped us a great deal.”
It is astounding, and telling of Hadassim’s magic, that a Tel-Avivian bourgeoisie
accustomed to thrice-weekly hair-treatments from her mother became a mother in her
own right to these eight Polish children. Her care taught them that it was possible to
bond with fellow human beings, something they’d never learned in all their constant
dislocations before and after the war. Malka also looked after us, the native Israelis, for a
whole year, and was able to give many of those with troubled family backgrounds –
Gideon Ariel, Asher Barnea, Shula Druker, Esther Korkidi and others – the same level of
care and psychological security. The dialogic educational concept was given a personal
dimension through her. Sadly, at the age of eighty-four, her daily routine is now sealed
waits for her own death. We sense, with heavy hearts, that her kindnesses have gone
Ephraim was born in 1938, in the city of Bielsko-Biala in West Galicia – the birth-place of Arthur Schnabel, the same Jewish pianist whose performance of the “Phoenix” Beethoven sonata so enraptured us on that magical Tikun Leil Shavuot night.
Dr. Michael Berkowtiz, an assistant of Theodor Herzl and the Hebrew translator of his
book Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), was a high-school religion instructor in
Bielsko-Biala in the years 1911-1934. He was one of the main transmitters for the Herzl
Effect on Judaism , and his influence in the city is crucial to understanding the story of
The city of Bielsko-Biala was a fusion of two elements divided by the Biala River. Jews had settled there from the 17th century; their population had exceeded 4000 by WWII, and Zionism had flourished there since the end of the 19th century. Besides Arthur Schnabel, other well-known Jews native to the city included Zelma Kurtz, one of the more renowned European Divas tutored under Gustav Mahler’s baton in the Vienna State Opera; Herman Freishler, director of the Vienna Volksoper; and Jan Smeterlin, another accomplished pianist and Chopin interpreter. Thus, before the war Bielsko-Biala was a city of great culture, its high cosmopolitan threshold touching on the life of Jews and Poles equally, rich and poor. The baby Ephraim breathed it all in despite his modest
roots (his father was a blacksmith) and working-class heritage – a heritage that proved
potent indeed when it came time for him to survive in that wretched closet.
The Germans conquered the region encompassing Bielsko-Biala on the third day
of the war, and two weeks later they had already burned the synagogues and looted the
Jewish shops. Ephraim was the only child of Yaakov and Sara. He has only one genuine memory of the town: his father walking along with him as he showed him how to ride a bike. In 1941, his family
moved to Zawiercie to live with his grandfather. Ephraim remembers the train-ride – the depressed
passengers, their terror-stricken eyes longing to be both invisible and blind. The Shtinklers resided in the Jewish quarter of Zawiercie. In 1942 the Jewish quarter was converted into a ghetto, a kind of prelude to extermination, whose inhabitants needed permission to exit. Luckily Yaakov, a resourceful
and self-sufficient man who by now owned his own smithy in the Polish worker’s quarter, had such
permission. He’d also befriended the Novak’s, a family that lived above his workshop, and did many of their house repairs for free. He told them all about his sharp-witted and lively young son.
Ephraim’s father dedicated all his energy to save him. The Novak’s had fallen in love with the boy before they even met him. Ephraim would soon learn that life and death can hinge on the power of the tongue at these moments. Ephraim told us his first memory of the Ghetto:
“My father and I were directed to one group, my mother to another, with a road separating the two. My mother was chosen for the group that was to be exterminated. But she found the strength to approach one of the officers and ask to be allowed to join us and live, and he agreed, though it was probably a one in a million chance that he did. Mother got an extension on her life, while the others were sent away to be swallowed up by the earth. Not everything in life is black or white; there are hues of grey and dark brown, and in hell the grey stands for light and brown can mean salvation.”
