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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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The Matter of The Errant Sun                        

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Try as she may, mother could not escape her past. As a survivor of the Holocaust, she was left with an abundance of painful memories that would surface throughout her lifetime. As far back as I can recall, she shied away from discussing her experiences out of fear of opening painful wounds and, perhaps most important of all, not exposing her innocent children to the unspeakable horrors that she felt best be kept hidden. She remained highly sensitized to certain distinctive sounds and visual displays that, if present, could easily result in anxious moments or outright panic. I recall how she was terrified by the sound of a passing siren and remained frozen in fear until the siren’s harsh shrill disappeared far off in the distance.

And then there was the matter of the errant sun. She rather enjoyed the sun’s presence, but at times it brought about disturbing recollections that mother would rather forget. On many a sunny day she would quietly make her way to the living room and place herself directly in front of the large picture window. She happened to favor this one particular window for it seemed to best capture the sun’s majestic brilliance. Once seated in her upholstered chair she would lean slightly forward placing the palms of both hands against the window’s glowing surface. Then, as if on cue, her eyes would slowly close as the sun’s rays entered our home extending a much-appreciated warm embrace.

The sun often brought a smile to her face, but many a time her demeanor could change in dramatic fashion. A smile signaling joy and contentment would suddenly vanish, having been replaced by a sorrowful, clearly pained expression. And as would so often be the case, her initial tears of joy were suddenly pushed aside by the bitter tears of sadness and despair. For even within the dazzling sunlight, shadowy companions, nightmarish figures, were always by her side.

Mother kept much of her past life to herself but there were instances when she relented and agreed to share some of her thoughts and recollections. On one such occasion, she felt the need to speak of the sun’s past betrayal and how it had once meekly surrendered to an unspeakable evil. An inexcusable act that contributed to the misery and despair of those confined to the ghetto in Lodz, her hometown in Poland. As was usually the case, a trickle of glistening bitter tears began to appear on her pallid cheeks in anticipation of the story she would soon relate, a story about her long running squabble with the sun.

“You see during the war the sun left us,” she began. “It was a time when the sun, like so many others, left us to suffer and die. When I looked through the dirty windows, past the walls of the ghetto, I could see the sun shining. I could see people smiling. You see, my children, without the sun, there is no light and no warmth. The sun wanted no part of our world and forced us to live in darkness.”

She related how things appeared beyond the ghetto walls. Flowers bloomed, birds tweeted, and children played. But within the forbidding walls, all was dark; all had begun to decay. Wasted infants would whimper in unison while the sick and elderly lay with eyes nearly closed knowing the end was fast approaching. Most would soon succumb in this world of darkness. Mother was tormented by the sun’s presence beyond the ghetto walls. It was so close yet so distant. In its own peculiar way, the sun had joined the many forces of evil that subjected the Jews of Europe to unimaginable hardship and suffering. “It’s better not to ask,” she ended, “better never to know. Some things should remain hidden.”

Years passed and the sun returned to her life. Mother spent her remaining days sitting by the glowing window enjoying the sun’s life-giving energy and warm embrace. But I sensed early on that she could never forget, nor entirely forgive, the sun for its past indifference. And rightfully so. She had been witness to the errant sun’s darker side—the time it fled, refusing to provide light and joy to a people in desperate need.

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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The Language of Poetry and Cinema Meets the Language of Grant Writing

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Writer and child survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone. Now comes the hour of artistic creation.” I am producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic performance film that explores poetry written about the Holocaust, with director Richard Kroehling. The film showcases poetry written by survivors, their descendants and modern poets, both Jews and non-Jews, grappling with the Shoah and its aftereffects. The poems are presented by poets, survivors, actors and people from all walks of life, along with music and interviews, to create a deep well of voices responding to evil.

My parents were born in Germany. In 1936, my mother was six years old when she was backed up against a wall at school, and kids threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” Her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage in Amsterdam, the Israelitisch Meijesweishaus. There were one hundred and four girls. Four survived. My mother came to America with her parents and an older sister. When my father was sixteen, he was arrested on Kristallnacht (two days of rioting sanctioned by the Nazi government on November 9 and 10, 1938) and sent to Dachau. My father’s parents, his older sister and younger brother were murdered in Auschwitz. My parents lost over ninety-five percent of their extended families in concentration camps. I want to make BE•HOLD to honor my family, those who survived and those who did not, and to honor all the murdered, all the survivors, their descendants and those who fought against the Nazis.

