Category Archives: history

The Watch

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

It sat under a glass bell in my china closet for many years, a slim gold watch meant to be worn on a man’s waistband. Whenever I looked at it, I remembered its original owner, my father’s older brother, my uncle Max.

Recently, a ray of sunlight landed on the contents of my china cabinet and fell directly on Uncle Max’s watch in its glass housing. Almost instantly I thought of its history: it had survived three concentration camps during its existence.

I was very fond of chubby, jolly Uncle Max, who called me “Kindchen” (little child) when I was young. I thought that he had forgotten my real name before I understood he meant the term as an endearment.

“What can I bring you the next time, Kindchen?” he’d say at the end of many a Sunday afternoon at Berlin’s Café Dobrin where he and my father met and I was invited to come along.

While the two men drank their coffee and talked, I walked over to the magazine rack where newspapers and magazines on long wooden handles were hung for the customers to read.

My favorite publication at that time was a magazine entitled “Simplicissimus.” It was a satiric political magazine of which I understood nothing except that I laughed at the cartoons it featured, all of them making fun of the political situation then current in Germany.

Suddenly, I remembered an evening long ago in in 1937 in our Berlin apartment. Uncle Max was visiting, and he and my father sat chatting in the upholstered lemon-wood chairs of our living room. Finally, Uncle Max pulled out the watch from his waistband and said: “I must leave. Tomorrow will be a busy day. And Elsa will be worrying about me being out this late.”

Elsa was Uncle Max’s gentile live-in girlfriend.

“But again, Leo,” he said, shaking his finger at my father, “Let me tell you. We have nothing to worry about. It is mainly foreigners they are arresting. Our family has lived in Germany for many generations. We are honorable, productive members of this country. Why would anyone want to do us harm? All these rumors about the Nazis coming after us are surely exaggerated.”

With these cheerful words Uncle Max put on his coat and left us.

I glanced at my father before the door closed. He was smiling. What a wonderful feeling it was to have so much optimism around us!

Early the following morning the telephone rang, and my mother picked it up. When she hung up, her normally rosy face was ashen as she turned to my father and me.

“That was Elsa…calling from a public phone. She could hardly speak, she was crying so hard. She said the package she expected last night had not been delivered. She was beside herself.”

My mother held on to a chair. All of us knew instantly: Uncle Max had been arrested.

We did not know where he was. We had no news whether he was even alive.

Before long we had our own frightful news. Around six o’clock on a May morning of 1938, two black-clad Gestapo men rang our apartment doorbell and arrested my father. He was sent to the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

While leaving our apartment door that frightening morning of his arrest, my father managed these words to my mother: “I have a cousin in America. He lives in a city called Louisville, but I have no address. See if you can find him and ask him to help us.”

The incredible next step was “beshert.” My mother’s letter to the mayor of Louisville reached the American cousin via a miraculous route. Our relative and his friend, the mayor, met once a week over a card game!

Shortly afterward a most desirable document arrived at our Berlin address containing an affidavit for my father to come to the United States. The document assured that he would never become a burden of the country since the cousin declared himself liable for his upkeep.

Once he reached the United States my father was able to send for my mother and me.

On May 26, 1939 at Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, one of the main train stations, we said goodbye to the rest of the family amidst tears. Everyone sensed we would not meet again.

During the autumn of 1939, the German invasion of Poland started the war in Europe. News of the loved ones we had left behind in Germany stopped. In Louisville my mother and I sat crying after every evening’s newscast, feeling we would never see our family again. My mother hoped her mother and sister would survive. My father wished his only sister and three brothers would make it through the war.

Eventually, with the income from my parents’ menial jobs and the help of our American cousin, we were able to purchase a house of our own in Louisville, a lovely home at 1638 Edenside across from Tyler Park. We moved in on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, a very important date in American history.

It would be a long time before the end of World War Two. The days seemed even longer without news of our family members.

On a quiet August Sunday afternoon in 1945 my parents and I were relaxing at home when suddenly my mother screamed from the living room where she sat reading.

“Leo, Ellen, come here and bring a magnifying glass. It’s in one of the kitchen drawers,” she yelled in an urgent voice. “Look at this!“ She pointed to the newspaper she was holding, the “Aufbau,” a publication aimed at German Jewish refugees living in the U.S. Her trembling hand pointed to the paper’s front page, to a photograph of a ship. “It’s Max! Your brother Max. He’s leaning over the railing of this ship.”

