Memories of a Jewish WWII Veteran

by Jerome Massey (Fairfax , VA)

Interviewed by Rick Black (Alexandria, VA)

(Rick Black and Jerome Massey met through Olam Tikvah, their shul in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the second part of a two-part interview.)

RB: You were in a couple of different army units and then in the 1204th engineers, a firefighting unit, and fought your way up through Italy to Germany. Did you know about the camps while you were in the service?

JM: No, didn’t have the slightest idea. Hell, you didn’t know where you were half the time. They tell you to go up the road about 25 miles or 15 miles or something. But they would tell you what road to go on – and the German roads were wonderful, better than anywhere else. And you could go along the roads and some of them have dead bodies, broken equipment, all sorts of stuff like that. It was a mess. The Germans were using horses to pull some of their equipment and we got there just after they’d been strafed by our forces. It was a mess.

You can remember all those things and you keep on going and stop and spend a night here and spend a night there. Eventually you’d fight a fire here and there. We were assigned to take care of a German airport, a military airport to be used as auxiliary landing spots for our people. We didn’t do anything. We found an old BMW motorcycle and we used to run up and down the runway with it at 100 miles an hour. Crazy. But no airplanes tried to land at the airfield. So then we went further southeast into Germany to different places.

I forget the name of the town we were in when the war was finally over. All I can remember is the celebration. At night everybody was firing their weapons up into the sky; it was something. It was like the 4th of July at the Washington memorial or the Lincoln memorial. All the skies lit up with shells going off, things like that – not fireworks, but shells blowin’. Right next to us there was a little compound of Polish DPs. It was a barbed wire compound and they had gotten a hold of some alcohol. It wasn’t grain alcohol. So they drank it that night and three or four died in the middle of the night, they poisoned themselves, and the next morning they buried them right there in the ground, right next to us.

Funny thing happened that night, we got hold of sparkling wine or what have you, so we were a little shiker, just a little bit shiker, and we were shooting each other with the tops of the champagne and you could imagine a bunch of GIs lined up on the floor shooting each other with champagne. But that’s the truth. The Germans still had a group of diehards there – you had to be very careful. There were all kinds of ditches and stuff . . . booby traps, etc.

RB: Just cause the war’s over doesn’t mean you can’t get killed . . .

JM: Yes. Some of the Nazis were really terrible. So we keep on goin’ and then the CO, a lieutenant, gets word from army headquarters that we had to send a couple people of the unit to this camp. We thought it was a displaced persons camp. So the lieutenant picked me. I don’t know why he picked me to go along with him, but he drove the jeep. He wasn’t supposed to be driving the jeep. So, it wasn’t but about 10 miles, I guess, or 5 miles – horrible odor. Horrible odor. And we get there and it’s impossible to describe what you saw. You know, corpses stacked up like firewood – hundreds of people starved to death, half-starved to death, skin and bones. And the crematoriums and the ashes – horrible, really horrible, keeps you awake at night still when you think about it.

RB: Hard to believe what people would do to people . . .

JM: That’s right – it was horrible. There’s no word to cover it.

RB: It had been liberated already, right?

JM: It was the second day – I got there to Dachau the second day. The Germans took right off when they saw that we were coming. All the armies just disappeared. The Russians were coming from the other side and they took off.

RB: Still wearing the stars on their . . .

JM: Yes, of course . . . I can’t even describe it. I don’t want to describe it.

RB: After the war, did it ever cross your mind to go fight in Palestine?

JM: Like I said, I was pretty shot when I got out and I was thinking about it but I wasn’t capable of doing it . . . I picked up amoebic dysentery in North Africa and a couple of other things. I was very afraid of the dark, too. I couldn’t go anyplace dark. I carried a weapon with me wherever I went. I still have it today. I was very nervous. The slightest noise could get me very, very upset. It’s typical of anybody who was over there. You’re all tensed up; your body and mind never relax. It took several years to recuperate – I was a mess.

Anyhow, my stepfather, Joseph Hecht, and Dave Friedman, a close friend of the family, were both ardent Zionists and did all they could for years for the Zionist movement. In Norfolk, the Jews did all kinds of things for the Zionist movement – and that ship that sailed, that they made into the Exodus, originally sailed from Norfolk. It used to go between Norfolk and Baltimore. When it was ready, it sailed out into the Atlantic and hit a storm and had to come back. You see, it was a bay ship, not an ocean ship.

So, it had to be refitted and several of the crew stayed at my stepfather’s house in Norfolk. They stayed there while the ship was refitted and they raised the money to do it. It was all hush-hush. After the ship was refitted, it left Norfolk and went to Europe to pick up the refugees.

Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) Jerome L. Massey won numerous commendations in his service during World War II and in subsequent years. He will be 93-years-old in July.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist for The New York Times who owns a poetry and fine art press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com

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Growing Up Jewish in the South

by Jerome Massey (Fairfax , VA)

Interviewed by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

(Rick Black and Jerome Massey met through Olam Tikvah, their shul in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the first of a two-part interview.)

