A Different Spring

Perhaps whatever I’m going to write will be somewhat distorted because my eyes failed to comprehend what they were seeing.

But I remember for sure that I was on board the Galila, sailing from Bari, Italy. It was the spring of my totally uncelebrated batmitzvah, in 1949. The ship was crowded with immigrants and refugees like myself. Again a refugee, again a wanderer, again alone in the crowd. I neither cried nor complained; nor did I lean on some non-existent being. I couldn’t even lean on the railing, because our Youth Immigration group was placed below deck, where we were allocated beds like the ones in the children’s house in the ghetto. I spent most of the time lying on mine half naked under a sort of sheet.

Before we embarked, we had to wait for about two weeks in an improvised camp in Trani. I did not get to know one single person during the whole voyage. Even the emissaries from the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, who had persuaded my parents to allow me to join the group on its way to Israel, were nowhere to be seen. I behaved like an automaton, standing in line for food and obeying instructions, as in the past. I was inconspicuous in every way. I knew from my extensive past experience that it was best to be invisible and keep out of trouble. I had neither paper nor a diary in which to record events. I don’t remember any happiness and didn’t join the others when they sang the songs they had learned in the movement. I kept to myself and made no attempt to communicate with anyone and, to tell the truth, nobody in that consolidated group sought me out. I was like a stowaway.

Although my parents told me about my immigration two weeks in advance, the preparations gave me a strange feeling. The change from a warm home in the bosom of my family to departure for another country struck me as too sudden. It would have been alright if they were coming with me, but they had decided to wait until they settled their affairs before leaving.

I was stunned, their decision was final and not to be shaken by any pleas from me. I, a twelve year old girl, could not undo the successful persuasions of the Jewish Agency’s emissaries. The die was cast before I was prepared for it and, worse still, against my will. My only remaining comfort was that I had already experienced worse things. Hundreds of children were immigrating to Israel and I was one of them – and that was that.

I had no desire to break away from the country of my birth. I lacked nothing there, not even my argumentative sister who had left for Israel two months earlier. She was seventeen already, brainwashed with the whole Hashomer Hatzair leftist ideology, including Zionism. She showered my father with insults and accusations, such as Despicable Capitalist Exploiter of Workers [in his store]; Buying Cheap and Selling Expensive. She took for granted that he must use his hard earned money to donate to impoverished pioneers. He did so anyway, without pressure from her. The arguments were loud and I, of course, was always on his side and mocked her for leaving a life of plenty for the life of a pioneer in the arid desert in the new State of Israel. My mother kept out of it. What she had experienced in the Holocaust that left her without parents or any other relatives, was enough for her.

Winter was at its height when I parted from my parents in Slovakia. I was warmly dressed for the journey in a full length coat, sweater and corduroy trousers. I was wearing specially ordered boots of black and white leather. I didn’t want those childish boots, but my mother argued that my ankles had to be well supported at my age. I did not have sandals.

I wasn’t troubled by heat during the many hours in the train, but on reaching the Italian coast, I felt very hot. I couldn’t change my clothes, because those my mother had packed in my knapsack were also unsuitable for the Italian spring weather and the clothes problem became increasingly bothersome. My only short-sleeved blouse was a lace one handmade by my mother with a crochet hook and thick, dark blue thread. Despite the many openings the pattern called for, I perspired profusely when the Mediterranean sun came out. In time, I got used to it.

The evening before we docked, we were assembled and told about Israel’s wonderful landscapes and about Haifa Port. Israel, land of our dreams, awaited us. I don’t recall any special feeling of joy, or high spirits apart from

the pleasing anticipation of an end to the rocking of the boat and the seasickness.

We were approaching the shore, but I couldn’t get a clear view of Haifa Port. I tried narrowing my eyes to improve my vision, at least to get the promised sight of Mt. Carmel. What I saw looked like a high hill with a scattering of white cubes, some of which were concealed behind patches of green. However, I did see a sort of golden hemisphere on the slopes. No wonder I was neither impressed nor moved, since my coming to Israel meant nothing to me but an ill-conceived scheme to remove me from my home to the Promised Land. I did not see any paradise.

In those days, nobody bothered to send me to an optometrist to check my eyesight. When I started to take driving lessons, in the ‘sixties, the instructor noticed that I couldn’t see the traffic signs and it emerged that I needed to wear glasses because I was shortsighted.

On the 24th of February 1949, her 17th birthday, my sister Aliska received a unique birthday present: she set foot on the solid ground of the Holy Land in Haifa Port and from there she went to Kibbutz Ma’anit.

 

As for me, the moment I stepped off the boat, I received an unexpected, spring welcome. A man in a cotton hat, extremely short shorts and an open shirt called my name. This was Yitzhak, a veteran member of Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk. My mother’s tenth-removed cousin. He identified me from a photograph my mother sent him in an urgent letter asking him to look after me. This man, a stranger to me, approached with a smile and enfolded me in a suffocating hug. Since he himself had come to ‘Palestina’ in the ‘twenties, he had almost forgotten how to speak Slovakian and I didn’t know a word of Hebrew. He managed to explain that he was a relative of my mother and would take care of me. “And here’s something for you,” he said and handed me two thin white slabs wrapped in oily aluminium foil. The group leaders were calling me to attend to the absorption formalities and so we parted, with Yitzhak promising to come the next day. With my heavy knapsack on my back and the revoltingly oily present in my hand, I joined the group. The group leader knew what I was holding and, taking the package, suggested that I share it with the others. It was halva. When I received my share, I was so disgusted that I spat it out.

Yitzhak came the following day with, as he said, good news. He had managed to arrange for me to come to his kibbutz. Actually, I was supposed to go to Kibbutz Ma’apil with my age group, but Yitzhak’s connections helped him to arrange for me to join a group of Slovakians who were three years older than me. “They came here on the same boat as your sister,” he said. How could I know that his kind efforts did me a disservice! The group, which had already formed and consolidated in Slovakia and already knew some Hebrew, were not happy with me. Their education and general knowledge were superior to mine in every way.

Despite all the difficulties I had in adjusting, I remained in Kfar Masaryk for seven years, including army service in Nahal, the kibbutz unit. My sister, on the other hand, left Kibbutz Ma’anit for Nahariya, after less than a year.

I had arrived in Israel in spring and I wondered if I would have blossomed differently, had the circumstances been different. Since then, I have welcomed spring many times.

