There is a side of humanity that is evil, and no other word can be used to describe it. I write about overcoming obstacles, but there are some things that I’m not sure how a human being can survive, get over, and literally get through alive. There has to be some kind of divine intervention, luck, a tremendous amount of faith, and a strong will to live.
For the past year, I have been on a mission to find people that have inspiring journeys and tell their stories. Every day people who have survived obstacles, but become stronger because of them. People who have the will to do extraordinary things for others even though life has not always been kind. This time instead of a person, a book found me. A book that shook me to the core, but at the same time inspired me greatly.
The story of Moyshe Rekhtman reached me through his grandson, Phil Shpilberg. Phil and I went to high school together, and we had the opportunity to meet this past December in San Francisco after 20 years. I always thought highly of Phil, as I remembered him to be a smart, nice, and grounded guy. He hasn’t changed a bit.
I’ve read a few holocaust stories, and seen plenty of movies on the topic, but this story was different for me. Maybe, because the story was about someone who had also lived in my neighborhood in Brighton Beach. Or possibly, because I realized that I would not have met Phil, and seen pictures of his lovely family on Facebook if that young boy had not survived.
In 1992, and at the request of Phil’s cousin, a 65 year old Moyshe decided to not only tell one grandson his story, but to record it for future generations. Phil heard of the story in 1995, but it wasn’t until 2003 that he was able to transcribe it. The technology to digitize his grandfather’s recordings had finally arrived. Phil had to also translate the story, because it was recorded in Russian. Not an easy, but highly commendable task on Phil’s part.
The book is a stomach-churning account of a teenage Ukranian boy surviving several Nazi killing fields and camps. His story is the only record left of Kalyus, a village completely wiped out during WWW II in 1942. This 14 year old boy found the will to live during those four nightmarish years even after finding out that his parents, siblings, and friends had been killed in the cruelest of ways. Moyshe had tremendous odds against him, and possibly little chance of surviving as his eyesight was failing. His young body withstood beatings, hunger, sleepless nights, disease, excruciating long hours of hard labor, and filth. He had no home or family to go back to even if he survived.
Often times, I had to stop reading the book, and wanted to rip Moyshe out of the pages to save him from the suffering. How could such a young boy endure so much? His spirit had to withstand trials that no human being should ever be put through. The fact that once they escaped, he had to walk with barely any clothes on, shoes with holes in them, and no food during the bitter winter made me shed tears. I was in agony every time that the Nazis found him and took him back to the camps.
Although the story is a painful one, it’s also about hope, faith, as well as a testimony that even though there is evil in this world, there are good people around us. Moyshe found his Uncle Yankel at the first camp who did everything possible to keep him alive. He also met kind strangers throughout his escape who fed and clothed him while putting their lives at risk.
I believe that most importantly, this story is about finding the courage within yourself to live a good life in spite of everything.
“Death was a regular occurrence to us. We saw it every day, every hour. Death awaited us at every step, and we had become desensitized to it. But what Uncle Yankel saw in the forest reached him and shook his very soul. He could not forget the victims lying in a ditch in pools of their own blood. He imagined his wife and children dying the same way back in Kalyus. He could not calm down for a long time. I was so exhausted and sick by this time that I existed in a sort of half-dream state. But Uncle Yankel’s story shocked me out of that state. I was supposed to be in that ditch, had it not been for the miracle of that cellar. My own voice and actions seemed to take place outside my own wilting body. I suddenly awoke from my waking dream and wanted to live!”
That courage is what kept Moyshe alive. That courage to walk out of the valley of death is what gave future generations life. That courage has been passed down to his grandson, Phil, as he took it upon himself to share his grandfather’s story with the rest of us. For this, I am grateful, as stories like these should never be forgotten.
Find the book on Amazon.