But later never came

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Mama is standing behind me as I sit at the dressing table. In the mirror I see her reflection. She is brushing my hair and smiling. She twirls ribbons through my curls and we giggle like naughty school girls.

I love school and I am a good pupil although I would rather play outside with my friends than do my homework. When Papa comes home from his office, he always says, “Leah, you must study. You can be a somebody if you learn. There will be time to play later!”

But later never came.

I am in the garden at the back of our house in Lodz It is the summer and the flowers are blooming. I love the flowers. My brother is tickling me. I fall on to the grass and curl up in a little ball, laughing uncontrollably. I hate to be tickled but I do love my brother. He is older than me, he has just celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. In the great synagogue, Papa beamed and Mama looked like a film star in her beautiful dress and fine hat. They invited the whole town to a fairy-tale ball and we ate a banquet and danced until midnight. “Mazeltov! Mazeltov!” I heard that word a thousand times that night. I had never seen my mother dance with such gaiety.

She never danced again.

I am just a child. I am frightened. I want to hide behind my mama. I want Papa to hug me and I want my brother to stand in front of me and act big, just like he did when the children in the town spat at me. I don’t understand why they did that. What did I do? They were my friends.

We are in Grandma’s house now. It’s September, 1939. I can smell that delicious aroma of chocolate cake rising in the oven. I can hardly wait for it to cool. Grandma is not her usual jolly self today. She cannot understand why her neighbours have stopped talking to her. She’s telling Mama all sorts of things in loud, breathless whispers. Mama puts her hands over my ears. “Not in front of the children,” she says.
Something is wrong. I just know it. Grandpa is sitting in his armchair holding his head in his hands. He was never young, I know that, but he looks so ancient today. His face is pale, his moustache twitches and he clenches his fists. Tears wet his eyes. Why is Grandpa looking so sad? Is he poorly? I was hoping that he would tell me a story later.

But later never came.

I can hear the local boys and girls laughing and playing in the street and I want to join them. Mama forbids me to go outside. “No,” she screams at me, and I am confused because I have not been naughty and Mama is never angry with me. She is now. Oh well, maybe later.

But later never came.

Mama packs my case, hurriedly. “Are we going on holiday?” I ask Papa. He does not answer me. I bring my teddy bear to Mama to put in the case. Why is she crying? My best friend, Clara, the daughter of the local priest, sent me a note. She wrote that she was no longer allowed to play with me but she was still my friend. I didn’t understand. I would show it to Mama and she could explain it to me later.

But later never came.

Little Leah was just one small child among over one million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. For every child that perished in the Holocaust, there is another child who grows up in an atmosphere where incitement and loathing of Jews is still rife. There are those who even have the audacity to say that the Holocaust did not happen. There is no credible argument to counter an ignorance that believes its own truth.
That great lie and distressing insult is like a knife to the collective heart of the Jewish people. It is a travesty to the six million Jews, and millions of others who were so callously murdered and to the families that mourn lost loved ones, and to the survivors who lived to bear witness to the darkest days in modern history, who relive the nightmare until their dying days.
We remember, not just today on Holocaust Remembrance Day, but every day. We hold them in our hearts. Here in Israel, we stand upright and silent as the siren wails. We may bite our lips to stem tears that inevitably fall but we remain stoic.
Never again is having the courage to care. Never again is non-negotiable  and just as the natural passage of time takes our most enduring survivors of the Holocaust, we are charged with a mission to perpetuate the memory, to stem the tide of this vile phenomenon that erased our people. We must do this now.

There is no ‘maybe later’ because later never comes.

The fetid stench of BDS

The bizarre alliance between the far left and far right plays out on Europe’s streets and its blind hatred is focussed on that tiny dot on the Middle Eastern map. Little Israel. With this unholy union of extremists comes a wave of hatred with no credible basis, which gathers strength as it twists and turns truths into lies and facts into gross disinformation. It is BDS and it stands for bullying, discrimination, and sabotage.

Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so too would BDS by any other definition smell as fetid. It is no less a dirty ploy by ill-meaning, Israel-bashing, Jew-hating folk to undermine the credibility, the legality and the fiscal standing of the State of Israel. In its own words: to use ‘punitive economic means’ to pressure Israel to rectify wrongs done to human rights in the Palestinian Territories. Perhaps these deluded yet colluded BDS supporters would be better placed to divest their sympathies from the actual poverty-mongering human rights wrongdoers – the Hamas leadership that encourage shaheedism (martyrdom) by even the youngest of children as evidenced by the newly sharpened lust for stabbings of random Israelis, Arabs, tourists, foreign workers or whoever else happens to be going about their innocent business in the wrong place (Israel) at the wrong (anytime at all) time.