And there he was……Uncle Max on board an ocean liner named “Henry Gibbons.”

We looked over her shoulder and saw the following article beneath the photograph:

On June 12, 1944, the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was established in Oswego, New York, by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be operated by the War Relocation Authority. Named “Safe Haven” It is the first and only refugee center established in the United States.

By August of 1944, the shelter has already received 982 refugees of predominantly Jewish descent and of various national backgrounds, especially Yugoslavian, Austrian, Polish, German and Czechoslovakian.

The refugees had undergone great trauma, and, as a result, needed to recuperate. Nearly 100 of the refugees had been imprisoned in Buchenwald or Dachau. Many of them had been refugees for 7 or 8 years, and almost all had suffered through food shortages, disease, torture and trauma. They arrived in the United States as part of a convoy of American ships traveling the Atlantic Ocean under wartime conditions. The largest ship among the convoy was the ocean liner “Henry Gibbons.”

The next day, a Monday, my father telephoned the “Aufbau” in New York and was able to consult a list of passengers arriving on the “Henry Gibbons.” The name of Max Nussbaum was on the list!

I saw tears run down my father’s face as he received the news. It was the first time I had seen him cry since the day he came home to us from Buchenwald.

The next outgoing call on our phone went to the ticket office of the Louisville-Nashville railroad. Within days my parents and I sat up in the coach section of the Oswego-bound train for the day-long, warm journey toward Canada.

We had wired the proper authorities at Ft. Ontario of our planned visit and requested permission for it. We had no idea what to expect of “Safe Haven,” so when our taxi left us off it was a shock to see a former army post still surrounded by its original barbed wire-topped fences that kept its inmates from leaving and its visitors from entering.

After sufficient clearance, Uncle Max was allowed to greet us in a front office and from there to lead us to his cell.

When he first walked toward us, I was shocked. The man I remembered from Berlin days was now completely bald with a black beret covering his head. He had lost much weight and was dressed in a loose-fitting dark garment. To me he looked more like a religious friar than my jolly, chubby uncle. In fact, had he worn a white outfit, he would have resembled Pope Francis.

He took us to his barrack where he invited us to sit down for a snack of tea and the cookies my father had bought him, even knowing Max was diabetic.

He had photographs of his parents on a shelf over his cot. On a folded man’s handkerchief next to the pictures I saw his watch.

“How did you get the watch past everyone, Uncle Max?” I asked him.

His face seemed to gain more color. “You shouldn’t ask that question, Kindchen,” he answered. “You wouldn’t like the answer.”

Uncle Max and my father sat on his cot as he told us his story. My mother and I made do with the two collapsible chairs in the barrack.

“… The Americans liberated us at Dachau on April 29, 1945. I think it was the Rainbow Division of the Seventh Army. They told us to get away as quickly as we could, to walk southward, and walk we did, toward Italy,” he continued his narrative. “Gradually, some dropped out from fatigue, others just fell down and had no more strength. They were left behind. Several of us walked through most of Italy. We stopped only when we found a cave where we could sleep at night. At times we walked alone and were stopped by Italian carabinieri who wanted to arrest us. I spoke no Italian, so I pretended to be a deaf-mute and it worked. Especially since I looked like a beggar.

“I did not know that the Americans had a plan for us after liberating us from Dachau. But President Roosevelt had ordered for many of us who were homeless and had no place to return to be sent to this place here in America until the war was over. Most of us were gathered in Naples. I guess that’s why the American soldiers who liberated us told us to walk toward Italy. In a little town called Aversa an abandoned insane asylum had stood empty for some time. That’s where they took us to wait until we could be brought to America. And that’s where we stayed for over a year until enough of us refugees had been gathered for the sailing. From Aversa they took us to Naples where we boarded the “Henry Gibbons” and the seventeen days’ sail.

“And now this is the third time I am in a camp. Why”

We listened to his plaintive question and attempted to make plans for my uncle’s future, which turned out to be in Bogota, Colombia, where my cousin Kurt (Uncle Max’s nephew), furnished an apartment for him and took him in as a “silent partner” in his business. “Senor Max” spoke not a word of Spanish but sat behind a desk in the “officinal,” beloved by all the staff who could not communicate with him but were gratified by his smiles to their attempts at communication.

Uncle Max died in Bogota and was buried in the Jewish cemetery there. During his next visit to the United States, my cousin gave me the watch to keep for its family value.

I have since passed it on to my older son as a reminder of one segment of our family’s story. The watch is still ticking.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

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Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

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Vienna – 1938

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It was like speaking to my mother,
my mother who has been dead for 14 years.

