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Stories My Father Told Me: Remembering Monty Kuper

by Ivan Koop Kuper (Houston, TX)

I shared a hotel room with my father when my family took a trip back to Poland, on a fact-finding mission, in the year 2000. One morning upon wakening, my father, the late Monty Kuper, a man of many interests, identities, and ideas, looked over at me from his bed and said that his “dead relatives” had visited him all night long – in his dreams.

On this particular pilgrimage, my family only scratched the surface of discovering the fate of my father’s parents and siblings, who – like himself – were residing in the industrial city of Lodz, in an apartment building located at Skladowa Street 14, when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939.

Growing up in Lodz, my father, then known by Moszek, was a very spirited child and with an active and highly developed natural acuity. He was raised with five other siblings, in a poor but nurturing family. Monty often reminisced how he would go to the cinema on the weekends; sing in the synagogue choir during the High Holy Days, and how he would help his father, who was a painting contractor, after school. He once confided that of all his boyhood memories, his favorite was seeing the “Polish Harry James,” aka Adolf “Eddie” Rosner, perform one summer evening, in the city park, in 1938. He also shared that when he used go to the cinema to see the silent, black and white American Westerns, he was particularly fond of the ones starring Tom Mix, and grade-B cowboy actor, Buck Jones, who he and all his friends referred to in their Polish dialects as: “Bucksie Jones.”

As a child, my father developed certain personality traits that would define him as an adult. These were characteristics I would also come to recognize all too well. These defining traits would literally drive me crazy throughout my lifetime; however, it was not until I grew into adulthood that I fully understood his unpredictable temperament. Monty had a short attention span and was easily distracted; he made impulsive decisions, and he often possessed a real lack of focus. My father was known to lose track of time; he would change his mind at the drop of a hat, and he would lose interest in a project before he completed it – only to begin another. Needless to say, his spontaneous behavior tested the limits of my mother’s already depleted patience that often resulted in marital friction between the two of them. 

Monty’s predisposition would be identified by latter-day, 20th century popular culture and men of medicine as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Those who are of the Jewish faith and who speak the Yiddish language also have a word to describe this condition: Shpilkes.

Monty Kuper, however, was also very intuitive, and had an uncanny ability to read people and potentially dangerous situations. It was his highly defined, improvisational, decision-making acumen that probably saved his life, time-after-time, as he traversed the landscape of the Second World War – during the uncertainty of his youth.

My father knew very little of the fate of his missing family in the aftermath of WWII, the war that decimated Europe’s Jewish population. He discovered his older brother, Lyva, aka Leon Kuper, in 1945, convalescing in an International Red Cross displaced persons detention camp after the war, in Zeilsheim, Germany, near Frankfurt am Main. Leon had survived both forced labor in Auschwitz-Birkeneau Concentration Camp and a death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. However, Monty always lacked the hard and fast evidence regarding the fate of his other family members, and how they endured the daily indignation and degradation of the 14 months they spent inside the Lodz Ghetto.

Monty learned from his surviving brother that their father, Izrael Kuper, and their older sister, both died of starvation, in the winter of 1941, in the Lodz Ghetto. And, according to family folklore, my father always maintained that his mother, Cutla Bryks-Kuper, and his other siblings were all deported sometime in 1942, to Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp. It was there – he believed – they met their final horrific fate, as did so many other of his boyhood friends and members of his extended family that forever erased any tangible evidence of their existence from the pages of history.

In February, 1940, when the German Waffen-SS began their roundup of Lodz’s Jewish population five months after the initial invasion and occupation of Poland by the Third Reich, my father, along with several friends from school, were already on their way to the eastern frontier of Poland that was now under the control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the political alignment between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a non-aggression pact was negotiated between these two divergent ideologues that carved up and annexed Poland, for their own geopolitical and ideological objectives. It was in the town of Kovel (now in present-day Ukraine), where Monty and his friends found refuge, and where they were dealing in black market goods to other displaced Polish, Jewish, Russian, and other Slavic refugees who were also seeking sanctuary from the oppressive hand of German National Socialism. However, Monty was soon approached by the occupying Soviets, who insisted that he become patriated into the ranks of Soviet citizenship and a member of the Communist Party in exchange for asylum. 

