Op-Ed: Everyone Has a Story
Israel Radio announcer Menachem Peri is a familiar personality to people across Israel. But how many of them ever stop to consider that he might have a personal Holocaust story? And what a story it is!
Taking the stage at a musical event at the Gerard Bechar Center in Jerusalem leading into Holocaust Remembrance Day, broadcast by Reshet Gimmel radio, Peri took a brief break from introducing the musicians:
“My name is Menachem Peri, of Israel Radio, and I am the son of Holocaust survivors from the village of Belzyce, near Lublin in Poland. My father lost his wife and four out of five children in the Holocaust. My mother lost her husband and her three children. Upon the ruins of their former lives they built a new life together, and together they brought one single son into this world. I am that child.
“And despite it all, in the middle of all this pain, there is a little bit of light: Fifty years ago, Aryeh Friedman, my brother, the only one of my father’s children to survive the Holocaust, took part in bringing the criminal Adolf Eichmann to trial here in Israel. And how fittingly symbolic it is,”continued Peri with visible emotion, “that it is this hall, where we have come together for this evening’s touching event, where Eichmann was put on trial.”
The Jewish state of the year 2013 continues to reinvent and to rejuvenate itself. Yet wherever you go here, in almost whatever corner you happen to look, there are stories.
How is that? It’s all in the numbers. Six million murdered and hundreds of thousands of survivors created a reality in which “death has appeared in our window,” (Jeremiah 9, 20), in which there is “no house in which there is not someone dead,” as it says in the Book of Exodus.
Here is an attempt at turning those numbers into something more visual. Take a look at my family. My wife is of Sephardic descent. When our collective family comes together at weddings, there are so many uncles, aunts, and cousins from her side that many are not even invited. On my side, the Ashkenazic one, there is just the one cousin, now an aunt, and the third cousin who is more of a brother to us. This phenomenon repeats across the vast majority of mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazic couples.
Some more food for thought: The proportion of Sephardic to Ashkenazic Jews in Israel is roughly fifty-fifty. But before the war, Europe was home to most of the world’s Jews, numbering over ten million, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of Jews in north Africa at that time.
Where have they all gone? Up in smoke. Up the Germans’chimneys.
* * *
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I sat and watched the endless movies with their spellbinding testimonies by survivors who lost their families but emerged alive themselves, each one with his own sad story. And I said to myself, there are so many movies, no two of them similar to each other—and yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the tiny minority of stories that were filmed, a tiny minority of stories that were found to be ripe to broadcast. Most of the stories have not made it that far. And they never will.
So let me share a few stories from my family that have not been put on film or documented. Just some typical memories.
At the same event in Jerusalem on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, my daughter Sarah Beck told how my late father used to collect and save the crumbs from the oilcloth-covered kitchen table, rather than discard them. I have to admit that I didn’t notice that, because I do much the same. Throw away food? Am I insane?
Sarah also told how her grandmother, my mother, used to wake up crying in the middle of the night. “It’s nothing,”she would soothe her granddaughter. “I just dreamed about my sister and mother who were killed there.” And then she would go back to sleep.
The survivors didn’t share much of what they went through. My mother, who was a thirteen-year-old girl when the Holocaust began, returned again and again to one particular experience: the time she was beaten in a German ammunition factory. There she was, a girl inspecting bullets with her skinny little fingers. One day a defective bullet was discovered. She was accused of sabotage. “I was so swelled up from the beating,”she would say, “that I couldn’t sit for days.”
Then there is my father’s story from a death march, a story that it seems always troubled him, although he was not to blame for what happened.
There was a man on the march who was too weak to go any further. He told my father that he wanted to stop walking.
“But they’ll shoot you!”my father warned.
When that Jew could move no longer, he told a German that he was stopping. The German ordered him to go to the side, then shot him.
My father asked the German for permission to go and take the shoes of the dead Jew, since his own shoes were worn through.
“Ja, aber schnell!”(“Yes, but fast!”
When my father tried to remove the man’s shoe, he moved his foot and said he was still alive.
My father returned to the march. The German took notice—and finished off the other man.
When I asked whether what had happened still bothered him, my father would answer, “we were all in mortal danger. We were just a little pop”making a gesture of ephemerality with his hand. “I could have been next.”
Today my father and mother are buried on the Mount of Olives. You’ll agree with me that this in its own right is something of a consolation.
When the fighters of Beitar were finally buried, following the Bar Kockva revolt, the fifteenth of Av was designated a holiday to mark the occasion. But the Indor and Joskowitz families were never buried. Their ashes are strewn about the streets, forests, and parks of Europe. My parents, though, hade the good fortune to make their way to Israel, build a family, see grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and be buried atop the mountain overlooking the expanses of Judea and all the way to the other side of the Jordan to the east, and to the west the new city of Jerusalem, the Old City, and the Temple Mount.
On their monuments we inscribed the names of their brothers and sisters who were murdered back there. We did not include their children.
We don’t know their names.
I have a dream about closure.
I’ve never visited Auschwitz, even though my father spent four years in the labor camps ringing that abyss, whether because I lack means or because of “the Pollacks who were no better,”as my mother would say. They were the ones who chased her out of her home when she returned after the war to wait for her family there.
If I ever return there, I want to go in my past professional capacity. I want to lead a parade of soldiers. Specifically, hareidi soldiers, in memory of the hassidic communities that were annihilated. I want to march the hareidi IDF troops, “Netzach Yehuda”and “Shachar Kachol”,as they parade forward “left, right, left”to the sounds of the IDF Orchestra playing the “Song of Ascents” (Shir Hamaalot) stirring march of the Gerrer Hassidim.
You’ll agree with me that after so many hassidic Jews were incinerated in the ovens, parading IDF soldiers from hassidic families through Auschwitz would be an appropriate reason to return there, in memory of my father, my mother, and the Hassidic families of which they were bereaved.
Translated from Hebrew by David B. Greenberg