A Life That Speaks Volumes

On the passing of Zev Birger, Holocaust survivor, public servant and moving spirit behind the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

For almost three weeks the computers, telephones and fax machines of the brothers Doron, Oded and Gil Birger have been working overtime. Hundreds of letters and condolence calls from around the world have poured in: Writers, publishers, intellectuals, businesspeople, actors, politicians and other leaders have all wanted to convey their condolences and talk about their acquaintanceship with their father.

Zev Birger, veteran chairman of the Jerusalem International Book Fair, died on June 6 at the age of 85. For 10 days he had been unconscious in the hospital, after being struck by a motorcycle and suffering a head injury. He is survived by his three sons and 11 grandchildren.

birger - Shlomi Cohen - June 24 2011
Shlomi Cohen

"I heard the tragic news that Zev was killed by the traffic accident. I was so surprised and shocked," wrote the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who two years ago won the prestigious Jerusalem Prize that is awarded at the biennial book fair. "I have a beautiful memory of him, and am missing him truly."

Author Ian McEwan, who won this year's Jerusalem Prize, said: "He saw how low humanity could sink, and then he rose and gave so much. He was an indestructible spirit and an example to all mankind. Not only Jerusalem or Israel but the whole world that loves culture and friendship will feel this loss keenly."

"He was a wonderful and extraordinary man," wrote Jurgen Boos, president of the Frankfurt Book Fair, a preeminent literary event.

Zev Birger was born in Kaunas (now Kovno ), Lithuania, survived the Dachau concentration camp, and for decades filled senior positions in the realm of public service and in the world of culture in Israel.

One of the high points of his activity was organizing and developing the International Book Fair in Jerusalem (the 25th such event took place in February ) and turning it into a prestigious institution - a meeting place for writers, editors and publishers to exchange ideas and do business. Alongside this endeavor he also promoted and developed the country's film industry, and was among the founders of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem.

Although the dominant language among the Jews of Kaunas was Yiddish, Birger's family also spoke and read in Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian and even Hebrew, which he himself learned in school.

In his autobiography, "No Time for Patience" (Newmarket Press, 1999 ), he described his first encounter with books: "From my childhood I got used to reading everything that came my way. On several occasions this resulted in an argument with my parents when they saw that the light in my room was on until all hours. I used to turn it off and continue reading under the blanket, with the help of a flashlight. I was often engrossed in a book for the entire day, paying no attention to the outside world."

Later in the book he added: "I was hopelessly in love with books, in particular with history books and historical novels ... Past worlds fascinated me ... Reading was also a means of shutting out the world around me, with its increasingly unpleasant events."

When World War II broke out, Birger was 13. A year later, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, he became one of the founders of an underground Zionist movement called Brit Zion. Among its objectives was preservation of the Hebrew language, which was outlawed by the Soviet regime.

One of the climaxes of Birger's activity during this period was organization of a clandestine operation that would come to be known as "the book heist." One night he and his friends broke into the school building in which the Soviets had gathered confiscated Hebrew books - and stole them. "[We] made numerous trips carrying out several hundred books to be hidden in my family's garden house. It was indeed a truly daring act, and who knows what would have happened to us if we had been discovered by someone," wrote Birger, who was also involved then in putting out and disseminating a handwritten underground Hebrew newspaper called Nitzotz (Spark ).

In June 1941, the Germans conquered Lithuania, and within a short time Birger's family was forced to move into the ghetto in nearby Slobodka. At one point, when the hunger became intolerable, Birger, who disguised himself as a locksmith, snuck out of the ghetto and into the family's home, which now served as Nazi headquarters; he managed to retrieve a diamond his family had hidden and exchange it for bread and potatoes. On another occasion he hid with a friend inside a hayloft, while an Aktion raged outside.

"Just as we disappeared into the hay, the door was pushed open and the soldiers burst in with their bayonets raised ... we barely dared to breathe ... Drenched in sweat we stared at each other," he wrote later. The German soldiers thrust bayonets into Birger's hiding place, but found nothing.

