The International School for Holocaust Studies
"My Life is Still a Continuing Defeat for the Nazis who Hoped to Destroy Us"
Interview with Eliezer Ayalon, Israeli Tour Guide
Interviewers: Jackie Metzger and Kathryn Berman
- "Our stories were so incredible... I was carrying guilt on my shoulders that I survived the Holocaust"
- "To open our hearts... your obligation to speak because it is meant to be"
- "The bottom line is that absorption was not very easy for us"
- "I could share a moment with my children and tell them, 'You and I, we defeated Hitler'"
- "We really appreciate everything that happens in this country, culturally"
- "This is the keystone of the museum: the individual stories"
- "Liberation for me was different... that I can laugh and love is nothing less than magnificent"
Eliezer Ayalon was born in Radom, Poland. He lived with his family in the Radom Ghetto until 1942, when Eliezer was separated from his family, who later perished in Treblinka. He was imprisoned in five different camps in Poland and in Austria. Ayalon was liberated in May, 1945, after a death march to the Ebensee concentration camp (a sub-camp of the Mauthausen camp complex). He arrived in Palestine on November 8, 1945, served in the army, and later became a tour guide. He is married and has children and grandchildren.
This exclusive interview was first published in our newsletter Teaching the Legacy (January, 2008). Mr. Ayalon discusses his experiences, Israeli society, army service, and frameworks for telling his story as a survivor and as an educator.
"Our stories were so incredible... I was carrying guilt on my shoulders that I survived the Holocaust"
Please describe your experiences during the Holocaust and in the aftermath of World War II.
My name today is Eliezer Ayalon. My former name was Lazar Hirschenfeis. That was my family name in Radom, Poland. I was born in 1928 in a city called Radom, Central Poland and I grew up with my family until the Germans invaded Poland; and then like the entire Jewish community in Radom we were pushed into the ghetto in 1941. The ghetto was liquidated a year later in 1942. All my family except me was sent to an extermination camp called Treblinka.
I was lucky, maybe it was a miracle, and I think I owe my life to my mother who foresaw that maybe she could save one of her children. It was me. I was then about thirteen years old. It was me, because I was occupied in a German installation outside the ghetto and as such I got a special labor card which protected me from deportation to camps. This made it possible for me to survive and not be sent together with my parents to die. I survived on my own, in five different concentration camps – two in Poland and three in Austria – and lived up to this great day in my life, on May 6, 1945, when I was liberated by a unit of George Patton's [U.S.] army. The Allied Forces reached the camp on that day, and I was among 18,000 inmates who could hardly stand on their feet.
I was picked up by a group of Jewish soldiers who served in the British Army known as the Jewish Brigade. They took us out from hell, from Austria, into Italy – which was the headquarters of the Allied Forces – and we began to return to life, which wasn't that easy. I [spent] six months in a youth village, with some 300 children of my age – 16 or 17 – and I remember that the struggle to return to life was very tough, but after six months we recovered and I always wanted to come to Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], then called Palestine. So, in this youth village we were prepared for aliyah [immigration to Palestine]. We learned Hebrew, we studied about the history of the Land of Israel and on March 5, 1945, we got a message that we were included in a group of 300 children to receive a certificate – a visa, to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. I remember the joy, the dancing and singing that evening when the Jewish Brigade brought us this good news.
The following day we boarded a ship in southern Italy and after four days of sea voyage we reached the land of Israel and I remember the moment when I arrived. Four days ago, I celebrated my sixty-second anniversary of arrival into this country. It was November 8, 1945. The moment the boat arrived, Haifa and Mount Carmel looked like heaven. There were groups of 30-40 people supported by the Jewish Agency of Palestine in those days, and we were put up into different schools to continue our education that we missed in the Holocaust. I ended up in Jerusalem. [...] Here began my new life in a country with the Jewish people. I felt that I had been saved.
When you arrived, how long did it take you to feel part of Israeli society?
