A Passionate Life: Portrait of My Grandfather

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

“Retain integrity without succumbing to authority.”

So my beloved Saba advised me on my 18th birthday. “Don’t let anyone interfere with your endeavors to develop an independent way of thinking,” he told me. “Think first; afterwards argue or act. Don’t lose your countenance under duress.”

Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) was my mentor and anchor, who encouraged me to strive for excellence and showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He taught me to be humble, ethical and empathic and encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it and move on.

After all, that was the way he always behaved. Saba underwent many transformations in his long life, from Jewish scholar to Zionist rebel, laundryman, world traveler, benefactor, thinker, writer and friend to many. He lived throughout as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries”.

Saba was the second son born to an Ultra-Orthodox family of textile manufacturers and fur merchants in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola near Lodz. He was named Berl Dov Gross – one of about 50 Berls in the Gross family! His birth date was given as 16 December 1906, although a question mark always remained over that date, the family joking that he had changed it to make himself slightly younger than his future wife Chana.

His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father then married her younger sister, who sadly would not prove to be a good stepmother to Saba and his older brother. This second union would produce three more sons and a daughter, all of whom were to perish in the Holocaust. Indeed, Saba’s father would be the last Jew to have a full religious burial in Zdunska Wola.

Years later, a study of local Jewish cemetery records would reveal that Saba’s mother had actually died in 1905, proving the family’s suspicions to be correct all along.

He had had good reason to make himself younger than he really was, helping him to escape Polish military service and immigrate to the then British Mandate of Palestine in 1925 – one of only a few members of his extended family to escape the subsequent reign of Nazi terror.

For many years, Saba would beg his family to flee, but no one would listen. Tragically, when they later turned to him to help them escape, he was no longer in a financial position to do so. It was a heavy legacy, which he bore stoically but did not allow to hamper his zest for life and all it had to offer.

The family belonged to the Gerrer Hasidic movement, then probably the largest and most important Hasidic group in Poland. While Hasidism generally promotes spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism, the Gerrer Hasidim emphasize religious study and the objective service of God. Forbidden to learn anything but sacred texts as a child, Saba nevertheless managed to sneak secular books under his bedclothes, learn violin, and even find a tutor to teach him mathematics and other worldly subjects.

Although he rebelled against his religious upbringing, it would stand him in good stead in later life, enabling him to cite Jewish textual sources with ease. He would often recall being taken as a young boy to another town to meet the Rebbe or leader of the Gerrer Hasidim, describing a crowded room where he and other boys literally hung from the rafters to see what was happening.

As an adolescent, Saba became a member of a local Zionist movement and announced his desire to join the pioneers in Palestine. His father would only agree on condition he enter into an arranged marriage. His bride Chana was from the nearby city of Lodz, and the young couple was married in 1924 and left the following year for Tel Aviv. Chana’s parents and sister also decided to follow their lead and move to Palestine, only to make the fateful decision to return to Poland when their money ran out soon afterwards.

Arriving in Tel Aviv without a trade, Saba learned about textiles and proceeded to combine study, both secular and religious, with work. He and Chana would come to have two children, Naomi (my mother) and Moshe. A generous man, Saba was happy to share the little he had with those less fortunate. His strong individualist moral convictions and sense of justice, however, also placed him on a collision course with the powerful Histradrut or Labor Union, finally resulting in him returning his membership card.

He set up his own laundry business in Jaffa, but it was destroyed by fire during the Arab riots of the late 1930s, which were protesting against Jewish immigration and land transfers. Thus, the family was left without a source of income, but as Saba would later reflect in a letter to a friend, he would come “through the hardest years of 1929-39 unscathed, not having bowed at any time to any person”.

According to family legend, Saba had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, and fortunately, he chose the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.

War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children. Having arrived in Melbourne without a word of English, Saba worked hard whenever he was able. When unemployed, he spent his time reading in the public library and listening to records in a local music store. He would then, at times, feel obliged to spend his meager income on classical music records instead of food.