 

All Stories translated by Riva Rubin

 

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Dancing Afraid

 There’s no doubt that the period I spent in the Terezin ghetto provided the basis of my future development. One might say it shaped me. I learned to be independent and responsible and I was given the chance to appear onstage in the children’s play “Fireflies”.

What’s more, in the children’s quarters I received an education in hygiene, respect and manners. The tutors looked after all of us in the room where I was given a place on a three-tiered bunk.  I was eight years old.

It was only here in Israel that Willy, who was my tutor over there, told me how much effort he had put into persuading my mother to place my twelve year old sister and me in his care. Which is how we came to be in Children’s House L410.

It was my good fortune to be in a framework that attended to many aspects of my education and I was very busy. Eager to absorb with antennae that later became truly mine. This is what I want to write about, now.

I met Nava Shanova at one of the annual meetings held at Theresienstadt House on the first Saturday in May, which was the day we were liberated from the Nazi yoke in 1945. Nava was the director of the ghetto performances of Fireflies. I only recently learned that the play was staged also before my time in the ghetto and that I replaced a girl who was sent to Auschwitz in October 1944, in one of the last transports. I arrived on the 23rd of December, that year.

I have forgotten many things, but I remembered my director! I approached her and told her I was one of her actresses. She was so happy!!! Both of us were happy. It turned out that I was one of the first of her girls that she met after the war.

The intellectuals concentrated in Terezin ghetto were among Europe’s finest. Thanks to the theatre people and the composer Karel Svenk, I was chosen to appear in the ‘musical’ Fireflies, which was based on the book by Jan Karafiat; Nava read extracts from the book during the play. The production included dancing and singing by characters such as fireflies and a ladybird. I was the ladybird. The many rehearsals kept us busy and full of the joy of creativity. We knew it was really going to happen when we were measured for our costumes. These are childhood experiences one does not forget.

Everything I had missed by force of circumstances over the two preceding years, when my mind was blocked, was enabled to emerge and be fulfilled in the children’s house, where a world full of culture opened before me. I thirsted for attention and knowledge and all I had to do was to absorb and process. In the past, not only was my mind blocked, but all that was expected of me before I came to the ghetto was silence, the questions I choked in my heart. In any case, they had no answers and so I didn’t persist.

Memories and associations have diverted me from the subject of my singing and dancing role on the stage of the Terezin ghetto. I can vividly remember my part as Ladybird. I had a red canvas back with black dots and I had transparent wings. On my head I wore a tight black hat with antennae. I think I was barefoot. I had to dance across the stage, waving my hands up an down to the rhythm of the song that, freely translated from Czechoslovakian, went like this:

In the springtime

May will come again

flowers will bloom

and meadows will green again.

Although the words are rather optimistic, we didn’t know exactly when the war would end. The play was performed a number of times in the months before the Liberation. The tune is delightful and the composer’s name appeared on the original announcement:Karel Svenk. An entire chapter should be devoted to the great Karel Svenk, but it is beyond the scope of this writing. My excitement during rehearsals and before the performance on the 20th of March, 1945 gave me butterflies in my stomach and a dreamlike floating sensation.

We performed in a big hall, before a large audience; we on the brightly lit stage and they in darkness. There was much enthusiasm and I assume it was an outstanding performance, according to the tremendous applause. Like professionals, we came onstage again and again to take our bow. Then the lights went up! And what did I see? The front rows were filled with German soldiers and officers in black uniforms. White skulls on the officers’ caps, which some were holding, while most were already wearing theirs. Here it comes! End of the performance. They’ve come to take us. After all, children aren’t productive. This was the end of us – we were going to die. This is what I had learned at the Selection. It was all a ruse! I was trembling all over. There were no parents to lean on. It was as if they had invested in us for their own amusement. Now it was over. Finished! I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to my mother and sister. How cold it was. Maybe it was just the fear.

I looked around to see how they were getting organized to surround us and herd us to destruction. I already knew that a German in a black uniform meant disaster. A skull meant death! 

My eyes were almost bursting from their sockets, when I saw that the audience had risen as if in salute and was on the way out of the hall. Nava and some others came over with hugs and kisses, to praise, caress and encourage us. Everything was as it was before. It took me a long time to calm down. For three years until that moment, I was poisoned with the pessimism that characterizes me to this day.  At the time of that horrifying experience, I had already heard it said that I was ‘going to the slaughter’. Standing in line at the Selection, I already heard that children, old people and mothers with small children were destined for Auschwitz – for the gas chambers.

Thus equipped, I saw the end of the performance as a trap laid for me. The pessimism, the tension of every moment’s potential for disaster, took root in me never to leave.

But I must not forget – the fireflies, even if only by their weak light, illuminated a path for me, for us, and gave us many moments of hope and happiness. The month of May really did come, the prophecy was fulfilled and on its eighth day the gates of the ghetto opened on freedom.

Spring! Spring in the lives of the very few children who survived.

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Threshold Of Pain

 

 I was on the threshold of pain in more ways than one when I arrived at the Theresienstadt ghetto. Maybe even before then, but I was not aware of it. The fact is, I was so sick by the time I reached the ghetto after the hardships of the five-day journey in a boxcar from Sered, in December, that I was sent straight to the hospital. Yes, there was a hospital in the ghetto, but it was a hospital that had no equipment or medicine. Instead, it had good people and skilled doctors who tried to compensate for what was lacking by offering absolute dedication, warmth and love on a level that surpassed even their loyalty to the Hippocratic Oath. They were among the best doctors in Europe, most of them specialists in their fields. They came from countries under Nazi conquest and were in the ghetto simply because they were Jews. Because they were Jews, they were committed above all to saving the lives of men, women and children endangered because they were Jews.

As I mentioned in my story, Domino, I had my tonsils removed by the skilled hands of Dr Hajek without anesthesia or painkillers. I still ask myself how it was possible that I felt no pain. Really, the surgery did not hurt at all. Maybe this was because I was concentrating on the present I was promised if I behaved myself like a good girl and did not move.

My big sister says that I didn’t complain, even when she came with my mother to visit me. On the contrary, I was happy with my present. I seem to remember that the children lying next to me, suffering from illnesses that were far more serious than mine, also neither sighed nor murmured in pain. Those near death also faced reality and accepted it with composure.

