Tag Archives: fathers and sons

My Father’s Holocaust

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

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

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

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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 Word of God

by Eric Gabriel Lehman (New York, NY)

It was another Yom Kippur day a year and a half into the pandemic, and for a second time I davened in my dining area’s pop-up shul within sight of my kitchen sink. I scrolled through the Hebrew prayers on my phone, while up on my laptop the cantor, six-sided Keppel on his head and in sneakers, raised arms to his invisible congregation. Forgive our transgressions and our sins; claim us for Your own. The cantor’s music was no easier to resist than some memorized pop song and I sang along, even if the idea of sinning evoked my cigar-smoking grandfather’s sternness rather than my understanding of atonement as reflection and reconsideration. The day plateaued at the Musaf service, after seventeen or so hours of not eating or drinking, brain soft and eyes blurry in the dreamy afternoon light. Later, the dimming sky mirrored the melancholy of a year turning toward fall as we moved toward Ne’ila, whose final shofar blast would end the day like a mighty period. The ark’s opened curtain bared its theatrical cast of Torah scrolls in their embroidered vestments, each pair of rollers adorned with silver rimonim like jewelry. The chanting of the Thirteen Attributes, a threnody enumerating God’s compassion, mercy and grace, always rose like a collective sigh when sung live in the synagogue; my solitary rendition competed with ambulance sirens and the occasional car alarm, yet each attribute pulled me deeper into Ne’ila’s twilight. By the time we approached the edifice of Avinu Malkeinu, I felt ready to slip out of my body. Our Father, Our King, we have sinned in Your presence. Our Father, Our King, we have no sovereign but You. The prayer’s repetitive drumbeat inched me closer to an abyss, just when the seven repetitions of Adonai is God caught me and the final shofar sounding gathered me in its empyrean updraft. That’s when a familiar voice sounded within, half reminder, half reprimand, all party-pooper: You know you don’t really believe. 

2020’s initial laptop Yom Kippur experience was imbued with a valiant sense of making do and struggling against the odds—so Jewish. The familiar service was invigorated with novelty. This year’s, however, felt resigned. After an optimistic spring, the emergence of the Delta variant prompted my synagogue to cancel in-person services. Online or no, I donned pants and a dress shirt, in addition to tallit and kippah, as I had the year before, and I set my laptop upon a white tablecloth. Yet the forced retreat to the screen dampened my mood and tarnished Yom Kippur’s messages of hope and regeneration. Each freeze and lag reminded me how artificial the set-up was. When those permitted in the sanctuary laughed at the rabbi’s occasional joke, it sounded canned. The day’s cycle of prayers could have been a recording of the previous year’s services and the bima’s varied offerings of music and talk, a taped rehearsal. I began second-guessing my reactions. Would Avinu Malkeinu with its objectionable image of God as a ruler, bring tears? Would chanting the mantra-like Kaddish still connect me with my father, our relationship as problematic as the Kaddish itself, with its inventory of adulation for a God I’d always found hard to acknowledge? The High Holiday’s through-line of God as king/deliverer/judge demanding appeasement before granting life and health for another year felt like something out of a bad relationship: if I do x for you, regardless of how conflicted I am about it, you will love me. Each time I sang out the name of God I felt either hypocritical, sentimental or just plain lazy, performing by rote. Why, I asked myself, Passover’s wicked son, should a non-believer even utter the name of God at all?

My freshman year of college found me laying tefillin and eating on the kosher meal plan. I was pious enough to balk at singing out Jesus’s birth of a virgin in the Catholic Mass the university’s choir was going to perform in a crucifix-equipped church. (I eventually made my peace by humming the offending text.) I spent many Saturday mornings at the local Chabad House, tucked into a cozy building originally a Taco Bell, where I was drawn into the Lubavitcher’s bracing Chassidism, initially unsettling as a guest who’d shown up at the restrained supper of my Conservative Jewish upbringing and got everyone dancing on the table. The English major I was looked forward to the textual analysis of pilpul—as well as the rib-sticking cholent stew—after Shabbos services. Gradually, however, without my knowing why and unable to stop it, God began fading away. The Chabad rebbe’s express-train mumble of davening came to mean less and less. I couldn’t view Torah as holy writ any more than I could Shakespeare, however fascinating. I enjoyed being in a community of Jews, but like children coming to resent a parent’s interference, I questioned whether God had to be there. Complicating all this were the increasingly louder rumblings of a sexuality I knew the Torah condemned. Was I about to go Reform, with its goyish organ music and English prayers, or worse, become that ultimate sell-out, that pale imitation and oxymoron—the secular Jew?