RB: What was your bringing up like being Jewish in the South?

JM: I was born in Norfolk, VA, 27th of July 1922. My mother, Mollie Leibowitz, came from Latvia when she was maybe 10 years old. My father was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1900 and they got married in Norfolk, Virginia, probably around 1918-1919.

My Dad was apprenticed to a tinsmith when he was, I think, maybe 12,13,14 years old and when he was 16 years old, he finished his apprenticeship and was considered a mechanic. He claimed that he was the youngest tinsmith-mechanic on the Atlantic coast. He stayed in that kind of work til the 1920s and then he went to several other businesses.

The economic times in the early 1920s – things were good and things were bad; people made fortunes and lost fortunes. He ended up in the shoe business and worked for Hofeimer’s – that was a chain of shoe stores. He worked for them for a while and then he came up to Washington and worked for Hahn’s Shoe Company and another shoe company and then he went into business for himself.

My mother and he broke up, he remarried to Henrietta Driefus over in Alexandria, and my sister and I spent part of the year in Alexandria and part of the year in Norfolk – that went on for quite a few years. My mother remarried to Joseph Hecht, who was a watchmaker and jeweler, so I was raised by several different families. I was raised by an Orthodox family, a Conservative family and a German Jewish family.

RB: Was your mother the Orthodox side of the family?

JM: Yes, my mother came from an Orthodox family and my father’s family was Conservative. But I guess I might be what they call a universalist. I believe that all religions are basically the same and they all teach you to be a good person. And if you follow the Bible, the Pentateuch or the Koran, they are all teaching tools to teach you to be a good person. And to teach you that we’re all human. We all make mistakes but we’re all human and God put us on the earth to take care of it and make it a better place.

RB: Did being in the military influence your faith at all?

JM: I guess so. You have some very, very bad experiences and then you wonder why you’re still here and then you finally come to one conclusion: that God puts everybody on earth for a reason, to accomplish something, and when you’ve accomplished that, it’ll just be time for you to leave. That’s more or less my thoughts on that.

RB: Did you used to have family seders?

JM: Oh, of course, we had seders all of Pesach, the first and second seder and the last seder at my grandfather’s house. All the big family was there, all my aunts and uncles and all their children. It went on from sunset to midnight. And my grandfather made his own wine. He had two kinds: he had some for the children and women and he had some for the men. I don’t know what he put in the men’s but it was much stronger than what he gave the children and the women.

RB: Did you ever help him make the wine?

JM: A little bit. He had these five gallon jugs – you know, these big five gallon jugs? – he used them. But there was never a shortage of bronfen at my grandfather’s house.

RB: What’s bronfen?

JM: You don’t know what bronfen is?

RB: No. Is that Yiddish?

JM: Bronfen is . . .

RB: Liquor?

JM: Yes.

RB: I never heard that term.

JM: It’s rye. Rye whiskey. There was never a shortage. When I was little I lived across the street from my grandmother and grandfather, so I would go across the street to their apartment and go with him to shul and he was the hazzan at the shul. I was the only grandson that went with him to shul. The other grandchildren didn’t live close by. Every Shabbas I went with him – Friday night, Saturday morning. I’d spend Friday night with him and then at the services on Saturday morning, they called him in, he would sit at this long table and discuss – I guess they were discussing the parsha of the week – I don’t know; I didn’t understand what they were talking about.

RB: In Yiddish or English?

JM: Yiddish.

RB: Did you understand Yiddish?

JM: Yes. It’s mostly gone now but at sundown, well, after services you would go back home and rest, and after sundown we would walk down to his store which was maybe eight blocks away, and open up his store, his grocery store. And he would keep that open, I guess, til 10 o’clock at night.

RB: On Saturday?

JM: Yes. You know, after sundown you can open . . .

RB: Yes.

JM: He sold live chickens and he had a shochet in the back – you know, to kill the chickens – and he had people in the back to take the feathers and everything off the chickens. You know, it smelled bad back there. And the shochet, I don’t know, I think the shochet charged him twenty-five cents or whatever it was. But that was normal in those days.

And my mother remarried to Joseph Hecht – a fine gentleman, my stepfather. He was very mechanically inclined and so he taught me how to use all kinds of tools. He said, ‘You could do anything you want to do and if you don’t do it right the first time, do it over again and eventually you’ll do it right.’ So, he would work on automobile engines or a watch – it didn’t make any difference, he could work on anything – and I learned how to do all these things. So, I was spending part of my time in Norfolk – my sister and I – we spent part of our time in Norfolk and part of our time in Alexandria.

RB: Was it much different up in Alexandria?

