Weekly posting – post-Holocaust survivor stories.

 

A Scene of Desecration:

The Smell Of Desecration:

There was still a smell of smoke there.

The blackened walls of the burned Al Mughrayer mosque were visible as we

approached in Zakaria’s car today but I didn’t expect to still smell traces of

yesterday’s arson in the air. When I got out of the car I smelled it.

We were welcomed by three elderly, bearded men sitting on stools on the

side of the road opposite the building. ‘Ahlan wasahlan” they said,

beckoning us to sit as well.

So we sat. Soon we were drinking strong black coffee with these elders

outside the mosque building. We talked about what had happened the day

before while waiting for the mayor, Faraj Nassran to arrive. Zakaria

translated. They complained that the Arab world doesn’t care and they are

left to the mercy of the Israeli army and the extremist settlers. They

seemed sad and resigned rather than angry which surprised me.

The mayor, tall, thin and wearing a grey jacket soon arrived. He smiled

sadly, remembered Rabbi Arik, knew who we were.

After shaking hands and taking a few photos outside of the smashed and

sooty windows, we got up to go into the building with him. I asked about

graffiti and was told that “No, this time there were none.” He mentioned

that the army had been there the previous evening, had put the village

under curfew the night before and that no one had been able to leave or

come until midnight. “They knew something was going to happen” he said,

“but they left.”

The inside of the mosque was hard hit. I saw walls black with soot on all

sides, the ceiling was black too, and the fixtures above had partially melted

from the heat. Burnt-out electric sockets and mangled and melted fans,

were lying everywhere along the walls, but for me the most shocking sight

of all was the pile of burned books in the traditional enclave facing Mecca.

 It was almost waist-high.

I asked how many Korans had been destroyed and was told:

“about 500. There is a girls’ school nearby. They use the books here to

study.”

“Yes I saw the girls going home before when we drove up.”

“They must be very upset.”

“Yes. They are.”

This is the worst case of destruction of a mosque I have encountered since

these Price Tag attacks starting a number of years ago. I have now been to

too many mosques (perhaps a half a dozen, maybe more) after an

attempted arson. We have shown solidarity, made gifts of the Koran to

replace those destroyed in the past, but how does one respond to this

degree of damage? What can one say to the villagers?

I still see that pile of books in my mind as I write now. Charred, blackened

pages of holy books desecrated!

We are a people who have suffered similar treatment of its holy books in

the past, and have known the fulfillment of the terrible prophecy of the

German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, “A people who burn books will in the

end burn human beings!” I have pointed the saying out to people visiting

Yad VaShem when I worked there.

I don’t have adequate words to describe the profound shock and disgust at

that sight. What has become of us that we could have raised young

“religious” people in this country who are capable of doing such a thing?

And how have we produced a generation of young people, soldiers, police,

lawyers, judges, journalists, teachers, and just ordinary Jews who don’t

care, are apathetic when something like this happens? Or, worse, find

justifications for such things, or claim that the Palestinians themselves are

burning their own buildings and books!

And when will someone finally be arrested, tried, convicted for this kind of

sacrilege?

Driving home through the beautiful hills and valleys of Samaria and Judea,

passing the terraces of olive trees, the villages and settlements, the army

installations and antennas the disturbing thought crossed my mind that the

answer to this last question might simply be: “Never”, because none of

those in power here really care.

Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

Why I wrote the book: (talk given in Melbourne five or six years ago)

As a child and adolescent I dreamed of being a writer. I daydreamt about it. I did also write a little. I wrote diaries, poems, carried around notebooks and practiced describing what I saw. I sat in coffee shops, went on errands for my Dad through the Aussie summers and scribbled descriptions of passers-by, houses, trees, whatever I saw of interest.

In school, I was much encouraged by my English teachers who regularly praised my writing in English expression and literature classes. I began to dream of my future as a writer, saw a grand future  in creative writing and perhaps journalism.

I am still dreaming, and now finally I am working at realizing a little part of that dream.

My father’s Holocaust story, his partisan memories inflamed my childish imagination, but also left me puzzled and mystified.  Could this quiet man, this unassuming watchmaker, have really been a wartime hero, a saviour of his fellow Jews? That is what his stories told of. The stories themselves were unbelievable enough as it was, but the person I knew growing up in his home made them seem even more fantastic. So I didn’t consider writing about him, about his story. It was too incredible to consider real, and too close to home since I was busy trying to form my own separate identity. I needed other subjects for my experiments with writing.

When I came to Israel I didn’t think of myself as a child of Holocaust survivors, had no such consciousness. I don’t know how or when that self-definition with all its heavy weight and emotional challenge started, but I found myself studying the subject for my M.A. at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and then teaching it to young Israelis through the decade after my army service in Tzahal (the I.D.F.). I clocked up many, many hours of reading and hearing the personal testimonies of survivors, with a particular interest in stories of armed resistance.

I do know that I read Elie Wiesel’s Night in 1970 during my first visit to Israel. After that I read many of the author’s other books. They had a profound impact on me, leading me to grapple with the content of my own Jewishness and the meaning for a contemporary Jew of religious faith after the Holocaust.

With time I kept looking for material on partisans and looking in the indexes for mention of my father’s name. To my surprise he was mentioned, here and there. There was some correlation with bits of his stories. The places, some of the names, the unit he claimed to have founded, Nekommah, really existed! Nevertheless  much still remained unclear, mysterious. There were sometimes details of his story which conflicted with what I had read. Another man was given credit for starting Nekommah, not my father. I interviewed a man who had been with him in the forests, a well-known partisan artist who confirmed that my Dad had played a key role, had been the first commander, but had latter been replaced by another more charismatic figure.

The novel I am “writing” or the novella I have already written, is based, among other things, on my father’s stories, which  he told  to his children and to his friends in the Katzetler farbund, which he served many, many years as secretary. He worked closely with his good friend, Mr. Sam Ehrlich, over the years  trying to preserve the memory of those traumatic events, bring to justice the war criminals, and to defend Jewish rights here in Australia.

It is from them that I learned of the importance and power of  voluntary work for a good cause, of  the traditional Jewish commitment to justice, and of the importance of community.

The writing is also an expression of my own difficulties relating to the person and to the past, my own anger and angst, as well as admiration and inspiration from what I have learned about the person and the past. It is an attempt to struggle with the problems of communication with the person and relating to that past.  It is not only about the mystery which is my father, some of which I have now clarified for myself, but also about all the others, my mother and her friends, our neighbours, my friends` parents, whom I knew as a child here in Australia.

a dream: (December 26th)

I woke up very tense this morning, with a backache. It had not been a restful night and when I woke I found myself struggling with a dream.

It happened to be “boxing day” and boxes featured prominently in this dream .

There is much I don’t remember but I do remember one scene and one dilemna very strongly.

We were moving.

I was in an upstairs room full of shelves on which were objects of all kinds and many, many books.

We had packed and were  ready to go when I remembered all the stuff upstairs.

“Wait a minute!” I said, “what about all the things upstairs.”

D: “We’ll just have to leave it all.”

“No we can’t do that. There’s some precious, valuable stuff up there. and, anyway, we have to clear it all out for the next people coming to live here. We can’t just leave it all behind.”

D: “We’ll need boxes.”

“Yes, I’ll get some.”

I went out to a huge junk yard, collected some boxes, brought them back.

“O.k. now we have to pack.”

I went upstairs and looked around the room. It was full of things, most of which I didn’t recognize or remember, things of all shapes and sizes, of  different materials, colours. Most of them were dusty, hadn’t been touched in ages.

There were old clocks: a cuckoo clock, a grandfather’s clock, boxes of wristwatches, watch bands. There were rows of vases: green, blue and purple ones, red, yellow and orange ones. Some had old decaying flowers in them. They smelled bad. Other had dry flowers in them: daffodils, roses, cyclamens, carnations and many others that I couldn’t name. And books, endless rows of books of all kinds.

The problem was what to do with all this stuff!

