Category Archives: history

Bound by stories

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

I am the progeny of refugees with thick accents who passed on a heritage of the gloom of war and the promise of peace. They had the self-assurance that came from having survived and the mistrust of having had to.

My mother’s family fled Berlin for Jerusalem when Hitler came to power. My father’s family escaped Vienna for Haifa in the days following its Kristallnacht. Soon after Israel’s War of Independence, my father contracted polio and was shipped off to New York for medical care. That’s where my mother met him, as she was in New York City visiting friends and relatives. And there they stayed.

And there I grew up, in a place where no one could pronounce my name and no one considered me American. To them, I was Israeli even though I was more focused on why they killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I wanted to know why Newark was burning. I was worried that the war in Vietnam would still be going on when I reached draft age.

When it was time for me to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, I had little interest. Why would I want to celebrate a God who allowed the Holocaust, a God who looked away as my father got polio and became confined to a wheelchair?

The thing is, while we were not remotely observant, my parents were proudly Jewish, and we marked the holidays at home. About our table were family and friends, most of whom also had their own stories of survival and persistence, who came to discuss and debate the meaning of those holy days, and not just recite pages in order to get to the food.

From an early age, Biblical stories drew me in. The writers offered different points of view, were comfortable with contradictions and highlighted that most of life resided in uncertainty. The opening chapters had two very different tellings of creation. It only took a few pages to encounter the first lie, quickly followed by the first murder. Brothers did not fare well. The stories were not simplistic or dogmatic. Context mattered.

The more I read, the more these texts resonated with me and helped me make sense of a senseless world. Increasingly, I felt connected to the Jewish story, if not the Jewish God. And that was how I knew I was going to follow through with my Bar Mitzvah. The Tribe had survived for thousands of years and countless attempts to get rid of it. Who was I to mess with a streak?

I remain strengthened by listening to and retelling these stories, even when they are not easy to hear or easy to repeat. And I am proud to add my story to our shared history.

_ _ _

Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.comEscape Route, available now

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My Father’s Holocaust

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father escaped the Holocaust,
but suffered for it, and when, as a kid,
I pointed out he never actually
spent time in Auschwitz or Dachau,
he stared at me, “Same thing,” he said.
“You’ll see,” he added. When I pressed
him further, he said only one word: “Family.”
I didn’t see, the Holocaust becoming 
just one more historical fact.
I began my own very secular career.
Then I saw a picture at a lecture
given by a famous art historian.
Thumbprints of dirt, blood, ink, 
mounted upon rows of stripes
in different colors, an abstract
suddenly becoming very real— 
a line of prisoners awaiting the 
morning roll call in the freezing cold.
I looked closer at the thumbprints
and could see my father’s face.
“I am here, remember me, never forget.”
A generation later I am still safe, still free, 
but the picture still haunts me.
“I escaped,” I said to the thumbprints.
“Oh, no, you didn’t,” I heard my father say. 
And finally I understood his words.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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My Mother, A Jewish Southern Belle

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

In a Yankee cemetery in 2006, my eulogy for my Atlanta born and bred mom, dead at 82, didn’t do her  justice. I didn’t play Dixie. I had contemplated using Elvis’s version from 1972, but my sense of political correctness trumped my Southern born and raised mom’s legacy.  

While I was growing up in suburban Boston in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dixie was the only song my Boston born dad and my mom asked orchestras to play.  It was an anthem for mom.

Though mom lived over 5 decades in Massachusetts, and only two decades in Atlanta, she never stirred herself into the clam chowder melting pot.  She may have lost some of her accent over the years, but Atlanta and Georgia were always on her mind.  New England’s climate was always too cold and as were most of its inhabitants. She in turn always had that Southern graciousness so she fielded all her phone calls, from friend or foe, with a warm chatty, “How are you, dear.”  

Her real pet-peeve about Yankee living was the cost of it. She would often tout the cheap household labor in the South, not apologizing for Jim Crow.  Her well-off family always had live-in help and mom would sometimes sadly admit her maids raised her, an only child, as much as her parents did.  She would occasionally strongly suggest to my dad, an only moderately successful dentist, that we hire a maid.

Once as a precious elementary schooler, I told mom about the amazing Mount Rushmore in the far away   South Dakota with humongous carvings of the presidents.  She countered with Stone Mountain in Atlanta in which Southern heroes Stonewall Jackson. Robert E.  Lee and Jefferson Davis were carved into immortality.  What’s more she had actually seen Stone  Mountain in person. Whereas South Dakota in the early ‘60s might as well have been on the moon.

In the early 1960s, I asked mom about the two senators from Georgia, Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. This inquiry most likely came after I had devoured the paperback, Meet the Senators, and wanted to get her informed opinion. I remember that mom extolled both legislators as Lions of The Senate types, ignoring their arch-segregationist credentials. 

Occasionally, her Yankee family would take a gentle swipe at her beloved South. Mom would then sometimes counter with “The South Shall Rise Again,” mostly joking.

Of course, I am raising the point that my mother sounded more like a Daughter of the Confederacy, than the grand-daughter of Russian empire Jewish immigrants, who arrived in Atlanta about 25 years after it burned down. Mom’s paternal Jewish family was large and well-known. Her father was one of 11 Bresslers and the spot of his department store in Atlanta is a registered neighborhood historic site.  Her uncle was president of Atlanta’s conservative synagogue. My mother, Irma Bressler, immersed herself in the clannish world of Atlanta’s Jewish population.  This world of temple, Jewish social events, Jewish organizations dances was the impetus for her happy teen years. She didn’t date Rhett Butler types, but was instead very happy to be popular with the boys at Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat. 

