Mayo doctor's family history runs through the Holocaust
'We need to remember what can happen.'
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Martin Moshe Locker, father of Dr. Chaim Locker, was a man of optimism and cheerfulness. His charismatic personality filled a room. He enjoyed laughter and a good joke.
Yet, as a child, Martin Moshe lived through one the great atrocities of the 20th century, when 6 million Jews, including scores of his family members, perished in the Holocaust.
There were exceptions to Martin's good humor — moments when the anguish buried beneath the affable exterior broke through.
One time was in an Israeli courtroom in the 1980s. John Demjanjuk, a post-World War II immigrant from Ukraine, had been living a quiet suburban life in Ohio, when Holocaust survivors accused him of being Ivan the Terrible, an infamous Nazi guard at the Treblinka extermination camp.
Extradited to Israel in 1986, Demjanjuk was charged with crimes against humanity. The Israeli public was mesmerized by the trial.
Martin took his son, Chaim, to the trial. Suddenly, with Demjanjuk in the courtroom, Martin jumped up from his seat and began yelling at the accused. Speaking in Ukrainian, he shouted: "How many children have you murdered in your own hands, Bandit!" Then in Hebrew: "Four years I've been in your camps as a child."
Chaim, then in his early 20s, sitting to his dad's left and behind him, had never seen his typically good-humored father act in such a fashion.
He wasn't able to see his dad's face during the outburst. But news cameras captured the moment and the scene later appeared in "The Devil Next Door," a Netflix documentary series about Demjanjuk.
Watching the documentary years later, Chaim Locker was able to see for the first time the full fury etched on his father's face. It shocked him.
"I'm telling you, I have never seen my dad's face and eyes like this," said Locker, a Mayo Clinic doctor, during an interview in his Rochester home. "You can tell that he saw the pictures again back in his mind. It was a terrifying moment."
Some Holocaust survivors never talked about their experiences. Martin was not one of them.
In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg, director of "Schindler's List," sent journalists around the world to gather the oral histories of Holocaust survivors as part of a remembrance project. Martin sat for a six-hour interview.
Locker couldn't watch the entire interview the first time he saw it. It was too much. It was clear that it was an emotional, gut-wrenching experience for his dad.
Martin had seen something most people are fortunate enough to never have to witness: How men could be turned into monsters. He had seen and experienced the absolute worst that humans were capable of, but he hadn't lost his core decency — the good spirits and liveliness that were defining aspects of his personality.
Yet, as recalled the horrors that were visited on his family in the video interview, Martin started crying.
"Put an atomic bomb now on my body and throw me over Germany," he said.
Living through a hell
Martin's story begins in a region called Bukovina.
Squeezed between Romania, Ukraine and Russia, the area in parts or whole has been governed by the Austria-Hungry empire, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. The region is sometimes referred to as the "Switzerland of the East" because of the ethnic diversity of the people. Martin Moshe grew up, there learning to speak half a dozen languages. It was a linguistic gift passed down to his son, Chaim.
Martin's father, Meir Locker, was an economic pillar of the community, the owner of a large farm that employed villagers and sold produce and meat to customers, including the Romanian Army. Martin had a nanny. People got along with each other. And the Jewish people who lived there were admired for their industry.
A step-by-step accounting of the how the world began to turn upside-down for the Lockers is elusive, but it was a slow process. The world was at war, and toxic ideologies were spreading through the community. More and more villagers were showing their allegiance to Nazism. That allegiance expressed itself in a cruelty toward the Jewish people.
One episode stands out. Martin, then about 10 years old, was beaten by a Nazi superintendent at the school he attended. His dad, infuriated by the assault, confronted the superintendent. A powerfully built man, he wanted to kill the superintendent, but was persuaded by others not to do so.
Another memory: Hitler and Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact, pledging not to attack each other. German troops began spreading through Europe. Martin recalled the first time he saw the Germans, with their tanks, machine guns and planes flying above, they presented a terrifying impression of an all-powerful, invincible force.
"It was frightening to look, to use his words," Chaim recalled his dad saying. But it wasn't only the Germans who began to turn the Jewish people's lives into nightmares, but the Ukrainian and Romanian villagers turned fascists.
The hostility turned against the Jewish people escalated slowly. First, it started with townsfolk yelling at them in the streets. Then, they began throwing stones and attacking them. Then, they began burning their buildings.
One time, the Romanian police ordered all the Jewish males to report to the town square. They spent the day there, from morning until evening doing nothing, standing there. When evening arrived, they were told to go home.
Then they were ordered to evacuate the village. It became a death march.
