Text size

he 2004 Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi began with a surprise. Etty Bernzon, an energetic and lively member of the kibbutz, read out to those assembled in the hall a passage from the book "Belev Ha'ofel" ("In the Heart of Darkness"), by retired judge Arie Segalson, about the actions of SS officer Karl Rink, the deputy commander of the Kovno ghetto.

Rink, a senior officer of that cruelest of German units, whose members were totally loyal to Hitler, "saved dozens of Jews during the war and carried a secret in his heart," Bernzon related as she lifted her eyes to the audience. Elisheva, her elderly mother-in-law, was sitting near the front of the hall and her face bore an even more stony expression than usual. "Friends," Bernzon declared, "we have here with us today the daughter of this SS officer, Elisheva Bernzon."

The kibbutz members sat there stunned. Elisheva, the longtime director of the kibbutz store, who by then was getting around in a wheelchair, had been careful to conceal her family past from those around her. "She didn't say a word, not even to her four children," says Etty Bernzon, who is married to Yeshayahu, one of Elisheva's sons. "They knew their grandfather had been a Christian and had served in the German army, but beyond that, Elisheva had taken pains to keep all the details vague. I think that for most of her life she was quite convinced that her father had been a murderer of Jews."

Elisheva Bernzon, who died last September, gave detailed testimony during the last year of her life to writer Ram Oren, who intertwined it into his new historical novel, "The Vow," which was just issued in Hebrew by Oren's publishing company, Keshet.

Rink's choice

Elisheva Bernzon was born in Berlin to Karl Wilhelm Johannes Rink and his Jewish wife, Mira. The couple had married out of a deep love and they raised her as a Jew. Rink joined the Nazi party in 1931 out of a sense of complete commitment to its path. During his training, he studied Hitler's "Mein Kampf" until he knew it by heart, learned methods of interrogation and torture, and trained as a sniper, before finally swearing allegiance to the Fuehrer. He then had the SS emblem tattooed within his armpit and donned the black shirt bearing the swastika on its upper sleeve.

During several years, as conditions for Germany's Jews deteriorated, Rink managed to balance the two opposing parts of his life with relative tranquility. He took a passive part in the events of Kristallnacht, in November 1938, for example, watching from the side as his colleagues smashed property and buildings owned by Jews, and beat up every Jew who happened to cross their path. He promised his commanders that his wife's background would never affect his absolute loyalty to Nazism.

Mira, however, was dismissed from her workplace and forced to contend with the harassment of the Germans, on the one hand, because of her Jewish identity, and with rejection by her fellow Jews, on the other, because of her husband's activities. As a consequence, she barely left her house. "My [Nazi] party membership did not change my family life in any way," Rink said after the war to Moshe Segalson, Arie's uncle. "And I didn't change my attitude at all toward Jews in general, or my Jewish friends in particular. I completely identified with the nationalist aims of the Nazi Party, but in no way whatsoever did I identify with the party's path with regard to the Jews.

"One time, I was ordered to appear before my party superiors," Rink said. "They told me I had two choices: Either I could continue being married to my Jewish wife, in which case I would be dismissed from the party and they would regard me as a Jew and the Nuremberg laws would apply to me, or I would have to divorce my wife, leave her and our daughter and break off any connection with them."

Rink chose the second path. Before the separation, which was not easy for him, he kept his promise to his wife that their daughter would be sent to Palestine and thus be saved. Segalson relates that Mira Rink left Berlin for another city in Germany, and that her husband broke off relations with her and did not know what became of her. It is possible that there was another woman in his life when he made the decision to break with his Jewish wife.

Before her death, Bernzon told Oren that her father did not actually separate from her mother. "He tried to gain time with the party leaders because he did not believe that things would become as bad as they did," Oren claims. "He was always trying to calm his wife and daughter, telling them that their fears were exaggerated, and that he couldn't imagine that the party would decide to take aggressive action against them."

