Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
Apartment 1, 13 Ein Gedi Street,
The Partisan’s Coat
by Yehiel Grenimann
Who will last, what will last? A wind will last.
The blind will die, their blindness last.
The ocean’s raveled foam will last.
A cloud snagged by a tree will last.
Who will last, what will last? A syllable will last,
as Creation seeds again and lasts.
For its own sake, a fiddle rose will last.
Seven blades of grass that know the rose will last.
Longer than all the northern stars will last,
the star that falls in a tear will last.
In the jug, a drop of wine will last.
Who will last, what will last? God will last.
Isn’t that enough for you?
Avrom Sutzkever (translated from the Yiddish by Richard J. Fein), from “The Full Pomegranite”, Poems of Avrom Sutzkever, p.154 (2019, State University Of New York), Selected and translated by Richard J. Fein
Yanosh and Eva Kaminski chose Australia as their new home because it was far away from Europe, and because, as unwanted Jewish refugees, they were lucky to get a visa to anywhere at all.
Hidden outside the ghetto with the help of non-Jewish friends, they had survived the war in Warsaw and married in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
In 1946 they boarded a ship – destination Fremantle, Western Australia. The ship journey was long and difficult, particularly for Eva, who was pregnant. On board, they were surprised to run into the man they knew as Bora – an ex-partisan with a hazy past who had gotten them out of trouble after the war.
Part-way through the journey they heard that a murder had taken place on board. They were shocked to find out that the victim was Bora – they watched in disbelief as his body was buried at sea.
Soon after their arrival in Australia, Eva gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Lily after Eva’s mother, murdered in Treblinka. Their son Joseph (Joey) was born in Melbourne three years later, not long after they arrived there from Adelaide. They shortened their family name to Kamens and did their best to adjust to their new country.
Ten years later Yanosh and Eva have established themselves in a quiet suburb of Melbourne. As they try to forget their traumatic past, their second child Joey (later Joe) sets out on a journey of his own into old secrets and present traumas.
Part 1 – Melbourne, Australia
Chapter 1. The Coat:
Joe Kamens stared into the glass case. The thick fur collar, the tan colour, the length, the deep pockets, the buttons…it was the same coat!
Here in the partisan warfare section of the military museum in Minsk – a memento of the Soviet struggle against the Fascist invaders.
He remembered how, as a boy of 10, he first found the coat in Melbourne in the winter of 1959.
Joe (known then as Joey) liked to hang out in the windowless little family shed, out in the backyard. No one could see him when he was inside. It was quiet in there, and safe. He didn’t mind the dusty smell.
He would go to escape his parents’ screaming, their loud arguments, when they were home from work, and to keep away from Lily, his irritating older sister, when he was left alone with her. He loved to explore the old things in there. He’d heard his mum and dad argue about the clutter in the shed, his mother telling his dad to “throw some of zat junk away” but he was glad he hadn’t.
Apart from the old clothes, he found and played with the tool kit, wore his Dad’s great big rubber boots for fun, made shadow puppets on the shed wall with his new birthday present electric torch. He had made himself a little cubby hole with some of the wooden boxes. He left crumbs of bread to attract company, loved to observe the little creatures crawling around in the shadowy places below the shelves – beetles, snails, spiders, once even a mouse. He liked to watch them go about their business, to discover their hidden world. He’d been told to stay away from “zat dirty shed” but he kept going back. It was his own special place.
One late afternoon, poking around the shed, the glint of a metal handle he’d not noticed before caught Joey’s eye. The handle peeked out from under some old blankets. He yanked out a big brown suitcase. It thudded to the garage floor, raising a cloud of dust that made him sneeze.
The case wouldn’t open, didn’t respond to his efforts to pry the lid up. He went over to his father’s out-of-bounds tool kit, took out a screwdriver, and stuck it in the lock. A few jiggles – he heard a click. He returned the screwdriver, glancing outside to check no one was nearby. He left the door ajar, just in case, then went back to check his find
The open suitcase revealed more old clothes: a big old coat, a pair of pants, some shirts. He emptied the contents onto the ground. A small black notebook fell onto the pile. He picked it up. Something fluttered out and fell back to the ground – a yellowed newspaper clipping.
Joey picked up the paper. He saw the familiar name “Hitler” above a photo of marching soldiers, and a map of Europe with arrows marked across it. Unable to understand the words, he folded it, slid it back into the notebook and flipped through the pages. There were more newspaper clippings with photos, and writing in a foreign language. He thought it might be Polish.
