Telling the Life Story of Death

A Conversation with Uri Orlev

There were no lead soldiers in my toy drawer. My mother maintained that is was dangerous stuff and used for making bullets. Uri Orlev's book was one of the few books on the Holocaust that I read in my youth. It was written two years before I was born, a sabra, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Like the child in the Passover Hagada I knew, but for years did not dare to ask.

I remember myself struggling with the characters' foreign names; Yorek and Kazcik. Only when I grew up did I realize that Yorek and Uri were one. Unlike other stories, this one really happened.

Jerusalem, the end of summer. Uri Orlev's house overlooks a spectacular view, like a tourist postcard. A Jewish neighbourhood built in the last century. Day and night the Old City wall climbs Uri's balcony. It is hard to escape that banal thought about the vicissitudes of fate. After all, Uri was once behind walls, like the title of his book The Man from the Other Side.

"The books say that before a war breaks out there are signs, such as a comet which is a harbinger of disaster or earthquake. None of the things that happened to us during our last summer vacation in the mountains could be interpreted as such a sign. Except perhaps the rain." (Lead Soldiers)

The child who played at war was careful not to say explicitly "the Holocaust", but nevertheless six years of his childhood match that period. Born in Warsaw, the son of Dr. Orlovsky, the physician, he lived with his brother through the German occupation in hiding, in the Warsaw ghetto, a factory, anmd the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Each chapter-heading contains a spreading passage of life, and holds, to me, a great deal of sorrow. His mother was killed. His aunt took the two children under her wing and saved their lives. After the liberation he and his brother came to Israel..

The Holocaust is not present in all his books, but Lead Soldiers, the first one, written when he was twenty-three, was the story that was crying out to be written. In The Island in the Street of the Birds, which has been translated into many languages and gained Orlov worldwide praise, a child hides in a half-ruined house in the abandoned ghetto, and lives a life of survival, rather like Robinson Crusoe - his favourite childhood story. "Suddenly I understood that it was happening to me too. I too am beginning to be the hero of an adventure story."

His stories are written through the eyes of the childobserving the events. "I can't think about what happened to me, as an adult. The child I was saw it it as an adventure. When I write about the Holocaust I write from the standpoint of a child. Childhood is the source from which every artist draws his material. The Holocaust is part of my childhood. It does not negate my childhood. On the contrary, childhood in wartime has intriguing, interesting and scary aspects, also repellent and revolting, all much and more forcefully than in an ordinary childhood."

"One day I made up a story in which the war, the Holocaust, all that, was not really happening. It's just a deam I'm dreaming. I am the son of the Emperor of China and my father had ordered to place my bed on a large dais, around which twenty wise Mandarins were seated. They are called Mandarins because each one had a mandarin attached to his hat. My father ordered them to put me to sleep and make me dream this dream so that when the time came, and I inhjerited his throne, I would know how bad war was and what it means to be hungry and without parents, and I would not make war." (The Game of Sand)

Uri Orlev: "The war gave mother back to us. Before the war we hardly saw our mother, she was so busy. We were taken care of by a nursemaid and a cook. Suddenly mother was reading us stories, cooking and playing with us. We saw her great love! She kept up our normal life, no matter what was happening around us, so that we would be children in a children's world. We ate, when there was anything to eat, at the normal times. She took care that there should be a plate, even if it was empty, whatever we had should be nicely served, that we went to bed on time, wore pajamas. She did all of this until they killed her."

I am listening to Uri's childhood stories. They were all woven into his stories, one way or another. He tells the stories as he writes, without barriers. A man of integrity and directness.

The game of flies. They children sailed boats made of empty match-boxes in which they stuck masts made of toothpicks, in a bowl of water. The sailors were flies, whose wings they had clipped. They followed their struggle to stay above water.

The trash of war. Once the children found a box of German ammunition. They made a bonfire and threw it in. It's a miracle they survived.. "We did all the things children do at a time of war, which do not exist in peace. Of course, I am not saying that war is better, but it transformed by childhood into something experiential, amazing, even if it was traumatic."

