Dust in the Wind
by Bill Boyle
I first met Oscar Kohl more than 22 years ago. It was under the most humble of circumstances: I was with a group of volunteers who would get up at 4 a.m. each morning to work in the banana fields before the Galilean day became too hot.
Oscar was simply the man who drove the banana wagon and supervised us while we worked in the field.
In his late 50’s, Oscar was pleasant, hard working and well seasoned with the intricacies of working with volunteers. He was quiet, unobtrusive and very comfortable living a private life.
Over the two week period in which we worked in the banana fields, our group got to know Oscar a little bit better. After a time, his reserved nature fell and it was then that his r e m a r k a b l e story began to be told.
Oscar Kohl, the driver of the banana wagon at Kibbutz Afikim in Israel, is a survivor of the Dachau Concentration Camp in World War II.
As a young man in his early teens, he was rounded up with other Jews from his Lithuanian village and placed in a concentration camp. His crime? Nothing more than his Jewish identity.
Oscar suffered much during his stay at Dachau, including the death of his father just five days before liberation. When American soldiers liberated Dachau in May, 1945, Oscar weighed just 77 pounds. The sight of the emaciated concentration camp victims sickened the American soldiers.
Oscar then became a Displaced Person, with no opportunity (or interest) in returning to his native Lithuania. He spent the next two years in a camp in Cyprus, desperately trying to go to Israel, where Jewish refugees, many of them victims of the Holocaust, hoped to build a home.
Oscar was eventually able to emigrate to Israel, where he took citizenship and began the process of building the fledgling state of Israel. He helped build Afikim, one of a large number of collective farms in Israel. He married, had children and has led a remarkable life.
When we stopped to visit three weeks ago, Oscar admitted that he had no recollection of our group. We were just another in a long line of volunteers. Now 81 years old, he added that while he couldn’t remember 22 years ago, he remembers vividly the events of 61 years ago.
We visited with Oscar 61 years to the day after his liberation from Dachau. Appropriately enough, it was Memorial Day in Israel. We felt it an honor to introduce our group to Kohl. Instead of being filled with bitterness and a need for revenge, he chose to live a full and happy life, raising a family and helping to build a nation.
After meeting Oscar Kohl and hearing his riveting story, a host of San Juan County residents now know. In future years, as the generation of direct victims of the Holocaust pass away, there needs to be a new generation of witnesses.
Coincedently, another Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel, is in Utah this week. Weisel, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has earned renown for his riveting books recounting his experiences at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
Whether it is a Nobel Peace Prize winner or the humble driver of a banana wagon, their stories should be remembered.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana