Monthly Archives: May 2015

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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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Polish Jewry

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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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