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Standing Up for the Voiceless: My Fight with Royalty in Anne Frank’s House

by Jessica D. Ursell (Campania, Italy)

Let me say right at the beginning that as a granddaughter of survivors and a proud Jew, I am not afraid of fighting anti-Semites wherever they might be, but never in my wildest imagination did I think that in November 1994 I would be directly confronting an actual princess of a Southeast Asian country and her bodyguard in Anne Frank’s house.

I went to Paris for the month of November while I was waiting for the results of the bar exam. I told myself that it would either be an early celebration of passing such an extraordinarily difficult exam or as a way to recharge my batteries in case I needed to take it again. (As it turned out, I was successful on my first try.) 

But before I found out I had passed, I was in Paris staying with my beloved grandmother Dora’s eldest sister Lodzia and her family. These family members (my great aunt Lodzia and her three daughters Rachelle, Monique, and Danielle) were hidden from the Nazis in the cellar of a courageous French farming couple, Madame and Monsieur Malais, during the war. Lodzia’s eldest daughter, Rachelle, would later marry Pierre Malais, their son.

And from Paris, after my visit with Lodzia’s middle daughter, Monique, I decided I had to go to Amsterdam. 

Specifically, I felt a deep need to see Anne Frank‘s house where she spent 761 days hiding in a secret annex with her parents, sister, and four others before they were all exposed and taken to their deaths by the Nazis. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived.

Amsterdam was very private and personal for me. Going to Anne Frank‘s house at Prinsengracht 263 to see where she hid as a teenage girl was something I wanted to experience solo. So many of my own family members perished at the murderous hands of the Nazis. I wanted to be alone with my emotions and have time to process them without discussing my reactions on the spot. 

Unattached and unencumbered except by the weight of my thoughts, I began this profoundly emotional journey.

Inside Anne Frank’s house, my recollections swirling, transported me backwards in time … wrapped in the warmth and closeness of our Passover Seders with the remnants of our family. 

Our Seders were small but deeply meaningful with lots of discussion about the relevance of what our people experienced as oppressed slaves millennia ago in Egypt to our current world. The flavor of all our family discussions was clear: we have to bear witness to what happened to our people and above all we must never be bystanders to evil.

Time unspooled…

I saw the numbers 48696 branded into the arm of our treasured Chavcia with her sweetly chirping voice.

Dearest Chavcia, a cherished cousin of my beloved grandmother Dora, ladled mouthwatering, light, fluffy matzoh balls into her homemade chicken soup. Those numbers 48696 seared into her skin visible again and again as she brought out the roasted chicken, holding the large platter heavy in her arms. Chavcia’s gentle sweetness and diminutive frame contrasted starkly with the brutality and, as Hannah Arendt noted, the banality of evil that led to the Nazi vision of dehumanization and eradication of the Jewish people. Our people. My people.

Numbers 48696 on Chavcia’s arm… 

More numbers 114057. Those belonged to David, Chavcia’s husband, whose steady voice gave me comfort as he led our Seders.  

David … his numbers 114057 … survived the terrors of Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, and Flossenbürg concentration camps in Germany and was liberated from the hell of Dachau on 29 April 1945.

Numbers 48696 and 114057

Indelible reminders of darkness, devastation, and loss.

Chavcia, a teenage girl in the Warsaw ghetto, carried a tiny tin pail of watery gruel all the way across the ghetto so that she could give her portion to my beloved great grandmother, Tsivya, to prolong her life. Hastening this watery substance across the ghetto to preserve it in its tepid state lest it get ice cold, the liquid splashing and sloshing against the pail, Chavcia knew her mission to save Tsivya was in vain but she didn’t stop. 

Chavcia survived the terror and deprivation of Majdanek in 1943, although her own beloved mother Golda did not. Chavcia later survived the incomprehensible horrors of Auschwitz and lived to share her story, but her beloved father, Zalman Horowicz (brother of my own precious great grandmother Tsivya), perished in the hell that was Treblinka.

In February, 1945, Anne Frank and her elder sister, Margot, were put on a transport from the horrors of Auschwitz to the brutal conditions of the disease-ridden Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where starvation, disease, and death were rampant. It was there that they both succumbed to typhus just a few months before the war ended in Europe.

I’ve read that the average visit to Anne Frank‘s house takes about an hour but I was there for what felt like much longer. Maybe hours longer. I was transfixed, and walking through the house I felt like I was walking through thick tar. 