Oren relates that, according to Bernzon's testimony, her mother was abducted from a street in western Berlin while walking home from the grocery store. She was taken to an SS command post, where she was shot to death by her husband's colleagues. Only when the war was over did Rink discover that the murder had been carried out on order of his commander, brigadier Reinhard Schroeder. Rink located Schroeder at his Berlin home and cut his throat with a pocket knife.

Rescue from the Kovno ghetto

With the assistance of her father, Bernzon traveled to Palestine, as part of a Youth Aliya delegation, when she was 14, a week before World War II broke out. From the moment she arrived, she swore that she would never speak German again. "During the hakhshara [preparation period] of the youth at Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov, she met Mendel Bernzon, who married her with the intention of giving her refuge - to protect her," Etty Bernzon relates.

From Ashdot Ya'akov, the couple moved to Kibbutz Dafna, where their two sons, Ami and Yeshayahu, were born. Later, the family moved to Kfar Giladi, where their twin daughters, Devora and Miriam, were born. Mendel was an electrician and Elisheva ran the kibbutz shop, "which for many years everyone called the 'Elisheva,'" her daughter-in-law says. "Mendel was a wonderful person, but he died at age 56 of cardiac arrest. Elisheva lived for another 30 years or so without him and kept alive his memory. She was a clever and sophisticated woman but was as hard as a rock, apparently because she had to keep the story locked up inside of her. It transpires that over the years, she was kept up to date from time to time by letters from her father, about which we knew nothing."

A short while after the war broke out, Rink was ordered to join the German forces in Warsaw. There he was appointed a staff officer, responsible for disseminating the instructions restricting the Jews' freedom of activity, such as the wearing of an armband, the prohibition on use of public transportation, and the confiscation of property. When the city's Jews were confined to the ghetto, Rink moved on to his next mission, in Vilna, where he took part in the brutal evacuation of its Jews to the ghetto.

Toward the end of 1943, he was sent to serve as deputy to Wilhelm Goecke, the commander of the Kovno ghetto. Goecke had earlier been in charge of the Mauthausen concentration camp and was party to the suppression and liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. When Goecke arrived, the ghetto was transferred from the hands of the SA (Stormtroopers) to the SS - a move that augured ill for its residents and indicated that the Vilna ghetto was also about to be liquidated.

As part of his job, Rink was in command of the Kovno ghetto's workshops, which were managed by Moshe Segalson. In his book (published by Yad Vashem), Arie Segalson writes that his uncle used to say: "We did 'a gutten gescheft' [a good business] with that German." The barometer for measuring the rate of fear of the cruelty of a German soldier was "the children," Arie Segalson explained recently. "When Rink went through the streets, not one child ran away and they did not even get off the sidewalk to make way for him. Everyone knew that he was decent."

What does it mean for an SS officer to be "decent?"

"At that time, it was sufficient that he not be someone who shot Jews in the head for his own pleasure. Rink was an extremely high-ranking officer. The comparison is odious, but his rank was roughly equivalent to that of a brigadier general [in the Israel Defense Forces]. It is not an easy feat to reach such a high rank - and what he did in Warsaw or in Vilna, I have no idea. But in Kovno I can certainly say that his attitude toward the Jews was positive and correct. My uncle was very close to him, and the 5,000 workers of the workshops, who included my father, my brother and myself, had it good during his time. He performed very important acts of humanity toward the Jews."

During the round-up of children in the Aktion that brought about the end of the Kovno ghetto, at the end of March 1944, "Rink made a great contribution toward saving dozens of children," Segalson writes. The Nazis planned to take all the children under 12 years of age and send them for extermination. Segalson and his people prepared hiding places for the children in advance, in the workshops. Rink promised, Segalson relates, that the SS would not touch the workshops and that nothing would happen to children who were working or hiding there.