He found a pair of worn black shoes, with a cloth bag in one of them. It jingled. A treasure!
Joey poured out the contents of the bag.
Disappointment. Old medals in a foreign language, not money!
The letters were strange. He saw the Communist symbol, the red Soviet star, recognized it from the Polish magazine his father sometimes read. The one his mother didn’t like.
A date was inscribed on one of the medals – 1945. The year the War ended! And there was a swastika in one of the photographs, on the ground under a soldier’s boot.
His imagination lit up.
Communists, Nazis, the War…his parents’ stories…
Joey turned back to the coat and looked at it. It had a fur collar. He shook off some dust and tried it on. It was big – way too big – and warm, and it had deep pockets. He put the bag in one of them and looked more closely at the suitcase. There was writing on the inside of the lid.
He wiped away the dust. His nose was itchy again, hit by a musty smell, but he stopped the sneeze. He didn’t want to get caught in the shed again.
Janusz Kaminski – Ul. Nisca 10, Warszawa,
Dad’s name before he changed the family name to Kamens. Must be his address. It’s from Warsaw. That’s where Dad is from….
Joey heard footsteps. He was scared. He didn’t want to be yelled at, or punished again. Luckily, he had put the screwdriver away just in time.
He stuffed the clothes, except the coat, back inside the suitcase, closed it and shoved it under a pile of blankets on the lowest shelf.
The shed door creaked and opened. His mother was standing in the doorway. The light was switched on. The single light bulb hanging low from the shed ceiling shone it’s light in a circle on her orangey face and on the red shawl that covered her shoulders. Joey could see the light’s reflection in her glasses. He couldn’t see her eyes. He couldn’t tell if she was angry or not.
“Joey, what are you doing in there?”
“Just playing.” He straightened in front of the suitcase to conceal it.
“What are you wearing?”
“A coat I found here. It’s warm and has great pockets.”
“Let me look at it.”
Joey handed it to his mother who took it and ran her hands over the fur, put her hands in the pockets, poked her finger through a hole. Joey watched worried, wondering what was coming. He was scared.
“You want to wear this dirty old thing? It needs to be cleaned…and it’s much too big for you.”
Joey made a face but he could see that things weren’t so bad after all.
“Oh, all right, I guess you can keep it, but I will rinse it for you.” She was smiling. Then she gave it back to him. “You can keep it if you want.”
He smiled too, hugging the rolled up coat like it was a big teddy bear. She turned off the light and they left the shed.
“Bring the coat inside with you. Put it on the washing machine and then come to the kitchen, Joey. Time for tea.”
He emerged to see the last glimmers of sunset. It was cold. He went into the house clutching his new coat. He was feeling relieved. No punishment this time.
The next morning before school, and before his parents woke, Joey went back to the shed. Flicking on the torch, he saw the light reflected from the metal handle that was sticking out from a pile of things. He pulled down the suitcase and opened it. Inside, under the clothes, was the notebook.
Joey picked it up and turned the pages. It felt dry and fragile. There was a picture of a uniformed man standing on a stage surrounded by flags, talking to a crowd.
He read “29 Maj, 1939”. He could work out that date, but he didn’t understand the other Polish words.
That’s the month of May in Polish, and the year is when the War started. It’s May, 1959 now, so this is just twenty years old… ten years older than I am.
Sunday morning a week later. It was a cold day, wind whistling through the electric poles and rain hitting the front windows of their weatherboard home. Joey felt bad that he hadn’t told his mum about the things he’d found. He had decided to ask his mother about the suitcase and its contents, his curiosity overcoming his fear of punishment.
His mother was sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and reading the Yiddish newspaper. Joey waited for her to look at him, but she didn’t. Finally he gathered his courage to speak:
She looked up at him.
“What is it, dear?”
“I want to ask you something.”
“Remember when I was playing out in the shed last week…”
” uh ha …You looked silly in that old coat… much too big for you.”
She had gone back to reading her newspaper.
She looked up again, looking at him through her thick glasses, her big green eyes peering at him as if he were in an aquarium. He didn’t like that look. Something was wrong. After a long silence she responded:
“I’m listening, Joey.”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to ask any more, maybe he could back out of this conversation now, but no, he couldn’t stop talking. He felt like a fish about to be caught in a net:
“I found a suitcase in the shed… The fur coat was in there….”
Eva stared hard at him, folded her newspaper and put it down.
“…and an old newspaper clipping. It had a date on it, May 1939…and… and some old medals, one from 1945. It’s stuff from…from… the time of the War, isn’t it?”