Since then, life has fairly frequently taken me to one operating theater or another, for this or that problem. Have I been afraid? No. Neither afraid nor at all anxious. Never. I have become a fatalist. Anyway, I regard every year since the war, when death was part of my life, as a bonus. Before each operation, I have felt inexplicably calm, as if I was going to receive care and compassion, as if I was about to meet people who wanted only what was best for me.

Furthermore, a few hours after both my caesarean sections, when the stitches were still very new, the doctors were amazed to see me walking to the newborn section and imploring the nurse not to bottle feed my baby, insisting on my right to feed her or him naturally, in spite of the stitches and everything else. In the ‘sixties, most women after caesarean deliveries – and some others – refused to breastfeed and requested medication to stop the flow of their milk. But my stitches didn’t hurt at all!

Is this indifference to pain the result of a toughened character, or is it a higher than normal threshold of pain? I don’t know. I have no answer.

I would rather not go into detail about the various operations for removal of suspicious lumps and such, but I wonder if the experience of my first operation at the age of eight taught me to control  my emotions and gave me the strength to cope with everything the future held in store for me.

At times, it seems that one acquires a different perception of reality after surviving under the pressure of living so close to death, knowing that only caprice, luck, chance, or an extra moment determined whether one lived or died. My experiences under conditions of no choice and no way out, when I had to navigate as best I could in the blink of an eye, implanted  traits in me that gave me the ability to cope with difficult situations even after the war. 

That is what happened when I fell and hurt my knee so badly that it swelled. I didn’t utter a murmur of pain or complaint. On the assumption that although my knee hurt, the pain would pass. I ignored it and climbed four flights of stairs to get home. Only after I agreed to see a doctor, did it emerge that there was a fracture that required a plaster cast for six weeks. Even so, I felt no self-pity and was delighted to be obliged to rest and read to my heart’s content.  

It also happened one hot summer day when I was soaping myself in the shower and discovered a pecan-sized lump. I took advantage of my earlier acquaintance with Professor W., Head of the Surgery Department at Ichilov Hospital and mustered the courage to make an appointment to see him as a private patient, as soon as possible. The professor wanted to know what was so important and when I told him what I suspected, he arranged to see me on the following day.

“It’s not good,” he said after examining me. “We have to remove the lump and send it for a biopsy at once.”

I asked to be told the whole truth, explaining that I was in the process of a divorce and needed to make many arrangements without help; my adolescent children were busy with their own lives. Before the operation, I attended to the formalities, such as the arrangements for the ‘family consultation’ and filling in the forms for admittance to the hospital and for ordering blood for transfusion. Nothing I could not cope with.

My husband was sunbathing on the roof when I came home and I asked my daughter to call him because I had something important to tell them. She returned with his answer: “Daddy’s sunbathing, he has a migraine and he hasn’t time to listen to you.”

Anyway, I told the children about the biopsy (at the time, the President’s wife was coping with breast cancer). Then I attended to some other details, such as my health insurance authorization for the surgery and a visit to my workplace to notify them in advance of my absence. My fellow workers volunteered to donate blood and two of them did so the same day.

I checked in early on the following morning and spent the whole day undergoing tests. The doctor on night duty gave me a form to sign and, on reading the small print, I discovered that instead of biopsy, the form stated mastectomy as the surgical procedure. I could barely contain my fury at the misunderstanding, but the doctor explained that this was necessary in case they discovered during surgery that a mastectomy was necessary. I tried to take a deep breath, crossed out mastectomy, wrote biopsy only and initialed the changes.  I told the doctor not to take it personally, but this was my agreement with Professor W.  In the end, we became friends and the pleasant young doctor told me that he was an Arab and had studied medicine in Prague. I thought it was inconsiderate of the hospital staff to leave it up to him to get me to sign the form, putting him in an uncomfortable situation, when it could have been arranged with everything else the day before.

I was first on the operating table next day and this, I was told, was a great honor. I was given an injection to dull my senses and was wheeled to the operating theater. I found the blurred impressions and undulating movement very pleasant. I opened my eyes from time to time, to see what was going on around me. Suddenly, when my eyes were closed, I heard a woman shout in a loud, officious voice, “Madam! You did not sign for the mastectomy and that is not in order!”

But the professor said they were only going to remove the lump! That’s all! First the lump for a biopsy and then we’ll see what to do.”

“Yes, but you’re still young. We can save ourselves another operation and lengthen your lifespan. If we remove everything, you’ll prevent metastasis!”

I subsided again, trying to gather the energy to resist and then said as firmly as I could, “Nurse! You’re breaking the law! You’re putting pressure on me to sign when I’m drugged.”

“Honestly, it’s for your own good. Do you know what deathly torture you’ll go through if it’s carcinoma?” Using the emotional weapon, she continued, “I see that you have two young children, why make orphans of them?”

I heard this prophecy very faintly, from a distance. Maybe she was whispering, or maybe I was completely dazed by then. I couldn’t shake off this officious nurse. Making another tremendous effort, I announced, perhaps even shouted, “Leave me alone! Have you heard of Auschwitz? I’ve been through the Holocaust and every year of my life is a gift. Maybe this is enough for me!”

The nurse said nothing. She gave up and left me in peace.

When I regained consciousness I probed myself to make sure they had listened to me. They had. The results of the biopsy came a day later: the lump was benign. Pre-cancerous. I’ve been under observation since then and everything is alright. When I was called to the doctor’s office to receive the results and release form, I found the courage to ask the doctor what would have happened had I signed the permission to perform a mastectomy.

“We would have performed the surgery without hesitation; it is a preventive measure against metastasis,” he replied.

I knew it was a gamble. In view of the results, it could still be taken further. However, just then, when my private life was in crisis, I could not imagine myself without.  

I recount this experience in order to point out how much I regret having used the Holocaust to gain an end, any end. Believe me, in spite of everything, my argument with myself and with the nurse was hard to bear. I was so alone. And I was also alone when I emerged from the operation. I was embarrassed when they asked me who to inform that the surgery had gone well. To be polite, I gave my home telephone number, but nobody answered.

I will never know whether my partner of eighteen years was hiding in the hospital corridor, or whether he had paid attention to my answer when he finished sunbathing that day, came down from the roof and asked, “Well? What’s so important?”

“Look,” I told him then, “I can see that you have a migraine from so much sun, so if I come out alive from the operation that I’m going to have tomorrow, the last thing I want to see when I wake up is  – you!”

