Thursday, April 26, 2018

From our family archive

I've been going through some of the files of my mother's and grandmother's papers again. It is a sisyphean labour of love but I'm gradually making progress and now have another sisyphean task to complete in scanning all the photos and documents I think are either historically significant or just personally important for the family. Among this evening's finds awaiting scanning:

- A photo of 3 of my grandfather's sisters which judging from the youth of the women and their hair styles was taken after WWI, I'm guessing perhaps the early 1920s. Two of the sisters perished in the Holocaust. One moved to the UK in the 1920s.

- The menus from both my grandparents' wedding and my parents' wedding. Salmon and cucumber salads were served at both.

- My great-grandmother's Certificate of Registration, a kind of ID that non-citizens were required to have on them at all time. A stamp from the Aliens Registration Office dated November 1945 reads "The holder of this Certificate is to be exempted until further ??? from internment and from the special restrictions applicable to enemy aliens under the Aliens Order, 1920" There are later stamps from the 1950s showing that she checked in with the local police several times until a final stamp "ALIENS ORDER 1960, The holder is exempt from registration with the police". My great-grandmother arrived in the UK in 1904 but never took British citizenship and was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.

- A photo of one of the American cousins while serving in the US Army in WWII. He has what looks like a large glass of beer in his hand and is standing next to what looks like a wooden wagon with an improvised table and bottle of beer. Part of a sign reads "For Amer", my guess is this is somewhere in recently liberated Western Europe. On the back someone has written in handwriting "not for publication".

- A photo of some of the Israeli and British family in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel, including a relative who survived the Second World War by pretending to be a Polish Catholic. Unable to rescue any other family members she witnessed their fate, including the murder of her own husband and baby. After the war she eventually made her way to the infant Jewish State, remarried, started a new family. One day she was just arriving back at her Tel Aviv home when a taxi veered out of control on to the pavement and killed her where she stood.

- My teenaged uncle and his teen cousin, (the niece of the woman in the above story) on the deck of the Yerushalayim, a ship which sailed from Marseilles to Haifa in 1954 and brought many Jews to Israel in the early years of the state. Most of the other passengers on this voyage were Moroccan Jews making aliya to Israel.

- A photo of my primly attired grandmother, white handbag on her arm, in 1957, at a Bedouin encampment near Beer Sheva next to a kneeling camel and Bedouin men in old style white keffiyas.

- A business card from Yaakov Katz, member of Knesset and deputy mayor of Haifa. On the back there is a Hebrew dedication: "A souvenir to sons of my diaspora town of birth, Zlotchev, Poland, from the Holyland in the City of the Carmel - Haifa, 8th Iyar 5717, May 9 1957"

- A receipt from the Jerusalem yeshiva at which my uncle was a student in 1959

- Two letters my uncle wrote from Tel Aviv to his parents in London. They are dated June 6th 1967 and June 10 1967. He was volunteering in a hospital and inspecting air raid shelters. On June 6th he wrote:"For the past few days I have been working in a big Tel Aviv hospital 7am till 7pm.Tel Aviv has been very lucky no bombs have fallen. We can hear aircraft and explosions in the distance. Last night we went down twice to the shelters. Tel Aviv still seems to be gay except that buses are few and far between. Jerusalem on the other hand has got it bad: they have sent a lot of ambulances and doctors there from my hospital in Tel Aviv."

- A later postmarked June 12 1967 from my mother in Boston to her parents in London about her brother going off to Israel: "Thank Gd there is a ceasefire... Nevertheless volunteers are still needed to help keep the country going and put it back on its feet. I don't know WHY you have to say in almost every letter that you are bad parents. I think that every parent (and every boy) who's son is this week riding around in a car in GG/Hendon and sleeping in his own bed should be ashamed of his character and his upbringing. It was partly the fault of this type that 6,000,000 could die and no credit to them that we have a state of Israel... Of course my brother had to go - his whole ??? was that way - besides which he's a man with a conscience. Don't worry."

Friday, April 20, 2018

Front Row Seats to Jewish history

Always around this time of year, Israel's Independence Day, mixed in with the articles celebrating the State of Israel I see posts bemoaning the state of Israel, how it fails to live up to expectations, how they were full of Zionism but can't stand the current government or they tried aliya and discovered that Israel is not the country they dreamed of, the people are too rude, the streets dirty, the etiquette bizarre, the organisation lacking, the salaries low, the people unsophisticated, the cost of living too high and on and on. Where is the Zion they dreamed of? Where is the gleaming perfection of their ideals beaming its light unto the nations? What happened? How can this be the Jewish state? I do not want to belittle anyone's troubles, but I do think so much depends on attitude to those troubles. I'm under no illusions that life is easy anywhere, it isn't. People are people. Of course it hurts more when people being unpleasant or dishonest are your own people, blood of your blood, your extended family, your fellow Israelis.

