Category Archives: Jewish

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

Leave a comment

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

The Passover Walk

 by Jacqueline Jules (Long Island, NY)

It was his idea to go to Central Park.

 “You love to walk, Mom,” he said. 

He was 26, in law school, and not as a rule, the kind of son who suggested outings his mother would like. I suspected he felt guilty for begging out of the second Passover Seder at his brother’s apartment on the West Side. I could have absolved him. Could have said that one Seder was enough for someone who’d been glancing at his phone under the table all night. He always suffered stoically at Seders, not being a fan of matzah ball soup, charoset, or the long service his older brother liked to lead. His only joys at Passover were the brightly colored fruit slices everyone else criticized as being full of carcinogenic dyes.

“If you can’t come tonight,” I agreed, “a walk this afternoon is a nice trade-off.”

The weather was glorious for early April. Sunny and sixty-five degrees. His step was uncharacteristically peppy, pointing out blooming flowers he said I’d like. I panted sometimes, trying to keep up, not daring to ask him to slow down, afraid he’d think I was too tired to continue. Time alone with a grown son was worth sore feet later on. 

He was a proud tour guide, insisting we visit Belvedere Castle, an attraction I hadn’t seen on any previous trips to New York. 

Reaching the balcony and the panoramic view, he grinned at me, sharing the small endearing space between his two front teeth.

“I knew you’d love this, Mom.” 

We leaned against the railing for a good twenty minutes, admiring the greenery, framed by the Manhattan skyline. I felt so full, so grateful he’d given me these precious hours.  

“When I’m old and gone.” I touched his arm, rock solid under his light jacket from lifting weights. “Remember how happy you made me today.” 

It was a year before his diagnosis. Colon cancer, stage four.  Neither of us ever imagined what kind of gift this day would become, how at Passover, I would be the one left to recall our animated walk through Central Park in place of his bored presence at seder. His strong legs striding beside me, still pulsing with life. 

Jacqueline Jules is the author of Manna in the Morning (Kelsay Books, 2021) and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications, and she is the author of 50 books for young readers including four Sydney Taylor Honor winners, two National Jewish Book Award finalists, and ten PJ Library selections. To learn more about her, please visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com.

Leave a comment

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

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/

Leave a comment

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

Condolences

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday. 

Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.

He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.  

He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21. 

“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.” 

I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.

But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”

It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that. 

“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.” 

“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.  

There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort. 

We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way. 

How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things. 

“You’re Sam, right?” 

He nodded.  

“Thank you, Sam.” 

He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

6 Comments

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

Pesach

by Simon Constam (Toronto, Canada)

Who today asks 

down to the last detail,

as the Haggadah wants us to do,

down to the revi’it of wine, 

the kezayit of matzah, 

whether in the absence of children 

the afikoman ought to be hidden? 

And we rush over the business about it being us 

in Mitzraim. 

Our people were slaves in Egypt,

isn’t that enough

someone always asks. 

And someone always says that there are natural explanations 

for all the plagues.

And someone always mentions the Palestinians. 

And at least one kid always asks, aren’t we done yet. 

“Call down thy wrath upon…” begins then

and some of us and always the guests shift uneasily in their chairs. 

And Eliyahu 

disguised as the cat

no longer comes in 

when the door is opened

as he used to when I was young. 

Grandfather (it’s always a surprise to know that is me)

is a baby boomer who’s going to live too long.  

Here it is early April and he’s already been out on his motorcycle.

To some this is mildly embarrassing. 

But he’s still needed, 

the only one with even a smattering of Hebrew, 

one of only several now who can remember 

how Seders used to be. 

Simon Constam is a Toronto poet and aphorist. Since late 2018, he has published and continues to publish, under the moniker Daily Ferocity, on Instagram, a new, original aphorism every day. He also sends them out to an email subscriber list. His first book of poetry, Brought Down a book of Jewish poetry, was just published by Wipf and Stock Publishers. He can be reached at simon.constam@gmail.com

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, Passover, poetry

Funerary Blues

by Simon Constam (Toronto, Canada)

As idly as she possibly can, she asks

where we’ll be buried. She says we ought to,

as a couple, even past the end, stay married.

But her long-dead first husband she already has

placed in primary honour in the family plot.

His name is raised on the gravestone.

What place might I take there and which one not?

Perhaps I ought to be in a nearby grave alone.

Or should I think about Jewish burial somewhere else?

She could remain with her once and greater love as

I am not jealous of a presumed hereafter. 

But oh, what will my children, learning this, be thinking of? 

And, alas, she and I, on another matter, we’re also in disarray

as she favours cremation and I favour decay. 