The ultimatum Monty received from the Soviets did not exactly fit in with the spontaneous and free-form, decision-making lifestyle he was adhering to since the invasion of Poland by the Germans in their quest for lebensraum (living space). And so – at age 19 – Monty found himself branded as a “political undesirable,” and was sent to the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camp system in Siberia. For the next 18 months, Monty cleared rocks and cut timber for the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad in the Russian towns of Kozhva and Vorkuta, near the Arctic Circle. Monty once explained his rationale for choosing the role of a political prisoner instead of becoming a party member and joining the armed forces: “I thought I would never see my family again and I would be sent to the front if I agreed to join the Russian Army and become a member of the Communist Party,” my father confided. “I was never in fear of my life when I was in Siberia. There was always a possibility I could starve or even freeze to death, but the Russians never tortured or deliberately mistreated us like the Nazis would have done.”

On June 22, 1941, the German Third Reich broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Russia was now at war with Germany and, as a direct result of this act of aggression by Germany, the Soviets set their foreign political prisoners free to join them in their fight against fascism. My father and his best friend, Michael Schulz of Warsaw, who he met in Siberia, were both conscripted into the newly formed 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp that was in exile and training with the British Army, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under the command of Polish General Wladyslaw Anders. It was during this period that my father told me he also met a Russian girl named Rada; the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, who, with her mother, were sent deep inside Soviet territory, into Tashkent for safety, along with the families of other high-ranking Soviet officials. It was Rada’s mother, Nina, the second wife of the future premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, who befriended young Moszek and who he said was educated in London and who, ironically – as the story goes – taught him to speak English. 

Monty and his friend Michael traveled with “Ander’s Army” from Uzbekistan to Persia, Iran, and eventually into the British Mandate of Palestine. After they reached the territory of the British Mandate, the command of this rag-tag, undisciplined unit of former political prisoners was then transferred to British control. Historically, the 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp then joined the British Army in what is referred to as the “Italian Campaign.” This included the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino, where Allied forces were engaged in a series of futile and costly attempts to capture a little-known abbey on top of a hill, on the outskirts of Rome. These series of battles lasted from January to May, 1944. However, while this historic event was unfolding, my father told me that he and his friend, Michael Schulz, were – at that time – in the Royal Tank Regiment of the British Army, and stationed at Camp Catterick (presently Catterick Garrison), located near the town of Richmond, in North Yorkshire, in England. It was there they both remained for the duration of the Second World War, and where my father said that he rose to the rank of corporal, and in charge of the parts department of the British Army’s Royal Motor Pool.

I am familiar with most of my father’s personal war-time history, because unlike most individuals who experienced the Shoah, my father was not introspective or reticent about sharing his personal history. I also do not recall Monty ever showing any indication of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or displaying any outward signs of what has come to be known as “survivor syndrome.” To the contrary, he was very personable and very outgoing. Throughout my lifetime – growing up in Houston, Texas – I heard the same wartime-era stories, over and over again; the same ones with slight variations from time-to-time, although, never presented in a boastful way or in an arrogant manner, but simply as a matter of fact. However, as I grew older, I became acutely aware that there were also parts of his saga that he conveniently omitted, thereby leaving significant transitional gaps in his narrative.

On another occasion my father shared with me that once, when he was in Siberia and had fallen ill, and was delirious with fever, his deceased grandfather, Rachmil Kuper, from Opoczno, Poland, appeared to him in a dream with a remedy. His grandfather told him to drink from a glass of wine that he offered him, and according to Monty, after he drank from the wine glass, his fever broke the following day and he was soon cured of all the symptoms of his illness.

Still operating by his wartime, heightened self-preservationist wits and his highly defined survivalist instincts, in 1992 – not long after the fall of the Soviet Union – when my father discovered I was planning to take a trip to Eastern Europe, he became very concerned. Monty still remembered the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child from his pre-nostra aetate (Vatican II), Roman Catholic neighbors with whom his family lived side-by-side while he was growing up in Lodz. One day before my journey, my father, anticipating the worst-case scenario, took me aside and said, “When you go to Poland, don’t tell anyone who you are and don’t tell them you’re Jewish. Just tell them you are an American.”

The fate of my father’s family was finally revealed to me in the summer of 2019 when my wife and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There I was able to discover what my father could not during his lifetime. In their archives it is documented that on the morning of March 10, 1942, 790 ghetto detainees assembled on the train platform of the Radogoszcz Railroad Station, located just outside the Lodz Ghetto. These unfortunate individuals received an order from their Nazi occupiers, four days prior, to gather up their personal possessions and assemble at the station because they had been selected for “resettlement” to a nearby work camp. Included on the roster of names, and chosen for deportation, was my father’s mother and four of his siblings.

“March was a cold month in 1942, with temperatures dropping to -15 degrees C (5 F), and sometimes even -20 degrees C (4 F),” wrote Polish historian and Lodz Ghetto survivor, Lucjan Dobroszycki, in his memoir, Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. “The mortality rate in the ghetto (2,224 deaths) was higher than it had been in the previous months with suicides occurring almost every other day.” 

