Ever since I can remember, we celebrated a communal birthday for my father, Danny Levonovski.  He is one of 25 that survived from a group of 131 children from Kaunas.  They were exiled from their hometown, separated from their parents and sent by train, in the cold, to Auschwitz.  When they got there, sequential numbers were branded on their arms.  Regardless of their own birthdays, they celebrate the day of their rebirth: Liberation Day.

Every year on May 5th we gather together at our home in Ramat Hasharon or have picnics in a pale replica of the forests of Kaunas to commemorate their rebirth and the rebirth of those who survived the hell.  

To an outsider they looked like a cheerful, happy group who had had the best of times.  They seem like children who stuck to one another and refused to grow up.  Maybe, though, it’s because they had never had a childhood. 

Kalman brings his accordion and leads everyone in song.  Whiskey and herring flow to remind the group of the flavors of home.  They toss dark jokes back and forth — the kind that are reserved only for them and for those who had gone through that hell.  

They argue about the small details — the train ride from Kaunas and the stations on the way; Stutthof where they were separated from their mothers; Landsberg where they were torn from the fathers; Dachau where they felt that all hope was lost; and, finally, the last stop on the journey where they arrived for the death march and were found by the rescue forces on May 5th, 1945.  A chilling record for children who were only eight to ten years old. 

Despite this, I grew up in a happy home.  My father refused to speak of the Holocaust because it was important to him that we focus on being children.  Only on May 5th, at the birthday party, a small crack would open.  Astounded, we hear their stories about being spared from the gas chambers and Mengele’s selections.  I hear about my father, the youngest of the group, who put stones in his shoes to make himself taller so he could keep living.  Every year, they line up in order of the numbers on their arms — B2857, B2858, B2859.

This year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we sat together with my father — our personal survivor — in the living room.  We laughed and remembered.  And thanks to Ruti Volk and Yael Perlov’s wonderful film, Birthday Party, the memories of my father and his friends are available to others.  

We are their victory, our children and our roots planted firmly in this land.  Because of them we have grown wings and have moved on.  Each person chose to live their life in their own way, and the choice to stick with this wonderful friendship — which grew out of the darkest of all places — is the secret that connects us today as a people and a nation. 

My father and his friends taught us to be compassionate and to love.  They taught us to cling to life and to one another.  They proved to us that the strength of the individual stems from togetherness.  They taught us to look evil in the eyes, to move forward and to take the future in our own hands. 

We are raising our children to live moral lives and to never turn their backs on the weak or to close their eyes to hunger and abuse.  Because of them, we have been trained to be better people and to continue to firmly plant our roots.  Because of them, we are here and have been charged to continue to tell the story so that it will never happen again.  We will remember and not forget.

Michal Shalem, WSL ’15, serves as Chief of Staff to the mayor of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem municipality, where she creates and leads long-term strategic plans and strategies.  She led the development of the “Jerusalem 2020” five-year plan for the city and established and implemented various initiatives throughout the city. Before entering the public sector, Michal served as CEO of a company engaged in digital imaging.  She can be reached at michals@jerusalem.muni.il.