Overcome with sensation, strangely throughout my body I felt the emptiness. 

The loss. 

The void. 

The realization kept hitting me over and over again, but it wasn’t so much about what was there–the infographics–but what was not. 

All that was lost.

I was experiencing the void, the colossal emptiness, and sense of betrayal as I moved slowly through the house at Prinsengracht 263.

Companionless, I took my time going through the space barely conscious of the other people there.

Anne Frank, a girl but not just a girl. Anne Frank is the girl standing in for all the girls, for all the children, like my grandmother Dora’s and my great aunt Lodzia’s little sisters, Bronia, Reinusha, Helcia, and Romcia, who were persecuted and murdered simply because they were Jewish.

Overwhelmed by my cascading thoughts, I thought about my four murdered great aunts, little girls that I only knew from a single precious black-and-white photo, and wondered what I could do to ensure that their memory and the collective memory of the 6 million of our people would not be lost.

Standing in Anne Frank’s house, I stopped, feeling the emptiness all around me, and suddenly loud and prolonged laughter cracked the silence and the hushed murmurings of the other visitors.

Puncturing the still air, the harsh staccato laughter was so forceful, so immediate, I whirled around, jarred and disoriented, not knowing what was happening.

Directly behind me, only a foot away, stood an attractive woman who looked to be in her late 20s wearing aviator type sunglasses with long, lush dark hair, skin-tight leather pants that I remember being a tawny brown hugging her trimly curved body, and high-heeled boots. She was accompanied by a very muscular, determined-looking young man from a Southeast Asian country in a well-cut suit, the outline of his bulging physique clearly apparent beneath the elegant fabric.

Everything welled and rose inside of me … the silenced voices of the 6 million pounding in my chest.

“How dare you laugh in this sacred space! Don’t you know where you are?”

My voice rang in my ears and ricocheted against the walls.

He strode between us, his bulk filling the space.

“Careful, this is the Princess … you’re talking to!” he threatened, his grim face inches from my own.

Paying no heed to his threat, my voice rang out even louder. “I don’t care who she is! She has no right to behave that way–laughing in this house, in this sacred place!”

I don’t remember anyone else in the immediate area. All I could see was her mocking mouth and her brute in bespoke clothes breathing his threats into my face.

I stood right where I was. 

I did not flinch.

I did not move. 

Not an inch. 

Not a millimeter.

He took his Princess by the arm and ushered her out.

They were gone. And as I stood in Anne Frank’s house, still shaking with shock and anger, I knew I would never be a bystander to bigotry and hatred. 

Bronia, Reinusha, Helcia, and Romcia, my great aunts who were murdered as little girls, were silenced by the Nazis. My beloved cousin Chavcia and her husband David lived the remainder of their lives with numbers intended to strip them of their humanity seared into their flesh and with unfathomable pain seared into their psyches. The generational trauma inflicted by the Holocaust has not abated. It is ever present and palpable in my own life and in that of so many first- and second-generation families.

Using my voice to speak out and challenge hatred and intolerance whenever and wherever it occurs is my way of honoring their memory and the collective memory of the six million Jews who were singled out for extermination by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish. 

I take heart and heed the words of noted Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and will not be a victim, never a perpetrator, but above all, I will never be a bystander.

Daughter of an immigrant Jewish mother from the foothills of the Himalayas and a South Bronx born Puerto Rican Jewish father, Jessica Ursell is a veteran officer of the United States Air Force, poet, attorney, and progressive political activist. The granddaughter of survivors of the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, and a descendant of a Taíno great-grandma, she understands in her bones what happens when intolerance, indifference, and ignorance take root in society. Jessica lives with her husband in Southern Italy where she writes poetry addressing the complex interplay between trauma, power, love, loss, and madness. Her essay, At the Country Club with Superman, was published by The Jewish Writing Project in July 2022.


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An Afternoon Cup of Tea

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Down more than one hundred steps

by an old graveyard and a green mountain

resembling camel humps.

A white towel hangs on a hook.

Water drips into a small pool of water

sunken in a cave. A tsaddik is buried here.

Legend says those that immerse

become pure.

Bobbing in chilly water:

Ad-dah-mah, mah-yeem, shah-mah-yeem.

Earth, water, sky.

I dress without drying off.

In my journal, I write:

My father and I are here together.

Afterwards we walk on the ancient streets of Tzfat

talking and laughing.