The sights come back to him like a movie. Once he saw a Jew and a Pole walking on a cold and white winter's day. He followed them. Suddenly the Pole thrust a knife in the Jew's stomach. The Jew fell on the snow.

"A child sees things but does not interpret them. He accepts the world as it is. A child in a clean slate. This is the world you were born into. You accept it in order to survive, like someone who lives in a jungle and learns to beware of the tiger."

The murder he saw waswoven naturally into the world in which he lived. He learned arithmetic by counting dead bodies in the street. "I saw they were dead, I didn't ignore the fact, but their death was part of the world in which I lived."

In Bergen-Belsen he was the only one who watched the "Kapo" beating the "muzulmans" over the head and murdering them at the fence. No one else came out to watch. That was when the game of the flies came to an end, suddenly they seemed to him like those "muzulmans" twitching in the mud.

"Even in that Hell, children played. My need to play was like hunger, just as intense., I will play under any conditions."

As if to confirm this Uri screens for me the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on video. A British officer describes finding five children in an abandoned hut, playing with bits of straw over the decaying body of a woman.

"As long as you are not dead and have not turned into a "muzulman", a living corpse, as long as you have not lost your sense of humour, you are human. Whoever criescries, whoever tells jokestells jokes, whoever plays plays."

Unlike Uri, who candeal with what happened to him only as it was engraved on his childhood memory, my mother was an adult. What she went through in the war was reduced to a black hole and to the code word "Auschwitz", which magnetized the terror. On one of the rare occasions when she opened her heart to me, she told me of a small act of charity, how she was saved by a "Kapo" who gave her the strength to live. From this single story my book, The Glass Hat, about the children of the survivors, developed.

We are two linked generations. Over the years I found myself repeatedly touching the open wound. At times without meaning to do so. If I were Uri's daughter, I might have also heard of the "normal" moments, amid the abnormal existence.

"Adults," he says, "tend to remember only the horrors and the bad moments. For a child these are hunks of cruelty, in otherwise six fairly quiet years. Adults remember only the evil and that is what they passed on to you. You lack the spaces which turn life into real life. I was sure that at the deportation site I would see bodies and blood, shooting and screaming, but there was green grass and people sat in groups, and a big red sun was setting. I remember my mother saying to me: "Look Yorek, even here the beautiful remains beautiful."

Would he write the same story for a child?

"I cannot remember the things differently, because that frightens me. I intuitively tell the story differently to a child and to an adult. You see, I have a full stock of stories in my head. I open the appropriate drawer. I want to tell this particular story to this particular child. I tell Nava, Nava's story."

In the Game of Sand he did not write about how his mother died. In Lead Soldiers he reduced it to a four-line paragraph, like a live hand grenade.

He devoured life and everything in it with wide-open eyes, from a childish confidence that nothing bad could happen to him. Uri does not remember himself being unhappy. "There were moments of great terror and in my writing I can connect to them. Bombs are falling. German footsteps over the roof of our hideout. But the moment they passed, it was over. A German once shot at people in the ghetto and everyone fled. I too ran away, but I don't remember being frightened. Even when I was caught I was opnoy scared at first, but when two Germans began to question me, my mind was busy with plans."

Do his fears return to him in his dreams? At the time he dreamed of his mother rolling like a ball of fur. Today he seldom dreams. Perhaps because unlike the story about the Emperor of China, the war and the Holocaust did really happen.

I persevere: Where is the hidden fear? As an adult I found out that even in its absence, the parents' loss casts a shadow on the children.

He has a recurring dream. It is dusk and Uri is walking in the street with a friend, when he realizes that they are being taken to place where they will be killed. "My walking is towards death. Suddenly the threat breaks out."

"The person I am today must walk cautiously with these memories because they may be extremely dangerous. It is as if I am walking on a frozen lake and am careful at all times not to step too heavily. In other words, not to speak or think of what happened with the eyes of the adult I am today. It could be like jumping on thin ice. The ice may crack and I will sink into the abyss. And I know that I may never be able to return." (The Game of Sand)

Jerusalem. The end of summer. Uri Orlev and my mother connect. He was a child. She was a young woman. Even so, they reached the same bottom line. A permanent warning to the next generation. We live on a fragile shell. Be on guard at all times, because at any moment disaster may happen.

