TO “I SAW IT”
There is a Yiddish saying that goes, “People plan and G-d laughs.” In other words, life is unpredictable and we are just not privy to the Divine plan. People are put in our path and lives are changed forever. So it happened several years ago that I met David Silberman for lunch in Queens, NY for the first time to discuss the publication of a book he had written about the Holocaust. What started out as a conversation about our mutual interest in Jewish history, turned out to be the beginning of a treasured friendship and a relationship built on admiration and respect. I had no idea then that I was meeting a true selfless and courageous hero or that these monthly lunches would have a profound impact on my life. To me, it was like sitting across from a modern-day King David who slew the giant Soviet Goliath.
I came to our first meeting prepared with some ideas about the possibility of publishing his book documenting the Holocaust. As the afternoon turned into hours, I became fascinated; captivated by David’s story-telling abilities. He had me mesmerized and I knew that publishing the book was not just a possibility, it was absolutely essential. David had recorded the first-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors, as told to him in their native Yiddish language. In his own words, “These stories are completely accurate, nothing is added. These are the actual, unembellished events which makes the reality even more horrifying.”
David and I continued to meet often for lunch to discuss the project. I looked forward to our meetings each month because every lunch provided me with a new insight into Jewish history and into the life of this dynamo. It was like a personal seminar with a professor of history.
As a young man growing up in New York City, I had heard the story about Zhenia Khatskelevna Guralnick’s miraculous survival, the young girl who was protected from death by her mother in a mass pit at Pavklovichy as the only survivor of the thousands of Jews who were slaughtered around her. Her testimony was significant because it was proof that not all of the mass killings took place in a concentration camp. She told David her story in her original Yiddish, which David translated into English. It is one of the most well-known stories in the history of atrocities against the Jewish people. In 1965 David was the first to receive the gruesome details directly from its only survivor and he then translated it into English. Zhenia’s family entrusted David with the mission to get her story out to the world. In her account to David, Zhenia stated, “I believe I survived to tell the story of those that did not.” Her life’s mission, as it became David’s, and now mine, is to speak out for the voices that can no longer be heard. Until recently, he never got the recognition for this accomplishment.
As difficult as it is to read these merciless massacres chronicled in David’s book, it is unbelievable that we have not yet learned the lessons of anti-Semitism and hatred. Today, it is more important than ever that these stories are heard accurately and in their entirety; not just by Jews, but by non-Jews, by our youth, and by every generation where hatred exists. Hatred is not just a Jewish cause; it is a human cause.
David, a mild-mannered, unassuming man has always been a central figure in the fight for justice and humanity. In fact, his entire life is an untold hero’s story. As the key organizer of the historic two-day sit-in hunger strike in front of the Kremlin, David and his fellow Jews of Riga successfully petitioned the Kremlin for the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel. That protest was the catalyst that opened the door to the mass exodus of Russian Jews to make Aliyah.
You would think that after David had accomplished this monumental achievement, he would have settled down in Israel and enjoyed a nice retirement. No, he had more to do,first he had to learn the language; several of them, in fact. He went to work as an engineer, designing ships in the Haifa ship yard. He was selected by the Jewish Agency to sell Israeli Bonds in America and raise funds that would support Russian Jews wanting to make Aliyah. After less than two months in America, at the break of the Yom Kippur War, he returned to Israel to work as an engineer and served in the Israeli Army reserves. In 1977, David left Israel to settle in America. He became an Engineer working for the City of New York. As he made a life for himself and his family in America, he held kept ties to the Jewish Latvian community, where he now serves as the Acting President of the USA Riga Society of Jewish Survivors of Latvia.
The Holocaust chronicles are only a part of his legacy. Refusing to abandon his dream to reach the Promised Land, his diary gives insight into the Refusnik’s passion for freedom. In the following quote from “Two Days” David writes:
“When Skliarov (Director of the hall of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR at the Kremlin) tried to persuade the Jews of Riga to go away he said, “Now you must leave the premises of the Reception Hall and go home.” “Our home is Israel! Let us go home!” – could be heard from various corners of the hall.
After a few more encounters with the Soviet official “Skliarov . . .left and the light was put out immediately after.. It began to grow dark outside. The minutes passed slowly. But the people in the Secretariat did not disperse.” Suddenly Senia Nakhimovsky (one of the Refusniks) rose from his place and said to those present: "Dear friends, Jews! The evening is approaching. I congratulate you on the occasion of the Feast of Purim, the feast of the miraculous delivery of our people!" stormy applause in the hall followed.
A young man in a skull-cap, Boria Yofis, rose from the table, went to the window, and from the crack of those drapes he could see street lights, then holding a prayer book in his hands, said with dignity: "Jews! I will read to you in the language of our ancestors, Ivrit (Hebrew), a few excerpts about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and will translate them into Russian. This story is not about the Feast of Purim, but it has a direct connection with us, with the events that are now taking place here."
And then the sacred words of the ancient writing flowed from his lips: "And the Lord said to Moses: Go, tell the Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to let go the sons of Israel out of his land." Unintentional tears appeared in the eyes of men, women, young and old. As David remarked in his diary, “These were some of the greatest moments ever lived through by Soviet Jews.
