Uri Orlech is an 82-year-old writer and translator. He was born in Warsaw, Poland. When he was a boy, he was sent to the Nazi-run Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for two years. He now lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Yaara, and he has four children
Itry to get up in the morning at nine o’clock, but, if I have a lecture in school for young pupils, then I set the alarm for earlier. Now it’s only me and my wife, Yaara, in the house. We live in Jerusalem, in Yemin Moshe. It was the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the old city walls. It’s a quiet district. In the mornings, I usually hear the birds, the bells of a church and the muezzin from the Arab mosque. There are two synagogues in our neighbourhood.
I usually have breakfast alone — I have bread and cheese, a glass of herbal tea and I take some pills. Then I think about what I am going to do for the day. From time to time, I do some translation — I translate from Polish into Hebrew — but I haven’t written anything for years.
I started writing poetry when I was a boy in Bergen-Belsen and, afterwards, I began to write books. Not all of my stories are about the Holocaust.
I came to Israel in 1945. It was not Israel then. It was Palestine. I didn’t know anything about the place. After my mother was murdered by the Nazis, my aunt looked after me and my brother. We travelled from Germany to Belgium, and then she agreed to send us to Palestine. Going to Palestine changed my life. It was a whole new world.
I was born in Warsaw, where my father worked as an X-ray physician. My grandparents were Jewish and very religious, but my parents were secular.
There was nothing Jewish in our house — we didn’t eat kosher food nor did we celebrate the holidays. There were a lot of people like us. My nanny used to take me to the church and, if people asked me which was my right hand, I knew because it was the one I used to bless myself.
As a young boy, I would play with a gang of peasant children. We used to watch these strange people with black clothes and beards and ringlets, coming to our village. I thought they looked like they were coming out of hell.
They came with boxes full of buttons and needles to sell to the peasant women. We used to throw stones at them. Then one of my friends told me that I was Jewish. I didn’t believe this until my mother told me that it was true. I went to a modern school with Jews and Christians together.
It was very clear that the war was coming. My father was an officer in the reserve — as a physician — and, one day, he came home with the uniform. I told my granny that I was very proud of him because he was going to die for the homeland.
Then, when the war started, my father left, and me and my brother stayed with my mother. We went from the suburb of Warsaw to the centre of the city because the houses there had deep walls and strong cellars. Everything was changing very slowly, and I knew, each month, that I was more Jewish.
There were laws against the Jews on the streets, and they were forbidden to go to schools and universities. I had to wear a white armband with the Star of David. When we went to the ghetto in Warsaw, we lived in good conditions because of my father’s rank in the army. My mother sold her jewellery so that she could buy food for us on the black market. This was two years before the extermination.
Of course, the holocaust was terrible and horrible, and people were suffering and dying, but everyday life had many normal aspects to it. Human nature is such that it has to adapt to conditions and go on living. And living means laughing and crying, and having babies, and quarrelling. It went on like this for six years, but it was like a pressure cooker — very intense.
I used to play football in the streets in the ghetto. One day, my mother became ill and they took her to the Jewish hospital. She had a stroke and she became unconscious. Then the Germans came to the hospital.
They forced the patients to get out of their beds and took them away. Those
The Germans forced the patients out of their beds. Those who couldn’t get up were shot. That’s what happened to my mother
who could not get up were shot in bed. That’s what happened to my mother. Later on, when I was in Bergen-Belsen, I wrote some poems about her.
My brother and I hid in an attic and people brought us food. A lot of people in the ghetto were killed and many died of hunger. But I never believed that I was going to die. I heard that people were dying in the gas chambers, but I didn’t understand what it meant. We were too young.
My aunt bought us tickets to go abroad, but, when our train came to the station in Bergen-Belsen, the German officers helped us with our luggage. Nobody thought that they were going to kill us.
I was in Bergen-Belsen for two years and, for the first three months, it was like paradise. It was summer. We lived in a big wooden house and I played with children from other families.
Then it started to become more crowded and the food was scarcer. Every morning, we were taken outside to be counted. Sometimes, this was in the rain and snow. People were punished and humiliated.
I wasn’t scared all of the time, because you cannot be scared every day for six years. I cannot talk about it as an adult. I can only tell you the stories I remember as a child. I can’t say how the experiences of my childhood have affected me, but they didn’t stop me having a normal life. In fact, being the first-born son of a physician, in normal circumstances, I probably would have become a physician, too, but I was lucky that there was the war in between, so I was able to become a writer. That’s what I always wanted to do.
When I was a young boy, I was very angry at the Nazis because they killed my mother. But now I meet Germans in Germany, and it’s usually very exciting because we are two sides of the same thing — what happened to me and what happened to them. They cannot understand what their parents and grandparents did, and how it happened to them.
In the evenings, I often go to concerts with my wife, and we enjoy visiting our grandchildren in Tel Aviv. I do not look back, but, from time to time, I write a new date in an email or letter, and I stop for a second because I cannot believe it. When we were in Bergen-Belsen, I remember saying to my friends: ‘Do you think we’ll still be alive in 1950?’ In conversation with Ciara Dwyer