Tag Archives: survival

Not My Father’s Jewish Museum

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

 

I am not prepared for the profusion

of colors and thought that are persuasive

here in the Jewish Museum of New York,

expecting gray shadows of smoke rising,

of twisted corpses and mournful dirges.

Look! There is a hanging chandelier

blinking on and off at irregular times,

as if one language doesn’t work,

another will, in this case in Morse Code.

All languages, sadly, are an approximation

of the truth, an attempt to get to the core

of what it means to be Jewish.

I am unsure of what that is,

in any language, art, script, whatever.

I see artists trying to answer that very same question

in forms more varied than my own imagination.

The medium differs, the search continues.

Imagine a room full of stuffed animals – a Bear-mitzvah!

I may not know exactly who I am,

but the comfort here in this museum

reminds me I am not alone in my quest.

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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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Jewish identity, Judaism, poetry

A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

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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Filed under European Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity, poetry

Unlikely Pair

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

I don’t dare stare at this Yiddish-speaking pair;
I eavesdrop instead, not nice, but life’s tough,
Waiting here in the cold for the 44 bus.
One, white-stubbled, stooped, bushy-browed
The other, nine, scrawny, short-limbed, pale,
Under black velvet cap long sidecurls twist,
Tsitsis turned yellow beneath his vest,
Like an old book’s pages, brittle beliefs,
Each a symbol centuries in his time.
Rough sage stares at Sidecurls’ gash;
Young boy shrugs, evasive eyes.

Old man nods, tells his tale right there:
An old Riga field, survived a bomb blast,
Head ringing, a brief deaf-mute;
About, blurry lines of white lab coats,
Dying to know it, fight his fate, stand his ground.
Doctor’s voice icy now, pierces his ears:
“We’ll amp this gangrene leg in his sleep.”
Adrenalin-lava explodes to his gurgly, “Nein!”
Blue veins in taut neck thicken, loudest, “Nein!”
Docs stop dead in their muddy tracks to hear,
Mouths clamp shut as he cries out loud
Moaning heart, Shema-tongued, mouth unstilled,
So Jew-like, he survives himself alive again.

“Now, Yingeleh,” hoary one says,
“Take care of your boychik self,
And don’t take no klops from hate-filled goys,
Gedenk: we Yidden give smacks, don’t take ‘em.”
With that he hobbles into coldest night,
Leaves sadness on the sweet young face.

The little boy, guideless, sighs, confused:
Torah-seeking, no-wave-making Jew,
Or Stubbled, injustice-smashing proud one?
Ovens and gas and beatings
Now a throbbing memory in each
Like an elusive melody
Dares us to remember
Dares us to forget.

Chaim Weinstein taught English for more than thirty years at two inner-city junior high schools in Brooklyn, NY. Two of his poems, “The Shul is Dark” and “Mr Blumen,” appeared last year on The Jewish Writing Project, and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to  share a larger selection of his work in the future.

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The Survivor

by Rafail Kosovsky (West Hollywood , CA )

Free or in captivity, I always feel that I am a Jew. I have forgotten the prayers my father taught me. I have forgotten the Hebrew alphabet and I consider myself a secular Jew, but every time I step into a synagogue, I feel a strange excitement. I feel that I am getting in touch with something holy and getting closer to some profound age-old secret.

It might be obvious for any reader of these memoirs that the dominant theme of my life story is anti-Semitism. I have given this phenomenon a great deal of thought, trying to understand why the Jews, who as a people have made such a great contribution to humanity, have so many haters. I see basic human and political components to this phenomenon. Perhaps the word “human” is more of a euphemism for what is in fact an ugly manifestation of basic zoological instincts.

For thousands of years the Jews led distinct religious and secular lives with special emphasis on education, hard work and making the best living under any circumstances. This always caused envy, resentment and anger from their neighbors. If such inherently negative feelings are not moderated by education, the cultural environment, and the political system, tragedy is almost inevitable.

I understood the political side of this issue by reading an article by Shulgin – the former Chairman of the Russian State Duma during the early 20th century. He was a vivid monarchist and anti-Semite. I stumbled on his brochure appropriately titled “Why we don’t like you.” In this small booklet he accuses the Jews of insufficient patriotism, resistance of assimilation and many other sins, and in conclusion he finds that after two thousand years of Jewish experience in economy, trade, and the sciences, the Russian Jew possesses superior qualifications and therefore the State must limit their activities in favor of Russian businessmen. This is, so to speak, the political component of anti-Semitism.

But all of this has no direct relationship to my story.

Regardless of political systems, regardless of basic human nature, in the most difficult situations, I was fortunate enough to meet good people willing to help me and save me. This is what brings happiness to me – the knowledge that the world is not without good people and that good people are in the majority.

It just seems like the good is always less noticeable than the evil.

During WWII at the age of 17, Rafail Kosofsky was captured by the Nazis. For almost four years he lived among his enemies, hiding his Jewish identity, and feared being unmasked and killed.

After the war, he spent several years recollecting his memories and published 1307 Days Under The Noose, the book from which this passage is excerpted with permission of the author.

For more information about the English edition, visit: http://www.amazon.com/1307-UNDER-NOOSE-Rafail-Kosovsky/dp/0615241131

or write Rafail Kosofsky for more information about the Russian edition at  rkosovsky@roadrunner.com

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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Jewish identity

Mr. Blumen

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

Stiffly they sit, side by side
In sepia-flavored photo on the shelf
Their hundred-year synced stories
Now torn by jagged scythe most quick
From the banshee-screaming reaper:
The cossack’s rapier brandished high
In Warsaw, slashed and missed them.
The dysentery, the loneliness
Vale-filled tears, endless pain:
They survived it all,
Two lovers near burning in the ghetto;
Sixty years on, now one off
So how shall he presume?
Without her skin to smell,
Her wisdom and nags
Her giggles and word-arrows
Piercing his cast-iron armor
Or lighting his slow-built ardor
Why breathe? But he will
Most assuredly go on,
For the Eldest Cossack
Has missed yet again.

Chaim Weinstein taught English for more than thirty years at two inner-city junior high schools in Brooklyn, NY. His poem, “The Shul is Dark,” appeared on The Jewish Writing Project (February, 2010), and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to  share a larger selection of his work in the future.

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Filed under Family history, Jewish identity