'I don't have the power of forgiveness in the name of 6m people'
THE HOLOCAUST, so often talked and written of, can remain an abstract concept until you meet someone who went through it. There are few survivors left, but, on a recent visit to Dublin, Yaakov Barzilai exuded vigour at the age of 79.
Now living in Israel, he was born in 1933 – “the most cursed year of the cruellest century, the year Hitler came to power” – in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, where, as Pal Eisner, he lived with his sister, Judith, his mother, Iren, and his father, Imre, a tailor.
Hungary was then living under the regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy. Although the central European state was one of the Axis powers in the second World War, doubts about its loyalty led Hitler to invade in March 1944.
The notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of exterminating its 800,000-strong Jewish community. The Jews in Barzilai’s home town were herded on to three trains, two bound for Auschwitz, the other for Vienna. Barzilai’s mother, whom he describes as a family angel, opted for the train to Austria, and the family got on board, along with Barzilai’s grandfather.
They avoided certain death in Auschwitz, but their circumstances were harrowing. “We were all squeezed into a cattle car, parents and children, the elderly and the sick,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. There was no water or fresh air, and the only toilet was a single bucket. “The stink that was in the air was indescribable.” When the train finally arrived in Vienna “all the living and the dead spilled out”.
The family were sent to work for a farmer, but Barzilai’s grandfather was elderly, his father very ill and his sister only four years old. “We were not productive enough, and we were declared parasites,” he says.
They were sent away after five months, in the same cattle train but this time bound for Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “There were about 120 people in the same cattle car, and it was in October. It was very, very cold. Some of the people died on the trip. There was no train station in Bergen-Belsen, so we had to walk 5km to the camp.”
His mother carried his father through the gates, as anyone who stopped to rest got shot. Within a few days his father died in the arms of Barzilai’s mother, from heart failure, a collapsed lung and high blood pressure, at the age of 42. “There was a shed [toilet] outside the block where we lived, and my father, who had severe diarrhoea, couldn’t walk, so my mother carried him back and forth from the shed to the block, and he died on the way.” His grandfather, Mihaly, died a week later.
Boys about Barzilai’s age would break into the food warehouse at the camp and steal provisions, mostly beetroot. When they were caught the children were hanged in front of the other inmates. When she saw the boys swinging from the gallows Barzilai’s little sister – now living in Israel – thought she was in a playground and got very upset when her mother refused to “take her to the swings”.
Shortly before British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen, Barzilai and his mother and sister were taken away in a convoy of three trains that were intended to be sunk, with their passengers, in the River Elbe. Even though the guards knew the war was lost, and the arrival of the Allied forces imminent, the camp guards continued killing. “The Germans kept on killing as many Jewish people as they could. They used any method that they had, and it’s just amazing that they didn’t try to cover their sins. The most important thing for them to do was to kill more Jewish people till the last day, and this is something that is very shocking.”
The date was April 13th, 1945. The trains were being driven back and forth in an effort to avoid detection by the Allied forces and find a place to sink the carriages in the river. Finally the train halted, and the terrified passengers could see through cracks in the carriages that the guards were changing into civilian clothes. The train doors were opened, but the frightened inmates dared not get out. Then a tank appeared on a nearby hill, followed by a second and a third, flying the Stars and Stripes. “We ran up the hill to kiss the tanks’ chains and to smother the American soldiers with our love.”
After the war Barzilai took a ship to Israel. He changed his name as soon as he got off it. “Eisner is metal, which is my name in Hebrew.” He took the first name Yaakov (Jacob) at the same time.
It would be many years before Barzilai, now a prominent writer, returned to Germany. The occasion was a reading of his poetry at the site of Bergen-Belsen, in 2010. (He was in Dublin with his wife, Malca, to help mark the centenary of the birth of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of many thousands of Jewish people in Hungary during the second World War – and later perished in one of Stalin’s concentration camps.)
He cannot forgive past crimes against Jews. “There are German youth groups that come to Israel, and at one of the lectures a 17- or 18-year-old young man asked me, ‘Are you willing to forgive my grandfather?’ I said: ‘I have great honour for you and for your parents, for the new Germany, but your grandfather and all of his generation I will never forgive, and I don’t have the power of forgiveness in the name of the six million people that were murdered.”