Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Henry Rios and son: “I was walking down by Commercial. One dude came out and — boom — my cousin was gone. His neck and face were blown away."
SOME HORRORS CANNOT BE IMAGINED, and when told, barely comprehended. Only those who have lived with murders of the flesh and spirit or faced absolute evil can know the terror. Three San Diegans have such stories. And their lives follow the pattern of an initiation — suffering, death, and rebirth with a knowledge inaccessible to others, with a new identity.
Rios: "My mother and father were in gangs. My mother was from East L.A., Boyle Heights; my father was from Logan Heights."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
In the West, we’ve mostly lost the rites of initiation and the wisdom that came from them: the powerful ability to mark the rupture between childhood and adulthood, the break between the profane and the sacred. What many call initiations are either fragments of forgotten mysteries — hazings, bar mitzvahs and the like — or else ceremonies that carry no risk or danger. They don’t take the initiate into other worlds; they don’t bring the soul a lasting vision of its place in eternity.
Fred Markland: "I took a deep breath and the air came out a hole in my back. I was out of ammunition, and most everybody else was probably dead."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
In mythology, the hero follows a trail into the lower world to gain wisdom or learn secrets from the dead. These three San Diegans have been on a similar journey. The first is a former gangbanger, born into a world of violence and chaos; the second, a Marine veteran of two wars, left for dead on a battlefield. The third, a Latvian-born lew, a Holocaust survivor, lived through the horrors of genocide. For each of them, life was a series of terribile initiations.
Fanny Lebovits with photo of Liepaja ghetto.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Think of these as tales from the netherworlds. And what happened to them could happen to you, or to me. Or to our children and their children to come.
Lebovits as teenager. “We tried to come out from the bottom onto the deck, where the Nazis who were guarding us were. But all the metal on the boat was boiling hot."
His face is round, his skin the color of sesame oil. A mustache covers lips that seem to tremble. Henry Rios's sad brown eyes are like two wounds. Below his right eye is a tattooed teardrop that he got when he was 17. “Every time I look in the mirror, it reminds me of the sad life I had,” Rios says. “I call it the everlasting tear.” He is 28 but looks much older.
His tiny, one-bedroom house is in a rundown section of City Heights, not far from where he grew up. He is broad shouldered and heavy, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt with black corduroy shoes. He studies criminal justice now and has hopes of someday being a parole officer. He has a wife and two kids — a family that he struggles to keep clothed and fed. But for most of his life, the Sherman gang was his familia.
“I was born into a gang. It was a way of life. My mother and father were in gangs. My mother was from East L.A., Boyle Heights; my father was from Logan Heights. Ever since I was a baby, they dressed me in baggy clothes. If you were raised in a certain neighborhood, you’re an original — an O.G. But outsiders had to do certain things to prove their loyalty to the neighborhood.”
It would start with a line of 100 or so gangsters. “You’d walk through, and we would hit you as hard as we could,” Rios’s voice is matter-of-fact, almost distant. “Anywhere and everywhere. As many times as we wanted. We’d give you a black eye, bust your nose, knock your teeth out. That’s the way we used to do it. And if you cried before you passed the line, we’d look at you as weak. Because if you cry just getting hit, what are you gonna do when some others really come for you? Are you gonna cry then and let them know that you’re weak?
“You had to do more than just be jumped in. If somebody wanted to be where we were from, and we didn’t think he could handle himself, we’d ask him to go over and shoot some person. Not an enemy — ’cause it’s easy to shoot an enemy. ‘Shoot an ordinary person,’ we’d tell them. We’d look at their reaction — see if they were scared. And if they did it, we had respect for them. They were down with us and cool.”
Rios was ten when he first saw the Shermans ask a wannabe to murder someone. “I think the kid was about seven or eight. That’s why we told him he had to do the ultimate — he was so young. So he went up to some black man, an ordinary guy at a phone booth, and shot him in the head with a .38 revolver.
“The violence was handed down from my brothers to me, so it was a way of life. People hurt you, and you did it right back.”
In aboriginal and tribal societies, rites of initiation gave each youth revelations about the deepest mysteries of life. Elders supervised rituals and trained initiates, separating them from family and tribe. Elders knew how to deal with the wild and potentially destructive energies of youth. But what happens when elders are absent and the rites of initiation are administered by children?
Writes storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade, who’s worked with gang members, “Instead of ritual descent and emotional resurrection, complete death occurs. Actual bodies pile up...the wail of sirens, the crack of bullets and the whirl of flashing lights bring the ‘underworld’ to life each night.”
“I had my childhood taken away. Stolen. Physically and sexually abused," Rios says in a barely audible whisper, looking down, hanging his head. He won’t elaborate. “I could get killed for talking about it.”