That's life though, the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet, the honey and the sting. Sometimes we get more honey, sometimes more sting. Life isn't perfect wherever you live. We're on the earth to strive to make it better, do tikkun olam, be the best people we can be, but no doubt, sometimes it seems like trying to climb up a mountain barefoot and shackled while carrying an elephant.

Whether your aliya goes smoothly or you hit many many bumps on your journey, never lose sight of the fact that for centuries Jews could only dream of a situation where there would be a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael to which Jews could freely emigrate. For all that moving countries is never simple, we are still an incredibly privileged generation in comparison with what previous generations had to endure to move to the Land of Israel.

My cousin came here in 1935 and spent his first few months living in a lean to shack he shared with a donkey. After that he got to share a slightly more solid shack with 3 or 4 other guys. No plumbing, no electricity.

I remember going to see him a couple of days after I officially became an Israeli. He pointed to the view from his small Jerusalem walk-up flat, or should I say lack of view, it was mostly obscured by a newer block of flats. "You see that? When I bought this flat in the early 1970s I had an amazing view. Then ten years ago they built this new project below and blocked much of that view. Do you think I'm upset though? Do you? More flats are being built because more Jews are coming home and that means that I have a front row seat to the miracle of the Return to Zion. I am privileged to have my view blocked."

Such an important message for every oleh to keep with them. This isn't paradise, this isn't a rose garden. It is where the future of the Jewish people is being made and we are privileged to have front row seats.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Notes of Hope

My uncle took my son and me to an extremely moving and inspiring event commemorating both last week's Holocaust Memorial Day and this week's upcoming 70th Israel Independence Day.

The evening at Jerusalem's International Convention Centre (Binyanei Hauma) presented but a fraction of the thousands works written by Jewish composers, songwriters and poets during the Holocaust and lovingly collated by Italian-Jewish Professor Francesco Lotoro, who has made it his life's work to track down ever last piece of music or song written during the Holocaust, be it in a long lost hidden archive, remembered by a survivor or uncovered in a European attic. Prof Lotoro has dedicated himself to their preservation as a musical testimony to the creativity of those Jews who in their darkest hour still found a way to make life more beautiful, strove to live to the fullest even as death closed in all around.

JNF-UK and Israeli JNF introduced Prof Lotoro to a conservatory (a JNF-UK project) in the southern Israeli town of Yeruham. Prof Lotoro came to Yeruham to teach them a selection of works he had rescued, rehearsing with them, absorbing the stories behind the pieces and teaching them about the lives of the composers and songwriters. The programme combined educating the next generation about the Holocaust, testimonies from survivors and those who perished, wonderful music and Zionism, giving these long forgotten pieces born of horrific tragedy new life in the Israeli desert.

Tonight these youngsters performed what Prof Lotoro had taught them, accompanying the adult musicians of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra on stage conducted by Francesco Lotoro.

During the Holocaust there was controversy among Jews in Nazi occupied Europe about whether art and music had a place in their living hell on earth. Some quoted Psalms 137 vivid description of the ancient Jewish exiles in Babylon hanging up their harps on the willows growing by Babylon's mighty rivers, refusing to play music for their Babylonian oppressors who tauntingly asked them to
sing "Songs of Zion".

Yet for many of the myriad Jewish intellectuals, artists and musicians suffering under the Nazi jackboot music, songs and poems were an act of resistance, of life and creativity in the face of a regime dedicated to death and destruction of the Jewish people. These compositions kept hope alive.

The most intense moment of the evening was when 86 year-old Aviva Bar-On sang in her still strong, clear voice a song that she had learnt in Terezin from Ilse Weber, a Jewish poet who worked as a nurse in the children's division in the Terezin ghetto. Weber and her son Tommy, along with most of the children she cared for were gassed to death in Auschwitz. Bar-On said that to the best of her knowledge she had been the last person in the world who knew these songs until she met with Prof Lotoro and he recorded and transcribed them and taught them.

Aside from one piece of hazzanut the songs performed were decidedly secular, mostly in German, Czech or Yiddish (one translated in to Yiddish from Polish), most in the cabaret style which was so popular during that period in Europe, a musical style in which Jews were very prominent. It is a reflection of how much these Jews were part of the fabric of the European countries in which they lived. How much they seemed to have assimilated.

As my young son put it "Jews helped to create European culture, they even created a great deal of the European culture of that time and in the languages of European nations. When the Nazis and their collaborators murdered the Jews living amongst them they also murdered their very own (European) culture, the beauty of a culture that themselves enjoyed. They hurt themselves."

תווים של תקווה

תווים של תקווה

ערב מרגש ביותר בבנייני האומה בסימן 70 למדינת ישראל ויום השואה ובו זכינו להכיר את
עבודת חייו של פרופסור יהודי איטלקי, פרנצ"סקו לוטורו, שהקדיש את חייו לחקר ושמירת יצירות מוסיקליות מתקופת השואה. היה זמן לשמוע רק חלק זעום ביותר מאלפי השירים והמנגינות שהצליח למצוא ולהציל מאבדון. פשוט מלאכת קודש.

