Category Archives: Polish Jewry

What I know

By Marilyn Schonfeld-Davenport (Louisville, CO)

I am a first generation American and a second generation Holocaust survivor. 

My mother was born in Korosten, Ukraine. 

My father in the shtetl of Oleszyce, Poland. 

They came to this country in 1950 with my three-year-old sister who was born in a displaced persons camp in Ansbach, Germany.

They were lucky, my mother always said. They were not in concentration camps.

They met during the war on a Russian state-owned farm (Sovkhoz) in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan.

I do not know the name of the farm. I do not know how my father ended up there. Only that while in the Russian army, he jumped off a train to escape banishment to Siberia and found himself on the same Sovkhoz. 

They were lucky, my mother always said

They were not tortured. They did not starve.

They did not have to hide underground or in sewers or cellars with rats. 

They did not have to strip down naked and suffer inhuman conditions and humiliating treatment. 

They did not have to forage for food in the forests. 

They did not have to watch their children die.

My parents were lucky. 

Not like their dear survivor friends whose tragic stories I overheard as a child, amidst the shuffling cards and the clicking chips of the poker table. 

But still, their young lives were thwarted by the horrifying rampage of a madman.

They were scared. They were on the run. 

They were separated from their families. 

They scampered to strange places, seeking refuge and safety.

Their fate collided at the Sovkhoz where they fell in love and lived in relative peace. And waited. And wondered, when will it end?

They worked in the fields, repaired small machinery, slept in bunkers and occasionally had a decent meal of more than watered -down soup.

My mother worked in the canteen and snuck my father extra bread and cigarettes.

That’s all I know about their life there.

After the war, they got married and returned to Korosten so my dad could meet his in-laws and my mother could say hello and goodbye to her family. 

My dad set his sights on America. 

The land of promise. The land of opportunity.

She was going with him.

But first he wanted to go back to Poland to see what happened to his family. 

He had no idea if anyone was still alive.

Somewhere, somehow he discovered they all perished in Belzec. 

Except for one sister.

She escaped with the help of a priest and was in a displaced persons camp in Ansbach, Germany. 

And so they went there.

My mother said they walked.

But how? How did he find out about her? How did they walk all that way? 

Who helped them? How long did it take? 

My past is a patchwork of fragmented stories and unanswered questions.

They hang suspended looking for a place to rest, to make me whole.

My father never talked about his past or his childhood.

I try to seam it together through any research I can do, any tidbit I can find. 

A box of papers from the DP camp; sponsor forms, luggage tags, passport pictures, a diploma from ORT that said my father could make a shoe.

But I reach a dead end when it comes to my Polish family. There is so little.

There are only imagined faces of my relatives instead of photos that do not exist. 

Imagined lives in places I cannot fathom.

I never asked enough and they never said enough. 

I do not know enough. 

But I do know this.

I am a first generation American and a second generation Holocaust survivor. 

I am defined by that more than anything.

Marilyn Schonfeld-Davenport has always held the stories of her parents and her ancestors deep inside her, those few that she knows, those fragments that she can piece together. These stories composed the backdrop of a relatively carefree childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, but beneath the surface was the lingering impact of her parents’ trauma: her mother’s anger and fear, her father’s quiet introspection.

Throughout the years, Marilyn has returned to those haunting stories of her youth to try to weave the pieces together and better understand her past. She is currently working on a memoir of sorts, based on her mother’s notebooks of recorded minutes as the secretary of the Trossman Family Club. Uncle Sam Trossman, the patriarch, brought her parents and sister to this country after the war.  She lives in Louisville, Colorado with her husband Mark and dog Wilson. Her two grown sons live in Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis, Minnesota and she misses them every single day. 

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A Grandmother’s Love Story

by Esther Erman (Mountain View, CA)

I was named in memory of my maternal grandmother, Estera. She was named for the biblical Queen Esther, who risked her life to save the Jews of Persia—condemned to genocide in the fifth century BCE. Both women came to critical moments when they faced great risks and had to make life-or-death choices. I often look to both stories, but especially to my grandmother’s, for inspiration.

