Peace, Gratitude, &Tomorrow:
Lessons of a Holocaust Survivor
When you wake up in the morning, do you think this is the last day of your life? Can you shower whenever you want? Will your food satisfy your hunger? These are questions which holocaust survivor and Kansai Victor Navarsky offers at lectures about the horrors of his childhood. Silent about his experience for 50 years, the great Hanshin earthquake opened a door to the past. Just before his death in 2004, he shared some reminisces on human cruelty and the meaning of life with Michael H. Fox
How did the great Hanshin earthquake affect you?
I was living in Kobe and the possibility of sudden death rekindled the terror of being a Jew in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Poland. From 1945 to 1995, I tried to put the Holocaust out of my mind. I avoided books, articles and movies about the war. I would turn off the TV at the slightest mention of the subject. But After the quake, I wanted to transmit my experiences to children here in Japan. I gave a lecture to middle school students in Fukuyama, near Hiroshima, and since then I have opened up.
When did things begin to get bad?
After the Germans invaded Poland, they began a systematic persecution of Jews., In September 1941 all the Jews living in Poland were forced into three cities. My family knew that this was a trap and my parents, sister, two uncles, and a nephew went into hiding. Nobody expected the war would last long because, "the Russians will come very soon." We hid in a pig stall, seven people behind a fake wall, no water and no toilet. But the Germans were vigilant, they scoured the countryside and measured the walls of agricultural structures in order to detect hidden spaces. We later moved from place to place. One day, when my father was out looking for a new hiding place, he was caught by the Germans and shot dead. No burial, no grave. He just disappeared.
How did you manage to survive?
We were aided by a young Polish neighbor, Julian Laskowski a man in his twenties, who cut us a secret space in a stack of straw. He was very brave because aiding Jews meant death. We spent the winter nights of 1943 freezing in the bundle, and the mornings picking the lice off our bodies .
Sometimes, Julian brought us food, but most of the time, I foraged for scraps. I developed a remarkable sixth sense, the ability to see and hear things beyond normal human capacity. I could sense danger and find food by extra-sensory means. I would steal tomatoes or cucumbers, and when these were scarce, we would chew on sugar beets. They are inedible but provided moisture and something to ward off the hunger. Other times we chewed on raw rye and wheat. I noticed that pigs could not reach the corners of their troughs, and we lived on leftover pig swill: potato skins, potatoes, and bran husks for awhile. More than anything, I owe my survival to my mother. Despite the constant threat of death, she never lost faith in God, and we never lost faith that we would survive. The Soviet army liberated us in January 1945. My uncles unfortunately did not make it; they were caught two weeks before the liberation and shot dead by the Germans
Did you ever come close to death?
In August 1944 we were hiding inside a stack of newly harvested bundled rye. I left the stack to pee one morning and was suddenly surrounded by Polish field peasants. I was dressed in rags so they immediately knew that I was a Jewish boy in hiding. One of the farmers put his scythe around my 11 year old neck, and I thought, "this is the end." Suddenly, this huge peasant appears from nowhere, spits on the ground, stamps his feet and shouts "Are you not ashamed of yourself? Don't you have children of your own? Let the boy go." The scythe was dropped, and I ran like hell. To this day, I don't think he was an ordinary peasant, but an angel sent by God.
Do you still have any bitterness?
I am less bitter at the Germans than I am with the Poles. The Germans did not have the initiative to pursue those of us who fled into the country. But the Poles became willing guides. We were strangers to the Germans, but the Poles were our neighbors. They had no obligations to help us, and some demonstrated great courage in doing so. I often wonder how many Jews would have risked their lives to save Poles, had the situation been reversed. But all the Poles who went out of their way to willingly collaborate in this slaughter, there can be no forgiving these people.
Have you been back to Poland?
Yes, I have been back several times over the years. A few years ago I, my children and grandchildren visited the town where my grandfather lived. I was very surprised to find his house still very much in tact. The owner showed us around. That night, back in the hotel, I couldn’t sleep remembering the door of the barn, especially its knob. I tossed and turned on the bed thinking that my grandfather and father had also touched the same knob. I returned the next day and the owner let me buy the door. I shipped it back to Israel and it decorates a wall in my son’s home: an heirloom of remembrance.
Do you have a prescription for happiness?
One problem in life is that we take so many things for granted. You may think that you are entitled to whatever you may possess, but this is a big mistake You should be grateful for everything. Life can seem so impossible today, but there is always a tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better. So during life’s struggles, you must never give up. Even in excruciating times, appreciate what you have, because there are so many more people who have less.
Is it possible to spread peace?
I am skeptical of those who cry peace in the political arena. Here in Japan, there is so much talk about heiwa (peace), heiwa, heiwa. Talking about peace in the abstract sense has little meaning. Peace begins in the home, in the classroom, and in the neighborhood. First you must be at peace with yourself, and then you can love and spread peace to others.
Note: The Israeli government presented Julian Laskowski with its highest civilian accolade,” The Righteous Among the Nations,” the same award given to Oskar Schindler and Chiune Sugihara.
This article was originally published in the magazine:
Kansai Time Out.