Invited to dinner, I sat next to Renee,
an elegant woman of advanced years.

She looked like my mother, sounded like my mother,
and spoke in soft Viennese accents
that sounded like melted chocolate.

But most remarkable of all,
she lived in that classical city in the same year,
my mother did, 1938, the year of the Anschluss.

Spellbound, I listened as she told the following story:

“Ordinarily, a red flower sitting in a pot on the window sill
basks in the early light, its petals rising to meet the emerging sun.

Amid the tightening noose of soldiers swarming, doors knocked open,
the flower appears as a symbol that beauty has not been crushed
under the soles of marching boots.

But the bright red flower has been discolored
by the growing and blackening evil,
and serves now as an ominous warning sign.

‘Papa if you see a flower on the window sill, do not come home.
The Gestapo is here looking for you. Run, please!
I do not know when I -or the flower- will ever see you again.'”

Both my mother and Renee escaped the Holocaust,
one to Palestine, one to Switzerland.

How many other lives were saved, I wonder,
by the appearance of one red flower
sitting in the morning sun?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

 

 

 

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Father’s Phantom First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

When it came to keeping secrets, few were as tight-lipped as my parents. Once these two Holocaust survivors decided to exclude any one particular topic from conversation, no amount of whimpering, urging or cajoling could convince them to reconsider. You see there were some wartime memories that proved just too painful to discuss and so keeping them under wraps was felt to be the only sensible thing to do.

One such prohibited topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three small children, four innocent victims who perished during the Holocaust. They, along with thousands of others held captive in the Lodz Ghetto, had either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness or were ruthlessly singled out, rounded up and taken to nearby killing centers. The story of this first family had become a closed chapter in a book of tragedies that was to be kept out of sight and out of mind. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that was strictly off limits and, though I was always intrigued, I knew better than to ask too many questions.

My father, who was generally an open and talkative sort, never spoke of this phantom first family. There were no details of their lives and no information as to how or where they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under lock and key. My mother, perhaps fearful of not wanting to open old painful wounds, seldom discussed any subject that was certain to upset my father. “Your father is a nervous man,” she would often say, “he has suffered enough. There are things you should not ask.”

On rare occasions, mother would inadvertently let a word or two slip about the secret first family but there was never enough information that would amount to much of anything. She always seemed to catch herself right in the nick of time. It was like a pinhole in a drawn window shade that permitted a hint of light but resulted in little, if any, illumination or insight. The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our emaciated photo album.

Growing up, I found myself trying to come up with likely names and images for this first family. I played with the possibilities. The color and texture of their hair, the color of their eyes and any distinctive facial features that would make them stand out in a crowd. In spite of a vivid imagination, my efforts failed miserably as these faceless spirits continued to elude me. Whenever emboldened by a jolt of curiosity, I would cautiously approach my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?” was his customary response, a refrain he often used whenever feeling distressed and at a loss for words. I accepted defeat and never gave it much thought until my own children came on the scene.

While visiting my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more forceful in my attempt to learn about 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 began to appear a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the lone survivor of his extended family, he, and only he, could provide information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of the first family’s existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his sensitivity and appreciated his vulnerability, and, at my mother’s urging, I proposed that we go slowly and proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Father took a long deep breath and began to speak haltingly of the strife and struggle of life in the ghetto. He continued on this theme for a number of minutes before introducing me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were quite meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would lead to more open discussion in the near future. A major hurdle was overcome and I could immediately appreciate that a bit of clarity had been sprinkled onto a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward ever so slowly with the promise of additional advancement if time would only permit. But it did not. My father died soon after our initial breakthrough. This first small 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 most remarkable work by Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to the horrific events that took the lives of so many in the Lodz Ghetto. In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto, Zelkowicz describes how children were brutally separated from hysterical parents, forced onto transports and then taken to extermination centers:

“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. I now, however, understand why it was my father could not relive a time when mothers and fathers, all terror stricken and desperate, wept uncontrollably as their loving children were savagely torn from their protective embrace. His common refrain—“Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?”—has now taken on a clarity of its own. My father had been right all along. I could not possibly understand. I could not possibly appreciate the horrors that had left him dispirited and at a loss for words. When it came to any talk, any mention, any recollection of the first family, I now realize that my father couldn’t and my mother wouldn’t. He succeeded in keeping his secret intact, thereby helping safeguard his sanity and keeping 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 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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