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SPECIAL REPORT / ISRAEL at 50

For Survivor, 'Unrealistic Optimism'

Daniel Chanoch is amazed he made it from Auschwitz to Jerusalem.

April 12, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARMEI YOSEF, Israel — By the time Daniel Chanoch landed on the shores of Haifa with a bruise-blue number tattooed on his forearm, he had lost his Lithuanian parents and sister to the Nazis and had worked as a pimp, providing Hungarian girls to American GIs liberating Europe. He was 13--the age at which a Jewish boy officially becomes a man.

More than half a century later, Chanoch, 65, is a proud grandfather and businessman whose green eyes reflect what he calls his "unrealistic optimism." He nimbly climbs a ladder to the roof of his house in the foothills of Jerusalem for a 360-degree view of Israel's heartland.

"I have to pinch myself every day. I still cannot believe I made it from Auschwitz to here," Chanoch says over the blanket of pine trees unfolding before him. But a blackened chimney rising from the rooftop casts a shadow over his joy and, slapping the cylinder, he adds, "Even here I have a reminder."

Chanoch is one of about 360,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel who, along with their children and grandchildren, make up about 20% of the population. His journey from Hitler's concentration camps to the port of Haifa mirrors that of many survivors; his history, like theirs, helps explain the determination of Jews to rebuild a fortified homeland in Israel.

"I think the Jewish nation needs Israel. It is the insurance policy for all the Jews of the world," he says.

What happened to Chanoch began in Kaunas, Lithuania. He was the youngest of three children of a timber merchant and his wife.

Life was pleasant for the family, which had two nannies and a summer house. The Russians moved into Kaunas and eliminated Hebrew schools in 1940, but that did not seem so terrible to a young boy impressed by the Red Army soldiers and Russian flag.

In the summer of 1941, 8-year-old Chanoch saw the Germans march into Kaunas and was confused. "I thought they were beautiful. Very organized. It was difficult for me to make up my mind, because normally soldiers go against the bad guy," he says.

But soon Lithuanian militias rounded up Jews and slaughtered them for the Germans. The lucky ones, like Chanoch's family, were herded into ghettos.

In the Slobodka Ghetto, Chanoch scavenged for food and saw elderly people crawl the streets with yellow stars pinned to their shoulders. He stayed with his parents until they told him, "We cannot protect you anymore. You must hide yourself."

He dodged the Nazis until the SS deported his family in 1944; Chanoch boarded the train with his father and brother. He never saw his mother and sister again.

Chanoch was 11 when he arrived at Dachau and was put to work in the SS kitchen. After several months, he and 130 other children were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

One after another, the trains pulled into Auschwitz and the disembarking Jews were ordered to drop their belongings on the platform. Chanoch's job was to pick up the discarded bags and coats for the Nazis, and he would hungrily search the pockets for food, sometimes finding a half-eaten sandwich.

As the Russians closed in on Auschwitz, Chanoch joined the Death March out. But he made his escape in Austria as the war was coming to an end.

Chanoch was hairless from malnutrition when a Jewish brigade discovered him and said they would take him to "Eretz Israel"--Greater Israel. They went by truck to Salzburg, where he learned that his brother had also survived the camps, and on to Bologna, Italy, where the two were reunited. In June 1946 he left by boat for Haifa.

Chanoch saw the birth of the state of Israel, went to school, served in the army and traveled the world. He returned to marry a "blueblood" Israeli, with whom he raised two children and coddled two grandchildren.

"I feel sorry for survivors who lost family and are not raising the next generations in Israel," Chanoch says. "Here we have the liberty and pleasure to die for our own country. Here we have the ability to take power into our own hands and to protect our children and grandchildren."

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