Her Jewish insularity most likely softened the antisemitism of 1920s and 1930s Georgia.  Mom was born in Atlanta in 1924, just 9 years after the infamous lynching of the Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, wrongly convicted, due to antisemitism, of murdering a young girl employee.  The Frank Case drove 3,000 worried Jews out of Georgia, though mom’s future parents were not among them.  When mom turned 1 in 1925, there were more Klansmen than Jews in the US.  The New Georgia Encyclopedia says about the post Frank trial years in Georgia, “During the succeeding decades Jews were attacked by the Klan, the Columbians, and other right-wing groups. They were tolerated but also singled out as different.”

It does seem ironic then that mom, a Southern outsider, embraced the Southern culture’s uber-maxim of “The Lost Cause” that emphasized the honor of the valor of a Confederacy fighting for states rights and home-turf protection and not slavery.  But though her innermost concentric cultural circles were Jewish, the larger, peripheral concentric circles advocating the Lost Cause were hard to ignore. Most likely she first learned of the War of Northern Aggression in the textbooks at the historic Spring Street school in the early 1930s.  From then there was Confederate Memorial Day, the statues of Civil War heroes, and social norms to reinforce her regional pride.

My mother’s racial biases were more societal than personal. Thus, she was easily awakened to the Civil Rights movement’s goals, I remember her being excited to attend a lecture by a Southern civil rights journalist in the late 1960s.  She always voted Democratic, as the South moved Republican after 1960. Most tellingly, I don’t know of any band playing Dixie for her, after a Bar Mitzvah my family attended in 1964.

Before Alzheimer’s locked down mom’s brain when she was 75, she understood that “Dixie” had become an anthem with many negative connotations. My sister and I also understood this, but we also understood that Dixie was a short-cut to her treasured Southern identity.  In 2014, we unveiled my dad’s grave marker.  Dad and Mom are buried in the same plot.  The gathering was just my son and I, and my sister and her two kids   We recited a few required prayers. Then we added our own flourish. My nephew, amped by his IPOD and Elvis, sang a few bars of his version of “Dixie.” To our family  this memorial requiem was not Lost Cause specific, or callously played.  The song just defined who mom was, a Jewish Southern Belle, for better or worse.  

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He still prefers pecan pie to  Boston creme. 

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Yosl and Henekh

by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)

My father, Yosl Russ, was born in 1907 in a shtetl 30 miles southeast of Warsaw called Kaluszyn (Kal-u-sheen).   Kaluszyn, the Poles corrected my pronunciation to Kal-oo-shyn (I explained mine was the Jewish pronunciation), was a midsize commercial town that was on a major trade route between Warsaw and eastern Poland and Russia. My father was one of six children born to a poor family that dealt in the beer distributing business; they had a small tavern connected to their home.  The family was observant like all others in the shtetl.  Crisis struck the family when my father’s father suddenly passed away in 1917, one of millions of victims of the Spanish flu pandemic.  With no means of support, the family moved to Warsaw.  My father was sent to live with an aunt at the age of 10 and spent his teenage years performing housework and eventually learning to work in the knitting trade.  He, like so many others in his poverty-stricken, working class generation in Poland became radicalized, gave up religious observance, embraced a Jewish brand of socialism and internationalism, and went on to organize like-minded Jewish youth in Warsaw.  He became active in the Jewish Labor Bund, the principal Jewish political party of his time and place, a Yiddishist, consistent with the Bund’s tenets, and a leader in the party-affiliated sports and outdoors organization, Morgenshtern.  The latter provided organized physical activity and an appreciation of the natural world to slum-bound, impoverished Jewish working youth.  He led “ski trips,” hikes and other expeditions in the Carpathian Mountains and environs of Warsaw.   It was in this context that he met my mother. 

My parents never wanted to return to Poland after the war.  They had escaped east to Bialystok and the Soviet Union in 1939, one step ahead of the German advance into Poland.   They spent the next 18 months in a forced labor camp in Siberia cutting timber.  The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was struck in 1941 between the Soviet Union and Polish Government in exile in London, effectively liberating all Polish citizens held captive by the Soviets.   My parents, like tens of thousands of other Polish Jews who had taken the same path, made their way south in a harrowing journey through the Soviet heartland.  They spent the remaining war years in Uzbekistan.   After the war they briefly returned to Poland to see who had survived; all but one sibling on each side of the family perished.  They lived in a German DP camp for a time, Paris for a year, and eventually immigrated to Cuba (where my sister and I were born), and finally, to Philadelphia. 

This background is necessary to explain what happened when my wife  and two adolescent children decided to visit Poland.  Initially, the trip was planned as part of a larger Bar Mitzvah journey for my nephew’s son that was to begin in Poland and end in Israel.  Timing was such that we could only join my sister’s family for the first part of the trip.  I shared my parents’ reservations with respect to visiting Poland.  I imagined a land full of anti-Semites, denigrating me and insulting me on the streets of Warsaw.   Although I had powerful trepidations about the trip, I remained curious about what it would be like.  Part of me was drawn to travel there.   

My father had a younger brother, Henekh.  Growing up, I heard bits and pieces about his life.  I heard that he was smart, quick-witted, passionate, and very energetic and capable.  I also knew that he was very well thought of.  My parents’ friends, all Holocaust survivors, many of whom were bona fide heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and partisans in the Polish forests, all knew him and held him in high esteem.  He was one of them.   As I grew older I read some the biographical sketches that had been written about him in Yiddish texts.  Before the war he had been a leader in the young adult section of the Jewish Labor Bund, the Tsukunft, and served on the Bund’s Warsaw central committee, a major achievement for someone so young.  With the advent of the Internet and newly discovered references to him in a variety of books and documents, I learned more about him over the years.   I learned that he had been an active member of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, and that he had been the co-editor of one the underground newspapers, Yugnt Shtime, preserved as part of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oneg Shabbat archives.  He also authored a “diary” consisting of the proceedings of meetings and historical events related to the Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in the YIVO Archives in New York.  I learned that his infant son was killed during a bombardment in the Ghetto.  According to Marek Edelman, the leader of the Bund fighting organization in the Ghetto, Henekh’s vote broke a deadlock resulting in the decision to create the Jewish Combat Organization (the Bund’s military group) in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Henekh and his wife were captured and sent to the Majdanek death camp near Lublin for four months.  I read that he had engaged in acts of heroism while incarcerated.  He and his wife were ultimately sent to Werk Tze, the section of the notorious munitions factory commandeered by the Germans in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna midway between Krakow and Warsaw.  This factory had three sections, the third, Werk Tse, a combination factory and concentration camp, was reserved for Jews.  The work in this part of the factory was so dangerous and toxic (they used picric acid as part of the munitions processing that literally turned the skin yellow) that the life expectancy of Jews in this setting was 3 months. 

And I knew two more things.  I knew that my uncle and his wife, along with others, were shot in the forest outside this camp in a failed attempt to escape following a rumor that the camp would be liquidated the following day.  And I knew from the time I was a small boy that my father had always said:  “If I knew where my brother Henekh was buried, I would bring flowers to his grave every day.”  These were words I never forgot, words that expressed both a connection and a loss too intense to comprehend.   I had always imagined a “grave” waiting for flowers that would never come.   

Mixed feelings regarding our trip to Poland gave way to clarity of purpose.  I did not know where or how my family perished.  Only Henekh’s journey could be traced, and, with the help of my research efforts, Internet and modern technology, I was intent on addressing my father’s wish.  I found a map of the factory where my uncle and aunt had been incarcerated in Felicia Karay’s book about the Skarzysko camp, Death Comes in Yellow.  With the help of Google Earth, I was able to superimpose that map on the current map of Skarzysko.  I contacted the local historical museum in the town and was informed that parts of the factory still exist, that it is still a munitions plant, but that it makes classified weapons (many of which, ironically, it sells to Israel), and that I would need permission to visit.  My goals were to visit the ruins of Werk Tse if they were to be found and the forest where my uncle was murdered.  With this information in hand, I was able to surmise the approximate location of where Werk Tse stood and that a forest still exists outside the factory complex.  As expected, it was to the east, precisely the direction they would have gone in 1944 to reach the advancing Soviet army.  With help from the local museum staff I was able to contact the factory administrator and set a date for a visit for my wife, my children and me.  We arranged to have a guide as well who would drive us from Krakow to Skarzysko and on to Warsaw, our final destination.  My plan was simple; lay flowers at the ruins of Werk Tse

In Krakow, we stayed in what had been the Jewish quarter, on the block lined with “Jewish” restaurants, each with its own ensemble playing Yiddish folks tunes and klezmer music into the night.  Initially odd and off-putting, there was an air of respectfulness among the locals we met, and, for me, a kind of strange familiarity that counterbalanced an otherwise bizarre and awkward scene.  We visited Auschwitz and toured Krakow, including the site where the Krakow Ghetto had stood.  On July 30th, coincident with the exact day that my uncle and aunt were killed (this was not planned), we bought a bouquet of flowers, and were off to do what we set out to do.  That very morning, however, I received an email from an administrator at the munitions factory stating that he regretted to inform me that the factory was about to start its annual two week summer holiday and that our visit could not take place.  I asked our guide for advice.  He said we should not respond, check in with the museum staff first, and then make our way to the factory and “play dumb.”  If asked, I was to lie about getting the email that morning.  This made me very anxious (I am not a good liar), but fittingly seemed to evoke the uncertainty and tension of an earlier time.   We followed his instructions.  The museum staff could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and, in a show of support and enthusiasm, two of them piled into our van in a scene reminiscent of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and we were off to the factory.  Our guide took the lead, spoke with Security, and after what seemed like an eternity, arranged an impromptu meeting with a plant administrator.  A long and tense discussion took place in Polish in the parking lot of a surviving factory building.  I was not called upon to lie, but did learn during the negotiations that Werk Tse no longer stood.  However, there was a memorial at the site of Werk Tse, which they referred to as the “Patelnye,” which was absolutely off limits for a visit.  The word “patelnye” was instantly recognizable to me as it was one of the many Polish words that made its way into Yiddish vernacular and my family’s kitchen.  It is the word for frying pan, and came to epitomize the horrifying conditions of the labor camp in the most grotesque terms imaginable.  I also learned that the larger factory complex had its own memorial.  It was located in the surviving and refurbished building immediately in front of us.  They called it the Room of Remembrance and it was dedicated to all those who had perished in the era, Poles and Jews alike.  After what seemed like endless negotiations, we were informed, begrudgingly, that the administrator could take me alone into that room, and just for a minute.  Realizing this was the best I could do, I took my flowers and followed her to the room.  Among the various military artifacts and other memorabilia in the room was a simple stone memorial dedicated to the Jews who had perished.  In an experience that was robbed of meaning and emotion, I lay the flowers down in a perfunctory manner, and left.   

But my real goal, to honor my father’s wish to visit my uncle’s “grave,” was not yet realized.  Naturally, there was no grave, but there was the expanse of forest immediately adjacent to the site where the camp had stood.  I knew that somewhere in that forest, my uncle, aunt and others had been shot.  After dropping our new friends at the museum, I instructed our guide to drive down the road that bordered the forest.  At a small dirt road, which I found on Google Earth, I asked him to stop.  My wife, daughter, son and I walked down the road to a small clearing in the forest.  This was certainly not the spot where Henekh perished, but it would have to do.   We read my uncle’s biography.  My son chanted El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead.  We hugged and shed some tears.  I suddenly felt this pang in my heart; I had used the flowers to support our ill-fated visit to the factory, and could therefore not fulfill my father’s wish to lay flowers on Henekh’s “grave.”  And just as suddenly, I had this epiphany.  I had, in fact, fulfilled his wish.  My children and my family were his flowers.  We had done what we set out to do. 

But the story does not end there.  There is a postscript.  Part of our itinerary in Warsaw included a visit to the museum, POLIN, dedicated to the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland.  It is a magical place, first rate, detailed, comprehensive, and beautiful.  After wandering through centuries in the galleries, we walk into a gallery devoted to the history of Jewish political movements between the two World Wars.  We approach the section devoted to the Jewish Labor Bund.  The exhibit includes several “Ken Burns style” slide shows depicting photographs of the era.  As I watched one of these slide shows I gazed upon a photograph of a large group of young people in boats on a lake.  To the right in the photograph was a handsome man, bare-chested, wearing sunglasses.  I swear it is my father.  But I am very familiar with how the unconscious desire to see things can influence what you see.  I call my wife and ask her, without preparation or warning, to watch the slide show.  “Oh my G-d, it’s your father!”  I break down.  She then goes to a second slide show in the exhibit.  She says, “Quick, come here.  It’s a picture of Henekh.”  He is marching in a parade, his clear and piercing eyes evident, dressed in the uniform of his party.  The poignancy of the moment does not escape me.  For however long this museum will stand, my father and his beloved brother will be together.  And, perhaps for at least a brief moment in time, one brother’s wish will have been honored, bringing a modicum of peace to another brother’s soul.

Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York.  He is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Vice Chair of Clinical Programs and Medical Director at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Behavioral Health Center in White Plains, New York.  Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister.  He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school.   Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature and is beginning to publish fiction and non-fiction pieces.

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After school refuge – 1963

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

Leaving behind
the petty fights and fires
taunts and turmoil
of 7th grade in Newark, N.J.
I’d set my walking compass
to Linda Telesco’s house.

A large oak towered over
the rickety porch, roots
eating into the sidewalk.
Furniture too large for the living room.
A gold brocade couch covered in plastic.
Jesus hung from a cross
directly over a scratched dining table.

We were best friends.
Craved the same crazy TV shows.
Reading was the outer limits of joy.
Gossiped about boys whose hair
seemed to grow longer each day,
and our teacher Mr. Ransom
who sneered at our grim pronunciation
of his beloved French.

I was only a generation from my parents’
Yiddish accents, wallet was “Vallet”
Vacuum cleaner, “wacuum cleaner”
Linda still salty sweet
from the oceans her parents
crossed from Sicily
before World War II.

We pulled out the Ouji board
clandestine in her closet
to connect to the spirit world.
Mainly the actors from our favorite
TV show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Her crush the exotic Ilya Kuriakin.
Mine the suave Napoleon Solo.
The pointer would glide
letter to letter guided by our fingers
or perhaps the spirits
while we inquired about their favorite colors
flavors of ice cream
when and where we could possibly meet.

Sometimes she’d cry afterwards
as she stared at Jesus on the cross.
Scared she was doomed to the fires of Hell
because she contacted spirits
and liked boys way too much.

I never wanted to go home
where the fires from the Holocaust
still burned every night in my parents’ eyes.                   

Annette Friend, a retired occupational therapist and elementary school teacher, taught both Hebrew and Judaica to a wide range of students. In 2008, she was honored as the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Jewish Educator of the Year from San Diego. Her work has been published in The California Quarterly, Tidepools, Summation, and The San Diego Poetry Annual.

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The Imperative of Remembrance

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

This piece is dedicated to the six million Jews and other innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust and to the beloved families left behind.

Years ago, after visiting my family in Israel, I stopped for several hours in Berlin before a connecting flight back home to the U.S.A. I shall never forget the overwhelming feelings of dread I had when I saw the building that once was the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The thought that here I was, standing on the soil where the Final Solution was planned to murder six million Jews and other innocent victims, filled me with anguish. I wept. I could not wait to leave the country and vowed that I would never set foot on German soil again.

Several years after my stop in Berlin, a friend and her husband in Israel called, asking me to join them on an organized tour from Israel to Germany. Initially, I declined the invitation. The thought of being in Germany again made me uneasy. As a child, I had lived through the pain of prejudice and persecution just for being Jewish. I remembered the beatings and every syllable of slurs, a traumatic experience that has been like a shadow accompanying me throughout my life. 

Also, my late husband was a Holocaust survivor. Except for one brother, the rest of his family were all killed in the Holocaust. The atrocities inflicted on him during the years he spent in several labor camps left psychic scars with which he wrestled the rest of his life. The trauma became a silent phantom; during the day, painful memories were locked away, but at night, when the repressed pain became too much to bear, it burdened his dreams with nightmares, awakening him from a storm of grief, as he called out the names of his perished loved ones.  Witnessing his suffering from a wound that would never heal was painful. Many times he expressed the wish that one day he would visit Dachau, the concentration camp from which he was liberated. 

Like other survivors he journeyed from darkness to light, striving toward the birth of a new life. We built a family with two wonderful children, and he lived to enjoy our first three precious grandchildren. Like other survivors, the love and pride he took in his children were deep and truly meaningful. Often, my husband would say: “The revenge is to live a successful, meaningful life.” At the age of 93 after a long illness, Samuel Holzkenner (z’l) passed away. His wish to visit Dachau remained unfulfilled.

So, the question of whether to join my friends in Germany rattled around in my head for weeks.  After some deliberation, I contacted the administrative office in Dachau. Initially I was told they had no record of a Mr. Holzkenner. But after much correspondence, I finally received an email saying that they had found several documents about my late husband. This information was pivotal in helping deal with my emotional turmoil.

I wanted very much to fulfill my husband’s wish to visit Dachau, and I needed that to happen before memory deserted me, before age took me down. Also, I wanted to impart to my children and grandchildren the beauty and tenacity of their Jewish heritage. But being in a country where my people had been systematically annihilated filled me with anxiety, anger, and fears.  My grandfather’s words of wisdom came to mind: “Hate is the seed of evil that tarnishes the soul, while finding creative ways to no longer be a victim is self-healing.” His words inspired me to look into unresolved fears from my past traumatic experiences with prejudice and how they continued coloring my present life.  I realized that I had to cultivate a healthier perspective of life. I said to myself, healing only comes through learning to forgive and making peace with the past, and if a lesson is to be learned, one must never forget.

Yes, I thought, why should the good-hearted young German generation be judged by the sins of their fathers or grandfathers? This rekindled awareness imbued me with the strength to join my friends, tour the country, and visit several Jewish historical sites. And on the day my friends returned home, I took the early train to Munich, arriving in the late afternoon.  I spent a sleepless night in a hotel. In the still of the night, I cried and awakened. The first crimson hues of dawn brought the promise of a new day, a new hope. Early the next morningI took the train to Dachau.

In this cataclysmic landscape, I walked with apprehensive steps over the gravel walkway, thinking this is the same path where prisoners in a human chain of misery were forced to walk as they were brought into the camp to meet their demise. The path led toward the main original gate with its motto in German, “Work Sets You Free.”  I saw a variety of people of all ages strolling in groups in solemn silence. Everything seemed eerie at this site that was once a killing field. I felt the ashes of the perished ones still permeating the airI exhaled a long sigh.

As I had been directed, I went straight to the administrative office that preserved the legacy of the victims. The staff there welcomed me warmly. One administrator guided me to a room and we sat down. He asked me several questions to verify who I was before getting up to go to the archive room. When he came back, he provided me with my husband’s background information – his birthplace, date of birth, a list of names of people who were deported with him on the same train, the names of the camps he was in before Dachau—and the identification card Jews had to carry with them at all times. He gave me copies of all the documents.

I felt overwhelmed with sadness and pain at the images this information conjured up in my mind, imagining my husband and others taken from their homes, their families left behind in anguish and fears, the cries of loved ones being separated from loved ones, and the horror that awaited them all. I felt a lump in my throat and tears sprang from my eyes. When I lifted my gaze to the man in front of me, his eyes seemed rimmed with red, as though he was holding back his tears.

He got up and showed me around the place. There was a room where paintings of survivors were displayed, a library, and a big archive room that contained films, relics, photos, written documents about the history of what happened in the camp, eye-witness reports, personal narratives of survivors, and scholarly work. I was filled with a sense of gratitude and extended my thanks to all those involved in maintaining this place as a reminder of history, and as a resource for people like myself who wanted to research and learn about their loved ones’ experiences of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. I left the office knowing that the people here were on the right side of history.

I walked along the Path of Remembrance, viewing several Jewish memorial halls and monuments, all of which commemorated the sanctity of those who had perished and solemnly honored the loved ones who survived.  A Jewish menorah on the wall displayed the words “Never Again.” Another memorial sculpture in the yard symbolized the emaciated bodies of the prisoners dangling down; underneath was a placard indicating the dates 1933-1945, the years the camp was in use. Also, there was a big sculpture of a menorah and a lectern engraved with the word “Yizkor,” Hebrew for “to remember”; a museum; and other memorial sites to commemorate non-Jews.  Utterly chilling were the barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium building, all too painful to describe. 

As I moved around, I was consumed with grief. How could such a highly cultured nation as Germany descend into such unfathomable depths of barbarism?  The question remained beyond my comprehension. I wanted to be alone in some corner, mourning the martyrs in silence. I asked myself, how does one mourn for six million Jews and all the other innocent victims who perished. What prayer shall I recite?  I shut my eyes and bowed my head low, and cried for the suffering of humanity as I recited a prayer: “May the souls of the six million Jews, and the millions of others who were victims of Nazi persecution, rest in peace, and their sacred memory last forever and ever. Amen.”

When I opened my eyes, tears still dropping down my face, my heart filled with sadness, I was awake, yet felt physically transported to another time and place, I wished that by some miracle I had been disguised as an invisible eagle, with strong wings that soared over the regions of the world in turmoil, to redirect the tide of history. 

I wished that I had been there with the innocent victims yearning to live and be free, to hold their hands as my grandfather held mine once, walking together to the synagogue on Shabbat or the holidays, or to sing to them the first song my mother had sung to me to soothe my fears before bed. Or, that under my wings of love, I could have been their mother, or sister, and together we could have prayed to change the course of the trains and every road that led to their impending doom, and take them to the city of their ancestors that stands on the hill in the Promised Land. Out from the rhythm of my imagination: somehow, I heard voices, I knew they came from a nation in anguish of grief in a prayer asking: “Please, please, never, never again.”

On my way back home, I looked at the gravel paths. Among the stones are the ashes of cremated corpses of which I felt I was a part. Their infinite and indestructible souls are beyond the celestial heavens gazing at us here on earth, reminding us that wherever they are, they will always be part of us, for in the chain of life by many threads we were, we are, and we will always be interconnected, between the land of the dead and the world of the living, ancestors and descendants united. And yes, we must preserve the collective memory and keep truth alive so that these atrocities do not happen again, toward anyone regardless of age, gender, race, color, religion, or creed. 

I looked back one more time. I said to myself, I shall continue to mourn the annihilation of the innocents. And yes, I shall never forget. But I am also thankful for the miracle of survival and for the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over the extremes of evil. For I know that these monuments are a precious legacy, commemorating all the victims who perished in the Shoah, a symbol of human tragedy. 

Before reaching the main street, I picked up a stone as big as a coin cut from the evil of time past, a silent witness. I can’t see it, but I know it is there: engraved on it the word Zachor (remember). The clouds moved in wandering shadows, mirroring my emotions — intense and painful in a complex way. Everything here was, is, and will for eternity remain touched by solemnity and sorrow and tears.  Under my breath I said, Hitler did not win; here I am walking out of here as a free Jew, a testament that the Stars of David are not all burned out or destroyed; we still live and shine among the nations of the world. 

Just as I was leaving the camp, I met a group of non-Jewish German boys and girls, high school students with their teacher who — from what I could ascertain — was explaining the history of the camp. I was interested to find out what emotions this place stirred in them, so I approached the group and asked in the few words of German I knew, “Do you speak French or English?” The teacher answered, “Yes, I speak English and some students do as well.” I asked, “How do you feel being here?” One of them responded by asking me, “Why are you here?” I told them that my late husband was liberated in this camp, and briefly related my early childhood experiences of persecution. 

They were curious and articulate, not shy to ask their own questions. I encouraged their curiosity and answered as best I could. The students told me that they were here as part of their school curriculum that prescribed over 14 hours of instruction in National Socialism of WW II, as well as learning about the Holocaust, including a visit to a concentration camp. They also mentioned that they’d seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Some expressed a wish for sympathy for their grandparents’ generation and resented being defined by their grandparents’ genocidal history. The past, they said, had so little connection with their immediate lives; they were no longer willing to bear the weight of historical wrongs. Others maintained that the past was still part of their psyche as they continued to struggle with their ethnic inheritance and national collective guilt, trying to make things right with the world. 

After this emotional discourse, we concurred that each generation must create a new culture of its own humanity by playing a unique role in the moral conscience of the world. Inhuman behavior toward any race, gender, age, creed, color, or religion is simply not acceptable. Every individual must seek insight in order to separate darkness from light, for if we are indifferent to the plight of others’ humanity, we will be neglecting the future and risk repeating the past. Moreover, we must be aware of the importance of participating in whatever minuscule manner we can to build a safe, more humane world. In Hebrew, I told the teens, we say, “Tikkun Olam” — a phrase describing the effort to repair the world. Two of the teens broke down in tears, as did I. In their words, I heard remorse and sadness; in their eyes, I saw hope. 

Among the swirling clouds I thought heard words wrapped in a celestial rhapsody. 

I looked up into the vast sphere, and smiled. I want to believe it was Samuel Holzkenner (z’l), smiling back from above, whispering, “Yes, may the seeds of hope give humankind strength and love to teach them more.”

 Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst and family therapist with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development, and couples and family therapy. Born in Morocco, she lived briefly in France and Israel, and has resided in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for the past 56 years. 

Her poem, “Hidden Identities in Transition,” inspired by the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, and an essay, “When Understanding Comes,” both appeared in The Jewish Writing Project, and her poems and prose have appeared in such publications as Reflections in Poetry and Prose 2015, HaLapid, Chelsea Now, Chelsea Community News, the Israeli Birding Portal (in both English and Hebrew), and, most recently, she was profiled on Senior Planet- “Poetry, Power and Perseverance.”  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society Newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.

She has two children, and  five grandchildren, for whom she writes storybooks and poetry. 