My mother joins us for tea.

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

“An Afternoon Cup of Tea” is from Brad’s new book, “Lionfish: The Poetic Collection Of A Traveler’s Experiences In Israel,” and reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

You can read more of Brad’s poems in his new book. Visit the link to see more: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946124648/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860&linkCode=sl1&tag=beeps-20&linkId=b8e4722d77fdd5f0148ae60390d40ec2&language=en_US&fbclid=IwAR3ZBUQsla0CdU7voiaWm5FRPXzEEIglc0tuceGIUFwSsys5u14kBYEscLU

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Uncle Leon

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

Uncle Leon (Label) came to Phoenix in 1947 and lived with us. 

He was the youngest and now the only survivor of the Parubansky family, barely a teen when he was sent to a concentration camp, and one of the very few out of several thousand prisoners to survive a Nazi death march to the Czechoslovakian border. 

HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) took care of Uncle Leon in a displaced person’s camp after the defeat of the Nazis until he was able to connect with American relatives.

At the time that Uncle Leon arrived, we were a growing family of seven living together under a single roof. My parents built an addition to the house since, with only one bathroom and a shortage of bedrooms, we were bursting at the seams. So, a large dorm-like room with clothes closets and a bathroom was added, along with an evaporative cooler, which was installed on the new roof. Suddenly, our Culver Street house seemed huge and spacious to a child of seven.

With no knowledge of English, Uncle Leon was aided by my father in finding a job and subsequently learned a new marketable skill. At the poultry market where Dad worked as a shokhet (a butcher trained in kosher slaughtering), Leon learned to candle eggs. The skill was in how to locate blood spots in the yoke within the shells of the eggs, then discard those eggs and pack the remainder by the dozen. This led to learning Spanish, the primary language among the Mexican employees of the poultry establishment, and driving a truck to deliver eggs by the gross to local supermarkets and bodega grocery stores.

In the mid-50s Uncle Leon went east to find a Jewish wife and married Aunt Sally in 1959. The chuppah (literally canopy/the wedding ceremony) ironically took place in the Vilna Shul in Boston, a landsmanshaft synagogue founded by recent Lithuanian post-war immigrants who’d  settled in Massachusetts. 

Uncle Leon became an expert candler and did this for the remainder of his working career, which lasted sixty years, most of which were spent later in the Boston area, where he was reunited with family cousins and was also in the company of Uncle Joe and Aunt Esther, though they lived several towns apart. 

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Lisa and Stanley

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Shortly after the end of World War Two, I received an excited call from my husband’s Aunt Frima. Her voice was shaking with urgency as she told me, “I have a niece in Russia who wants to contact me. I never even knew her.”

The contact was an example of serendipity.  A young Jewish soldier from Brooklyn was determined to reunite as many Jewish families as he could, as passionate to do this as was his mother in Brooklyn. Lisa told him she had an aunt in Philadelphia. She knew her last name but that was all. He sent his mother Lisa’s scant contact information, and his mother placed a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper that served the Jewish community. One of Aunt Frima’s daughters saw the notice and asked her mother, “Do you have a niece in Russia named Lisa? She’s looking for you.” That started the ball rolling

My husband’s Aunt Frima and his Uncle Ben had been in America as immigrants for many years. They had five American born daughters and lived  a normal middle class life. When I was married to their nephew, we became part of each others families. She was particularly fond of me because I could speak Yiddish with her. She and Uncle Ben came often to our home for holiday meals. Aunt Frima was kosher so she brought her own food.  Uncle Ben ate what she brought and also what I made.

Lisa, 32, was widowed and the mother of two small children. She was evacuated from Moscow when the German army invaded Russia. A day after the invasion in 1941, the Soviets established a makeshift evacuation program to move Soviet citizens from major cities and the probabilities of German bombings. Tashkent in Uzbekistan, 1734 miles from Moscow, was targeted as the site. Lisa and her two small children were among the evacuees. Tashkent had become a makeshift refugee center, and Lisa and her family settled in with primitive housekeeping facilities, hoping the city would escape German occupation, and she prayed for peace.

Stanley, a single, unattached male, was also evacuated from Moscow to Tashkent. Stanley was a loner, a quiet intellectual with an absorbing profession. He restrung fine violins with horse tail hair for violinists all over the world. The war halted his business and he, too, wondered what his life would be like after Tashkent. Lisa and Stanley met and a romance developed in the detritus of the camp. They both wanted to emigrate to the States.

