Tag Archives: post-Holocaust

How Mrs Bentley’s History Formed Me

by Megan Vered (San Rafael, CA)

The shop, narrow as a stick of Doublemint gum, was owned by Anna Bentley and her husband Oscar, originally from Bratislava, Slovakia. Their last name had once been Buchinger, but in 1939, after the Nazi invasion, they fled to England where they changed their name and opened a corset shop. Mrs. Bentley had been a corsetière in Vienna before marrying Oscar, helping women curve in all the right places. Being up close and personal with women was her sweet spot. In 1951, she brought her old-world skills across the ocean when she and her husband emigrated to Berkeley. They opened their store just as I was coming of age, ripe fruit for the picking. Mrs. Bentley had a home operation where she and her team of workers, which included her daughter and friends, dyed fabrics and garments in every shade of the rainbow. Tie-dye was all the rage. Until then, I’d been stuck with the ho-hum underwear selection at JC Penny’s; Bentley’s took the experience of shopping for lingerie to a glitzy new level. 

“You must fall into it, dahlink,” Mrs. Bentley commanded in a thick central European accent. She had swished open the dressing room curtain without asking permission, and now stood directly behind me, her teapot frame swaddled in too-tight clothing. There she was in the mirror, tiny teeth square as Scrabble tiles and the faint hint of a mustache on her upper lip. Her hands cupped my budding breasts. “Lean over and fall into it.” She urged me forward, peppermint breath hot on my neck. 

Once I righted myself, Mrs. Bentley’s sure palms smoothed the bottom of the barely discernible cups. She adjusted the straps with an efficient tug. “There. Much better.” She stood back and admired her handiwork, lips forming a confident knot. I couldn’t imagine that my breasts were anywhere near as glorious as those of the sophisticated, shapely girls who shopped there. I did my best, in my lavender lace, to adopt a 28 AA sense of cool. My body was still under construction, but in the dimly lit dressing room, I could almost imagine a day when I would have meaningful curves. 

So caught up in the insecurity of my own reflection, I failed to see the tragedy in Mrs. Bentley’s eyes as she shaped and shifted my budding bosom. Eighty-five percent of the Slovakian Jews were murdered by the Germans, which included Anna and Oscar Bentley’s parents and close relatives, although I understand that a handful of them made it to Palestine. I never thought to probe into Mrs. Bentley’s past or that of any other older Jew in my community. If my mother was aware of Anna Bentley’s back story, she never said a word. Even though we were expected to watch devastating black and white films in Sunday school, there was a collective hush when it came to acknowledging those who had brushed shoulders with the Holocaust. It would be years before I would realize that people I saw every day at temple, the grocery store, the pharmacy, had fled Europe, lost family, or had a number tattooed on their arm. 

Perhaps by surrounding themselves with color the Bentley’s washed away the heartbreak of history. Perhaps by tending to young girls like me on the brink of bloom they were able to forget, if only for one moment. Perhaps it brought a sense of repair to usher me and my friends into womanhood from the inside out, helping us become safe, secure, well-supported. Mrs. Bentley, whose dark wool skirts, modest blouses, and practical pumps read more school marm than sex goddess, brought a sense of daring identity into our young lives at a time when our knees wobbled with self-doubt. 

Mrs. Bentley intimidated me with her weighty touch and stern eye, but at the same time she offered me a delicious opportunity to explore the boundaries of my femininity, an opportunity to break free from my mother’s secret, suffocating life. The endless hooks of her long-line bra, the wiggling to squeeze into the girdle, the painstaking unfurling of sheer stockings that clipped into garters. My teenage lingerie drawer was stacked with excitement, unlike my mother’s monochromatic drawer.

I lost track of Mrs. Bentley once I graduated from high school and moved away, but to this day, when my high school girlfriends and I get together someone invariably shimmies her bosom and cries, “You must fall into it dahlink!” We all remember the dozens of bras that dangled from Mrs. Bentley’s right wrist like colorful bangles as she bustled around the tiny store. She was always ready to size you up and had all the tools for a quick alteration. A worn, yellow measuring tape hung from her neck and a red pin cushion hugged her left wrist. Pins poked out from between her teeth like miniature pick-up sticks. We all remember the terror of being topless in her dressing room and the feel of her strict palms against our budding chests. And yet, in today’s faceless world of on-line and chain store shopping, there is no comparison to the personal touch we received as girls. 

Anna Bentley died in 2009 at the age of 96, having outlived her husband by thirty-five years. I was just one of many giddy girls who visited her shop, one of many self-obsessed teenagers with no regard for her past. It is only now as I explore the contours of her life that I see a woman who saved herself and us by turning her sorrow into bursts of vibrant color. 

Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess. Her essays and interviews have been published in Kveller, The Rumpus, the Maine Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Writer’s Chronicle, among others. Her essay Requiem for a Lost Organ was long listed for the Disquiet 2022 Literary Prize and she was a finalist for the Bellingham Review’s 2021 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Megan lives in Marin County, where she leads local and international writing workshops and serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library and Heyday Books. Her memoir, A Dance to Remember, Confessions of a Medical Maid of Honor, is currently under review for publication.  

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It Could Have Been Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It could have been me

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

It could have been me

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

It could have been me

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

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

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

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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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Afternoon at the Holocaust Museum (from a dream)

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

There you were Mom and Pop,
middle-aged, well-dressed,
on a bustling afternoon
in the Holocaust Museum.
So odd, since I’ve rarely seen you
appearing so alive
since you’ve both died.

