Bearing witness

After his parents died in 1987 within six months of each other, Solly Kaplinski paid what he calls a “cathartic” visit to Poland in 1988 as part of the annual March of the Living.

Solly Kaplinski (photo credit: Courtesy)
Solly Kaplinski
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a poem titled “To Go Home?” Solly Kaplinski writes, “I owe it to you Mom & Dad/ even tho’ you rest in the earth/to go home.” Kaplinski, 70, a former headmaster of Herzlia High School in Cape Town, dedicates his anthology of poetry Lost and Found: A second-generation response to the Holocaust, to his late parents – “who were constantly in danger and on the run as Bielski Partisans in the forests of Russia for three traumatic years.”
After his parents died in 1987 within six months of each other, Kaplinski paid what he calls a “cathartic” visit to Poland in 1988 as part of the annual March of the Living.
“It released a gush of hitherto repressed and unabridged emotional responses,” which are reflected in his poetry, he says.
Kaplinski’s parents made their way in 1947 to South Africa, from where he and his wife, Arleen, moved in 2000 to Israel, where their three daughters and families live. Today, as Executive Director of the Overseas Joint Ventures at the Joint Distribution Committee in Jerusalem, his mandate is “to develop partnerships with federations, foundations, individuals and families outside the USA to support and invest in JDC projects in Israel and internationally.”
Kaplinski has also written a novella entitled A World of Pains: A Redemptive Parable? as “a memorial to family members who perished in the Ponar forest in Vilnius during the Shoah.”
The seeds for the story began to germinate on September 4, 2003, when Israeli pilots – the sons of Holocaust survivors – flew three jets over Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two years later, after chief pilot Avi Maor addressed an audience at the opening of the new Yad Vashem Museum, the son of a Nazi officer knelt down at the pilot’s feet, and asked for forgiveness.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Kaplinski recalls. His novella, told through the lens of a successful human rights lawyer dedicated to supporting vulnerable children, explores the theme of accountability for long-forgotten savage crimes he committed more than 50 years previously. The revelation breaks as he is announced as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and is due to deliver his acceptance speech.
The narrative asks what the appropriate punishments for unimaginable crimes are. “Weaving back and forth from Shoah-torn Lithuania and New York in the late 1990s, the historical context of the Holocaust is the backdrop of the dastardly deeds and turbulent emotions of the protagonist when confronting his repressed memories,” Kaplinski explains.
His words resonated as I put together the current issue of The Jerusalem Report ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. I could not help but see a link with the cover story by Alan D. Abbey marking 16 years since the Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy on February 1, 2003 in which Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon was killed.
Ramon, whose wife, Rona, died of cancer on December 17, 2018, and whose son, Asaf, was killed in an F-16 training accident in 2009, was the son of Holocaust survivors. He changed his name from Wolferman to Ramon when he joined the IAF as a fighter pilot, later taking part in the Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
On his fateful journey into space, Ramon took several items connected to the Holocaust, including a tiny Torah scroll hidden during the Shoah given to him by Prof. Yehoyachin Yosef, a Bergen-Belsen survivor, and a copy of “Moon Landscape,” a sketch drawn by Petr Ginz, 16, who perished in Auschwitz.
“So why go back you may ask,” Kaplinski writes at the end of his poem on his trip to Poland, providing his own answer: “To remember/to bear witness/to be the link/to pay homage/to take care of the past.”