But no. The myopic BDS pedlars wheel out their propaganda posters of tearful Palestinian mothers hugging doe-eyed babies (the bloodier the better). They push the Palestinian victimization ticket by portraying the ‘tough guy’ Israeli soldier occupiers in anti-Christ proportions. They turn blind eyes and deaf ears to such wrong-doings. They gingerly sidestep the spilling of Israeli blood, which is happening at alarmingly increasing rates, and continue to point an accusatory finger at Israel, bolstered by an equally blinkered media machine that continues to contort the grammar in their strap lines to the point of reporting that the poor little terrorist was shot dead, after which he stabbed the victim. Precisely.

This whole BDS debacle is a joke. It is baseless and positively boring. It has been done to death and it lacks integrity. By the very singling out of Israel as the Goliath of the Middle East (when in fact she is a tiny but pertinent David), by calling her the bully, the perpetrator of all things bad in the world, the BDS camp merely highlights its own prejudices and the boycott, divestment and sanctions platform is wearing mightily thin.

So go ask, yes I dare you, any of those Free Palestine flag wavers who prance about outside little Israeli-owned cosmetic shops on UK high streets on windswept Saturdays if they actually know who they are boycotting, why they are demanding sanctions and from what they are divesting and you will hear, by way of a reply, some inflammatory claptrap about all Israelis being child killers.

And worse, is the, ‘oh no, mate, we don’t have any issue with Jews, it’s the bloody Zionists we can’t stand,’ stance adopted by the corduroy jacket-wearing grey-bearded knobs (yes, knobs). You may have met these types, with their Arafat inspired keffiyehs draped around their necks, lurking in derelict doorways flogging the Socialist Worker on British inner city street; they who join the Free Palestine claptrap throng when pickings are thin on anti-fracking marches. We’ve all experienced them, this gaggle of rent-a-crowd opportunists, die-hard anti-Semites, Roger Waters devotees and belligerent British Muslims, who when challenged to explain their objectives, burst out in a rousing chant of ‘Palestine shall be free, from the river to the sea.’ Because, quite simply, they have no idea whatsoever what the hell it is that they are protesting with such conviction.

In these frightening times when we are all Charlie, when we are all Paris, Mali or indeed wherever the hell the next sickening act of Islamic terrorism will occur, in these days when no city can outwit the toxic malevolence of Islamic State, the barbarism of the big guys in Syria is overlooked by the baying crowds who quite farcically appoint Israel as the purveyor of all that is wrong in the world. Something stinks. BDS Stinks. It really stinks

The more I learned, the less I understood

I am standing in the WIZO cafeteria, in a queue at the soup tureen. The lady in front of me ladles  rich vegetable broth into her bowl and I do not need to pray that there will be sufficient vegetables left in the soup to sustain me. No, I don’t need to think about that at all. Yet I do. Why?

Take me back a couple of months, I am reading everything I can  in preparation for my trip to Poland; the heart-wrenching observations of Ellie Wiesel,  Primo Levi, Mary Berg and others who bore witness. Suggested reading, they called it. Often, mid-sentence, unable to stomach any more of my  bedtime reading – Martin Gilbert’s detailed chronicle, ‘The Holocaust’  – my eyes would remain wide open all night as I fought and lost battles against images of dead bodies piled up in mass graves. I revisited the battered old suitcase in our storeroom, wherein lies the minutiae of my late father-in-laws’ internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, including the rough and stained, striped shirt of the uniform that he was wearing when he was liberated  by American soldiers in 1945. It is tiny.

So I had read much,  I had listened to the memoirs of survivors in my husband’s family. I had, on more than one occasion, been to Yad Vashem. I thought I was prepared. I was not prepared at all.

On Sunday 12th April, I flew from Tel Aviv to Warsaw and joined British friends in the March of the Living (UK) group. We were 250 participants from the UK of all walks of life, Jews, non-Jews, students, professionals, youth leaders, laypersons and first and second-generation Holocaust survivors. We were split over five buses, each with its own group leader, Holocaust survivor and  educator.  Each of us on our own personal mission to listen, to learn, to feel. Yet the more I learned, the more I saw, the less I understood.  For the entire five days of the trip and from now until the end of my days, I ask, “Why?”

We went from Warsaw to Lublin to Krakow and saw the scant remnants of our once-proud, once-fine upstanding ancestors. In Poland, the history of Jewish life dated back over a millennium and formed a vital part of the cultural history.  I was intrigued to learn that in the 1930s, over 120 different Jewish newspapers were printed on a daily or weekly in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew, serving a Jewish population of some three and a half million. Between the 1939 invasion of Poland and the end of World War II, 90% of Polish Jewry perished.