The team making BE•HOLD is Richard Kroehling, a two-time Emmy Award winning director who filmed “A. Einstein: How I See the World” with William Hurt for PBS, and Lisa Rinzler, a multi-award winning cinematographer who has worked with Wim Wenders and Martin Scorcese. I met Richard at a conference less than three months after my father died, and we discussed our mutual love of poetry. Two weeks later, we decided to make a film. We talked for almost a year about BE•HOLD, discussing our vision for it, poems and poets we wished to film and ways to raise funds. I was observing the traditional Jewish year of mourning for my father, and many times this film felt as if it were a gift from him. It gave me a goal, something to focus on.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “Poetry is the shortest distance between two humans.” Richard and I are driven by the possibilities of expanding the limits of what is purely literary and purely visual, and we believe that the language of poetry and the language of cinema can be brought together for profound and powerful results. We watched them collide and were there to capture on film what happened. During each filming, a poetic moment took over and the results were different than what we had planned for and always more than we expected.

Grant writing is new for me, and I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of quantifying art. I’m still not sure I know what funders are asking for after writing grant proposals this past year. I understand that funders need to know where their money is going and that a project they fund will be a success. It’s different than creative writing. In a poem, if I know where I’m going, know everything I want to say, there’s nothing left to discover or surprise me in my writing. This is what I’d like to do: meet with a potential funder and say, “I can’t give you a pitch. I’m not a fundraiser. I’m a poet, teacher and filmmaker, and here’s why I’m passionate about BE•HOLD and why the film matters.”

On grant applications, I complete sections such as: log line, short and long description of the film, summary of content and objectives, narrative treatment, timeline, director’s vision, then upload a producer, director and cinematographer bio and filmography, upload the progress reel, fill out the budget form, list monies raised, funding sources and describe marketing and distribution plans. The next question asks what kind of metrics will be used to show that the film is a success. I understand why most of my artist friends don’t apply for grants.

Trying to make a film that is doing something new is difficult. There are so many people applying for grants from the few organizations that give them to filmmakers. But, I continue to fill out proposals and raise funds. Richard and I believe in BE•HOLD and that it offers a new approach to Holocaust remembrance. We also believe that the film imparts the ongoing relevance of the Shoah: that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of  The Best American Poetry Blog http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/ where it first appeared.  

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Crumbs

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Crumbs are rarely, if ever, a topic for discussion. And rightly so for these annoying particles serve no obvious purpose and even tend to complicate our lives by finding their way into some of the most obscure and difficult to clean places. Crumbs, by their very nature, deserve to be thrown out with the rest of the trash. My mother, however, had an entirely different outlook when it came to crumbs. A Holocaust survivor, she would never permit food, no matter what the size, to be discarded in so demeaning a fashion. In her kitchen, crumbs were afforded a layer of respectability and were never included with the refuse that was thrown into the trashcan. At our home, crumbs were properly collected and set aside so as to ensure a more fitting and sensible method of disposal.

With her hand properly cupped, my mother would deftly sweep every visible crumb into a waiting bag that had recently been selected as a repository for our collected crumbs. “How can I throw this food away? These crumbs could have been a source of nourishment and hope in the camps and ghettos where there was little or nothing to eat,” she would solemnly recount. When it came to food, nothing would ever go to waste; it was simply out of the question to do so.

During the war, Jews, like my mother, quickly became masters of improvisation, cleverly turning less than desirable edibles and scraps into presentable, life-sustaining meals. Crumbs were part of the process and had taken on a new found importance in the camps and ghettos. Leftover bits of bread were always eagerly sought out and occasionally fought over by those driven by all consuming hunger. Oftentimes hidden on one’s person, crumbs became the currency of survival when food rations were not forthcoming or when a sick loved one was in dire need of nutrition. While growing up, if we children happened to be present during the collection of crumbs, mother’s stories relating to food, or lack thereof, would always accompany the gathering process. “We scavenged for crumbs,” mother related tearfully. “Crumbs meant survival.  Crumbs could have given a ghetto resident another day of life.”