When the Amtrak train taking me back to school—and to Chabad—after winter break slowed to yet another interminable stop in upstate New York, I found myself before a snow-covered field spread like the blank page of a journal awaiting my pen. I didn’t really know it then, but I was on a long and winding road toward claiming a Jewish identity without God. It would mean improvising and reinventing and some stumbling, but Jews had figured out how to remain Jewish without a temple and survived the Spanish Inquisition, hadn’t they? The snow stretched toward a lonely horizon line; I would miss Chabad House’s rowdy little stetl across from campus, cholent and all. The train’s sudden jostle into motion registered surprise at my conclusion. I had been brought up to believe in the evils of intermarriage and the ultimate sin of conversion, which my eight-year-old self once envisioned as lifelong exile from our apartment into the drafty, grimy hallway of our building in the Bronx. Yet even cast out into the cold, the air would be the same, I reasoned; I would keep on breathing. Even more surprising than this conclusion was how obvious it was. I wouldn’t experience anything as exhilarating yet straightforward until I came out.

Years later, beside him during an Orthodox High Holiday service after my mother died, my father commented that he never once heard me praying, even though he knew I read Hebrew. His was scanty; he depended on me to speak to God for the both of us. But I refused, determined to remain true to my Amtrak revelation. I should have realized that hearing the prayers out of my mouth might have soothed not hearing his wife’s voice from the other side of the mechitza, where she’d always sat. So there we were, two Jews stranded on islands of stubbornness and sadness, close enough to hear each other’s silence amidst so many full-throated affirmations of a God my father and I couldn’t or wouldn’t address, respectively.

This Yom Kippur, God’s name sounded especially distant through my laptop’s speaker. An all-powerful being able to create or destroy at will, unbeholden to any principle of justice other than its own, seemed unfathomable, even cruel, in the age of COVID. Such a God, supremely untouched by day-to-day turmoil, a remote, disinterested party, the very definition of a stranger, seemed unworthy of Yom Kippur’s abundant praise. Jonah’s story, read that afternoon, came across as an object lesson in the arbitrary nature of divine intervention, by turns micromanaging or else absent when needed. Such a mercurial, prissy God dipped no more than a toe into the messy world he was credited with creating, if systemic racism, climate catastrophe and imperiled democracy worldwide—for starters—were any indications. Like those able to retreat from COVID-plagued cities, he skipped town. 

The concluding prayers, with their many references to the book of life closing and the gates of heaven shutting, lent the gloaming of this past Yom Kippur a particularly end-of-time, Götterdämmerung feel. The yahrzeit candles lit for my parents had already burned low, the sounds of traffic out my window sank to a hush and the cantor’s voice sounded roughened by thirst. As the time for Avinu Malkeinu and the seven repetitions of Adonai is God approached, an ecstatic yearning I recognized from sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat chanting the Gayatri mantra or some other trayf snippet of Hindu spiritual embroidery overcame me. This troubled year, however, my mood gave me pause. Once, fearful of blasphemy, I resisted evoking the name of Jesus in the Mass, whose Latin I understood, but could I utter the name of God with a full heart in another language I knew if I didn’t really believe?

There in my dining area, body and mind—and for all I knew, soul—fragile and bowed beneath the full weight of the past eighteen months, I did what I hadn’t done in that Riverdale shul beside my father: utter the name of God. The God I named was no omnipotent force or intercessionist agent but what Sufis refer to as The One, the perfection of love, the embodiment of wisdom and compassion I might also embody. Such a name was shorthand for the divine in all of us; those Thirteen Attributes were our birthright, after all. The name of God I repeated seven times in a hoarse voice acknowledged the ineffable in lives often too encumbered and limited by what we are so sure we understand, sometimes to catastrophically shortsighted effect. I let myself tear up singing the Avineu Malkeinu loud enough to drown out my neighbor’s barking dog, part catharsis, part resolve. I will do better. We must do better. Then I recited the Kaddish’s many praises of God not only for my parents and grandparents and two cousins and a friend and someone from work but for my world in mourning, in pain, and sorely in need of healing.    

