Published in Israel in Hebrew by Yad Vashem in 2007, and now in an attractive and improved English format, this compelling account is bound to acquire an honored place in the vast literature of Holocaust memoirs.
The story is a family drama of the author Deborah Steiner van-Rooyen and the book’s heroic protagonist, Yonah Steiner.
Born in America in 1951, as van-Rooyen was about to embark on a global travel venture in 1969 while postponing her college education, she was approached by her grandpa Solomon Steiner with a special request. The first family member to leave Poland for the U.S. in 1912, Steiner wanted to reconnect to his Israeli nephew, Yonah Steiner, son of his martyred brother Simon, who along with brother Paul were the sole Holocaust survivors of the large Steiner family. All that Steiner had was an old envelope with Yonah’s name at kibbutz Ginosar in Israel.
Steiner visited Polish Gromnik, near Krakow in 1932, but his attempts to persuade his family to join him in America fell on deaf ears, as Yonah’s patriarchal grandpa Aharon, Steiner’s father, would not listen and later on Simon, Yonah’s father, nixed the idea in spite of his wife Rachel’s urging to sell their property and leave before it was too late. Yonah and his three older brothers, the twins Willi and Rudi, and Paul, grew up happily and often unruly on the very large family farm. Yonah did not enjoy school and when attending he would stand up to the Polish bullies. At the age of 13 years old, Yonah was on the way home from school on a September afternoon in 1939 when he was apprehended by the German SS and thrown into a truck without communicating with his parents who were murdered soon afterwards, along with the rest of Gromnik’s Jews. This abrupt and tragic interruption to all that young Yonah knew, ironically saved his life, even as “the nightmare began” and lasted the war’s five years with Yonah’s unimaginable survival.
From Pustkow to Danzig to Mielec to Tarnow to Flossenburg to Auschwitz to Mauthausen, Yonah survived a hellish journey for a Jewish boy from a loving family through a world of inhumanity with its own death and life rules. Yonah wisely learned from older and experienced inmates with whom he aligned, but knew how to keep to himself. On his unsuccessful first escape attempt from Pustkow in Poland’s southeast where he spent four months, he killed a German Shepherd dog with his bare hands. The second escape from Danzig in East Prussia where he worked in a submarine factory was facilitated with the help of “The Boss,” a seasoned fellow inmate with whom he bonded and who led him into the Tarnow Ghetto.
In the Tarnow Ghetto with its 150,000 residents, Yonah could not get any support from the terrified Jews. Caught again, he ended up in Mielec, in Poland’s west, and lying about being a steel cutter he was assigned to the Henklewerks factory of the Messerschmidts’ planes. His talents were recognized, though he had no prior training, studying with SS officers. Transferred to Germany’s Flossenburg for nine months, he tried to sabotage the planes he worked on so that they would explode in the air. He even hit back his kapo-like block master, gaining his respect. He witnessed the arrival of well-groomed Czech, Hungarian, German and French women who became prey to the wild soldiers and were tortured to death in horrific ways when deemed useless. There he learned from a German prisoner and friend never to drink unboiled water and to eat every morsel of the meager food. It would safe his life.
His brother Willi died in Flossenburg in 1944.
The next torturous station was Austria’s Mauthausen, assigned to its largest camp with 200,000 inmates. Yonah learned for the first time that the Jews were targeted to die and not only to work. He toiled on the quarry’s infamous 186 “Stairs of Death,” when told of brother Rudi’s presence and resourcefully risked his life to find him already dead. With the Germans losing, their plot to blow up the camp was thwarted by inmates with electrical skills. Though many lives were saved, many were lost in the ensuing flight toward the electrified fences. Others, including Yonah, rushed to dig for potatoes.
I’ll always recall my visit to Mauthausen with my wife Jennifer on a July 2002 day, and the contrast between the pastoral environment and what transpired at the camp.
Following liberation by American troops on May 5, 1945, Yonah shares the revenge of he and other freed inmates exacted on captured SS on a bridge in nearby Linz with bayonets supplied by the black American soldiers.
In the same town in 1946, my family and I spent six weeks in a refugee facility upon our escape from Poland via Czechoslovakia.
A period of reckless conduct, of which Yonah is not proud of, ensued, expressing the survivors’ outrage and pain. In Rome, Italy, with Yonah working for the Americans as a truck driver, an officer informed him that an arrived Jeep was donated by a Solomon Steiner of New Jersey. It was Yonah’s uncle! Consequently Solomon sent him a ticket to join him, which Yonah didn’t use, creating a long estrangement lasting till Solomon and Rose Steiner made Aliyah in 1973.
Yonah’s focus became finding his brother Paul who, was also in Mauthausen. Following arduous efforts, a book in itself, the two were reunited in Czechoslovakia’s Bratislava where ambitious Paul was operating a textile factory. Paul reluctantly joined irresistible Yonah, but ended up to the family’s chagrin with a French Catholic wife in France. In Hamburg, Germany, Yonah met Rivkah, her Ukranian family’s sole survivor, and like many survivors, quickly married. Yonah followed Rivkah to Kibbutz Ein Gev, but caught by the British, he was interred in Cyprus not before daring sea missions of bringing refugees to Palestine. He finally made it to Ein Gev with seven buddies in January 1947, escaping by boat from Cyprus. Yonah helped protect the kibbutz for the forthcoming war and when leaving for kibbutz Ginosar in 1951, he put to practice the skills gained as a slave laborer for the Germans whom he both hated and admired.
In September 1999, on the 60th anniversary of WW II, the author’s uncle, David Steiner, took 21 family members on an emotional roots journey to Gromnik where Yonah was finally able to cry, admitting to years of psychological detachment that also protected him. David Steiner, who has become the family’s generous patron, owns New York’s Steiner’s Studios and Steiner Equities, and is an AIPAC past chairman.
The author fulfilled her pledge to Grandpa Solomon, she found Yonah. Moreover, she discovered and recovered through much love, devotion and ingenuity, her family’s history.
Van-Rooyen is a true and courageous adventurer whom I had the pleasure to listen to at the Lee and Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival in Virginia Beach in 2010. She’s also an international investigator of missing persons and parentally abducted children, as well as the reunification of dislocated families. Her website is: www.doveonabarbedwire.com.
Yonah died of cancer on May 26, 2009, five days after his family gathered to celebrate his 83rd birthday, and is buried in his beloved kibbutz where Deborah first met him in 1969. The dove in the book’s title stands for the Hebrew, Yonah.
—Rabbi Dr. Israel Zoberman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim, is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors from Zamosc, Sarnay and Pinsk. From 1947–1949 he and his family were at Germany’s Wetzlar Displaced Persons Camp. He grew up in Haifa, Israel.