Rios’s family was chaotic. His mother, part Italian, part Apache, was no match for her husband, a Yaqui Indian with a mean streak. When the family violated welfare laws, Henry was removed to a foster home in El Cajon. He was almost two.
“I was there until I was eight, and that all seemed like a dream. I got three meals a day. I got love. But then I went back to my real mom, and things weren’t right. There was fighting all the time. I never had a real family. My brothers were on drugs. They used to beat me up. And there was always fights. So my mom threw me out on the streets one day.”
Rios was ten. He lived out of a bathroom at Grant Hill Park for the next five years. “That’s when I really started turning to a life of crime and started stealing, mostly to feed myself.” Sometimes gang friends gave him food. Other times he hustled, pulling small-time robberies.
He used speed and inhaled paint fumes. “I’d spray gold or white paint on a sock and huff it. It let me escape what was around me, like a dream. But when the high went away, reality came back. I had a little radio, a cassette player. And I would go down to this canyon, down by Golden Hill, and that’s where I would cry. Never in front of anybody, always alone.”
One day, when Henry was 14 years old, “I was walking down by Commercial, me and my cousin Ruben and two little friends, walking south toward Logan. And this car was coming north. One dude came out and — boom — my cousin was gone. His neck and face were blown away. I held Ruben in my arms and cried. All I thought about was revenge.
“Later that night we drove by this church in Logan Heights. There were seven or eight guys and four girls. And we just shot them up. They didn’t have a chance. I saw them go down, but I don’t know what happened to them. Some of them must’ve died.
“Life was a daily risk. Ever since I was ten, I used to walk the streets with a Remington double-barrel shotgun under my trench coat.”
About a year after his cousin was murdered, 15 rival gangsters surrounded Rios after one of his homies crossed out the graffitied names of some Logan Heights gang members and put his name instead.
“I knew what was going to happen. We use to call it the famous circle. You’re standing right there, and guys start to surround you. And since I knew what was going to happen, I started hitting first.
“But they beat me pretty good. I been hit with bats and crowbars. I been stabbed. For a while I was peeing blood and spitting it up.”
The same year, at 25th and Imperial, “I was putting some gas in the car and some guys came by. Hashing their signs and started shooting at us. I told them, ‘Come back, come back!’ And I turned around and took a step, and the bullet hit me.” Rios shows me the scar on his right ankle. “One of my homeboys’ mom pulled it out with some tweezers and poured some whiskey on it.
“See, people thought I was crazy because of the things I used to do. It’s not normal for a person to walk up to four guys shooting at you. But I did. Because I didn’t care.
“I’ve seen a guy get run over by a car full of dudes who put him in a trunk and just took him somewhere. You don’t hear what happens to those people. I’ve seen things like that more than once.”
In many cultures, the dead are buried with prayers and objects to help them on their voyage to the next world. Sherman funeral rites had their own logic. When one of Rios’s best friends was killed with more than two dozen shots by a rival gang, 200 people showed up for the burial. Rios remembers Miguel’s body lowered into the grave as his homeboys filed by and tossed in marijuana, PCP, and beer.
“All I could think about was revenge — to get back at the people who did this,” Rios recalls. When the funeral was over, the Shermans met with the Lomas gang and planned their attack.
“There were about 400-some people. We were gonna go down to Logan Heights, because we heard they were having a masquerade party, and we were gonna go and shoot everybody. Everybody and anybody. But somehow the word leaked out, and they didn’t have the party. They were lucky. It would’ve been a massacre.”
Rios was 18 when he first went to jail for breaking into a car. That landed him in El Cajon for a couple of weeks. The second time, a year later, Rios ended up spending four months in three different jails around San Diego.
“I wanted to get caught that second time — for personal reasons. I was staying with my father. He was trying to get me off the streets. His motto was, ‘He made me, he could take me out.’ So he ended up running me over with his car. I flew 30 feet from the car and ended up in the hospital with my head cut open.
“I don’t even know where he is now. Somewhere in San Diego, I guess.”
The literature of initiation is filled with examples of children being taken from their mothers in the middle of the night and disappearing for weeks or months. By the end of the initiation, the youths will die to childhood, return with a new identity, and their mothers will mourn over them as they would for the dead. In the gang, Rios was known as El Conejo 1, because he could run so fast.
“Your devotion is to your homeboys and homegirls,” Rios says, as if reciting multiplication tables. “They’re like family. If something happens to a Sherman, you take it like it was happening to your own brothers and sisters. You fought for what you believed in. And if you let things happen to you, you’d be known as a weak gang. The initiation is to show you can take it. And that you won’t cry.
“I learned a lot growing up. I’ve seen it all. I seen how manipulative and conniving people are. What they will do to get what they want. I seen guys giving girls pills just so they could get sex from them."