Almost 100 SS and Gestapo soldiers stormed the workshops of the ghetto during the searches for the children, armed with information about children and toddlers who were in hiding there. Moshe Segalson told them that there were no children in the shop. In "The Heart of Darkness," Arie Segalson writes that an SS officer shouted at his uncle: "You had better know, Jewish parasite, that if we find children hiding here, we will put you to death, we will shoot you dead like a dog."

A Ukrainian soldier heard sounds from the attic in the structure that held Segalson's office, and the soldiers were ordered to search there. Segalson knew that this was the moment of truth for himself and for the hidden children. He turned to Rink and told him he had concealed children, including his own daughter, in the attic. "Rink went up to the Ukrainian, and in a quiet voice told him that that was his own study and that there was nothing to look for there," the book says. "The Ukrainian was adamant: 'Someone is hiding in the attic,' he said, pointing upward. Now Rink shouted out: 'Leave!' and signaled at the door. The Ukrainian stopped once again outside the building where the office was located, waving his arms in the direction of the attic. Rink went to talk to the commander of the Gestapo ... The commander said to Rink: 'In order to check out everything here thoroughly, we'll have to stay here two weeks.' Rink replied quietly, with a smile: 'No, I think that everything here is in order.' And with that he got the soldiers to leave the ghetto."

Segalson further relates that the SS men wanted to take with them, because of his advanced age, the accountant who worked at the shops, Mr. Troppberg, but when Segalson appealed to Rink, the latter demanded that he be allowed to remain in the ghetto. Rink also managed to free another child who had already been put on a truck heading to the train station with children who were slated for deportation to the death camps. In addition, he prevented Moshe Segalson's arrest, by insisting that he accompany him, something he did not generally do, on the very day that the members of the Jewish council that took care of internal affairs in the Kovno ghetto - of which Segalson was a member - were arrested.

In another case, 12 young men who were dressed in German uniforms, which had been supplied to them from the workshops, fled from the ghetto in a truck to join the partisans in the woods outside Kovno. The Gestapo got wind of their plans, and surrounded and killed most of them. The ghetto's residents were certain that they, too, would have to pay a heavy price for the attempted escape, and particularly for using the uniforms from the shops. To their amazement, it transpired the following day that Rink, and even Goecke, had not undertaken an investigation into the matter, choosing rather to ignore the entire affair.

Those who worked in the shops had a much higher chance of survival, and during Rink's time, and with his encouragement, their numbers grew. "Whoever lived through that reality," Arie Segalson says sadly, "is capable of understanding that what Rink did was most impressive and is worthy of tremendous appreciation."

Sundays in church

It's another story of rescue by Rink that forms the backbone of Oren's novel. About three years ago, the best-selling writer had plans for a book that would deal with the illegal immigrant ship Exodus, which sailed from France to the shores of Israel 60 years ago. While he was doing the research, Oren found that among the passengers had been Michael Stolowitzky and Gertruda Babilinska - the former a Jewish child and the latter his Catholic governess, who had adopted the boy during the war, thus saving him from death. When he met Stolowitzky and heard the story of his life, Oren decided to change his book's subject.

The Stolowitzkys were one of the richest Jewish families in Warsaw, and lived in a four-story villa that looked out on the Vistula River. The family fortune had been made by Yitzhak and Ya'akov, the grandfather and father of Michael, respectively, who, among other things, produced and lay rails for railway lines in a number of European countries.

When the Germans overran Poland, Yaakov Stolowitzky was in Paris on business, and was unable to return to Warsaw. Michael, his mother Lidia, and the governess Babilinska, as well as the family's chauffeur, decided to flee to Vilna. After they crossed the border to Lithuania, the driver took out a revolver and robbed the family of all their money, as well as jewels and other treasures that were meant to help them survive during the war, before throwing them out of the car.