In this respect, he showed himself to be a disciplined person. The children came to see me that afternoon, without him.

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A Change Of Destination

 The route was Sered-Auschwitz.

Not listed on a railway station timetable, nor as a sign nailed to a carriage the way things were done back then, in the early ‘forties

On the face of it, why is the route significant? For me, those names became very significant; my curiosity rose almost to the point of obsession. I became absorbed in a hunt for any scrap of information to further my effort to discover the truth.

Above all, we were lucky not to be sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz; instead we were dispatched to Theresienstadt – an innocent town until its population was vacated so that it could be turned into a ghetto for European Jewry. There, in Ghetto Theresienstadt, as the Germans called the place, we had a better chance of surviving. 

Years after the war, I decided to investigate the facts in search of the truth. I was compelled by an almost sick urge to ascertain whether it was true that on the 19th of December 1944, when I was loaded onto into a boxcar for cattle with my mother and sister, our destination was the Arbeit Macht Frei gates of Auschwitz.

And I actually loved a train ride.

Yes. A train ride was fun. Especially in a window seat watching the landscape rush past. And if you looked into the distance, you could see the calm pastoral scenery. When I was only three, I would pester my father to take us on a trip by train on Sundays. My older sister Aliska and I wanted to go to the big city Kosice, in Slovakia. We loved visiting my father’s beloved brother Alexander and his family who lived there. My uncle and aunt liked to pamper us, especially with candies that could not be had in Presov, the small town where we were born and raised. Our hometown was not as fascinating as Kosice, which was a well-groomed city that prided itself on a beautiful park that welcomed us as soon as we left the train station. What most enchanted me in Kosice, were the church steeples and the buildings with the statues of saints.

And I actually loved a train ride.

However, we didn’t always manage to persuade our father to take us on the long trip to the big city. On one occasion, he gave in, thinking he could trick us. We entered the train and after a short ride that took us only as far as the outskirts of Presov, Father said, “Here it is. We’ve arrived.” But I started to stamp my feet and cry that it wasn’t so!  After that, he told anybody willing to listen how he had asked his little daughter to explain why she was so angry and how I had wept and said, “Because you can’t see the church steeple with the cross on it!” From then on, he called me “Smarty”.

Now, in the autumn of my life, I thank him for his constant encouragement, unstinting praise and declarations of love, even when I didn’t meet his expectations. He always said he was proud of me.

After the failure of the August 1944 revolution in Slovakia, the persecution of Jews was resumed with the inclusion of transports to the death camps in order to achieve the Final Solution.  Thanks to partisans who directed us to a hiding place in a mountaintop forest, we managed to get by for about two months in an improvised bunker dug by my father and my uncle. We lay like mummies, unmoving, only daring to stretch our limbs at night when we felt safe from discovery by German patrols. The forest was frozen under a blanket of snow and we lived as silent as Trappist monks. Food was carefully measured. At first, we had some loaves of bread and a few supplies, including sugar cubes and sausage, but these soon diminished and the hunger became so severe that we had no alternative but to leave our hiding place. Suffering from malnutrition, we moved down the mountainside barely able to stand on our frozen feet. Very slowly, we came to a road on the edge of the forest. Of course, we were caught immediately and transported to the Sered concentration camp. These events took place in the autumn of 1944.

Actually, I felt very good in Sered. The place, which was a concentration and labour camp in Slovakia, was a surprising change for the better after the cold and hunger in the forest. I was eight, already accustomed to hardship and sudden moves when I arrived there together with my parents and twelve-year-old sister. I’d been in much worse places. Autumn was almost turning into winter and I liked the hut that protected us from the wind and rain. The food was really wonderful. I was learning the theory of relativity the hard way. I learned to measure existing conditions in comparison to my lot in the past.

Among the many people in Sered, to our joyful surprise, we found the Falkenstein and Saphir families, our neighbours when we lived in Presov. The moment we met them we fell into each others arms as happy as if we had uncovered a great treasure.

We were used to the fact that all our friends had suddenly disappeared without leaving a forwarding address. The Falkensteins had two children, a girl named Anna who was the same age as my sister and a boy named Otti, who was two years younger than me. The families were friends from the time I was born and Otti and I always played together, watched over by the big sisters. Although a low hedge separated the two houses, we had no borders.

The meeting with the Falkensteins was a sort of miraculous coincidence and cause for great celebration. We did not know what awaited us. Perhaps it was better that way.

I had hot food on a plate again, wonderful soup, dumplings filled with jam and sprinkled with poppy seed. A delight to the palate. I was also excited to see children and toys again after such a long time, to be among people, far from our isolation in the forest hiding place.

As far I was concerned, the new surroundings were very enjoyable. However, that also came to an end the day we had to assemble in the square: Selection – Selektzia. I exactly remember the date of that fateful day.

Eventually, I realized that I was very lucky not to have been with the women and children who were moved from Sered straight to Auschwitz on the 4th of November 1944.

According to the data I have managed to collect, we left Sered in December 1944, the first of four transports that ended up in Theresienstadt owing to the fact that when we came to Auschwitz we were turned away because the camp was being dismantled and the inmates were being evacuated. 

I want to go into detail about the Sered-Auschwitz journey that was diverted to Theresienstadt. 

I don’t know if all the inmates of Sered concentration camp were summoned to the Selection square. I know there were many of us. I had never been among so many people. The old, the middle aged, the young and of course – children. All of us – families, individuals – crowded together awaiting what was to come. I don’t remember if we were addressed through a loudspeaker, or who was in charge of the events in the square. I know that we were separated into groups. Old people and mothers with children were directed to one side, men to another side and women without children were separated into a third group. My father and uncle stood with the men. My mother, my sister and I joined the old people, while my childless aunt had to go and stand with the women without children. My mother, who wanted my aunt to stay with us, tried to convince her to pretend that I was her daughter – as she and I had the same family name. But my aunt stated loudly that, “There’s no reason for me to go to the Auschwitz gas chambers because of your Verka! I’m strong, I can work and stay alive” 

We never saw her again.

I don’t know what my mother or sister thought, but I got the point that I was going to die by gas. We stood in the square, freezing not only from the cold, but also from shock. There was no room for comforting talk, or talk of any kind, but I remember having understood my mother’s tone of voice when she offered me to my aunt: all she wanted was to prevent her from being separated from the family. To this day, I neither understand nor forgive my aunt for not whispering her refusal, for choosing to shout harshly that she wasn’t prepared to die because of me.

