Sasha in The Valley of the Lost Communities, Yad Vashem, pointing to the name of his birthplace.
Holocaust survivor Shabtai (Sasha) Falcon regularly visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in attempts to determine the fate of family and friends from Latvia.
Like many of his fellow survivors, Sasha Falcon barely spoke about his horrific ordeal until his Israeli born children began to ask more about that period of his life and in 1995, accompanied by his youngest son and a nephew, he returned to his place of birth and flight, the city of Dvinsk.
Sasha Falcon recently passed away at the age of 83 and now rests alongside his kibbutz born wife Yael in a peaceful, tree-shaded corner of the cemetery of the Jezreel Valley kibbutz where he lived, worked and lovingly brought up his children and grandchildren.
The quiet, twinkle eyed, naturally technically minded man with a pair of golden hands succeeded in leaving an important Holocaust survivor’s legacy of “don’t forget to remember” firmly instilled in his extended family and kibbutz community.
Digitalization of the records in Yad Vashem and other Holocaust research centers in Israel and abroad opened up vistas of further possibilities to Sasha who said:
“It is so important to me that our stories be recorded in Holocaust education centers otherwise the Holocaust revisionists will succeed in their efforts to obliterate our terrible experiences and who would be to blame if not ourselves?”
As to the mid-1990s overwhelmingly powerful return to his Latvian roots, where he found the Great Synagogue of Dvinsk converted into a gymnasium and stood alongside a sculptured memorial to the Jews of Dvinsk standing in the middle of the killing fields where most of the Jewish community had been murdered, he explained why he had been propelled to take his son and nephew to see the places of his childhood.
“I understood they could only begin to appreciate what had happened to the Jews of Europe and to strongly relate to this when I and others talk of our experiences by actually physically being there, walking in the dead men’s shoes so to speak,” said Sasha, the only survivor from a large family who participated in the post-war trial of two Germans for whom he was forced to work in a Riga camp repairing freight vehicles for the German army.
Sasha’s parents had been forced to leave the Ukraine before the First World War and settled in Dvinsk where their six children were born – Sasha being the fifth. His grandparents and an uncle had also fled the Ukraine and lived in the same predominantly Jewish neighborhood although Sasha’s home was next door to a Catholic church. Sasha had estimated that the Jewish population at that time in Dvinsk was around 13,000.
Although not strictly observant his father did pray in the Great Synagogue and the family attended services during the holiday periods and Sasha had very strong memories of a beautiful and richly decorated synagogue hosting guest cantors, especially the famous Kousovitski.
From stories heard during his childhood Sasha recalled the name of Rabbi Meir Simcha Baal HaNes, so called because in 1905, when the river overran its banks and flooded the town, people believed when the waters receded that the town was saved because of advice and prayers offered by the rabbi.
Sasha and other Jewish boys with whom he would play football were taunted by gangs of Christian youths who would come in to their neighborhood and often there would be an exchange of physical blows. On the other hand, his father had had very good relations with many Christian people from surrounding villages who came to purchase shoes and boots from his shop.
“I can still remember how when I was a schoolboy in 1938-1939 everybody was talking about what was happening in Germany, but that’s all they did as they felt so helpless,” he had recalled.
“The Russians came into Latvia in 1939, the invasion coming from the west, first Vilna and then us. As a child I was curious and went to see the Russian soldiers and their weapons – their uniforms were ragged, their shoes torn and they pulled their cannon with small tractors.”
With the arrival of the Russians life changed drastically, Jewish institutions fell apart and although some people continued to attend the small synagogues everything else ceased. The Russians offered courses for adolescents aged 16-17 with the promise that graduates would be mechanics or railroad engineers, but Sasha was not tempted by their overtures. Those that were, later found themselves taken away and exploited as physical workers all over Siberia.
In 1941 the situation became unbearable and it was common knowledge that the Germans would invade Latvia. Sasha and his older brother pressured their parents to take what they could and run eastward. They boarded a train full of Jewish refugees and set out for Riga.
The train traveled only 10 kilometers before being bombed by the Germans. Surviving the bombing, the family returned to Dvinsk by foot only to find that the Germans had already captured the city.
Sasha’s father and brothers were amongst a group of Jews taken to the central prison and executed the same day. Local Latvians cooperated with the Germans, gathering up Jews and bringing them to the local prison where they were all murdered.
Sasha, his mother and young sister found themselves amongst a group of women, children and old people who were taken to a gigantic fort which had been turned into a ghetto. The thousands of Jews incarcerated in what had been the animal quarters of the fort remained there from the summer of 1941 until May 1942 when the Minister for the Baltic Region declared the region should be ‘Judenrein.’
“On May 1, 1942 the Gestapo came with Nazi flags and took us outside the fort and stood us all up on a giant parade ground. Gebiets Kommisar Schwung arrived with a large entourage and he singled out a doctor by the name of Wovsi,” recounted Sasha.
“Schwung was drunk and demanded that the doctor perform some disgusting act and when the doctor refused, Schwung threatened to kill one of his children – and that is exactly what happened – first the eldest son, and then the youngest. When Dr. Wovsi still refused, Schwung killed the rest of the family in full sight of all those assembled. This was their May Day celebration of the proclamation of the region as Judenrein,” he had explained bitterly.
The youthful Sasha Falcon witnessed all of this through the crack in an old door that he had hidden behind. A short time later all the Jews were taken to a sandy area where large pits had been dug. Each and every one was murdered, including Sasha’s mother and young sister.
“Mother and I understood what was about to happen and before we said our goodbyes, she gave me some gold coins from the days of the Tsar and said “Hide and save yourself,” which I did.
Sasha hid in the fort for two days and when he crawled out of his hiding place there was nobody there.
“There were no Jews, no Germans, Latvians, nobody but me – and I was terrified,” Sasha had said before describing how that had been only the beginning of a long lone journey from hell to beyond before he was to find freedom eventually in Berlin in 1945.
As Sasha Falcon was laid to rest under the Cyprus trees of the cemetery on the slopes of the Menashe Hills, hundreds of adults and youth from his own and other Jezreel Valley kibbutzim stood together as one with his family in a final salute to a small man who cast a giant shadow.
A message sent from a Dvinsk born American, a close friend of Sasha’s, was read out. He was the writer, Max Kukler from Michigan whom Sasha had met in one of the many German work and concentration camps they had passed through.
“We met in late 1943 and were liberated together. I made it out because Sasha literally saved my life, his courage and strength that were always part of him served me well that day. We became like brothers during the post war years … speeding around Magdeburg on our motorcycles or in our Fiat convertible, at the risk of our own lives and others,” wrote Max Kukler.
“Sasha left for the US (hoping to find relatives in San Francisco) and from there to Israel before I made it to the States. Over the years we both rebuilt our lives thousands of miles and cultures apart but I never lost the love for my strong, quiet, kind friend,” rang out the words of fellow survivor Kukler through and over the tall tree tops surrounding Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek’s cemetery.