A Spit in the Face, by Elisha Porat.
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks.I first learned the story of Leopold Spitzer's escape from the Nazis and
their Slovak collaborators in three closely spaced pages sent me by a
friend from the Czech immigrants' association. An unadorned account,
concise and touching, written in an artless, even deliberately
simplistic style. A boyhood friend of Spitzer from up in the Zionist
youth movement before choosing a different path that eventually led to a
high position in the Communist Party. His comments, initially recited as
a eulogy at Spitzer's funeral, afterwards were published in an
influential Bratislavan journal in the winter of 1968, shortly after
Yom Kippur, September 1942.
Sector C's turn at the labor camp came just as dusk was falling. We
recognized the commandant's private automobile leading the small convoy
through the field. He had just returned from Bratislava and now fell on
his aides, screaming, "Why isn't the list of transfers ready?" Terrified
by his ranting, the clerks immediately drew up the list. The criteria
for inclusion on the list for transport were simple: advanced age,
illness, families with large children, and low productivity. Only the
strong, the healthy young "slaves," could hope to remain in the labor
Behind the commendant's auto crawled covered trucks, followed on foot by
a large troop of Guardists, the Slovak Nazis. Their black uniforms
portend evil tidings. In the solemn, still twilight that Yom Kippur
night, the sight of them was terrifying. It was the holy day of
judgement, a day that should have been one of profound conciliation
between God and man. The Guardists spread out around the camp gate,
deployed along the fence and then broke into several barracks. There was
no need to announce muster. The people themselves slowly began to leave
the barracks, then stood on the parade ground before the camp's sector
I felt sure my name wouldn't appear on the list of transfers. Even if it
did, I could flee into the nearby forests at any time. I was young and
in good health; I feared nothing. Yet I at that time had no thought of
fleeing. The truth is, the idea simply hadn't occurred to me. I felt
bound by invisible fetters to the events on the parade ground. Running
off would have required Herculean strength, not only because of the
danger of being caught and shot but because of a sense of shame. Flee?
before all those large families, whose burden of children left them no
choice but to submit? No, in that situation, I lacked the strength to
They took Blanca, the young daughter of a poor Jewish tailor. Blanca,
with her blue eyes and dark tresses, whom I often had borne on my
shoulders. I'd even carved wooden toys and played the guitar for her.
Now I saw her led off with a small, clinging group. Mute, I edged away
from the tailor and his wife. "You'll follow us, right?" beseeched
little Blanca. Her blue eyes cast a limpid glance at me.
I don't ask anyone to pity me. I have no need for pity today. That was a
long time ago, way back in 1942. All that is now cold and forgotten. New
misfortunes and tragedies have pushed aside the memory of that Yom
Kippur. But at the time, I fled to an obscure corner of the camp, lay
face down and wept. Instead of searching for a gap in the fence,
a path to the forest, I beat the evil earth with my fists. The image of
little Blanca tormented me.
By the events occurring on the parade ground outside the camp's
headquarters, one could easily grasp what value life would hold in the
death camps of Poland. Here on the clearing was the corridor leading to
the camps. Here people lost their names for the first time. Their names,
which they had borne all their lives, ceased to be a means of
identification. They remained only as distinctive marks. Each person
became merely one number among many, a part of the mass, a speck in the
multitude. And the mass lost its character. Divided into barracks and
train cars, it carried the first 50 names. Later, those names passed to
the next 50 to arrive and then to those who came after them. After that,
names became entirely superfluous and a person was just a number.
I returned to observe how those marked for transport took their leave.
Arik Pulitzer's mother walked with them. So did his blind father, who
had taught school in Trenchin before losing his sight. He saw nothing
but heard everything. And that was enough for him to imagine what was
happening in the barracks and beyond, on the melancholy plaza. With them
walked Arik, a boy of 17 whom the barracks residents had hidden until
then. Arik was ill with a heart condition. Before bed each night, he
would serenade his bunk mates, playing his harmonica and, at times, the
violin. Fearing that his music would land him on a transport, his mother
had asked him to stop playing. A boy who only made music and never
worked? She was afraid they would seize him because he didn't work, just
played his instruments. But he stayed in the camp to the end, even after
his parents were taken. He was killed later on, during the partisan
Literally by force, I managed to prevent Spitzer from leaping
unwittingly to his death. Spitzer's literary name later would be
associated with the war, the subject of human degradation and the quest
for fundamental answers to the terrible questions of life. Using a nom
de plume, he gained fame writing of the peaks and depth of human acts.
Some of that, perhaps most, he saw then, at the Novaki labor camp. Those
memories later served in his work as the raw material for his artistic
impulses. He continued to mine them until his death.
I first met him long before that, in his beloved Bratislava back in
1939. I was then a poor Jewish student wholly without means, working as
a porter at the Schindler and Yadlin flour mill. Those were the best
days of my life. The sacks were damn heavy but they paid us well. We
unloaded grain from the river barges, then at the mill loaded blends of
flour for the Third Reich. Leopold's mother was a delicate woman. His
older brother, who was taking voice lessons, later made a career singing
in the opera. His younger brother, whose vision was so poor that he had
to drop out of school, seemed somewhat dull and backward to me. I would
pass entire evenings with dear Leopold in his room on Wolonska Street.