Transport No. 17’s destination on that bitterly cold Tuesday morning was actually to Chelmno Extermination Camp, the Third Reich’s very first “death camp,” located 31 miles north of Lodz, on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno nad Nerem. According to post-war testimony compiled by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, these passengers were first taken to the nearby town of Kolo, then they were ordered to transfer to a smaller, narrow gauge train that took them directly to an abandoned brick mill in the forest on the outskirts of Chelmno. It was there they spent the night, and on the following morning they were forced into the back of an ordinary cargo van used for hauling furniture whose motor was left running and whose diesel exhaust system was retrofitted to flow back into the cargo area, thereby ending the lives of all those who were locked into the back of the sealed van. Their remains were then buried in one of several mass graves in the nearby forest, later to be exhumed and cremated toward the end of the war.

This was the Nazi’s attempt to conceal their fanatical mission of systematic mass murder and wholesale genocide from the rest of the world. The ashes of these victims – including those of my paternal family – were then unceremoniously scattered all together on the ground of the killing site that can still be found to this very day on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno. This event, which transpired on March 11, 1942, was verified by local Polish journalist and eyewitness, Stanislaw Rubach, who kept a diary of all the deportations and executions he witnessed during the Second World War. Needless to say, there were no survivors of the deportation and the subsequent executions that were delivered by the hands of the Nazis on this tragic day. 

My father has visited me only once since his death in October, 2011 at age 90. I was lying in bed and he appeared before me and asked if he could lie down beside me and rest. And in my dream I found comfort in his presence, and I was truly glad to see him again, although I don’t remember telling him so. And with my father lying by my side, I rolled over and went soundly back to sleep. 

Ivan Koop Kuper is a freelance writer, professional drummer, real estate broker and podcaster in Houston, Texas. His byline has appeared in Aish.com (Jerusalem), Jewniverse (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), ReformJudaism.org, Cable Magazine (London), the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Rag Blog (Austin). Koop invites everyone to follow him on Twitter @koopkuper. He is also available for comment at: koopkuper@gmail.com.

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A Moment of Truth

by Susan Rudnick (Pleasantville, NY)

      Just days after they had become available, I had snagged an appointment early in January for my first vaccine. I did a little dance in front of the computer to celebrate. The night before I had stayed up till after 1 AM and then had gotten up before 7 to go on both the New York state and city websites, as well as my local Westchester county medical provider’s site. I had stayed with it through the mire of questions and red tape. It had paid off.  Caremount, my medical provider, came through. 

     But the next day a text message abruptly canceled it.

     Caremount was no longer able to provide the shots.  

     My vaccine rollercoaster rolled off the rails. I felt vulnerable, jealous of the friends who had already gotten their vaccines, and ashamed. 

     How come I couldn’t make it happen? What lead hadn’t I followed? Why me? I’m a first-generation child of Holocaust survivors, and that night I woke up shivering from a nightmare about the visa I had which was no longer valid. I was trapped in Germany while others were able to leave. 

     Around 7:30 AM,  the day of my canceled appointment, I woke up to a phone call. Nope, it wasn’t a last-minute call for the vaccine.

     In a supposedly unrelated matter a few weeks ago I had received an e-mail from a second cousin I had never met who lived in Israel. Her sister, Ruth, and I had visited each other several times, both in Israel and NY, and we had become close. A year ago I had mourned her death from breast cancer. But Nomi lived on a kibbutz in the south and for a combination of reasons we had never met.

     Now in her eighties, Nomi was looking to connect with me. Her daughter, living in California, had found me. She mentioned that her mother had health problems and, realizing her time was short, wanted to meet me, and also learn what I could share about our family. We had all gone back and forth a few times about using What’s App and how to meet. But nothing had been settled.

     When I picked up the phone on that morning, I heard a voice that sounded familiar. It was Nomi. Her voice was comforting, and sounded a lot like her sister’s. Her English was not the best, but we managed a lovely back-and-forth conversation about our family. She had met both my parents on their trips to Israel.

      At one point I asked if she knew my parents’ refugee story: how they escaped Germany, made it to Brazil and then to New York while my mother was pregnant with me.

     “Yes” she said, “and how your mother lied about the pregnancy because for some reason at the time you were not supposed to fly if you were.”

     My heart missed a beat.  As a child, and, even now, I loved telling friends how I was conceived in Brazil but born here. But my mother had never told me about the lie. Nomi didn’t remember where she had heard it, but she knew it was true.

     My brave mother! She had lied to get us here. I literally wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t. She desperately wanted a better life for us in the United States.  My parents had risked everything several times.  On this very last leg of their journey, I imagine them standing on an airport line together, and my mother not hesitating for a second to omit the truth about me in her belly.  