My aunt was right about one thing. We were indeed going to be sent to Auschwitz. The men were taken to the railway station on the sixth of December, 1944 and were sent to Sachsenhausen. As far as I know, the childless women were sent to Rawensbruck. We were sent back to the huts in Sered.

Soon afterwards, on the nineteenth of December, we were ordered to the railway station, where cattle cars awaited us on the tracks. For four days we rattled around without food or water, with stops from time to time during bombing raids.

We came to Auschwitz at night. Peering through the grating, my mother saw that we were, indeed, in Auschwitz. She is no longer among the living, but my sister confirms this. However, some people are not so sure. Since I began to take an active interest in everything we underwent, looking for proof, there are some facts that I have been unable to verify.  I know that the Slovaks did keep accounts with the Germans for every kilometer of the transports. According to the agreement, the Slovakian government would pay the sum of 500 Reich marks per head for every Jew permanently expelled from Slovakia, after deducting transportation costs from that amount. This arrangement remained in force until 1943 and therefore I was unable to obtain an account for the year in which we were sent to Auschwitz.

Still shut inside the boxcar, we heard shouts and arguments. It was a matter of misunderstanding, lack of coordination and failure to update and the problem arose because the camp was in the process of being dismantled and the extermination equipment was no longer in use.

Thanks to my doubts and my search for solid evidence regarding my mother’s words, I succeeded in arousing the curiosity of Fedor Gal, the owner of G&G Publishing House in Prague.

We met by chance, if such a thing exists, when I was looking for a suitable publisher for my poems in Czech and English.

I write in Hebrew; the English translation was ready for publication and I knew I would have no trouble finding a translator from English to Czech. I sent my poems to G&G Publishers and they wrote to inform me that they were interested in publishing them in Czech and in English. I was happy. What surprised and pleased me most were the reasons for accepting the poems. Their stated aim was to publish topics connected to the Holocaust, humanism and the rights of the individual.

On my first visit in connection with the poems, I invited my publisher to meet me in the lobby of my hotel. Fedor brought one of his books for me and I was amazed when I read the biographical note on the cover, as follows: Fedor Gal was born in Terezin on the 20th of March, 1945. 

It transpired that we had arrived in Terezin on the same transport, I with my mother and sister, he in his mother’s womb and with his five year old brother.   

Since that first business meeting, we have met often and he has visited Beith Terezin Museum on Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud. Over the years, he has become my “adopted brother”; after all, we both arrived on the transport on the 23rd of December, 1944, three months before he was born. When I expressed my curiosity concerning the details of the route of that transport, Fedor caught my enthusiasm and was inspired to start looking for any fragment of information about the Holocaust. A subject his mother refused to discuss.

I eventually discovered that, like me, he was now addicted to uncovering more and more about the conditions under which he was born in the ghetto. As a lecturer at Prague University and elsewhere, Fedor is in touch with researchers and professors specializing in the Holocaust. He wrote to describe me a fascinating encounter with Ms Vesela, a fluent German speaker, who was also on that transport. Her firsthand account now reveals that we did, indeed, stop at Auschwitz and she recounts the following conversation in German, which she overheard:

First voice: Why have they sent this consignment to us? The gas chambers are kaput!  We’ve already dismantled them!

Second voice: We can’t shoot them one by one, even if the furnaces are still operating.

Third voice: You know what, take them to Theresienstadt. This consignment has already been paid for. 

Over six decades have gone by since Fedor was born in Ghetto Terezin and since I lived there in the kinderheim, near to him.

Many years were to pass before I met him and received his help in finding the answer to that troubling question, once and for all:

Yes, we did travel on the Sered-Auschwitz-Theresienstadt line.

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Village Church

“Pants down!” 

I turn my head in the direction of the harsh voice shouting in a foreign language and see a German soldier waving a rifle from left to right to let us know we were all being threatened. An officer in a peaked cap leaned against the black motorcycle they had been riding until they stopped next to us.

The skull insignia, familiar to me from previous raids, was missing from their caps. One of the men seemed more friendly than the other, maybe he smiled at me, maybe I wanted to believe that he did. I was still innocent enough to trust adults. I was sure that they were supposed to smile at a nice little girl…

I awoke from the dream in a cold sweat; but it wasn’t just a dream. It was a real incident and it comes back to me at night. Maybe writing about it will bring relief.

We were standing beside a road on the outskirts of a forest in Slovakia. Our eyes still unused to daylight, we stood blinking at the view of the plain after coming down from our hiding place on the mountain. There were six of us: my parents, my uncle and his wife, my sister Aliska, aged twelve, and myself, aged eight.

This was not how I imagined our emergence into light and space from the ‘bunker’ we dug for ourselves. I had pictured this moment during the hours, days and months while we lay motionless in the dark, wrapped in all the clothes we had managed to put on ourselves when we fled to the forest. But it was cold. Our pit was covered with a sheet of canvas and sometimes the wind blew in, sometimes melting snow seeped in and the leaves were always damp.

A few strips of light entered through cracks in the canvas. During the day I tried to keep my eyes closed, believing that if I did not look at the light I would not be seen and they would not discover us.

When the German patrol ended its search of the forest and the adults decided that we had no alternative but to abandon the improvised bunker, I was actually happy. I was frozen, my whole body hurt and my stomach rumbled.

Deciding that the way down the mountain was clear, we shouldered our packs. There was no food left in them and they were light, but we were weak and hungry and had difficulty in carrying them. We were unsteady on our legs from the moment we set out. Our muscles were weakened by the long period of near immobility and we had to cling to branches with every step we took.

I, the youngest, enjoyed the change. It is true that every step I took was accompanied by sharp pain from infected frostbite, or maybe because my shoes were now too small for me. My sister and I were not included in the adults’ deliberations. We had no idea where we were going and why we had left the hiding place that had proved “safe” for months – after all, the Germans had not discovered us.

The aunt, known to be obsessive about cleanliness, looked at us and declared: “We are so filthy, I only hope we aren’t mistaken for Gypsies.” At the time, the Gypsies were considered inferior – unreliable, thieves, to be shunned. Even now, I am ashamed of the prejudice. Jews and Gypsies shared a common fate in the concentration camps, we were persecuted to the same extent and by the same methods. Although in German eyes we were equally inferior, sub-humans who did not deserve to live, we Jews were even more hated than Gypsies.

