Tag Archives: Holocaust survivors

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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Release from Dachau

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

“I had a dream last night,” my father tells me.
He dreamed the kapos woke him up at four o’clock
in the morning, on Friday, December 23, 1938,
made him strip out of his uniform, made him
wait in line for an SS doctor to examine him

for bruises and frostbite, made him listen to speeches
by the SS warning him to get out of Germany and never
return. They warned him if he didn’t, he’d be sent back to Dachau
and never leave. He dreamed he was assigned a place
in another line, waited to return his uniform and get his own clothes,
shoes and coat, and that the SS drove him to an area about four miles
from the Munich train station, then made him march the rest of the way.

The sky was so black, he couldn’t see the man who gave him a ticket.
It took twelve hours, and he changed trains twice. He had no money,
no food.
The train arrived on Shabbos morning, and he didn’t want to see
another person’s face and took the back way home through the fields,
crossing eight railroad tracks, careful not to get caught

in the track switches. His father was the first person to see him
as he opened the shutters he closed each night so no one could throw
rocks into the house. He went through the front gate into the house,
saw his mother had baked challahs, and ate an entire one. He went to sleep
at eleven o’clock in the morning and slept until the next day.

“That’s exactly how it happened,” my father tells me. “That’s how I
got home.
Can you believe I still dream about it sixty years later?”

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poets Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

 

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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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Yiddish, A Look Inward

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

My parents were fiercely devoted to Yiddish, their beloved mother tongue. Both were Holocaust survivors and were incapable of distancing themselves from the past. Although they spoke Polish and some English, they would speak of their experiences and share their thoughts and memories in no language other than Yiddish. Only Yiddish, they would remark, could properly describe their emotions, inner turmoil, or unbridled joy. Their penchant for Yiddish carried over into our daily routines. It made little difference where or when, Yiddish was spoken nearly all of the time. Be it at home, in the park, or at the corner market, it was Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish, with only a word or two of English thrown in for good measure.

I became acutely aware that we were different from many of our neighbors shortly after moving into our apartment in Boston. For some reason, the contrasts became all the more evident whenever we rode the trolley. I was certain that the other passengers — you know, the regular Americans in the car — were staring in our direction as the strange, unfamiliar sounds of Yiddish emanated from where we sat. I felt embarrassed and ill at ease and urged my hapless parents to avoid using Yiddish and to please, please speak to me only in English. After all, most of my friends at the time conversed freely with their parents in English. Why should it be any different for me? Their reaction was nearly always the same. They looked at one another for a moment or two, chuckled in unison and murmured in Yiddish that I most assuredly had been led astray by an evil spirit (Dybbuk), a troublemaker whose mission was to take advantage of young innocent children and lead them away from menschlichkeit, the path of proper behavior and decency.

And so it went for a number of years until one day the Dybbuk decided to leave my person, perhaps seeking greener pastures elsewhere. I suddenly found myself being drawn closer to Yiddish at about the time I left home to begin my undergraduate studies out of state. A course in Jewish history was indeed an eye opener and got me to thinking about Yiddish and its impact on us as a people. Attending lectures and reviewing books relating to our long and turbulent history both confirmed and reinforced much of what my parents would often speak of. I had previously never appreciated the immensity of the hardship, isolation, denigration, and danger that many European Jews were forced to contend with during previous generations. As a people, we were subjected to forced conversions, expulsions, ghettos, isolation, and murderous pogroms. Yiddish, the language of our forbearers, in concert with its literary and cultural outgrowths, proved to be critical in helping keep us unified and intact during these most difficult of times. Yiddish infused us with hope and laughter, tenacity and perseverance.

During school breaks, I found myself returning home with a newfound appreciation for all that our people had endured in generations past. I began speaking Yiddish to my parents and their friends and actually enjoyed doing so. I befriended a number of individuals who enjoyed dropping a sentence or two of Yiddish into the conversation. But perhaps most gratifying is the role Yiddish has played in my professional life. Having a medical practice in the New York metropolitan area means contact with a large immigrant population from the former Soviet Union as well as a number of Holocaust survivors. Yiddish comes in quite handy considering that many of the former group speak little or no English while the latter simply relish the opportunity to schmooze a bit in Yiddish

Renowned linguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich was said to have remarked that much like the Jewish people, Yiddish will find a way to outwit history. Yiddish exemplifies how we, a stiff necked people, have learned to survive against all odds by remaining tenacious, resourceful and devoted to one another. Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has miraculously managed to save thousands upon thousands of Yiddish books from near certain destruction. In doing so, he seeks to assure that we continue to remember and has observed that “historical amnesia is a dangerous malady, especially for a people whose identity is as dependent on historical memory as ours.” Let’s take the time to occasionally look inward and remember that Yiddish is not only a reflection of our past but of our future as well.

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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