Each meal and snack produced a new crop of crumbs and the bag would slowly fill. Once it was decided that the right amount was present, my mother would dutifully make her way to a pre-determined site in the back yard and begin sprinkling crumbs upon the ground. In no time at all, birds, accompanied by an occasional squirrel, would appear and descend upon this feast of tantalizing crumbs. The symphonic rhythm of the birds’ frantic pecking interspersed with the sporadic sounds of flapping wings had become an unforgettable melody that would bring a knowing smile to her beaming face. She was overjoyed knowing that nothing, not even the smallest crumb, had gone to waste and that some hungry creature had been given a proper meal.

Our custom of collecting crumbs quickly ended with my mother’s passing. Crumbs had suddenly become a nuisance of sorts and there were more important things to do with our precious time.  Yet every year when the winter months arrive, I find myself hypnotically drawn to the window that overlooks my own backyard. The ground, now bare and frozen, provides very little nourishment to the few winged residents that have elected to remain behind. Every once in a while, a number of birds land unexpectedly beneath the window and begin pecking aimlessly at the lifeless ground below. With nothing to show for their efforts, I can sense their frustration and disappointment as they raise their eyes in my direction and give me a look that nearly always conveys the same simple, yet urgent, request: remember… please remember us. 

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. For more information about his work, visit:  http://tinyurl.com/86u3ous

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Memories Lost and Found

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The stamp of German Jewish culture left its imprint on me as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s. My nanas, papas, and tantes spoke German and Yiddish and served kuchen instead of cookies. They dressed up a lot more than ordinary Americans and seemed very refined. They were still immigrants in a new country whose dependence on each other deepened the bonds within our extended family.

Decades later as an adult living in California and Montana, there were only rare moments to connect with my cultural heritage. I often tried to reach back and touch the memories from my childhood, to bring them closer and feel their presence in my daily life. But how could I grasp these vague shapes from the past as they receded further into the distance? My memories were no longer solid or extensive enough to offer more than a footnote to my identity. I was floating through life in the vast ocean that is America without an anchor, without a strong enough sense of home.

Most of my relatives who were born in Germany are gone now, so the only way to reclaim my past was to come back to the land from which they fled. I took this step two years ago and have wandered since then without a map or plan into the rooms of a place that is both new and familiar. The events that my parents closed the door on are here for me to discover and the memories from my childhood seem closer at hand. I’ve picked up the thread of family history that was broken in 1938 and am stitching it back into the fabric of a changed Germany.

Like a time traveler, I have stepped into the past and present, trying to understand the extent to which Germany lays a claim on me. I’ve opened myself to the pain of a genocide that cannot be understood and the joys of finding my place in the vibrant landscape of Jewish life in Berlin. I came here to experience the culture that captivated my senses as a child, but I never expected to find anything that would shed light on my own family history. I never suspected that my family kept secrets.

When my father’s family closed the door on their homeland, they locked my great-aunt Meta into a past that would remain hidden from the next generation. Meta was the Holocaust victim who my family never spoke about. My father was eight when he left Germany so he would have remembered Meta. But he inherited the silence of his parents, and chose not to share the story of his aunt who was left behind.

My father only wanted his two daughters to hear about how the family escaped to America, struggled as poor immigrants, and successfully pursued the American dream. He protected us from having to grieve over a loss that he had no control over. But the descendants of those who escaped and survived should not be spared from knowledge or grief; we have a collective responsibility to learn our stories and remember them.

It would have been easier not to dig up the past, to put aside my determination to fill in the gap in my family history. I could have avoided the awkward discussions with my aunt, the charges of tainted motives from one of my cousins, and the countless hours spent searching for records that had been destroyed. But the injustice of a lost memory loomed so much larger than the tensions caused by confronting my family’s silence.

More than seven decades of silence about a forgotten Holocaust victim have now ended. On July 2, 2012 we placed a stolperstein for Meta in front of the former Adler residence in Altwiedermus. We restored Meta to her place in our family and her village. This small stone is tangible evidence of a lost life; like a gravestone it marks a place to honor the dead. Meta’s stone is a permanent link to the past for our family and a town that has had no Jewish population since 1938.

Meta’s memorial ceremony was the culmination of more than a year of effort to reconcile an omission in my family history. I did not come to Germany to be a family researcher or Holocaust historian. I never expected to experience the kind of pain and grief that I felt about Meta. But my need to account for the past placed me on the path of a single victim, and brought a depth of sorrow that I had been shielded from as the daughter of German Jewish parents.

As I stood on the steps of my father’s childhood home before the small crowd gathered on a rainy Monday morning for Meta’s memorial ceremony, I could barely retain the composure necessary to speak for Meta. But with the support of my sister and my son, who raised the money for Meta’s stolperstein as part of his bar mtizvah in Berlin, I gave voice to the life of a woman who was forgotten. This is one of the most powerful things I have ever done in my life.