Eric Gabriel Lehman has published novels, short stories, and essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, Raritan, and elsewhere. He teaches at Queens College/CUNY in New York, where he lives. You can find him online at Twitter (@eglehman1) and can reach him via email: Eric.Lehman@qc.cuny.edu

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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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Chosen People

by Carl Reisman (Mahomet, IL)

Dedicated to my father, John Reisman, z”l, and Fox’s Deli, Rochester, N.Y.

We didn’t keep the Sabbath

but we kept going to Fox’s for smoked sable dusted with paprika,

Nova lox, golden white fish, slabs of marble halvah,

pastrami shaved onto butcher paper, hot corned beef, and bagels,

not those crappy frozen cardboard ones we had on Sunday mornings,

but the real ones, boiled, baked until they had a crust,

still warm from the oven,

bagged up, a baker’s dozen,

always told by the counter lady, honey, you got one more,

and my Dad picked another,

sesame, poppyseed or onion, never raisin.

My mother warned us not to forget the cream cheese.

We didn’t discuss the Talmud but we took

the number 73 and I was nearly trampled by a lady who wanted

the man behind the counter to get her

one of the Hebrew National salamis hanging from a hook.

I had to look past her varicose veins to see the spool of hot dogs,

kosher ones stuffed in lamb casings,

that we would broil until they split.

My father had to pick me up so that I could see the floating pickles in their barrels,

bright green, the smacking cool cloud of vinegar and dill

mixed in the steamy air with a front of

mustard, pepper, chicken fat, garlic, and salt.

My family never raised the Golem to save our neighborhood

but as the year 5729 passed into memory

my father kept up his weekly trips to Fox’ s for kugel with white raisins–

it was not as good as his mother’s and my mother wasn’t even in the running

in the kugel race–nor could they hold a candle to my Hungarian grandmother’s strudel,

filled with apples and nuts,

or more surprisingly, cabbage, soft, sweet, with caraway, pastry so thin

when she rolled it that you could see the table underneath,

at least, so he said, she died before I was born; Grandma

and her cooking had passed into legend,

and my father was always showing up at the deli, Fox’s,

or, really, any deli,

looking for the Promised Land, wanting again to feel chosen.

Carl Reisman was a professional cook and restaurant reviewer before settling down to work as an attorney in Champaign, Illinois helping out people who were injured on the job and growing vegetables in the office garden. He has published two volumes of poetry, Kettle and Home Geography, and has contributed to journals including KaramuLegal Studies Forum, and Red Truck. His work is also included in the anthology,  Lawyer Poets and the World We Call Law.  In addition, his poetry has been taught, along with that of several other lawyer/judge poets, in a class at West Virginia University College of Law on the literary efforts of lawyers. 

Author’s Note: This poem is dedicated to the memory of my father, John Reisman, who died from complications of Covid three days short of his 90th birthday.  He was born of two Hungarian Jewish immigrants, the first child to survive (three siblings died), and grew up in a cold water apartment that was poor financially but rich in the traditional Jewish foods of my grandmother’s birth country.  My father was raised practicing Orthodox Judaism, stopped practicing, tried Reform Judaism, but never really found a home in a temple after he left the one in Perth Amboy, NJ, where he was raised.  Food was the most powerful connection he had to the soul of being Jewish, and the deli is where we went to try to find the source.

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On Watching “Fiddler” Once Again

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Like a petulant child,
I have spent much of my life
railing against the constraints,
as I saw them, of Jewish practices,
advanced by my father who came
from an Orthodox upbringing.

I protested vigorously against
Hebrew school interfering with
afternoon baseball games with friends,
the getting-up-and-sitting-down
for long hours on important holidays, 
and most notably, that my Bar-Mitzvah
was less for me than my extended family.