What else was in the room? Old photo albums, some tattered, some torn, others well preserved. I opened one. There were school photos there, group photos from different classes and schools, but the faces had been blanked out.

I opened another – wedding photos, but again the faces were gone. Little circles of blank, white spaces, had replaced them,. There were no facial features at all.

A third was full of certificates, documents of various kinds: driving licenses, wedding certificates, school-leaving stuff, university degrees, diplomas, membership forms, letters of commendation, prizes for excellence, first, second, third prize, family geneologies, family trees. There were no names where there were supposed to be names . They  had been blanked out as well.

I left this shelf in horror, turned back to speak to D., but she was gone.

Alone with a pile of folded, cardboard boxes, waiting to be used, and an aching heart. What should I do?

I went downstairs to find D. carrying a couple of suitcases out to a waiting car.

“Come on, Jon! We have to get going. It’s late!”

“But what about all the things upstairs?”

“Don’t worry about it, just come. It’s late.”

“I can’t. I have to take care of the stuff up there!”

“Just leave it all. We must go. Come on!”

“Alright. Just give me five minutes.”

“Five minutes it is!”

I went upstairs, lit a match and tossed it into the centre of the room, then another, and a third.

When something started to burn I went downstairs…soon flames were shooting out of the room, coming down the stairs…and there was a lot of smoke.

“O.k, D. I am coming now!” I said

She was impatient, but still waiting.

I picked up my one suitcase, my computer bag and joined her.

“What did you do!?!?”

“Set it all on fire!” I said.

“But that will destroy the house too!”

“I don’t care…anyway it’s only a dream.”

A Purim Story:

My father told me many stories about his years as a partisan fighter in the forests of Byelorus. this one he would tell every Purim:

          It was getting close to Purim.  Boris started remembering his father’s home and how wonderful Purim was every year. They would celebrate Purim in a big way – lots of alcohol, costumes, Purim shpeils, good food, the Megillah reading and so on. He would wake from these memories and daydreams in tears as he realized where he was now and in what circumstances he was now living.

           Here in the forest the conditions were rough. It was cold, freezing cold and there was never enough to eat. And how could one risk being drunk at all. You had to have your wits about you so that Ivan wouldn’t put a bullet in the back of your head or stick a knife in your gut, when you were unprepared.

            Boris stood there, shaving, thinking about life as it had been in Disna before the war. Then he remembered his Jews, the ones he had discovered hiding in a hole in the ground, once when he was out exploring the forest. He remembered their shrunken, depressed faces,   the rags they were wearing and the stench that came from their hole. A thought  broke in on him.  He   was going to celebrate Purim with them! A real Purim in which they would smile again. He was determined to do it.

            So he devised  a plan, which he shared only with his brother, Fima, and a couple of other guys from other partisan units. They were going to have a Purim party there in the forest! But how could you celebrate Purim under such conditions? he asked himself. Easy, came the answering thought, a little vodka, a good wash, some good food, a fire and no Ivans, …. that would do the trick.

            The planning process went on over a number of days, during which time they collected some of the things they needed – firewood, warm clothes for those Jews in the “malina” (Yiddish for “hiding place”), sweets, a couple   of bottlesof vodka. But most important of all was to find someone who could “read” the megillah.

            Of course, they had no megillah in the forest, but there were plenty of Jews amongst the partisans, so one of them must be a megillah-reader. As the word went out that a Purim gathering was being planned the excitement rose. The Jews were whispering to each other, the goyim suspected something was going on but noone would tell them anything, of course. The tension was palpable. There were fights.

            But despite all the excitement noone came forward to volunteer to recite the megillah from memory. It was, perhaps, too awesome a task. After all, the megillah is famous for its great length and its unusual trope.

            One day, coming back to camp after collecting “taxes” at one of the neighbouring villages,  Boris had a brainwave. What about the Jews in the malina – those poor hiding scarecrows – perhaps among them there was someone who knew the megillah well enough? That night, after Markov had finally fallen asleep, he sneaked out, carrying his rifle, of course, and rugged up in his fur coat and cap. He headed for the malina, hoping that the Purim redemption would be found there.

            As he approached, he heard the voices of people arguing. they were quarrelling over something or other quite heatedly. They often fought in there. He knocked on the hollow tree trunk, knowing that it was actually a disguised chimney. His knocks echoed down the hollow cylinder and suddenly the voices fell silent. After a while he heard a scratching sound and a little window suddenly opened out of the snow.  “Who is it? Who is out there at this hour asked a trembling voice in a heavily- accented Russian.

            “It’s me, Boris, Beryl Grenimann” came the answer in a good Litvak Yiddish.  “Ah, Boris.. Beryl!” came the response and a door opened out of the snow.  A thin, withered old hand waved him in.

            Boris brought with him the tragic news of the latest liquidations of some more ghettoes in the region. Some of the women wept, others had questions to pry him with.  Had anyone escaped? The children just stared their empty, hollow stares. Then silence reigned again.

            He brought out the bread he had hidden under his coat and a flask of oil. (Noone asked questions about what kind of oil it was anymore) The food was devoured in minutes. No blessings, no comments, just the sound of desperate eating, loud chewing and sighs.  Then, finally, a few words of gratitude came his way – they all knew he risked his life bringing them the little he could.  More tears. Silence.

            Now it was his turn to ask.  “Next week – another five days – it will be Purim. We are looking for someone who knows the megillah well enough to recite it”, he said. ” Is there someone like that here?

            They looked at him strangely.  “Purim? Purim… what are you talking about?”

            The Jews in the malina (hiding place) were from the town of Miyadzel. It was the winter of 1942. Altogether thirty people, mainly women and children were crowded into the one dug-out under that hollow tree. Amongst them were the two daughters of the rebbe and five of their children.

            Boris repeated his question: “Is there someone here who can “read”  the megillah for us?”

            Silence.

            A shaky, high-pitched voice came from the dark, crowded corner:  “Me. I can do it. I used to read megillah in the main synagogue every year. I know most of it by heart. I can do it. I know I can.”

            Everyone turned to see who was speaking.  His eyes had become accustomed  to the dark and his pupils had expanded, but Boris could barely make out the face in the corner. He picked up the candle which had been extinguished earlier and relit it. In the flickering light he saw a tall blond boy  with green eyes and a wisp of a beard on his chin. He was smiling. The thought of celebrating Purim had already put a smile on his face. What a fine young man, thought Boris.

            What’s your name,  boy?” asked the partisan visitor. “What are you called?”

“Mottel, sir, ” came the answer. My name is Mottel. My grandfather was the rebbe of Miyadzel. He taught me the megillah.”

            The boy’s mother then spoke up: “Mottel, are you crazy? These are not normal times. It is dangerous. We will be discovered. They will murder us all, as they have so many already. Who can imagine celebrating Purim this year? Better we just stay hidden here until the troubles end.” she said.

            “No, mother” answered the boy. “I will do it. It is a Kiddush Hashem to do it. The rebbe would have wanted it, I’m sure.”

            “Alright” responded Boris, “we will be back to discuss details, but for now, Mottel, start practicing. We will try to procure a megillah somehow but if we don’t we rely on your memory. Good night to all of you. Be strong!”

            And Boris left.

            Days past. They huddled together in their malina. It was bitterly cold. And Mottel sat on his own in the corner reciting what he remembered of the Megillah.Sometimes he asked his mother or sisters if they remembered a word. He fought with them over the candlelight.He wrote down some of what he remembered on scraps of paper that he managed to salvage. It was bitterly cold that winter and he shivered as he struggled to protect those pieces of paper from the ever dwindling  little fire.

             Boris returned. He asked to speak to Mottel. “Mottel” he said, “tomorrow is Purim. Are you ready?”  “Yes, Mottel answered,sadly.  “I can manage about half of the Megillah from memory.” “O.k.” came the response, “then we will go ahead with our Purim plan.” He turned to the others in the malina: “Tomorrow, you must all be ready to go just after dark. We have a surprise prepared for you” And then Boris left.