Rios got out of gangs in 1986, when he started going to San Diego City College, studying recreational counseling. “I got tired of the life — being drunk or high on drugs, being stabbed, being jumped all the time, bouncing around like a ball.
“But people stereotyped me. They thought I was a criminal, up to no good all the time. I had to prove myself, and I still do. It’s because of the way I look. I’ve been in that life so long.”
For a while Rios worked for Kmart as an undercover security guard. But after an accident that left him unable to work, Rios and his family at times had to survive on $40 a month. “We starved. We sold things that we had just to eat or put diapers on our kids.”
Rios went back to work, perhaps too soon, and fell one day and sustained a head injury. As a result, he now has seizures, as many as 20 a day.
“Every night, before we go to bed, we say our prayers. And I always ask God what I did to deserve this — to be molested and live out on the streets. I ask him why I had to have such a sad life.
“I have dreams of seeing people getting shot or killed. And I’ll think about the things I’ve done to people. At night, I lay down sometimes and see images of enemies we jacked. I see them begging for their lives, offering us their car or money or drugs in exchange for life. I ask God to forgive me for all the sins I’ve committed. I ask for his mercy, and I think I’ll get it.”
He’s 67 years old. His hair, cut short, is silvery gray and receding. But you wouldn’t want to tangle with Fred Markland. His biceps are enormous, and he has a thick, bullish neck and powerful legs. He can bench press 275 pounds.
In Markiand’s comfortable condo, not far from Hotel Circle, hangs a painting of a Marine sergeant with a fierce, direct stare. It’s a portrait of Markland the warrior as a young man.
It’s not hard to peel back the years, imagine more hair, and picture him growing up Catholic on Chicago’s South Side, a tough kid of solid Norwegian stock, willing to slug it out with anyone who messed with him.
“I enlisted in the Marine Corps when I was 18,” Markland says. “I wanted to go in a hurry. So they said, ‘Well, you can go tomorrow.’ I wanted to experience something other than living on the same street, the same block. Doing the same thing every day. So they put us on this train and sent us to South Carolina. And then they bused us over to Parris Island, where boot camp is on the East Coast.
“You’re kind of in shock for about 12 hours, because you’re running everywhere you go. They own you. And at that point you don’t quite realize it, because everything is bombarding you. But the change is immediate. They cut all your hair off, so everybody looks the same. They take all your clothes and throw them away, unless you want to send them home. And then they give you uniforms, and everybody looks the same, like a bunch of robots. Which is what they want, right at that particular time.”
Like all warrior initiations, the Marine version is intent on creating a wholly new identity. To be willing to lay your life on the line for an ideal, to be willing to kill strangers, you must leave everyday reality and enter a new world, a sort of single-minded intensity.
In Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick's chilling take on the Vietnam war, the first half of the film details the recruits’ initiation into the Corps by a sadistic drill instructor. One chubby, unathletic kid becomes the particular object of his abuse. But by the end of boot camp, he unravels and murders his D.I.
The intensity of a warrior is described in a well-known passage from the ancient Norse epic Ynglingasaga. “They went without shields, and were as mad as dogs or wolves, and bit on their shields, and were as strong as bears or bulls; men they slew, and neither fire nor steel would deal with them; and this is what is called the fury of the berserker.”
While not as extreme, the Marines’ initiation, day by day in basic training, encourages a kind of fury. What’s seen as weakness is mocked and rooted out. You do as you are told.
“There was one kid in our outfit right at the beginning who did something wrong,” Markland recalls. “Well, they have a statue in front of Building One at Parris Island that’s called Iron Mike. It’s a bronze statue of a Marine from World War II holding a machine gun over his shoulder. Anyway, the drill instructor had this kid bouncing around flapping his arms and saying that he was a shitbird from Yamacy. And he had to go around the statue about three times and then go up there and kiss Iron Mike on his ass. Of course, all of the rest of us were standing there watching this. We thought it was very humorous, though you couldn’t laugh, otherwise you’d be doing the same thing he was doing.
“If you got caught smoking, they put a blanket over your head or a bucket over your head, and you had to smoke a whole lot of cigarettes inside the bucket. Or if you called your rifle a gun, you had to stand up on a table and hold your rifle up like this. Marine style” — Markland poses as if he’s holding a rifle in one hand, his penis in the other — “and you’re bare-ass naked, chanting, This is my rifle, and that’s my gun. This is for fighting, but this is for fun.’ You’d say that over and over and over with all the other guys standing around cleaning their rifles and laughing at you."
Parris Island was full of sand fleas, and one of the biggest crimes a recruit could commit was to kill one. “If you killed a sand flea, what you might have to do is dig a big hole, six by six feet, and bury the sand flea. Then you’d fill it back up, and the DI might ask you, ‘Was that a male or a female?’ And if you said it was a male, he’d say, 'Wrong, it was a female. I can prove it.’ And you’d dig the hole back up and see if you could find that sand flea again.