The Stolowitzky family had become penniless in one fell swoop. Michael's mother fell ill, and on her deathbed extracted an oath from the Catholic governess that she would remain with the 3-year-old boy, and would make sure that he got to Palestine. From that day on, Gertruda Babilinska was Michael's mamusia ("mommy," in Polish). She had never married, after her fiance had failed to show up on their wedding day, and she never had children of her own.

By virtue of her knowledge of German and Polish, Babilinska became a translator for residents of the area in their dealings with the German authorities; in return she received food and a little money. Some of that food she would regularly smuggle into the Vilna ghetto, with the help of a Jewish boy she had met, who would crawl out of the ghetto via the sewer system.

"Mamusia risked her life anew every single day by deciding to adopt a Jewish boy. Opposite the entrance to our apartment in Vilna there was a giant notice warning that anyone who helped Jews would be put to death," says Stolowitzky, today a man of 70, as he time and again kisses a picture of Babilinska, calling her "my angel." In one of the rare walks the two took outside their small apartment in Vilna, two German soldiers, a senior officer and a sergeant, stopped them. The sergeant refused to believe Babilinska that the boy was hers, and there, in the middle of the street, ordered her to pull down his trousers. Babilinska tried to protest, but the sergeant began pulling down Stolowitzky's pants. At that moment, the officer - none other than Rink - intervened, ordering the sergeant to leave Michael alone. After a short interrogation of Babilinska, he allowed the two to continue on their way, but only after suggesting to the governess quietly that she should find a safer place for the boy. Babilinska did have enough time to ask the German for his name.

The following day, she went to the priest in the local church and told him she had adopted a Jewish boy, asking for help in saving him. Michael was baptized quickly, after which he began studying in the church school and serving as an altar boy. "The SS soldiers would come en masse every Sunday to church and I would pass among them and pour holy water on them," Stolowitzky recalls.

At the same time, his father, Ya'akov, who was convinced that his wife and son had died, married once again, to Anna Massini, an Italian Christian. He managed to hide with her in the village of Pontremoli, in northern Italy, until September 1943, when German soldiers arrived in the small town, found Ya'akov and sent him to the Auschwitz death camp.

Babilinska kept her oath and brought the little Stolowitzky to Palestine aboard the Exodus. The Trubowitz family, relatives of the Stolowitzkys and the owners of the Yizhar oil factory, were interested in adopting him but Babilinska objected. The pair moved into a small apartment in Jaffa, and she worked as a maid in order to support them. In his youth, Stolowitzky was sent to the Ben-Shemen boarding school, and when he arrived at draft age, he served in the Israeli navy.

From the day he was released from the IDF, and continuing to this day, Stolowitzky has fought an ongoing legal battle to have the family's fortunes restituted. His father had not believed in real estate, and most of his assets were stored in coins and gold that he deposited in 10 different banks in Switzerland. The son assesses that already in the days before World War II, they were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. To this day, he has succeeded only in getting back some $150,000, most of which he divided between his father's Italian wife and Babilinska's elderly parents, who lived in a small village near Danzig. The family villa in Warsaw was nationalized and today it houses the Polish agriculture ministry.

"Do you see this little boy?" Stolowitzky points to the picture of himself at the age of 2 alongside his mother Lidia. "That little boy is a billionaire, the sole heir to an empire. Richer than Bill Gates."

Even without the family fortune, Stolowitzky, a person with a zest for life, has "succeeded in enjoying my life big-time." In 1977, he set up a tourism business for pilgrims in the United States. A few years later, he was appointed the head of the international business development branch of American Express and was party to bringing the company to Israel. Even today, though he is officially retired, Stolowitzky still serves as an adviser to the company. Today he is the president and chairman of the American Tourism Society which, he says, handles the trips of three million travelers abroad every year. He has a son from his first marriage and today he is married for a second time, to Beatrice, and divides his time between his home on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, near the Metropolitan Museum, and a residence in Miami, but he makes sure that he visits Israel at least three times a year.