Men and women, old and young were forced to march. Their destination was a Jewish ghetto in an area called Mogilev. On a map, the route from the village to Mogilev was a walk of hundreds of miles. But those who orchestrated it lengthened it by thousands of miles, taking them through mountains and in circles. Martin described it as a line of humanity where one couldn't the see beginning or the end of it.
At one point, Martin's grandmother, Gietel, took off her shoes and gave them to him so he could keep marching. She died during the march among the tens of thousands of victims. Along the route, the soldiers would remove Jewish people from the line, shoot them, take off their clothes and sell the clothes to the locals.
Martin's younger sister, Berte — Chaim's aunt — was a beautiful little girl. She died on the march, in a place called Edinet, from typhus due to drinking contaminated water. An older brother of Martin named Chaim later died in the arms of his mother, Yeti, at the ghetto encampment at Mogilev from hunger and cold.
At one point, as the line of Jewish people attempted to cross the Dniester River on the way to the ghetto, machine-gun toting German soldiers opened fire on them, killing them or causing them to drown, turning the river red.
Many others perished at the ghetto at Mogilev of hunger, thirst and typhus. On Sundays, the soldiers would kill Jewish people at random as a game. They would take a person, tie him up with horses at each end and order the horses to run. Altogether 38 members of Martin's extended family were murdered.
"They are the kinds of things that the human mind cannot even think about," Chaim Locker said of what his father witnessed. "It was cruelty beyond expression."
The torment and the cruelty only ended when Russian soldiers liberated the camp in 1945.
"When Russians' tanks entered the camp, they freed the people inside the ghetto," Chaim said. "(My dad) said it was like the Messiah coming."
Living in Israel
Martin's life didn't stop being eventful. Immediately after World War II, Martin became a member of an Israeli underground paramilitary organization called the Irgun led by Menachem Begin. In 1948, he was a young soldier on board the Irgun's weapons-filled ship called the Altalena en route to the newly formed Jewish state.
In one of the most infamous episodes in Jewish history, when the country appeared to be careening towards possible civil war, Israel Defense Forces under the order of Ben Guiron fired on the ship, destroying it and killing 16 soldiers.
Martin and many others jumped off the sinking ship. Martin swam to the shore of Israel and thus began his new life.
Martin married a woman from Jerusalem, Rivka, the daughter of an ultra-orthodox rabbi whose roots extended back seven generations in the holy city. Martin became a builder and was the first in Israel to own a Caterpillar machine. He built a section of road to Jerusalem and would proudly point it out to his children.
Martin and Rivka raised three boys. The oldest, Yohanan, became a pilot, major general and the military secretary in the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Harel, the youngest, became a lawyer and director general in the prime minister's office. Chaim became a doctor, a specialist in heart surgery.
Locker joined the IDF and became a member of a special airborne rescue and evacuation unit called 669. The unit was created to evacuate Israeli pilots on missions outside the country. Locker and soldier-teammates would secretly deploy into those countries in advance of missions in the event that pilots needed rescue and medical care.
The missions, often dangerous, also called on Locker to provide care to civilians and even to terrorists. One time Locker had to rappel from a helicopter and provide a life-saving lung decompression surgical procedure on an American civilian engineer traumatically injured from a fall in an oil tower, trapped hundreds of feet above the ground. The people below looked like ants.
Locker said his dad would brag about having three boys in the "Jewish army," but he wasn't speaking strictly in a military sense.
"The Jewish Army is whoever survived, in his way of seeing life and thinking about life. It can be somebody living in the U.S. It can be in Israel. It can be anywhere, but those are survivors," Locker said. "We are all survivors."
'We need to always remember'
When Locker decided to accept a position at Mayo Clinic and move to the United States, his dad was clearly proud.
"My dad admired America," Locker said. "He kept the news in secret. He did not want to jinx it."
His dad wanted to return to visit his hometown in Ukraine, but the time never seemed right. He died in 2003 after suffering a stroke. In 2019, Locker and his two brothers made the trip to the land that sought to exterminate their family.
"We owed it to him, and we owed it to ourselves," Locker said.
The three brothers visited the hometown where their dad was born, Berehomet, Ukraine, and the home that he was raised in. They walked along the ditches that once ran with blood. They stood at the Dniester River where Jewish people drowned and were killed by machine guns, and the ghetto in Mogeliv.
In Edinet, the brothers came upon a Jewish graveyard. There was a little gravestone whose Hebrew letters corresponded to the Locker family name. It was the grave of a child. It wasn't certain whether this was Locker's aunt's final resting spot, but it seemed possible.
The three brothers said a Kaddish, a prayer of remembrance, over the grave.
"There is a very good chance, statistically, that we wouldn't be here now," Locker said. "We need to always remember and never forget what has happened and still can happen."