'I don't have the power of forgiveness in the name of 6m people'
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.”