I’ve made other discoveries about my family since coming to Germany, discoveries from the lost and found of a land that holds many fragments of a dark past. Each discovery strengthens my sense of self and helps me to find my footing as a Jewish woman in Germany today. I don’t want to lose myself in the past, but to touch and preserve a part of what was left behind, to carry the reclaimed memories with me into the future. I feel more free to live in the present now and ready to fill the pages of a new chapter in my family’s German Jewish history.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/. Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine. This piece first appeared on AVIVA-Berlin.de and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher and author. To read Swarthout’s earlier piece about her great-aunt Meta, visit:  https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/metas-untold-story/

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The First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

There were a number of subjects that were always considered taboo and simply not open to discussion.  No matter how hard I tried, my parents were adamant about not revealing certain details of the firestorm that had taken the lives of their extended families. Not one other family member apart from my parents had been spared. I was particularly interested in certain events and personal experiences relating to the Holocaust but was rebuffed at every turn whenever I touched upon a topic that was deemed off limits. The wrong question would bring about an instant change in behavior, a change that became only too apparent when looking at their somber faces. But it was their eyes that gave it all away; their eyes were truly windows to an inner compartment awash in anguish and distress. Sad and dejected, my mother’s glistening eyes would stare off into space and flicker in concert with a gush of tears. And from my father, a piercing silent stare that brought an immediate end to my innocent if not foolish curiosity. I never saw him cry. It was as though he had already gone through his lifetime allotment of tears and the cisterns were now dry and empty for all time. Both had already shed oceans of tears, and though my mother’s supply was somehow replenished, my father’s tears had simply vanished. But there were things that I wanted to know and so I continued to poke and prod hoping to find answers by attempting to enter a world that was forbidden to outsiders. Whenever I crossed the line and sought out matters that were not meant to be discussed, my mother was always quick to intervene.

“Don’t antagonize your father. He’s a broken man,” she would plead in barely audible whispers. “He’s suffered enough already. You are very young but one day you will understand. I promise you, my son, one day you will understand.”

One such topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three children, four innocents who perished during the Holocaust while imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto. Along with thousands of ghetto residents, they had succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness while the lives of countless others were cruelly extinguished in nearby killing centers. The story of this first family was a chapter in a book that was destined to remain closed and unread.  From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that remained strictly off limits, and, though my interest was quite naturally piqued, I refrained from asking too many questions. My father, generally open and talkative, remained resolute and silent in matters relating to this phantom first family. There were no details of how they lived or any information as to how they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under constant lock and key in my father’s secure memory bank. My mother, perhaps fearful of unpleasant repercussions and not wanting to open old wounds, tactfully avoided any subject that was certain to unsettle my father. “He has suffered enough,” she would often say. “There are things you should not ask. Your father is nervous enough.” The first family was clearly one such subject and she wisely stayed clear of any discussion relating to this most sensitive matter.  She would, however, occasionally forget herself and release a snippet or two of information about the first family but quickly regained her footing and dared go no further. What had appeared so promising at the outset was suddenly withdrawn and I was left guessing once again. It was akin to a pinhole in a drawn window shade that yielded little, if any, illumination and insight.

The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our once emaciated photo album. I would occasionally think about this mysterious first family, for, after all, these children were my very own siblings.  My ever-fanciful imagination endeavored to bring each of the lost members back into the fold by assigning names and concrete features to faceless individuals who, in spite of my best efforts, continued to reside in some far off unreachable planet. There were times when, emboldened by a jolt of overpowering curiosity, I approached my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child,” he would quickly reply. “How could you ever possibly understand?” And just as with other Holocaust era questions that left him at a loss for words, the conversation would abruptly end with his use of this very short refrain.