As was necessary, Lisa needed a sponsor in America to facilitate immigration. Aunt Frima and Uncle Ben accepted that role, and, with the help of their daughters, the flurry of paper work and bureaucracy began. After about a year, Lisa, Stanley and her children  arrived in West Philadelphia on Aunt Frima’s doorstep. She called me to say, “They’re very tired now but come here tomorrow to meet them.” I did and found Lisa and Stanley sitting stiffly and stone faced on a blue velvet sofa. I could understand their apprehension of this new life. How long could they stay in this house? How would they support themselves? Had they left familiarity for the unknown? Lisa had assured her aunt that she and Stanley had been legitimately married in Tashkent, but Aunt Frima was skeptical. She insisted on taking them to a rabbi to witness an official Jewish wedding.

They were quickly integrated into the entire family and turned out to be warm, intelligent and helpful. Although extremely grateful for Aunt Frima’s willingness to sponsor and facilitate their repaired lives, Stanley and Lisa knew they must find ways to take charge of themselves. Stanley got a job selling hot dogs at the Philadelphia baseball park and Lisa worked in a hat factory.  Eventually, Stanley was able to return to his unique profession, and Lisa became a designer in the hat factory.  They prospered and eventually retired to Florida.

I was very fond of them, and we became friends as well as family.  They were so grateful to be given a new chance in America. And I was grateful to have them part of my life.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.



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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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A Lasting Snapshot

By Bill Levine (Belmont, MA)

Every 50 years or so, my dad hosted a Bar Mitzvah celebration. The first was my own Bar Mitzvah in 1964, and then a belated celebration for my 20-year old nephew in 2013.  I appreciated my dad’s second celebration of Judaism much more than the first as it was an event that sealed off the fallout from sibling toxicity—at least for a day.

When my father first announced his intention to stage this rite of passage, I was skeptical.  I couldn’t envision my sister’s son, Gabe, adding to his Brandeis academics with Bar Mitzvah lessons.  I worried that dad at 94 didn’t have the wherewithal and energy to transform this bucket list item to reality.  Then there was the problem of my sister and I.  Could we collaborate instead of fight over our object of estrangement, namely dad’s checkbook?

On a Sunday afternoon in April it really did happen.  At my sister’s request, I had agreed to cut dad’s checks for Bar Mitzvah shoes for Gabe and floral flourishes instead of just flowers. With our help, Dad was able to shepherd in his last hurrah, and my nephew dedicated himself to learning Torah.  As the cantor warmed up the guests by extoling the virtues of my nephew, I surveyed the makeshift sanctuary.  The buffet table was packed with eating contests portions of deli. No one would leave hungry unless they were vegan.

The Senior Life residence function room filled with odd demographics—mostly under 21 Brandeis students; aging baby boomers; and the over 85 crowd.  It was an advertiser’s nightmare: no one 25-54. What resonated with me the most, though, was that my dad, my nuclear family, and my sister’s brood were all in the  same room for the first time since my dad’s 90th birthday party was held four years ago.

Later in the service I was called up for an aliyah to close the portable ark  in tandem with my sister.  Due to our recent turbulent relationship, I was disarmed when she gave me this procedural honor.  But it occurred to me that maybe closing the ark curtains could start to close the curtains on several years of friction between us.

After the service, my dad’s “greatest generation” crowd headed right for the buffet table, happy to be partaking of a spread that wasn’t punctuated by the sadness of a shiva.  Our extended family—consisting of dad, my son Matt, my sister, my niece Molly, myself and my wife Lesley—all sat together for the first time since mom’s funeral six years before. Our table talk was a triumph based on the low expectation threshold of no put-downs or arguments.  Meanwhile, a sprinkling of long-time connections paid their respects to my wheel-chair bound dad, introducing themselves with a hopeful “Remember me…”

Later came the shared  “what a family moment.” My fellow boomer cousin, Johnny, took out his iPhone, and my family huddled around to view a series of standard old relative shots featuring great-aunts in voluminous bathing suits on long demolished boardwalks.  Then Johnny showed us a picture of three well-dressed men in a 1940s swank nightclub. One was my great-uncle, one a cousin, and, unbelievably, the third man was Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper.  Right then I thought, Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? To hang out with my family, obviously.  Our family was blessed with a TMZ (a celebrity gossip TV show and website) moment.

When the guests left, they took with them large Styrofoam containers of deli, enough for several brunches. My sister had ordered too much food at my dad’s expense.  I was irked. But I understood there was a truce on sibling rancor. Besides, I thought dad might have preferred the gluttony because at his Depression-era Bar Mitzvah his monetary gifts had doubled as the payments to the caterer.

A year after the Bar Mitzvah, dad was dead, and my sister and I were dueling heirs yet again. But dad had given me that day a lasting snapshot of a functioning, reasonably  happy birth family. It is still a vision to shoot for.

Bill Levine is a semi-retired IT professional, aspiring humorist, and freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.

NoteA Lasting Snapshot” was published previously as “The Bar Mitzvah Gift” in the Jewish Advocate and also on a senior’s web-site, GO60.US. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Family Feuds

by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

When my father was 15, his father passed away after a long illness. The family – my grandmother, father, and uncle – sat shiva, and extended family members and friends came to pay their respects. Shortly thereafter, as my dad recalls, it seemed as though everyone disappeared and forgot about them. At first, he wondered why his immediate family became the “black sheep” of the larger one. Slowly, but surely, with no answers forthcoming, the clan lost touch. He, in turn, totally put them out of his mind and life. That was over 55 years ago.

I decided to launch an ancestry search two years ago to find those “missing” cousins. I obsessively wondered, where HAD all the cousins gone? Who were they? What had caused them to drift apart? Starting with only a handful of names, and sifting through the databases of ancestry.com, my family tree gradually grew. Throughout the process, I called, networked, emailed, connected via LinkedIn, and “friended” on Facebook dozens of blood-relatives – across generations and family branches – all for the purpose of answering my questions and satisfying my curiosity.

So what did I learn? If we were playing a round of the game show “Family Feud” and had surveyed a hundred people for their responses to the question “What causes family members to stop speaking to each other?”, the top ten answers on the board would reveal:

  1. Death of a parent/inheritance disagreements
  2. Dislike or meddling of spouses
  3. Parental favoritism/sibling rivalries
  4. Educational differences
  5. Religious differences
  6. Political differences
  7. Financial/spending differences
  8. Personal vices (i.e. alcohol or drug abuse)
  9. Career choices
  10. A dark family secret

Unfortunately, these heavy and complex reasons existed and happened in my own family.  And, knowingly or unknowingly, they were passed from generation to generation.

Family feuds are more common and enduring than we realize. Long before the Hatfields and McCoys, the Bible exposed us to some doozies! The book of Genesis, for example, tells about the jealous Cain killing his brother, Abel. Then it moves to Sarah and Hagar, wife and concubine of Abraham, dueling for his affections and battling for their sons’ rightful inheritance. Later, it introduces Jacob and Esau, polar opposites competing for their father’s blessing and birthright. And, from there, Jacob’s family struggles are depicted – conflicts between his wives and between his sons – reading like a soap opera that is complete with rivalries, deceptions, jealousies, and lies. In the majority of these scenarios, conflict resolutions come in the form of the adversaries going separate ways.

I consulted my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lou Feldstein, and asked why the first book of the Bible would share so many examples of flawed people and families right from the get-go.  He simply replied, “If these ‘holy’ families can be so dysfunctional, imagine what our dysfunctional families can achieve.” The patriarchs and matriarchs, with their very human imperfections, suffered from the same relationships challenges that we face today.  But, these trials can be resolved and overcome.

Eighteen months ago, in Boston, my father and I pulled together an impromptu “reunion” of over 30 first and second cousins, between the ages of 60 and 80, most of whom had not seen each other in more than half a century. This past Sunday, he and my mother hosted 5 of his first cousins with spouses in Florida. Between these events, communication between relatives has been ongoing, steady, and positive; new relationships are being formed, and genuine love and affection have bloomed.

My father’s 15-year-old self is gone. His indifference has vanished. His hurts and scars of resentment have healed. His 55-plus years of being disconnected from his family is over. His father, my grandfather, is smiling down upon us and resting in peace.

Cheri Scheff Levitan wrote this piece for her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com), where it first appeared in slightly different form. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Reunion in Oswego

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late summer of 1945.  The war was finally over.

It was a strange time, an unreal time. True, Germany had been defeated. There would be no more casualties among the sons of friends. But the revelations had begun in the spring and what we read in the papers and saw in the newsreels surpassed the worst nightmares we could have had.

