In 1939, the Russian infantrymen stationed in Poland had a name for Shmuel Kegen.
“Mulik the Zulik”, or the “naughty little boy” was well known among the solidiers of the Red Army for his playful antics and irreverence, and was never shy of a word with his friendly occupiers.
He was a happy child and, without question, his presence was a welcome distraction for these men who were in the unenviable position of serving Stalin on the one hand, and keeping the Nazi threat at bay on the other.
All this would come to an end in 1941, when the German army invaded and drove out the Russians. As restriction upon restriction was placed on eastern Poland’s Jewish population, so reports began to emerge of mass exterminations in the outlying areas. Sensing danger and fearing for his family’s life, Shmuel’s father paid a Polish farmer to take them in. However, this neighbour was equally aware of the consequences should he be found to be harbouring Jews, and soon sent the family on their way.
Desperate, the father sent his young son to obtain a sled from another neighbour, a rudimentary piece of equipment that would take no fewer than 13 extended family members to a small area believed to be out of reach of Nazi influence. The family then relocated to a Jewish ghetto in Belarus. Only a few days later they learnt that all the Jews in the area from which they had just moved had been massacred.
So Shmuel and his parents and siblings lived, moving from place to place to escape the genocide. In 1942, mother and son were separated for a short period from the rest of the family. They had heard rumours of another massacre in Kemelisky, but thought it would be safe to rejoin them.
What they discovered on their arrival was that they would now be alone in the world – the entire family had been wiped out.
For two years, Shmuel and his mother roamed the countryside, until they found themselves tending cows on a Polish farm. When gunshots rang out on the other side of the property, the young boy startled. The last of his direct family, the woman whose strength had carried him through horrors no one, let alone a child of his age should see, lay dead.
A week later the Russians returned to liberate these lands from the Germans.
It was understandable that Shmuel’s daughter Vanya was unable to control her emotions as she relayed this story to hundreds of people at the Yom Hashoah commemoration service for the victims of the Holocaust at 2 Jewish Cemetery in Pinelands, last week.
To her left sat her father, no longer Mulik the Zulik but a proud Jewish South African who has devoted his life to his own family so that they might never have to face the same atrocities. Since 1966, Shmuel Kegen has lived on these shores, carving out an existence his parents could not possibly have imagined in their frantic bid to escape tyranny.
The strength and will to survive was a constant at the commemoration service, attended by prominent members of Cape Town’s Jewish community as well as representatives of South Africa’s armed forces.
“It is our duty to remember the six million (people) who were killed,” said Eric Marx, chairperson of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies.
“During the Holocaust, Jewish communities found themselves moving between crises, but they attempted to preserve a life based on moral values. Evidence of their spirituality was even found behind those barbed wire fences. To each person there was a name, and it is incumbent on all of us to give a voice to the voiceless.”
A particularly stirring address was given by Teagan Levin, head pupil at Herzlia High School.
“I think of my friend’s laughter and the jokes we tell each other, and then I think of all those 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. I think of all of them and how they would never have the chance to grow up and live a full life like we do, and I’m overcome wih emotions,” she said.
The occasion was also marked by the traditional Kindling of the Lights ceremony, which saw Holocaust survivors as well as relatives of those killed, lighting torches in rememberance.
One of these was Ella Blumenthal, who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and was one of the last people to emerge.
In Auschwitz, she was herded into the gas chamber and locked in, and then marched out and another group of women marched in instead. It turned out that her groups did not have the exact number required, so they marched them out and replaced them with the correct number. She lost her entire family save one niece who was with her in Auschwitz.