His second memory: “We lived on the ground floor in the Ghetto. I remember lying on the bed, surrounded by chairs to prevent me from falling or bother my mom while she was doing house cleaning. I heard her washing the floors and singing in Polish, ‘All the fish are sleeping in the lake, though you are still awake…’ To this day I hum that song, always picturing her luminous face. As she kept cleaning I imagined to myself that she was a queen and that we would soon fly off back to King Boris’ palace.” “Why didn’t your parents try to rebel?” We asked. “I can’t really answer for my parents, but the kids were mesmerized by the soldiers’ obvious power, their imposing and always neatly-ironed uniforms, their organization and efficiency. They commanded, and everyone obeyed instinctively.” “So the German were allowed to murder and people did nothing? How could you
let that happen?” “All of us, the ‘good’ kids, we all believed that if we could do what was demanded of us they would keep us alive. We felt guilty, like we had all done something wrong; we never thought of hurling stones at them the way the Palestinians do today – we lacked that sense of justice, the kind that motivates you for action. Guilt only allows for resignation. We felt guilty, so we were powerless – and they were strong.”
I’ve always asked myself: Who is to blame for the inherent weakness that allowed
for the Jews to be eaten alive? What could bring on a sense of guilt that would let the Nazis destroy with impunity? And the answer: Jewish leaders, ever busy poring over the Torah and raising capital, had deserted their communities and come to Israel to build and be built up into a nation-state. In that dire moment of history, European Jewry needed the right leadership to fight guiltlessly and ferociously. Thus, what was tantamount to mass suicide was both the price of Judaism and of Zionism. The occupation zones were unlikely sources of rebellion in any case, given the general anti-Semitism of the native residents, who were at the very least going to be unwitting participants in the slaughter. They would neither assist any uprising nor lift a finger to deter the Germans from brutal
retaliation, nor admit too many Jews into their partisan (resistance) fold in the surrounding forests.
On the other hand, there were many individual acts of rebellion, many of them life-saving. Ephraim’s life was preserved by such a rebellion, by his father’s. Shevach Weiss, Metuka and Alex Orlander, Eliza Bar-Shwartzwald and Moshe Fromin were all promised a new life in Israel by such rebellions.
In August 1943, there were six thousand Jews in the Zawiercie Ghetto. The Germans eventually sent everyone they could get their hands on to Auschwitz, among them Rabbi Shlomo Rabinovitch, the last great rabbi of the town. Rumors of the liquidation began to spread the day before, specifically that the Germans were going to be killing a certain number of the children.
Yaakov acted quickly to save his son. His own, quiet rebellion called for him to enlist his new Polish friends. Franchise Novak agreed to send his two daughters Rosalia and Wislava out to the Ghetto’s border at a pre-arranged time, where they would pretend to busy themselves in games and wait for Ephraim. Once they recognized him, in his prearranged clothes, it was
simply a matter of letting him into the game as casually as possible. Then they slowly moved back toward the workshop, careful not to alert any of the policemen – just two little girls and an even younger boy, strolling and giggling innocently together. It was a simple plan, and it worked brilliantly.
While the girls climbed back up to their apartment, Ephraim locked himself inside the smithy, where the darkness was complete. He sat on a lathe and softly hummed his mother’s song about the little fish sleeping in the lake, thinking of his parents as knight and queen. The Novak felt so much pity for the five year old, immersed in machinery and dust, that they risked their own lives sneaking him up the serpentine stairway up to their apartment. “There are Christians who want the Jews to suffer for the murder of Jesus, and then there are those who wish them salvation. The Novak’s belonged to the second group,” Ephraim told us. The day after, when Yaakov confirmed that his son was alright, he decided to find somewhere even safer for him and asked the Novak’s to keep him for another 24 hours. Unfortunately, Yaakov didn’t know at that point that he didn’t have 24 hours: the Germans chose the same day for their “liquidation,” and Yaakov and Sara Shtinkler were both sent to Auschwitz. Only eight Jews remained in the Zawiercie Ghetto, two of them children. Ephraim was one of them.
The entrance to the Novak’s house was through the kitchen, which led to the sparsest living room. The only bathrooms were in the courtyard, and since there weren’t any showers everyone was obliged to wash themselves in a large bucket. The living room had enough room for one bed (and a closet), for the parents, Franchisek and Genovepa, and two of the girls, while Genovepa’s mother
and her dwarf sister slept in the kitchen. So besides me, kindly relegated to the eighty centimeters in the closet, there were six people altogether. I knew very well that the Germans would kill me in an instant, that I had to keep quiet even to the point of repressing the dimmest sneeze or cough, that the neighbors who strolled in day and night could just as easily turn everyone over to the authorities.
That sustained condition dictated the next two years for me and my tiny capsule, disconnected from day and night. Still, I began to experience something akin to meditation, without either boredom or anxiety; I stopped asking when all of this would end, when evening or the next meal would come. Regardless, I was very attentive to all the goings-on in the apartment. I tensed up whenever I heard a strange voice, or whenever a neighbor came by, and I kept as silent as mouse. None of that had to be explained to me. I was only allowed to relieve myself at night, when I would be rushed out of the closet to get cleaned up and then pushed back inside just as quickly. On one occasion, they’d taken me out to treat me for lice, when there was a sudden knock on the door that
sent me back into the closet trembling and naked. Wislava threw herself into the bucket in my place, tearing her clothes off just in time for the neighbor to stroll in complaining about being made to wait in the hallway.
As far as I was concerned, this situation could have gone on forever.
Franchisek took seriously ill after a short while, and no amount of cupping his chest with hot glasses could help him without any other available level of care. He lay dying on the bed surrounded by candlelight for four days, and I kept breathlessly still in my little closet space as all manner of friends and neighbors came in to say their goodbyes. Without a breadwinner, it was left to Rosalia and
Wislava to support the family, including me. So everyday they marched to the nearby village, where they could get milk and eggs for cheap and then sell them back for a profit in town. As young as they were, they still kept quiet about me –even with their closest friends.
Two months before the Russian occupation, the Nazis appropriated the living room for two of its officers, and the family was moved into the kitchen, where I soon joined them -- covered by the sliver of cloth that hung around the dinner table. I sat there day and night on a low bench, where I could gaze at the officers’ feet as they took their meals. As Russian soldiers replaced Germans, Ephraim was finally allowed out of the closet. He was every bit as illiterate as the mythical boys
raised by Roman wolves, yet he still had the gleam in his eye of his native city’s culture, one that remained with him always. Genovepa, now a widow, smuggled him to her sisterin-law’s in a nearby town for two weeks. The Novak’s were afraid they had taken too great a risk even with their
neighbors’ lives, though Ephraim was now well-versed in the proper Christian prayers and rituals and could probably pass for a common Polish boy.
He was now seven years old. After another several months, Genovepa met another Jewish survivor, a factory owner, and told him about the boy she had hidden for two years. When he came to visit, the man suggested that they send Ephraim to a Jewish orphanage, and the boy was soon traveling the escape routes, stopping in one of the refugee camps (where he briefly met Shevach Weiss) on the way to the children’s camp in Furten, Germany. There, one of the instructors, Masha Zarivetch, promised him that he would soon “reach Eretz Israel and be reborn in a new paradise.”
Masha and Eizik Zarivetch eventually came to live in Hadassim. On our first Holocaust Memorial Day, Eizik told us all about life at the Furten camp, and one of the other sabras (native Israelis) remarked, “So the Holocaust wasn’t so bad, then.” To which Eizik replied, “Furten was heaven compared to what this boy had to endure,” nodding toward Ephraim. He turned to him and asked if hemight tell his story. Ephraim looked up at him and went deathly silent.
Elisa Shwartzwald-Bar was one of the orphans to arrive with the first eight children to Hadassim. She was born in 1938 in Lvov, the capital of Galicia,4 known as a “Paragon of Beauty” in Jewish parlance. Jews had been in Lvov since the 13th century; there were 150,000 of them there – a full third of the city’s population – up until the Holocaust. When the war erupted, the Soviet Union annexed the city to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine and took freely of its possessions, while the Germans would end up taking the rest when they came in July of 1941.
Elisa was the single daughter of a wealthy and established merchant family; she was two years old when the Germans occupied the city. As she recounts her first memory of it, “the Germans burst into the house and tore all the pictures out of their frames, tossing everything into chaotic
piles and marking a bold X on every item worth looting.” The family was thrown into the Ghetto in November, 1941, and from that day her father, Randolph, did everything he could to save her. For anyone who would doubt that a two year old girl could remember these things, we answer that no
one was left to recount them to her: her parents and remaining close family were exterminated to the last man. Elisa would go on to spend twelve years in Hadassim. “Hadassim’s strength owed itself to people’s immense energies, far more than the usual, in every field.” As she put it to us, remembering back fifty years, “They invested everything they had in us –they didn’t hold back, they were absolutely reckless about it –and asked nothing in return. They poured all their strength into
us. Life in a boarding school can be like that, it can serve as a social laboratory for collective action. The combination of that commitment with that environment had an indelible effect on us.”
After graduating from a teachers’ seminary in Hadassim, Elisa went on to do a bachelors in Bible Studies and Literature and then a master’s in education at the Hebrew University. Today she works at the Council for the Sheltered Child in Israel, helping to rehabilitate some 550 children of broken homes, ages K-3, 92% of whom passed exams in reading and math with better scores than the current 8th grade national averages. “The Current capital of Eastern Ukraine only relative I have left, a very distant one, used to tell me I’d end up as a seamstress. But for Hadassim, he could easily have been proven right.”
Elisa remembers: “Part of our family was smuggled out of the Ghetto to live with a Polish family. They’d received a handsome sum from my father in exchange for housing us, but the
neighborhood Ukrainians, even more than the Germans, were always spying after families that sheltered Jews, were always suspicious that someone buying extra groceries could be a Jew-lover. So eventually the Poles threw us out, and we scattered about the town at night, my aunt Berta and I, knocking on doors and looking for shelter. For a while no one would let us in, and with fear ruling the streets, my aunt, in an act of desperation, left me behind in one of the back rooms of the house we’d been thrown out of. Fortunately, our Polish hosts discovered me in the morning and decided to keep me anyway. They were too devout to get rid of me. Father would send them more money
from time to time, and eventually they saw that they could keep me openly – I was blond,
had blue eyes and spoke Polish well enough, so it was easy for them to pretend I was
their granddaughter.” “Father made a few rare, nightly visits, always bringing more money and
occasionally leaving me brief notes. One of them read: ‘Remember that your name is
Elisa Shwartzwald, a Jew. Tell no one, but always remember.’ We lost contact toward the end of the war, and I assume he was probably caught and murdered. “During that period of shelter, I learned all the Christian practices and accompanied my hosts to church. They even gave me their surname, though I can’t remember it today. The only friends I had were the few mice who would eagerly await
my daily portion of yellow bread. I used to hide the leftovers underneath the sofa in the bedroom, then lie in the dark and listen to them twitter about underneath as they ate it up.
gardens, the wonderful pea pods and poppies. The Germans came to the house from time to time, but never suspected I could be a Jew. I was still very afraid, of the planes and bombs, of the secret I had to carry with me that I hardly even understood.” Only eight thousand remained of the original 150,000 Jews of Lvov after the German occupation. The rest were dispensed with in the Janovsky and Belzec death camps. Belzec was one of the three extermination camps that were part of the
framework for the Reinhardt Operation (together with Treblinka and Sobibor), where at
least half a million of Jews were murdered. When the occupation had ended, Elisa’s caretakers kept expecting someone to come for her, but they waited in vain. Despite everything, they’d never really bonded with her; it was clear they had tended to her from religious and material motives. Now they were desperate to escape west, away from the Soviet occupied zones, so they sent Elisa to the Jewish community center where most of the effort to reunite families was concentrated.
So there she was, a six year old girl sitting alone, listening to reams of Yiddish gibberish passing wildly from one pathetic face to another, waiting politely for someone in the crowd to recognize her. Finally, a woman came to her and asked, “Can you give me any names of relatives? Any name you can think of.” Elisa gave her one name that was familiar, ‘Mandel,’ and the lady sent a note on her behalf to the family listed under that name. Elisa’s Polish caretaker took her to their address in the city, and as luck would have it they identified her immediately. That was the last Elisa saw of her Polish hosts.
The Mandels were distant relatives, and they gladly adopted her. Curiously, she
continued to attend church in secret. When they asked where she was spending that time,
she told them she’d gone out to play. They had their own suspicions after a while, though, and one day when she gave the same alibi they laughed and said, “Nah, you were seen in church, kneeling at Mary’s feet and praying to the icons! Don’t you know you’re Jewish? You don’t have to go there anymore.” Soon enough, the Mandels were off wandering through Poland themselves to escape from the Soviets. They finally stopped at Lignitz, where Elisa met Metuka. Sixty years later, the little blond Jewish girl who knelt at Mary’s feet in a Polish church is a senior officer of Israel’s ducational system -- another Hadassim miracle.