Tel Aviv attacks revive woman's horror at being target

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The whine of missiles overhead cried out to her past, said Erika Landau, and her stomach clenched with that old feeling of helplessness.

Once again, she was a target as a Jew.

Huddled alone in her apartment, the phone dead and the lights knocked off by a nearby rocket blast, the 59-year-old woman found in the dark a fear she had thought was buried.

Another madman who does not know her -- who does not know the joy she has brought to students in the school she runs, or know the parents she has helped through psychotherapy, or know even of the delicious soup she makes at home -- this madman seeks to kill her.

"I feel sometimes like a puppet, and Saddam Hussein is the one who arranges the puppet theater. He holds the strings," she said.

Helpless. Manipulated. At risk in huge and awful events beyond her control. These were the feelings that stripped away the years for Dr. Landau, stripped away the careful and respected profession she had built as a psychotherapist, teacher and author.

Once again she was a young girl, standing in her parents' yard, frozen as her playmates told her how they had found the hand of a man buried in the ground. He was one of thousands killed by the Germans when they invaded Romania.

Once again, she was 11 years old. A horseback regiment of the German Army seized the huge house of her wealthy father to make it their headquarters. In the garden, the garden where young Erika had spent perfect, lovely spring days gazing up through the cherry blossoms, they made her family dig their own graves.

The stone of the house was cold against her forehead where the soldiers made her stand and wait for the executioner. She must have been frightened, she said, though she is not certain.

"I think nature is very, very gentle. I can't really focus on what I thought as I dug my grave. In those moments, you are as if enveloped in cotton. You are as if you had gotten anesthesia. You don't really realize. You just do what you are told.

"I think if somebody would have cut my hand then, I wouldn't have felt it." Instead, two employees in her father's import-export business offered their lives to save the family, and the Germans relented.

She is a modern career woman. Sophisticated. Fashionable. Her black hair is cut short in a chic style with a gray-white wave in front. Her makeup is careful. So is her speech, in articulate English, French, German, Russian or Hebrew.

But to talk of those times, times brought back by Iraqi attacks on her home of Tel Aviv, her voice becomes small and quiet. A hand with polished nails reaches out nervously to fidget with the strap of a bag.

With the other Jews of Romania, her family was ordered to the rail yards in 1941. Each family was allowed one rucksack. At the railhead, they were crowded into boxcars normally used for cattle.

"The funny thing is, we pushed ourselves to get in as soon as possible." She groped for words. "You want to get over it."

As the train pulled away, a group of religious Jews in her car began a mournful song heard at funerals. It was a sound, she said, that "came after me for years." Her dog, a wolfhound named Caesar, chased the train. Through the boxcar door, she could hear his bark slowly fade away.

"Then it started," she recalled. "We went to several camps. At one camp, every Friday they took 1,000 people and killed them. Twice, we were taken. We had to first dig our graves, and then we would be shot. But we came back, because the Germans stopped exactly at 2 o'clock, before they had gotten to us.

"My father, after having seen how people came back after being taken out to be shot, said we are always going to stand at the extremes" of the crowd.

"If we are the first ones, then we won't have to look at the whole day. If we are the last ones, we are going to survive. And twice, he was right."

Once, in being moved to a camp, they came to a river inundated by November floods. She recalls two guards in charge of 140 Jews. Rather than camp with the prisoners, the guards herded them into the swollen river. Erika's father held her and her mother against the swift current. All but 25 others were swept away.

She wonders now, with a flash of anger, why the young men among her group did not overpower the two guards. Then in a sigh, she answers her own question.

"After you have been transported for days and days without food in a cattle wagon, you become cattle. You can't ask, from animals, human responses. When you haven't taken off for seven weeks your clothes, you haven't eaten, they can do with you what they want."

Erika was lucky to be tall for her age, and was not separated out like many children. When her parents were stricken with severe typhoid fever, she dressed them every day so the guards would not notice they were ill. The guards' prescription for sickness was a bullet.

Despite the nightmare of their lives, there was sentiment.

"We were very close," she said of those in the camps. Each Thursday night before the Friday killings "was a time to take leave of your life, your friends.

"Those long nights when you were just lying there," she recalled quietly. "You talked with people.

"I don't know how" she survived, she said. "I think it was my mother's warmth and protection that made me go on. And my daydreams. And the music. I had all the time in my head a tune. Even as I was digging the grave, there was music."

In 1945, her camp was bombed by advancing Russians. Anxious to dispose of witnesses, the Germans forced Erika and the others to prepare graves for their execution. But as the Russians blew up nearby bridges, the German guards fled.

In 1947, Erika's family had made it to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Her father reached out from a crowded tram to steady his wife, fell, and broke his neck. He was paralyzed and died seven months later.

Erika, 16, left for Palestine with her mother. As they were en route, the state of Israel was declared.

When the gulf war began last month, "I could have run away," said Dr. Landau. Her husband, a man she met her first year in Israel and stayed with for 42 years, recently died. She had many invitations from other countries, she said.

"But I chose to stay home," she said. "I would never leave. This is my country, and that is the difference. Whatever I suffer here, I chose it. In the concentration camps, I didn't have a choice."

"This doesn't make it easier," she admitted. "I'm afraid. I fear for my life." A nearby rocket blast Jan. 25 threw her to the floor of her home and knocked out the utilities.

Relatives since have urged her to stay with them in a suburb north of Tel Aviv. She chafes at that, even though everyone else in her building has fled the city.

"I have a gas mask. I have a sealed room. I'm not afraid of the chemical war. I can cope with it. That's the difference from before."

She has given her phone number to a crisis clinic in Tel Aviv, and counsels frightened people by telephone at night.

"The control of my fear is helping other people," she said. "And every day a new resolution: I'm here and this is my home. I'll never be an immigrant again."

"Somehow, deep down, is the hope that I went through so many things and survived, I'll survive this."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°