I was so enchanted seeing you again,
I barely thought of context at first,
you both docents on display at this exhibit.
I think you were excited to see me
although you were quite preoccupied
showing spectators around
the Jewish apartment in Berlin containing
the average artifacts that fill all our lives,
except these rooms were turned to rubble,
up-ended couches, dishes smashed,
curtains slashed, lives ripped apart
at the seams, by black-booted beasts
on a sunny April afternoon in 1939.

You both smiled seraphic
at the rapt crowd,
radiant as angels,
which maybe you were,
as if, finally, you both were detached
enough from the horror,
even as memories
encroached on all sides.

Maybe you’ve embraced all the relatives,
friends, whose lives were leveled
years ago at vicious hands of Nazi brutes.
Has that holy reunion given you a type
of peace to be able to tour
through the past without shattering
into shreds?

Or perhaps God in His inimitable wisdom
sat down with you both on His white mantel of clouds,
patiently gave you His explanation for His silence,
willingness to wait out the Atrocity
while sitting on His hands.

Perhaps that explanation is enough,
if only in the afterlife.                                                            

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

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My Father’s Hands

By Elaine Freilich Culbertson (Philadelphia, PA)

My father’s hands were what saved him. He became a shoemaker because his father was one, because his desire to be an engineer would not have helped him stay alive in the concentration camps. Nobody saved theorists, it was manual labor that was valued. It was only that he could watch and quickly imitate what others were doing, his quick mind absorbing and his talented hands obeying. He learned to value the leather and to shape it with reverence. He put aside the pencil and the slide rule for the sake of his life and became expert with a knife and an awl and a needle and thread. Later, after the war, these tools and materials would feed his family in the new land of America. The engineer in his head had to become the shoeman.

For many years his hands were stained with the dye that he used to color the shoes ladies bought to match their fancy dresses. His eye for color was amazing, and the potions that he mixed made his store a mecca during those years that everyone had to have shoes dyed to match. He taught himself to embellish the shoes with designs of rhinestones, pearls and lace. Everyone in the city knew where to find the closest match to their outfits. He customized the shoes, cutting the heels, modifying the fit so that even the woman with the biggest bunions and the most foot trouble could feel glamorous when she wore the shoes bought in his store. His hands were steady as he picked up the tiny gems one by one and placed them on the heel or toe of the shoe, not only devising the design but executing it perfectly.

He could tie your shoes so tight that your feet would throb for hours until the laces loosened a bit. He could bend an iron rod with his bare hands, as he did the time some mischievous boys ran away with the wand that raised and lowered the awning in front of the store window and he had to improvise a new one so that customers could see the shoes for sale. He could sketch, he could devise, and he could create almost anything. His grandson still talks about the pair of dice he carved out of blocks of wood, when the original dice were lost that day he was babysitting and the boy was heartbroken that his game was ruined without them. What he couldn’t do with finesse he did with sheer force, willing whatever tools and material he held to do his bidding; to disobey was useless. I remember the time he made wallpaper stick to the wall even after he had run out of glue! Sheer force!

When he shook your hand, he squeezed with intensity. Hugs were bearlike and delicious. Even in his later years, even in his dementia, he retained the strength in his hands. Those fat fingers that we used to laugh at, those huge paws so different from my own elongated fingers (my piano hands, he called them) are so vivid in my mind that I can still see them. He had a strangely misshapen index finger that I wondered about even as a child. The nail did not grow properly on that finger and I was never sure whether it was something he was born with or from an injury he sustained in the camps. If we meet again someday, I will know him not only by his blue eyes, his hair which did not turn gray even into his 80’s, his big nose that I used to tease him about, but by his hands as he grabs mine and pulls me toward him for that hug that I miss so much.

Elaine Culbertson is the chair of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, a statewide organization of teachers, survivors, and liberators who volunteer to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive in the schools of the state. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Act 70 Committee and a convener of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators in the Philadelphia region. Elaine represented the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Museum Fellow and a Regional Educational Consultant in the Mid-Atlantic. She presently provides professional development for teachers using Echoes and Reflections, a curriculum resource developed by the Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League.

Elaine retired as the director of Curriculum and Instruction in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, ending a 36-year career in public education. She is the executive director of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. For the past 18 years she has served as program director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, a seminar based in Poland and Germany, that has provided professional development to more than 1100 teachers in its 36-year existence. She works with teachers and students to connect the events of the past with the genocides of the present day. Elaine has written chapters in five different books on Holocaust teaching methods and lectured across the United States, using the story of her own parents’ survival as the basis for her presentations on developmentally appropriate and morally responsible pedagogy. She is working on a memoir that incorporates her mother’s writing with her own reflections on being the daughter of survivors.

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Observations

by Linda Laderman (Commerce Township, MI)

At a press conference a Texas Ranger claims

the recent synagogue attack in his state 

wasn’t aimed at the Jewish Community.

A piece in the Wall Street Journal opines

that most Jews are safe if they are not among 

the eccentric few who still frequent synagogues,

where they are more likely to be targeted 

by extremists. Best to stay away from Kosher 

butcher shops, Jewish grocery stores & bakeries.

On my eighth birthday, I watched my neighbor

Kathy walk toward the Cathedral on our corner.

Her stride purposeful, her pure white dress bridal.

Gloved hands folded in front of her,

she moves in anticipation of what

she is about to receive. I am envious.

My Hebrew school teacher’s bare forearm 

exposes numbers inked into her flesh. 

She smiles & pats my cheek when I ask why.

I tell my friend Patty what I witnessed.

Her mother says I lied. That it’s impossible

for human beings to be numbered.

In a fourth-grade discussion on family trees,

my secular granddaughter raises her hand

to praise her Jewish heritage. 

I don’t encourage it.

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

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Bound by stories

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_ _ _

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

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My Father’s Holocaust

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

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

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

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Yosl and Henekh

by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After school refuge – 1963

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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