From the stripping of basic human rights to the desecration of the sacred symbols of the Jewish faith, from the segregation and discrimination came humiliation and degradation and the internment in ghettos. We learned of the cruelty and barbarism, the likes of which any human being cannot comprehend. And yet, European Jewry refused to give up hope. As hunger, random killings, overcrowding, disease and desperation reigned in the ghettos, and Jewish life was defaced, there were those who, ever optimistic, dared to dream of better days ahead. The contents of their suitcases as they packed for their journey eastwards paid testament to that fact.

But they never got to unpack. In the museum of Auschwitz preserved for eternity are some of those same suitcases and their contents: brushes, combs, cosmetics, religious artefacts, dishes, pots and pans. In one of the displays, a lone rolling pin caught my eye. Did the lady who owned that rolling pin dare to imagine that one day she would bake delicious kuchen for her family as she always had?

We, who had risen fresh from our comfortable beds in four-starIMG_0188IMG_0081 hotels, had eaten hearty breakfasts. We, who had packed ample layers against the elements in our backpacks, emerged from our air-conditioned luxury coaches and descended to the depths of hell wearing our comfortable walking shoes, safe in the knowledge that we had an exit strategy. At any time, we could turn our back on the abject terror we witnessed and find our way out. And we did – but it does not leave us.

We visited the death camp of Majdanek and Belzec, Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau where European Jewry was viciously terrorized, incarcerated, incinerated and virtually wiped out. At each place, we stood solemnly at the monuments of remembrance and recited a Kaddish, each of us, in our own way, sanctifying the memory of those we never knew but loved anyway

Sometimes, the gravity of what we witnessed got too much for us and we would walk out to breathe fresh air. I put my hand on the cold, damp wall of the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and heard silent screams and I wept, and then felt guilty for weeping – for I did not experience the hunger, the whip, the pain of burning flesh, the panic. I had no right to cry.

This year marked the 70th anniversary  since the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and the end of the Second World War. The precious survivors amongst us are well into their eighties. They know, as we do, that they are the final witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, and they have made it their life’s work to share their stories with the coming generation.

At the Belzec death camp, one of our survivors, in trembling voice, recited Kaddish for his late parents and little sister who were murdered before his very eyes. This was the same man who gave me my new preoccupation with the soup tureen. He had told us, over dinner back at the hotel,  that in those dark days of abject hunger,  it was a lucky man who got his broth from the bottom of the pan because that’s where the vegetables lurked.

For four days in April, our journey took us deeper into hell but on the fifth day, the scene at Auschwitz shifted inexplicably. This evil place took on a different, hopeful guise as some 12,000 plus participants of March of the Living (MOL) worldwide descended from their coaches on this perfect sunny day,  wearing their MOL jackets and baseball caps and carrying Israeli flags. We marched as if an ocean of blue that surged slowly yet forcefully forward alongside the train tracks that had brought our ancestors to their certain death. We marched as one, against the past, towards the future, because we are living and we can.

We marched solemnly and as we entered Birkenau the names of murdered children rang out through loudspeakers. We drank copious amounts of water as we retraced the steps of the thirsty and the starving and those doomed to die. We placed markers on the train tracks of those we had lost. I put down two markers; one to remember my husband’s lost family members and another for those WIZO women from 15 federations in Eastern Europe who had worked for the promise of the future State of Israel – and I felt so humbled to do so. And how strange, that amongst the throng of marchers I saw one of our WIZO Presidents, Estela Faskha from Panama and we hugged. Each of us mirroring the others’ emotions.

The march concluded in a solemn and poignant ceremony, attended by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, himself a child survivor of Buchenwald and  messages from His Holiness Pope Francis and the President of the State of Israel, Reuvin Rivlin. Torches were lit in commemoration of those murdered,  in tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations and in honour of the survivors who rebuilt their lives.

As the last torch was lit for the State of Israel where the Jewish people were reborn, and Dudu Fisher, led the  March of the Living Children’s Choir in a rousing rendition of Hatikvah, I once again found myself in floods of tears and this time, I felt no guilt in crying. I just felt humbled and grateful to live as a free woman in a free country.

Five Minutes More

Holocaust rememberI jammed my hands to my ears, “Abba, stop. I don’t want to know!”

