Title: They Watched Over Us
Author: Chaya Ziskind
Publisher: Puma Press
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1998
Location of Book: Makor Jewish Community Library, Melbourne
Cities/town/camps: Lithuania: Kovno, Vilna, Panar, Latvia: Riga, Estonia: Vaivara, Kivioli, Klooga, Talin, Poland: Dancig (Danzig), Germany: Stutthof, Oxencall-Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen, France: Paris
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
Ziskind’s memoir relates the experiences of a young Lithuanian Jewish woman during World War II. The book is written in the form of an extended letter to her children and grandchildren. The first 28 pages of the book describe life in Kovno and its Jewish ghetto, from 1941 until October 1943; 29 pages relate Ziskind’s experiences in Nazi labour camps in Estonia and then Germany; 31 pages deal with Ziskind’s time in Bergen-Belsen, her liberation there by the British, and her experiences in the aftermath of the war in France, Israel and then South Africa. Ziskind immigrated to Australia in 1996 to be with her family. The book also contains a moving letter written by one of Ziskind’s granddaughters who helped her type up the book. Ziskind first wrote of her experiences in Paris in 1946, at the behest of one of her relatives who suggested that she should write of her experiences while they are still fresh in her memory. Around half a century later, she translated the manuscript from Yiddish into English with the help of friends, and updated it. The book was finally published in 1998.
Beginning in the spring of 1941, one year after the Russian occupation of Lithuania, Ziskind portrays the destruction of Jewish life in Kovno, a city paralysed with fear of the advancing Wermacht and rising levels of anti-Semitism. The early discussion covers those who perpetuated the crimes, especially Lithuanian partisans; and those who resisted, such as the landlady who hid Ziskind’s family from anti-Semitic pogroms; and gentile friends who escorted Ziskind to school and local markets, thereby ensuring her family’s survival. Ziskind was able to finish school, but could not sit her final exams because she was Jewish. In August 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto in Slabotka, a suburb of Kovno, and all Jews were forced to move there. Jews were made to work on various labour-intensive projects, and many were treated violently or killed. In late October 1943, liquidation of the ghetto resulted in 10,000 Jews being murdered, whilst those remaining were transported to the Estonian labour-camps. Ziskind found herself interned at Vaivara, and then at Kivioli.
In August 1944, Ziskind and many others at Kivioli were moved. The elderly and frail were killed – Ziskind recalls being shown a stockpile of gold dentures, by a Lithuanian who was working for the Nazis. From Kivoli, Ziskind was taken to the nearby Klooga concentration camp, and then she and a few of her close friends were placed aboard a primitive prison-ship full of Russian POW’s that sailed to Dancig (Danzig) and then on to Stutthof. Ziskind describes vividly the awful conditions at Stutthof; she tells of inmates fighting over their meagre rations, of prisoners being punished for relieving themselves without permission, and of the suicide of a Jewish doctor in the camp who had been forced to witness horrible acts of violence.
One day, the Germans begin to relocate those capable of working from Stutthof to Oxencall-Neuengamme. Ziskind finds herself amongst those taken, and the narrative briefly takes a more positive turn. Under a more lenient camp commander, inmates are able to secretly celebrate Yom Kippur, breaking their fast with a ‘feast’ made of collected and smuggled food. Ziskind also tells of a concert that a group of inmates performed for Channukah, which was witnessed by the camp commander. The commander was eventually removed from his post after other Nazi officials at the camp reported his leniency to the powers above.
In early April 1945, Ziskind and others became aware that the war was coming to an end. Air raids were lasting longer, and the inmates of her camp were suddenly taken on a transport to Bergen-Belsen. Ziskind witnessed horrible atrocities at Bergen-Belsen, and saw death everywhere. Fortunately for her, however, liberation came soon, when the British arrived at the camp on April 15th. Ziskind remained at the camp for many months afterwards, as she tried to find a new home. Eventually, she managed to get to France, where she had relatives. Ziskind met her husband there, but times in France for her were difficult. Soon they made their way to Israel, and from there, finally, to South Africa, where Ziskind was able to build a new life.
Ziskind’s book is intensely personal. It relates her thoughts and feelings about the events that took place, as well as outlining her experiences themselves in great detail. The fact that, unlike many who have written memoirs about the Holocaust, Ziskind committed her experiences to writing soon after the war no doubt assisted her in recalling specific details. She often is able to remember the kinds of dates, names and experiences that often do not find their way into memoirs written many decades later. Perhaps reflecting the difficulty of accurately translating from Yiddish into English, the language sometimes appears slightly awkward, though this does not detract from the impact of the book. On the contrary, it makes the events feel like those of a real, normal human being, rather than a novel or a story written by a professional author.