URI ORLECH

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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - WAKING HOURS - In­ter­na­tional Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day is tomorrow, Jan­uary 27

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

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