The memoir of Zev Birger – born in 1926 in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania – expresses how his tragic past was turned into exceptional creative energy (No Time for Patience: My Road from Kaunas to Jerusalem: A Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor).
His memoir opens with the narration of an idyllic childhood in Kovno, the city where many progressive Jews lived. Both of his parents strongly believed in the need to build a national Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, a view they passed on to their children. In the end, it was Birger’s pursuit of Zionism as the only valid solution for the Jewish people that brought some coherence to his life.
It was no surprise that at the beginning of the war, in 1940, Zev was among the young adolescents who founded a Zionist organization, which was appropriately called Bnei Zion (The Sons of Zion), with the aim of spreading Hebrew culture and language. However, its development was thwarted by the Soviet occupation and the German invasion.
No sooner did the Soviets invade Lithuania than the activities of Zionist organizations were banned. Many Jews belonging to the Lithuanian bourgeoisie suffered persecution. On June 22, 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union began, and within one week Lithuania fell under Nazi occupation. In July, all the Jews – the Birger family included – were driven into a ghetto in Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno, leaving almost all their possessions behind. An aktion would regularly take place in order to murder them randomly.
Birger was one of the adolescents who published a handwritten Zionist journal of their organization. At risk to their lives, the journal was distributed to the Lithuanian underground and in the ghetto in order to rekindle the flame of Zionism and hope among the oppressed Jewish population.
Quite aptly, the handwritten newspaper was called Nitzotz in Hebrew, which means spark, a name inspired by the great Zionist poet Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934). “The political situation had pushed us too early into the role of adults,” Birger wrote years later about this formidable commitment on the part of adolescents. “It was clear to us that the future existence of the Jewish people was in danger and every effort was to be made to preserve Jewish identity.”
The young members of Bnei Zion were also involved in various underground activities such as building bunkers where food and water were stockpiled. When the aktion to evacuate the ghetto began, Birger and his family hid in a bunker. Five days later, on July 13, they were arrested by the Germans and, together with 300 Jews who had tried to remain in the ghetto, were forcibly led to the railway station. A victim of an early selection on the way, Birger’s mother was sent to the left. The family never saw her again. Put on a freight train, Birger and his brother Mordechai could have jumped out of the railway car but they did not want to leave their father behind.
They arrived at the Stutthof concentration camp and were transferred to Dachau a few days later. Taken to Kaufering IV, they joined the slave laborers in an underground German munitions factory, which built airplanes. Birger’s father died in his arms from exhaustion and a severe infection. His brother was sent to another camp, where he also died. Birger kept on being transferred, first to Kaufering V and then to Kaufering VII, which were harder places to work. All the time, while people in these labor camps and factories were struggling to keep up with the Nazis’ inhuman demands, Birger’s leitmotif was: “My revenge will be to survive!”
When the Dachau/Kaufering camp was liberated by American soldiers on April 27, 1945, Birger, a typhus-ridden living skeleton, was transferred to a nearby German hospital. When the American soldiers realized that he was proficient in several languages, he became their translator. There he could start the process of regaining his dignity and return to “normal life.” He was attached to the American unit and equipped with an impressive army uniform. Birger could feel some sense of belonging to this unit of American soldiers. The encounter with American Chaplain Yosef Miller was also instrumental in his psychological recovery.
Birger emphasized a major fact about the education given by Jewish chaplains in Jewish DP camps such as Zeilsheim in Germany: “If the children hadn’t got an education, they would have been lost to Israel, maybe lost too as good people. Many might have been good black marketers as some have become. They stayed in Germany and became very rich. Others, instead of doing that, went on aliyah, and came to Israel.”
The commander of the army unit almost begged Birger to migrate to the United States and fly back “home” with his soldiers, even promising that he would help him acquire American citizenship. However, he still believed that only in the Land of Israel would he achieve his dream of building the land.
He joined the Bricha network, consisting of survivors and financed unofficially by the JDC. In the framework of Aliya Bet, Birger visited various DP camps in order to help the youth organize their journey to Palestine. He would make sure that instructors from the Haganah taught the youngsters Hebrew, the basics of agriculture, and self-defense in these temporary camps. Finally, Birger organized transportation for them. It was then that he met his future wife, Trudi Simon, who had also gone through the horrors of the Kovno Ghetto and the Stutthof concentration camp. They married in July 1946, and on November 20, 1947, bearing false passports, reached the shores of Haifa, where they first lived together with Trudi’s mother who had survived the war.