     In that moment I could feel my mother’s strength and wily wisdom coming to me through this fragile phone connection with someone I had never met.

     If I had been driving to get my shot I could not have picked up the call that held this vital fragment, a glorious puzzle-piece of my story that I would certainly enjoy sharing with friends.  

      I didn’t get the vaccine that day.

      But I was gifted with another kind of boost: a testament to the resiliency and creativity of my parents in a far more complex situation than my current one. I would surely find my way through the miasma of hotlines and websites to get my vaccine. 

Susan Rudnick is the author of the memoir: Edna’s Gift: How My Broken Sister Taught Me To Be Whole. It is the story of how her differently abled sister has been her greatest teacher. Susan is a published haiku poet and maintains a psychotherapy practice in Westchester NY. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website: susanrudnick.com

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A Return to Hannover

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

I was in a taxi en route to the Hannover Airport on a bright, chilly April morning in the 1990s, looking forward to a relaxing flight home to the United States after a brief unpleasant visit to Germany.

Suddenly, while still within the Hannover city limits, a street address popped into my head as if it had just waited to emerge. I had a change of heart and asked the driver to take me there. Perhaps I sensed that we were in the right area. More likely, I did not want to leave Hannover without paying a visit to a house I had heard about all my life.

Im Moore 21 turned out to be right within the vicinity. The taxi stopped across the street and I walked over to the dilapidated grey apartment house. Despite a fresh coat of paint, some of its bricks still flaked. They were heavily damaged by Allied bombers during World War II. I had once seen a photo of the building taken right after the war, so I knew repairs had been made to it in the intervening years. It looked genteelly shabby, but judging by the geranium pots on all of its balconies, it was apparently fully occupied.

I paced up and down on the sidewalk and looked up to its four floors. How I longed for a glimpse inside. Of course, there was no such chance. Its main door was locked and no one was around to let me in. But suppose someone had come along with a key? Possibly a current tenant returning home early to find a strange woman standing in the street, staring at the building. What would I have said?

“Excuse me, but my family once lived here. I was born in this building. Now I have come back on a nostalgic visit. Could you please let me in?”

I stood on that sidewalk a little while longer wishing I could unlock the whole era of my family. I needed to have a peek at life before my time. There were so many things I wanted to understand. What were the family’s idiosyncrasies? How did the various members relate to one another? Perhaps understanding would also allow me to know myself. But I will never have the answers I need. None of the people who could give them to me are still alive.

I saw the taxi driver look in my direction. I had told him my plane would leave within two hours. Now was the time to go. Caught up in the present again, I suddenly remembered what day it was. April 12. My father’s birthday. What a co-incidence that I should stand on this spot this day. Here where my father had started his family. In a house to which most likely I would never return. 

Perhaps it was my imagination. Did the driver look at me strangely when I climbed back into his taxi? I did not owe him an explanation but I said it anyway. “I was born in that house.” Let him figure it out for himself, I thought, as he took me to the airport.

Now, many years later, I believe that brief trip to my birth house may have given me the impetus to record my past in order to preserve it for the future.

So often I feel my childhood has been stolen from me. In comparison to the early days of my children and grandchildren, very little about my childhood days was normal.

I am not an important person, but I was born into and have lived through some remarkable historical times. As the years go by, I feel the urge to document what I have witnessed. Perhaps rediscovering my early life will help me to understand myself better. And surely I owe those who preceded me a telling of their story.

Some day my descendants may even want to know more about their roots. I want to share with them whatever I do know and remember.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

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One-two-three

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

A short muscular man, Adler elevator shoes his footwear of choice, my father liked to have the last word. Actually, he liked to have every word, not only with my mother and me, but with the world at large; he dispensed his unsolicited opinions at will and with abandon. Boundaries? My father? 

It gets around that a relative is contemplating a divorce. He’s on the phone in a heartbeat speechifying that marriage takes work (ask my mother about that!). A neighbor is trying for a baby. He holds forth on everything from birth deformities to breastfeeding. Doesn’t matter who, give him half a chance to interfere, he’s on it like a smile on Liberace. 

Enter his mother, my grandmotherthe only person who could zip his lip, the one he took advice from, instead of giving to. 

Short like my father, feet so small she bought her shoes in the children’s department. A pint-sized woman, she spoke mostly Yiddish, and when she talked to my father in that furious pitch and rhythm of the mother tongue, she was an Amazon in Mary Janes. Yes, mommy; yes, mommy, to whatever she said, my father became a six-year old boy. 