 

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The truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

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Opposing Perspective

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

An educational administrator in


     11 million were murdered by the Nazis.


the Carroll Independent School District


     6 million Jews were slaughtered.


in Southland, Texas,


     1.5 million children were killed.


advised her teachers recently


     The Nazis came to power legally.


that if they have a book


     The earliest victims were people with disabilities.


about the Holocaust in their classroom,


     People around the world knew of the camps.


they should also offer the student


     Dachau was the first concentration camp.


access to a book from an “opposite perspective.”


     Eventually there were thousands of camps.


Of course, if such a book were available,


     The Nazis believed they would rule 1000 years.


it would never find the light of day,
having been burned and scattered 
among the ashes of the murdered millions.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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An encounter with holiness

By Adrienne Raymer Hutt (Sarasota, FL)

At a recent Torah study, we talked about holy experiences that we felt we’ve had and what made these experiences feel holy. I did not respond during the study session as I could not remember an experience that I would describe as holy, except for the extraordinary gift of my children. Afterwards, a long forgotten memory popped into my consciousness, and I was reminded of an encounter that I had at a swimming pool on the east coast of Florida  years ago. 

When I had young children, we would go to Florida to visit my parents, and I would take along a knitting project. On one particular visit, when my children were about three and four, we all went to the community pool, and I brought my latest knitting project with me.  As my parents played with and watched over my children, I took the opportunity to relax and knit.

I learned to knit from my mother most likely when I was old enough to be able to manipulate the needles and yarn. She and my sister were extremely fine knitters, I … well,  I tried my best. My mother taught me to knit in the Eastern European fashion.  Using this method, I wound the yarn to be knitted around the second finger of my non-dominant hand, and then, with a slight twist of  that finger, I released the yarn as it was needed to knit. This was how everyone I knew knit.  I did not know it had a name, or that  there was any other way.  

I understood that this way of  knitting was a part of my heritage, my Jewish  heritage, brought to this country by women who had emigrated from Eastern European countries. As they learned the ways of their new country, they retained ties to their European culture, and, by doing so, ensured that it was passed on to future generations.  I don’t believe that was their motivation; however, it was the result, and I liked this connection to generations past and present. So, I gladly learned how to knit.

Much later on, as I observed others knitting differently than me, I learned that there was another way of knitting, an English method.  No yarn was wrapped around your finger. Rather, it was manipulated by your dominant hand.  It was a method that always looked cumbersome to me. The way I knit seemed to be concise and precise in its movements. And so, I continued to knit in the manner that I was taught.

At the pool that day there were neighbors socializing and swimming.  A woman, who I did not recognize as a friend of my parents but who seemed to be a contemporary, approached me and said that seeing me knit in this way brought her back to the shelters in England during the bombing in WWII.  She explained that she was in England during this time, having emigrated there from Russia some years before the war began.

When in the shelters, she recalled, women would knit to ease their tension and fear.  Those of her community were mostly Jewish from Eastern Europe and knit using this method.  She learned to knit in this way, she told me, from her mother when she was a young girl. 

As a result of seeing me knit in the Eastern European manner, she expressed a sense of connection to her roots and to her frightening experiences during the times she had to take shelter. Observing me knit brought her back in time, and, feeling this connection to her past, she felt compelled to bring this connection into the present.

As she spoke, I had a deep sense of connection to this woman. I visualized all of these women sitting together, knitting. Maybe they spoke and maybe they did not; however, the rhythmic movement of the needles does have a calming effect, and so I could understand why these women grabbed their knitting before running for cover. I did not ask many questions. Instead, I let her recall whatever memories of knitting and shelters and bombing she needed to recall. Listening to her, I felt the ties to my heritage and ancestral geography.  I truly marveled at how such powerful emotions—felt by me, and expressed by her—could be conveyed through the simple act of knitting.  

I never saw this woman again during that visit or on subsequent visits. I do not remember her name or what she looked like.  What I do remember is her gift of sharing our heritage and her memories. In walking those few steps at the pool to where I was sitting, she gave me extraordinary insight into how I feel about being Jewish and my connection to my heritage.

During our moments together, I was transfixed and transported to a holy place via her need to share some of her most poignant memories. It was holy because in that brief period I was no longer sitting at the pool. She and I were somewhere else, together. Time was meaningless. We were in the past. In her past and in our collective present. This stranger and I were in a holy space.  

Until now, I was unable to understand this encounter. I now recognize that this experience has stayed with me in such detail because it was holy. I have encountered many people at a pool or elsewhere and have forgotten those experiences.  This one, this holy encounter, has been patiently resting in  my memory, waiting for me to identify and acknowledge it.

Now I look at knitting and at the Eastern European method that was used by our ancestors, used in shelters, used when sitting by a pool in Florida, and I can see how this particular way of wrapping the yarn around my finger stitches us all together into a  tightly knit, beautiful, and holy Jewish community.

Adrienne Raymer Hutt was born and raised in Brooklyn New York.  She attended Brooklyn College, graduating with a B.A. degree, and received her Masters degree from Southern Connecticut State College in Counseling, as well as a post-Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.  Adrienne and her husband Phil lived in Old Saybrook, Ct, where she worked as a speech pathologist, a teacher of the deaf, and, finally, as a  marriage and family therapist. They are now full-time residents of Sarasota.

