How a long forgotten Yizkor Book gave a Chicago Jew a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and a special connection to his family

By David Caplan, Special to Chicago Jewish News

On a sunny spring morning in 1973, I was standing at a bus stop in the city of Hadera with my grandfather’s half-brother Shepsel. Shepke, as he was called, was short like my grandfather, and they looked a lot alike, with their round faces and bald heads. Perhaps the resemblance was fostered by their mothers being sisters—when my grandfather’s mother died, his father had married her younger sister. Shepke was wearing what I had come to know as his customary dark pants, short-sleeve white shirt, and 1940s-looking fedora. He carried himself well and did not seem ashamed of the blue-green number that was tattooed on his arm in European-style numerals.

Shepke and his family had been in concentration camps and had fled into the forest during the war. His wife had been killed during the escape. That was all I knew. He now lived with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson in Beit Eliezer, a community that started as a moshav, or farming settlement, on the outskirts of Hadera. Shepke’s son lived with his family in town.

The night before there had been a gathering in the back yard of the small home in Beit Eliezer. Shepke’s daughter-in-law, Yocheved, who was born in England and spoke English with a British-Hebrew accent like Abba Eban’s, had greeted the visitors in different languages—Yiddish, German, Russian. I asked her why she didn’t speak Hebrew, and she said they liked to hear the sound of their own language. They were a lively group of elderly people who enjoyed kibitzing. Here in Beit Eliezer, far from Eastern Europe, there was the close-knit feeling of a shtetl.

Yocheved told me Shepke had noticed the heavy work boots I wore and wanted to buy me a pair of sandals. I was 18 and in Israel for a year on a kibbutz program, hence the work boots. She didn’t say whether Shepke wanted me to be more like an Israeli or he simply wanted me to be comfortable. Shepke didn’t speak English, so while we were waiting for the bus, I said in Hebrew that I wished my Hebrew was better and that we could speak more. He acknowledged this with a little shrug.

The shopping district in Beit Eliezer consisted of a handful of small stores on a street that seemed to have sprung from the surrounding green fields. In the small, tidy shoe store a woman about Shepke’s age greeted him warmly and they conversed in Yiddish. He clearly enjoyed speaking with her, and for the first time I saw him fully smile. She turned to me and smiled when he apparently explained who this kid with longish hair from America was.

I told her in Hebrew that I wore size 10 in America and maybe 43 here—arbaim v’sholosh—and she brought out two pairs of sandalim Naot, one of which fit me well.

My grandfather came to America by himself at the age of 16. In Chicago he was taken in by his uncle, who owned a small garment manufacturing business. Family legend has it that my grandfather’s uncle was a taskmaster, but hard work agreed with my grandfather, and the manufacture of ladies’ coats became his life’s work as well.

Eventually my grandfather’s sister, whom everyone called Tante Hannah, came to America but the rest of his family, including two brothers and another sister, remained in the old country. Sometimes I imagine my grandfather, safe in America, feeling powerless while members of his family were going through the Holocaust. I remember the excitement surrounding my grandparents’ trip to Israel in 1959, when I was five—Grandpa was going to be reunited with his brother Shepsel.

One Sunday evening when I was 10, our family sat down in the living room to watch a movie that had been promoted all week as a special television event—“Judgment at Nuremburg.” Richard Widmark and Burt Lancaster were familiar actors to me, but this was not one of their swashbuckling adventures. The testimony of a Holocaust survivor was realistic and troubling. And then there was the part when the lights went down in the courtroom and actual concentration camp footage was shown. My sister said our relatives in Israel had been in those camps. Four and a half years my senior, she always seemed to know things I didn’t. That night I couldn’t sleep, and I asked my parents if I could get in bed with them.

The following year my grandparents received a book from the relatives in Israel that was written in part by Shepke. On one of our family’s Sunday-afternoon visits to my grandparents’ comfortable two-flat at 8751 S. Blackstone, four blocks from where we lived, my grandmother showed us the book. Thick and heavy, it had a plain white cover with black lettering in Hebrew characters. I asked what the book was about, and she said the town Grandpa and his brother came from in the old country. There was some guarded adult conversation I didn’t really understand about how he had written the book because the town no longer existed. Sometime during my high school years, my sister told me more precisely that the book was about what had happened to the town during the Holocaust.

On one of my visits to the relatives in Hadera, I asked Yocheved about the book. She left the room and returned with the austere white volume I remembered seeing in my grandparents’ home. The book bore a Yiddish title, “Lebn un Umkum fun Olshan,” which she translated as “The Life and Destruction of Olshan.”

Leafing through the pages, Yocheved showed me the memorial section toward the back, which contained photographs of many people who had perished. She said that in the 1950s, Shepke had gone to the Soviet Union to do research for the book. Writing it was something he had to do, she said. A wealthy Jewish man in New York had paid for publication. She soon put the book away.