We are a sallow-complexioned family, but we were pale and our black-rimmed eyes bulged with hunger. I have an upturned nose like my father – the rest of the family have the characteristic Jewish nose. When we encountered the soldiers and were asked what we were doing in the forest, it was my father who answered.

“At your service, Commander!” he said to the oldest among them, entering the character of the Good Soldier Schweik. He was an accomplished story teller. As a rule, it was a pleasure to listen to him. Even exhausted and afraid as he was, knowing that our lives were in danger, he assumed a light-hearted, friendly manner, with a story for the soldiers.

“Commander,” he said. “The thing that happened, happened like this…” and he explained at length and in detail that we were on our way home from work in a factory that produced nails for horseshoes. He explained to the officer that because of the war, the factory where he and his brother worked was moved to Potok, a town some kilometers from our home in Ruzomberok. He did not forget to go into detail concerning the number of kilometers between our house and the factory before it was moved, compared to the number of kilometers between our home and the present location of the factory in Potok. Nor did he forget to go into detail about the condition of the roads and the need for cart horses owing to the pressure on the railways. He described himself and his brother as veteran skilled workers in the only factory for horseshoe nails in the whole of Slovakia. “And here you can see for yourself, Commander,” said my father, “how we are forced to go home on foot after exhausting shifts, just because all the horses have been taken into the army…” at this point the officer interrupted him with a roar, both hands covering his ears. Although the shout scared me, I could hardly stop myself from laughing at the sight of the soldier with his hands over his ears.

The story was based on a few facts and many improvisations, but one look at us was enough for the soldier to see the truth. The fact that father spoke German was also reason to suspect that we were actually dirty Jews, since it was unlikely that a simple worker would know the language. Father and his brother possessed special work permits allowing them to work in the factory commandeered by the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Father showed the papers to the soldier. It had saved us from a number of raids in the past, but had since expired following new orders related to the Final Solution for the annihilation of the Jews of Slovakia. The document was not worth the paper on which it was written.

Hosen herunter!” shouted the officer. “Pants down!” Again the shameful order.

What a disgrace! Did my father have to undress in public? My strong, proud father had to lower his trousers and display his private parts to the soldiers? A shocking humiliation. I was so embarrassed, I pinched my sister.

Then Father spoke to the soldiers in a calm, quiet voice. He admitted that we were Jews and whispered something I could not hear.

The German was not annoyed; he took a deep breath and even seemed pleased that the matter was ending in a reasonable, relatively decent way. To my immense relief, Father was not told again to lower his trousers.

The soldiers explained where we had to go in order to join the group of Jews being held in the area. “Continue along the path for a few kilometers till you come to a village named Liptovska Osada. In the churchyard you’ll find more Jews. You’ll be given further instructions.”

As we walked away, I heard my parents blessing our good luck. “If they were bloodthirsty, they could have shot us,” they said, “like the SS, or the Slovakian National Guard.”

The Slovakian National Guard knew that the escaping Jews hid money and jewelry on their bodies and lay in wait to murder, strip and rob them. How lucky we were to have fallen into the hands of the German Wehrmacht soldiers and not those robbers. 

Slowly and painfully, we carried on; I was limping because of the sores on my feet. When we were some distance from the soldiers, my uncle began to shout, “Now we’re going to the slaughterhouse! They’re going to slaughter us in that church!”

I believed him. I was so terrified that I burst into tears and said I couldn’t walk. Actually, I had lost all will to struggle against the pain and fear. My sister also began to cry. We were all exhausted. None of the four adults was able to offer us any support.

I believed my uncle, after all, he was a grown up and he knew! We were going to be slaughtered. And I knew what slaughter was.  During the Easter holidays, when we visited Grandmother in the village where my mother was born, I heard the shrieks of the pigs. Once, following the sound of the awful screams, I even peeked into the neighbors’ yard. A horrible sight! Quantities of blood! And now my blood would be spilled in the churchyard where they were going to slaughter us.

As we dragged ourselves along the path, I started wailing that I could not go on.

My uncle, negative as always, devoid of any sensitivity to children, complained with a suffering expression on his face, “Can’t you shut her up!” 

His negative, pessimistic nature would eventually lead to his death beside my father in the concentration camp when they were sent to Sachsenhausen. He refused to listen to my father’s encouraging words and committed suicide by throwing himself onto the electrified fence. Whereas my resourceful father, in the midst of all his suffering, exchanged shirts with the corpse of a political prisoner and stayed alive.

Nevertheless, even he, the optimistic one, was helpless in the face of the terrifying prospect and my mother was actually the one who proved to be alert and resourceful. She stepped off the path, turned her back to us and withdrew a gold brooch from her corset.  In my mind, the action remains as magical as Alladin rubbing the lamp.

Apparently, she had noticed an approaching horse and cart. She waved the driver to the side of the road and exchanged a few words with him, after which we were permitted to climb onto the cart loaded with wonderfully fragrant hay.

That cart saved us. It is doubtful whether we would have had the strength to reach the village otherwise. I sat at ease on the pile of hay, listening to the soothing clatter of the horse’s hooves while I chewed a thick slice of the loaf of village bread that the driver divided among us. I was still apprehensive about the threat of slaughter in the village church and I was still afraid they might humiliate my father and uncle by ordering them to take off their clothes. I had seen my mother naked on a few occasions, when she pushed herself into her corset and asked me to close its
many hooks, but I had never seen my father or my uncle unclothed. Meanwhile, I chewed the bread and made the most of the moment.

In the distance we could see the ominous silhouette of the church where, as my uncle promised, slaughter awaited us. I was shaking with fear as the cart approached the crowded churchyard.

Yet the place bore no resemblance to the slaughterhouses I had seen in the past. If we were indeed about to be slaughtered, where were the hooks, the butchers’ knives, the blood and the cries of the dying? The horse entered the yard with measured, dignified steps. The cart came to a halt. The driver gave me a friendly smile, held out his strong arms, swung me high in the air and gently set me on my feet. I felt that we were the focus of all eyes, as if we were members of a noble family arriving for a ball.

It quickly emerged that this church really was not a slaughterhouse!

I remembered it for over sixty years as the place where the first real hug was engraved on my memory.

 “It can’t possibly have disappeared,” I said to the taxi driver, determined not to give up. The church was real! It belonged to the time of the bunker, the hunger, the fear.

