by Myra Sklarew
Ephraim Sten, born in the town of Zloczow, Poland and in hiding during World War II for three years beginning when he was thirteen, did eventually return to the town of his birth. In a sense, he had been returning for years. In memory: “A German officer, tall polished boots, his gun pointed at a big-eared boy in short pants. The boy is running into an alley. On the right, a rough clapboard fence…” And in the physical reality: “…how nice to find the fence still standing, as if remembering my athletic feat.”
Ephraim Sten kept a journal during the War years. As an adult in Israel in the 70s – because his children wanted to read his diary, to know what their father had experienced – he began to translate the diary from Polish to Hebrew. And in the course of this work, the adult began to respond to the entries he had made as a youngster. What we have is a remarkable double testimony – the adult reaching back across the years of his life to the boy he had been to create a dialogue. Moshe Dor, a leading Israeli poet and friend, translated the diary into English. Thus, the work the reader finds here has been transfused through three languages, three separate cultures, through war and peace and war.
The adult is unsparing in his words to the boy he was; yet the boy too speaks of having only one asset: “exaggerated self-criticism.” The boy who speaks from these pages is astonishingly learned, fully conscious, his observations unique: “Jews have always been liquidated … Who are we anyway? A comma in History.” He muses on the terrible irony that Chmielnicki exists in history because of the “thousands of Jewish and Polish victims that he slaughtered… Hitler, too, will enter History because of us.” And the adult is equally critical of his own motivations. “The diary,” he writes, “is supposed to remind one of that cliché… about the phoenix rising from its ashes.” What becomes clearer and clearer in this writing is that the ashes are the end… The writing was supposed to be a contribution to memory, recycling a dark period in life, but in retrospect, I’m convinced it was born by mistake. For decades I was not conscious of the load crushing my soul. This damned writing has newly rediscovered everything.”
Ephraim Sten’s actual return to Zloczow gives credence to the fact that he had once lived in that place, that the adult hadn’t invented it. Writing about this, the adult becomes real to himself and to the possibility that some “trace” of him will remain.
The Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz once wrote:
Forget about us about our generation
live like human beings
forget about us
plants and stones
we envied dogs
Ephraim Sten, in his journal written between the years 1941 and 1944, speaks of envying the chickens in the yard their freedom, or the dog he embraces who “smells of fields, forest, wind.” As an adult he speaks of the Tel Aviv he loves, for knowing that at any moment he can go out, “enter anywhere” he wishes. Here he sympathizes with Anne Frank, “the girl imprisoned in her room, unable to move about, bereft of Man’s basic right: Freedom.” He tells of the terrible passivity required during hiding: “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long,” eight people locked into a small space, in pairs, without being able to speak for many hours at a time – “boredom, darkness, hunger.” Germans living virtually in the next room in the same house.
There comes a moment, after an altercation among those living so closely together, when Sten contemplates leaving, simply walking away. “When I was a child I saw a man drowning. He was swimming in the river and suddenly it seemed somebody was pulling him by his leg. He waved his arms, he might have cried out, and then disappeared in the deep.” The adult Sten acknowledges that this memory likely indicates that had he actually left, he would have been killed. He jokes then about the “terrific” posthumous “finish to [his] diary.” Plays, translations, royalties. But alas… the money wouldn’t flow into his pockets because he hadn’t any pockets!
In dreaming, the role of the body is stillness while the role of the dreamer is to wander about in the world, backward and forward through time with no limitation. In hiding, the body like that of the dreamer’s must be completely still; yet the mind of the hidden one is acutely attentive, vigilant for any sound that could result in his discovery and death.
Vamik D. Volkan, in “After the Violence,” writes about “perennial mourning” where those who have suffered trauma postpone completion of the mourning process. They employ what he terms linking objects, “a mental meeting point between representation of the deceased and the corresponding self-image of the mourner” – a letter, a piece of clothing, a watch. Though linking objects can be used to postpone the mourning process, they can also be used adoptively to initiate future mourning when the mourner has the emotional resources to confront the loss. The small journal, kept by Ephraim Sten during his years in hiding, replete with intricate architectural drawings, became such a linking object. It forms the basis for the dialogue between the adult and the child he had once been.