Four decades later I found a few sentences about the Kaplans from Olshan online. Thinking I might find something further, I tried various combinations of search terms and suddenly received an unexpected hit: “Lebn un Umkun fun Olshan” by Shabtai Kaplan et al. in the Yale University library. It took me a few seconds to realize that this was actually Shepke’s book. My grandparents’ copy had disappeared after they died, and I had always assumed that whatever copies still existed most likely could be found only in Israel.

As I searched further, I found the book was in libraries and Holocaust collections around the world, including the Spertus Institute library in Chicago. In addition, the entire text of the book was online in the New York Public Library’s Steven Spielberg collection. The library’s website says that about 700 of these books were written, mostly from the late ’50s to the early ’70s. Known as yizkor books, from the Hebrew word for remembrance, they are part record of life in the shtetl before the war, part Holocaust memoir, and part memorial to those who died. Shepke was the leader of the group that wrote the Olshan book, the Bukh Komitet Olshan.

Although the book had never been translated into English, a translation of the chapter titles appeared online. Looking through them and the nearly 600 pages of text, I saw that what my grandmother had said back in 1965 was true, although incomplete—the book was in fact about the town. The first part told of Olshan before the war. There was a photograph of Shepke as a young man, already bald, and with a winning smile. Also in the photograph was another brother, named Sholom, who was handsome with a slender face and full hair. He had died in a concentration camp in Germany. There were group photographs from the Tarbut Jewish school and from Hashomer Hatsair, the Zionist youth organization. The middle portion of the book contained extensive first-person accounts of the war years.

Through a cooperative venture of the National Yiddish Book Center and the New York Public Library, a print-on-demand reproduction of the book was available. I ordered a copy and then started looking for a Yiddish translator. The first few I tried contacting were like characters in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. A woman’s voice mail said, “What can I tell you? I’m not here. Leave a message.” Amusing but unprofessional. An elderly woman hung up the phone when I explained who I was and what I was seeking. The telephone of a rabbi in New York who offered translation services was disconnected.

I emailed the chairman of Yiddish studies at a local university. The professor said he would ask if one of his graduate students might be interested in translating a yizkor book, but he never got back to me.

Finally I spoke with a man who said his wife, the translator, wasn’t home. But he filled in for her quite well. He said Ruth was experienced with yizkor books, and they were a wonderful source of information. She was a Yiddish teacher and had done translation work for the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. When Ruth returned my call, I knew I had found someone with whom I could entrust Shepke’s words. I sent her a few of his chapters about the war years, and a week or so later I received the translation as an email attachment.

Shepke begins by explaining that Olshan, a shtetl in Belarus south of Vilna, Lithuania, was part of Poland between the world wars. He writes that the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, brought fear to the Jews of Olshan. However, 15 days later, the Red Army marched through the shtetl, and the Jews of Olshan began to breathe easier, as he puts it. Life went on under the Soviet regime—Jews prayed in the synagogue as they had done before and children learned in the Jewish school. Ruth did a wonderful job of capturing Shepke’s Yiddish vernacular. He writes that those who didn’t like the changes the Russians brought had to “abide and say amen.”

The Soviet withdrawal from Olshan and subsequent German occupation of the shtetl in June 1941 brought renewed fear. The Germans decreed that Jews were to wear the yellow star and were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks. From the beginning of the German occupation, there was forced labor that included men, women, and children, with no allowances for the sick, the weak, and the elderly. As an example of German persecution, Shepke relates that a group of Jews were harnessed to a rusty tank and forced to drag it 30 kilometers. The German-installed Polish police commandant held Jews for weeks at a time, from dawn to the dark of night, without appropriate clothing for the weather, and forced them to dig out the grass between the stones in the brick market place. He sought out Jews who hid in bunkers or with Christians and handed them over to the SS.

The Olshan ghetto was in existence for 16 months. A comment Shepke made sticks in my mind—he says it’s impossible to describe the mood in the ghetto. At one point, a group of Jewish people, including men, women, and children, were herded into a barn, and the barn was set on fire. Others were shot in the forest. In October 1942 those who remained were transferred to another ghetto. Shepke writes that by the beginning of 1943, the Jews of Belarus had already been murdered.

The last chapter Shepke wrote about the war years takes place in Lithuania in the summer of 1944. He and his family had survived two ghettoes and were now in the Kashidar concentration camp. The “children’s action” at the Kashidar camp was an atrocity he describes in heartbreaking detail in one of the Hebrew portions at the end of the book. In the Yiddish portion I had translated, he writes that after the children’s action, some Jews who worked in the forest with felled trees escaped and joined a Lithuanian partisan brigade. The escape was successful because the guards hit the ground in fear that they were being attacked by the partisans. The remaining 300 Jews were confined to the barracks for three days without food or water or a place to relieve themselves. On the fourth day a special commander came to liquidate them.