“One day my D.I. got into a thing. I used to think he was funny. He had a funny way of talking. Anyway, he caught me laughing, and he accused me of laughing at him. I said, ‘No, I wasn’t sir.’ And so he said, ‘I’m gonna teach you to quit grinning.’ And he stuck my head in a bucket of water and beat on the side of it with a rifle rod, which makes a lot of noise. He’d stick my head in there, hold me down and — bang-bang-bang — pull me out. But I said to myself, ’He’s not going to make me stop grinning.’ And so every time he’d pull me out. I’d grin. We did this a number of times and finally he quit. And at that point, about five weeks into boot camp, he never bothered me again. He saw I could take it. That I wasn’t going to give in.
“See, back in that day, they wanted you to develop the discipline. They wanted you to develop a mental toughness that would allow you to make decisions — rational, logical decisions. Decisions without being affected by the environment around you. They didn’t just want a robot that they could program to go out and destroy. They wanted you to be able to think and handle critical situations that you would experience in combat.
“And they got at it, first of all, by turning you into nothing. Everybody’s hair comes off, down to nothing. You may be a kid from New York, big, wavy hair. And I’m a cowboy from Idaho. But when we come out of that barbershop and put on our hats, which come all the way down over our heads, we all look alike. We all get treated alike. You’re one and the same. And then, as time goes on, you begin to evolve as individuals.
“The first three or four weeks they really hit you hard. They stress you out. They want you to fail. They want you to break down. As they used to say, ‘We’re going to snap you out of your civilian shit.’ ”
When Markland got out of boot camp, he returned home for a while. “I could not relate to any of my old friends. It was like all my friends had stayed still while I had gone somewhere. I changed. I’d been with people from all kinds of places, all around the country. And I learned from that. I had a new identity, and I felt good about it. But I still didn’t feel like a warrior.”
In July of 1950, when he was based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, “They called everybody up one afternoon and told us there was a big alert. ‘Everybody pack your gear, because we’re going to the West Coast,’ which meant San Diego. There was a lot of speculation. Of course, we knew pretty much what was happening. Nobody had said yet, ‘We are going to war in Korea.’ But in our minds we had a pretty good idea that’s where we were going to go.
“It was like a football team getting ready for their first game. We all got sweaty palms. We were all nervous. We were kind of apprehensive but we’re elated, too, because you are going. In those days everybody read the comic books and the little books they had about soldiers. World War II was still pretty fresh in everybody’s mind.”
The first Marines to land at Pusan reinforced the Army, holding back the enemy until Army lines were organized. “Afterwards, they brought us out. We went to Kobe, Japan. And then we transferred from the big ships over to smaller ships, and we made a big landing at Inchon, South Korea, which cut the enemy lines in half, which let us cut right through the North Korea line.”
When his platoon reached the Han River, Markland finally saw combat. “[The North Koreans] had hit us a couple of times, and then it got down to their coming. You don’t think about it at the time. All you think about is boom-boom-boom. All you think about is what you’re supposed to be doing.
“I’m in this hole in the ground, and at first the idea that these people want to kill me doesn’t make sense. I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t for real. Am I dreaming this?’ But then your training and your own inner being takes over, and you do whatever you have to do.”
As for the worst of it, “It was late November or December, four months after I arrived in Korea. We were going through the town of Wonsan, and we got ambushed. It was just 12 of us walking on flat ground along a railroad track. There was no jungle in Korea, just rolling hills around us. And we got ambushed.
“We were just outnumbered. They had us pinned down good, and they shot us up. They killed three or four of our guys right off the bat. And then they got in close enough to start throwing grenades on us. Some of us could hide, some couldn’t. We hid along the road, wherever we could find some cover. And we returned the fire. The North Koreans were behind rocks and up on the hills, throwing hand grenades.
“I got hit with a grenade that came and lifted me up and turned me over. When I got my senses back, I took a deep breath and the air came out a hole in my back. I was out of ammunition, and most everybody else was probably dead by then, except one other guy, George Foster. I tried to figure out what I was going to do. I knew they were going to come down and check us out just to make sure we were all dead. So I just kind of improvised a little, I guess, and put my tongue between my teeth and popped myself in the jaw. And I bled out the side of my mouth and just laid there.
“I was ice cold the whole time. I wasn’t scared, but everything was in kind of slow motion. Even when I could hear them coming down to check us out, it was like my mind was just working all the time.