Having worked with the Jews of Palestine in the framework of Aliyah Bet was a considerable asset for Birger, the first step toward successful integration since he spoke Hebrew and had adopted their style.
In our interview in November 2004, Birger was proud to say that he was never identified as a Displaced Person: he had found his place amid the young Jewish natives of Palestine. “For displaced persons, coming to Israel was an affirmation of identity,” he said. “At that time, a country peopled of Jews only or mostly was something unconceivable.”
When the War of Independence broke out, Birger was drafted into the fledgling Israeli army to protect the port of Haifa. After his discharge, he worked at the Customs Authority as a clerk checking all the ships entering the port. He quickly realized he had to work more to support the family, as he and his wife lived with his mother-in-law, so he worked for an insurance company in Haifa at the same time. In order to save money, he would walk to and from work to save the bus fare. As mentioned in his memoir, that is when he felt the need to study in order to become the acting director-general of the Customs Authority, an important position then because customs fees were one of Israel’s major sources of income.
“In the early 1960s, I returned to school,” he writes. “My professional career, after all, called for an academic education, which the war had prevented me from pursuing. So, alongside my work at the Customs Authority, I studied economics and public administration at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. After 20 years of work with the Customs Authority, from 1947 to 1966, having reached the position of acting director-general for customs affairs, I decided that I should end my career there.”
In the meantime, he had been given the responsibility in the 1960s of moving the customs office from Haifa to Jerusalem, where he settled with his family. It was a real challenge because although a symbol, the holy city resembled a village in which housing and infrastructure had to be built. In July 1965, when his two sons Doron and Oded were 14 and 11, a new son was born, Gil, a name meaning joy in Hebrew. Getting emotional when referring to his reconfigured family, Birger confided in our interview that “much more difficult than going to the war zone was to send one’s own son.”
In 1967, Birger’s career in public service took a new turn: he was appointed deputy director-general of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, and during the Six Day War was asked to reorganize the ministry. Recognizing the young state’s valuable asset in human resources, he set new goals, thus stimulating culture and creativity and promoting design, electronics (later hi-tech) and publishing. He promoted Israeli cinema by establishing the Israel Film Center, and helped to found the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, thus reshaping the cultural landscape.
During the Yom Kippur War, Birger and his wife were worried as the Egyptians launched a surprise attack on the holiest day of the year, when most of the Jewish inhabitants were attending religious services at the synagogue. While paying a condolence visit to friends whose son – a pilot – had been shot down when flying over Syria during combat, Birger asked president Ezer Weizman about the 14th Tank Division, where his second son was serving.
The president just answered, “Wiped out.”
Birger did not utter a word. He learned later that Oded was among the few soldiers of his platoon to have survived. For his parents, the shock had been terrible, reawakening war fears and traumatic memories. Even when writing his autobiography, Birger revealed that he had to constantly keep his emotions in check in order to proceed. However, his optimism sustained him all the way: “I never lost faith in mankind, even in the Nazi Hell.”
Birger retired from the Civil Service in 1977.
In 1980, he helped his wife create a free dental clinic for Jerusalem’s disadvantaged children. Trudi had suffered from brutal dental treatment while interned as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, and she wanted to mark her postwar rehabilitation appropriately. Dental Volunteers for Israel still provides free dental care for children and youth in need in Israel and around the world, in urban settings where foreign dentists could legally volunteer. The Birgers’ three sons served on the board of directors of Dental Volunteers for Israel.
For Zev Birger and his friend, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, the holy city was a jewel. In the 1980s, he asked Birger to develop tourism and industry in the city. The aim was to make Jerusalem an international meeting place that would foster cultural dialogue. Although Birger had stopped working, he undertook the challenge, crowning the town with international lights.
In 2000, the Jerusalem Municipality honored Birger as a Yakir Yerushalayim, a “worthy citizen of Jerusalem,” in recognition of the long years he had dedicated himself to the promotion of not only culture but also economy and tourism in Jerusalem. Birger was also honored by the governments of Germany and Lithuania for his undertakings.
Until he died on June 6, 2011, at the age of 85, after being struck by a motorcycle, Birger managed the Jerusalem International Book Fair, which became one of the most attractive in the world, a prestigious institution where authors, editors, and publishers from all over the world could meet and exchange points of views or find collaborators for their projects. ■
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is entitled, How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States and Israel (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018)