[...] The day that the State of Israel was established in May, 1948, I felt that I was coming back to normal life, after serving in the army [...] for two-and-a-half years, and participating in defending Jerusalem in the State of Israel. It took me about three years to realize that I am back in a place that I always wanted to be – but it wasn't that easy to be a part of the Jewish society at that time, until the State was established, because the absorption and integration into life was pretty difficult. The Jewish society at that time was not interested in listening to our stories and helping us. We had to struggle on our own. They just saw us as people from a different world, which actually we were. I remember when I was in [a] school in Jerusalem – I went to an agricultural school, I wanted to become a farmer. From time to time our teachers asked us to talk and we were really anxious to tell our stories, but all of a sudden I realized that they really don't believe us. Our stories were so incredible, in addition to the fact that sometimes you could hear a sort of [...] hint that maybe we did something wrong to survive. All of a sudden I felt [as though I was] carrying guilt on my shoulders that I survived the Holocaust. It [quickly became clear to us, and to] my friends – there were about thirty of us – that we were not going to speak anymore about the Holocaust. [...] I did not speak about my life as a young boy in the ghettos and concentration camps.
To anyone except to my wife, whom I met in 1945 when I arrived at that school in Jerusalem. I met this girl, native-born in Israel, and she became like my teacher. I needed help for my Hebrew lessons, so we became very good friends and I told her bits and pieces. She knew I was a survivor, but to sit down and tell my entire story – that took me 37 years. We got married in the army. She was a nurse in the hospital and I was a combat soldier in Jerusalem. I still didn't speak about the Holocaust. Even after my children were born and were small, there was always an excuse – they were too little, why should I have to share my pain with them? [Eventually] they went to school and studied about the Holocaust from others, knowing that their own father is a survivor and doesn't speak.
But something happened in my life later on. I became a tour guide in 1962. I brought people to Yad Vashem and never said a single word about myself. I – that knows so much about the Holocaust – I always found a reason, an excuse not to speak, but watching my colleague's eyes standing and talking about it. I came home from a visit to Yad Vashem, and I was so nervous and frustrated. My wife always said, "You have been to Yad Vashem?" I said, "Yes." But a few years later my life changed completely.
In 1981 there was the first world gathering of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Convention Center. There were thousands of survivors who came from all over, among them Elie Wiesel, the famous historian and Holocaust survivor, and he came for the purpose of teaching us Holocaust survivors, knowing that many of us do not want to speak about the Holocaust. He came to show us how to open our hearts, so to speak. I approached him one day and I said, "Please help me. I have the ability to speak. I am a tour guide, I have thirty-seven years experience – how or what can I do in order to start speaking?" He looked at me and said, "Eliezer, you survived for a reason," – his first words. "It is your obligation and responsibility to speak because maybe it is beshert," which means "meant to be". I remembered that my mother used this word when I was separated from her in the ghetto the day when I was on the other side, the side of the living, and she went to the gas chambers on that day. She said to me, "Lazerke, it is beshert that you will survive." [...]
When Elie Wiesel said to me these words, "It was beshert that you survived and will speak and tell the story," I went home and said to my wife, "Look what happened to me today." She said, "Well, maybe it is time for you to start telling your story to your children – to your own family." That was the straw that broke the camel's back, in 1981. Still, I didn't start the following day. It took me a few years, but I began to speak bits and pieces, and I felt right away such a relief and release. I [also] began to suffer again from nightmares after speaking, but I had help and I was not ashamed. My wife took me to therapy and within a short time, I got rid of that nightmare and I was so happy.
I felt that everything had changed in my life. It was a long time – I was ashamed to tell people that I am a survivor. But all this disappeared and I spoke so much. I decided [...] to put [my story] in writing. In 1991, ten years after meeting with Elie Wiesel, I decided to write the story of my life. There was a woman from Baltimore, Maryland who helped me put the whole story in writing. I wrote a [...] book which was published in the [United] States, which was entitled The Cup of Honey – the cup of honey that my mother gave to me that day when I was separated from her, and it became a symbol of my survival and my life.
So here I am right now, about eighty years old. [...] I have two married children, wonderful children. I have five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Three generations born and raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Today I am the happiest man in the world. Just last week I was thinking, "My God, sixty-two years ago I came here, a boy of seventeen, from a different planet, into a different planet," and now, these days, after sixty-two years I am moving from one apartment to another one.
And you can't imagine living anywhere else?