“They kicked at a few of us and walked over and around us and took some of our equipment. One of my friends who was still alive must’ve moved, so they shot him. Shot my friend because he twitched. He was laying on his face, and they shot him in the back, the bullet coming out right above the left nipple. And he bled up into his mouth and passed out. They thought he was dead. And it’s a good thing he was on his face, because if he’d been on his back he’d have choked to death. They kicked me a couple of times, partially rolled me over. I was conscious the whole time. I kept my eyes open. And then they went on down the line. I could see them moving around. They didn’t stick around a long time. They went through everything, picked up what they wanted, and went on their way. It was dark by then.” At dawn, Markland was conscious. All of his platoon, except Foster, were dead. “I found Foster, picked up some ammunition, and we headed back.
“Ever since that time, my basic feeling is, if something is not life-threatening, it’s nothing. If it’s life-threatening, it’s important enough to deal with. Anything else, I can handle.” At one point during the long ambush, a North Korean soldier had jumped in front of Markland. “He didn’t see me, and I just shot him.” At a remove of 40 years, his voice seems calm. “And I didn’t have any problem with it. There’s a thing you’ve got to keep in mind when you’re talking about combat. If you’re fighting long enough, you’ve become part of it. It becomes you. And there’s a point where you live on the adrenaline that the war causes. And eventually you get to where you kind of need it. It’s kind of like shooting up if you were a drug user. But you don’t, because this comes from within you. And when you become that way, in my mind that’s when you become the perfect soldier.
“But I’ve wondered sometimes if that guy was married. Or if he had any kids. I thought he must feel a lot like I do. He’s out here for his country, for what he thinks is right. And I’m out here because my country says I’m right. I think about those things.
“Death is there all the time, and you get so you live with it. And so is fear. Big time. I wet my pants. I’d see guys just puke their guts out in combat when their buddies were killed. You might be able to suppress it to the point where it’s not bothering you. But as soon as the first round goes off, you’re all ready to go again.
“You do cry sometimes, but it’s later. It might be a day or two later. You don’t do that at the time because you’re too busy. Later, you’re in the middle of a firefight and your friend goes down. You sit there and say you’re sorry, you’re not going to get killed, because you have to fight. You have to keep going. After all that stress and anxiety wears off, that’s when you get the shakes.
“When I came back, all my friends had a big party. But there wasn’t anybody standing around with a bunch of banners. We didn’t come back to the same kind of reception as they did in World War II. And I didn’t expect it. Strange as it may sound, I went into the Corps and that was my job. I came back, and they paid me for it, and they rewarded me for a number of things. They gave me decorations and stuff. I was glad I was out of it. I could lay down and go to sleep without worrying about it. I didn’t have to sleep alertly. But it took a little transition. It wasn’t like I could just turn off the switch that made me a soldier.” Markland went to Vietnam in 1966. This time he was a master sergeant with 38 men under him. It was jungle warfare, small-unit action, and search-and-destroy missions.
In two years in Vietnam, Markland lost only one man. “I was looking right at him, and the bullets came right over my shoulder. He was standing (about a foot from] me. They must’ve been shooting for me. But the bullets hit him in the head, and he was dead instantly.
“I wouldn’t wish war on anybody,” he says. “The terror is indescribable. You can die in the blink of an eye. And most people aren’t cut out to be soldiers. And nothing can prepare you for confronting death on a daily basis.
“Dying is inevitable. I don’t think I’m afraid of it. I think that I’ve had my experiences with it. I came within just an eyelash of death. I don’t think that I’ll be glad to go. But then I don’t think that I’ll be afraid of death either. I really don’t. Because by all rights, I should’ve been dead 40-some years ago.”
She looks, at 68, still lovely. Black, bouffant hair frames her white skin, finely wrinkled and translucent. Her smile is open, her blue eyes, gentle. She is wearing a black checked sweater, a dark blouse, gold earrings. Her Del Cerro home is filled with photos and memorabilia from Hadassah charities, which she has served for many years, and books on Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel.
“We’ve never been to hell,” Fanny Lebovits says. “We know the world such as it is, but we’ve never been in hell. In hell, you get burned. Those are the tales that we hear — that you burn in hell. Well, where I was was hell, a living hell.
“Sometimes I think maybe I’m dreaming — that it was humanly impossible to survive something like this,” she says, wiping away tears. “How could I ever have survived it and remained normal — in a way, much more normal than people that I meet in everyday life?”
She grew up in Latvia, the eldest daughter of a middle-class family of Jewish store owners. In Liepaja, a city with some 9000 lews, she went to Jewish schools. And on the Sabbath and holidays, she prayed in the city’s old synagogue, absorbing the culture and spiritual history of her people. She was a good student, a good athlete, and went on to become a nurse.
In Latvia Jews were isolated, as they had not been in Western Europe. Fanny saw anti-Semitism every day. “They called us Zyids — dirty Jews. The people hated us.”
But to emigrate would be painful, difficult, and expensive. Fanny’s family had Lebovits as a teenager prospered in Latvia, and so they stayed. Then, in 1940, when she was 18, the Red Army provided a taste of what was to come.