That six-year old was worried big-time when my brother was getting married and my father learned shrimp was on the wedding menu (shell fish is verboten under Jewish law). My grandmother kept kosher in her home and outside of it; if she got wind her grandson’s wedding was serving non-kosher food, Oy vey! wouldn’t begin to tell it. 

His solution: hightail it to the caterer and offer him money on the sly to make the big event kosher. It did not occur to my father that his visit was unseemly, and that the caterer would refuse his bribe, and the in-laws who were hosting the affair would find out. 

The big day arrived. Some fancy footwork was in order.  

“Let’s dance, Ma,” he said, and waltzed her tiny feet far from the seafood table. One-two-three, one-two-three. “Vau iz der lox,” she said. Where’s the lox? “Later, Ma.” One-two-threeBut try as he might to shift her away from the crustaceous creatures, he was no match for my grandmother. 

“Dos iz nisht keyn kehshr.” This is not a kosher affair, she said and pulled a knowing face. 

“It isn’t?!” my father said, all innocence, sweating in his rented tuxedo. 

Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection, Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News, and teaches memoir, Continuing Education, Queensborough Community College. If you’d like to learn more about Rita and her work, visit: https://ritaplush.com

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Hyman in America

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

Born down the street from Boston’s Old North Church, my grandfather Hyman was the first American-born child of Jacob and Jennie, so his family fondly called him Hyman-in-America. His mother was one of two sisters Levine who married two brothers Krasnapolsky, who had the good sense to take their wives’ last name, so that their American children didn’t grow up with names like Hymie and Morris Krasnapolsky.

I never met this grandfather for whom I was named, Herbert having substituted for Hyman, because my mother didn’t want the bullies calling me Hymie (they Herbie’d me instead). He had seven brothers and two sisters. The brothers mostly died of heart disease, so we Levines watch our cholesterol. I wear a gold ring that was his, a mermaid ringing its edge, with a garnet in its tail, and our shared initials in Chinese-y script in the middle. I have the well-worn tefillin that he received for his bar mitzvah and used all his life, quite small and still useable more than a hundred years later. I had his Hamilton gold pocket watch until our house was robbed and also the pin from his fraternal order, the Knights of Pythias, which featured a medieval-looking helmet and crossed lances, pinned to a velvet cloth in a leather folder, one of my childhood treasures.

This order that was so important to him, the Knights of Pythias, took as its founding myth the legendary story of two friends, Damon and Pythias, students of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. The story goes that Pythias, sentenced to death by a tyrant, asked to go home to settle his affairs and was allowed to do so only because his friend Damon stood surety for him until his return. That he did return so impressed the tyrant that he freed the loyal pair and kept them on as counselors to his court. The motto of the latter-days Pythians is the founder’s creed: “If fraternal love held all men bound, how beautiful this world would be,” which goes a long way to explaining why my father so often quoted to me that part of Polonius’s speech on male friendship, which he described as his father’s favorite: “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/ Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

When my father gave me an edition of the Twelve Minor Prophets for my Bar Mitzvah, he said his father had given him the book and told him to make his philosophy of life from each of the prophets. At that time, Martin Luther King was quoting Micah in his world-shaking speeches: “Let justice flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” so it seemed a powerful idea to me. Both my father and my Levine grandmother loved to quote another of Micah’s memorable utterances, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” so it’s likely that this verse also summed up my grandfather’s creed.

Grandfather Hyman was something of an orator, so was designated to give the annual Yom Kippur appeal at the community’s one synagogue, even though he was neither a successful businessman (he worked at a coal company weighing the coal trucks before and after their deliveries), nor renowned for scholarship or piety. Apparently, his oratorical flair was what was called for. His surviving books also show his affinity for oratory – Emerson’s Essays, which were first delivered as public addresses, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the poet presents himself as a grand teacher to America and the world.

Whitman, who loved laborers, might have celebrated him as a jack of all trades. There’s a picture of him smiling broadly wearing a carpenter’s belt with a hammer suspended from it and behind him, one of the bunks at Camp Young Judea that he had helped to build, which generations of his descendants have attended. 

As I grew older, I heard darker stories — that he had to be carried home drunk from a Simchat Torah eve festivity, that he had occasionally snuck out with Gentile friends on a Saturday night to eat non-kosher food in Boston’s Chinatown. Fifty years later, my father was still burdened by these memories. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pass them on as the shadow of his father’s legacy.

Toward the end of his life, Hyman had a stroke and sought to recover his faculties by practicing penmanship. We have in his hand a short popular poem that he copied in an elegant, calligraphic script. This poem can be found on the Internet, under the words of its refrain, “All I Got Was Words.”  The stanzas speak to me of his life – like the poem’s anonymous speaker, he got no fine clothes from his parents; they gave him no car nor sent him to college. What he got were words that embody a way of life, “Zog dem emes,/ Gib Tzedakah,/ Hub rachmones/ Zei a mensch.” –Tell the truth, give to the poor what is just. Have compassion. Be a mensch, the sort of person with whom one is proud to be associated

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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Names Matter

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

All my life I’ve faced two commonly asked questions about the origin of my unusual names: What kind of names are Marden and Paru? And what are their nationality and/or derivation?

Believe it or not, the name Paru came from my Zayde Shlomo, who was a tailor by profession. He was given the concession to custom-make the first fliers’ uniforms—fleece-lined leather jackets and caps. You may have seen them in depictions of dogfights in movies about the early history of aviation and during WWI.

Zayde Shlomo worked outside of Vilna at the first Lithuanian airdrome in a town called Parubanic. When in the early part of the 20th century Jews were still adopting surnames, my paternal grandfather took on the name of the airport site, Parubanic, and added the Polish-Russian “sky.” 

My father was a mohel and, therefore, compelled to circumcise his old European, Polish-Russian-sounding surname from Parubansky to Paru.

As it turns out, Paru is the first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve—“Be Fruitful and multiply—Paru Urvoo”—in the opening chapters of the Bible.

So, it was always easy to spell my legally-changed last name.

My name, Marden, came to me in a slightly different way. When Mom was pregnant with me, she passed a large neon sign on the Palisades of New Jersey—Ben Marden’s Riviera—the famous night club where the “mob” allegedly hung out in the 30s and 40s. 

As it turned out, Marden is an old English surname. 

Mother reasoned that if I were to be born a male, I would be given the name of my maternal great grandfather—her Zayde Mordechai. But being a young American, she considered English “M’ names such as Martin or Maurice, and finally settled on Marden as an unusual appellation for her first-born male child.

So, in answer to those two questions, I’m named after an airport and a nightclub. That is the emes—Hebrew for the naked truth!

But the story about my name continues. As a boy growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I answered to a front porch geshrei (a yell) of “Mordechai”—my Hebrew name and the hero of the Purim story in Megillat Esther. When Mom would call me home for dinner (I was playing ball across the street at my new school), the kids heard “motorcar,” and that became my playground handle. “Motorcar” was not far-fetched since Phoenix had trolleys or street cars running on 5th Avenue perpendicular to our street in those days.

And when Dad called me Mordechai, some kids heard “Mortify” and that became my nickname on the block. 

I finally settled on Mordy, which I used until I met my future father-in-law—Milton Milan Kemeny—who took a liking to me and my legal name, Marden. 

Upon his advice—and for professional reasons—I have gone by the name Marden ever since, with the exception of my family and friends from my childhood who still refer to me as Mordy.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Unexpected Departure, 1938

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

Perhaps due to my age, I was the only member of my family of four who had not been upset about unexpectedly leaving Berlin in April 1938. My parents kept their plans to emigrate a secret from me, fearing that I, a talkative child, might speak out and be heard by a Nazi. My brother, Eric, five years my senior, and I had opposite personalities. He was an introvert. For weeks he had known of the family’s plans and was treated as an adult. … and I …  as an afterthought.

I saw the horrors in the streets of Berlin, especially toward old, religious-looking Jewish men. Some were beaten, punched in the face, pulled by their long curly side-locks, flowing black robes, dragged by their legs through the streets or by the tzitzit of their prayer shawls. It made me shudder and wonder what the future held for Jews in Germany.

When walking in the street it was common to hear thunderous sounds from blocks away of soldiers marching in high brown shiny leather boots, displaying the swastika armband on their brown shirts, and waving flags while marching on the cobblestone pavements. Besides the noise of goose-stepping soldiers, the storm troopers sang their patriotic songs in high decibel. Knowing the Nazis would be within our sight in a few moments, Mutti always quickly pulled me into a building’s doorway in order not to be seen. It was mandatory to salute the flag or be instantly arrested.

“Mutti, when will this stop?” I asked innocently.

She looked at me sadly and said, “I don’t know.” Mutti always seemed to know everything. With that realization, my perception of where I lived changed. To this day I cringe when hearing marching music, and I am wary of the display of flags. Nationalism frightens me. In my geography class in Berlin, I became intrigued about that fascinating land, America, “The land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold.” I was a cynic, even at such an early age. I didn’t believe the gold part, but dreamed of living in “The Land of Opportunity” and freedom.

