In October, 1943, while trapped in the Nazi-occupied ghetto of Kovno, Lithuania, Dr. Elchanan Elkes, wrote a letter to his son Joel and daughter Sara. Dr. Elkes entrusted the last testament, an ethical will hand-written in Hebrew, to a friend, who smuggled it to his children, already safe in England. The son of a rabbi and a prominent neurologist, Dr. Elkes was sent the next year to Kaufering concentration camp, where he soon died of typhus. His son Joel later produced a book, “Dr. Elchanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto: A Son’s Holocaust Memoir.”
My beloved son and daughter,
With regard to myself, I have little to report. Last year I suffered an acute and severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis, which kept me bedridden for nine months. However, even in the most difficult days of my illness, I carried on in my community, and from my bedside participated actively in the work of my friends. Now I am better, it has been about six months since I ceased being regarded as sick. I am not fully well, either, but I continue to work ceaselessly, without rest or respite.
About six months ago we received a message from Uncle Hans, transmitted to us by way of the Red Cross: it said you were all right. The little note, written by a stranger, took nine months to reach us. We have written and written to you by way of the Red Cross and private persons. Have any of our words reached you?
We are desolate that during our stay here we could not contact you and tell you that we are still among the living. We know full well how heavily the doubt of our survival weighs upon you, and what strength and confidence you would draw from the news that we are alive. This would certainly give you courage, and belief in work and life with a firm and clear goal.
I deeply fear despair, and the kind of apathy which tends to drive a person out of this world. I pray that this may not happen to you. I doubt, my beloved children, whether I will ever be able to see you again, to hug you and press you to my heart. Before I leave this world and you, my dear ones, I wish to tell you once again how dear you are to us, and how deeply our souls yearn for you.
Joel, my beloved! Be a faithful son to your people. Take care of your nation, and do not worry about the Gentiles. During our long exile, they have not given us an eighth of an eighth of what we have given them. Immerse yourself in this question, and return to it again and again.
Try to settle in the Land of Israel. Tie your destiny to the land of our future. Even if life there may be hard, it is a life full of content and meaning. Great and mighty is the power of faith and belief. Faith can move mountains. Do not look to the left or to the right as you pursue your path. If at times you see your people straying, do not let your heart lose courage, my son. It is not their fault – it is our bitter Exile which has made them so. Let truth be always before you and under your feet. Truth will guide you and show you the path of life.
And you, my dear daughter Sarah, read most carefully what I have just said to Joel. I trust your clear mind and sound judgement . Do not live for the moment; do not stray from your chosen path and pick flowers at the wayside. They soon wilt. Lead a life full of beauty, a pure life, full of content and meaning. For all your days, walk together; let no distance separate you, let no serious event come between you.
Remember, both of you, what Amalek has done to us. Remember and never forget it all your days; and pass this memory as a sacred testament to future generations. The Germans killed, slaughtered, and murdered us in complete equanimity. I was there with them. I saw them when they sent thousands of people – men, women, children, infants – to their death, while enjoying their breakfast, and while mocking our martyrs. I saw them coming back from their murderous missions – dirty, stained from head to foot with the blood of our dear ones. They sat at their table – eating and drinking, listening to light music. They are professional executioners.
The soil of Lithuania is soaked with our blood, killed at the hands of the Lithuanians themselves; Lithuanians, with whom we have lived for hundreds of years, and whom, with all our strength, we helped to achieve their own national independence. Seven thousand of our brothers and sisters were killed by Lithuanians in terrible and barbarous ways during the last days of June 1941. They themselves, and no others, executed whole congregations, following German orders. They searched – with special pleasure – cellars and wells, fields and forests, for those in hiding, and turned them over to the “authorities.” Never have anything to do with them; and their children are accursed forever.
I am writing this in an hour when many desperate souls – widows and orphans, threadbare and hungry – are camping on my doorstep, imploring us for help. My strength is ebbing. There is a desert inside me. My soul is scorched. I am naked and empty. There are no words in my mouth. But you, my most dearly beloved, will know what I wanted to say to you at this hour.
And now, for a moment. I close my eyes and see you both, standing before me. I embrace and kiss you both; and I say to you again that, until my last breath I remain your loving father.