The directions from the priest of the Pravoslavic church were clear: “To reach the Catholic church, you must go left and then straight up to the fence. From there you’ll see the cross on the church.”

I was aware of an inner voice warning me that it would be better for me to remember the church as a place that had warmed both heart and belly with the flow of hot milk.

I recognized nothing. It looked abandoned. The gateway that I remembered was gone. I came across a little house in the yard and knocked on the door a few times. It was opened by a faded, bent old man, perhaps a priest, a survivor of World War II who had slaved from morning to night in a Communist government project, but Jesus had waited and watched over him. He tried to smile at me, but it was a bitter smile. No, he was not prepared to open the church for me.

“It hasn’t been renovated yet. What’s there to see in that ruin?”

He tried all sorts of evasive tricks, but I persisted. I had to go in and sit on the second last bench, to look at the colored windows from the inside, to look at the crucifix. In the end, a twenty dollar bill softened his resistance.

He turned the key in the lock, pushed and pulled and grew red in the face, until the door opened with a grating sound. I had already come to an agreement with him to be allowed to sit alone once I was inside.

He was right: gloom and shadows. The windows had long since lost their transparency. I recoiled at the sight of the dust and grime. The stench thickened the air. Spider webs filled every possible corner… I looked at the bench I had kept in my memory with longing, wanting to stroke it with my fingertips. Instead of the shine of the wood, I encountered worms stretching towards me from its many fissures…

Only the structure with its cruciform interior remained undamaged. Gone were the windows that had so impressed me; some broken now and replaced with panes of ordinary glass with only sections of the original stained glass in place. It was impossible for me to sit in my old place. I turned. The priest was gone and I fled from the worms and disappointment.  

Still, that church represented a turning point in my life. It was there I realized for the first time that adults could be mistaken. My uncle’s prophecy was not fulfilled. The walk on excruciatingly painful feet was unbearable until we met the cart, but in the end I was not led to the slaughter.

Instead, we reached the church, where I experienced the pleasant sensation of that hug on the second last bench, where they seated me. I was the smallest of the Jews they had already rounded up. Possibly, that soldier who was older than my father had left a granddaughter in Germany. Anyway, he suddenly hugged me to his chest with a warm smile, as if he wanted to pamper me. I seem to remember that he even bounced me on his knees, playing ride-the-donkey, while he sang a children’s song in German. I felt wonderful.

I am sure I received hugs and kisses from the whole family before the war, after all, I was the smallest. But they were all forgotten. In the last two years of fear and anxiety, my parents were unable to pamper, console or promise me better days. They were themselves barely able to function, mustering all their strength to survive, to keep silent lest we be discovered.

And behold, against all expectations of the evil about to befall us, an anonymous soldier seated me on his knee, undeterred by the filth and the lice crawling in my hair, he gently stroked me and ordered; “MILCH!!”

A German soldier hugged me and ordered “warm milk for the little girl!” For me? Warm milk!? Unbelievable. It barely remembered the last time I had warm milk to drink. It tasted heavenly.

Amazingly, I had found a moment of loving kindness in the church. Beneath the high, strong ceiling I felt protected against the cold. Here, maybe because I was the smallest of all, people smiled at me. The smile is etched on my memory because it came at a time when I was unaccustomed to smiles, to warmth. Two years earlier, I was marked with the rest of my family and my mother sewed patches with yellow Stars of David for all of us. We were all marked. .

 There were quite a number of Jews in the church who were as happy as if they were celebrating a holiday when they found one another and knew that they were among the living. The atmosphere was calm and someone saw to it that we had warm food. Later, with the help of money she produced from her treasury, my mother managed to buy some food from the peasants. 

I was happy. First of all, they did not slaughter us and we were not sent to the slaughterhouse, as my uncle threatened when we left the hiding place and were caught by the German patrol. A church is not a slaughterhouse! What’s more, the hug from the German soldier was comforting and we had a soaring roof over our heads to protect us against rain and snow, all of which even without taking into account the beautiful painting of the Madonna and child.

I was happier and more satisfied than I had been for a long time. Everything was turning out well for me. In the evening, they moved us into a barn full of fragrant hay that was as warm and reassuring as the German soldier’s smile. I was tempted to think that life was beautiful and everything looked wonderful…

It was just as well that I didn’t know that the church served as a temporary holding place for Jews rounded up before being sent to the Sered concentration camp. But still, even though the warmth in the church was nothing but an illusion, sometimes the illusion is an interim of sanity.

When I returned to the priest’s office he asked me what was so special about the abandoned church.

I told him.

When I stopped talking he looked at me with infinite sadness. Then he went to an old table and took a postcard from the drawer. It was a faded sepia photograph of the church in those days, with the village in the background. “Now I understand,” he said, giving me the postcard.

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The Meisels Brothers

 

“The Meisels brothers, their wives and children – out of the carriage!” That was the command we heard from the box car of the Presov train station, in May 1942. 

“Aliska, just tell me, were we taken off the transport or not?”

This question didn’t come easily. I knew my sister would respond with emotional shouts and her blood pressure would get even higher. Until I dared to ask the direct question, I had “behaved myself”. I listened to everything she had to say about her wonderful grandchildren, about the ailments of her friends in Nahariya, where everybody knows everything.  I was brought up to date concerning the recently deceased, may God spare us: “What, you don’t remember him, the one who used to live in that street. what’s it called. you know, the one who cheated on his wife and got a fatal disease?” I didn’t remember. I had not lived in the town for more than fifty years and in Tel Aviv, too, I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors.

 “He got us off the transport. So what? You should know, that Lichardus was a fascist, a Nazi confiscator and scum of the earth! And what good did it do us? Two years later we were back on the transport, in those same cattle cars headed for Auschwitz,” my sister answered, trembling with anger. 

“But in 1944, after the revolt by the Slovakian underground, he was powerless,” I said, trying to present facts.

“Tell me, Verka, what do you want of me? He took us off because he needed Father and Uncle Moritz to operate the factory he stole from us. Don’t be naïve. The Slovaks hated Jews and aimed to wipe us out.”

“Aliska, look, you’re sitting here with me in your kitchen. Now tell me honestly, isn’t this thanks to that Lichardus who got his hands on Father’s factory? Have you heard of any Jewish property that wasn’t stolen in those days?” I wanted to soothe her nerves.

