Veterans: Uri Orlev: From Brussels to Atlit

"I didn't know anything about Palestine except that my aunt had said we'd get food and new clothes."

Uri Orlev 88 248 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Uri Orlev 88 248
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
While evading the Nazis in wartime Warsaw, little Yurik and Kazik Orlowski were fighting their own imaginary battles. "Each of us had an army and a country and generals with names from books," the former Yurik Orlowski recalls. "And because I was older and had read more, I had more heroes in my army." The generals leading Yurik's forces ranged from General Napoleon and General Socrates to General Moshe Rabbeinu - the biblical Moses his grandmother had told him about. Much later, the vivid stories of Yurik's frightening and tragic childhood were transformed into memoirs and novels that have won accolades for the author Uri Orlev. The bookcases in his Jerusalem home brim with his 32 titles in most of the 38 languages into which they have been translated. EARLY LIFE Born in Warsaw to a physician and his wife, Yurik and Kazik would have continued enjoying a privileged childhood were it not for the rise of the Third Reich. Instead, they endured six harrowing years on both sides of the Warsaw Ghetto wall and in Bergen-Belsen. Those years are described in Orlev's books for a range of ages - especially The Lead Soldiers, The Island on Bird Street, The Sandgame and The Man from the Other Side. Homespun fantasy played a huge role in the brothers' lives. "I thought of myself as the hero of a thriller who had to survive until the happy ending on the book's last page, no matter who else was killed in it, because he was the main character," Orlev reveals in The Sandgame. Following the war, the brothers went to Brussels with their father's sister. Though their father had survived, they saw him again only 15 years later, when he resettled in Israel. ARRIVAL IN PALESTINE Their aunt secured passage for the boys aboard the Mataroa, which set sail for Haifa in September 1945. The brothers, then 14 and 12, were among many orphans and a handful of other children accompanied by parents. When they docked after a five-day voyage, the passengers sang "Hatikva," but aside from that the Orlowski brothers knew no Hebrew. They were taken to Atlit transit camp, where three weeks later they lined up with the other children to declare their desired destination. "Each of us had to tell the clerk which miflaga [Zionist movement] we belonged to," says Orlev. The request puzzled him. While the other children had come in organized groups from Sweden, Belgium and France, the Orlowskis were on their own. "I didn't know anything about Palestine except that my aunt had said we'd get food and new clothes." He asked the clerk to list the movements. To Yurik, all the words sounded like Turkish or Chinese. And then he heard "Gordonia." The clerk was referring to a youth movement named for philosopher A.D. Gordon that had helped found several kibbutzim. Yurik did not know that. But he did know that one of his war-game heroes was British Maj.-Gen. Charles (Chinese) Gordon of Khartoum. Excitedly, he nudged Kazik and said they'd found their movement. And so they were sent to Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley, founded in 1922 by Polish and Russian Gordonians. Orlev remembers being amazed at the kind of Jews he encountered there. "After the war and the ghetto, I was so disappointed in adults who couldn't save themselves or their children. They were helpless. Suddenly I was seeing strong and healthy Jewish people who were farmers, who had weapons to guard the kibbutz. It was a new system of life." A nurse at Ginegar transformed Yurik into Uri and Kazik into Yigal. "The poor child ran after me for two weeks shouting, 'Yurik, I forgot my name!'" Orlev recalls. Older kibbutzniks asked Uri to tell them his wartime experiences. "In the evening, we sat on the lawn under the moon and I told them the stories for hours in Polish. Nobody moved until I finished. As it appeared in my case, it's not true when people say that Israelis were not interested in what happened to us." SETTLING IN Orlev learned Hebrew and finished high school at the kibbutz. He then served two years in the infantry and returned to the kibbutz to work with cows. Having written and recited poetry while at Bergen-Belsen (published by Yad Vashem in 2005), he also began creating short stories. Orlev's favorite pastime was watching movies. He spent many Saturdays traveling to and from Haifa cinemas with Shlomo, a fellow kibbutznik, 20 years his senior from Germany. During their long bus rides, Orlev told his stories, and Shlomo urged him to write them down. After filling several copy books with a rough draft, Orlev received permission to spend a year with the family of Eliahu Soloveitchik, a man he'd met at Bergen-Belsen who was now living near Haifa. There, he continued writing in earnest. The resulting manuscript, which eventually became The Lead Soldiers, was painstakingly rendered into correct Hebrew by a young secretary he had met in the army. He submitted it to a publisher in 1954 and returned to the cowsheds of Ginegar. The pages lay on a shelf for a year, until Orlev retrieved them and submitted them elsewhere. The book was published in 1956 - with "Orlowski" changed to "Orlev" to sound more Israeli - and has been reissued several times. That same year, Orlev married a fellow kibbutznik and had a daughter, born while her parents were students at the Hebrew University. They divorced in 1962, and two years later Orlev married Ya'ara, a dance movement therapist and trainer. They have two sons and a daughter. Orlev has four grandchildren as well. DAILY LIFE In 1968, the Orlevs moved into a small stone-floored cottage in Yemin Moshe, outside Jerusalem's Old City walls. Now an exclusive enclave, it was then one of the capital's cheapest neighborhoods. "In the beginning, my wife was earning the money and I was taking care of the children, and repairing toys for the children in the neighborhood because I'm very good with my hands," says Orlev. Though it did not bring in much income, he also kept writing. In 1996, Orlev received the Hans Christian Andersen Gold Medal for his life work. He remains the only Israeli ever to receive this coveted award, whose patron is the queen of Denmark. The Island on Bird Street was later adapted to stage and screen in Europe, and Orlev continued winning prizes and greater fame as his other books became available in translation from Hebrew. Working at a computer in his cozy bedroom, Orlev is putting the finishing touches to Tarot Cards in Jambul Steppes, due out in January. The plot involves an eight-year-old Jewish boy from Poland who befriends a group of children in a Kazakh village and saves his family from starvation. Afterward, a tarot card reading precipitates a six-year journey to a new life in Israel. "I write only from time to time, when I have a good idea," he says. "Sometimes the idea cogitates a few years and then it takes me a few months to write the book." Orlev also translates Polish works into Hebrew and writes television and movie scripts. WORST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "The worst thing is that we are not making peace with the Arabs," said Orlev, who served in the Sinai Campaign and the Yom Kippur and Six Day wars. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "This is my home."