That summer I sat in a train traveling from Kentucky to Oswego, New York,  headed for an encounter which took place because Mimi spotted a photograph in a newspaper.

Amazingly determined to make their new life in Louisville a total success, my middle-aged parents worked very hard at jobs they would have never dreamed of doing in their earlier European existence before 1939. Now that the war had ended they came home from work every evening and faced the letterbox with fear. They dreaded finding the telegram or the official letter from Europe confirming the unbearable.

My father especially, feared that mail: three brothers, one sister, their spouses and their children were unaccounted for.

One Sunday afternoon that fall Mimi, who saved stacks of newspapers and magazines during the week to read on her day off, sat surrounded by papers in her favorite armchair in our living room, her feet up. In the dining room my father was trying to teach me how to play chess. Suddenly my mother jumped up, scattering the reading materials all over the floor.

“Max,” she screamed. “It’s Max. Leo, Ellen, come look.”

Her voice was higher than usual, all color had left her face. She stood in the doorway and pointed to a front page photograph in the Aufbau, the German refugee weekly.

Together the three of us bent over the dining table and passed the paper from one to the other in silence as we studied the picture intently. We squinted at the photograph time and time again, wishing it into the shape of Max Nussbaum, my father’s older brother.

After searching frantically in a kitchen drawer, I located the magnifying glass among matches and clothes-pins. With the enlargement Uncle Max became real. A balding, chubby man, he leaned over the railing of an incoming ship, one of the eagerly waving passengers entering New York harbor. A caption explained that thanks to an act of Congress an entire camp load of prisoners liberated in Italy was to be relocated at a site in Oswego, New York.

“My God, I’m almost sure it is Max. Is it possible?” said my father. The cigarette in his hand trembled. “We must go to him.”

I had not heard him mention the name of his siblings since the day we arrived in Louisville. Perhaps he hid his anguish in silence. But now, after learning that his favorite brother might still be alive, my father seemed near panic. He had to make certain it was Max.

The next morning a long distance call to the newspaper editor in New York confirmed the name of Max Nussbaum on the passenger list.

Wartime travel restrictions were still in effect. Military personnel had priority and Pullman reservations were not available. None of that mattered: coach was all my parents could afford.

For a day and a night the three of us took turns sitting on any seat we could, standing in the aisle or guarding our suitcases at the rear of the compartment. It was a long emotion-filled trip. What thoughts must have gone through father’s head as we moved through vast stretches of farmland and stopped at dozens of anonymous railroad stations. Did he feel anticipation, joy, a sense of loss over the others?

Seven years had gone by since I had last seen Uncle Max but I remembered the occasion.

“I’ll never emigrate,” he said that spring evening in Berlin in 1938, leaning back comfortably into the brocaded purple sofa of my parents’ apartment, his face well-barbered and pink.  “Why should I?”

He was deep in conversation with my father, unaware that the little girl playing with her doll nearby overheard him. Above their heavy pouches Uncle Max’s brown eyes twinkled in perennial optimism.

As he watched his brother strike a match to light his pipe, my father’s expression was far more serious. The match’s swift glare reflected the heavy gold of the watch chain hanging over the belly of Uncle Max’s dark suit.

“I simply don’t believe it…this talk of secret arrests,” he said.

“You are a fool, Max,” my father’s voice was harsh. “You must make plans to emigrate before it is too late. And for heaven’s sake, be careful about being seen out with Else.” Else was Uncle Max’s Christian girlfriend.

Max blew out the match carefully, then deposited the charred wood in the ashtray.

“What would they want with me?” he asked, “I’m so unimportant.” A small wreath of pipe smoke encircled his round face before disappearing behind his balding head. He smiled at my mother who had just finished playing Chopin and rose from the piano bench heading for the kitchen to prepare some coffee.

I was very young and Uncle Max appeared old to me because he had already lost most of his hair. But I liked him very much. He always brought me presents and told me stories. I looked forward to Sunday mornings when my father and Uncle Max visited the Cafe Kranzler and I was allowed to come along. I could order anything I wanted there but I always chose the same: a meat-filled pastry, the specialty of the house.

The café kept a rack of sophisticated magazines for the pleasure of its guests. I always pretended to look at the magazine pictures, but it was Uncle Max’s stories I tried to hear. The stories he told my father were more exciting and spicier than the ones he told me.