JM: It was entirely different because you went from more or less Ashkenazic, Russian or Latvian Jews to German Jews who had been in this country since, oh, some of ’em prior to the Civil War and right after the Civil War. So, you had – I think the word is nouveau riche – you had the rich German Jews and you had the people that had just come over from Russia. I guess just like the wetbacks who come up from Mexico, just finding their way around. So, you had two different civilizations, you might say. When you had dinner with the people up in Alexandria, always white linen tablecloths, white linen napkins, beautiful silverware, glassware and someone to serve the food to you. And your table manners had to be perfect; everything had to be perfect cause that’s the way they were. While the people down South – you might say almost, well, they weren’t peasants but there was a difference in their whole outlook. The people up in Alexandria were bridge players; the people in Norfolk were poker players. I mean, you’ve got different stratums of society.

RB: Would you go to shul up in Alexandria, too?

JM: In Alexandria, we went to the Beth El Temple. They had a rabbi that they had brought over from Germany while in Norfolk we had both the Conservative and the Orthodox shuls. We went to both of them, or all of them, and it was strange. When I went up to Alexandria, I’d never tasted bacon. I didn’t know what bacon was. Didn’t know from pork or bacon or anything like that. And they served bacon for breakfast. I didn’t even know what it was. It was an entirely different lifestyle.

RB: Did you like it?

JM: No. But it was just an illustration.

RB: But, I mean, were you aware it was kosher or not?

JM: I didn’t know. You take a six or seven year old boy and you don’t know. It was just a whole different culture. So, as I said, I grew up and eventually I went to grammar and junior high school in Norfolk, and then my father bought a house over in Chevy Chase, DC, and my sister and I came up here and we went to high school here.

We went to the best high school in the Washington area. In those days – in the 30s and 40s – people in Virginia and Maryland, a lot of them sent their children to school over in Washington because the schools in the District of Columbia were way superior to those in Virginia or Maryland. So, my sister Shirley and I both graduated high school in Washington, DC.

RB: Did you get Bar Mitzvahed?

JM: No, I never got Bar Mitzvahed. I didn’t but – well, it depends what terminology you mean. I went to Beth El temple and the rabbi handed me a great big Torah on one Sabbath that would have been my Bar Mitzvah Sabbath. He made me hold the Torah for the whole service, which I did. But as far as . . . I can’t remember reading anything. He made me hold the Torah that day, that Sabbath. When I got back home that day, my mother handed me a prayer book, which I still have in my library. She gave me [that prayer book] on my 13th birthday. It’s a little worse for wear, but I still have it.

Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) Jerome L. Massey won numerous commendations in his service during World War II and in subsequent years. He will be 93-years-old in July.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist for The New York Times who owns a poetry and fine art press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at www.turtlelightpress.com

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My Musical Mama

by Beverley Fingerhut (Toronto, Canada)

In Memory of Sonya Chula (1910-1999)

Music was woven into my life from a very early age. My mother came from a family of cantors in Poland and she herself had a beautiful voice and sang in choirs.  At the dinner table, I grew up with traditional fare such as names of famous conductors like Antal Dorati and Arturo Toscanini, the cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, opera singers such as Jan Pearce and Jussi Bjorling, the pianist Arturo Rubenstein, the violinist Jascha Heifetz as well as arias from “Madame Butterfly” and “La Traviata”. My story is a letter to my mother filled with memories of her musical legacy and how she transmitted her love of music to her children.

Dear Mom,

There you are, proudly in the front row, your voice soaring above the heavenly choir. How rich my life has been because of your beautiful voice and love of music. 

As a child, money was scarce in our house, but music was never scarce.  You had been a Hebrew teacher in Poland and dad had trained as an accountant, but when you and dad came to Winnipeg from Poland in 1928 and 1930, at the ages of 18 and 20, unable to speak English, you became factory workers in sweatshops. Dad, because of the terrible working conditions in the factories, was instrumental in forming unions to fight for workers’ rights and consequently was fired from many of his jobs. Despite the lack of money, you could still whip up savoury and geshmak meals from very little food and you saved pennies to purchase concert tickets. Because there was not enough money for all three of your daughters to attend, we picked the stalks from brooms to see who had the longest and who was the chosen one to accompany you to a concert.   I was often the lucky one, picking the longest stalk.

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to see the beautiful Madame Guiomar Novaes, considered one of the greatest female pianists of the 20th century. After the concert, you intrepidly took me backstage to meet her, whereupon she presented this shy, eight-year-old with a rose from the bouquet given to her at the end of the concert. I savoured this rose as if the queen had given it to me.  That year at our annual essay contest, I wrote my essay on this momentous event and won first prize, a lovely bracelet.

You walked around the house with your beautiful curly hair that dad loved and sang arias from “Madame Butterfly”, your favorite opera, or the Yiddish songs “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Oifen Pripitchik”. At dinnertime, along with your geshmak food, there was talk of famous conductors, stories of operas and composers. Our substantial record collection consisted of the likes of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto”, Grieg’s “Concerto in A minor”, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, Chopin nocturnes, and Rachmaninoff’s concertos, as well as cantorial music by Jan Pearce. 