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Missing my synagogue, my shul

by Tania Hassan (Gilbraltar)

I miss the synagogue.  Not my husband’s exquisitely vintage and stunningly intricate synagogue of his childhood but mine–my synagogue, my shul–the one that started out in a basement with doilies and shiny kippas in a basket by the entrance, and a chain across the parking lot (“lichvod Shabbat kodesh”) that forced shul goers to find parking around the corner.

How can I describe to you the ties that bind me to this most simple of communities or the profound love and connection in which the roots of my Avodat Hashem were planted and watered?

From lap to lap I shuffled as a child, gathering candies and friendships.  From wide-eyed babyhood, I grew into a sulky preteen and then a bride, a mother… all within the warm embrace of my parents’ friends and the fellow  members of Tiferet Yisrael Congregation, or “congregatation,” as the shul president sometimes called it – English not being his first or second language.

This shul was not just a place to pray.  It was our favorite playground. During shul hours, the parking lot and the coat room were begging for our imaginations to transform them into dangerous faraway lands. The choicest hiding spot was under Jack Oziel’s lush mink fur coat, which felt like melted butter against our hopelessly chapped and cracked lips. I can still feel it and smell the musty cloves that lingered in old pockets from havdalah to havdalah.

Believe it or not, in our neck of the woods, during “shalushudis” or rather, seudah shelisheet, we kids were sort of allowed to play in the main sanctuary, stomping on the hollow bimah, hiding in the velvet curtains of the Aron, and even peeking at and kissing the precious scrolls.

We were always shooed out by a red-faced, cranky Moroccan, who, with great flourish and a dismissive wave of his hand, locked us out and banished us back to the coat room.

But it was all a show because the next week, for 20 years, they would forget to lock the sanctuary and ignore the sudden disappearance of literally all the kids from the seudah shelisheet kids’ table.

I grew up pecking the men and women once on each cheek until I was bat mitzvah, at which time the men did a sort of slight Shabbat shalom bow, always amused at my adherence to religion despite my very childish appearance and antics. This familial style of greeting and interacting is very telling of the sort of community we grew up in.  One didn’t proceed to the kiddush or the exit without greeting every single shul goer.

Simchat Torah was The Best. No other synagogue with their enormous budgets and catered lunches could compare to the laughter, dancing, and, of course, fried sharmila and spicy orissa of my childhood Simchat Torah’s.

Age was irrelevant in this place. Old men were the coolest dancers and were always the first to whip those candies right back at us, usually resulting in the candy bouncing off the tinted glass that was our mechitza and hitting another horrified octogenarian. These were the days before Sunkist jelly candies. The older I got, the more sophisticated the candies became.  Rumor has it that now they throw whole packs of Twizzlers, O’ Henry’s, and the like.  Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing like a Moroccan shul.

__________

Yom Kippur. Oh, Yom Kippur, I miss you! I miss leaning on all the mollycoddling ladies. I miss the smell of lemons and Heno de Pravia cologne my grandmother would bring to keep her going. I miss the chazzan whose voice is the one I still hear in my head every time I utter a prayer. His strong, zealous service of God in a stunning clear call that still brings in my own Shabbat here across the whole world or wherever I go, whoever is up at the Bimah. In my ears, it’s always him. 

I miss the unity that I used to feel on Yom Kippur.  I don’t think everyone in that shul was Jewish, but we were One. That night and all the next day, we were shoulder to shoulder, intertwined souls, with the single mission to carry each other to the finish line, supported, cared about, and joyful.

We were happy on Yom Kippur because with all the petty politics of a shul out of the way, we focused on what we liked about each other. We laughed a lot until we elbowed each other or got stern looks from the chazzan or his wife, our eim bayit. We weren’t misbehaving, but we were so happy and united. The little things made us laugh.

We cried too. We knew each other so well—who had lost their mother that year , whose husband was ill, whose conversion was imminent. We prayed for ourselves, but hand in hand.

On this day, the Shabbat drivers put on their leather running shoes to walk home or to the house of a nearby host.  Yom Kippur was sacred to all, and we celebrated that accomplishment of theirs with great pride. To this day I can’t tell you which members were fully Shabbat observant and which weren’t, aside for the obvious ones, such as the chazzan and his family.

The tinkling Spanish of the ladies with their heavy perfumes and broaches, the croaky davening of tone deaf middle-aged men pierced by the melodious honey-like harmony of the chazzanim and their sons, or a delightful guest…the jar of chili peppers in the basement fridge that called our names every Friday night (after which we wiped our lips on Jack Oziel’s mink coat)… the diversity and the oneness… it shaped my entire being beyond the service of Hashem.

The shul shaped my perspective of the world. It helped me understand the world my parents had left behind and tried to recreate on much more frigid, colorless shores. And it embedded itself in the roots of my soul, in that space where self-esteem and formative experiences matter so much as to affect you forever.

People used to make fun of our shul. They saw it as a nebbish smattering of old school Spanish Moroccans, and Israeli and Russian ba’al teshuvas without a grand hall or grand communal accomplishments.  But there were those of us who found the secret to life along with the musty old cloves in deep pockets of simple and happy men.

And if your synagogue held gala dinners, or charged thousands of dollars in annual membership (barring the entry of a poor man longing to connect to His Maker), or catered a five-star kiddush with a VIP table, you just wouldn’t understand.

Tania Hassan is an ABA therapist who lives in Gibraltar, a 2.2 km squared British peninsula that shares a border with Spain.  Her Spanglish is superb, her British accent less so.  When she has spare time, she writes and pines for Canadian winters. 

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