It began with a dog: Belka, beautiful.
A Jewish dog, with a yellow patch on the right side of her face. Just like the yellow patches Jewish children had sewn to their clothing.
So Shalom Eilati tells how he began to write "Crossing the River" (University of Alabama Press, $30 hardcover), a meticulously crafted memoir of his five years in the Kovno, Lithuania, ghetto.
"I began with the easiest memory I had to cope with," says Eilati simply, "not my mother, not my sister, but a Jewish dog."
Eilati, in the Valley recently to visit family and appear at Yom Ha'atzmaut ceremonies at Temple Chai, spoke with Jewish News about his book, published in Hebrew in Israel in 1999, its English translation by Vern Lenz just out this past March.
Sitting in Jere and Ellen Friedman's airy home (Eilati and Jere Friedman are distant cousins), nestled in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Eilati gazes out at the peaceful desert vistas as he ruminates about the painful process of remembering and writing.
Eilati's family, his parents and baby sister, Yehudith, were imprisoned by the Germans in the Kovno ghetto in 1941. Eilati, as a young boy of 11, escaped alone, his perilous flight carefully plotted by his mother. He eventually reached Israel, followed three years later by his father. His mother and sister perished.
In Israel, Eilati settled first with an aunt and uncle in Tel Aviv, then with another aunt at a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley. He served in the army, then the kibbutz sent him to Hebrew University to study, where he earned a doctorate in horticulture and went on to edit academic journals. He met his wife, Miriam, on a nature trek; the couple has been married for 47 years and has three grown children and five grandchildren.
"I was busy building a career and establishing a family," says Eilati of that time. "I didn't deal with (my experiences) at all."
The memories were buried deep inside him, he says. Eventually, he thought, he might write a book, perhaps when he retired.
But just past his 40th birthday, two recollections came back to him with searing intensity.
The time had come.
He was in the United States, finishing postdoctoral studies at the University of Maryland and staying with friends. One day, his hosts gone, the house empty, "I went into the kitchen and began to write."
When he returned to Israel, Eilati committed to writing a page a week.
Slowly, he says, he increased to two pages a week, and eventually, as the memories and the words began to flow, he lessened his professional workload to allow him one full day a week to write.
Craving quiet and solitude, he took to using vacationing friends' apartments for writing. Over a 10-year period, he completed his first draft, painstakingly pecking out his story with one finger on a typewriter.
"It was a difficult experience," he says. "The sights, the smells, they came back. I lived it again." Eilati says he soon realized that the process was associative, and he abandoned any plan to write a chronological narrative.
"This time, I had to write differently," he says, putting aside the structured approach of the scientist. "I had to go in a more random way."
A second draft, written in the succeeding 10 years, produced a more cohesive whole, with Eilati's careful research framing the narrative with important dates and historical detail. Still, the novel, written in the voice of a young boy, comes alive with a child's sharp-eyed observations parsed in spare, luminous language.
In the preface of the book, Eilati recalls the fateful day when he escaped from the ghetto, eluding the German soldiers, crossing the river with his mother, then parting from her on the other side. "All alone, I was to walk without raising suspicion and without looking back ... I proceeded according to my mother's instructions, going deeper into the hills, farther and farther from the riverbank and my mother," he writes.
The story is constructed from Eilati's vivid memories, both of the heinous Nazi brutality and the attempts to retain some normalcy of everyday life. He writes of playing chess with his friends, of his stamp collection, of his job guarding the ghetto vegetable patch, even as he recalls the screams of the mothers as the Nazis tore children from their arms, or the deadening fear as he hid in a dark cupboard, hoping the marauding soldiers would not find him.
And, of course, the inconsolable loss.
"The whole point of liberation was to discover that your loved ones had been spared," he writes. For him, that was not to be. "I seek my sister," he writes, yearning for "the spectrum of subtle daily bonds that tie families of siblings (and) gives them the wonderful feeling that they are not alone."
The book artfully weaves together the story of a young boy with the self-reflection of his older self, the writer. At the end of the book, Eilati ruminates on what it means to look back, even as he strives to go forward. He writes of Lot's wife, who looked back as she fled Sodom, and turned to stone.
"How hard it is to look back and not turn to stone," he observes wisely. But looking back has not hardened him, he says, as it did his father, who could not speak of his pain. Rather, it has made him softer, more tolerant, more sensitive, says Eilati, and more determined to go on.
At work on a second book, he says that being a survivor propels him forward.
On the eve of the war, his extended family included seven families, 29 individuals; at its end, only two people had survived.
"I am," he says simply, "the shaliach, the messenger."