I was not made aware of my parents’ plans to leave Berlin and travel to America until a week before our departure. Suddenly, large wooden crates appeared in our living room. It was then that my parents finally explained their agenda. I was happy and excited to escape Hitlerland, but the timing was too abrupt. I questioned myself. How will we live there? I don’t know English. How will people understand me? I’ll feel stupid in school.

My main misgiving was how I would tell my best friend, Ruthchen, that I’m moving to America. We’d been close, like sisters, since kindergarten: half of our lives. How will I say goodbye to her? The most serious question in my mind was: Will I ever see her again?

The difficult job was to convince my parents that I must say Auf Wiedersehen to Ruthchen. In 1938, Jews in Germany were always on alert when outside the safety of their home. (A year later, after Kristallnacht, there were no secure places.) Both families discussed the request and finally agreed for Ruthchen and me to meet; possibly for the last time of our young lives.

After all these years, I can still conjure the image of my dearest friend standing with her mother on the platform of the Berlin train station for the last goodbye. Our mothers had lectured each of us to control our emotions. For young girls, not yet eleven-years-old, that was difficult. We were also instructed not to bring the usual farewell gifts of flowers and chocolates.

It was a cool and sunny day that April in Berlin when we met at the railroad terminal. I remember Ruthchen dressed in a wool pleated navy skirt and hand-knit light blue jacket (to match her big, sparkling eyes), her blond curls escaping from her beanie hat that framed her round, sweet face. I probably wore something similar.

I recall clearly how our mothers were attired. Both wore well-tailored dark wool suits. Each had a fox (the entire animal, from head to tail) draped nonchalantly over their shoulders. The mouth of the animal was fashioned into a clothespin, to which the tail was secured. That look both fascinated and abhorred me. When I was very young, I hoped that the animal with its soulful eyes would loosen the clip somehow and spring from Mutti’s shoulder to freedom. To complete the outfit, they wore Marlene Dietrich type felt fedoras, leather gloves, purses, and clunky, dark oxford shoes. The young matrons did not look out of place: it was the style of affluent women of the 1930s.

For our exodus, my parents decided to separate the family for security reasons. My father and brother were to follow my mother and me by train a week after our departure from Berlin. That was a frightening thought. I wanted us to be together. My imagination went wild with terror. What if Mutti and I got lost? I’d want to be with my father … he could always make me smile. My mother was serious with no sense of humor. Or, what if something happened to Papa and Eric? What would my mother and I do to help? A month ago we heard that Hitler had marched into Austria and occupied that country “peacefully.” What’s next?

The plan was to travel to Belgium and stay with relatives in Antwerp and Brussels for six weeks while waiting for our visas to the U.S. Two sisters–my mother’s first cousins; one family living in Antwerp with her husband and son, the other with her spouse and daughter in Brussels–had moved to Belgium to escape Hitler two years earlier. The sisters, like my mother, were born in the same shtetl and moved to Berlin after WWI. My cousins and I, all the same age, had been very close in Berlin.

Although both cities are in Belgium, the spoken language in Antwerp is Flemish and in Brussels, French. My ten-year-old cousin, Vera, in Brussels, felt superior to Ziggy, in Antwerp. She tormented him for not speaking French and emphasized that Flemish is a non-language. I didn’t like being the third wheel. “Why are you so mean to Ziggy? It’s not his fault that he lives in Antwerp.” “I don’t care. Flemish is a stupid language and he’s stupid, too.” I later learned that in 1941 there was a knock on the door, and Vera’s father was forced out of their house, arrested, and shipped to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, never to be heard from again. The rest of the family somehow survived the war and got to New York five years later. Vera and her mother were never the same free-spirited people again.

My six weeks in Belgium were a wonderful experience of new things and foods that we all had been craving due to years of rationing for Jews in Germany. After leaving Belgium, my parents, Eric, and I, were scheduled to travel to Paris. The land journey would end in Le Havre. There we’d set sail on the magnificent SS Normandie and be on our way to New York. In order for it to appear as if we were on holiday, my father bought round-trip tickets. My brother had studied English for the past three years and offered to teach me rudimentary phrases. I was thrilled.

Brussels and Antwerp were interesting cities, but nothing compared to the splendor of Paris. I loved watching people while sitting in cafes, eating al fresco, and smelling the perfume from the flowers in window boxes that seemed to be everywhere.

I was impressed by French women, who all tended to be slim and wore simple, elegant clothes. They were masters at draping scarves and making every outfit, no matter the price, look unique. It instilled a style I adopted and empowered me to become a dress designer, which I’d been dreaming about. By comparison, I found German and Belgium females were rounder, had no sense of style, and wore too much makeup and jewelry. I learned a lesson from the French: be classic, understated, and you will look like “a million dollars.” I liked that American expression.

Never will I forget the abundance of food of every kind, especially the meats. (Kosher meat had not been available for several years for us in Germany.) I must have had a grin on my face when I finally bit into the juicy hotdog that snapped with every bite and as the liquid ran down my arm. Mutti permitted me to have as many as I wished, knowing that eventually I’d have my fill. Even the mustard was luscious. Eating freshly baked butter-dripping croissants and crunchy warm baguettes every day was unforgettable.

My one regret: I wish I had been older to experience and understand more of the uniqueness of the trip. Even as a young child, I recognized that Paris was more vibrant, artsy, and sophisticated than Brussels, Antwerp, and even cosmopolitan Berlin. More important than the food I craved was the freedom of speaking in public … not worrying about being overheard by the Nazis. Unfortunately that changed after the war started.

I would not have objected to living in Paris, but America was waiting for me. I was ready,

A writer, artist, and fashion designer, Helga Harris 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. Her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways, and, most recently, We Were There, which 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 in Sarasota.

“Unexpected Departure, 1938” is an excerpt from her most recent memoir, There’s A Witch In My Room.

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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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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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Great-Uncle Moishe: L’dor v’dor

by Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

My first conscious memory of my grandmother’s youngest brother, Moishe (Morris in English), is from 1945. My older brother and sister and I were visiting Great-Uncle Moishe Spicer and his wife Rose in Coney Island. My grandmother and her sister Molly were there as well, and, when the declaration of the end of WWII came over the radio, I found myself outside with one of the kitchen pots and a spoon, hammering on the pot to celebrate. It was a very noisy night and I can still remember that celebration.

For some reason, Uncle Moishe favored me more than my four siblings. I never asked him why, but I liked the attention, especially because my mother was always too busy to pay much attention to me and my father was always working. So I basked in my great-uncle’s attention whenever I saw him. He made me smile and feel special.

Uncle Moishe became a widower, and eventually retired to Florida where I visited him in the mid-1980s. He moved near my aunt, actually living in the same building, so when I occasionally visited Aunt Gladys, I could also visit my great-uncle. One sunny day, after visiting my aunt, Uncle Moishe and I took a walk in a nearby park and I began asking him questions about our family background. Where were we from? What was life like in Austria-Hungary? How did he come to America? I asked him so many questions, he began to lose his voice from talking, but I persisted, and being his favorite, he could not say “no” to me.

What I learned fascinated me. Uncle Moishe told me that his family had lived in a shtetl in Russia on the border of what was then Austria-Hungary, very close to the Tibor River. The family had no last name because in the 1860s last names in Russia were still in the future. (A child was identified as “the son of” or “daughter of” his or her father, using his or her father’s first name as part of their names.) Because the Russian Army at this time conscripted young Jewish boys into the army when they were very young, Uncle Moishe’s grandfather and great-uncle were sent across the river to avoid being drafted and converted to Christianity. The parents never saw their children again!

The boys fled to a small town called Tarpiluvka in Austria-Hungary where they were adopted by a family with the name Speiser (which means food store). Mrs. Speiser was unable to bear children and thought the boys’ appearance was a miracle from God. Moishe and his older siblings grew up in Tarpiluvka, and eventually half of them came to America to start new lives, never to return to their place of birth. Half of the siblings kept the name Speiser and the other half, including my grandmother and Great-Uncle Moishe, anglicized it to Spicer.

The sacrifice that my great-great-great grandmother Sorah (Sarah in English) made to send her sons away went straight to my heart. I cannot imagine anyone today making such a sacrifice out of a desire to have her children remain Jewish. Inadvertently, I think, her sacrifice led me to become more aware of my Jewishness. We joined a Reconstructionist congregation of mostly seniors and I have found a renewed interest in Jewish history and Jewish holidays. I feel if I abandon my Jewish upbringing, then I am somehow abandoning Sorah’s wishes to have her children remain Jewish. Her desire has been handed down to her children’s children and eventually to my generation. It’s a perfect example of l’dor v’dor.

While I consider myself a Jew, I am not ultra-religious, although I do attend synagogue and belong to a small congregation. But I realize that learning about the sacrifice that Sorah made also made my life possible. If Sorah had not made this sacrifice, I may have never been born! My sense of being Jewish became heightened as a result of her heroic act. (And I believe the second part of my Hebrew name, Sarah, is from this ancestor, which pleases me even more.)

I will always be grateful for the time Uncle Moishe spent with me. He helped me learn so much about my ancestors. I feel fortunate that he agreed to answer all my questions. Otherwise, my family’s history might have remained a mystery. Instead, it has become a legacy.

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

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