Veterans: Miriam Akavia

Elie Wiesel wrote in his foreword to her first book, "Is anyone capable of understanding what you felt, as a little girl pursued by all the fiends of hell?"

Miriam Akavia 88 224 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Miriam Akavia 88 224
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Even 60 years after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Miriam Akavia's bright blue eyes are wells of sadness. Although she has built a good life, has children, grandchildren and is an acclaimed writer, the memories of her past haunt her still. As Elie Wiesel wrote in his foreword to her first book, An End to Childhood, "Is anyone capable of understanding what you felt, as a little girl pursued by all the fiends of hell?" "I was born three times," says Akavia whom I met in her apartment in Neot Afeka where she lives with her husband, retired diplomat Hanan Akavia. The first birth was in Krakow, a place she remembers with love and gratitude for the happy childhood she experienced there; the second when she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, where she was found on a pile of dead bodies, weighing 25 kilos; and a third when she arrived in Eretz Yisrael and realized that to survive here she had better not speak about the experiences of the camps. She maintained her silence for 30 years until the publication of her first book in 1975. "My older brother and I looked 'good' [i.e. Aryan] so we were sent out of the ghetto in 1940 with false papers. But I wanted to be with my family and returned after a month of 'freedom.' My brother, who was 17, was caught by the Gestapo and we never saw him again. "I endured many horrors during the war but the event that still burns in my mind was the murder of three little children I took care of in the ghetto as their parents were working. They were like my own children and they were shot in front of my eyes." With the liberation, she was taken by the Red Cross to Sweden and spent eight months in a hospital. In March 1946, she came with a Youth Aliya group on a boat from Marseille to Haifa and immediately to Kibbutz Deganya Bet. She had already met her husband, also a survivor from Hungary, and at first their only common language was German. ARRIVAL "We had to work half a day and study the rest of the time and they gave us adoptive families, but I didn't want one so I used to sleep outside on a bed in the orchard. Hanan and I married soon after arriving and the ceremony took place on the banks of the Kinneret. I arrived on a tractor and we had five guests and three presents. Eventually we moved to Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley. "I am a vegetarian and didn't want to work with animals so I did everything else, picking oranges and cleaning the toilets. We joined the Hagana like everyone and were taught to handle a gun but hoped we would never have to use them." SETTLING IN While on the outside Akavia smiled and sang and danced the hora, inside she relived the terrible suffering but had long decided that she would not speak about it. "When I first came I wanted to talk of my experiences, but the other young people, the sabras, made us feel that we had been cowards, that we didn't fight back, that we couldn't save our children and our parents. It was very painful but I understood that I have to keep quiet." She qualified as a nurse and had two daughters. They were afraid to ask questions and she just wanted them to be normal like other children. LIFE SINCE ALIYA She worked for several years as a nurse, first in Kfar Saba's Meir Hospital and afterward in Beit Loewenstein in Ra'anana, but in the late 1950s there was quite a flood of immigration from Poland and Akavia saw this as an opportunity to use her knowledge of the language and help. "I went to the authorities and offered to take care of the new immigrants, helping with jobs, accommodation and studies. I held this post for seven years." From 1964 to 1967 Miriam and Hanan were working in Budapest for the Foreign Ministry, but after the Six Day War when relations were broken off, they were thrown out. Soon afterward they were sent to Sweden, where she became involved with the refusenik movement and was cultural attaché, connecting to writers and beginning to write articles. Back home she enrolled as a student at Tel Aviv University, afraid that much younger students would laugh at her, a 45-year-old woman, even though she had already published several books. She studied Hebrew literature and did a special course on the Jews of Poland. Several of her books have been translated into other languages. End of Childhood (Ne'urim Bashalehet), her first book, which tells of her experiences in the month when she was out of the ghetto with her brother, was published by Yad Vashem and has gone into eight editions. In the last three years she has published five books. The walls of her study are lined with awards she has received, including the Yad Vashem Prize, the Society of European Culture Prize and the Prime Minister's Prize which she received from Yitzhak Rabin. Her work in improving Polish-Israeli relations has been recognized, as well as her membership in the Janusz Korczak Society of Israel. For many years she was chairman of the Israel-Poland Friendship Association which she helped found in the face of opposition from people who said it was too early for friendship. Today she is honorary president of the association. She serves also on the Yad Vashem Commission for Righteous among the Nations, a body which has to decide to whom to accord this title. "So far there are 16,000 Righteous Gentiles," she says. "We do a great deal of research, speak with witnesses, write letters and make many calls." BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL Miriam looks at me quizzically as though the question in her case is superfluous. "After my experiences, when we were a nation without a land and no one cared, this is the only place where I can live and I accept everything, the good and the bad." ADVICE "People have to come here. We aren't enough people yet. And a new exile is taking place. We have to try to show what a fantastic country we have, so many achievements. We must be together." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]