Is there a danger that children may mistake war for an exciting adventure?

Uri will hasten to point out their mistake.

His own children ask about his childhood, less about the Holocaust itself. Seeing the movie based on his book, The Island at the Street of Birds, his daughter cried. One of his friends said: "The child is suffering terribly, he just is not aware of his suffering." Uri himself found it difficult to watch the child being thrust against the destroyed house. His life came back to him in all its sharpness..

"As a child I was not aware of my suffering. When my mother fell ill and I visited her for the last time I did not want to go to her. She looked so sick. My aunt pushed me with a fist in my back."

Loss is the source of continuous pain. The death of his mother. Willy-nilly I lead Uri Orlev down the slippery path of memory, as if he were one of my own parents. Forgive me, Uri, I did not mean to hurt you.

The date is etched in the mind. January 18, 1943. His mother is in the ghetto hospital. The last aktion . For the first time the Jewish policemen refuse to cooperate. The Germans enter the hospital, go from bed to bed and finished off everyone. When people spoke about it in the factory Uri understood that his mother had been murdered.. He never talked about her death with his brother, or his aunt.

"Death is a mysterious epidemic no-one wants to talk about. People are dying around you all the time and you don't want to catch it." Only in the poems he wrote in Bergen-Belsen did the grief break out. He wrote them in total darkness, his fingers groping for the line. Later he would write a children's book, The Thing in the Dark about his fears.

In The Lead Soldiers Zofia, the mother, goes to heaven after her death and meets her brother, Adek. "Brother and sister disappeared, arm in arm, behind a row of trees of life and knowledge. At the same time angels gave them drink. Zofia was not aware that suddenly she had grown wings."

Did you cry during the war?

"Once, in the camp. My aunt asked me why and I said, "Because of my Mother." He won a rare hug from his strict aunt.

Bereavement, that subterranean, dark and hidden, river continues to flow slowly.

He has his back to me in the Jerusalem kitchen. His face is hidden, he is bending over the cooker, busy making coffee. He thinks he knows what was going on in his mother's mind when the German was about to shoot her in the head with his gun, as she lay in bed. Did she say anything to the murderer who told her to turn to the wall?

"She was wondering whether the two of us, my brother and myself, would survive..."

He would like to invent a time-machine, just so as to return and tell his mother that her children survived. "We do not know what the dead know. Even now when I need my mother I talk to her."

On one of his visits to Poland he asked to see his grandfather's home in Czestochowa. He had to get the address at the local registry office.. He walked down the long corridor and found himself speaking to his mother. "If you want me to see the house in which you grew up, do something." Suddenly the door opened and he saw a room full of old books in beautiful leather bindings. The clerk asked him to wait. By the time she returned he had almost given up hope. She showed him a big wooden box with index cards in which he found the address immediately. As though someone was directing everything from above. The house in which his mother grew up moved him intensely, more than all the houses in which he himself had lived.

He sat in a cafe across the street and gazed at it for hours. "I thought about how my mother saw everything."

"I wanted to see the houses I lived in order to believe that they existed, that I had not made up this childhood." The child inside drove him, almost against his will, he says.

"Father could not calm down. He kept looking and looking at me and gazed at my face. Had I changed so much!? A short time passed. About five months. Maybe I have grown a bit. But what else? He said that then I was a child and now I had the face of a man. It was not really true. I didn't have a beard, not to mention my voice. I only learned how to get by, I said. That's all, but I am the same as I was. (The Island in the Street of Birds)

The child inside continues to drive him as a writer as well. Losing his mother and longing for his father are two torments of which he is aware. Not everything is written in Lead Soldiers and Games of Sand, but whatever is there really happened. When he arrived at Kibbutz Ginnegar in 1945, the teacher introduced him to the children as "an ember (in Hebrew:ood) saved from the fire". So at first the children called him Oodi. He remembers sitting on the lawn near the dining hall, on a night with a full moon, with the Polish speakers in the kibbutz. Actually he told them what he would later write. He still has the notebooks, written in Hebrew with some effort. Few erasures. If his mother tongue still exists, it is buried deep inside. Only the basic and childish elements remained of that language. He automatically counts up to six in Polish.

When The Lead Soldiers was published it was received with astonishment. A decade ago, while giving a lecture at Kibbutz Geva, Uri was overtaken by physical panic. Emotion had perceived what the mind had long known. Suddenly it became clear to him that he could have easily been one of the dead.

He often speaks to audiences. Telling the story of his life is not a mechanical process.. The shining eyes of young people cause him to tell his story as if for the first time. The source - large, complex and intricate - is in his mind and at times it becomes blurred. All his stories derive from this source. For each book he takes a different section.

Once a foreign journalist asked him if he had exhausted the subject. Uri Orlev responded: "For you the Holocaust is a holocaust, for me it is childhood."

His Zionist conviction is based on his experiences. The helplessness of the adults who could not save their children or themselves, "only because they did not have a homeland. This ‘togetherness'. You rise and fight back with everyone. The feeling that here we are a people, which in moments of danger is transformed into a single being, like any other people - that is my Zionism."

"While I was still there an here tical thought crept into my heart - that there is no God. I remember how I frightened myself, because I had to maintain good relations with God so that he would help me to escape. The thought was simple and logical: there is no God. Hew simply isn't. And we, human beings, and actually all the animals as well, are alone in the world, and everything we do is just between ourselves." (The Man from the Other Side)

The thing that has driven him all his life is the urge to tell stories. "One story leads to another. A connection is created between people far apart in age and culture." Many of his books deal with subjects defined as everyday life, childrens' lives everywhere and at any time; dreams, hopes, mischief, boundless imagination. The literary labels everything and children's literature is categorized as inferior to that intended for adults. Who can argue with the labellers' stupidity? Fortunately readers are not concerned with classification. Last year Uri Orlev became the first Israeli writer to win the prestigious Andersen Prize. I find consolation in his words: "Literature is literature. But when I tell things to children I feel better."

Why is it less pleasant to write for adults?

"In the books I wrote for adults I could not be free. I had to be considerate. For children I write the way I write, tell the way I talk."

"I am writing an adventure because I also regarded myself as a hero of a thriller, whose ending must inevitably be good." (The Game of Sand)

All his books, he feels the need to emphasize, have happy endings. By and large, he will not read a book that does not have a happy end. "Though in a real story you you cannot change the ending. It is a true story, from beginning to end."

Can a person know the end in advance?

The Lead Soldiers supposedly ends well. After all, Yorek and Kazcik survive. But a reader like myself, in the fourth decade of her life, my parents' daughter, can't forget that the mother was murdered and the father came too late.

In one of my books, Gershona, the sabra, falls in love with a boy who seems to epitomize the perfect Israeli. Tall, fair, totally immune.. At the end of the book she discovers that her lover is really a refugee from Poland, a Holocaust survivor who has been concealing his true identity. I called the boy who lost his mother Yanek Orlovsky, a gesture to Uri Orlev, without knowing him personally. I simply loved the books.

Objects that he saves in a box in his home. lead soldiers; the secret advisor, two generals, made of little wooden spools. Ori Orlev carved theirfaces with his own hands. He exchanged them for stamps in Bergen-Belsen.

"Even there what was beautiful remained beautiful" - I must memorize the words of his mother.

"I bought you coloured papers, his aunt said. Paste and cardboard. You will be able to make more soldiers, and in the end, we will win the war with their help. (Lead Soldiers)

I am getting further away from Jerusalem. I'm on my way home. It is already dark.

Uri Orlev's words echo in my mind: "I tell the life story of death."


Published in Hebrew Modern Literature, Nos: 20-21, 1998, pages 18-22

© All rights reserved to NAVA SEMEL 2017