No. I could have gone to Australia, America, Canada, like some of my friends did, but from the first time when I felt that I am really free and can make my decision I remember the love for this Land of Israel as a little boy and when I came to Israel I said, "My God, this is the country my father always said that every Jew had to come to and go to Jerusalem." The love of this country that was imbued within me by my parents from early childhood made me decide finally that I am going to Eretz Yisrael. I am not going to anywhere else – so no way, I wouldn't be happy in any other place but only here in Yerushaliyim, the city in which I live.
You must have seen many changes in the last 62 years. What are your thoughts about Israeli society today?
If I try to think back 62 years ago? You know, first of all I didn't blame these people who didn't want to listen to us, because they didn't know actually what the Holocaust was all about. They could not digest that six million people perished and only a small number survived. How was it possible for us to survive? And besides, how large was the society in those days, there were less than 600,000 Jews who lived in Palestine at that time and I was only living in a small neighborhood. I cannot say that really they helped us – except the small environment, which we lived in. The Jewish Agency of Palestine and the school that really tried to help us, but generally speaking the society was not really very keen to help us to integrate and to start our life normally. It was a barrier. [...]
If you can project back to 1946, '47, '48... you were a young guy of 17, 18, 19 years old. You just went through the most traumatic part of your life. You became an orphan and here you have a small society that is surrounding you that says "Eliezer, we don't want to listen to you" – and when you did talk, they didn't believe you. I can't understand how you didn't feel anger or disappointment or want to cry.
This is what I felt and many of my friends felt. I expected from the Jewish society to give us a way to support us mentally maybe – spiritually. How to forget our trauma; that we lived before we came to Israel. I felt that I did not receive enough support, enough help, and I was not alone in that feeling. There were many of my friends who felt the same.
I had this feeling until the day when I established my family. I got married. The parents of my girlfriend did everything to help me. They became my foster parents and I owe them, you know – a great part of the way I live today because they really... I – for a few years, even when I was in the army – the army was OK, but I always was under the impression that I am like a stranger in a society, maybe because of the fact that for about four or five years I lived among different people with different attitudes and all of a sudden you know, it was a transaction from one side to the other to be with normal people that – so the feeling that I had of course just disappeared with the course of time. You have your family, you have children, but the first three or four years I would say were not that easy.
When you say that in those first years you felt like a stranger within society and within the army, did you feel like an unequal stranger? Did you feel inferior?
No. I wouldn't say unequal or inferior, but – see – living two-and-a-half years in camps in completely terrible conditions, you see different behavior of people, different attitudes [towards] one another. The value of life and so many other aspects of life – it was strange for me. It takes time to mingle in a society that you never met before. It feels like strangers. It takes time to absorb, to learn the behavior, the way of life. The bottom line is that absorption was not very easy for us. Generally speaking of course, because I saw other friends of mine, and they had the same problem. [...]
The language was also a barrier. The Hebrew language was a great barrier, because you know if you cannot communicate with people, but one thing I have to tell you that I always had hope and always looked forward. I was never depressed or sad. I knew that this – it is a difficult time and I would have to overcome it, and I made it.
You certainly did. What year did you go into the army?
Beginning of 1948. The war actually began right the following day after November 29, 1947, but I was drafted in, I mean became a real – not a soldier – there was no army. I was one of the defense forces, one of the fighters for the defense of Jerusalem, January, 1948.
Twenty-two thousand soldiers, one third of the fighting force of the I.D.F. [Israeli Defense Forces], were survivors. When you were in your unit, were you a single survivor or were you with a group of survivors? Did you speak Yiddish or Hebrew? Was it "them and us" or were you one group?
The unit I served in had a number of survivors. We spoke already Hebrew by that time and the army treated us so well. I remember – first of all I was not so interested to be in the same circle of survivors. I always wanted to be with others because with survivors, even if you have a regular conversation, you always [bring up the Holocaust], and I wanted to forget about it. I didn't want so much to speak about the past, so I remember when the cease fire came into effect and we were not on alert every second day, every Saturday friends of mine went home to their families and I didn't have a place to go, and I was very sad but there was always, I remember the commander of the unit and the woman that was in charge of that department, she always took care of me to send me to a family to spend Shabbat, but then when I met my girlfriend, there was no problem. I always went to her, but there were times when I felt jealous that you know comes Saturday, people go home, and I had nowhere to go.
