“Last Testament” From Esther Gilbert

In 2006, Martin, who had been appointed a Distinguished Fellow at Hillsdale College in Michigan, was there speaking on “What Did Democracy Mean to Winston Churchill”.  After his lecture, I made my way up to him. The moment he spotted me, he called out to me and turned to a gentleman standing next to him.“ This is Joel Elkes,” he said. I looked at Martin, at the gentleman, and tears began running down my face.’

One of the first books of Martin’s that I had read after I met him was his edition of Avraham Tory’s diary, called Surviving the Holocaust, The Kovno Ghetto Diary. An extraordinary document, it is one of the few – if not the only – complete day-to-day diary of a Secretary of a Jewish Council under German occupation. Smuggled out after the war, the diary was reunited with its author who turned up on Martin’s door in Israel bearing a suitcase that contained the diary and other documents. Martin was determined that it should be published in English and with full explanations and documentation.

Among the documents that Martin included in the book was the  “ Last Testament” written by Dr Elchanen Elkes, the Head of the Jewish Council in Kovno, to his son Joel and his daughter Sara who had gone to England before the war to continue their studies.

In a mere 1,950 words, Elchanan Elkes tells his children what the Jews of Kovno (now Kaunas in Lithuania) have experienced in the months and years of German occupation. He tells his children of the selection and slaughter of 10,000 Jews that had taken place two years before, on 28 October 1941 at the Ninth Fort (a sight of mass murder for the Jews of Kovno and those brought there from as far away as France). He tells his children of the fate of their family. He tells his children what he wishes for them. He tells them how to live their lives. The document is dated 19 October 1943. Dr Elkes died in Dachau on 17 October 1944.

And here was his son, Joel, standing in front of me.

Joel Elkes became a pioneer in the field of Psychopharmacology, and a painter. Sadly, he died 30 October 2015, a couple of weeks short of his 102nd birthday. His sister Sara Elkes who had been involved with Holocaust education and inter-faith relations at the University of Leicester, died just weeks before her brother.

October 1941. October 1943. October 1944. October 2015. May the memory of those who died be for a blessing.

Photo: Photocopy of Dr Elchanan Elkes’ original testament,
with Sir Martin’s notation at the top

Subscribe to Sir Martin’s Newsletter & Book Club 

Follow and share Sir Martin with your friends

Twitter @ SirMartin36 and Facebook Sir Martin Gilbert