Surrounded by his books, we sat in the loft while he played Spanish,
Italian and French songs, as well as Jewish and Serbian tunes, on his
mandolin. He had learned the Hebrew melodies as I had, in the local
Zionist youth branch. He drew, he wrote poetry and he knew how to
combine his stories and art work into fascinating tales. I couldn't help
loving such a talented lad. Leopold was my first Jewish friend. He was
very well educated, knew far more than I and already had traveled
extensively. He had seen France, and, with his bohemian friend, the poet
Yaroslav Teshko, had even visited Algiers. I admired him very much at
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he was already a Communist
sympathizer. Drafted into the Slovak army, he set to verse Moscow's
stand against the Germans, to the effect that the city, which had given
life to the Soviet people and now asked that the nation give its life
for her, would never fall even if Germany destroyed her. Like one of
those leaflets dropped from the air, his poem clandestinely passed among
the Serbian troops. To this day, I remember its gripping lines.
Leopold's mother and younger brother unexpectedly arrived at the camp
when sector C opened. They raised rabbits at the camp for food, and only
Leopold's mother could spin the angora pelts. A skilled artisan, she
knew how to turn the spindle and make rabbit fur into strands of wool.
In the summer of 1942, Leopold sent me a letter that I still cherish. He
was hiding from the roundups and the first transports in the mountains
of eastern Slovakia. On learning that his mother and brother had been
interned at the Novaki camp, he decided to become a camp resident with
them. One had to pay a fee at the time for the "right" to become a
prisoner at the Novaki camp. The price was paid in either cash or
equipment. Leopold had nothing. Even so, I managed to smuggle him into
Sector C. No one carefully checked the inventory or the list of
prisoners. Leopold worked in the projects development office, drawing,
painting signs, writing poems and strumming his mandolin. Although
lacking his older brother's talent, he sang for the camp inmates, and
very nicely. He also received permission to show his sketches in the
camp dining hall and give lectures on his trips to Europe and Algeria.
Leopold was born in Urba, a small town in eastern Slovakia, but chose to
live in Bratislava. As much as he loved the city, he never missed an
opportunity to visit his birthplace. Whenever he went back, he would see
his old school friend Jan Mordoch, the famous artist. According to
Leopold, Mordoch drew only flower petals, apples and pitchers. Unlike many
other artists, he never sold his soul to the fascist Slovak regime. When
I met Mordoch years later, he was very surprised that I knew so much
about him. He knew a great many artists, poets and authors whose names I
had seen only in journals and the monthly magazines. Not all of them
were Nazi collaborators, we realized that, but it was difficult to
determine who had sold out and who hadn't. The anti-Semites knew how to
disguise themselves when it suited their purposes.
Art and poetry, and the bond among poets who hadn't engaged in betrayal,
fortified us in those dark, hard times. How fervently we identified with
these lines written by one well-known poet:
"If all we have loved should die
Like the darling we've just buried,
An unknown void with a first name,
Sorrow will spread its mantle over us..."
That indeed was our sad reality.
The transport list included Leopold's younger brother, who had been
working at a dismantled camp in another sector. He labored hard,
endlessly dragging heavy planks and iron railway ties. A malevolent
guard, spotting him nod off from exhaustion, added his name to the
transport list. Since his mother also was in the camp, her name, too,
went on the list. He skipped over Leopold, whose name didn't appear on
the master roster. I shuddered when I saw their names on the list. It
was the only time I asked a favor of the commandant. I sought nothing
for myself. I pleaded on behalf of Spitzer, his mother and his younger
brother. Spitzer was a gifted artist and a poetic genius, I told the
commandant, a talented musician who must not be sent to Poland on the
transport. I begged him to spare Leopold and his family.
The commandant, half-drunk, fixed me with a hollow look. "Yes, of
course," he said. "And why don't you take all the Jews? I don't need
them. I'll give them all to you. Take them." He suddenly started raging
at me, threatening to add my name to the transport list with all the
others. "Why? God, Why have you punished me with the Jews?" When
he'd finished ranting and cursing me, he sank into gloom. Then he sprang
up. In an entirely businesslike tone, he told me that Spitzer could
stay in the camp.
But Leopold wouldn't hear of it. Was he to stay while his mother and
brother left? He would join them at once. I implored him. He would be of
no use going with them. They would be separated in any event, and he
would then be of no help to his mother. This was an unfair argument;
true, but unfair. We knew the Germans ignored family ties at the death
camps. They divided men from women and tore children from their mothers'
arms. If he accompanied his mother on her final journey, I told him, he
would have to watch her die in a cattle car packed with hopeless people.
And he would have no chance to help her. I remembered my parents, who
had been killed, with a pang of conscience. It was a comfort to me that
I, compelled to stay alive, hadn't been with them in their last, awful
moments. Leopold, however, ignored me and still wanted to join his
family. It was only by chance that the convoy guards foiled his plan. I
knew some of them. They were from my home province, some had gone to
school with me. In secret, I asked them to keep Leopold off the
transport, and they barred his way. The next day, after the transport
had left, we met in the camp. Furious, he spat at me. Then, without a
word, he turned on his heels and strode into his barrack.
Early in the morning, Novaki's deputy railway director rang up with an
urgent call. The number of transfers on the transport was incomplete.
Dozens of Jews were needed to fill the quota. The dreaded Guardists again
stalked the barracks. Again, they drove out the wretched tenants,
assembled them on that terrible plaza and culled the required numbers.
All the while, they beat the Jews, cursing, threatening, shoving. Yet
the commandant, upon departure of the transport, lied in his cable
regarding completion of the operation. During the final transports of
late September, 1942, he saved close to 200 Jews. Instead of 400 Jews,
only slightly more than 200 left Novaki for annihilation on September
22. Leopold's family, though, wasn't among those saved. For many years,
I felt on my face the spray of his silent, wrathful spit.