Can you believe it? God forgive me but I couldn’t stand those tales of his past and that serial number scorched onto his forearm, branding him as a Jewish pig. It was a smear of shame, of weakness. Why didn’t he fight, how could he just accept it? The degradation, inhumane conditions, torture, day after day, punished, why? Standing feeble as one by one, those he loved, his brothers, sisters, parents, were slaughtered, and he, all the time wondering when his turn would come. He punished himself because he survived and they didn’t, as if the fault was his. Often, he would break down in tears, anything could start him off, something he read in the papers, or a date; 18th September – his brother, Moishe’s, birthday, 23rd January – his sister’s birthday. He said she would be, oh I don’t remember how old, and anyway what does it matter now?

In the Great Allenby Synagogue he scanned faces in the congregation, seeking out, always searching, for long lost family members who may, by some slim chance, have escaped war-torn Poland, coming over on one of the illegal transports to Palestine, as he’d done. He would put down his siddur for a moment, remove his glasses, wipe a tear from his eyes with his cotton handkerchief and then letting out a sigh, he would recompose himself and continue davening.

Abba loved to pray, and always he was thanking God. He thanked God for everything, for the sun, for the rain – when he lost his glasses and found them again; he would say ‘oy Gott zedanken’ (thank God). Give him a cup of tea, he thanked you and he thanked God. He said it was his faith that kept him going all those years. Oh, but how he wept. Some nights I would lay awake in my bed and listen to him, blubbering and snivelling like a child when nightmares pierced his sleep. Imma always knew how to soothe him, what to do, what to say. She would hold him to her and stroke his head. It irritated me you know, made me feel awkward, that my father, a grown man, should cry. I really believed then that it was a sign of weakness. You know, men don’t cry and all that.

I was a man ever since I was a child. Never one to show my feelings, well you didn’t in those days. In the sixties and seventies, we were hard, we fought. We, the Sabras with fire in our bellies. Born of the seed of a tormented generation, we were determined by those words – Never Again! We were invincible, believing that we tough guys would not have taken that shit. We talked about it in the army, sat round in the camp mess room in the evening, splitting sunflower seeds with our teeth and chewing over the what ifs and if onlys after harsh days defending ourselves and the future of our young State. Outnumbered though we were on all sides, and by God we were, we ran those bastards into the ground. We discussed how, had we been alive, we would have outrun those Nazis too, there would have been no concentration camps, no Holocaust. We, tough commandos of the IDF, would puff out our chests and say “How could they not fight? What possessed them to lose their dignity?” You know what? We were ashamed of our parents – our own parents! Well, we were young, but I tell you – I truly believed that, so did my friends. Yes, we thought we knew it all. What did we know?
Once when my sister and I grappled each other to the floor, screaming that we want to kill each other – we were kids for goodness sake – Abba went berserk, flinging us both to different corners of the room and screaming at the top of his voice. ‘Avraymi, Rocheli, stop it, stop it this minute! Did Ha Shem spare me that I have to witness my own kinder killing each other?’ We’d never seen him like that before. We just sat there dumbstruck, our gentle father lost his cool – the fear in his eyes, like he thought we really would? But you know, we were a product of the times, Israel was so young then, to survive was to fight, and fight we did – arm to arm, face to face. In active combat through two wars I saw legs blown off, dragged the bodies of childhood friends through the sand when I could hardly stand up myself. I looked death in the face, stuck two fingers up at it and carried on. I didn’t flinch once. You never saw me shed a tear, not one tiny drop – not then.

Oh but Abba was such a nudnik! At the ceremony when I was promoted to Captain, he stood up on his chair and shouted to the crowd ‘dat’s mine zohn, mine yeled. Avraymi, look everybody – vot a hero he is!’ That was embarrassing. Imma was tugging at his suit jacket for him to shut up. And boy could he fuss! He prayed for Israel’s victory and he prayed for my safe return from the war. Ha Shem answered his prayers when I walked back into the house. He shouted ‘oy Gott zedanken,’ and flung his arms round me, unlacing my boots, shlepping my sweaty socks off, almost kissing my feet in reverence. He pushed me down into the chair and told Imma to bring on the chopped liver and chicken soup for his brave warrior. He would say ‘Nu Avraymili – so vot did you do? I vant to know everything. Did you give those mamzers hell? Of course you did! Now eat, then shloff. You need your strength.’ He held my face in his hands and looked into my eyes. ‘You are such a guttenashomer, so brave, he said, kissing me on top of my head – he was always kissing me.