Grandmother Estera was born and raised in Garbatka-Letnisko, a village in east-central Poland that lies about ninety kilometers southeast of Warsaw. “Letnisko” means it was a summer resort, and visitors remembered the village as having clean mountain air fragrant with the scent of pines. However, Garbatka was not a summer resort for its Jews; they all lived on the wrong side of the tracks year-round.

Estera was born in the 1880s to a poor and pious family. She fell in love with Benjamin, a merchant, and the two young people wanted to marry. But back then, in that part of the world, parents arranged marriages. Benjamin’s parents required his bride to bring a dowry, meager though it probably would have been, to the marriage. Estera’s father asserted that if he had to provide a dowry, his daughter would marry a scholar, a much more prestigious occupation than a merchant.

As was expected of her, Estera obeyed her father and entered into an arranged marriage with the scholar Meyer. Benjamin subsequently married a woman who, evidently, brought a dowry. Were Benjamin’s wife and Meyer aware that they were not their spouses’ first choices? Did people then even expect their marriages to be happy?

Several years passed, during which Estera and Meyer had a son, Moishe, and a daughter, Gella. For reasons now shrouded in mystery, Meyer went to Jerusalem. When he returned to Garbatka, he said the whole family had to leave Poland, which was not a good place for Jews, and make new lives in Jerusalem.

Estera did not share her husband’s concerns about their home country. And she was devoted to her extensive family in Poland. No longer an obedient young girl, she told Meyer to go ahead and establish a home in Jerusalem, and then to send for the family. Meyer went to Jerusalem alone and set up a home. He then tried several times to convince Estera to bring their two children and join him there, but she repeatedly refused.

Finally, he sent her two things and demanded that she choose between them: tickets for travel and the offer of a get (a Jewish divorce, which only the husband had the right to initiate). Many men who emigrated abandoned their families back home and left their wives in the untenable position of being essentially without a husband and yet not able to remarry. Meyer’s offering Estera a get showed him to be a true gentleman.

In an extremely unusual move for a pious woman in her time and place, Estera chose the get. Might part of her motivation have been that Benjamin, her first love, was now a widower? In any case, Estera and Benjamin wed and had two children together—a son, Mendel, born in 1915, and one year after that a daughter, Gittel, who would eventually become my mother.

I hope Benjamin and Estera experienced great joy in their marriage. What they did not have was the gift of much time together: Benjamin soon died, very likely during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

With Benjamin’s death, poverty gripped the family even harder. Estera had a mill for grinding buckwheat, which allowed her to eke out a living through backbreaking work. Gella, Estera’s daughter from her first marriage, earned some money as a seamstress. Close relationships with friends and relatives in Garbatka’s Jewish community helped Estera’s family deal with their difficult lives. In 1933, Moishe, the son from Estera’s first marriage, decided to join his father in Jerusalem. 

– – –

Blitzkrieg. In the month of September 1939, the Nazis crushed Poland. The Jews in Garbatka, just like those all over Poland and in the other defeated places, were torn from their homes, ghettoized, and forced into slave labor—a prelude to genocide.

The Jewish men were quickly murdered or deported. Estera now lived with both her daughters and her granddaughter in Pionki, a ghetto created by the Nazis twenty kilometers west of Garbatka. Deportations from the ghetto became more frequent. In dread that their family members’ names would appear on lists of those to be transported, the women checked each new posting. One day in September 1942, both Estera and Surele, Gella’s eleven-year-old daughter, appeared on the list, supposedly to be relocated to another ghetto for “work reassignment.” Neither Gella nor Gittel was on the list. One could add names, but not remove any. Gella, refusing to be separated from her child, immediately added her name.

Gittel went to put her name on the list also, to go with her mother, sister, and niece, but Estera stopped her. Gittel fought with her mother, arguing, “You all are going. Gella volunteered to go. I want to go with you.”

Estera was adamant in her refusal. “Gella is going to be with her daughter, with Surele.” “But you will be separated from me, your daughter,” Gittel protested. Estera shook her head and put her hand on Gittel’s shoulder. What love it must have taken for Estera to insist, “You are older than Surele and can work—maybe because of that, you will survive.”

As Gittel watched in unbearable loneliness and grief, her mother, sister, and niece—all that remained of her family in Pionki—were crammed into a train filled with frightened people.

The destination, Gittel would later learn, was not a work reassignment. Instead, the journey terminated at Treblinka—its passengers forced directly from the train to gas chambers.