The men chatted freely assuming I did not understand. Hiding under the expression of boredom I listened intently, fascinated by the delicious details of my uncle’s amours. None of my girlfriends could boast of an uncle married to a genuine countess, even if that marriage lasted only three days. Unfortunately no one in the family ever mentioned Uncle Max’s marriage and I could never ask, for that would unmask me as a spy. But the image remained with me for years: my jolly, pipe-smoking Uncle Max sitting on a throne like some oriental pasha while his countess, clad in white fur, nestled at his feet. One of my more delightful fantasies, never substantiated by anyone.

The visits to the Café Kranzler ended all too soon when Jews were no longer welcome in public restaurants. But listening to Uncle Max continued to be refreshing during the rumor-ridden days of that pre-war spring. Most of the people who came to our apartment uttered dire predictions about the future. Uncle Max alone radiated confidence. Only he asked, “Why leave all this behind for the unknown?” pointing in the direction of the Bluethner grand piano and the porcelain-filled vitrines of which Mimi was so proud. That was enough for me. Within seconds he had me forget “quotas, affidavits, passports, and passage,” all the strange new words around which daily conversation now turned.

I even forgot the fears that came with darkness when the world outside our second floor balcony became a cauldron of shadows and evil. Our guests arrived during late evening hours: friends who were afraid to sleep in their own homes because of the secret arrests Uncle Max smiled off. They accepted gratefully the hospitality of Mimi’s extra mattresses spread on the living room floor, the use of her sofas, or even the hard floors.

“Kindchen, what would you like me to bring you next time?” Uncle Max never called me by my name and I thought he might not know it. But his words were always comforting. Strange, on the night of his last visit to us the darkness outside our balcony did not even bother me. I watched him knock out his pipe and bid us goodbye and wished all our visitors were as positive as he.

Early the next morning he was arrested. In the pre-dawn hours two Gestapo agents knocked on his door. The neighbors on either side were asleep and heard nothing.

Someone who knew him saw Uncle Max later that morning en route to the local police precinct and quickly called Else. She took a taxi to the Central Police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz and watched as prisoners from all over Berlin were unloaded into the grim old building. After the big gates were shut she walked to the nearest telephone booth. She wept as she reported to my parents that the shipment she had awaited had gone astray, which was her coded way of letting us know the Gestapo had arrested Uncle Max.

Oswego came up with the sun. From the railroad station it appeared a small and sleepy town.

We carried our bags across the street to the hotel which could not possibly have seen grander days. Now it had become the center of heavy traffic. When we lined up at the front desk we discovered other relatives who had come to visit camp inmates.

“Reservations?” In the early morning light the room clerk looked gaunt and gray like a Dickens character. He appeared angry when my father told him yes, we did have a reservation. He leafed through a big book and shuffled through some cards before he parted with one of his rooms.

The room was on an upper floor and overlooked an air shaft. No elevator.
We washed up in a hurry. Then, searching for a fast breakfast, we crossed the square in front of the hotel and looked for a coffee shop. Wooden benches surrounded the war memorial in the town square. A few early morning occupants stared at us with suspicion as we walked past. Even the pigeons avoided our path.
After breakfast we started out for the camp. My father remembered his brother’s sweet tooth and had us stop at a candy store for a welcoming gift.

“Good morning, I want the biggest box of dark chocolates you have,” he said to the saleswoman. His voice quivered with excitement.

The woman behind the counter eyed us with distaste through her rimless glasses. She did not seem anxious to sell her candy. She stood motionless while her glance traveled over each one of us.

“Strange sales technique,” Mimi mumbled under her breath. She worked as a saleslady in a store at home.

Quietly my father repeated his request. He was red in the face. I could tell he was holding in his temper. Only the desire to bring a present to his brother kept him in the store.

A taxi took us to the old army barracks in the suburbs which had been converted to house the refugees. A guard at the fenced-in gate issued us passes. A bright sheet of sunlight touched even the gray paint of the barracks with hope, promising a golden autumn. It was a going to be a good morning.

We had written to Uncle Max and told him to expect us.  Now we sat in a waiting room until he could come to us.

When he walked through the door, cold, unlit pipe in hand, there was no more doubt. All four of us burst into tears. But they were happy tears. Afterwards my father and Uncle Max stood for a long time with their arms around each other. Neither man said a word, but every few seconds my father shook his head ever so gently. Perhaps he was trying to convince himself that he was not imagining the scene. Were there words for this kind of occasion?  We couldn’t find them.