Simon Constam is a Toronto poet and aphorist. Since late 2018, he has published and continues to publish, under the moniker Daily Ferocity, on Instagram, a new, original aphorism every day. He also sends them out to an email subscriber list. His first book of poetry, Brought Down, a book of Jewish poetry, was just published by Wipf and Stock Publishers. He can be reached at simon.constam@gmail.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

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. 

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Boston Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, Russian Jewry

What My American Grandmother Said

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

That she had come to this country from the Austro-Hungarian empire at age two,

that her mother ‘s Viennese relatives were cousins of Theodor Herzl,

that her step-mother felt jealous of her good looks,

that she had become a Suffragette at age sixteen and raised money for the cause selling flowers on the Boston Common,

that the grandson of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been smitten with her appearance as Isaiah’s wife at a play at the West End YMHA,

that he had asked her to marry him on the spot, saying “my grandfather the poet loved your people,”

that she had replied, “Well my father doesn’t love yours,” 

that she married an American-born man twelve years her senior,

that she and her husband embraced whenever they met one another in whatever room of the house it was,

that it took her seven years after she married at nineteen to realize that she could get on top,

that she had gone every Sunday night to the Ford Hall Forum to hear visiting intellectuals who lectured on every topic under the sun,

that she had practiced saying, “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” as one of them had advised,

that her sister who lived upstairs once said, “Rosie, what are you constipating to do?”

that there was nothing more beautiful than the sunset seen through her kitchen window,

that she lived as a widow forty-two years after Hyman‘s death, half of those working for the Federal government,

that the buses she took to work were designed for making friends with her neighbors,

that if you don’t own a car, it’s very important to befriend people who do,

that rush tickets at Symphony Hall were half-price for Friday afternoon rehearsals,

that there was nothing better for the spirit when visiting historic sites than saying “I love America!”

that it was important for young people to cultivate a sense of intimacy – she had been reading Erik Erikson at the time –

that she would never live long enough to use that bottle of one thousand buffered aspirin that I bought her,

that she left to her children and grandchildren her love of the sun and the moon and the stars and the sky

that she would spend her money before she died, which she did not, 

that I should say at her funeral that every morning she recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, but not until after she had eaten her bagel.

Herbert Levine is the author of two books of bi-lingual poetry, Words for Blessing the World (2017) and An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion (2020). He is currently working on a humanist and earth-based prayer book: Blessed Are You, World: A Siddur for our Time. This is the fifth of his family portraits shared on the Jewish Writing Project. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Boston Jewry, Family history, Hungarian Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

An Invitation

by Linda Laderman (Commerce Township, MI)

Invited to a friend’s grandson’s Bar Mitzvah I am divided,

directed to sit behind a gauzy white screen in the balcony.

My Siddur lies on my lap open to a random page.

Ancient words in a language that still feels foreign to me.

Yet I stand on command, a stranger in my old house.

Near the end of a long hardwood pew by the exit

I watch a round-faced woman, young enough to be my

granddaughter, hair hidden under a shiny black sheitel.

A bevy of blue ribboned ponytails nestle their restless bodies

close to her. In a meditative moment she stands and presses

her back against a wall. Eyes closed, she rests her fingers

in the sliver of space between her breasts and burgeoning belly,

then turns and gazes at the five fresh faces looking at her.

Each one returns her gaze, leaning toward her like a chain of flowers.

She pulls a fistful of candy from her pockets & passes pieces

of the sweets down the row, then beckons her girls closer.

Locking arms, they rise and follow her out to begin the long-skirted

walk home. Too late to catch her eye, wishing I could have told her how

I once sat & fished rock candy from my mother’s pockets, my tight

ponytail pulling at my forehead. I think of what it is to want and not want,

to separate from what is given. Boxed & bowed, waiting for me to open

the lid to take what’s there, a package I have been unwilling to unwrap.

After the last prayer is recited, I hurry down the stairs. For a minute,

I imagine I have time to catch up with the mother and her five Shana Maidelas.

 Linda Laderman grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where she has wonderful memories of walking to services and sitting in the balcony with her mother and grandmother at the old B’nai Jacob Synagogue. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism from the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Her news stories and features have appeared in media outlets and magazines. She returned to school in the 1990’s graduating with a Master’s of Liberal Studies and a Juris Doctor degree from The University of Toledo. Her memoir piece, “Grandmother’s Warning” was published in the summer 2021 edition of the Michigan Jewish Historical Society Journal, and later reprinted in the Detroit Jewish News. Her poetry has appeared in The Jewish Literary Journal, The Bangalore Review and The Sad Girls Literary Blog and is forthcoming this spring in The Scapegoat Review, The Write Launch and Beyond Words Literary Magazine. Linda currently lives in the Detroit area. For the last decade, she has volunteered as a docent at the Zekelman Holocaust Center, where she leads adult discussion tours and is a member of the Docent Advisory Committee. 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

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.

4 Comments

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