“A suitcase? Was it brown with a metal handle?”
Joey nodded, hoping this was not going to mean another punishment.
“I’ve told you not to rummage around in the shed, haven’t I? There are dangerous things in there, your father’s tools. He would be furious if he heard you touched them. You haven’t, or have you?”
He shook his head vigorously, knowing that if he told the truth he would be in bad trouble with his dad. Silence again. Joey waited, but wanted to run away…She was thinking about what to tell him, he could see that…
“Yes. It’s from the time of the War. Daddy wouldn’t let me throw that old suitcase away… been sitting in the shed for years. That coat …the stuff in the suitcase was Bora’s.”
“Who was Bora?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. Who was Bora?”
“I am surprised; you must have heard us talking about him. It is a long story, Joey. I will tell you about it all some other time; I need some peace and quiet now.”
“So it’s OK for me to look through that stuff?”
“I suppose it’s all right, but don’t talk too much to your father about it, OK? The man is long dead and forgotten. “
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, darling, it’s all right”
But Joey had noticed the look in her eyes that had made him feel uncomfortable. He decided to leave her alone.
Joey said it as cheerfully as he could manage, then left the kitchen to go watch television in the living room. He knew Lily wasn’t home so he could now watch his favourite show. He was happily watching Jet Jackson on channel 9 when his mum marched into the room:
“Turn that thing off! You are supposed to practice violin now!” she yelled at him.
Joey knew he was already in trouble because he was caught in the shed. He didn’t want her to take away his precious fur coat, or find out about his other new-found treasures. He pulled out his music sheets and the violin his dad had brought home for him weeks before, and began doing the scales. Eva quietly left the room, smiling to herself.
Joey went out to play with the suitcase, whenever he could, imagining he was a refugee fleeing the Germans, or a freedom fighter resisting them. He stored the bag of medals in his room. He would sometimes wear one as part of his game. They were inscribed in letters he couldn’t read, but he knew they were from Europe from the time of the War. His make-believe had become more real. His mother often came home late from work and Lily didn’t take much notice of what he was doing.
He loved wearing the coat, carrying books, pencils and notebooks in those wonderful pockets. It had a hole in one side; his searching finger went right through the thick fur lining to the rough exterior. A bullet hole! Had Bora been wounded in the leg?
A week later, from the kitchen, he heard his mother talking with her best friend, Mrs. Ruben, over tea in the living room. Joey didn’t like Mrs Ruben much, remembered how she once pinched his cheek and commented that ‘he should have been a girl with those rosy cheeks and such lovely hair!’ Uggh. And last summer he saw she too had one of those blue numbers tattooed on her arm. He was warned not to ask about it or stare at. It only made him stare more and to want to find out what that was all about.
When he heard Bora’s name he came over close to the living room door and listened, hoping they wouldn’t come out while he stood there.
“Thank you for the cake, Eva. It’s delicious. You made it with lemon?”
“Yes, I grated lemon rind into the mix.”
Joey was about to move away when he heard:
“As I was telling you, Betty, Yanosh first met Bora at the end of 1945 or the beginning of 1946… after the War.”
Joey moved closer to the door to hear better.
“Yes, and no. Actually, my husband met Bora in Berlin. It was terribly cold that year. He told me about a coat Bora had given him, a fur coat he had worn in the forests. Bora had bought himself a new coat. I first met him in Poland in the first week of January, in dramatic circumstances.”
“A genuine partisan coat from the time of the war?”
Joey was excited to hear that. Wow, it’s a real partisan coat!
“Yes. We were fleeing Poland from the Communists. Bora killed two men who were trying to catch us; they intended to kill Yanosh.”
People wanted to kill daddy?
“We had been involved in the Polish nationalist underground. The Communists were taking control of Poland, and they started assassinating nationalist activists. My husband was on their list.”
What’s she saying about Poland ? Communists? Nationalists? Don’t understand what she is talking about.
“Really? Yanosh? But he doesn’t seem the type to be an underground fighter, or someone anyone would consider dangerous!”
“I thought you knew my Yanosh! Yes, he is an intellectual but he has a terrible temper, and he is a man of principles.”
Yeah, that’s dad. Joey remembered his father once smashing dishes angrily in the kitchen one day in an argument.
“I suppose you are right, Eva. He’s not the secretive type, always direct and straightforward, though he never says much about the past. But what about this man Bora? They didn’t want to get rid of him, too?”