קק"ל וJNF-UK חיברו בינו לבין תזמורת ילדים בבית המוסיקה בירוחם (פרויקט של JNF-UK) וכך נוצר הערב המיוחד הזה ששילב בין חינוך הדור הבא, עדות ניצולים וניספים בשואה, מוסיקה נפלאה וציונות.

אין מילים לתאר את המחזה של אישה בת 80 ומשהו עולה על הבמה בירושלים ושרה בקול צלול שיר שהיא למדה בטרזין, אחד מתוך אלה שכתבה והלחינה המשוררת היהודיה אילזה וובר שטיפלה בילדי טרזין. וובר ובנה טומי ורב מוחלט מהילדים בהם היא טיפלה נשרפו בכבשני אושוויץ ונותרה ניצולה אחת, אביבה בר-און, שזכרה את חלק מהיצירות בעל פה והקליטה את השירים לזכרה של וובר וילדי טרזין.

היה קטע אחד של חזנות, אך רב השירים היו בגרמנית, צ"כית וקצת יידיש וחלק ניכר היו בסגנון הקברט שהיה כה פופולרי באותה תקופה. כפי שבני בן ה8.5 העיר לי אח"כ "היהודים יצרו תרבות אירופית, אפילו יצרו חלק ניכר מהתרבות האירופית של אותם ימים ובשפה של העמים האירופים. כשהנאצים ועוזריהם רצחו את היהודים שחיו איתם הם גם רצחו לעצמם את התרבות שלהם, את היופי של התרבות שהם עצמם נהנו ממנו. הם פגעו העצמם."

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ghosts of the Holocaust

My grandmother and her sister were both great letter writers. In a family that fate had scattered to Poland, Britain, Argentina, the United States, Australia and Palestine their love and proficiency with the written world is what kept the far flung relatives in touch with one another via the central "hub" of these London based sisters.

It's the story of so many Jewish families spread out among whichever countries would take them, whichever states would grant them visas. Nobody planned it, but in the end that's the way things went and thank God for every great-great-aunt and great-great-uncle and cousin and great-grandparent who managed to make it to England and the US and in doing so established a base for other relatives to get out of eastern Europe, even if ultimately the could not get leave to remain in the countries they first arrived in and were forced to eventually settle on the other side of the globe.

Still not everyone could leave, not everyone could find a country that would take young unmarried men or women, or families with young children or their particular skill set. Or just plain didn't want any more Jews.

In the many years since my grandmother and great-aunt passed away I have still not managed to go through most of the many boxes of personal letters from family around the world, neatly written or chicken scratched, in ink and pencil, in Yiddish, English or Hebrew, but almost all in tiny letters to conserve space on precious tissue thin airmail paper or photographic postcards.

Considering that the Polish branch of the family was entirely wiped out, but for one distant cousin and one cousin by marriage, these papers are all the more treasured, not least because many contained photos, photos which my grandmother dutifully arranged in an album of the "overseas family".

Most of the photos are from the Polish and Argentinian sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law and cousins and it is this juxtaposition that brings home more than anything the fate of our murdered relatives. The Polish photos end around 1939 with some studio family portraits of parents and young children. Those of the Argentinian family go on to weddings and babies and family celebrations, from sepia to sharp black and white and to colour, years and decades after all that was left of the Polish side were old faded pictures of a vanished world.

A reminder of all the life stolen by the Nazis and their accomplices, not only of those children who would never grow up, but the weddings they would never have, the children they would never bear, lives unlived, futures brutally cut off before they even had a chance to truly dream of what those futures might hold.

There is no one left anymore who can truly remember these people beyond the photos and the barely legible faded handwritting. My grandmother's generation is long gone and my mother's generation are younger then the children in the photos, born during the war, not before it. They never had the chance to meet their Polish first cousins.

Both unsettling and comforting though is looking at those photos and seeing the surviving family in them. The women who look like my mother. The babies and toddlers who look so very much like some of my own children and my cousin's children born so many decades after the lives of those in the old black and white photos had been stomped and burnt out of existence, murdered solely for the crime of being Jews.

Sometimes I think I see their ghosts amongst the living, a flitting memory of cousins and great-aunts whom none of us ever had the chance to meet beyond their frozen sepia images. And yet something of them lives on in this new generation of our family born in a new century under bright Israeli skies in a young and strong Jewish State. We take elements of them with us, within us, even if we never got to know them enough to realise it.

There can be no true comfort for this level of loss, for the branches of our family murdered by the Nazis, but these glimpses of genetic memory peaking out from a new generation's faces are our victory and theirs. They did not vanish in to history's oblivion as Hitler had planned, they live on with us because the Jewish people still lives.

In this 70th year of Israel's independence we take them with us as we give thanks for our nation's survival and rebirth out of the ashes.