Uncle Max was no longer chubby. I did not remember him being so short. Of course, I had grown in the meantime. Now, at seventeen my perspective had changed. In his drab army fatigues with the pert black beret hiding his totally bald head my uncle looked like a jolly padre serving as an armed forces chaplain.
He indicated he wanted to show us around. With a courtly gesture he opened the door to Mimi and me. We went to his room first.

The barrack cubicle sparkled in the light falling through the barred window. Books leaned against each other on a shelf over his bunk. There were photographs of his parents, of his brothers as children. A multicolored woven blanket repeated the reds and blues of the book covers. A battered shofar hung on one wall. I remembered that shofar from my grandparents’ home.

We sat on his bunk while he spoke to us. It was incredible that this gentle, kind man had survived several notorious concentration camps. How had he survived Dachau?

“I walked south,” he answered smiling, “toward Italy.”

We did not believe him. My parents looked at each other, then back at him. He nodded his head.

“I escaped, yes. You know I always felt that I was too unimportant for the Nazis to go to a lot of trouble over me. And I remembered that you thought me a fool. Believe me, I thought of that often. I had enough time to think. Disguised as a peasant, with a burlap bag slung over my shoulder, I walked straight through Germany. I avoided borders. I crossed into Italy from Austria. I no longer remember how many weeks it took me. I traveled at night and slept in caves during the day. I was fortunate: most people were kind. It was the closing months of the war. Even farmers had little to eat. They believed me a beggar – it wasn’t hard – and gave me food. Sometimes it was a piece of dark bread, a few potatoes, sometimes even a piece of sausage.”

“By the time I arrived in the Abruzzi Mountains in Italy, I was in big trouble. From all that walking my shoes had fallen into shreds. I spoke no Italian, so I pretended to be a deaf-mute. Had I opened my mouth it would have been the end of me. So I used my hands to communicate. Occasionally that landed me a little food for my bag.”

“Shall I tell you something? I was almost relieved when the carabiniere picked me up. My feet were so frozen and bloody they barely carried me. And I was tired of hiding. I wanted to be in the sunshine so badly, I no longer wanted to live in caves. I was prepared to die I was so weary. To let them shoot me on the spot.” He dropped his arms in a gesture of surrender.

“But they didn’t shoot you, Uncle Max.”

“I was close to it. I was a mighty suspicious character, a German-speaking beggar in the middle of Italy, German-occupied Italy yet. I didn’t understand the Italian interrogation. And so I landed in the jaws of Il Duce and yet another camp…” Suddenly he stopped, ready to terminate the recital of his troubles. Instead he invited us to meet some of his friends.

A celebration surprised us in the mess hall. Planked tables had been pushed out of the way. In their place chairs were set up in rows. In the front row my parents and I sat with Uncle Max and listened to an older camp inmate welcome us in German. He ended with a Shehechyanu, grateful that the assembled group had been saved and for the reunion like ours that day.

Someone played a Schubert sonata on the tinny upright in the hall. Strains of “The Linden Tree” followed. I noticed several people mouthing its words: “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, da steht ein Lindenbaum…” and saw the tears in their eyes over the song familiar to them since childhood, reminding them of homes long lost.

At one end of the mess hall refreshments were set out. As we juggled paper plates filled with cake along with army-style coffee mugs, Uncle Max’s friends came to greet us, one after another.

Suddenly an old woman laid her hand on my arm.

“Excuse me, young lady,” she said, “but do you know that your uncle is a hero?” Her dress hung loosely, her face told its own tales of past dangers and flight. “Of course, he will never tell you this, but many of us were kept alive because of Max’s optimism. Not a day went by but someone in our camp was ready to give up hope.”

“We were all so discouraged…no food, no warm clothes, so little chance of finding our families again. But this man,” and she pointed a bony finger at Max, “this man hobbled around on his sore feet and spoke to those who just sat, ready to die. ‘Just wait,’ he said to them, ‘hang on just a little longer. One of these days we will be freed…another week, another month. It won’t be long.’ He wouldn’t let any of us give up.”

I turned to Uncle Max puffing on his freshly-stuffed pipe, pretending he hadn’t heard. A shadow of the twinkle I remembered was in his eyes as he put his arm around my shoulders.

“I just promised your father I would visit you in Louisville after they discharge us here. Tell me, Kindchen, what would you like me to bring you?”

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.


Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity