by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)
There were a number of subjects that were always considered taboo and simply not open to discussion. No matter how hard I tried, my parents were adamant about not revealing certain details of the firestorm that had taken the lives of their extended families. Not one other family member apart from my parents had been spared. I was particularly interested in certain events and personal experiences relating to the Holocaust but was rebuffed at every turn whenever I touched upon a topic that was deemed off limits. The wrong question would bring about an instant change in behavior, a change that became only too apparent when looking at their somber faces. But it was their eyes that gave it all away; their eyes were truly windows to an inner compartment awash in anguish and distress. Sad and dejected, my mother’s glistening eyes would stare off into space and flicker in concert with a gush of tears. And from my father, a piercing silent stare that brought an immediate end to my innocent if not foolish curiosity. I never saw him cry. It was as though he had already gone through his lifetime allotment of tears and the cisterns were now dry and empty for all time. Both had already shed oceans of tears, and though my mother’s supply was somehow replenished, my father’s tears had simply vanished. But there were things that I wanted to know and so I continued to poke and prod hoping to find answers by attempting to enter a world that was forbidden to outsiders. Whenever I crossed the line and sought out matters that were not meant to be discussed, my mother was always quick to intervene.
“Don’t antagonize your father. He’s a broken man,” she would plead in barely audible whispers. “He’s suffered enough already. You are very young but one day you will understand. I promise you, my son, one day you will understand.”
One such topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three children, four innocents who perished during the Holocaust while imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto. Along with thousands of ghetto residents, they had succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness while the lives of countless others were cruelly extinguished in nearby killing centers. The story of this first family was a chapter in a book that was destined to remain closed and unread. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that remained strictly off limits, and, though my interest was quite naturally piqued, I refrained from asking too many questions. My father, generally open and talkative, remained resolute and silent in matters relating to this phantom first family. There were no details of how they lived or any information as to how they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under constant lock and key in my father’s secure memory bank. My mother, perhaps fearful of unpleasant repercussions and not wanting to open old wounds, tactfully avoided any subject that was certain to unsettle my father. “He has suffered enough,” she would often say. “There are things you should not ask. Your father is nervous enough.” The first family was clearly one such subject and she wisely stayed clear of any discussion relating to this most sensitive matter. She would, however, occasionally forget herself and release a snippet or two of information about the first family but quickly regained her footing and dared go no further. What had appeared so promising at the outset was suddenly withdrawn and I was left guessing once again. It was akin to a pinhole in a drawn window shade that yielded little, if any, illumination and insight.
The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our once emaciated photo album. I would occasionally think about this mysterious first family, for, after all, these children were my very own siblings. My ever-fanciful imagination endeavored to bring each of the lost members back into the fold by assigning names and concrete features to faceless individuals who, in spite of my best efforts, continued to reside in some far off unreachable planet. There were times when, emboldened by a jolt of overpowering curiosity, I approached my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child,” he would quickly reply. “How could you ever possibly understand?” And just as with other Holocaust era questions that left him at a loss for words, the conversation would abruptly end with his use of this very short refrain.
While visiting with my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more assertive in my desire to learn of this first family. Whether it had been the presence of my own children or the appreciation that I could no longer be put off, my father had softened somewhat and appeared a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the sole survivor of his extended family, he was the only one who could provide needed information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of their existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his pain and sensitivity, and, at my mother’s urging, I suggested that we proceed at a pace of his own choosing.
Within the little time that remained during that last visit, my father began speaking of life in the ghetto, and, with some reservation, introduced me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would facilitate further discussion. The first and most difficult hurdle had been overcome and it was as if a sprinkle of clarity was added to a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward with the promise of additional clarity if only time would allow the process to continue. Sadly it had not. My father died unexpectedly shortly after our initial breakthrough. This small first step had barely scratched the surface and now there was no one left to ask and nowhere else to turn.
Years later, I came upon a speech given to a large crowd in the Lodz ghetto by Chaim Rumkowski, chairman of the ghetto Jewish council. An order had been received from German officials that 20,000 Jews were to be deported and that the Jewish council was to decide which Jews were to be chosen for certain death. It had been decided to place the “unproductive elements” of the ghetto, the elderly, the sick and children below the age of ten, on the list for deportation. In a speech, titled ‘Give Me your Children,’ Rumkowski stunned a grief stricken crowd that was soon to be left in a state of unimaginable terror. “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my own old age I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers give me your children…I must perform this difficult and bloody operation. I must cut off the limbs in order to save the body itself.”
Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to these horrific events, writes In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto “Hours have passed since these woes, these agonies, were inflicted on those wretched people, but the situation has not calmed down one bit. Mothers have not yet tired of shrieking, fathers’ wellsprings of tears have not yet sealed, and the silence of the night amplifies the reverberations of the screaming and sobbing. No sound reaches your ears, man, but that bitter wailing; no thought occurs to you but death; and your heart ponders, nothing but devastation.”
I will likely never know what became of this first family, but I am now able to appreciate why it was my father could not relive a time that drove so many to madness and exile from the human condition. His common refrain — “Foolish child! How could you ever possibly understand?” — has taken on a clarity of its own. He was absolutely right. I could not then, nor ever in the future, understand what had transpired. He succeeded in keeping his secret well hidden, and I sense that his intention to do so was not only to maintain his own emotional and physical equilibrium but to keep us, his current children and loved ones, safe from harm.
Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. For more information about his work, visit: http://tinyurl.com/86u3ous