You never had a cleaning lady but instead you made sure that we had private piano lessons, and to this day your youngest daughter Marleyne continues to practice and play the piano. She recently reminded me that when we had our music and theory exams at the Royal Conservatory you determinedly asked permission to sit outside the door of our examining room (though it was not permitted).  When we emerged, shaken from the frightening experience, you smiled and were able to tell us exactly how we did, note by note.  Sure enough when we got our marks in the weeks to come, they were exactly as you had foretold.

Much to my chagrin and I’m sure yours, I did not inherit your musical gene. Two incidents stand out in my mind.  Firstly, the Jewish socialist school I attended from Grades 1-7 had a choir with a wicked choirmaster, Chaver Brownstone. We were terrified of him and his stick. I was necessary for the last row of the choir because of my height, but my voice was silenced.  I was instructed in a menacing voice that I was not to open my mouth to sing, but to mouth the words and if I dared to sing, he would wave the stick in front of my face.  

Secondly, my secret endeavour was to get singing lessons. I grew up thinking how wonderful it would be to be an opera singer and how thrilling it would be to hear beautiful music emanate from my body.  So when I was in my 50s I researched and found the name of a voice teacher who had a great reputation in dealing with difficult voices. I nervously went to the teacher and after she gave me some pointers about breathing I stood in front of a microphone and belted out what I thought was a knockout version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. Well, they say that everybody can draw or paint, but it is not true that everyone can sing. 

When my oldest daughter got married in Toronto, you wanted to sing at her wedding. You always carried your song sheets in a special embroidered bag, but my older sister forgot to pack the bag in your luggage and so our plan for you to sing at the party in the evening went astray.  But you were a very strong-willed woman and you were determined to sing.  It was during the wedding ceremony as your granddaughter Natalie came down the aisle, with her arm linked with mine that you, sitting in the front row burst into song.  There was not a dry eye in the crowd and 15 years later, friends still remind me of that magical moment.                                                           

To the end of your life you sang in the Winnipeg Jewish choir, you were short and so you prominently sat in the front row and I was honored to see you proudly singing. You travelled with the choir to many cities in Canada and you were asked to sing at important Jewish community events. I remember that once you wore a long black silk dress with a shocking pink rose painted on it.  You had a flair for colours as well as music. 

The day of your funeral in Winnipeg the temperatures went down to -40. Riding to the synagogue, my family dressed in long johns and layers of clothing, double rainbows shone in the icy blue sky. We knew it was you, Mom, watching us. And at the funeral service when your grandchildren sang “Jerusalem of Gold”, one of the songs you loved, they ended by saying, Baba we know you’re up there telling us we were off key.

How rich my life has been. Over the years, Mom, I have seen the famous Rampal dance with his flute, Rostorpovich with his cello at one with his body, your Perly (Itzhak Perlman) making  his violin sing, and  your Pinky (Pinchas Zuckerman) with his beautiful grey hair.  I have been to the Met in New York, where I walked up and down the aisles in wonderment and listened to “Aida”.  I listen to the classical music station and sometimes I too can identify the music or the composer and it feels so instinctive and intuitive, because music has been such an integral part of my life.

To this day, I still have the thrill and pangs in my heart when I hear the opening bars of the Emperor Concerto.  And when I hear Chopin’s nocturnes, it brings back memories of the concert we attended when I was young, and saw the great Arturo Rubenstein famously bouncing up and down on his chair as he played.  Today, when I hear opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Jessye Norman, Monseurrat Caballe, and the Cantor Yaakov Stark, I turn the radio to its highest volume, the music envelops me and my heart soars.

Today Mom, I sing proudly and loudly at synagogue, oblivious and uncaring what I sound like.   And I am blessed with three handsome grandsons who love to dance and a little granddaughter Olivia, who has curly red locks like you, has an uncanny resemblance to you, is stubborn and strong-willed like you and best of all, loves to sing like you. Mom, your wonderful legacy has been strong and will endure through the ages.  

Beverley Fingerhut is program director at the Centre of Excellence in Business Analysis at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business, York University, in Toronto. As an academic she has been the course director for Entrepreneur Business Development Skills for the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies as well as an adjunct professor in the Professional and Technical Writing Programme at York University. Beverley enjoys painting, reading, art history (in the past she was a part-time docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario), knitting, and spending time with her grandchildren.

“My Musical Mama” was published in Living Legacies – Volume IV: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, edited by Liz Pearl (PK Press, 2014), and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about the collection here: www.PKPress.ca

 

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A Tribute to My Father, Merkler Andras (6 Jan 1933 – 30 April 2015)

By David Merkler (Barcelona, Spain)

When I was 14 years old, I wrote my O-level English language project entitled: “My father’s experiences during the war.” At that time, I was extremely unsure about what had happened. I knew my grandfather and uncle had died in the war, but little else. I sat down in my father’s study, asked him some questions, and he told me a few sketchy details. Either he didn’t want to remember or simply had drawn a veil over everything. Either way I can remember the opening lines of my project: “My father was born in Budapest on the 6th January 1933 and twenty-four days later Hitler came to power (on the 30th January 1933).” Call it bad timing. Born Jewish at the wrong time in the wrong place.