Against the odds, and as my grandmother Estera had hoped, my mother Gittel did survive the war. Her survival entailed separation from her loved ones; years of slave labor, abuse, and starvation; transport via cattle car to Auschwitz; and a winter death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen. For the next half century, until she died in 2003, my mother shared just the bare bones of the story of her survival. I can only imagine the horrors and how their memories weighed on her.

Following her liberation from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, my mother met and married my father—also a survivor of ghettos, Auschwitz, and slave labor—in a displaced person’s camp in the British sector of Germany. I was born just eighteen months after their liberation—a testament to my parents’ amazing recovery and resilience. The three of us immigrated to New York in 1947.

Earlier, when the war had broken out, all the members of my mother’s family had agreed that any who survived would contact my grandmother’s older son Moishe, who immigrated to Jerusalem in 1933, as a means of reconnecting. My mother was the only one he ever heard from.

In the summer of 1962, my mother fulfilled a dream: she reunited with her half-brother Moishe in Jerusalem. She also met Moishe’s father and Estera’s first husband, Meyer; he’d never remarried.

Unlike her namesake Queen Esther, my grandmother Estera did not save the Jews. She could not save herself, her daughter Gella, or her  granddaughter Surele. But she did save one person: my mother, Gittel.

I thought of this story on a Friday evening in 2019 as I gazed at the walls of Jerusalem, golden in the setting sun at the start of the Sabbath. I suddenly was overcome with sadness and regret that my grandmother had never been at this place. She had not saved herself by following her first husband there. At the same time, I knew that, had my grandmother not stayed in Poland and married my grandfather, my mother Gittel would not have been born. Choices. If only the decisions motivated by love always brought joy. For my grandmother Estera, the decision not to join her first husband in Jerusalem, for reasons of love and family, doomed her. She suffered the loss of her loved ones and her home, and then perished – all at the behest of a genocidal tyrant.

I am grateful to my grandmother for her sacrifices, and for her insistence that Gittel not go with her on the transport. I am grateful to Gittel, my mother, for surviving. I am grateful to them both, as well as to my father and his survival–for my life, for that of my brother, and for those of the children and grandchildren each of us has.

In 2022, the world shudders to see yet another, tragic chapter of war and loss at the behest of yet another tyrant. I acutely feel my connection with grandmother Estera as, once again, innocent people are forced to make impossible choices. My thoughts and prayers, and the actions within my grasp, go out to the heroes and the victims—those who die, as well as the scarred and traumatized survivors.

The words ring a bit hollow these days, but I repeat them with fervent hope that we can one day make them come true: “Never again!”

—-

The daughter of two survivors of the Shoah from Poland, Esther Erman was born in Germany. A naturalized citizen, she early developed a passion for language. After receiving her BA and MA in French from different divisions of Rutgers University, she returned there for her doctorate in language education. She wrote her dissertation about Yiddish, her first language, which she had abandoned at age five. A multi-published author, Esther now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Lee. To learn more about her work, visit: EstherErman.com.

This story originally appeared in Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis and was reprinted with permission of the author, who, like Rebecca, the heroine of her novel, Rebecca of Salerno: a Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder, was a refugee. 

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It Could Have Been Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It could have been me

     
A survivor tells how lice
     
attacked her body daily
     A man waits for an exit visa
     in Berlin, 3 days, he still waits
     The ship St. Louis is turned back
     900 refugees are barred from the U.S.

It could have been me

     A family goes into hiding in Amsterdam
     
They will soon be discovered
   
  A prisoner, shriveled and starving,
     throws himself against an electric fence
     A baby is shot in the head because
     he was crying in his mother’s arms

It could have been me

   
  He is forced out of school in Vienna,
     taunted now by former classmates
     Starved in the cold in Poland,
     he will do anything for a morsel of bread
     They are marched to the showers in Auschwitz,
     where are you, my God?

It could have been me… all of them could have been me

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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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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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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Stories My Father Told Me: Remembering Monty Kuper

by Ivan Koop Kuper (Houston, TX)

I shared a hotel room with my father when my family took a trip back to Poland, on a fact-finding mission, in the year 2000. One morning upon wakening, my father, the late Monty Kuper, a man of many interests, identities, and ideas, looked over at me from his bed and said that his “dead relatives” had visited him all night long – in his dreams.