You didn't consider yourself as a group of separate survivors?
No, absolutely not – no, not at all.
What was your unit in the army?
I was in the Jerusalem Brigade, the 16th Brigade of Jerusalem. Most of the War of Independence I was fighting in Jerusalem.
You've seen a lot of changes.
When you look at the hills and around the area, do you see it as it was then, or do you see it as it is now?
I don't know. When I am looking today – forty years ago or more, sixty years, fifty-nine years ago, I could see the mountains... but today it's different. When my children were in the army years ago I used to take them to the area where I was fighting, you know, and telling them the story. It was really strange to see how I was a soldier in 1948, and they are soldiers in 1973. Both children of mine were in the army in the Yom Kippur war. Sometimes I feel it's a dream, it's not real to see Jerusalem today as I saw Jerusalem fifty-nine years ago.
I feel that I accomplished what I wanted. My life, my children, and grand children, I couldn't be happier in any other place.
But let me tell you something speaking about my children. You asked me before about what changed my life. In 1992 and 1993, I went with my wife, children, and grandchildren to the camps, and went into the cursed gates of Plaszow and Mathausen. You know, Israeli children are proud kids. [...] We went to the Valley of Death, and I said, "This is where I was." We decided to sing Hatikvah. [...] At that moment I said to my children, "We defeated Hitler, we won the war." This was the greatest moment. You know, maybe then I really understood what survival means. I could share a moment with my children and tell them, "You and I, we defeated Hitler. He had hoped to destroy us, but Am Yisrael Chai ["the people of Israel live"]". I was so proud. This was another pillar that gave me strength to continue to speak and talk. Sometimes people ask me, "Eliezer, where do you get this strength and energy from? Thirty-five times – to go to Poland in the last ten years?" It's not easy to go to Poland, especially for those who survived the Holocaust. But after forty-five years I built my own family, children, and grandchildren. My wounds have healed, but the scars still remain. Even today when I speak and [guide], I still think back, I mean especially on Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day]. [...]
After I had already told my children and grandchildren the entire story, they wrote a whole file about my history. But I am happy about one thing. Unlike other friends of mine, I do not live the Holocaust anymore in my home, and I know friends of mine who still [do]. I was invited once by a friend of mine for dinner. We were sitting around the table, and the children did not finish the meal on their plate. The father got up and said, "Why don't you finish [your food]? With this food you left, two or three people could have survived." I stood up – I was so upset. I asked him why he did that. This does not exist in my family. We don't live the Holocaust anymore. We live – we are a happy family. That's very important.
Can we try and focus on you, the changes that you and Israeli society went through? From 1945 to 1981, after thirty-six years, you had to wait for a non-Israeli to come here and make the switch in your own head – Elie Wiesel. There was nothing in Israeli society that could turn you around before 1981 in terms of opening up?
First of all, to say that we were afraid to speak, that I was afraid to speak, no – I can't say that. Yes, I was a little concerned how I would feel if I started speaking. [I did not know if I would] be able to control myself emotionally, because many of my friends, when they started to speak about it, got so nervous and started to burst out into tears. I didn't want to do that. I was also concerned about [whether] people, after sixty-seven years, will not accept my story, because they [might] still think the same way as those first few weeks when I [arrived] and said I want to speak. Something held me back from speaking and talking, until this man came to me, Elie Wiesel. Maybe it was this word – when he said, "It is beshert." Until that time I really didn't realize what this word "beshert" means. I don't know how to put this together, but Elie no doubt was a great part of it. Elie was a great part in making me speak. By the way, I know some friends of mine that are not free, you know, but in the last one and a half decades, it's interesting what [has] happened. Many survivors who never spoke before like me realized that time is running out. First of all our number is dwindling. In another decade, one and a half decades, I don't know there will be no one who can utter those simple words "I was there, I know, I remember" – and when we disappear? The remembrance and the legacy of the Holocaust will continue I am sure. There was a time that I was really worried that maybe after the generation of the Holocaust disappears they won't remember it so much, but now I am convinced that a torch of remembrance – at least from my children – will carry on... and that is very important.