Then Abba got sick, I was just out of the army, we worked together in his iron yard. He yelled orders at me and I did the donkeywork. I watched him as he lay there on the hospital bed, attached to monitors. His chest shuddered and sank as his amplified heartbeat laboured under the strain of the massive coronary attack. The doctor just moments before had been on the receiving end of my frustration – I’d screamed at him, called him all the names under the sun, and made him swear that my father would recover, but he stood impassive and told me quite coolly that he had done all he could for Abba, and there wasn’t much time left for him. Imma sat by his bed and I sat on the other side holding Abba’s bony hand in mine. He struggled his fingers free, removed the oxygen mask. ‘Avraymi, mine yeled,’ he said through rasping breaths, Imma said to him that he must not tax himself, ‘ach tax, shmax! No Bluma, he has to know.’ He turned his gaze on me. ‘Avraymi, this time you vill listen.’ Calm down Abba I said but no, he was unstoppable, determined to out the demons that haunted him still.

‘You think I vos weak? Ach! Now I am weak, I got to admit it, but then? Then I vos strong, I survived. Vot I saw, even ze devil himself vud hide from. Your savta, mine mutter, she called to me over the court yard. Naked, she vas, mine own beautiful mutter without her fine furs and ruffles and the pearls your grandfather gave her, without the pretty curls I loved to wind my fingers through when I was little. She stood in the freezing cold, a bitter chill you will never ever know, mine zohn, and she said ‘Shulem, be brave, look after your brother,’ – so composed, such dignity – you vud have thought she vos going shopping – and then she vas gone. A line of naked women – mutters, sisters, aunties, shivering, clutching each other round bony waists, they just disappeared – into the ashes. Oh I knew vot they had planned for her. I’d seen the black smoke, the stench. Shower? Pah! It vasn’t new to me. I’d shovelled bodies into the pit many times. I stood and stared, but they whipped me, so I picked up the spade and carried on digging. Can you ever know vot vent through mine mind? Mine little brudder, Moishe, ran towards her, they shot him on the spot. Oy Gott zedanken, she didn’t see that. She’d already gone inside.’

‘How many times you stopped me, you said to me ‘Abba I don’t vont to know?’ Avraymi – You have to know. I vos once a man, a strong man, mine yeled, brave just like you and I also thought I could change the world but the world changed me.’

Twenty minutes, maybe more, he spoke. I squirmed in the chair.

‘Over mine dead body, you vill understand how it vas, that even Hashem couldn’t help.’ He placed his hand on my cheek to wipe away tears that fell unashamedly from my eyes. ‘Now I can go, now I see my son cry. Now Avraymili – you are a man.’

I stared at the monitor, the peeks and troughs of the green line flattened to one single ominous streak, signalling his last breath. Flat lining they call it. Abba was dead, and it was wrong I tell you – so wrong that he should have died then. I needed five more minutes, that’s all. I kissed both his eyelids. “Shalom Abba.” I said, and hugged my mother, and we wept.

You see this? Yes, I kept it all these years – hardly big enough to fit a child let alone a grown man. My wife says I should donate it to Yad Vashem but what’s the point – they have so many. Feel how course it is. Feel it. Could you wear that? See the number stitched there – it’s the same one they branded onto his forearm. Shoes? What shoes? He shlepped in his bare feet, in snow and ice, on this transport, on that transport, not looking up, not looking down, not daring to wonder where to next. Naked, whipped, spat at, scorned upon and starved. Five in a row they marched, walking miles, miles I tell you. You see that piece of string there? Abba used that to tie his bowl round his waist, he said it was most important piece of kit – you see – no bowl, no soup, and if you didn’t keep the bowl with you at all times then someone would surely steal it. And I, God forgive me, used to think he was weak?

When I was a kid, growing up in Bilu Street in Tel Aviv, our dining room table groaned under the weight of food. Imma cooked and cooked, it being her sole intention that we should never go hungry. He got real mad if I refused to eat, ‘you hear that, Immalli, your little boy don’t vant to eat, ven I vas his age I vud kill for half a piece of fershtunken old bread, and your boy turns his nose up at this feast?’ I can hear him say it now, such sarcasm! Then he would turn to me and say ‘you vont that we should let you starve? Is it not enough that I did – now eat!’ and I ate.

On Shabbos, he shlepped me to shul – me and my sister, all dressed up in stiff pants, when all I wanted to do was play ball with my friends. He clipped me round the head if he caught me not wearing my kippah, and despaired of me when I pronounced that I didn’t believe in God. ‘Oy Gevalt’ he would say. Imma told him to take no notice. She said I was just testing him – to see how far I could go. She got that right – I was.

It was only later, much later, when my wife, Tricia, questioned me on my Abba’s stories. She wanted to know everything, ‘Tell me more,’ she said, always, she wanted to know more and more.

But I hadn’t given Abba the five minutes, that five minutes more that he wanted to out the demons that visited him until his dying day. Five lousy minutes. I regret that. I really do.

© Tricia Schwitzer
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