On this particular pilgrimage, my family only scratched the surface of discovering the fate of my father’s parents and siblings, who – like himself – were residing in the industrial city of Lodz, in an apartment building located at Skladowa Street 14, when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939.

Growing up in Lodz, my father, then known by Moszek, was a very spirited child and with an active and highly developed natural acuity. He was raised with five other siblings, in a poor but nurturing family. Monty often reminisced how he would go to the cinema on the weekends; sing in the synagogue choir during the High Holy Days, and how he would help his father, who was a painting contractor, after school. He once confided that of all his boyhood memories, his favorite was seeing the “Polish Harry James,” aka Adolf “Eddie” Rosner, perform one summer evening, in the city park, in 1938. He also shared that when he used go to the cinema to see the silent, black and white American Westerns, he was particularly fond of the ones starring Tom Mix, and grade-B cowboy actor, Buck Jones, who he and all his friends referred to in their Polish dialects as: “Bucksie Jones.”

As a child, my father developed certain personality traits that would define him as an adult. These were characteristics I would also come to recognize all too well. These defining traits would literally drive me crazy throughout my lifetime; however, it was not until I grew into adulthood that I fully understood his unpredictable temperament. Monty had a short attention span and was easily distracted; he made impulsive decisions, and he often possessed a real lack of focus. My father was known to lose track of time; he would change his mind at the drop of a hat, and he would lose interest in a project before he completed it – only to begin another. Needless to say, his spontaneous behavior tested the limits of my mother’s already depleted patience that often resulted in marital friction between the two of them. 

Monty’s predisposition would be identified by latter-day, 20th century popular culture and men of medicine as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Those who are of the Jewish faith and who speak the Yiddish language also have a word to describe this condition: Shpilkes.

Monty Kuper, however, was also very intuitive, and had an uncanny ability to read people and potentially dangerous situations. It was his highly defined, improvisational, decision-making acumen that probably saved his life, time-after-time, as he traversed the landscape of the Second World War – during the uncertainty of his youth.

My father knew very little of the fate of his missing family in the aftermath of WWII, the war that decimated Europe’s Jewish population. He discovered his older brother, Lyva, aka Leon Kuper, in 1945, convalescing in an International Red Cross displaced persons detention camp after the war, in Zeilsheim, Germany, near Frankfurt am Main. Leon had survived both forced labor in Auschwitz-Birkeneau Concentration Camp and a death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. However, Monty always lacked the hard and fast evidence regarding the fate of his other family members, and how they endured the daily indignation and degradation of the 14 months they spent inside the Lodz Ghetto.

Monty learned from his surviving brother that their father, Izrael Kuper, and their older sister, both died of starvation, in the winter of 1941, in the Lodz Ghetto. And, according to family folklore, my father always maintained that his mother, Cutla Bryks-Kuper, and his other siblings were all deported sometime in 1942, to Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp. It was there – he believed – they met their final horrific fate, as did so many other of his boyhood friends and members of his extended family that forever erased any tangible evidence of their existence from the pages of history.

In February, 1940, when the German Waffen-SS began their roundup of Lodz’s Jewish population five months after the initial invasion and occupation of Poland by the Third Reich, my father, along with several friends from school, were already on their way to the eastern frontier of Poland that was now under the control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the political alignment between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a non-aggression pact was negotiated between these two divergent ideologues that carved up and annexed Poland, for their own geopolitical and ideological objectives. It was in the town of Kovel (now in present-day Ukraine), where Monty and his friends found refuge, and where they were dealing in black market goods to other displaced Polish, Jewish, Russian, and other Slavic refugees who were also seeking sanctuary from the oppressive hand of German National Socialism. However, Monty was soon approached by the occupying Soviets, who insisted that he become patriated into the ranks of Soviet citizenship and a member of the Communist Party in exchange for asylum. 