When did that change occur for you?
In the course of time. I cannot mention one specific time.
Does the work at Yad Vashem fit into that picture?
Oh, absolutely. Yes, of course. First of all – when I started to bring people, I mean groups and take them through the museum and to speak and lecture and to speak to children. You see I am often called to the U.S. to speak in schools. Last year I was in Miami, Florida, in Mexico, and Costa Rica. [...] For three weeks talking non-stop, not only in Jewish schools, in non-Jewish schools. This changed a lot, and you know, the awareness of the students all over. For many, many years the Holocaust was not even taught in schools. I have to tell you this. I remember when we came again, we were the first-hand knowledge. We provided the knowledge about the Holocaust to Israel and to the world, but the world still doesn't know enough about the Holocaust because in many countries, if it is taught, it is only an extended footnote to the history of WWII. [...] [When] I speak to some non-Jewish schools in the States, they look like – you know – they don't believe, but not anymore. Today [...] it is mandatory to teach Holocaust in many states [of the United States]. I am invited to speak [t]here at international seminars, to give testimony also.
You were saying that you and your family live a normal life. You don't like to harp back to the Holocaust. Does that also include listening to music or literature? What are your preferences for music?
My family and children are full of life. They like music, they dance. My two granddaughters were dancing in dancing companies. We go to theatres, watch films. All this is new. I never knew about things like that before, right? So we really appreciate very much everything that happens in this country, culturally. We are very active in you know, different committees. I am very happy. This is a great part of our life.
Are there any composers you wouldn't listen to?
No. That is a very interesting question you ask. I never decided to boycott German [exports]. I was driving a [Volkswagen] Beetle car made in Germany for many years. This did not really bother me, because the Germans today are not the same Nazis that lived before. So my attitude towards Germany is different than it was sixty years ago.
What really bothered me a few months ago was when a group of Russian students and immigrants with the swastika and Hitler – this I could not understand. Even a grandson of a survivor – his grandmother was a survivor and he joined this group, you know. I was tormented by all of this. I couldn't believe that such a thing could happen in this country. [...]
Last night on Roim Olam [Israeli current events television program], there was a man interviewed from Darfur. It was really very moving...
Very moving. When I saw this film I was thinking about myself. I said, "My God, the world really didn't learn about this genocide." After so many years I was – I couldn't believe that really things like this happen today. Very upset, it really upset me very much.
I was quite moved by the fact that he was saying that people in Darfur have only heard about Israel and want to come to Israel. And Israel, we as a country should allow the people to come.
We are the only country in the world – all these who are coming in from Egypt – who is taking them in. We – because we are a people who knows what is suffering. We understand these people, [...] we are taking in people from Darfur [...]
Do you ever have emotional problems when you go to the museum with tourists?
No. But there is one little thing when I saw, after this museum was opened about two-and-a-half years ago, I came and I was among the first – invited by Yad Vashem to see it. And I got to this authentic artifact that was brought from my home town, Radom. You know that there is a cart that picked up the corpses. [...] The municipality from my town was kind enough to send it over. It is from the town of Radom from the Lezno Street of the Warsaw Ghetto and when I was told two-and-a-half years ago that this is from Radom, I began to tremble, because I remember it. There were two such carts in the ghetto, and I remember it. Two people, one in front and one behind were collecting the corpses in the street in the winter and I touched it and, my God, it is the same. I got so emotionally moved and I stood there and, ah... It was terrible. This was the only thing [that] was terrible.
But you managed to get past it now.
Now when I come in, every group that I am guiding through, I am stopping and telling them the story.
And you can tell them the story?
Absolutely, it was just you know...
Its part of your revenge?
Yes, the same as like I said when I go, you know, there is a photo of Amnon Goeth. You know whom I am talking about? I met him personally in Plaszow. How can I not say a few words about him? You see the difference between me and all the other guides who have learned about the Holocaust, with all due respect to them. They were sitting for many weeks, months, learning about the history of the Holocaust, but I don't know another guide, survivor, who is guiding in this museum, so far. You know I have so many requests. My calendar, you cannot imagine how many requests because [of] the difference between you and me. You are telling the facts, but when I am sharing one of my experiences in the ghetto or when I come to that place where there is a picture, people are standing in line to get the soup and I am telling them the story of me, when is the best or where is the best place to stand in this line? Is it at the beginning or the end? A little story of my own experience.