“No, Joseph Borowski is his full name, he wasn’t on their list. He’d been a partisan during the war, he was a smuggler in those days, but he also helped Jews like us escape Poland, and that one time he saved our lives.”
“Really? You owed your lives to this man Bora. Did you stay in contact after that?”
“He was murdered on the boat and buried at sea.”
“Listen Betty. It’s a long story. I have to prepare dinner now before Yanosh gets home, and you have a meeting soon at the Kadimah club, remember. I will tell you more about the whole story some other time, ok?”
“Yes, I have to go. So Joey found the coat of this murdered Bora, and is asking you questions about the past? Must be hard for you.”
“Yes…it’s very difficult. Joey is asking a lot of questions about the coat and the War. I wanted to protect him from all of that. Please, Betty, keep what I told you to yourself. I’m worried about what this might do to Yanosh. I can’t talk to him., but you must go now.”
“Don’t worry, Eva, you can trust me. You’re right, I should get going. Here let me help you carry some of those things back to the kitchen.”
Joey heard them getting up, the clinking of cups and saucers being placed on a tray. He moved away from the door just in time. His head was buzzing with all this weird information about Polish undergrounds, a murder on the boat to Australia, Bora.
His mother and her friend walked past him to the front door, Mrs. Ruben giving him a pat on the head as she passed. Joe cringed at her touch. They were saying goodbye. He was sure they didn’t know he had been listening to them. They kissed and parted. He went to his room telling his mother he was off to do his homework. He wanted to think about what he had just overheard.
His mother smiled at him as he passed. At least she didn’t pat him on the head like some pet.
Joey hadn’t understood everything he had heard his mother saying about the past but, fascinated, he started to read more about The War in Europe, poring over the relevant pages in the encyclopedia that his father had bought on installments, asking his parents a lot of questions, and reading books in the school library. The librarian noticed the change in his reading habits as he had mostly read books about animals and nature until then. His teachers were impressed with his new growing knowledge of European geography and recent history in addition to his known enthusiasm for the animal and plant world.
He had began to put together a picture of that mysterious War for himself. He had trouble understanding the differences between Nazis, Communists, Fascists, and their ideologies, but he did now know more about the battles, the terrible loss of life and the atrocities of that time. It was confusing and even terrifying to think about it all. He hated being told “you will understand when you are older”. He wanted to know now.
One day he asked his sister Lily if she knew about Bora:
“Bora? Yes. I have heard the name before. Why?”
“I heard mummy talking to Mrs. Ruben. And she told her about this guy Bora who was on the ship to Australia with them, that he was killed on the ship and buried at sea.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that story before, but I don’t know anything else about this Bora guy, apart from that, and mummy didn’t want to talk about it either. Anyway, why are you asking me? And stop fidgeting like that, you’ll break the chair in a minute!”
“Because I found this interesting stuff in the shed: an old suitcase of Daddy’s, some medals from the War, and an old partisan coat. Mummy told me that coat was Bora’s before they gave it to Daddy.”
“Joey, don’t be silly. I’ve seen you wearing that great big fur coat. You look ridiculous in it! You should put the stuff back where you got it and stop being a nuisance!”
“But it’s great stuff to play with. The coat even has a real bullet-hole in it!”
“You’re being stupid, Joey! Now leave me alone. I have homework to do.”
Joey was sorry he’d asked her. She was no help at all. It wasn’t long until he heard her talking on the phone to one of her girlfriends again, not doing homework. He hated his stupid older sister and her dumb friends!
He overheard another conversation of his mum with her friend Betty a week later. Again they sat together talking in the living room while he listened at the door and heard:
“We had lost contact with Bora in Europe and then were surprised to find out that he was on the same ship as us going to Australia…the “Aurora”. He wasn’t with the refugees below deck but with the rich passengers on the upper deck. Yanosh spoke to him once up there.’
“Yes, it was, but what was shocking was that he was murdered on the ship during our journey, before we reached Fremantle.”
“Murdered!? Who, Bora?”
“Yes. I told you last time we met about that, remember. It didn’t surprise me. Bora was a violent man, and he had enemies. No one knew why he was on that ship, who his murderer was, or why they killed him. The murderer was never caught.”
“You told me you have Bora’s coat and things. Why?”
“When we got off the boat Yanosh noticed they were throwing out unclaimed luggage. He recognized the suitcase. It had once been Yanosh’s his name was still written on it. They let him take it. He told them Bora had no family, and we were his friends. Yanosh thought he might find a way to contact Bora’s comrades to return his things to them, but it just moved around with us, until I finally put it in the shed.”