            Mottel’s mother, Hava, was worried. She mumbled to herself at night. Her eyes were red from crying.  Everyone could read the fear in her face.. Her advice to her son was clear – don’t do it, don’t go. Mottel, of course, was adamant too. He must do it. So he continued to practice.”

            Meanwhile, Boris and his friends had completed their preparations. They had chosen a clearing in the forest where a couple of hundred Jews could gather. They had built some sukkah-like structures  for shelter around the clearing. In one of those they had placed the firewood. Nearby, dug into the ground, and carefully camouflaged, they had placed the drinks, food and sweets, which they had managed to “organize” from surrounding villages. A couple of partisan guards patrolled near by regularly to keep an eye on things. Stealing was very much part of the partisan way of life. It was a matter of survival.

            Boris had met with a peasant in one of the nearby villages. A supporter of the communist underground, he had often in the past been of help. But this time the request was an unusual one. Boris had told him that he wanted to arrange for hot water – baths – for some thirty Jews who were in hiding in the forest nearby and who had not been able to wash for months. Could Ishtvan help him do this? The peasant thought for a while and then said he would help organize this. Boris explained to him that it was a Jewish holy day and that being clean for the occasion was a religious obligation.

            The next day, towards evening, Boris came and, accompanied by three of his toughest comrades, collected the Jews to take them to Ishtvan’s farm for a wash, and some new clothes. The Jews were besides themselves with joy at the thought of leaving the malina after so long and the idea that they would be clean in honour of Purim.

            They marched through the snowy forest towards the nearby village, accompanied by the four partisans. Mottel and his mother continued to argue about the megillah-reading, while the others nervously hushed them once in a while.

            “Mottel, Mottel” she said, “we have lost so much, so many. We are all that remains of the town of Miyadzel. How can you agree to endanger all of us by agreeing to this foolishness?” The last strands of her once brown hair had turned grey over the past couple of weeks and the deep lines across her forehead seemed to have become even deeper.

            “Sha!” called out one of the partisans suddenly in Yiddish. “You must all be quiet now. We are approaching the village. There might be Germans here.”

            But there were no Germans. In fact, all they met as they walked into the little village were more partisans patrolling the outskirts. “This is a liberated village” said one of them to the newly-arrived guests. “Liberated by night, but still controlled by the Germans during the day. They patrol here every day, but they don’t have the courage to hang out here at night anymore.” His face, lit by the full moon, glowed beautifully. It was gaunt, unshaven and he was not smiling, but his two dark Jewish eyes twinkled at them as they passed him.  

            And what a scene followed at Ishtvan’s house when they finally arrived. Laughter and cries of delight as one by one all the poor Jews were washed and supplied with new clothes.Boris noticed how thin and white their bodies were, but he said nothing. Everyone was given a little swig of Vodka, too, which really warmed their insides. Ishtvan’s family seemed to enjoy their defiance of the Germans and all were there to lend a hand in one way or another. Mottel noticed how pleased the farmer’s oldest son was  as he kept emptying and refilling the two little tubs with hot water. It was he who offered the vodka around afterwards. His powerful, muscular arms turned gentle as he handed Mottel a little Vodka to drink. He looked at him directly, his  eyes smiling. “Peter”, he said’ pointing to himself, offering him his ruddy and rough hand in a friendly gesture. “Mottel” came the reply, as he shook his hand. Mottle managed a smile, then turned his attention to the vodka in his other hand, which he finshed greedily, after making the appropriate blessing..

            When it came time to go Peter escorted them to the edge of the forest. Mottel walked silently beside him.  Mottel wondered what had led this goy to be so helpful and friendly to them.  Would he have taken such a risk to help him, if the situation was reversed?  He doubted they would ever meet again, but he felt he would  like to, that he would like somehow to repay him his kindness. They waved as the little group of Jews and their partisan escorts reentered the forest.

              The march back into the forest was much more relaxed than the walk there. Everyone was smiling. Even Hava, Mottel’s mother. No more arguments were heard. Someone started up a Yiddish liddle (song), other joined in , only to be silenced by their partisan escorts, who warned them not to make so much noise. 

            They approached the clearing in the forest, where a campfire burnt brightly and men, and a few women, dressed in old fur coats, some wrapped in blankets, sat huddled around the fire trying to warm themselves. They were singing Yiddish songs and talking quietly. 

            But the megillah reading with the partisans was not to be. A tall, mustached partisan (obviously an officer) came riding up on a horse and glowered at them. “That’s Colonel Markov” someone whispered. He ordered them to disperse immediately before they would attract German attention. Noone argued with him. Within minutes the fire was put out and the partisans  dissappeared, as if into thin air.

             The Miyadzel Jews made there way to their old hiding place, the malina. No one spoke, but the disappointment coud be  felt in the air and could be seen in all the sad eyes around the  little room. Then Mottel spoke up. His posture and the flash in his eyes spoke determination. “It is Purim, friends” he reminded them. “It’s a mitzva to hear the Megillah. Let me recite it to you.” They agreed, and he started to tell the old story of Esther and Haman, Mordechai and Achashvarosh, as Jews had done for so long in so many places.  A knock on the chimney was heard. Silence. fear.  They opened the window to find Boris and his brother, Fima, standing there. “We have come to hear the Megillah”  they explained smiling.

            A few days later Boris came by with food again – what they had brought “home” from the Purim party was already gone, though the good memories of the peasant’s home lingered on. He brought very sad news. Apparently the Germans turned up at Ishtvan’s house the next morning. Someone had informed on him that he was cooperating with the partisans. His eldest son, Peter,  had been led out in front of the house and shot before the eyes of his onlooking  family. Stunned, Mottel turned to his mother and sad sadly, tears in his eyes: “Mother, you were right, we should have stayed here.”

                                    Purim, 1942. The Naroch forest, Byelorussia. 

P.S.     My father would tell me this story every year around Purim time, his eyes filled with  mischief and pride as he remembered their daring and how they had outwitted the Germans. Only the bitter ending, telling me of Peter’s execution the next morning, was left out all those years. When I told him I was planning to write down some of his partisan stories to share with others and mentioned the Purim wash story, in particular, there was a long pause on the phone. He then added the terrible postscript. The sting and shock of that small addition cut  my soul like a knife. What had always been an innocent fairy story, an anecdote about Jewish resistance during the war was wrenched out of my insides and reconnected with the horror which I knew the Nazi times had been.

 

                                    Summer, 2002, Jerusalem

Ruth Elias: A Christmas Story.

For four years as a recently married young man, and then a new father, I travelled from Jerusalem to a kibbutz near Natanya, Tel Yitzhak, where I worked as a teacher and discussion group leader in seminars about the Holocaust. The centre was called Massuah and it was affiliated with the Israeli Liberal movement headed first by Moshe Kol and latter by Gideon Hausner. Hausner was made famous for his role as  attorney-general in the Eichmann trial a decade earlier.

A few seminar buildings and a small, modest museum in a a wooded corner of a peaceful green valley in the Sharon region was the setting for young people to come together to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust. A typical three day seminar consisted of a number of discussions based on historical source material from the period, the screening of a couple of powerful, shocking films and listening to the testimony of two survivors, one on the ghettos and the second about the camps. The focus of this work was to try to get these kids to identify with the victims of these events as fellow Jews. The results were sometimes disturbing.

A highlight was the dramatization of a discussion of a resistance group from the Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, in one of the ghettos.  The dilemna they faced and had recorded was whether to fight in the ghetto or flee to the partisans in the nearby forest. The expectation that they could identify with that situation was, in my opinion, not only unrealistic but irresponsible. I wonder today  how much negative impact such an exercise might have had on those young souls about to face altogether different situations as soldiers in the I.D.F.

Ruth was a one of those survivors. She came often to tell the story of her horrendous experience in the Auschwitz camp as a subject of the infamous Dr. Mengele’s experiments. Whenever she spoke in her quiet, gentle  voice  the room fell deathly silent as the kids listened. As Ruth detailed what Mengele had done to her and her new-born baby,  the silence was pierced by the sobbing of some of the girls. Her story has  been  told.  I have heard it so many times and yet it never fails to shock and move me. Ruth wrote a book describing her experience called “The Power Of Hope”.

Ruth, whose face was heavily lined but nevertheless still beautiful, was a special person. One felt in the presence of a very positive soul, a person of refined, aristocratic bearing and, yet, open and friendly. She  developed a wonderful rapport with her young listeners as she described her adolescence in pre-war Czechoslavakia. Although her parents’ divorce must have been difficult for her she made light of it, telling of the fun she had in her uncle’s home, skiing and playing tennis, the dreams she had to become an actress or musician one day.

When the Nazis came that all changed, as did  her voice as she started to relate the story of her journey to Terezenshtat, her romance and wedding there, her pregnancy, her train ride to and arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the selection, Dr. Mengele, the birth, the strapping of her breasts as the fiend experimented on the mother and child to see how long until the newborn would die without nutrition and whether the mother would lose her mind, the injection of morphine when she killed her own child.

Although my character Rivka has other elements from other people I have known, there is also something of Ruth in her. In the novel we don’t know what Rivka had been through in the camps, only that she was determined to reach the Land of Israel despite the British blockade.

I once asked Ruth about her faith after all she had been through. The subject concerned me profoundly at the time, as it still does today.

She had come from a very assimilated, secular home and was not apparently a religious woman.  Nevertheless she often mentioned her faith  as something that kept her alive in Auschwitz. So I asked her if she believed in God.

The answer was yes.

Teaching the Holocaust to Israeli Kids:

Between 1979 and 1989, while working on finishing an endless M.A. in Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I taught Israeli kids about the Holocaust. I did so in informal settings such as at the Masuah centre near Natanya, at Ot Vaed in Jerusalem and at Yad Vashem, as well as in the formal classroom environment of an Israeli high school, meeting thousands of kids, hundreds of teachers and many, many survivors who came to share their stories with those kids.

Over the coming weeks I will try to share some of the experiences during those ten years and , of course, some of the incredible stories I heard and the people I met.

Before doing that, though, I would like to share something of the reason I stopped teaching the subject and moved on to other things.

There were two main reasons: one personal-emotional, the other political-ideological.

The personal:

During the many years I taught the subject I would often tell my parents’ stories and those of the people I met growing up in the predominantly survivor community of Melbourne Australia. These were the stories from which I created the characters in the novel I wrote. As the years past I found I was losing my sensitivity to what I was talking about, becoming in some sense emotionally benumbed. I also had a growing feeling of “using” the material in a way that was not altogether pure, meeting personal needs for making a living, as well as the ideological agendas of others who were using me and others like me for their purposes. I will get back to that.

This week we read in the Torah about dreams – those of Joseph had been realized to some extent, his interpretations of fellow prisoners from Pharoah’s court had been accurate,  and now he was called to interpret Pharoah’s dreams as well.  A dream I had  was what led me to move on from teaching about the Holocaust. I was deeply spooked by what I dreamt.

I dreamt I was accompanying my father to Yad vaShem when he had a heart attack in the entrance to the building. In these dreams his dying words to me were about my work teaching the Holocaust. He said; “Stop doing this, it is bad for you!”  This dream appeared to me at least twice, perhaps more times. It was unnerving.

I was led to ask my dad how he felt about my work by this recurring dream. On one of my visits home to Australia my then healthy  father more or less said the same as he had in the dream. He said: “This “work’ of yours makes you nervous, you should do something else, something more positive.” I went back to school and became a rabbi.

He did,  by the way, develop  a heart problem at 80, but  lived on to be 95! We visited Yad VaShem together after that, but that is another story I will tell some other time.

Many, many times teachers accompanying young people to the “informal educational”  seminars we gave on the subject made a point of speaking to us about their educational goals in bringing the pupils to us. The most common sentiment was that they wanted their Zionism reinforced so they would  be good soldiers willing to fight for the country. Another common one was so they would not go on “yerida” (literally “go down”), i.e. would not immigrate away. A third was something about strengthening their Jewish identity. It was usually pretty vague.

In discussions of their responses to what they had heard, the attitudes expressed by most of the young ones matched those expressed by their teachers: we have to be tough, have to have a strong army, can’t trust the goyim, etc.  A minority related to any kind of universal- humanist viewpoint about the dangers of racism, fascism, dictatorship, the need to defend democracy or human rights or such things.

Over time I found this distressing.  I am sure that contributed to the decision to move on to building a positive basis for my own Judaism.  My professional life since then has been devoted to building Jewish community, fighting racism and defending human rights.

I have reached the personal conclusion that my response to the Holocaust is to affirm life – all life, not any particular ideology. That is what “Far away From Where” is about.

Joe:

Joe was a muscular man, with big rough hands, a powerful grip and a head of thick, curly black hair. He had run a fruit shop at first, but moved on to real estate, in which he was very successful.   He was, I have been told,  ruthless with his business partners over the years. He left his kids a lot of money.

Whenever we visited as kids, I would be reluctant to shake hands with him, knowing how hard he squeezed. It hurt. He seemed to enjoy causing that  pain, and laughed as I squirmed. Mina would tell him to stop, obviously sensitive to my discomfort. I appreciated her protection as I fled to the children’s playroom.

At family gatherings when the others would talk of their wartime experiences and sufferings he was often silent, dark eyes sphinx-like as he smiled to himself. I knew he had been in the camps. It was mentioned in hushed tones. There was a tattooed blue number on his arm. I knew what that meant.  Back in those days one didn’t talk about the camps. There was a clear taboo against asking too many questions..

My parents  were  supporters of the  left, the Labour party in Australia, “Mapam” (left of Labour)  in Israel. Mina and Joe supported the Liberals (Australia’s conservative party) and were associated with the right-wing Zionist party, Herut, lead by Menahem Begin. Joe found socialist ideas abhorrent, counter to “human nature”.  He also thought religion was  superstitious nonsense. The world in his eyes was a harsh, rough place and one had to be tough. This was the advice he gave  his kids and to us as adolescents. “Don’t be naive!”, he would say, impatient with our puppy  idealism.

I overheard conversations of the adults from the next room as my brother, Sam, and I played with Joe and Mina’s two kids.  They would talk  about events in Israel, voices raised in passionate debate about what Ben Gurion, Eshkol or Golda should or should not do. Joe’s deep voice was seldom heard  but when he spoke  it was easily identifiable. His opinions were predictable.

“They should show them who`s boss, hit them hard..” he would say, often critical of the Israeli “softness” in dealing with Arab enemies.  “The middle east is a brutal, cruel neighbourhood”, he would say, “they only understand force…”   My father, on the other hand was critical of the Israeli leadership, saying they should treat the Arabs better than they did.  He spoke softly, politely, but his opinion sometimes enraged Joe.

Joe admired my father’s past exploits as a partisan, but found him difficult to talk to. Visits were tense when my father came. He stopped coming, and avoided being home when they visited over the years.

Mina was my mother’s best friend. They had grown up together in Warsaw, were close in age, and were always helping each other in various ways. It was difficult  for her that my father and Joe developed a  dislike for each other, reaching a point of no longer speaking to each other, even when they met once a year in shule on Yom Kippur.

It was only years later that I learned (not long before he died of cancer)  that Joe was a sole survivor of his entire family, that he had spent a couple of years in Auschwitz-Birkenau, that he had been assigned to the Sonderkommando (the unit which disposed of the bodies after the mass gassings). It must have been his own physical strength and personal toughness that had helped him survive. There was, however, probably more to his story.

The S.S. in Auschwitz regularly disposed of the Sonderkommando, usually after about three months. While they lived they were better fed than other prisoners, and did business from the belongings accumulated by the gas chambers/crematoria. Perhaps Joe developed his business acumen there, but how could a person  survive such an experience and remain sane?  Was Joe sane? He seemed so..

There was one revolt by the Sonderkommando in Birkenau towards the end of the war. They destroyed one of the crematoria. The S.S. killed them all.

The Slap:

My parents, Boris and Chana, though both nominally Polish Jews came from two very different worlds. Had it not been for the traumatic events of world war two and the massive human upheaval it caused they might never have met.  He came from a shtetl, a little Jewish town in White Russia (Byelorus today) while she came from a big city, from Warsaw. He came from a family which belonged to the rabbinic elite of the area, direct descendents of the famed Elijah of Vilna (otherwise known as the “Gaon of Vilna”), she from a poor  widow’s home, who placed two of her children in Januzc Korcak’s orphanage because she could not support them. His father, Yehiel, was a pious but enlightened rabbi , a well-to-do watchmaker and jeweller who owned property and had status in the local community. Her mother, Chaya, had already broken with tradition and found her hopes in support for the socialist Bund. Though they spoke the same language, Yiddish, they spoke it differently according to the local dialect, and their second language was not the same. Her’s Polish, his Russian.  

My mother had a rough upbringing in the slums of  prewar Warsaw and being a refugee for  ten years  from the age of  12 made of  her a tough, resilient woman. She knew war,  hunger, disease, homelessness, racial hatred, Nazi and Communist tyranny and she had learned the skills of survival against terrible odds. She would often speak of her pride in being a tough Warsaw Jew, commenting on the fact that it was in Warsaw that there had been a  armed ghetto uprising of significance, that those who fought the Nazis in the end were her people, the young people of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. She had known the leader of that rebellion, Mordecai Anelwicz, being a girl in that same group before she, her brother, and mother, escaped the ghetto.

Getting used to the new reality of domestic life in secure Australia without Poland’s religious and racist passions, and with children who had no experience of the turmoil from which she had emerged, who seemed to her spoiled soft Australians must have been difficult. Neither Sam nor I had any idea of the dangers, indeed terrors, that lurked in her soul after what she had been through. We could never really understand the emotional storms that blew over us, then blew away into the joy of Yiddish song, only to return again in violent domestic  incidents. We were left confused and  scarred by events we never knew, or only glimpsed through stories half-told, and songs sung over cooking pots  or dishes being washed at the sink.

As a child at home I spoke Yiddish with my mother, and would love to come home from school to tell her of the day`s events in our common language, and listen to  stories of her childhood in Warsaw before the war. I had a vivid imagination, embellishing my own experiences at school as I spoke and always adding to the stories she told in my own personal imaginary version. I had learned English at school and, though I and my brother were also bringing the language into the home, I still loved to speak the “mameh loshen” with her.

One day when I came home from my Richmond school into the shop entrance of our Swan Street home I saw  my rosy-cheeked, cheerful mum  talking to a customer, a tall heavy-set, bearded man. They were speaking in a language I didn’t know. I was full of my stories of the day,  and  rushed forwards to interrupt them. She turned  to hush me, giving me a little push towards the backroom, but  I didn’t respond. Mum excused herself to the man, grabbed my hand, and dragged me away into the back area.

As we went, the strange man staring at us, I started talking to her as usual in Yiddish. She whispered   “Sha! nisht in Yiddish! Nisht in Yiddish!” but I continued talking. Suddenly she slapped my face. I can still feel the sense of my face smarting today after 50 years.

I was stunned and embarrassed, standing there in the back kitchen crying, as she returned to the man and sold him whatever it was he wanted. I think it might have been beer but I`m not sure.

Years later when I asked about what had caused her reaction, she explained the incident telling me the man was a Polish Catholic priest.  She knew him to be an anti-semite but he was  a good customer she didn’t want to lose.

I never spoke Yiddish again.

Here’s a  brief tefilin story:

I worked for six years as the rabbi of a Masorti (Conservative) congregation here in Israel. It was a small congregation in a small town in the Negev, my first experience as a newly ordained rabbi. I am a son of two Holocaust survivors from Poland who spent ten years teaching the subject after completing an MA in Holocaust studies at the Hebrew university. I had heard a lot of stories both at home and in my first profession over the years, but nothing prepared me for this experience I am now sharing. We often would have a problem recruiting a minyan for midweek services. We didn’t yet count women in the minyan at that stage and the problem would be great if we had a barmitzvah boy midweek. There were a couple of elderly men who could always be relied on to come when needed on short notice. One always came with his own tefilin, The other never brought, I assumed he didn’t have his own..In a board meeting I brought up the need for a pair of spare tefilin for such circumstances, and got their ok to purchase a pair with a promise to cover the cost. I turned to a friend who is a sofer stam and he sold me a discounted set of tefilin after hearing the story. The next time we called in “Pinhas’ (not his real name) to help make a minyan I offered him the tefilin during the service but he refused to take them. After the service as we were leaving I took Pinhas aside and asked for an explanation of his behaviour. He answered: ” I survived the Holocaust in Poland…” “Yes”, I responded, “so your friend Efrayim is also a survivor.” “I know, but he never saw what I did in those years, I saw people forced to put on tefilin and then beheaded by the Nazis. One of them was my father..” He subsequently told me one Shabbat that he owned tefilin but just couldn’t wear them…

My Cousin Chaim:

Chaim was  my mother’s first cousin,  the only cousin to survive the second world war.  Many, many were lost in Warsaw, in the ghetto and in the Treblinka death camp.

Chaim survived because he left for Eretz Yisrael before the war. He was “a chalutz” (a pioneer).  Some of the family were very proud of him, though others were shocked by what he had done. He fought in the War of  Independence, in the Hagana. I would love to hear his stories  as a boy in Melbourne, especially about how they had fooled the Lebanese army by trucking logs of wood up to the border and placing them in position as if they were cannon. Although he was no longer religious he made that military victory against overwhelming odds, and despite an arms embargo, seem miraculous. I always remember how his eyes would brighten up when he spoke of that time.

He came from a very pious Hasidic home,  where he had  10 brothers and sisters. All of them perished in Poland. He  had studied  many years in a Yeshiva. My mother remembered him  before the war as a good student,  potentially a “Talmid Hacham” or a rabbi.  She remembered the shock when he cut off his payes (side curls)and beard and joined the Zionists. He not only joined the Zionist movement but became a socialist. Through the group “Hashomer Hatzair” he reached kibbutz where he met and married a sabrah, Haviva, afterwards moving with her to Haifa where he was very active in the trade union movement. He had become a carpenter by profession.

He was my favourite relative, and one of my father’s closest friends. In the late fifties or early sixties, he and Havivah and their two girls, Daliah and Sarah migrated to Australia. My  brother Sam and I suddenly had more cousins close to our age to play with. His lifetime of tragedy did not end with that migration. He outlived both of his daughters, one of whom suicided on a visit to Israel, the other succumbing to breast cancer at an early age as a young mother. His wife also died relatively early, leaving him a sad widower with no immediate family.

I don’t  know why they left Israel and joined us “Down Under” but I can guess based on my conversations with Chaim while growing up in Melbourne.  Chaim had become a kind of gentle cynic, and was very critical of the way Israel had developed under Ben Gurion, saying that  the man was an autocrat and had betrayed his so-called socialism. He didn’t like the way the Arabs were being treated then either. Making a living in Israel in those days was not easy. Many migrants came from Israel to join family and to try their luck at making a better living in Australia. My mother, her brother and sister were all the family he had. So he came but he was not so lucky.

Chaim set up an upholstery business, was a good craftsman, but was never successful at business. He and my father would often have long weekend conversations in Yiddish over hot glasses of sweet tea. They talked about the world news, about the situation in Israel, literature and Jewish history. Meanwhile we played with the daughters in the other room.

He was thin and wiry, with a shock of curly black hair, greying at the sides, which went white over the years. Many fine wrinkles gathered around the corners of his eyes and were lined across his forehead over the years. He struggled with asthma, as well as personal family tragedy.  His wife, Havivah was plump and rosy cheeked, cheerful, as was the older girl, Daliah. Sarah, the younger, on the other hand looked a lot like her father, also being thin, wiry and quick-witted. It was to Sarah I was drawn as a playmate, while brother Sam liked Daliah better I think.

Chaim often challenged my idealism while growing up in Melbourne and on visits there after my aliya. When we were younger he would challenge our annual pre-adolescent piety, offering us food on Yom Kippur when we were fasting.  When I was older he would ask difficult questions about Israeli policies, my Zionism, and religious faith. Life had been bitter and difficult for him, and he had survived with no faith in G-d and little in man, and yet he was highly intelligent, well-read and a pleasure to talk to.  He enjoyed speaking Hebrew with me once I had learned the language and always did so when I visited in later years. He clearly loved the language and its literature, introducing me to names such as Agnon, Yehuda Amichai and others.

I loved Chaim and miss him now that he has gone. I know my father missed his friendship during the decade he outlived him. Chaim provided  a window for me into an earlier, idealistic Israel, into a society which might have been had not war and hatred turned the dream sour, or at best bitter-sweet for those of us who later tried to renew the commitment he had made long before. I dreamed of proving him wrong in his cynicism and disappointment. I am still struggling to do so.

He was also the closest I have come to knowing someone whose life matched the story of Job in the Bible. In his case  there was no reconciliation, nor was there a new family to replace the old, but yet there was something noble about him. He was in a sense an aristocrat of suffering, who despite all his skepticism and sense of irony remained true to himself. I admired that. I think my father did too.

 

26th February, 2012:

The Festival of Trees: An encounter with the “law”.

On Tu Beshvat, the Jewish “festival of trees”, I went out to the Palestinian village of Genia with about 35 Israeli volunteers to plant trees. This is a village which has been repeatedly attacked by settler neighbours in recent times, and has over the years lost a lot, if not most, of its agricultural land to the  Jewish settlers from the Talmon settlements. Just a week earlier the home of one of our Arab contacts there was plastered with  hate graffiti: “Death To the Arabs”, “Mohammad is a swine!” for example. A car was also attacked – its windows smashed, two tires punctured – and was also covered with similar, not so sweet sentiments.

We came with 200 olive saplings to be planted on the village lands, just a few metres below that house.  Our good intentions were frustrated by a military order declaring the area a closed military zone. (The legality of that order has since been challenged). The claim was that our tree-planting would lead to a ‘disturbance of public order” since the neighbouring settlers would get upset. The paper quoted a British emergency power dated 1945 which has never been rescinded since the then Jewish terrorism against British colonial rule. This minor point connects me back to the period of my novel of course. The people making the “disturbances” then were often the desperate, recently-arrived refugees from the European d.p camps, some of them  concentration camp survivors.

We were greeted by a line of well-armed soldiers (border guards) in full riot gear, but there were no settlers present, just nervous Palestinian villagers and ourselves, and the little vunerable trees in their plastic wrappings. The officer-in-charge gave everyone just five minutes to clear out, or, he threatened, they would begin using force. He looked like he meant business.

I and a few others quickly planted the saplings we were carrying and turned to leave. We were not looking for a confrontation, just to show some solidarity with the villagers. We knew they had already fired tear gas and sound grenades here earlier in the morning when the villagers had tried to plant these same saplings while we were being detained at a checkpoint. The line of soldiers began to move forward pushing people. A couple of the participants were too slow or argumentative for the soldiers and they were arrested, and brutally dragged away.

The story of what happened that day has been reported and written up by others, but one experience, a ‘footnote” to the events, was uniquely mine and profoundly unsettling. The two sides retreated – we and the villagers back into the village, the soldiers and their prisoners back into the Talmon Alef settlement. It was not long, however, until the border guards and other policemen reappeared demanding we also leave the village as it too was now a “closed military zone”. Negotiations between Rabbi Arik Ascherman and the police officer, Yossi X, led to an agreement. We would leave the village in exchange for release of the prisoners. The policemen agreed if Arik would remain as “his guest” until they finished investigating the two, and it was clear the others had left. The two negotiating persons, a tall, thin, bearded,  yarmulka-wearing Reform rabbi and a fat, red-faced, armed, and angry-looking policeman looked surreal in that  pastoral scene – a lush green valley between a Palestinian village and a Jewish settlement, each on its hill surrounded by Judean mountains.

I stayed behind with Arik and the police officer after seeing off our buses. I did not trust the policeman and doubted that he would release the two volunteers as promised, thinking he might also arrest Arik for good measure.

As we approached the policeman offered me his hand, a broad smile of victory across his lips. I refused to take his hand, telling him honestly “I don’t trust you, that’s why I am here too.”  He was clearly annoyed, pointing out my rude behaviour to those accompanying him, comparing it with Arik’s willingness to shake his proffered hand. I was angry and frustrated.

We got into conversation. Who are you, what are you, etc…I learned that he himself lives in that very settlement, and was told that had we “coordinated” our tree-planting there would have been no problem. “We respect the rule of law, but you are here as a provocation”, he told us. From past experience I knew that was not necessarily the case and I said so. To explain my distrust I added that I am a child of Holocaust survivors and trust in uniformed authorities does not come  easily for me.

He blew up in upset. “I am a war veteran”, he said, “who has been wounded doing my duty and I, too, am a child of survivors”.

After a little more conversation each sharing our parents’ stories, I offered him my hand,  and told him “I guess we have more in common than I thought, even though we are on different sides of this political issue”

He kept his word and released the four of us,  after keeping Arik and me waiting in his police car for about an hour.

We were delivered to the check-point separating Israel-proper from the occupied territories.

We were told later that the Palestinians worked their land  that afternoon without disturbance.

The novel’s cover:

The picture on the cover of the novel has a story to it. My talented  daughter, Nehama, graduate of the Fine Arts Academic program of the Belle Arte college in Florence put a lot of work into it. It shows the prow of a ship, the “Southern Cross” (Australia’s symbol of independence)  in the sky above, with one of the stars being the  Magen David, the well known Jewish symbol. This represents the revival and development of the Jewish community of Australia with the postwar influx of refugee immigrants from Europe.

On one of my visits to Mebourne I came across a collection of memoirs of the journey out to Australia collected  by children for their teacher. They had been asked to interview their grandparents. It was fascinating material which gave me some ideas for the novel, in particular the choice of  the ship journey as a backdrop to some of the events.

On the front cover there is a silhouette of a man wearing a hat in the bottom left corner. He appears to be carrying something, possibly a suitcase. Nehama got that picture from my mother, Chana. She was going through a  shoe box full of unsorted old  black and white photos one day, and chose a few to scan and keep after her grandmother told her some stories about them. The one she eventually used for the cover of my novel was one of them. It was of an old boyfriend.  It had an inscription on the back, I think in Yiddish.

Growing up in Melbourne, I would hear from my mum about her lively social life in the DP camps. She would speak wistfully of the young people she had been with, among them boys she had flirted with, gone dancing with , and so on. There had been a lot of Zionist activity there of different militant groups.Some planned illegal immigration to Palestine despite the British blockade. Other  groups actively recruited for the armed rebellion against the British in those camps. Many of those young people died in that struggle, either at sea, or in the subsequent battles for Jewish independence in the Holy Land.  The man in the picture was one of those. He had no family left after the Holocaust, and apparently felt he had nothing to lose. He was killed in Austria attacking a British military installation.

My mother, after some internal struggle,  chose otherwise. She chose life over ideology. She accompanied her mother and brother, who had survived with her, to Australia. There were families of survivors who split around this dilemna, some going to Palestine, others to other countries in the new world.

My Mother, Chana, and her friends:

Although my Mum is not directly  a character in the novel the stories of her experiences just after the war were a source of much of the background colour regarding the D.P. camps. Originally from Warsaw, she, her mother, and one brother escaped the ghetto and spent most of the war years under the Soviets – in labour camps, and in Uzbekistan after the Germans attacked their Russian allies in June 1941.

Returning along with thousands of other expatriate Polish Jews who had been refugees during the war, she was greeted with shots fired into the train wagons, and shouted antisemitic slogans. This was soon followed by a number of pogroms, the most well-known in a town called Kielce, which set into motion a mass movement of these Jews towards western Poland in the hope of reaching “freedom” under the allies in Germany, Italy  and Austria.