This is the keystone of the museum. The individual stories. That's me, Eliezer. And at the end, this is something that I am always saying to the guides. Why don't you emphasize the day of liberation? When I come to the very end of the museum with all the pictures of the liberation, people don't understand what is a "return to life." When I was told, or I felt these three little tanks, that came in to liberate 18,000 inmates in Ebensee, Austria, and when the turret opened and three helmeted men came out, I looked upon them like angels, and I remember I even moved to see where [there] are wings, because if they are angels, they should have wings. Wingless angels. I stood there and pinched my hand. I really didn't realize it was happening to me. Then, after I realized, so, OK, liberated, liberated people. This word "liberation" was so meaningless to me. I was liberated, but I wasn't free. What is "liberated"? I mean – will I be able to go home to see my family? I was liberated but still in a camp surrounded by barbed wire. We were not even allowed to leave this camp the first couple of hours. I was still bearing this number 84991. So we had food. Loaded trucks came in and people died from overeating. They just exploded. How can you control yourself? I said to myself, "Liberation means to eat a loaf of bread?" So I ate one loaf of bread and a second. My eyes were [exposed to] the most horrible scenes in that forest. People that I had just walked with a few hours ago, were lying dead with open eyes, a loaf in their arms. They were "liberated." I said, "No, this is not the way I want to be liberated."
So I went into the area of the deserted living quarters of the German army and I was searching, looking for something, I was searching for a toothbrush, even a used one. I wanted something, a pair of socks, underwear. First of all I wanted to remove my jacket – take the number off. It wasn't easy to find, but I found the jacket of a German cook. I took it just to remove my number. I tried to find something in order to feel that I am coming back to life, to return to being a human being. I was not a human being. I was dehumanized the moment I got the number. Liberation was a great part of our struggle, because that struggle to return to life was just as hard as being in the camps.
In the museum, there is one picture of a liberated man in a coma lying on the barbed wire, and you tell him [he is] liberated. Does it mean something to this man, I say to the people? What does he know about the liberation? Or you see inmates being treated by doctors. They don't trust them. You as a doctor with a Red Cross, coming to treat [the prisoners]. This was not liberation. Liberation was the pictures of people moving. It was May – the sun came in to warm up our skeletons, our bones, and people were trying to remove their jackets, myself among them. I wanted the sun to warm my body. This was very, very important – I mean important. To come back to life and to trust other people. That is important to tell the people, [...] who can say better than me? You are telling the facts – the liberation, the army came in and they discovered the skeletons, they burned them [...] and this was "liberation". Liberation for me was different.
You became a tour guide in this country in the 1960's?
When I came to Yad Vashem with a group, before they got off the bus, I said, "People, this is a museum of the Holocaust history. Everything inside is self-explanatory. You don't need a guide. You have one and a half hours. Do it slowly. I am going to have a cup of coffee. You don't need me. This is what I did for years, for years. And I was so nervous when I came home. I was – I have no words to explain to you how I felt. I mean, "My God, why I am doing it?" When people even asked me sometimes for curiosity, "Were you born here?" I said yes – I lied to them. "I came here when I was a little boy" – it was hurting me. I had to lie to people, not tell them who I was.
Let me tell you one more thing. I am always saying to people: [the fact] that I survived as a decent man and a believing Jew, that I can laugh and love and look on the world's bright side, is nothing less than magnificent. My whole life has changed, but my life is still a continuing defeat for Hitler and the Nazis who hoped to destroy us. I fast on Yom Kippur; I eat matza on Pesach [Jewish ritual obligations]. I never turned my back on faith. But to this very day, [...] people ask how I relate to God. I say even when I was on the verge of death, I used to count my ribs every day. The last month before I was liberated, I thought I wasn't going to survive. On the other hand, I was so happy that I could feel my ribs – that meant I could still breathe. [...] I am not practicing the religious part but I still believe. I never turned my back on my faith because I was brought up that way. I went to cheder [Jewish religious school]. I was brought up in a Jewish religious home of God-fearing people.