The suffering of Hungarian Jewry was the longest and, in some ways, the cruelest of all of European Jewry. Hungary beat even Nazi Germany in passing the first anti-Semitic law in 20th century Europe in 1920. The Numerus Clausus limited the number of university places available to Hungarian Jewish students. In the 1930s neo-Nazi politicians in countries allied to Nazi Germany, including Hungary and Rumania, passed anti-Semitic legislation mirroring what had been passed in Germany limiting their individual rights to work, circulate, own property etc. More significantly, they collaborated with the Nazis, deporting Jews to lands controlled directly by the Germans where they were exterminated and their armies participated in the massacre of Jews. In their madness these countries sent poorly equipped troops to fight alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviets who killed and imprisoned them in massive numbers. Exploiting their weakness to encircle the German troops besieging Stalingrad in 1942, the Soviets broke out of Stalingrad, inflicted the first defeat on the Nazis, and initiated the beginning of the end of the murderous Nazi machine.

My father’s parents, Valeria and Istvan, were working in Germany in the early 1930’s. Valeria, like anybody who had any sense, knew that things were only going to get worse. They returned to Hungary, and Valeria did what any normal person would do—she had her children baptized, converted to Catholicism, and sent to Catholic boarding schools. The war started. The war raged on. And until 19th March 1944 most of Hungary’s Jews—more than 600,000—were still alive.

Finally, as Hungary tried to change sides in 1944 knowing that the Nazis were going to be defeated, a contingent of the German Army and SS led by Adolf Eichmann entered Hungary, took control, established their headquarters in Budapest’s largest synagogue, installed an even more extreme neo-Nazi anti-Semitic government, and initiated the deportation of Hungary’s provincial Jewry, mostly to Auschwitz. The deportation of the capital’s Jewish population began but was not completed.

My father’s childhood memories in that last year were, amongst others, of peeking through a hole in a wall to watch a film where Jews were not allowed to go, of the guilt he felt later at stealing bread from a woman at night in the ghetto, and the shame he felt when boys who he had gone to school with saw him wearing the Star of David, which marked him out as a pariah. He would suffer starving conditions (many died of hunger and thirst in the ghetto), tuberculosis, and would finally be liberated by Soviet forces in January 1945 after the city had been besieged and bombarded for weeks. His father, Istvan, and brother, Peter, were deported and later murdered in the last few weeks of the war. We know that Istvan’s remains lie in a mass grave in Brück-an-der-Leite. We don’t know where Peter fell or was murdered. He was marched to a sub-camp of Mauthausen called Gunskirchen He has no grave. My grandmother Valeria told me he had been liberated by the Americans at Gunskirchen, but was too weak to survive. My father said we simply don’t know. He retraced the route of the final march with a Hungarian Jewish survivor. I think my grandmother wanted to believe that her son had tasted freedom, if only briefly, at the age of 15 before his murderous end. Valeria’s sister, Elsa, was amongst the first to be deported from Budapest. We know nothing of her fate. My father always believed she had been deported to Ravensbruck.

At the end of the war my father was placed in an orphanage. My grandmother, Valeria, who had made her way to England in 1938, enlisted in the American army where she worked translating correspondence from German to English to help the Americans capture Nazi war criminals. (I hope her work contributed to the capture of some.) She was based in Germany and travelled to Hungary (which was under the control of the Soviets), found András, and bribed Soviet border guards with American cigarettes so she could take him out of Hungary, first to Germany and later England. So now you see why my father wanted to be buried with his mother in England, where we laid him to rest a month ago.

We are only here as Jews because of those who came before us and made the decision to be Jews, sometimes against all odds. That was my father’s case. He decided to be Jewish against all the odds, to venerate those who were murdered, and pay respect to past generations who had lived peacefully as non-religious Jews.

The day of death is the marker of who we actually became. My father chose to be Jewish. He chose to bring up a Jewish family. And he chose to remember and venerate the past when he wrote his book on the history of his family. His last words to me were “G-d bless.” When I saw him on his deathbed, I told him that he should go to heaven and say hello to Istvan, Valeria, and Peter, and not worry. The Merklers and our Jewish identity would continue here on Earth. I asked him to squeeze my hand if he understood. He squeezed my hand.

I make the same decision as my father to be Jewish and venerate those past generations.

David Merkler was born and grew up in London, England  and now lives in Gelida, outside Barcelona, Spain. You can reach him at davidmerkler@languagesbarcelona.com

If you’d like to learn more about David’s father, you can read ”My Father Is Dying” (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/my-father-is-dying/) which he shared on The Jewish Writing Project in 2011.

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Beginning to Understand

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

A number of years ago, my wife and I joined a small group of fellow New Yorkers on a journey back in time. It was a trip that had all the earmarks of a solemn pilgrimage. A sacred mission of sorts to a place awash in tragedy and tears and the subject of countless discussions and heated arguments. We were about to land in a corner of the world where fleeting shadows have taken on human form and the ground, overcome with sorrow and tormented by unspeakable memories, yearns to reveal its secrets. Looking out the plane’s window, I began to make out the outlines of the airport below. Our jet was about to land in Warsaw, Poland.

We were all children of Holocaust survivors and wanted to see firsthand what the country was like and to appreciate how Poland, the country of our parents’ birth, had so influenced and shaped their lives. Each of us had heard the stories, the tearful recollections of a time and place that is no more. We were eager to visit the oft-mentioned towns and cities and step foot within the few existing synagogues that at one time boasted of overflowing crowds but that now stand silent, forlorn and empty.

There was much to see and experience but what remains with me above and beyond all else was a visit to the Majdanek concentration camp. This notorious extermination center is located only a short distance from the city of Lublin. Much of the camp remains remarkably intact and reminds one of a well-maintained museum. Glass enclosed exhibits contain some of the possessions that were taken from the victims upon their arrival. Eyeglasses, clothing, shoes and suitcases are all that remain of the many souls who entered this evil place.

Foot paths lead from one heart wrenching exhibit to the next and while traversing one particular path, we noticed that the path was paved with odd-shaped stones that looked strangely out of place. Upon closer examination, it became quite clear that some of the stones were actually broken sections of Jewish headstones that were likely scavenged from a nearby cemetery. Some of the stones had their inscriptions pushed face down into the soil below while others had lettering facing the heavens above.

Names of frail saintly elders, mothers who died in childbirth and children taken by illness could be easily identified. It was almost as though the stones, now severely beaten and dispirited, were directing their prayers to the blue skies overhead. They wanted nothing more than to be left in peace. “Why must the evil doers continue to harass us?” I thought I heard them whimper as nearby trees, sensing their anguish, nodded in agreement.

Some in our party began to weep while others raised their voices demanding an explanation. After all that happened here, one would have expected at least a semblance of compassion and good will. A number of workers were only a short distance away unloading headstones from the back of an old truck. Catching sight of this group of distraught Jews, they suddenly began to chuckle and laugh for, after all, this is how it was and continues to be. And for the very first time, I began to understand.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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I Changed My Mind

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

I hated you.

I didn’t hate you at the beginning.

When I was a little girl … I guess you were pretty. I didn’t notice. I took you for granted.

Every Friday night, from the time I was old enough to sit with my family at the dinner table, which looked the same each week—white linen, matching china, glistening silverware and sparkling glasses—there you were in all your splendor, the two and a half foot silver candelabra in the center of the table. With your graceful four ornate sculptured arms and the eagle at your center reaching to the heavens, you looked ready to soar. That was you. I was too young to appreciate you or your age.

You were conceived, hand crafted, circa 1860, in Austria-Hungry. My father, the youngest of five children, inherited you. He brought you into his marriage and treasured you, his only family memento. You were old the first time I saw you but what did I know?

Before sunset each Friday, my Papa came home with a bouquet of flowers. My older brother and I washed our hands and sat at the Shabbat table. Mutti lit the candles, said a prayer; Papa followed, cutting the chalah and chanting the appropriate blessing. After the amen, we ate the customary meal: gefilte fish, chicken noodle soup and of course … the roasted chicken. The vegetables varied from week to week and so did the dessert; usually it was stewed fruit compote, apple cake, cookies and tea. Cold seltzer in a spritzer bottle (it was fun to pump) and wine for the adults was always on the table.

I didn’t hate you when I was little. You were just there … like a piece of furniture or a painting on our dining room wall. I had no personal relationship with you then. That changed when I became a teenager.

The chore my mother gave me, from the time I was thirteen, was to polish you every Thursday afternoon so that you would shine on Friday night when the four candles on your winged arms were lit. By then I was old enough to see how grand you were. But polishing you was another story.

It was not fun. Did you realize that the candles dripped on you and hardened? Your body had over a dozen pieces that fit into each other. Polishing you took over an hour. I wanted to do other things … even homework. But my job was not negotiable. I had to keep you shining for the Shabbat. And I did; until I got married, left my childhood home and you. One of my wedding presents was a beautiful, contemporary candelabra.

Of course I saw you whenever I visited my parents. By then I was an adult and admired your beauty. You were and still are stunning. Who polished you after I left? It was no longer my concern. I was free.

But nothing is forever. Many years later, after my mother died and my father remarried, he presented me with his family heirloom. Papa wanted you to remain in our family. I was overcome by the gift. At that time I was in my fifties and lived in an apartment in Miami, facing Biscayne Bay. The view was breathtaking. I displayed you in my living room on a beautiful oak cabinet that my son, Jeffrey, had built for me. You stood out like a prized possession, which you still are. People took notice of you the moment they stepped into my home. You were gorgeous.