“In June of that year, Latvia was run over by Russia. And the country did not fight. The Russians took away our prime minister, and they seized control of the country. A lot of people became Communists. And some Jewish people were inclined to be leftists.”
But the Russians, fierce anti-Semites themselves, seized Jewish businesses. “My family had a small shoe factory and a business. But they took away the keys one day from my father, and they said, 'That belongs to us now. And all you can do is look after the business.’ From then on, he was paid like any other laborers for what he did.
“They said if I left my post and was found going east that I would be shot as a deserter. A lot of Jews heard about the Germans coming closer and closer. But because I couldn’t go, my parents didn’t go. They didn’t even try to go. They had some bundles packed and were just sitting and waiting.”
In June of 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Liepaja for seven days. By the time Hitler’s troops came in with tanks, the Russians had fled.
Jews had been isolated for more than 200 years in the Baltic region, and the Germans had no trouble finding collaborators. The Nazis assembled special killing squads, called Einsatzgruppen, made up of Lithuanians and Ukrainians.
“In Latvia, the Isargis were the Einsatzgruppen, and they were the mostly ethnic Latvian Lutherans. They were vicious anti-Semites. The Russians had arrested them as nationalists. But when the Germans came, they set them loose on us. They struck fear in the hearts of every Jew. All of them became Nazis. All of them were murderers."
Not long after they arrived, the SS ordered all the men in Liepaja to report for work at a certain hour. “They said all the males must come to the Hauptwachtplatz, a big square in Liepaja. It was where they had the fire engines. And my father was, at that time, I think, 41 years old.” Fanny pauses and her eyes darken.
“He went there. They told him he would have to go to work. But he never came back home. That was the last time we saw him. Later I learned they took all these men to a forest not too far from our town, where they had them dig graves, huge trenches. And when the men were finished digging, they shot them. I wasn’t present. I can only tell you from what others, who saw, told us. But what we were told was that the men had been sent to labor camps. So what did we know?"
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, all elderly people who were not working were ordered to stay home. Along with others, Fanny’s paternal grandparents were rounded up that night, never to be heard from again.
Separated from the rest of the population (initiates are always separated), lews weren’t allowed to walk on the sidewalks, only the streets. They had to wear yellow stars sewed to the front and back of their clothes at all times. Anyone ignoring the curfews was shot on sight.
Suddenly, one day in December, all Jews in Liepaja were ordered to remain in their homes. That night the Isargis and the Latvian police began to round them up.
“Now, we lived in a street where there must have been maybe three or four Jewish families. So they came to one and to the other and to the next one, and they marched us to the jail. When we came to the jail, there were a lot of trucks waiting, and they were sorting the people, already trying to separate the young from the old. In one direction went the elderly and the children in another, the ones that could work or were already assigned to work for the SS.
“I was wearing a coat with black fur and black boots that my father had made for me. And I had a white band with a red cross, being a nurse. The Germans were here, the SS. And one of them said to me, ‘Get out!’ I told him I wasn’t going to leave without my sister. I had my two sisters here, and my mother, plus my grandfather, and my aunt, and my two cousins. And he said, ‘You — get out!’ I said, ‘I can’t go without my mother and my sisters.’ And he said, ‘You’re too beautiful to be killed. Take your mother and your two sisters and get out. I don’t want to see you.’ He said it under his breath, with contempt. Though I don’t know if it was contempt or pity.
“You see, I say that I have to believe in miracles, because for what reason did he pick me? I wasn’t better than the next one. Well, my mother and my two sisters came out. But my grandfather and my aunt and my two little cousins plus all the others remained in the jail yard. And we never saw them again.”
In that one day, the Jewish population of Liepaja went from 9000 to 800. Afterwards, the Germans organized the ghetto, forcing Liepaja’s remaining Jews into a four-block area behind barbed wire and appointing a group of elders to oversee the organization. Most of the children had already been killed. Miraculously, Fanny’s little sister, six-year-old Liebele, was still safe.
The Nazis chose Rosh Hashanah night, 1943, to liquidate the ghetto. “We were to take as little as possible and were told that we would be taken to another place to work. That was it. So we all got ready, and we marched to the train station. And there we saw the cattle cars, like you saw in Schindler’s List. Exactly like that.
“I must have been numb. For normal people, it is difficult to understand what happens under these circumstances. But the will to survive is strong. This is what I always felt — not the feeling of death. Because my inner wish always was hoping that I will survive. ‘Why should it happen to us?’ I thought. And I kept telling myself, ‘I will survive. And I will still one day sleep on white sheets.’
“Being the oldest, having to look after my sister all throughout the incarceration, I didn’t have time to really think much about myself, because I saw so much misery around me. Being a nurse, I had to control myself more than the average person — to hold it together, not to pull them down more.” The train traveled slowly, and what was said Fanny can’t remember. It took her and her mother and sisters more than 24 hours to get to Riga, about 400 kilometers away, where the Germans had set up a concentration camp called Kaiserwald.
