Tag Archives: survival

A Full Tank of Gas

by Milton P. Ehrlich (Leonia, NJ)

Father wept in ‘33
when smoke from book burning
wafted down Polack Alley in Maspeth.

He knew the line from Heine:

When they burn books,
they will ultimately burn people.
 

My family huddled in fear
as synagogues burned on Kristallnacht.
Newsreel Stormtroopers
rampaged through my childhood dreams.

When swastikas were painted
on the front door of our synagogue,
we were dismissed early from Hebrew School,
and, hurrying home I was waylaid
by snarling teenagers
who dragged me into Mt Olivet cemetery,
tied me to a tombstone and spray-painted
a swastika on the back of my coat.

My uncle survived a year at Dachau as a child.
As an adult, he never went to sleep
without a full tank of gas in his car,
like Shostakovich,
who slept with a packed suitcase
beneath his bed.

Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., an 85-year-old psychologist, has published numerous poems in periodicals such as Descant, Wisconsin Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Toronto Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

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A Proper Home

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.

More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.

History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.

I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”

His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.

Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.

Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.

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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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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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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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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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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