Birger's mantra

In July 1944, the Slobodka ghetto was demolished. The Germans discovered Birger and his family in a bunker, and gathered them in a square along with several hundred other Jews. In the selection carried out there, Birger's mother was separated from the rest of the family. "I tried to hold on to her as tightly as I could, but one of the guards beat me brutally, knocking out several of my teeth. That was the last time I saw her," he wrote in his book.

Together with the last of his town's Jews, and with his father and his brother, Birger boarded the train headed for the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. To keep up his spirits, he repeated to himself, "I will survive! I will survive! I will overcome."

"I did things that I never would have done under normal circumstances," he noted. "In this way I wanted to make each given situation livable, survivable," he wrote.

In Dachau, Birger and his friends revived their handwritten paper, Nitzotz, which contained articles translated into Hebrew from Yiddish and German. Readers were ordered to destroy their copy after they were done. The paper continued to appear until the liberation of the camp in 1945.

Birger's father died in Dachau from an infection, and his brother was sent to his death. "Sick and starving, I found myself alone in the camp. My father and mother were dead, my brother went out to meet the unknown fate. With increasing frequency I found myself thinking, What is the point of all this? But just as quickly the counter reaction flashed in my mind: I will meet my brother again, I must stay alive, this is our vengeance. The conviction that I had to survive gave me the strength and the will to live," he wrote.

Toward the end of the war he was active in a movement, Habricha, that helped hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors flee Eastern Europe and prepare for illegal immigration to the Land of Israel. Afterward he was active in Aliyah Bet, the secret group that organized those immigration operations. In 1947 he settled in Haifa with his wife Trude, who died in 2002.

In the early days of the state, Birger was among the founders of the national tax authority, and helped shape the tax system; subsequently he held senior posts in the customs authority and in the Ministry of Industry and Trade. In addition, for many years he worked alongside Jerusalem's longtime mayor Teddy Kollek, and set up a host of local cultural, tourist and economic ventures.

"Jerusalem is ringed with hills. On these hills live Jews, Muslims, Christians, and members of other religions. Each must be allowed and enabled to live according to his faith, out of respect and tolerance for the others. Only thus will human beings be able to live in harmony," Birger wrote in "No Time for Patience."

That approach apparently spurred him to make the International Book Fair successful - even when the city's streets emptied out, for example, during the second intifada.

"He lost his whole family in the most horrific way and started from the lowest place imaginable, but was the most optimistic, smiling and loving person," his son Doron said last week. "He was a kindhearted man, without baggage and without scores to settle. A man who saw and focused only on the positive. Forward-looking, he wrapped himself in a steel casing toward the past and developed a soft, sensitive and loving heart."

His memories from the Holocaust were not shared with anyone - not even his children - for decades. "There are still many incidents that were not told and are locked up inside me," he wrote. A few years ago, he took his sons on a "roots trip" to his childhood provinces. On the flight to Vilna he insisted on eating because, he told his sons, "I don't want to return to Lithuania hungry," Doron recalled him saying. "It was very important to him to go back victorious."

Writer and theater director Michal Govrin accompanied Birger to a concert at the Jerusalem Theater on the evening of the accident. Afterward they stood outside, about to say their farewells.

"His somewhat forced, upright posture, a moment before saying good-bye, suddenly had me worried," she recounted. "I insisted on asking again if he was all right, a moment before bidding farewell; we kissed again. In his hopelessly European way, Zev also added a kiss on my hand, as if it were a continuation of the Bach concert that evening, of the concerts of his youth in Kaunas ... I followed Zev with my eyes as he marched off, straight-backed, straining under the crisp gait. 'Old soldier,' I thought as I gazed at him. Until he was far off.

"What went through him when he came out of the theater, huddled in the heavenly sounds of Bach? What was Zev thinking as he marched forward like that, into the night? The next morning I tried calling his mobile phone, to thank him for the delightful evening, and then his house - to which he never returned."

His youngest son, Oded, summed up: "At the moment we are angry and frustrated at what happened. How is it possible that [the life of] a man who survived all of that, was left alone and built what he built from scratch - with optimism and good will, without a drop of bitterness about anybody - ended like that? Everything stopped all at once."