After a sojourn in Silesia they reached Austria where they were incarcerated in refugee camps (for “Displaced Persons”) until 1949 when they migrated via Italy  to Australia.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, Mum told me that the main d.p. camp she was in after the war was in Lintz in Austria. Lintz she said was the third biggest town in the country.  She was also in a place called Shtayer which was a small town with a former  ammunition factory. Where they stayed  was called Vakshayt and they lived in a weather board house in what used to be a concentration camp. The last place was called Ebelsberg which was a former SS camp. They had better conditions there as they lived in concrete blocks that resisted the cold better.

She was 12 when the war started in September 1939 and 22 when she finally found a new home in Australia.

I will add some stories from that period in subsequent entries here.

Recommended reading:

I have just finished reading a book which I highly recommend to all those interested in pursuing the theme of my novel. “A Typical Extraordinary Jew – From Tarnow to Jerusalem” by Calvin Goldscheider and Jeffrey M. Green is a sensitive finely crafted testimony to the life of  Shmuel Braw. To quote one of the comments on the blurb of the book:

The book tells the life story of an extremely engaging and charming Polish Jew, Shmuel Braw (1906-1992), who lived the traumatic historical events that shaped Jewish experiences in the twentieth century. The story is largely in Shmuel’s own Yiddish-inflected Australian English to two avid listeners: Calvin Goldscheider, a social scientist, and Jeffrey M. Green, a writer and translator. Both the Holocaust and Shmuel’s harrowing experience as a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia figure prominently in this book, but Shmuel also describes his community of Tarnow, a town in southeastern Poland in rich detail. After world war two Shmuel settled in Melbourne, Australia, before eventually immigrating to Israel… The book is true to Shmuel’s spirit…”

As a former Melburnian I found the chapter (ten – “New Places”)  on his experience as a survivor making his way in Melbourne after the war fascinating. His comments,  on the then Jewish community and its development as well as his critical and ambivalent comments on the Israeli society he met when he came on aliya (and the authors’ insights into their resonance with our own generation’s experience) were wonderful. I heard in these pages echoes of my own childhood  Melbourne and young adult Jerusalem as I experienced them. It also evoked many memories  of the emotional and existential struggles  of my parents and their friends in rebuilding their  lives during  the  middle of the last century.

thank you Calvin and Jeff!

Professor Y. Gutman: (7.11.11)

After my army service I studied at the Hebrew University. My studies specialized in the history of the Holocaust and Jewish education. I met my wife, Debbie, there at the  Givat Ram campus, on the same lawns that created the intimate feel described so well by Amos Oz in his novel “My Michael”.  Among my teachers were survivors who had devoted themselves to the academic study of the  catastrophe of which  they themselves had been victims.

There was one  teacher who made a strong impression on me. That was Professor (then Doctor) Yisrael Gutman.  I shall always be grateful for having been blessed with the opportunity to study with him.  As a young teenager in Caulfield,  Melbourne I had the good fortune to have a teacher, Mr. Jennings, who was gentle and wise, a true nurturer of young souls. Dr. Gutman reminded me of that wonderful teacher in many ways.  He wore tweed jackets, was soft spoken, had a gentle but slightly ironic smile and endless patience for his students. He was also impressively erudite.

Unlike Jennings, Gutman was a fellow Jew and came from the same city as my mother, Chana – Warsaw. His personal story entailed suffering and tragedy beyond comprehension and yet he gracefully distanced himself from it in classroom discussions and focused on the academic education and research which was his life’s work and calling. He had survived the Warsaw ghetto where he participated in the resistance and uprising, the death camps (Maidenik and Auschwitz-Birkenau), fought in the War of Independence, and lost a son in the Yom Kippur War.  One of my thoughts when I came on aliya in 1973 was that I was in some sense replacing young men like Gutman’s son, though of course none can ever make up for such a loss!

Gutman specialized in the history of Jewish resistance during the second world war, and I lapped up the material enthusiastically. Some of it has found its way into the novel I have written, and much of it provided me with the knowledge to teach Israeli kids about the subject over ten years (1979-89) after finishing that M.A.  My complex relationship to my father and his past was also a motivation in that process.  He was very different in many ways but I saw something of him in both of these  men who gave me so much in my educational development.

New/Old Posting, 30th October, 2011

Obituary to Boris Green (Greniman

obituary (april 8, 2008) – appeared in the Australian jewish News
BORIS GREEN 1913-2008
YEHIEL (JOHN), SAM AND JACK GREEN
BORIS (Dov-Baer) Green (Greniman) passed away on March 30, 2008 aged 95 years. He was one of the last surviving Jewish partisan leaders from World War II.
Boris was born in Disna, Byelorussia in 1913. He came from a family of watchmakers and had been taught this skill by his father Yehiel. He also had an interest in things technical, which would help him later survive the war.
The Russians invaded the area in 1939. Boris was inducted into the Russian Army and soon was in a leadership position. He rose in rank to be second-in-command of a supply base in Bialystock. War broke out on the Russian front in June 22, 1941 and he was among the few of his unit who survived and fled into the forests.
He trekked alone in the forest for one month until coming to a town called Vileika. There he was involved in organising a resistance group, but the Jews were massacred before they could rebel. He survived and was a witness to that atrocity. His testimony appears in the Vileika Yizkor book.
His brother Fima caught up with him and took him back to where he was living in Danilevich. They found that all the Jews had also been murdered there, including Fima’s wife and child. They hid among the dead bodies and then fled when they could to the forests. They joined the Soviet partisan unit of Colonel Feodor Markov. Boris’ technical skills proved to be useful and life saving for him and his brother, as he became the radio operator for the command post.
During this time, Boris and other Jewish partisans risked their lives to keep the Jewish families, hiding in the forests, alive with adequate food and clothing. Boris remained in Markov’s partisan unit until leaving the relative security of his position, and initiating the setting up of an all-Jewish Partisan group called Nekomah. This unit was reinforced by fighters from the Vilna Ghetto and grew to become a significant fighting force saving other Jews, harassing German supply lines and conquering some military positions.
The leadership of the group by this stage had changed to Jacob Glazman, a Jewish leader from Vilna who was eventually killed in an ambush. Nekamah took in the remaining 250 fighters of the United Partisan Organisation of Vilna, including leading cultural figures from the Vilna Jewish community. Abraham Sutzkever, a prolific Yiddish poet and Israel Prize winner, wrote about Boris’ exploits in saving the lives of many fellow Jews.
Ultimately, the Nekamah Partisan Unit was disbanded and Boris was put in command of a support/supply partisan camp. Prior to this, he had also sustained a bullet wound to his foot and was not able to further participate in active combat service.
In the first book describing Jewish partisan activities (Lehavot Baefer Flames in the Ashes), published in 1946 and written by Ruzka Korczak, she describes Boris Greniman as a legendary figure in the forests around Vilna saving Jewish lives.
After the war, he was in the Byelorussian military government in a senior position in its postal department. However, he used his position to forge documents, which allowed Russian Jews to escape the Soviet Union for Poland in the guise of repatriating Polish Jews. He fled when the scheme was discovered (and another official involved in the forging executed).
After some time in Western Poland and then France, he left for Australia.In 1949 Boris settled in Melbourne where his brother Fima had already started a new life.
In 1950 he married Chana Himelschein a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw. They were married for 58 years.
In Melbourne in the early 1950s there were thousands of Holocaust survivors whose families had perished. They set about rebuilding their lives. They set up an organisation of ex-concentration camp inmates, other Holocaust survivors and partisans, known as the Katzetler Farband. It was an educational, cultural, social and support network. For many years Boris Green was the secretary of this organisation. They would often meet at Boris and Chana’s home.
Boris Green was a quiet man who spent the rest of his long life working as a watchmaker. He loved the technical side of it and, most of all, the interaction with his customers. He never wanted to retire and in fact continued working until three weeks before his passing.
He is survived by his wife Chana, three sons Yehiel (John), Sam and Jack and six grandchildren. 