While visiting with my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more assertive in my desire to learn of 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 had softened somewhat and appeared a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the sole survivor of his extended family, he was the only one who could provide needed information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of their existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his pain and sensitivity, and, at my mother’s urging, I suggested that we proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Within the little time that remained during that last visit, my father began speaking of life in the ghetto, and, with some reservation, introduced me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would facilitate further discussion.  The first and most difficult hurdle had been overcome and it was as if a sprinkle of clarity was added to a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward with the promise of additional clarity if only time would allow the process to continue. Sadly it had not. My father died unexpectedly shortly after our initial breakthrough.  This small first 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 speech given to a large crowd in the Lodz ghetto by Chaim Rumkowski, chairman of the ghetto Jewish council. An order had been received from German officials that 20,000 Jews were to be deported and that the Jewish council was to decide which Jews were to be chosen for certain death. It had been decided to place the “unproductive elements” of the ghetto, the elderly, the sick and children below the age of ten, on the list for deportation. In a speech, titled ‘Give Me your Children,’ Rumkowski stunned a grief stricken crowd that was soon to be left in a state of unimaginable terror.  “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my own old age I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers give me your children…I must perform this difficult and bloody operation. I must cut off the limbs in order to save the body itself.”

Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to these horrific events, writes In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto “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, but I am now able to appreciate why it was my father could not relive a time that drove so many to madness and exile from the human condition. His common refrain — “Foolish child! How could you ever possibly understand?” — has taken on a clarity of its own. He was absolutely right. I could not then, nor ever in the future, understand what had transpired. He succeeded in keeping his secret well hidden, and I sense that his intention to do so was not only to maintain his own emotional and physical equilibrium but to keep 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 co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. For more information about his work, visit:  http://tinyurl.com/86u3ous

 

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The Mystery My Mother Left Behind

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

My late mother loved the New York Times crossword and she loved reading mysteries. Born in Poland, she said the puzzle helped her perfect her English; she never explained the specific appeal of crime novels, but she was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Frances and Richard Lockridge, and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read almost all the mystery library books she brought home; they were always better than the books assigned in school. On my own, I discovered the comic mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. While my mother enjoyed a good joke and had an Imogene Coca kind of laugh, those books weren’t serious enough for her.

It wasn’t until after my mother died in 1999 that I discovered profound and unsettling mysteries in her own life that I’m still trying to unravel. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She lost her family, her home, her freedom — and would have lost her life if the war had lasted any longer than it did. She spoke about those war years sparingly, and when she did, I was too young or too overwhelmed to ask the right questions that would have yielded more information.

Going through her things after the funeral, I found something shocking in her closet. My mother had kept the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when she was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. You’ve probably seen “dresses” like these in movies and documentaries: thin, crudely sewn, it was gray with purplish stripes (though the colors may have changed over the decades). My father told me she’d washed it after the war, but he couldn’t say why she had kept this reminder of her horrible brutalization and the nightmare of seeing her world ground to dust.

I knew the names of the camps my mother had been in and contacted one via email but nobody could find records for her. This was troubling, since I knew that despite bombings and German attempts to destroy files, records existed for many camps. And then I tried again, this time using the number on her uniform.

A world of mysteries opened up to me. For at least part of the war, my mother, Helena Klaczko, was listed in several Nazi records as Lidja Garbel. How do I know this Garbel and my mother were the same woman? Because the insanely detailed prisoner card for my mother at Buchenwald lists her parents’ name, her street address in Poland, her education and her birth date. All the information matches what I know to be fact. Whatever her name, the woman with that number on her camp dress was the woman listed on the card and indisputably my mother.

But why did she have another name? The mystery deepened when I discovered that in a transport from one camp to another, there was a woman whose number was right before my mother’s and whose last name was also Garbel. So somehow, for some reason, my mother took this other woman’s last name as hers. But why? And why Lidja? Was it possible there had been an actual Lidja Garbel whose name my mother had assumed for some reason? The sister of this Frida Garbel?

My father had no idea what the answers were or what any of it could mean. And when I told him that this same Buchenwald prisoner card said my mother was married to a Mikhail Garbel, whereabouts “unknown,” he scoffed. “People said all kinds of things during the war.”

I had written a handful of Nick Hoffman mysteries by this point, and even been reviewed in the New York Times my mother revered. Sadly, my mother never got to read any of them because she was so sick when they started coming. But nothing in any of them matched these real-life mysteries whose solutions I have pursued in many directions, without answer. Sometimes I wonder if there really was a Mikhail Garbel or even a Lidja Garbel, if both were completely invented. Sometimes I think, what if my mother was married before she met my father? Sometimes I think, “There’s a book in this, if only I can find it.” And I wonder if my mother read mysteries not just as a fan, but as someone who had turned her own life into something mysterious.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty-two books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine Bibliobuffet.com.

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at http://www.levraphael.com/rosedale.html

This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post, and it’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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