The ultimatum Monty received from the Soviets did not exactly fit in with the spontaneous and free-form, decision-making lifestyle he was adhering to since the invasion of Poland by the Germans in their quest for lebensraum (living space). And so – at age 19 – Monty found himself branded as a “political undesirable,” and was sent to the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camp system in Siberia. For the next 18 months, Monty cleared rocks and cut timber for the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad in the Russian towns of Kozhva and Vorkuta, near the Arctic Circle. Monty once explained his rationale for choosing the role of a political prisoner instead of becoming a party member and joining the armed forces: “I thought I would never see my family again and I would be sent to the front if I agreed to join the Russian Army and become a member of the Communist Party,” my father confided. “I was never in fear of my life when I was in Siberia. There was always a possibility I could starve or even freeze to death, but the Russians never tortured or deliberately mistreated us like the Nazis would have done.”

On June 22, 1941, the German Third Reich broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Russia was now at war with Germany and, as a direct result of this act of aggression by Germany, the Soviets set their foreign political prisoners free to join them in their fight against fascism. My father and his best friend, Michael Schulz of Warsaw, who he met in Siberia, were both conscripted into the newly formed 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp that was in exile and training with the British Army, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under the command of Polish General Wladyslaw Anders. It was during this period that my father told me he also met a Russian girl named Rada; the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, who, with her mother, were sent deep inside Soviet territory, into Tashkent for safety, along with the families of other high-ranking Soviet officials. It was Rada’s mother, Nina, the second wife of the future premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, who befriended young Moszek and who he said was educated in London and who, ironically – as the story goes – taught him to speak English. 

Monty and his friend Michael traveled with “Ander’s Army” from Uzbekistan to Persia, Iran, and eventually into the British Mandate of Palestine. After they reached the territory of the British Mandate, the command of this rag-tag, undisciplined unit of former political prisoners was then transferred to British control. Historically, the 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp then joined the British Army in what is referred to as the “Italian Campaign.” This included the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino, where Allied forces were engaged in a series of futile and costly attempts to capture a little-known abbey on top of a hill, on the outskirts of Rome. These series of battles lasted from January to May, 1944. However, while this historic event was unfolding, my father told me that he and his friend, Michael Schulz, were – at that time – in the Royal Tank Regiment of the British Army, and stationed at Camp Catterick (presently Catterick Garrison), located near the town of Richmond, in North Yorkshire, in England. It was there they both remained for the duration of the Second World War, and where my father said that he rose to the rank of corporal, and in charge of the parts department of the British Army’s Royal Motor Pool.

I am familiar with most of my father’s personal war-time history, because unlike most individuals who experienced the Shoah, my father was not introspective or reticent about sharing his personal history. I also do not recall Monty ever showing any indication of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or displaying any outward signs of what has come to be known as “survivor syndrome.” To the contrary, he was very personable and very outgoing. Throughout my lifetime – growing up in Houston, Texas – I heard the same wartime-era stories, over and over again; the same ones with slight variations from time-to-time, although, never presented in a boastful way or in an arrogant manner, but simply as a matter of fact. However, as I grew older, I became acutely aware that there were also parts of his saga that he conveniently omitted, thereby leaving significant transitional gaps in his narrative.

On another occasion my father shared with me that once, when he was in Siberia and had fallen ill, and was delirious with fever, his deceased grandfather, Rachmil Kuper, from Opoczno, Poland, appeared to him in a dream with a remedy. His grandfather told him to drink from a glass of wine that he offered him, and according to Monty, after he drank from the wine glass, his fever broke the following day and he was soon cured of all the symptoms of his illness.

Still operating by his wartime, heightened self-preservationist wits and his highly defined survivalist instincts, in 1992 – not long after the fall of the Soviet Union – when my father discovered I was planning to take a trip to Eastern Europe, he became very concerned. Monty still remembered the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child from his pre-nostra aetate (Vatican II), Roman Catholic neighbors with whom his family lived side-by-side while he was growing up in Lodz. One day before my journey, my father, anticipating the worst-case scenario, took me aside and said, “When you go to Poland, don’t tell anyone who you are and don’t tell them you’re Jewish. Just tell them you are an American.”

The fate of my father’s family was finally revealed to me in the summer of 2019 when my wife and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There I was able to discover what my father could not during his lifetime. In their archives it is documented that on the morning of March 10, 1942, 790 ghetto detainees assembled on the train platform of the Radogoszcz Railroad Station, located just outside the Lodz Ghetto. These unfortunate individuals received an order from their Nazi occupiers, four days prior, to gather up their personal possessions and assemble at the station because they had been selected for “resettlement” to a nearby work camp. Included on the roster of names, and chosen for deportation, was my father’s mother and four of his siblings.