The names: (posted 10.10.2011 – written some 15 years ago, approx.)

A flashback: I remember the time, the first time, I asked my father to tell me about his family, about his brothers and sisters. I was taught to recite, to say angrily to the surrounding goyishe world: “The Germans killed my nine uncles and aunts” and to think: “and the rest of you bloody antisemites applauded them!) . And I recited this liturgy religiously. It was a basic truth – a foundation stone of my personal identity from the most tender of ages.  A Jew who had not lost family in the Holocaust was a contradiction in terms. None of my childhood friends had grandparents either.

I asked him to tell me about his family, the Grenimanns. To tell me something about what there was in his town, Disna, before the war.

Silence. His response was long in coming. He pondered the question. His pupils seemed to broaden. In fear?  It was hard to know. And then he would start with the names. There were Gedalya, Binyamin and there was Sonya – a long pause.  The pain was palpable.

Sonya…and he would tell me about his wonderful sister. How she was nicknamed “Der Goldeneh Hent” (The Golden Hands), that she was a talented pianist and a doctor, a pediatrician. that she was the first woman to be accepted to the medical school in Vilna. And he would cry. Bitter tears. And that would be the end of the conversation. It was too sad, too painful. I couldn’t ask  any more. I couldn’t insist on hearing more. I didn’t want to hurt him. So I never learned the  names, the other names of his murdered brothers and sisters, my unknown uncles and aunts.  And the one living Uncle I had on his side of the family was always silent, said nothing at all.

I have only ever seen one picture of a sibling . The picture of Sonya – Doctor

Sonya Grenimann. Her framed picture sits on the piano, or on the drink cabinet in my parents’ living room cum museum or mausuelium, along with the photos of Chana and Boris in their younger years, the three sons, and the grandchildren.  Their own personal Yad Vashem – used only on special occasions, such as seder night, or survivors’ gatherings.

Sonya looks down at us from her gilded frame, her face tinted, looking sombre

and fine.A Lithuanian beauty. One of many. Thousands…hundreds of thousands. But then she was unique. Or so we have been told over and over again during our childhood. Pay homage to Aunt Sonya, for she is the representative family martyr! The one who represents the many, the unbelievably many who were lost in the maelstrom.

Or do I really remember at all? More than a memory of his face, or his words back  then that first time it is   the feeling that I remember. I remember feeling awed and frightened. I was  awed by the tremendous pain he displayed so readily, by his tears,  and frightened to cause any more. So I stopped asking. I learned not to ask. Just as so many other kids learned not to ask their survivor parents too much, so I learned as well. And still decades later I don’t ask. I know the pain but  the scars have not healed over the years. Perhaps they never will. Neither in him nor in me.

My Father and Ben Gurion: (posted 3rd October 2011 – written about ten years ago.)

 My father, short, stocky and balding is stooped over his watches, working. He doesn’t say much. Always polite to the customers and to the family. Always soft-spoken. Focused on his work, he works long hours. Leaves for the shop early every morning and returns late – sometimes very late.

 He has his pleasures – in which he indulges during the afternoon, when there are less customers, or of an evening in his room.

 He reads Yiddish newspapers. Reads the Australian English language ones, too. He sometimes listens to music, usually to news. He drinks tea…hot black tea, with lemon and sugar.

 He swims regularly in the “city baths”, or at the local pool, and gets up even earlier than usual every Sunday morning to work in the garden. And this has been so for the fifty years I’ve known him.

 He is a mystery to me. A mystery to all the family, I think. A strange man. A man with many, many secrets. Secrets he will take with him to the grave – rather than share them, rather than confront them and grapple with them.

 A sensitive man in some ways. Very practical, very down-to-earth, but with a poet’s soul. With a love of beauty. That’s why he married my mother, I suppose.

 My father was a hero. I know because he said so. I know because the way he has lived these past fifty years in Australia – in relative anonymity – bears witness to it. I’ve told him so. I’ve written to him to tell him that his loyal, dedicated work as a provider, as a father over these many years is no less heroic – perhaps more – than his many stories of the war years.

 He was never one of those survivors who remained totally silent about the past, but neither was he one of those who would begin to relive the past in all its many terrible details, in some kind of trance. He told stories. He told us stories of what he’d done and experienced as a partisan. They weren’t stories of glorious heroism in the classical sense – not Superman, Batman or Hercules stories. They were stories about being lucky, about narrow escapes from danger. They were stories about the use of words – about saying – or not saying – the right thing at the right time. And he also liked to tell Yiddish stories – about Chelm, the town of fools.

 He was always teaching us through his stories. Teaching us about survival. Perhaps it was the way he had been taught by his father, Yehiel, or by his grandfather.. It was often hard to tell where memory ended and imagination began. He wove a story of heroism – a very “Jewish” kind of heroism – a personal legend of cunning and quick wit.

 When I grew older and discovered Jewish literature, began to read Agnon, Brenner, Wiesel, Bashevis Singer and others who had come from that world from which he had come, I felt immediately at home in the world of their stories and their style, even though the content was so, so different, the underlying literary echoes were the same. My father surprised me a number of times when he visited Israel over the years. He surprised me because, despite all those years living in “far away” Australia, he could still quote lines from Bialik, bits of gemorrah, verses from the Bible. When I last saw him I was already a rabbi, bearded, wearing a yarmulka and fringes, and he was bare-headed and non-observant. But looking at him I saw in him something so authentically and deeply Jewish, something which is dying with his generation. A rootedness in Jewish culture and experience which was uprooted during the Holocaust along with the many towns and urban Jewish populations which were destroyed in Eastern Europe. He looked so much like the people who established Israel, even though his personal journey was so different, so much more tragic. Ironically, he reminded me strongly of Ben Gurion, at a similar age. He certainly looked alot like “the old man” when last I saw him. Short, stocky, balding with two tufts of longish white hair on either side and intelligent, sharp eyes. His complexion relatively clear and unwrinkled, considering his 80 years. In a sense ageless. A good galut Jew – a man of his people. Not dust of the earth at all , but rather salt of the earth.

 His stories were very different than those I imagine my grandfather, Yehiel, and grandmother, Shulamit, must have told him. My ancestors had , I’m sure, a religious message to convey – one of faith and hope, perhaps with a hint of messianic vision, though probably spiced with the irony of real-life experience.

 Always soft-spoken, his stories were neverthless harsher than that , less hopeful. No messianic vision informed them any longer, just the hard realism of survival in a hostile world. God was barely mentioned, the characters no longer biblical or talmudic. Markov instead of Moses, Abba Kovner or Mordechai Anilewitz, instead of the Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Akiva. And the promised land was no longer “Eretz Yisroel”, not even “Medinas Yisroel”, but rather life. Life itself.

 He had survived so much, seen so much that life itself was the value of values for him, I think. One must know how to deal with money, with people, with time. Must be well-organized and cautious, and trust no-one. A man who had hidden among dead bodies, crawled through mosquito-infested marshes, eaten the bark off the trees, dug up a mass grave in search of weapons, and so much more, how did he succeed in readjusting to a mundane life of small business, family and Melbourne suburbia? How could he not adjust?


“We got out of our ghetto” (posted 3rd. October 2011 – written just after the first gulf war)

During the gulf war when missiles from Sadam Hussein were raining down on Israel my Dad called. He wanted us to fly out to Australia with the kids until the trouble had passed. We refused, saying Jerusalem was relatively safe, that friends from Tel Aviv had actually come to Jerusalem to be safe from the rockets, and that anyway we felt our place was in Israel with our people rather than fleeing to the diaspora.

I will never forget his response.  After a long pause on the other end of the line, he said;

“You know that’s what the Jews in the ghetto said when we told them we should go out to the forests to fight the Nazis from there”

“I know all that, Dad. I have heard and read the stories”

“Yes, but they died there in the ghetto, we lived to fight back and tell the story”

“But Dad, Israel is not a ghetto.”

Ever since I have wondered who was right in that conversation, my survivor father, z”l, or me.

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