They were forced into barred wagons to be transported to an outpost called the Ninth Fort, from which no one ever returned alive. But halfway there the wagons stopped and changed direction, and they were unloaded at the Alexat prison camp. Shepke surmises this was because of a need for slave labor. The men and women were separated—the boys went with their fathers and the girls with their mothers. During the time he was at Alexat, he didn’t see his wife or daughter.

At Alexat the work consisted of loading and unloading rocks and other heavy materials 12 hours a day. They were not allowed to raise their heads. Shepke writes that if a Jew wanted to straighten his back, the guards would beat him.

In May 1944 they were transferred to another camp, where the work consisted of digging for peat. Shepke’s account of the forced-labor camps is impressionistic. He mentions the food—whether it was better or worse than it was where they were before. He describes where they slept—on the three-tiered wooden plank bunks, which sometimes were infested with vermin. And he tells of savage beatings, “at roll call and every opportunity,” by a sadistic SS man that left the victim unconscious in a pool of blood.

After summarizing that period, Shepke takes us to a bright day in July 1944, when they were suddenly ordered to march to Kovna. From the Lithuanian partisans, they knew that the Red Army was approaching. Shepke says they had been hoping to spend the remaining days of the war unnoticed in this forgotten corner of the world. But they knew that thousands of Jews had been killed in Kovna, and they believed the same fate awaited them there. During a 10-minute break in the march, Shepke re-united with his wife and two children and told them a group was planning to escape into the forest.

In a thick part of the forest, when the sun was setting, one of the two Ukranians who had decided to escape with them gave a shout. As before, the guards feared they were being attacked by partisans and lay on the ground. Shepke took his wife’s hand and, together with their children, they ran into the forest. In the chaos that followed, he hit his head on a low-hanging branch and was knocked unconscious. When he came to, it was dark and he had just one thought: Where are my wife and children?

At daybreak Shepke found his daughter and other escapees, and on the third day his son arrived with other escapees at the designated meeting place. During that time, 150 people had gathered. The only ones who didn’t show up were his wife and three other women who had run into the forest. That terrible event was and is the most tragic moment of his life, Shepke writes.

In the forest they divided into groups of 10, 15, or 20 people. Shepke and his children were with a group that was shown hiding places by a Lithuanian farmer, who they later found out was working with the partisans. For 10 days the escapees were hunted in the forest, and 40 Jews lost their lives. Shepke says that at one point they heard the drunken shrieking of the soldiers 50 yards from where they were hiding.

At the beginning of the tenth day, the Lithuanian farmer came to them and delivered the joyous news that they were free. Soviet tanks and soldiers were at his house. Shepke says they ran—not walked—to see for themselves. He writes that the comforting words of the Soviet officers and soldiers moved them to tears. The Lithuanian farmer’s wife fed them the most delicious food for two days.

They found transport at a Soviet base with autos and went to Vilna, where they were aided by the city’s Jewish Committee. They returned to Olshan on August 2, 1944. Shepke writes that the shtetl hadn’t changed. The same houses stood, the same streets, fields, and brooks were there—only the Jewish people were missing. Of the 225 Jewish families that had lived in the shtetl, only 70 people returned. At first they lived in a collective, and then one by one they returned to their homes. In instances where the gentiles refused to move from the Jewish homes they occupied, the Soviets ordered them to move and returned the home to the Jewish owner.

One senses Shepke’s struggle to find adequate words for a conclusion. He writes that those who returned to Olshan didn’t remain long in the shtetl. Unable to bear starting again in what he calls the homes of destruction, the 70 Jews spread out into the world, seeking relatives and friends with whom to find comfort and an end to what he describes as their loneliness and confusion. His final sentence is a simple one: I established my home in Eretz Yisrael.

A group picture of the Olshan Book Committee, taken in Tel Aviv in 1965, appears in the opening pages. If I had to choose one word to describe Shepke in the photo, it would be this: resolute.

Shepke mentions many names in the narrative, and sometimes these seem like loose ends. Yocheved had commented on this when she showed me the book. She said he wanted to include as many people as he could.

He does not question the existence of G-d or ask how the Holocaust could have happened, nor does he say what gave him the strength to survive during those years. He confines himself to telling what happened. This may have been his most urgent need.

As I read Shepke’s story, I kept thinking that no one had told me. I had known about the Holocaust since the night I saw “Judgment at Nuremburg” on television. In the years since then, the field of Holocaust studies had developed and the subject had proliferated in popular culture. But I had known almost nothing about what Shepke and his family had been through.

I spent Passover of 1973 in Hadera. Wearing his fedora, Shepke sat at the head of the table, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, and led the seder in his fluent Hebrew. As usual, his manner was reserved. In the Hagadah, it says that G-d delivers the Jewish people from their oppressors in every generation. Hearing these words always reminds me of Shepke and that seder.

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