“March was a cold month in 1942, with temperatures dropping to -15 degrees C (5 F), and sometimes even -20 degrees C (4 F),” wrote Polish historian and Lodz Ghetto survivor, Lucjan Dobroszycki, in his memoir, Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. “The mortality rate in the ghetto (2,224 deaths) was higher than it had been in the previous months with suicides occurring almost every other day.” 

Transport No. 17’s destination on that bitterly cold Tuesday morning was actually to Chelmno Extermination Camp, the Third Reich’s very first “death camp,” located 31 miles north of Lodz, on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno nad Nerem. According to post-war testimony compiled by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, these passengers were first taken to the nearby town of Kolo, then they were ordered to transfer to a smaller, narrow gauge train that took them directly to an abandoned brick mill in the forest on the outskirts of Chelmno. It was there they spent the night, and on the following morning they were forced into the back of an ordinary cargo van used for hauling furniture whose motor was left running and whose diesel exhaust system was retrofitted to flow back into the cargo area, thereby ending the lives of all those who were locked into the back of the sealed van. Their remains were then buried in one of several mass graves in the nearby forest, later to be exhumed and cremated toward the end of the war.

This was the Nazi’s attempt to conceal their fanatical mission of systematic mass murder and wholesale genocide from the rest of the world. The ashes of these victims – including those of my paternal family – were then unceremoniously scattered all together on the ground of the killing site that can still be found to this very day on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno. This event, which transpired on March 11, 1942, was verified by local Polish journalist and eyewitness, Stanislaw Rubach, who kept a diary of all the deportations and executions he witnessed during the Second World War. Needless to say, there were no survivors of the deportation and the subsequent executions that were delivered by the hands of the Nazis on this tragic day. 

My father has visited me only once since his death in October, 2011 at age 90. I was lying in bed and he appeared before me and asked if he could lie down beside me and rest. And in my dream I found comfort in his presence, and I was truly glad to see him again, although I don’t remember telling him so. And with my father lying by my side, I rolled over and went soundly back to sleep. 

Ivan Koop Kuper is a freelance writer, professional drummer, real estate broker and podcaster in Houston, Texas. His byline has appeared in Aish.com (Jerusalem), Jewniverse (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), ReformJudaism.org, Cable Magazine (London), the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Rag Blog (Austin). Koop invites everyone to follow him on Twitter @koopkuper. He is also available for comment at: koopkuper@gmail.com.

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The Silver Lions

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Ari

This old chanukiah

brought over from Poland

from my grandparents’ home

that I lit as a boy

and my son now lights

and my grandson covets

these Chanukah nights

with its twin silver lions

standing guard over flames—

listen and you’ll hear

the lions roar across

a hundred years

rattling every window

on their watch, illuminating

Vilna then New York,

defending Jerusalem.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

 

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Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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Sing and Tell of My Grandfather

By Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

During National Poetry Month, WNYC invited Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sharon Olds to share a writing prompt on its poetry site. Thanks to the prompt, I ended up writing “Sing and Tell of My Grandfather,” a poem that I hadn’t even known I was thinking about writing.

The assignment from Olds was to write a short poem (16 lines or fewer) using (among others) the words acid, anise seed, butter, cherish, grisly, margarine, mother, pearl, sing, and tell. Here’s the poem that I found waiting for me:

Sing and tell of my grandfather
a baker who learned how to use butter—
not margarine—to add flavor to the cakes
and Danish pastries and bread and rolls
that came out of his oven in Zharnow, hot
and steamy and sweet, not grisly anemic rolls
but thick and fluffy, with drops of sugar, like pearls,
and anise seed, like slivers of jade, the kind of rolls
his mother said would bring him wealth and long life
and happiness if he left home. “If you stay,” she said,
“you’ll live with the taste of acid in your mouth, if they
let you live at all.” So, he sailed for America and became
a baker and bought his own bakery and raised a family,
two daughters, thank God, one of whom became my mother,
and lived a life the ones left behind could only dream of.