Eventually, he managed once again to establish his own laundry business, sweating over hot machines and lugging heavy sacks of laundry up and down stairs. A recent letter from the daughter of one of my grandfather’s former employees vividly describes the tough work and conditions: “It was extremely hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. No such thing as heating or cooling and the dust from the washing was thick on all the beams… They were happy times but you had to work for what you got.”

After the War, Saba was finally able to bring his family out to Australia, starting with his teenage daughter Naomi. By then, he had begun to travel overseas, and over the years, he would visit exotic places before it became fashionable to do so, such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Pacific Islands and even Dutch Guiana (Suriname) by freighter, maintaining a travel schedule that would exhaust someone half his age. He reveled in the adventure of being an independent traveler of modest means, although as he grew older, the advent of mass tourism with its package tours and controls disillusioned him considerably.

In 1946, he spent the entire year in China, shortly before Mao Zedong came to power, only returning to Australia when his family and friends lied to him that his factory had burned down. While in Shanghai, he assisted European Jewish refugees with their emigration to Australia. In Melbourne too, he would help newcomers from Poland and Israel to become established.

He and Naomi enjoyed a warm relationship and were well matched intellectually, spending long hours in discussion. Saba was a handsome man, and many, upon seeing her on his arm, found it hard to believe they were father and daughter.

Eventually, his son Moshe joined Saba in the laundry, and by the late 1950s, had taken over management of the business. Chana by then was living in Melbourne too. Although separated from Saba since 1938, they never officially divorced. He had a home built for her in Tel Aviv and continued to support her in Australia. For the rest of her life, Chana would live with Moshe and his wife Yona, helping to raise their growing family.

Now free to focus on his intellectual pursuits, Saba moved to London for a while, where he eventually set up house with a Hungarian-Australian artist. The relationship would last for some years during which they traveled widely, but by the late 1960s, it was over, although they remained friends.

Fascinated by the ancient world, Saba spent about thirty years studying Israelite society and in particular, Abraham and Moses. The result was his book, Before Democracy, in which he attributed the Israelites’ survival to their tribal way of life based on family and individual responsibility. He controversially argued that their transition to a centralized monarchy was an ill-conceived and retrograde step “but a stone’s throw away from despotism”.

Reluctant at first to have his life’s work published, Saba preferred, as he wrote to a friend, to “preserve my integrity and end my life as an individual who refrained from partaking in the rat race of publish or perish”. He ended up, however, battling unsuccessfully to have the book published for several years. Finally offered a contract, he withdrew his work before it had seen the light of day, refusing to make the major changes the publisher required.

In the end, he never found the “daring publisher” he hoped for, and the family ended up self-publishing the book, although sadly, by the time it appeared, he was too ill to appreciate it fully.

Saba endured several bouts of ill health, which on occasion left him scarred, but not beaten. He was like a cat with nine lives, rebounding from each episode with renewed vigor. Eventually, however, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – the same illness, which tragically, would later come to afflict Naomi too. “I am losing my ‘I’,” he told his daughter, by which he meant he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.

My last memory of my brilliant Saba is of him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a rubix cube around in his hands. He passed away on 8 July 1994. To this day, I still regret that I did not learn more from him about my Jewish heritage while I had the chance.

Almost ten years earlier, he had given me a pair of silver candlesticks from Israel as a wedding gift, fondly expressing the hope that I would remember him each time I lit the Sabbath candles.

Every Friday evening and on numerous other occasions, I remember him as my beloved Saba, my teacher and my friend, from whom I learned to question, to reason and to explore. In my mind’s eye, he remains the invincible hero of my youth, strong and independent, hoisting his bag onto his shoulder and striding away, as he did when we bid each other farewell at the airport for the last time.

May his memory be a blessing.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au
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Filed under Australian Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

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