by Elisha Porat
translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
I first learned the story of Leopold Spitzer's escape from the Nazis and their Slovak
collaborators in three closely-spaced pages sent me by a friend from the Czech
immigrants' association. An unadorned account, concise and touching, written in an
artless, even deliberately simplistic style. A boyhood friend of Spitzer from up in the
Zionist youth movement before choosing a different path that eventually led to a high
position in the Communist Party. His comments, initially recited as a eulogy at Spitzer's
funeral, afterwards were published in an influential Bratislavan journal in the winter of
1968, shortly after Spitzer's death.
Yom Kippur, September 1942.
Sector C's turn at the labor camp came just as dusk was falling. We recognized the
commandant’s private automobile leading the small convoy through the field. He had
just returned from Bratislava and now fell on his aides, screaming, "Why isn't the list of
transfers ready?" Terrified by his ranting, the clerks immediately drew up the list. The
criteria for inclusion on the list for transport were simple: advanced age, illness, families
with large children, and low productivity. Only the strong, the healthy young "slaves",
could hope to remain in the labor camp.
Behind the commandant’s auto crawled covered trucks, followed on foot by a large
troop of Guardists, the Slovak Nazis. Their black uniforms portend evil tidings. In the
solemn, still twilight that Yom Kippur night, the sight of them was terrifying. It was the holy
day of judgment, a day that should have been one of profound conciliation between
God and man. The Guardists spread out around the camp gate, deployed along the
fence and then broke into several barracks. There was no need to announce muster.
The people themselves slowly began to leave the barracks, then stood on the parade
ground before the camp's sector office.
I felt sure my name wouldn't appear on the list of transfers. Even if it did, I could flee
into the nearby forests at any time. I was young and in good health; I feared nothing. Yet
I at that time had no thought of fleeing. The truth is, the idea simply hadn't occurred to
me. I felt bound by invisible fetters to the events on the parade ground. Running off
would have required Herculean strength, not only because of the danger of being
caught and shot but because of a sense of shame. Flee? before all those large
families, whose burden of children left them no choice but to submit? No, in that
situation, I lacked the strength to flee.
They took Blanca, the young daughter of a poor Jewish tailor. Blanca, with her blue
eyes and dark tresses, whom I often had borne on my shoulders. I'd even carved
wooden toys and played the guitar for her. Now I saw her led off with a small, clinging
group. Mute, I edged away from the tailor and his wife. "You'll follow us, right?"
beseeched little Blanca. Her blue eyes cast a limpid glance at me.
I don't ask anyone to pity me. I have no need for pity today. That was a long time ago,
way back in 1942. All that is now cold and forgotten. new misfortunes and tragedies
have pushed aside the memory of that Yom Kippur. But at the time, I fled to an obscure
corner of the camp, lay face down and wept. Instead of searching for a gap in the fence,
a path to the forest, I beat the evil earth with my fists. the image of little Blanca
By the events occurring on the parade ground outside the camp's headquarters, one
could easily grasp what value life would hold in the death camps of Poland. Here on the
clearing was the corridor leading to the camps. Here people lost their names for the first
time. Their names, which they had borne all their lives, ceased to be a means of
identification. They remained only as distinctive marks. Each person became merely one
number among many, a part of the mass, a speck in the multitude. And the mass lost it
character. Divided into barracks and train cars, it carried the first 50 names. Later, those
names passed to the next 50 to arrive and then to those who came after them. After
that, names became entirely superfluous and a person was just a number.
I returned to observe how those marked for transport took their leave. Arik Pulitzer's
mother walked with them. So did his blind father, who had taught school in Trenchin
before losing his sight. He saw nothing but heard everything. And that was enough for
him to imagine what was happening in the barracks and beyond, on the melancholy
plaza. With them walked Arik, a boy of 17 whom the barracks residents had hidden until
then. Arik was ill with a heart condition. before bed each night, he would serenade his
bunk mates, playing his harmonica and, at times, the violin. Fearing that his music would
land him on a transport, his mother had asked him to stop playing. A boy who only made
music and never worked? She was afraid they would seize him because he didn't work,
just played his instruments. But he stayed in the camp to the end, even after his parents
were taken. He was killed later on, during the partisan revolt.
Literally by force, I managed to prevent Spitzer from leaping unwittingly to his death.
Spitzer's literary name later would be associated with the war, the subject of human
degradation and the quest for fundamental answers to the terrible questions of life.
Using a nom de plume, he gained fame writing of the peaks and depth of human acts.
Some of that, perhaps most, he saw then, at the Novaki labor camp. Those memories
later served in his work as the raw material for his artistic impulses. he continued to mine
them until his death.
I first met him long before that, in his beloved Bratislava back in 1939. I was then a
poor Jewish student wholly without means, working as a porter at the Schindler and
Yadlin flour mill. Those were the best days of my life. The sacks were damn heavy but
they paid us well. We unloaded grain from the river barges, then at the mill loaded
blends of flour for the Third Reich. Leopold's mother was a delicate woman. His older
brother, who was taking voice lessons, later made a career singing in the opera. His
younger brother, whose vision was so poor that he had to drop out of school, seemed
somewhat dull and backward to me. I would pass entire evenings with dear Leopold in
his room on Wolonska Street. Surrounded by his books, we sat in the loft while he
played Spanish, Italian and French songs, as well as Jewish and Serbian tunes, on his
mandolin. He had learned the Hebrew melodies as I had, in the local Zionist youth
branch. He drew, he wrote poetry and he knew how to combine his stories and art work
into fascinating tales. I couldn't help loving such a talented lad. Leopold was my first
Jewish friend. He was very well-educated, knew far more than I and already had traveled
extensively. He had seen France, and, with his bohemian friend, the poet Yaroslav
Teshko, had even visited Algiers. I admired him very much at the time.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he was already a Communist sympathizer.
Drafted into the Slovak army, he set to verse Moscow's stand against the Germans, to
the effect that the city, which had given life to the Soviet people and now asked that the
nation give its life for her, would never fall even if Germany destroyed her. Like one of
those leaflets dropped from the air, his poem clandestinely passed among the Serbian
troops. To this day, I remember its gripping lines. Leopold's mother and younger brother
unexpectedly arrived at the camp when sector C opened. They raised rabbits at the
camp for food, and only Leopold's mother could spin the angora pelts. A skilled artisan,
she knew how to turn the spindle and make rabbit fur into strands of wool.
In the summer of 1942, Leopold sent me a letter that I still cherish. He was hiding from
the roundups and the first transports in the mountains of eastern Slovakia. On learning
that his mother and brother had been interned at the Novaki camp, he decided to
become a camp resident with them. One had to pay a fee at the time for the "right" to
become a prisoner at the Novaki camp. The price was paid in either cash or equipment.
Leopold had nothing. Even so, I managed to smuggle him into Sector C. No one
carefully checked the inventory or the list of prisoners. Leopold worked in the projects
development office, drawing, painting signs, writing poems and strumming his mandolin.
Although lacking his older brother's talent, he sang for the camp inmates, and very
nicely. He also received permission to show his sketches in the camp dining hall and
give lectures on his trips to Europe and Algeria.
Leopold was born in Urba, a small town in eastern Slovakia, but chose to live in
Bratislava. As much as he loved the city, he never missed an opportunity to visit his
birthplace. Whenever he went back, he would see his old school friend Jan Mordoch,
the famous artist. According to Leopold, Mordoch drew only flow petals, apples and
pitchers. Unlike many other artists, he never sold his soul to the fascist Slovak regime.
When I met Mordoch years later, he was very surprised that I knew so much about him.
He knew a great many artists, poets and authors whose names I had seen only in
journals and the monthly magazines. Not all of them were Nazi collaborators, we realized
that, but it was difficult to determine who had sold out and who hadn't. The anti-Semites
knew how to disguise themselves when it suited their purposes.
Art and poetry, and the bond among poets who hadn't engaged in betrayal, fortified us
in those dark, hard times. How fervently we identified with these lines written by one
"If all we have loved should die
Like the darling we've just buried,
An unknown void with a first name,
Sorrow will spread its over us..."
That indeed was our sad reality.
The transport list included Leopold's younger brother, who had been working at a
dismantled camp in another sector. He labored hard, endlessly dragging heavy planks
and iron railway ties. A malevolent guard, spotting him nod off from exhaustion, added
his name to the transport list. Since his mother also was in the camp, her name, too,
went on the list. He skipped over Leopold, whose name didn't appear on the master
roster. I shuddered when I saw their names on the list. It was the only time I asked a
favor of the commandant. I sought nothing for myself. I pleaded on behalf of Spitzer, his
mother and his younger brother. Spitzer was a gifted artist and a poetic genius, I told the
commandant, a talented musician who must not be sent to Poland on the transport. I
begged him to spare Leopold and his family.
The commandant, half-drunk, fixed me with a hollow look. "Yes, of course," he said.
"And why don't you take all the Jews? I don't need them. I'll give them all to you. Take
them." He suddenly started raging at me, threatening to add my name to the transport
list with all the others. "Why? God, Why have you punished me with the Jews?" When
he'd finished ranting and cursing me, he sank into gloom. Then he sprang up. In an
entirely business-like tone, he told me that Spitzer could stay in the camp.
But Leopold wouldn't hear of it. Was he to stay while his mother and brother left? He
would join them at once. I implored him. He would be of no use going with them. They
would be separated in any event, and he would then be of no help to his mother. This
was an unfair argument; true, but unfair. We knew the Germans ignored family ties at
the death camps. They divided men from women and tore children from their mothers'
arms. If he accompanied his mother on her final journey, I told him, he would have to
watch her die in a cattle car packed with hopeless people. And he would have no
chance to help her. I remembered my parents, who had been killed with a pang of
conscience. It was a comfort to me that I, compelled to stay alive, hadn't been with them
in their last, awful moments. Leopold, however, ignored me and still wanted to join his
family. It was only by chance that the convoy guards foiled his plan. I knew some of
them. They were from my home province, some had gone to school with me. In secret, I
asked them to keep Leopold off the transport, and they barred his way. The next day,
after the transport had left, we met in the camp. Furious, he spat at me. Then, without a
word, he turned on his heels and strode into his barrack.
Early in the morning, Novaki's deputy railway director rang up with an urgent call. The
number of transfers on the transport was incomplete. Dozens Jews were needed to fill
the quota. The dreaded Guardists again stalked the barracks. Again, they drove out the
wretched tenants, assembled them on that terrible plaza and culled the required
numbers. All the while, they beat the Jews, cursing, threatening, shoving. Yet the
commandant, upon departure of the transport, lied in his cable regarding completion of
the operation. During the final transports of late September, 1942, he saved close to
200 Jews. Instead of 400 Jews, only slightly more than 200 left Novaki for annihilation on
September 22. Leopold's family, though, wasn't among those saved. For many years, I
felt on my face the spray of his silent, wrathful spit.