If you’d like to read more poems written in response to this prompt, visit the WNYC site: http://www.wnyc.org/story/happy-national-poetry-month-heres-assignment-3/

Bruce Black is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Elephant Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reform Judaism, The Reconstructionist, The Jewish Week, and The Jewish Exponent, as well as in OmYoga Magazine, Yogi Times, Mindbodygreen, Yogamint, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For information about his book, Writing Yoga, visit: 

http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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Father’s Phantom First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

When it came to keeping secrets, few were as tight-lipped as my parents. Once these two Holocaust survivors decided to exclude any one particular topic from conversation, no amount of whimpering, urging or cajoling could convince them to reconsider. You see there were some wartime memories that proved just too painful to discuss and so keeping them under wraps was felt to be the only sensible thing to do.

One such prohibited topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three small children, four innocent victims who perished during the Holocaust. They, along with thousands of others held captive in the Lodz Ghetto, had either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness or were ruthlessly singled out, rounded up and taken to nearby killing centers. The story of this first family had become a closed chapter in a book of tragedies that was to be kept out of sight and out of mind. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that was strictly off limits and, though I was always intrigued, I knew better than to ask too many questions.

My father, who was generally an open and talkative sort, never spoke of this phantom first family. There were no details of their lives and no information as to how or where they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under lock and key. My mother, perhaps fearful of not wanting to open old painful wounds, seldom discussed any subject that was certain to upset my father. “Your father is a nervous man,” she would often say, “he has suffered enough. There are things you should not ask.”

On rare occasions, mother would inadvertently let a word or two slip about the secret first family but there was never enough information that would amount to much of anything. She always seemed to catch herself right in the nick of time. It was like a pinhole in a drawn window shade that permitted a hint of light but resulted in little, if any, illumination or insight. The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our emaciated photo album.

Growing up, I found myself trying to come up with likely names and images for this first family. I played with the possibilities. The color and texture of their hair, the color of their eyes and any distinctive facial features that would make them stand out in a crowd. In spite of a vivid imagination, my efforts failed miserably as these faceless spirits continued to elude me. Whenever emboldened by a jolt of curiosity, I would cautiously approach my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?” was his customary response, a refrain he often used whenever feeling distressed and at a loss for words. I accepted defeat and never gave it much thought until my own children came on the scene.

While visiting my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more forceful in my attempt to learn about this first family. Whether it had been the presence of my own children or the appreciation that I could no longer be put off, my father began to appear a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the lone survivor of his extended family, he, and only he, could provide information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of the first family’s existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his sensitivity and appreciated his vulnerability, and, at my mother’s urging, I proposed that we go slowly and proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Father took a long deep breath and began to speak haltingly of the strife and struggle of life in the ghetto. He continued on this theme for a number of minutes before introducing me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were quite meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would lead to more open discussion in the near future. A major hurdle was overcome and I could immediately appreciate that a bit of clarity had been sprinkled onto a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward ever so slowly with the promise of additional advancement if time would only permit. But it did not. My father died soon after our initial breakthrough. This first small step had barely scratched the surface and now there was no one left to ask and nowhere else to turn.

Years later, I came upon a most remarkable work by Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to the horrific events that took the lives of so many in the Lodz Ghetto. In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto, Zelkowicz describes how children were brutally separated from hysterical parents, forced onto transports and then taken to extermination centers:

“Hours have passed since these woes, these agonies, were inflicted on those wretched people, but the situation has not calmed down one bit. Mothers have not yet tired of shrieking, fathers’ wellsprings of tears have not yet sealed, and the silence of the night amplifies the reverberations of the screaming and sobbing. No sound reaches your ears, man, but that bitter wailing; no thought occurs to you but death; and your heart ponders, nothing but devastation.”

I will likely never know what became of this first family. I now, however, understand why it was my father could not relive a time when mothers and fathers, all terror stricken and desperate, wept uncontrollably as their loving children were savagely torn from their protective embrace. His common refrain—“Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?”—has now taken on a clarity of its own. My father had been right all along. I could not possibly understand. I could not possibly appreciate the horrors that had left him dispirited and at a loss for words. When it came to any talk, any mention, any recollection of the first family, I now realize that my father couldn’t and my mother wouldn’t. He succeeded in keeping his secret intact, thereby helping safeguard his sanity and keeping us, his current children and loved ones, safe from harm.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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