My freedom didn’t last. I was back to polishing you. However, the feeling was different; I was older, smarter and loved you. But … there is a big “but.” After two years, the salt air from Biscayne Bay damaged your silver. It pitted you like a skin rash. You looked sad. I wasn’t going to ignore your condition. I was your caretaker. Through research and recommendation I found an expert who came to my aid. In 1975, I paid $400 to have you re-silvered and treated. The maven promised that I would never have to polish you again. That sounded like beautiful music.

Decades passed. I became irreligious and didn’t light your candles weekly. But you retained the place of honor in my home. I always loved Jewish traditions and on each holiday you glowed. My favorite simcha is the Passover Seder when I invite eighteen people to dinner. (The number signifies life in Hebrew.)

When my daughter, Susie, realized your monetary worth, she recommended that I store you in the attic in case of theft. I wouldn’t hear of it. What is the point of having something so beautiful and not being able to enjoy it?

This week I polished you. On Saturday I will again have eighteen people at my Seder table. All the food and desserts are homemade … with love.

I took a serious look at you while I was sprucing you up. I, almost half your age, am of advanced age. You’re an antique and I, an octogenarian. We have a common bond … we’ve aged. Your arms are shaky and my legs wobbly. You, newly polished and shiny, and I, with makeup and extra mascara, are still good looking.

I love you.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938. She attended Brooklyn College and graduated from Pratt Institute and worked as fashion designer for forty years.

A writer as well as an artist and designer, Helga has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune and The Tampa Tribune. She has also contributed stories to anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways and various magazines. The most recent collection, We Were There, was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever.

She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy (offered at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota campus).

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Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

During my visit to Belmonte, Portugal, I met people whose families for centuries have hidden their Jewish heritage and who are finally free to reclaim their roots. Their stories moved and inspired me to write A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

It was while writing this poem that I became aware that I was still struggling with unresolved issues of early childhood experiences with prejudice and persecution. From an early age I learned to hide my identity as a Jew.  Numerous times I was humiliated, beaten up, and, worse yet, afraid of being killed. You see, I was born in Casablanca, Morocco, to loving parents, where both my maternal and paternal grandparents, of noble spirit, were revered in their Jewish community. 

As a child, while spending a week of summer vacation with my maternal grandparents, I saw my grandfather, Moshe Abuhatziera (Zechrono Lebracha), returning home from the synagogue after an incident of persecution, an experience which left me even more traumatized.

On a Sabbath day, on his way home from the synagogue, he was beaten up. His white beard was pulled. Blood was all over his white Shabbat clothes. Seeing my beloved grandfather this way, I felt a specific rage, which as a child I never experienced before. Yet no words of anger or revenge ever came from my grandfather’s mouth. Instead, he addressed my anger with the following, and with a gentle pat on my head: “Dear child, don’t hate. Muslims are our brothers and Gentiles are our cousins. These people didn’t know what they were doing.” 

These words from my grandfather have inspired me on both personal and professional levels in the way I view the world.

Eventually, my family fled Casablanca in the dark of night, with only the clothes on our backs, to France and then, finally, to Israel. For the past 50 years, I have lived in the United States.

Because of the people of Belmonte, I have had a chance to face my past.

I have an affinity with the people of Belmonte and genuine respect for their tenacity in overcoming the obstacles they faced over 500 years in order to preserve their identities as Jews. Finally, they are free to practice their Jewish heritage.

Their story saddened me and their tenacity inspired me. This poem is my effort to pay homage to them and for me to master my own early trauma of persecution:

More than 500 years ago
Jews lived and died resisting conversion.
Here, hidden in the antiquity of Belmonte,
I find an authentic living miracle.
I walk through the labyrinth of the city,
With its ancient steep maze of alleyways,
Among the narrow streets, houses from a bygone era,
Colorful flowers like gems bestowing
Their beauty upon their surrounding.
Some people look out their windows
While others sit on wooden benches in front of their homes
Gazing at strangers passing by.

As we reach our destination, before our eyes is a placard saying,
“Museum Judaico De Belmonte.”
We are welcomed by Mr. Levy, our guide.
With sadness I learn about the atrocities
Inflicted on the Jews during the Portuguese Inquisition,
Heart wrenching stories that
My emotions can no longer absorb,
My mind can’t comprehend.

In 1453 King Manuel l, the Church
And Isabella, the Queen of Spain,
Co-opted God’s final authority on human destiny.
The Jews once again became sacrificial lambs.
A royal decree was issued.
In droves, from all over, Jews came to Lisbon Port.
They were given an ultimatum:
Convert to Christianity
Or death will be your fate.
Those who held onto their Jewish beliefs
Were burned alive.
Children were snatched from their families,
Breaking their parents’ hearts and souls,
Taken on a journey unknown
Never to be seen again.
Some parents, who did not want
Their children apostatized,
With a bleeding heart and tears in their eyes
Threw their young into wells.
Innocent children who died in vain
Forever in the memory of their people will remain.