Eli Wiesel once said that when the voice of the child he had been before the War coalesces with the voice of the man he is now, he begins to hear the first words of his novels. What has been vanquished is his adolescence. Across the chasm of the Holocaust, the man meets once more the child he was. Together, united, integrated, the man can begin to speak.
However, whether there can ever be full integration is a question. Whether the experience of the Holocaust can be made to reside within a later “normal” life is doubtful. Hiding presents unique problems for a child. As Alan Berger writes in Jewish American and Holocaust Literature: A Late Twentieth-Century Look, “reconstructing fragments of memory which, while bringing cohesion to their experience, also causes great pain as the hidden children remember parents and other relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. Furthermore, public ignorance of, and silence about hidden children meant non-validation of the experience of the youngest survivors of the Shoah. It was as if they had been expelled from the history of the Holocaust.” In some cases, continued silence after the War was essential because the families that hid Jews could be endangered by their neighbors were it known that they had sheltered Jews. And perhaps the most serious aspect of hiding, apart from daily mortal threat, was the necessary denial of all that a child was: a child with the right to live as anyone else, a child with a mother and father, siblings, a Jew. This kind of negation cannot simply be erased at the moment when hiding is no longer a necessity.
The reader of this book might feel that the author has come to some catharsis: Ephraim always made it clear to his family that he could not. Over the years, he always stressed his reservation about the term attached to him and others as Holocaust survivors (“nitzolim” in Hebrew). He said there were/are no survivors (in Hebrew the word comes from the root “to save/rescue”), only remnants, remains (“s’ridim” in Hebrew). He brought up his children to believe that one couldn’t become whole after such an experience; one is always ‘damaged goods’. This was emphasized over and over again—one could not be rescued, which included the healing of old wounds, not from the Holocaust. There is no closure, and in the eyes of his family, Ephraim never reached one—neither through the first translation of the diary into Hebrew, nor through the visit to Zloczow, nor through writing the book.
In the pages of the journal of Ephraim Sten, 1111 Days in My life Plus Four, the adult man meets once more the boy he had been during the Second World War. At times there is an infinite distance between the boy and the man. At times they are side by side. At times they cross over into one another. And at times they exchange places.
Ephraim Sten had the opportunity to see again one of those who saved him, Hryc Tyz. “You are my relatives,” Hryc told him. “…the Jews I had saved scattered all over the worldâ€¦ I didn’t believe l’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family…” Sten never forgot those who had saved his life at great risk to their own, their families, their communities, helping them over all the years that remained to him. In addition to Hryc Tyz, Helena Skrzeszewska and Misia Korniuk worked to save Ephraim Sten and the others. We say their names, as Ephraim would have wished it.
Near the end of his journal, Ephraim writes:
In the epic of his wanderings, Ulysses once sat at the entrance of the Underworld and waited for the soul of his departed friend. He had a slaughtered ram at his feet because its fresh blood had the virtue of reviving consciousness. Around him swirled and pushed multitudes of the dead who also wanted to gain a moment of resurrection. But Ulysses was determined not to let them approach. He arrived from for away and was waiting for only one soul.In this writing I am both Ulysses and the slaughtered ram. My own blood revived several ghosts and like Ulysses I kept my right to choose. The ghosts that were no part of the diary crowded round my puddle of blood, but I spurned them and didn’t let them have another transformation. That was my privilege – as in Homer’s metaphor – of emotional and intellectual choice. Possibly the others’ turns would have arrived if I had allotted myself enough time. But now I’m bidding farewell to the voices, faces and images to which I haven’t brought life but my dreams were overflowing with them for a long time.
In this extraordinary work, at last, the boy who suffered confinement and lack of choice and daily mortal threat at a time when youngsters are keenest to explore the world, and the man he became – wanderer and source of consciousness – though never fully integrated, finally stand side by side in an attempt to free themselves from the voices, faces, images of their shared past.