“We got to Kaiserwald the next morning. Did you ever hear about it? You never hear of Kaiserwald. But this was Latvia’s equivalent to Auschwitz. Kaiserwald is in Riga, the capital of Latvia. We were all taken straight there by trucks. And that’s when they started dividing us.”
First, the men were separated from the women. Then the women were sorted into two groups. Those who looked as if they could work went to one side, and the children, the elderly, and the sick went to another.
“My sister and I went to the one side with my mother.” Fanny’s voice trembles. “But my little sister had to go to the other side. My mother wouldn’t stay with us. We pleaded, we begged her that she should stay with us — because she was in her early 40s. But she said, ‘No, I’m going with Liebele. If she’s going on the one side, I need to go with her. I need to stay with her. You will be able to look after yourselves.’ ”
Ancient initiations begin with separation and a voyage to the other world. In mythology, the hero is typically seeking release from captivity or some secret lore. Perseus had to voyage to a twilight land to find a way to cut off the head of the gorgon. Medusa, whose stare turned you to stone. And the shamans of Siberia traveled to the underworld to recover the lost or abducted souls of the sick. With divine aid, one could enter the realm of the dead and return alive.
But for the Jews, there was no supernatural aid. Their initiations, wholly involuntary, started with their separation and humiliation. Then, if they survived immediate execution, came their trip to another world, to labor and concentration camps and ritualized violence.
As Primo Levi writes in Survival at Auschwitz, “On this point the SS had very clear ideas, and it was from this viewpoint that the entire sinister ritual must be interpreted.... Kicks and punches right away, often in the face; an orgy of orders screamed with true or simulated rage; complete nakedness after being stripped; the shaving off of all one’s hair; the outfitting in rags."
In her month at Kaiserwald, Fanny cleaned the SS quarters. She was no longer a person but a number that she had to memorize and to sew on her clothes. She was guarded by SS who would beat or kill anyone so much as stealing a piece of bread. “Not only did we have the SS, but we had kapos, " she says, referring to the thugs, thieves, sometimes political prisoners, who ran the camps.
“The political prisoners, those were the good ones. But most of them were sadists. Whatever the Germans did to them, they did to the Jews worse. We had to march to work each day, and as we did we had to sing. When I hear these songs on a film, it just cuts me like a knife. The Nazis taught us to sing in German, and we had to march like soldiers and sing. And if you stepped the wrong way, they hit you with a stick.”
For roll call each morning, “They made you stand there for hours in the freezing cold. That was their sadism. You stood until you dropped. And when you didn’t stand straight, the way they wanted you to, they hit you, pushed you, and kicked you.”
Fanny was beaten and watched others being beaten. She watched as the kapos selected women to be their whores, who would be given food and drink, whatever they wanted — though if the Germans discovered them they would all be killed.
Had she not been medically trained, Fanny might have died in Kaiserwald. But — another miracle — a friend of hers arranged for her transfer to the Reichbahn labor camp, where she worked as a nurse. She helped care for the population of 1500.
One day in July of 1944, the order came to evacuate the labor camp. The Germans were retreating. “So the next morning, of course, we all turned up. And the first thing they did, before they took us to Germany, was to shave our heads. Until that time we still had our hair. But they wanted to make sure that we should never be able to flee.”
Fanny was among many thousands from Kaiserwald and other camps that the Germans herded down to the harbor. There, after another selection that sent all but the strongest to their death, they were put on boats.
“People were literally one on top of another, and I was horribly sick. But I remember it was a large boat, because it took thousands of people."
Sailing along the Baltic coast, they went to Gdansk, and from there to Stutthof, a large concentration camp in the eastern part of Germany, where Fanny stayed for about a month, working as a nurse. And from there she went to another labor camp, in Stolp, a city in eastern Pomerania, where she worked with a sadistic Polish doctor who injected himself with the camp’s valuable morphine.
It was the dead of winter, and the lews, in clogs with no socks, lost toes, fingers, and feet to frostbite. “We did one time an amputation with an ordinary little saw,” Fanny says. “And all we had was Novocain. And sometimes we didn’t have that either.
“The Nazis didn’t care. People worked 12 hours a day here, lugging things and emptying wagons. And when they came back to the barracks, they got some soup and a piece of bread and sometimes a little bit of jam. And that would be it for the whole day and night. We ate potato peelings. If not for the potato peels, we wouldn’t have survived, because we had no vitamins. There was no food, no nutrients, nothing. We had nothing.
“Because some Jews stole some tobacco and liquor, the Nazis wanted to make an example of them. So we had to march around them, watching three men from my town hang.”