In 1962, Babilinska was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Her story was immortalized in the Holocaust Museum in Washington and in a 1997 TV film, produced by Barbra Streisand (which has not been shown in Israel).

Stolowitzky says that Babilinska heard additional stories of rescues undertaken by Rink from survivors of the Vilna and Kovno ghettos. She contacted the diplomatic representations in Israel of the United States, England, France and the former Soviet Union in order to give testimony that an SS officer had saved her and Michael Stolowitzky from death during the war. Her hope was that, if he were ever caught, his punishment would be reduced.

Death in Berlin

When SS officer Rink reached the conclusion that the war was about to end, and that the Germans were going to be defeated, he called Moshe Segalson to a meeting in his office in the Kovno ghetto, which had, in the meantime, been turned into a concentration camp. "I, as a National Socialist, will not surrender to the enemy and I shall continue to fight on the battlefield until my dying day," he told him. "And you, if you remain alive, will probably go to Palestine, where my daughter is living on a kibbutz. I have a request that I would like you to carry out ... to find my daughter and tell her everything you know about me from our joint work at the workshops; about my fair attitude toward you and the other Jews in the Kovno concentration camp. Believe me that I did not harm the body of any Jew either in Kovno or elsewhere ... My opinion of the Jews is completely and totally different from that of the Nazi Party and its policy toward them. I never saw the Jews as the enemies of my homeland, Germany. Tell all of this to my daughter. I want her to know that her father was not a murderer and that she should remember him as a decent human being, even if he was a Nazi and served in the SS."

After his arrival in Israel, in 1949, Moshe Segalson tracked down Elisheva Rink on Kibbutz Dafna. He met with her, but when he began telling her about what had happened to her father, with the intention of praising him, she turned pale, leaped up from where she was sitting, fled from the room and never returned. "A few years before her death, she told us she had been afraid to hear the truth at that meeting," Etty Bernzon says.

Fifty years later, Arie Segalson succeeded in locating Elisheva and met her at Kfar Giladi. Following the death of his uncle and after he had read his memoirs, he was determined to carry out the promise he had given to Rink, in his name. This time she was willing to listen. "I told her about her father's loyalty to the Jews in the Kovno camp, about how he had saved 37 children and prevented them from being sent for extermination to Auschwitz," Segalson writes. He and his wife maintained a warm relationship with Bernzon until her dying day.

There was a reason why Bernzon had agreed to meet with Arie Segalson. In the summer of 1949, after she had fled from her meeting with Moshe, she met with Babilinska and Solowitzky. That was the first time she had heard in detail how her father saved Jews from death. She read to them a letter she had received from Rink immediately after the war, in which he told her about the last searches carried out by the Nazis, when they were trying to locate Jews who had still not yet been caught. Rink claimed he had joined the searches despite the fact that he was not obliged to, with the aim of saving Jews from the concentration camps. "And I was happy that from time to time, I was able to do so," he wrote. After the war, he worked as a caregiver to an elderly man, with whom he lived, and later was a worker in a paint factory. "I would have been prepared to come and visit you on the kibbutz but I'm afraid they will put me on trial because of the position I held in the SS," Elisheva said he had written in another letter to her. "If Jews can be found who would be willing to testify that I saved them, and the authorities where you are would promise not to arrest me, I will gladly come." In the wake of this letter, Babilinska went to the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem to request, as someone who had been saved by Rink, that he not be arrested if he came to visit his daughter in israel. The excited Bernzon wrote about this to her father and he promised that he would come to Israel to visit her, after all the years they had not met. About a week before he was due to arrive, she received a telegram from Germany informing her that her father had had a heart attack and died in a Berlin hospital, isolated and by himself.

Gertruda Babilinska died in 1995, at the age of 93. The last years of her life were spent at Beit Luckner in Nahariya, a home for the Righteous Among the Nations. Stolowitzsky set up a tombstone in her memory at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery, in Tel Aviv, in the section where members of the Righteous are buried. W