In February 2014, we sent our student, Audrey Gellman-Chomsky (Cohort I), to interview Yitzhak Livnat about his childhood in Nagyszollos, surviving the Holocaust, building his life in Israel, and becoming an active part of our program. Audrey writes about the experience of interviewing Mr. Livnat, and the impact he has had on her experience in Holocaust Studies:
“Birkenau. Nobody asked me what was my name. So I was without any identification. When six months later they gave me a number, I was so happy! I was so happy that my identity was registered somewhere.”
In all of the testimonies I’ve heard, I can’t remember anyone who said they were happy to receive a tattooed number in Auschwitz until I sat down with Yitzhak Livnat in February, 2014. I’d heard Yitzhak speak a few times before when he had visited our program, and read the book “Outcasts: a Love Story” written about him and his family.
Yitzhak told me about a speech he’d recently given in Mauthausen in the same ceremony as the Hungarian president. His participation was a clear honor in terms of the people who filled the audience and shared the stage with him, but this experience also became an important milestone in his life. The president arranged for an official from Hungarian foreign affairs to collect information about him in the little town of Nagyszollos where Yitzhak had grown up. The letter he received detailing the official’s findings was addressed to his formal name, Yitzhak Livnat, but quickly referred to him by his Hungarian nickname, Suti Weiss, in its contents.
I knew Suti from reading about him. Suti grew up in a wonderful town with neighbors and friends. Suti had a mother who used to sing Hungarian tunes as she did her work around the house. Suti used to interrogate his older sister’s suitors when they came to the door. Suti was one of the only children in his town allowed to play in the garden of the Peréyi chateau. Suti worked in the library when he was thirteen. But by the time Suti arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau he was happy to just be a number. When he came back to Nagyszollos, orphaned and alone, he couldn’t bring himself to be Suti anymore. He told me about his decision to change his name:
“I changed my name…I took the worst Jewish name Itsik, because Itsik was the ultimate Jew, which was pronounced Itzik de Shtinker…Yes stinker, that’s it. Itsik. Just not to be called my Hungarian name. I changed from Weiss to Livnat. This identity… it was a very difficult subject for me.”
Yitzhak Livnat became a successful man in Israel. He became an important officer in the early Israeli army and started a life with his wonderful wife Ilana. They shared a few decades of happiness together without ever talking about his past. It was no secret to Ilana or their children that he had survived the Holocaust, but it was a subject that remained untouched. Yitzhak told me that this taboo subject was a “crying silence”. For so much of his life, Yitzhak’s memories of his loving childhood were clouded by the pain of what happened to him and his family during the Holocaust. He couldn’t think of his town library without thinking of the betrayal of his neighbors, and he felt he had moved to a place with an unresponsive audience.
His son, Adi, told me “When they came and they arrived here in Israel, they felt as being blamed or not fighting back, or doing something very wrong in order survive. So they didn’t speak about their stories because they felt that there will be nobody there to have compassion or to understand their story.”
This situation left Yitzhak unable to confront his memories and feelings about his past. He worked hard to build a new life in Israel with his growing family and his successful business. He attributes much of his success to Ilana. He says: “We were considered at that time, soap…soap! Because of the soap which was given to us in Birkenau, it was very low grade soap, so they, the Sabras, called us soap…The point is Ilana, she never considered me soap. She never looked at me and thought ‘What did you do to survive?'”
He loved Ilana for seeing him as more than just his Holocaust past, but ironically, she was the one who brought the past back into his identity. The two of them told me a story about a night in the 80s when she all but forced him to go to a restaurant that was putting on a special Hungarian night. Through the Hungarian décor, the smells of the Hungarian delicacy, and the sounds of the Hungarian music he was brought back to his childhood. He remembered his mother and how she used to sing the song playing in the restaurant. It was too much for him to reject, and with a flood of emotion he began to re-embrace his Hungarian identity. This night changed his life, and the way he thought about himself. He told me:
“I have my identity. I know exactly who I am. No doubt. Absolutely no doubt. I know who I am. The fact that I was able to rebuild my Hungarian identity was to take a HUGE rock off my back. Because it turned out that I was hating myself.”
When I look at the man I know now, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that he was able to suppress a part of his story that is so prominent today. I can only imagine what it must have been like for him to live forty years without telling anyone about Suti Weiss and the wonderful life he had in Nagyszollos. Yitzhak told me that when he retired from his business he began the long process of reconnecting with his roots.
“I decided to find out who I am. I started to go from archive to archive and archive and archive again. And spent DAYS collecting information.”
Though she laughs about it, Ilana is the constant source of support for him along this journey. She remembers the night she took him to the Hungarian restaurant as the night she opened Pandora’s box, and laughs about it, saying: “It’s unbelievable! Look what I have done! Sometimes I don’t know if it was good or bad! From that time until now! Look what’s going on!”
Yitzhak spent years denying his Hungarian past, and so it took him years to reconnect with that part of his identity. He never lost the language, or the memories of his happy childhood, but the memory of the Hungarian participation in his family’s suffering stung too much for him to reconcile that part of who he was until a trip back to his hometown of Nagyszollos:
“We went to my hometown. And I saw a neighbor. I recognized one of my neighbors, and I told the driver stop! He stops, I talk to the lady, an old lady, and I asked her, do you remember who was living over there? She looks at me, and she says “Don’t pull my leg Mr. Weiss!” That was the final act to come back to my identity. From these three days or two days we were there I remember only this moment. Nothing else.”
The Weiss family had left Nagyszollos decades earlier, but hearing in old neighbor remember and address him in such a friendly way brought him back to his happy childhood. While the town itself was devastated during the war, that trip proved that his memories and the experiences he’d had growing up there were authentic and sustained. Today Yitzhak is in a position to show generosity to the preservation and exploration of the history of the Holocaust. He and his wife Ilana, along with their four children, have become heroes of Holocaust research with their support of institutions and scholars. He has become a father, grandfather, and now a great-grandfather, and was even decorated by the Hungarian government.
On January 27th, Yitzhak, and his son Adi, were part of a delegation of Israeli diplomats and survivors who participated in the International Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony in Auschwitz. Being there as a free man, with his son and the leaders of the nation he helped to build was an outstanding experience for him.
To have his name be part of our program means so much, and we are grateful each time he shares his story with our students. Yitzhak told me what our program means to him:
“Your program is for me is a present. For me it is definitely a present. I love the whole idea. It is a present to me! Believe me, it’s a present to me. I enjoy it very much. Very much!”
After spending the day with Yitzhak it became clear to me that he was happy to have his number in Auschwitz because he had felt like he had lost his identity. That number, which we remember today as being so dehumanizing and degrading, was a highpoint for him at the point in his life. Suti Weiss survived the Holocaust, but lost so much of who he was. Yitzhak Livnat built a great life in Israel, and with the support of his family, eventually found Suti Weiss. Our program is fortunate to have both of this outstanding man’s names as part of our narrative. I hope that he feels that our program is part of his legacy. Suti Weiss witnessed some of humanities lowest moments, and Yitzhak Livnat is helping to create the next generation of scholars who will work to ensure that other little boys will be able to skip such atrocities.