Again, Fanny had luck on her side. Because most of the people went out to work, “I could have a shower sometimes by myself and keep clean, which kept my spirits up. Maybe every three or four months I got a piece of soap, too. And a piece of soap was like gold.”
By April the Russians were advancing, so the Germans retreated again. Fanny was taken from Stolp to the Burgraben concentration camp, which was virtually empty.
“(Russian bombers) were flying overhead all the time. The bombs were falling. From one minute to the next, you didn’t know if you were going to be hit. But the Germans told us to get out of the barracks. And we had to walk in the middle of a freeway.
“When the planes came, we hit the ground, but the SS were furious. They would kick us and hit us and say, ‘We’ll shoot you if you don’t go in the center of the road.’ ” From Burgraben, Fanny marched back to Stutthof and found the camp was almost empty.
“They had already gotten rid of most of the people. See, this is the irony. I was in Stutthof twice. But I was so preoccupied with my profession, with the sick people, that I was not aware that there were crematoriums and that the smell I smelled came from that. It’s a terrible smell. But I was not aware of it until I heard, much later, that there were ovens in Stutthof. Was I so numb? But then I had never seen a crematorium. Who could believe such things existed?
“This time we were there for maybe four weeks. But the conditions there — I can’t even describe them. They put us in a barrack. They told us to choose a cot. And we chose one in the middle, my sister Jenny and myself. There was no straw. It was just boards. So we lay down on those boards and — I will never get over this until my dying day — the bedbugs started falling from above onto us like a rain. Before, I could keep myself kind of clean. We didn’t have yet a lot of lice where we came from. But now we got it right away, and all of us started getting typhoid fever.
“We were all so weak. No one was getting any food, water, or bread. We were getting nothing. Most people were already infected with all kinds of illnesses, like dysentery and diarrhea. But now they dropped like flies. I remember, someone would be standing there and then collapse — dead. They would be thrown in carts and taken away.
“There was no hospital anymore. There was no emergency treatment. There was a room where people were lying on the floor, and I had to attend to them and give them what I could.
“One night I saw people huddled on the floor around a fire. Would you believe that cannibalism is possible? It’s unbelievable, right? But they were huddled around a dead person, eating his liver.”
At the end of April, the Germans were again on the move. Two boats were secured, one for the healthy and one for the sick. Because she was a nurse, Fanny went on the ship with the people suffering from typhoid fever.
“We floated on that boat on the Baltic Sea for nine days. That was where Jenny contracted typhoid fever. We didn’t have food, we didn’t have enough water for more than one or two days. The Nazis told us we could drink seawater. Now can you drink seawater when you have dysentery and diarrhea? That was certain death.
“We had a yellow flag flying, because we were on a ship with contagious people. But the island we were heading towards wouldn’t accept us. So we were just out there floating on the sea.”
One night, their boat was hit by a bomb from a Russian or a British plane. The boat was afire and sinking.
“We tried to come out from the bottom onto the deck, where the Nazis who were guarding us were. But all the metal on the boat was boiling hot. What we did is, we took off our scarves and bound them together into a kind of flag. And we pulled ourselves up."
A German merchant ship saw the distress flares and came to their aid. “The German sailors put a plank from their ship to our barge. We were at high sea with waves, so how many do you think came over the plank? Eighty out of 600. The rest, they fell into the water and probably perished.
“The sailors were very nice to us. They brought us hot oatmeal — I can remember that. And I asked them for bandages for those who were so badly burned. Then they took us to the Kiel Harbor, in East Prussia. We saw that every ship that was docked there had a white flag and asked what it meant. And they said, ‘Kiel has surrendered.’ We never saw the SS anymore after that. I don’t know what happened to them. They must have taken off their clothes and put on the clothes of the dead people, most likely.’’
In Kiel, Fanny spent a couple of days in a hospital. And from there, with a group of women, she was transported to another hospital in Itzhoe. Here she came down with typhus and fell into a coma. But she and her sister survived.
“I finally slept on the white sheets I’d dreamed of.
“I came out of the camps with a lot of strength and a lot of courage. I wasn’t frightened to go and talk to people. I wasn’t broken. I was strong. I went into the camps a young, innocent girl. But when I came out, I could have been a hundred years old for what I saw and lived through.
“When I came out of this hell, I felt that the continuation of my nation was my primary concern. I could write a book about the birth of the state of Israel. Most of my life after the Holocaust was devoted to that. I worked for the World Jewish Congress. That birth was indescribable.
“My message to others — to teach the generations not to hate people. To love them. To get on with people. And if people won’t hate each other, the Holocaust won’t happen again to any people. I have seen so much evil, so many atrocities. But I find that it hasn’t hardened me. It’s made me more compassionate. And I’ve come out of the Holocaust with a belief that there is a lot of good in people. The whole world is not evil. There is still a higher being at work in the universe.”