Joey couldn’t hear everything they said this time. He was too scared to listen by the door a long time. Bora remained a mystery to him. He understood the man was a taboo subject, so he made up events to fill the gaps in the story, trying to fit them into what he had learned from overhearing his mother and her friend, and from his reading.
He started wearing the coat to school on cold days, his books in the pockets. Yanosh and Eva were concerned about their 10-year-old’s new obsession with the history and stories of the war years. His classroom teacher called to ask about the old coat he was wearing to school, told his parents that he had been acting strangely lately, asking questions about the second world war. They hoped it would end soon. It didn’t.
A few days later, Joey came into the kitchen holding an old photo.
“What do you have there, Joey? “
“Is this him? Is this Bora?”
His mother looked at the photograph. It was a face framed by a half-circle of dark curls, a large bald pate, bicycle-spoke wrinkles around small penetrating eyes; the man had a slight smile and was wearing a coat with a fur collar, just like the one Joey had found. Joe studied her eyes in anticipation. She did not look pleased.
“Yes, that’s him.”
“And there’s the coat!” he said, triumphant.
“Might be the same one, maybe…maybe not. It does have the right colour for your curls though!”
Joey hated it when his mother spoke about his curly hair but said nothing that time..
One day when his father seemed to be in a good mood he asked him to have his haircut short “like the other boys in school”. Yanosh looked down at him over his Polish newspaper, commenting:
“Yes, you look like a sheep needing to be sheared with all those curls!”
“Baaa” Joey joked.
“Ha ha! I will take you to the Carlisle street barbershop tomorrow after work, alright!” his daddy promised him.
Joey was delighted. Yanosh took him to the neighbourhood barber. Joey recognized his school friend Adam when they came in. Adam was sitting being shorn. His mother returned, paid, and as they were leaving Joe waved. Adam waved back. His dad gave a friendly nod to the lady as they passed by, and then it was Joey’s turn. He climbed up onto the chair, had a cloth tucked around his neck, and the barber started the haircut. Joey watched in the big mirror as the curls were cut off and fell to the floor. He was happy to look more and more like a normal Australian schoolboy.
But then he noticed something about the man’s muscular, hairy arm. Once he saw it he couldn’t stop starring at the tattooed blue number on the inside of the his arm. He had seen such numbers on the arms of his parents’ friends before, knew they had been in a camp (“dos laager”, they called it) but had never seen one so close. It made him shudder to imagine what they had been through in those places.
“Joey, you shouldn’t stare at the barber’s number like that.” his father told him outside the shop, “or at our friends’ either.”
“It’s from the Germans isn’t it? He was in a concentration camp.”
“Yes. He was in a place called Auschwitz. He cut prisoners hair there too, but we shouldn’t talk about it, Joey. People who were in those places don’t want to be reminded. It’s rude to stare like that.”
“I understand. I won’t do it again.” but he didn’t really understand why it upset his father so.
Joey’s mum brought him there the first time. He liked to spend his afternoons after school doing homework, and playing with his science set. His mum made him practice violin. On Sunday mornings he would sleep in like his mother. Joey often ignored his Dad’s invitation to join him working in the garden. He hated being woken early when there was no school. His Dad’s silence while working outside in the yard unnerved him too. Joey liked spending the afternoons watching sports on TV. His father had no interest in sport, would cloister himself with his books through the rest of Sunday, after a very hot shower.
One day his mum took him aside. She told him that this Sunday she planned to take him somewhere special. He didn’t like the sound of it, but didn’t know what to say, or how to refuse, so he just asked:
“Where do you want to take me, Mummy? I’m happy at home on the weekend.”
“But Joey, you spend too much time alone at home. You ought to go out and meet other children, get out of the house more often. You don’t play with your sister and you have only that one friend of yours from school. What’s his name? Adam?”
“He’s nice enough, but a little strange.”
Joe was angry at what she said, but he didn’t like to make her unhappy, so he kept his feelings to himself.
“All right. I’ll come with you, but just one time, just this Sunday.”
“You’ll see. You will like it, I’m sure.”
They boarded a bus to Glenhuntly Road. Then at the corner of Hotham Street they go off and waited for a tram. They waited about ten minutes watching people pass by, but no tram came. Joey looked around him. There were mezuzahs (ritual object) ) on some of the doors. Across the busy road he saw the sign for Asher’s kosher bakery. He’d seen that sign before, had eaten a bagel there one Sunday morning with Lily.
“We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”