EL PASO — Seventy years ago the life of a 12-year-old Jewish kid from Lithuania completely changed when he was forced to fight for his survival in Nazi concentration camps and finally battled his way through the final Death March as the war ended.
Today that boy is a successful businessman living in the border region of El Paso, TX, and he continues drawing strength to share his inspiring story of survival and forgiveness with the community who gathered along with family and friends to commemorate his 82nd birthday.
On August 28, 2011 the Holocaust Museum here presented Kaplan’s memoir, I Forgive Them, which he wrote with the help of David Smith-Soto, a journalism professor at The University of Texas at El Paso. In it Kaplan tells the story of his four years of struggle during World War II.
At the event Kaplan and Smith-Soto were interviewed by Darren Hunt, host of ABC-7 Xtra, about the book’s meaning to them.
Kaplan’s perspective on life changed forever, but after saying, “War is over let’s forgive them,” many years ago to those killing Germans as the war ended, he decided to forbid this terrible past from ruling his life.
After decades of silence Kaplan finally found the right moment to tell his story in 2007 when he saw the need to share it with the world.
“I kept this a secret. I never told nobody in El Paso that I’m a survivor because I heard some people say that all of the people that survived are a little bit coo-coo,” said Kaplan. “So I told them in the old time I was in Russia, but when the Iranian president said there was no such thing as a concentration camp then I came out and looked for someone to help me write my book.”
This is when he met Professor Smith-Soto, who helped put Kaplan’s memories together over a series of interviews so that the public could finally witness the testimony of courage that Kaplan and many other survivors have to share.
“I was totally fascinated, but also David and I established a close friendship that went beyond history. After some time I started to know his story just as well as he knew it and I could ask questions that could fill gaps in his memory, which was also fascinating. I think that the dialogue that we had really led to David exploring areas of his experience that he had put aside,” said Smith-Soto.
Even after spending years working with Kaplan on this memoir, Smith-Soto continues to spread Kaplan’s story even in his classroom.
“Every semester David comes to speak to my class in journalistic writing and the students are always totally fascinated with the story,” said Smith-Soto. “He bears witness and he brings to life that terrible tragedy and I believe this is an extremely important thing to do.”
Kaplan’s memoir tells the story of his unstable childhood from the moment he was born in August 28, 1929 in Kaunas, Lithuania. He was only 11 years old when the Russians occupied Lithuania.
One year later, in 1941, Kaplan was 12 years old when war between Germany and Russia began and the Germans invaded Lithuania. By then his father had already been taken prisoner to Siberia by the Russians and Kaplan along with his mother, grandfather, brother and sister were forced to trade their middle-class home in Kaunas for a room in the Slabotka ghetto.
“When the Germans came in, it came out in the newspaper that all the Jews have to move to Slabotka, which later became the ghetto. We had 30 days to move or be killed,” said Kaplan.
Lithuanians who sympathized with the Germans helped kill some 10,000 Jews during the first few days of the invasion. Kaplan’s family learned that the people they had considered their neighbors became killers and enemies.
Even though Kaplan also had to cope with dyslexia he never gave up. He was able to provide for his family in the ghetto by building small ovens that would use very little wood to cook and had a winding pipe that would warm up the one-room apartment in the freezing Lithuanian winters.
“Believe it or not, even in ghettos and concentration camps there is a black market and I sold these stoves and I made some money with this,” said Kaplan.
Kaplan’s resilience helped him endure many challenges throughout the four years of Holocaust. At the end of the war he was one of the 800 people to survive the 10-day Death March from the approximately 20,000 who began.
Today Kaplan shares the strength and confidence that has characterized him since he was a boy with his family. Including his loving wife of nearly 60 years Tita, whom he describes in the dedication as “my mentor, my friend, my partner, who made my life beautiful.” His four children Jacob, Carlos, Lily, Esther and his grandchildren, Oshrat, Amir, Adam, Stacy, Jonathan and Aleeza accompanied him in this celebration.
“I do think my husband’s story has made my family stronger. But for a long time he wouldn’t talk about it and I didn’t want to remind him of anything that wasn’t positive. He waited for the right moment,” said Tita.
By sharing his story openly, Kaplan has allowed the younger generation of his family to learn from his past and become stronger.
“I’ve just learned from every single thing, especially his main motto that’s on his book I Forgive Them. You have to go on with your life; you have to continue and I know it’s extremely hard to forgive but it’s not for them, it’s for yourself and knowing this has helped me many times,” said grandson Jonathan Kaplan.
The interview ended with a birthday cake as everyone sang “Happy Birthday Mr. Kaplan” showing him how much he means to the community that he now calls home. He is the walking testimony of what the human spirit can accomplish and his story of survival and forgiveness can bring hope to anyone who is willing to listen.