Manuel, in league with the Church,
Starved the Jews nearly to death.
Dirty holy water fraught with malevolent intent
Splashed on helpless faces.
Mass coerced conversion took place.
As the darkness on earth and heaven loomed over the Jews,
With half-frozen tongues
They prayed in a silent scream.
With copious tears, their eyes sought heaven,
Their words piercing through celestial doors
Tightly closed against the
Agonizing Chosen ones.
The stars and clouds seemed to bleed,
Heaven above remained silent.
The Jews had their doubts,
Yet tenaciously believed
God was not dead, only ominously mute.

All my senses are overwhelmed with anguish.
Tears cascade down my face,
Knots in my throat.
I shake with intense rage,
Like a leaf on a tree shivering from cold drops of rain,
Mourning the decimation of innocent Jewish souls
Whose only crime was being Jews.
I want to scream so loud,
Let the reverberation
Reach the bottom of the sea,
The sky’s infinity.
Words congeal on my tongue,
I can’t find words
To piece together a fractured world.
I want to forget but I cannot forget,
The mantra goes on in my mind.
The past always intrudes on the present.
I will no longer numb my psyche,
But face the past in service of the future.
I must remember, everything must be told.
Like an embryo, slowly, words come to life.
I move on to see the rest of the exhibition.

A memorial plaque hangs on the wall
Dedicated to the victims who perished in the Portuguese Inquisition,
Their names engraved for eternity on a dark stone.
Among many other precious artifacts
I see several stones engraved with Hebrew letters
Dating back to the 13th Century, indicating that Jews had lived in Portugal
Hundreds of years before the Inquisition.
Beautiful mezuzot which Jews, devoured by fears,
Never hung on their doors.
In pockets they remained hidden,
To be kissed only in secrecy.
I find paintings depicting daily rituals of Jewish life,
The rite of passage from birth to death:
A wedding under a chupa,
A table embellished
With challah, a cup of wine for Kiddush,
And Shabbat candles
Reminding the Jews in hiding
To strive against the darkness,
Bring into balance the
Frailty and beauty of their lives.
These artifacts in the museum are testimonial evidence that
Despite appalling atrocities and waves of tyranny that tried
To obliterate Jewish culture and spirit,
The Jews maintained their tradition.
For five fear–ridden centuries
In hiding, they clung with passion to their roots.
On the mountain of Belmonte.

After leaving the museum, on our way to the synagogue,
My heart beats with pride when I see in the midst of town
A menorah standing proud and tall,
A living testimony that despite the forces of evil,
The Jewish tenacity for survival triumphed once again.
The Menorah, once in the Holy Temple,
Represents eternal light, wisdom, and divine inspiration
To spread the light the of godliness to the entire world.
But this menorah,
This menorah in front of me, commemorates
The calamities that befell the Jewish people
Before, during, and after the Portuguese Inquisition
And, still raw in memory, the systematic annihilation
Of my people during the Holocaust.
This menorah carries the legacy to bear witness
To all the Jews who perished in anguish,
Whose voices were never heard.
And with love and pride it salutes those who survived,
A menorah for future generations,
Affirming human values in a disintegrated world.

Questions run through my mind,
No answers to be found, only more questions.
How will humanity learn to sublimate
The thanatos, the death instinct, that leads to fear, hate, and war
And to nourish the eros, the life instinct, which will create
A new culture that strives for world peace?
If we don’t, the human race will cease.

Once in the synagogue
I could envision how the Jews in Belmonte
In hiding, quietly prayed to God
With sadness beyond words,
And with genetic memory
Imagined that they were present at the Wailing Wall,
Praying for freedom and triumph over evil,
Breaking the chains enslaving their souls,
Striving to regain their humanity.

Today, a renaissance flowers in Belmonte.
The perennial fear of being a Jew is slowly diminishing.
Jews can exercise their freedom of choice.

Dear Jews of Belmonte,
This is what I dream for you:
Today, when you pray, whether in the synagogue
or in your own hearts,
Let your prayers be loud and clear,
Let your voices in unison vibrate, reach
Ears and hearts far and near.

On your way home after synagogue
As you stroll the streets,
Fearlessly greet each other
With the ancient and precious words,
“Shabbat Shalom ”or “Shalom Aleichem.”

Never again should any group of people
Regardless of the color of their skin,
Religion, race, age, gender or creed
Suffer malevolence from their own kin.
May our way of life always echo the precious words,
Shalom, Salama, Peace.

Born in Morocco and raised in France and Israel, Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner has lived in Manhattan for 50 years. She is a psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and family therapy. A member of the New York City Audubon Society, she loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature.  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.

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Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, poetry, Portuguese Jewry