By the time these lines were first written, in June 1971, almost all the participants in the hunger demonstration in Moscow on March 10 and 11, 1971, together with thousands of other Jews from various cities of the USSR had already arrived in Israel.
Recently, officials of Latvia wanted a complete historical account of the state’s history for educational purposes and commissioned a noted historian to gather accurate facts. He contacted David for his contribution and David took the opportunity to point out that, contrary to popular belief, Riga had not stood strong against the Nazi occupation. In fact, his countrymen became collaborators helping the Nazis eradicate the Jewish population. The appointed historian told David that he could not present such an observation to which David, again stood his ground, and said, “In fact, you can print it and you must.” Incredulously, that is exactly what they did. The deliberate misrepresentation of the facts that the officials of Latvia wanted to present to its countrymen could no longer be covered up. It was because of David’s insistence to expose the truth which was that Riga’s military, while collaborating with the Soviets to liberate Latvia from Germany, were actually partnering with the Nazi’s to kill the Jews, the perpetration of the lie ended.
As David closes in on age 80, he’s still not done. David often returns to Riga and continues to fight for justice, seeking restitution of land, art and money for property belonging to the Jews of Riga that were confiscated by the government. During one trip in 2001, as part of a group of Latvian Jews commemorating a memorial in Bikernieki Forest that honored murdered countrymen, David asked the architect, Sergej Ryzh, if he would consider designing a memorial to honor the victims of his hometown of Preili. Ryzh agreed and David set off to petition the Preili officials who were less than enthusiastic about the idea, perhaps an abrasive reminder of a shameful part of their history they would rather not revisit. Thus they provided David with a mountain of paperwork to complete. Overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles over the next three years, David and his dedicated team went to work collecting names, scrolls, registers and conducting site preparations for the construction of the Preili Holocaust Memorial within the grounds of the Preili Jewish Cemetery, which is the location where 750 Jews were executed in one day during the Nazi occupation. It is interesting to note that Christian students from all over Europe came to assist in the preparation for this memorial. Lacking any outside source of funding, David intensified his work as an Engineering Consultant to finance the project on his own. At the dedication on August 8, 2004 (the 63rd anniversary of the town’s Jewish execution), Prieli residents and official representatives, along with surrounding government personnel and ambassadors from Israel, Germany and Russia turned out en masse to honor those who had suffered at the hands of Nazi and local Nazi Collaborators. Since then, David and his team have supplied local schools with books and valuable historical documentation so that the once booming Jewish population of Prieli would not be forgotten nor erased from the annals of its local history.
As miraculous as this project was, David felt that because of its location towards the rear of the cemetery, he wanted to erect something more obvious that would draw a greater number of people onto the memorial grounds. By 2014, he completed his mission to ensure that his fellow countrymen would never be forgotten by those who betrayed them and constructed a magnificent gate that stood at the entrance of the cemetery right in the middle of the town to beckon any visitor into what would be called the Preili Memorial Park.
David remains the eternal light to the Jews of Latvia. According to Torah, Jews were to become a light among nations. David fulfills that prophecy as a living Yarzheit candle, his passion to keep the voices of the Holocaust victims and the burning desire of their survivors alive so that they will never be forgotten. He continues his fight by talking to thousands of people, especially young people so that tolerance, not hatred, is the prevailing message in any language, in any culture.
David’s son Emile proudly describes his father as a “very stubborn man” who once he makes his mind up to do something, doesn’t stop until the goal is achieved.” What made his father so unique in the face of the atrocities surrounding him was that “my father never accepted that he was not a free man. While his countrymen complained that they were victims, my father continued to believe he was still free.”
I have dedicated most of my life fighting the most covert to the most blatant forms of anti-semitism. Through David, I believe it is the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, who in spite of their soul-crushing persecution in the Holocaust and its history, have, like the phoenix rising up from the ashes, survived and thrived. Thus the State of Israel was created, fulfilling Theodore Hertzl’s prophecy that “If you will it, it is no dream.” David’s strength of character and fortitude to stand up to and overcome the enemy makes him the consummate patriot and an essential part of Jewish history.
My hope is that by reading the stories of this book, Jews in America, Israel, and around the world, as well as Pro-Zionist Christian groups will stand up and speak out, in the names of those who perished in the Holocaust so that they will not have died in vain. Their voices will be heard through us as we fearlessly challenge policies that spread hatred of the Jews, or any particular group of people, throughout the world. David teaches us through his actions, not just words, that one person, in his conviction to stand up against tyranny and hatred, can affect change through seemingly impossible odds. This, above all, is the message the world needs to hear: Nothing is impossible.
On a final note, I’d like to point out that the famous Nazi hunters, Serge and Beate Klausberger published David’s book in French at their own expense. Why? Because David is a hero of Jewish people everywhere. This book is such a historical and powerful account about the Holocaust, that is should be required reading for every student, in every country, in every discipline. As long as hatred and bigotry exist, this book should be on the shelf of every home, every school, every synagogue, church and mosque. David’s fight is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, not only as a part of Jewish history, but of World History. Hatred of any particular group is a stain on all humanity.