Shoah: International Holocaust Memorial Day 2008
Interview with Leonid Lerner [1928-]
Leonid Lerner is a Holocaust survivor whose very survival is an epic of the twentieth century, and our incredulity grew by the minute as he recounted his life story episode by episode. We bring here the main events.
Leonid Lerner was born Eli Binyaminovich Melamed in the city of
Zaporozhe, Ukraine, in 1928. Eli's father was a simple carter, no enemy of the decade old Communist
USSR, but not someone who fitted the conformist role of a factory worker or collective farm member. In 1937, when Eli was only nine years old, his father was murdered in the bloody Great Purges initiated by Stalin throughout the western USSR, and especially in the
Ukraine, where many Jews lived. People, especially Jews, were simply accused of all sorts of trumped up crimes, including treason, and shot as traitors. The young Eli then helped the family make their living by keeping pigeons.
In 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Ukraine,
Zaporozhe came under Nazi rule although there was no real German presence in the town. However, the local Ukrainian Police willingly collaborated with the Nazi Commandant and forced all the Jews to wear yellow stars. Jewish homes were marked distinctively, to make the round-ups easier for the Nazis and their collaborators. Life for Eli and the other Jews in
Zaporozhe became a struggle for survival – both because of constant round-ups and killings by the Ukranian police, and because of the very real threat of starvation.
Eli and his older brother had wanted to flee eastwards, deeper into the
USSR, but their mother refused to allow them to leave. At age 12, Eli witnessed the first executions of Jews and Communists in his native city. On March 28th 1942, the first day of Pesach (Passover), all the Jews in Zaporozhe were ordered to leave their homes and march towards some massive pits outside the town that had been dug by forced labour (from the Jewish population), under the guard of the Ukrainian Police and staffed by special Lithuanian SS squads. The SS squads then proceeded to carry out a mass execution of all the Jews, and Eli witnessed the execution by a Ukrainian officer of his eighteen month old baby cousin, Leonid Borisovich Lerner, to whom he had been particularly close. This event and memories of it have traumatized him deeply ever since.
A split second before the firing squads aimed at Eli and his brother, however, his brother pulled him backwards into the pit so that they would not be shot, and they waited there under the bodies of the dead and dying all day until after nightfall, before crawling out. Alone in the dark, they found their way to a nearby village and knocked on the door of one of the houses, where a woman let them in, but as soon as they fell asleep she gave them up to the Nazis, who threw them into a tiny cell. Scared and exhausted, they eventually fell asleep. They managed to escape their expected fate again, when the prison was attacked by the partisans whose leader had been imprisoned alongside them and their cell was unlocked by mistake.
The two brothers continued to live rough and escape detection by the Nazis, moving constantly from place to place for the next six months, but were later separated when the Soviet Army retreated from the Ukraine after a failed attack on the Germans; Eli, the younger and weaker of the two, did not manage to jump onto one of the departing lorries and was left behind. He soon joined up with the partisans himself, and through one event after another, fought with them until the Liberation in 1945.
After Liberation, the weakened and wounded Eli returned to
Zaporozhe to look for any of his family who might have survived, by way of the village where he had been captured: there, he killed the collaborators who had betrayed him and his brother to the Nazis. The incident was initially hushed up and Eli settled for a while, but various antisemitic incidents followed and Eli ran out of luck. No longer safe anywhere in the Ukraine, abandoning his identity papers, he fled further into the
USSR - initially seeking family and all the time taking great care to stay clear of the authorities, as he was a wanted person. In the highly regimented, Stalinist USSR, he found living off the grid more difficult than during wartime: he couldn't stay long in any one place, he couldn't rent accommodation because there was only public housing, he couldn't take even a menial regular job, nor could he apply for residential papers for any of the large cities.
After four years, Eli was finally able to buy identity papers on the black market in the name of his baby cousin Leonid Lerner. Living with another person's identity tremendously difficult, and of necessity he continued his life as a loner. In 1964, the police file against him was finally closed when a KGB officer, without any prior explanation, spontaneously destroyed all his records in front of his eyes – a miraculous act of kindess and providence that allowed him build a new life under his assumed name. It also made it possible for him to return to
Zaporozhe, find a job, settle down and marry, and study for a profession.
In 1991, Leonid Lerner came on Aliyah to
Jerusalem, which is where he lives today.