Yet, despite all those objections,
I am drawn back to my roots by the
familiar opening strains of “Tradition”
in “Fiddler” in a PBS special
on the making of the musical.

I have seen “Fiddler” many times, even in Yiddish,
and each time it brings me back to Anatevka,
a village not unlike my father’s birth place,
which makes me believe I still hang on to
an emotional lifeline to my father, to his faith.

I may have spent years running, but
a simple score I know so well, brings me,
with tears in my eyes, back into the fold.

And I’ve come to realize I am never that far away from the village, 
never that far way away from my father 
and from my own faith.

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

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An 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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Anne Watches Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Anne Frank and the Marranos of the
Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam
would not be proud of me as I walk, with cane,
a second day in this canal-laced capital.
Even surrounded by rich Jewish tradition,
located in the center of town,
I feel tangential to the teachings of
Spinoza and Maimonides.
What will make me feel more Jewish?
I have broken too many rules,
avoided too many rites, to lay claim to
being an active participant in my own religion.
And yet,
I am my father’s son,
he who escaped the Holocaust,
who suffered survivor’s guilt,
who nevertheless passed his heritage on to me.
I think of him, and all Jews, those who perished,
those who survived, as I slowly climb the stairs
in the Anne Frank House in the heart of a city that
has remembered and respected its Jewish history.
Ascending those stairs to the “Secret Annex,”
I can hear Anne’s footsteps behind me,
asking questions for which there are no answers:
Why me? Why us? Why now? –-
questions that echo both past and present
as tyrants then and now seek to control the world.
Anne, I feel your strength and bravery
wandering the rooms of your abbreviated adolescence
as a renewed Jew here in the old city of Amsterdam.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and 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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As Our Father Neared Death

by Herbert J. Levine (Philadelphia, PA)

As our father neared death, his mind raced
between fantasies and the facts of his life,
his speech like the black box of an airplane that had crashed,
the record of its journey jumbled beyond reconstruction.
My brother and I cared for him, sometimes
feeding, sometimes reading to him
from the Book of Psalms. I led him
beside green pastures and still waters
when he, in a soft voice, as if from far away, blessed me:
May God bless you and keep you. May God shine His Face upon you
until its end. Am I not the brother who wrapped himself in a tallit,
who stood before the congregation on Shabbat and holidays
to lead it in prayer to an improbable God? But all that ritual
razzmatazz fooled my fond old man and me.

After his death, my brother came every Shabbat and holiday
to say Kaddish with our mother.
She said to me every Sunday when I visited her,
“Your father would be so happy
that your brother is saying Kaddish for him.”
Thus my brother received her blessing for the great kindness
he did her, a kindness that only the living can receive.

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit: https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

Note: “As Our Father Neared Death” was first published in slightly different form in Words for Blessing the World  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2017). The poem is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Pittsburgh 1918, 2018

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father, an immigrant,
crossed the ocean,
went to live with his older brother,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to 5th Avenue High,
worked hard to understand
the strange English language,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to doven each Shabbos
in the local synagogue
a world away from the
sumptuous temples of Squirrel Hill,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant
knew anti-Semitism, later escaped Hitler,
was spared the horror of that morning,
in Pittsburgh.

What would he have said
were he born a century later
to witness murder so heinous?

Would he have cried out to the heavens
in mourning for his lost brethren,
knowing it could have been any Jew, anywhere?

Would he have recognized the
the darkening of the national identity
as human behavior descends into blind hate?

Would the ghost of my father have screamed
in the sanctuary with the fallen?

My father, an immigrant,
died in 1974, a devout believer.
His soul lingers with the eleven,
immigrants or not, who died,
in Pittsburgh.

He never questioned
the existence of evil in the world.
Would he have been surprised
that it came home to Pittsburgh
to shatter, until the next news cycle,
the spirit of man?

Coda:

And I, my father’s son,
fail to find the fitting words
necessary to speak of this tragedy.

The stop in my throat,
the tears in my eyes,
reduces me to silent outrage.

Others may be able to speak
more emotionally, more eloquently.
Instead, I will go out to my father’s grave,
put a stone on his tombstone,
and carry eleven other stones in my pocket
in remembrance of those Jews
who can no longer speak for themselves.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and 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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