Edwin Samuel discovered and translated this remarkable document—remarkable whether or not it is literally true in every detail (having been written, after all, by a child).
I found this document by chance during a visit in December of 1949 to the children’s village of Hadassim, on the main Tel Aviv-Haifa road, about an hour’s run from Tel Aviv itself. The village was established by the Canadian Hadassah Federation of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. My wife, who is chairman of the Palestine executive of the WIZO, asked me whether I would write something about the school for the press.
While being shown around the school, I was told by the headmistress, Mrs. Shapiro, of a boy now at the school who had had an extraordinary escape in Poland. He had remained alive only through having been hidden in a cupboard for five years by a Polish Gentile woman. This seemed to be something to write about; but the headmistress said that the boy himself—Ephraim—had already written about his “childhood” (he is only eleven years old now). I asked to see the record and, after looking through some old papers, she found a copybook on the outside of which, in straggling Hebrew letters, was written “What Happened to me in my Childhood—Ephraim Shtenkler.” Inside was the diary, written partly in ink and partly in pencil. It was not easy to decipher. After I heard it read aloud, it seemed to me such an extraordinary document that I decided nothing I would write myself about the village could possibly be as important.
So I sat down and translated it into English, trying as far as possible to preserve the archaic Biblical Hebrew in which the diary is written. The Hebrew spelling was erratic and had been corrected, presumably, by one of the teachers. But I have not attempted to reproduce the spelling mistakes—Edwin Samuel.
In Bialisk my family was rich and we also had a shop and life was pleasant. But when the Germans came, they took away the shop and drove us from town to town, as they did the other Jews of the Diaspora, until we came to Zvirdje. And in Zvirdje, they took a part for slaughter and a part they kept alive. Although my father, my mother, and I were in the part that was kept alive, my aunt was in the part that was due to be taken to slaughter. But she was saved, as we had a German acquaintance and my father asked him to arrange for my aunt to be transferred to our part and he spoke with the officer and they transferred my aunt to the part where we ourselves were. And the part that was taken for slaughter died and the part that they kept alive was given places in which to live and my father began to work again and we earned our bread. After some months the Germans came and made a ghetto: then my mother fell ill with a serious illness.
One day we heard that the Germans were coming and we broke through the walls of the ghetto and some escaped. And my father heard that they had broken through the walls of the ghetto and he took me and gave me to a certain Polish woman and said to her, “After the war I’ll come back and fetch my son.” And the Germans came to our house and my mother lay in bed and they said to her, “Get up!” And she said “How can I get up? I haven’t any strength left.” And they killed her in her bed and the neighbors heard of this and told my father and my father told it to the Polish woman, and the Polish woman, when she sent me away, told it to me.
And, meanwhile, when my father went with me to the Polish woman, he was delayed among our neighbors and I went by myself to the Polish woman. I don’t know what was said between my father and his friends, but the next day my father came and told me that they had killed my mother and murdered women and babies and that now the Germans were seizing those children that remained and were putting them into tarpaulin bags and putting them on the train in a closed wagon and there they were stifled. And my father said “It’s good that my only son doesn’t suffer as the other children suffer; but it’s bad that all the Jews suffer; for why are the Jews to blame?” The Polish woman kept silent, but nevertheless she didn’t like Jews and when my father had left she said “Damned Jew! When will you get out of here?“ and she knelt before the Virgin Mary.
On the day after I was hidden in the cupboard my father came again. He didn’t talk much. He only said “I’ll come every day at noon,” but those were the nicest words he spoke. And he really did come. Once he brought me a pocket knife and once he brought me a ball. And the Polish woman used to take all these things away from me and give them to her two daughters, one of whom was twelve and the other about sixteen. And my father used to come in silence every day.
One day my father didn’t come and on that day the Polish woman wanted to send me away, for she said “The child’s father doesn’t give me any money, so I’ll take him and hide him until he gets sick of it.” And she put me under the bed. Suddenly we heard a voice, steps, and a ring at the door. The Polish woman was pleased and opened the door and saw there a friend of my father’s and when she asked him, “Have you brought any news?” he said “I have,” and she said “Speak,” and he began to talk and said “That child of Shtenkler’s, I don’t know where he is.” And when I heard my family name, I peeped out and saw the Polish woman’s face was pale. So I understood that she was frightened, for she said “Is there anything else the matter?” as she wanted to change the subject. And he said, “There is,” and her face paled and she said “Speak,” and he said “Another damned Jew is dead.” So she asked “Who?” And he said “Mr. Shtenkler.” The Polish woman gaped. She didn’t close her mouth: She only closed the door in the man’s face and took me and flogged me with her husband’s belt, saying “I’ll drown you in the well this very day.”
In the end she saw that the Germans weren’t clearing out, so she was afraid that they might catch me and ask me where I’d been. She knew that then I’d say that it was she herself who had kept me and then they’d hang her and me. So she wanted me to break my heart so that I’d die and she could then tell the Germans that she had found me dead. But, to my luck, she didn’t succeed, for I was then a mere child and couldn’t understand what death was, so I wasn’t afraid of it.
Weeks and months and years passed and nothing happened. And I lay either in the cupboard or under the bed. One day, the elder daughter of the Polish woman came in in a panic and entered with a rush and threw open the door and said “Mother!” And the Polish woman, who was cooking, asked “What’s the matter?” “Mother! Mother!” shouted her daughter, “I saw a Hebrew mother and child who were walking hand in hand and a German told the child to let go of his mother’s hand and get into the bag. The mother began to plead with him and the fine German shot at the two interlocked hands and took the child and put him in the bag and put him in a wagon and the mother. . . .” And the girl stopped speaking. And the mother said “Why don’t you go on?” And she said, “I’m afraid that’s what’ll happen to you, Mother. In the name of the Virgin Mary and Jesus her son, won’t they punish us?” And she continued by saying, “And the mother he stabbed.” I was terrified. I was then already six years old and understood a good many things and thought that perhaps that’s what they did to my mother and I became as white as chalk. After the elder daughter had gone to play outside I wanted to cry, for I envied her. It was already three to four years that I hadn’t gone out of doors.
And so the years passed and nothing happened and I was already seven years old, but I didn’t know how to walk. And one day, when the war was nearly over, the Polish woman invited in a certain Jew who used to make woolen things—stockings, trousers, sweaters and so on. She thought that he would make her many sweaters, so she invited him in. And when I heard that someone had come I peeped out and in so doing shifted the bottles in the cupboard. He asked “What’s that?” I was terrified: I thought it was some German. And the Polish woman, who by this time really wanted to drown me in the well, said, “It’s a mouse!” Then he heard the noise again and asked again and she replied “A mouse” until eventually I peered out and he saw me. Then he got furious with her and said, “Why, that’s the son of my friend Mr. Shtenkler!” The Polish woman grew pale. And he took me to his house in the next street and asked me what I wanted to wear and I said “Clothes.” He laughed and said “Good!” He took out some stockings and a few sweaters and went to the market. I waited for him in his house. Eventually he came with a parcel in his hand. He took off my rags and dressed me in the sort of clothes one wears in this world.
After a day the acquaintance decided to look for a doctor who would treat me so that I could walk. So we got on the train and went to Katowitz. But all of a sudden a man came and spoke to him. In accordance with what he said, I was taken in another train and, like an arrow from the bow, the train flew along, straight to a children’s home. There they told him to wait a little. He waited patiently and in the end went into the office and telephoned and after a brief hour a doctor appeared, the one who actually did treat me.
Month after month passed until I learned to walk. It was hard for the doctor to treat me and for me to walk. After I knew how to walk not so badly, they took me to a place in the high mountains and taught me and some other children how to walk. The other children taunted me because I didn’t know how to walk properly. I used to walk with crooked legs: my feet were twisted backwards. The children hit me and did what they liked with me. The teachers didn’t protect me, so they taunted me.
So passed a whole month. One day they heard a ring on the telephone. This was a woman who had known my father. She wanted to take me away to her house; but this was not allowed as they were afraid that something might happen to my legs. Only after some time did they send me there. She was already waiting for me. She was pleased at my arrival—hale and well—and she took me to her house. There I spent some time. And on one occasion my father’s best friend came and took me to his house and, later, he took me to a children’s home. There I had a good time. Once, three acquaintances of my father’s came and told me things and gave candy to the children who were in the room. They told me that I was already a big boy and that I couldn’t stay any longer in this [children’s] home. And the three men took me and put me in the [youth] movement1 and I was there for a number of months. And the friend who was in the Polish Army thought of taking me away from there and took me for a day. And when he saw that there wasn’t any other place, he went with me to one of the nearby places and said to me, “Go and tell the headmistress that I’ll come back in the afternoon and talk with her.” And I went and told her that, and the headmistress said “Get out of here!” and chased me away with insolence. So I went to the market. There I met my acquaintance and told him about it. And he said, “Well then, come now,” and we went.
When we came she didn’t want to receive him and didn’t open the gate. So he told her that he’d put me into a rival [youth] movement. She screamed and shouted but nothing was of any use. For we had already got into a train; so we traveled along and came to the railway station. There we found a certain woman who was travelling to one of the places from which it was possible to go where I had to go. This was a children’s village in Poland. The place was lovely. There were woods and hills nearby: on one hill was a cemetery. And the time passed pleasantly.
I was there a long time. There the children didn’t tease me as they used to in the previous children’s home. Now I already knew how to walk. One day they asked which were the orphan children. I was among those children. Everyone wanted to know why they asked us this. Eventually we learned that we were going to be the first to go to Palestine. We were extremely glad. The children danced and sang. The next day all us orphan children got into a car and we rode to the railway station. We traveled in two groups to one of the places in Poland. Here something strange happened. We waited all night and the car didn’t turn up. Next day, every one was in a state of confusion. The day after that, they fetched the group that had traveled with us and told us to wait another couple of days. At the end of these two days a car came and fetched us. We traveled for many hours; and meanwhile I slept. Eventually we arrived. I heard shouts. There a small ship awaited us—I should rather say a large boat—and they put us all into it and we started off. And the boat rocked on the surface of the quiet waves. All of a sudden the boat heeled over to one side. All the things on the top fell off but by a miracle we were saved. There was a certain soldier there from the Russian Army. He knew what to do in moments like this. And the day passed and it grew darker, until night fell. We were sleeping and the soldier couldn’t sleep and went up on top and suddenly he saw something shining in the water. He pulled out his revolver and took his torch and looked and saw and behold there were mines in an enormous line! In that instant he let out a yell. At the sound of that shout we all woke up. The pilot wanted to take the boat on a detour around Berlin and thus was about to run into the mines. But the man with his revolver in his hand leapt straight down into the engine room. He broke through the hatch and jumped on top of the pilot. The pilot started back and thought—bandits! He sat himself down in front of the soldier and steered the boat over many, many kilometers to Berlin.
We were unhappy. I and several other of the children had some disease. We had to be in the hospital. The remaining children went to a school, played and jumped for joy and we stayed all the time in hospital for many days. This continued, and after these sad days we left the hospital. At that time all the children had gone to school and when they came back we weren’t allowed to go into their rooms: not only that, we were shut up in a special room. After three to four days we were allowed out with the other children. What a lot of games there were there! Endless! Many political parties too! There we used to go almost always to the movies. And during the performances, the Jews all used to cry. Even the grown-ups used to hide their faces in their coats.
It was clear that each youth movement hated the other. Occasionally a fight broke out with knives and sticks. They used to hand out terrible punishments there: for example, spending the whole night out on the balcony. After days of punishments and beatings for every little thing we left Berlin and came to a terrible place where every blow ended in a battle with knives and sticks as if they were gloves. In the end, when they saw that our movement was the quietest of the lot, they gave us a place that really took the prize for beauty—woods where there were terrible wild beasts. There each group was in its own house and they used to beat us for every stupid little attack on the other groups. The names of the groups were Trumpeldor, Nitzanim, Bar Kochba, Nishrim, Ariye. I was in the Trumpeldor group.
One fine day all us orphans set out for Palestine. They told us many tales then—endlessly. They woke us up at midnight and the car came in the morning. The car was like the chrysalis of a butterfly. Eventually we arrived at one of the camps. The next day we traveled and went on and on without end. But I remember that finally we came by train to France. I don’t remember the journey. It was for three days and three nights. And from France we went on board a ship and on the ship no one suffered from seasickness. And when we came to Palestine we were obliged every one of us to hold on to all the bits of paper, even to the numbers of our rooms. One of our group was a boy—Isaiah Zelik—and he put all his papers on one of the benches, and if it hadn’t been for one of our teachers, Moshe, he would have gone back to Germany.
How excited we were when at last we were assembled on parade and disembarked from the ship! And we came to Ahuza—the children’s village on Mount Carmel and from there to the children’s village at Hadassim. And after some time more children arrived.
One day I received a letter from one of the women in Canada:
I found your name in the Jewish Emigration Department and I want to know who you are. You bear the same family name as I do. Where do you come from and who were your parents? Write everything that you can remember and thus we can prove whether you are of my family. Do you remember the name of your grandfather? Write to me all you can remember. If you are one of my relatives, I will write to you about myself. Write quickly.
At that time, I was given a piece of paper and this was written on it:
Women’s International Zionist Organization, Children’s Village, Hadassim.
21 St. January 1949
To the Director General of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
P.O.B. 640, Jerusalem
Subject: The Child Ephraim Shtenkler
In reply to your letter No. 18871/40/1 of 22/12/18 we have to give you particulars of the above-mentioned child and of his family. The child’s name is Ephraim Shtenkler, born in Bialisk. Father’s name Jacob: mother’s name Bilha. Only child. The child is ten and a half years old. He was in the hands of Poles in Zvirdje from the age of two to the age of seven. After the Russian occupation, a certain Jew came and took him and put him in a children’s home. The name of his father and mother he learned from a friend of his father’s in the Polish Army. These are the details known to the child. We shall be very grateful if you will be good enough to inform us if nevertheless any of the child’s relatives are traced.
The Children’s Village.
About a month after that letter came, I found my uncle.2 How delighted the whole village was!
But everyone tells the story differently. One says that my uncle came to me and inquired.
Once I told several of the children all this and it was they who suggested that I should write all this down.
1 The reference here, and subsequently, is to the Jewish youth groups that are affiliated to various Jewish political parties.
2 The uncle mentioned here was a skilled building worker who had gone to many of the immigrant camps looking for Ephraim. By sheer coincidence, he had been engaged to do some repair work in the school and asked his usual question “Is there any boy here called Ephraim?” And so the two were rejoined.—E. S.