“Do me a favour, leave it alone, they were all murderous fascists so don’t turn them into saints.”

For many years, sixty-three to be exact, the name Lichardus didn’t interest me. The burrowing into everything connected to “Mr. Lichardus”, as we used to call him, started only about a month before I went to Bratislava to attend the book warming for my collection of poems. Instead of basking in the honour that had come my way when the National Museum of Slovakia published my poems on the subject of the Holocaust, I put all my energy into tracing the Lichardus Factory, as it was now named. The moment I got it into my head to clarify some intriguing facts with the man’s son, all thought of the book warming was pushed aside. I was determined to ascertain the facts.                                                                                               

Using the internet before I left for Slovakia, I discovered that the metal factory was still operating – under the name of Lichardus. I also managed to trace the confiscator’s son, who was born in 1936, before the war disrupted our childhood.

I phoned him, he answered and what I heard, as if by magic, was my mother tongue.

Of course, he spoke in the language that came naturally to him, but for me that language was long dead. However, to my surprise, I understood the words.

I introduce myself, suggested a meeting and he agreed to come to the lobby of my hotel on the following day at six in the afternoon (like the Good Soldier Schweik, who arranged a meeting for six after the war).

Understand, this was not just another appointment. I was going to meet the son of that terrible man. I eagerly hoped, with his help, to reconstruct the events that lie like a weight on a dim scrap of my memory. Because my trip to Slovakia had re-awakened dormant impressions, the weight was leaning this way and that without finding its proper position. I needed to clarify the course of events during those three fateful years from 1942 to August 1944, when we were under the protection of Engineer Joseph Lichardus.

I heard the name Lichardus for the first time when I was six and connected it with something evil, satanic, a tyrant, our disaster. 

The Nazis confiscated my father’s factory and transferred the ownership to Engineer Joseph Lichardus senior – the first link in the long chain of sorrow that befell us..

After which it was only a matter of time before we were ordered to pack fifty kilograms of our belongings and on a certain day at a certain time to present ourselves at the railway station. This I remember. We arrived on time. We were herded into a box car on a freight train. Grandfather and grandmother on Father’s side, aunts, uncles, their children, our whole extended family. Suffocating. Crowded. Neighbours. Bewildered eyes. Traveling eastward.

May 1942. Presov railway station.

On the tracks, fifteen freight cars of the kind meant for cattle and me in one of them. Suddenly, an important civilian accompanied by two uniformed German soldiers marched onto the platform. I heard them calling “the Meisels family”. They found us. They came to the boxcar into which we were crowded and ordered my father Zoltan Meisels, my mother Cecilia, my sister Aliska and me, as well as my uncle Moritz and his wife Ilonka to leave the carriage and report to them. They had a document signed by the High Command confirming that my father and uncle were vital to the war effort as experts in running a confiscated factory.

That document was a permit for the two men and their immediate families to stay alive.  

None of the others on that freight train returned to their homes from the “east”.

I suppressed that scene for over sixty years. My parents survived the Holocaust and died at an early age in Israel. My sister is some four years older than me and so remembers the past better than I do. She hates the Slovaks and all generations of the Lichardus family. Apparently, she sees nothing positive in the document that removed us from the train to hell. She claims that the sole reason for freeing the men of our family was the need for their expertise in operating the machines in the factory. And anyhow, what didn’t I understand? That the paper was valid only until future Aktions?

I wanted to know more. Curiosity drove me to initiate the meeting with Lichardus the son, in order to speculate about the personality of the father. It could be said that he and I, the two children, were on opposite sides of the fence. It’s hard for me to explain the positive feeling I had towards him. After all, we had both fallen unintentionally into that cauldron and, naively, I  thought that perhaps we had even played together, perhaps he remembered me?

I don’t recall Mr Lichardus’ face. I was only six, clinging to my father’s hand in the cattle car. I was certainly bewildered by the shouts and commotion around me. Then Mr Lichardus arrived and took us off the train, took us to a hotel in the city since we no longer had a house and, later, moved us and the machines to Ruzomberok

 My father worked in Mr Lichardus’ factory for over two years. I was not allowed to attend any school, but I wonder if I was free to visit my father and uncle at work. Maybe little Yozko met me among the machines? Maybe it happened in his summer holidays? Who knows, maybe we played hide and seek? Remember me? No? Ah! Apparently he didn’t play with girls.

I have only recently begun to think about that irregular act: It’s unbelievable that anyone would have bothered to take some Jews off the cattle car at the last moment before the doors were bolted. Hard to believe, but lately I’ve been dredging up stories that support the surmise that, indeed, this is exactly what happened. We were taken from the train. Fact Not fantasy. An actual event.

I am trying to invest that incident with the humane depth and significance of a premeditated act. To project a humane person, who took the trouble to organize documents and stamps and signatures and arrangements in order to save six ‘dirty Jews’ from death.   

My father’s factory manufactured screws and horseshoe nails, the only factory of its kind in Czechoslovakia. Mr Lichardus was a manufacturer of horseshoes and, subsequently, of weapons and mines. I am certain that Engineer Lichardus would have been able to overcome the technical obstacles involved in operating the equipment he had confiscated, even without the help of my father and uncle. So, yes, he did save a professional workforce from the train, but it seems to me that his business considerations were mixed with at least a touch of the humane.

I looked at my watch like a starter at an Olympic race and went down to the lobby at exactly six o’clock. Yozef the son was also punctual. He was a man of considerable presence, handsome, with well-groomed hair and grey beard, a sculptor who worked in iron and whose impressive monumental creations stand in the streets of Slovakia. Another reason to meet him – we were both sculptors.

He greeted me with a firm, warm handshake and, with the other hand, presented me with a menorah made by himself. None of the honours I had received the previous day at my book warming moved me as much as that ‘historic’ moment. It was as if having a book published was less significant than touching the past, a past that had been unreal until it started to take shape before my eyes.

“What is the connection between you and a menorah?” I asked after a word of thanks.

“Look how beautiful the proportions are, I liked it as a composition, I’ve made a few of them.”

It really surprised me. The waiter arrived and we ordered. Then I asked if he would mind if I recorded our conversation, because I have a memory problem. Sometimes I don’t believe that what happened, happened.

“No problem,” he answered and I felt I was with someone who understood me.

Strange. There was immediate empathy between us. He was relieved to find that I didn’t want to talk about illnesses – like most people of our age – and the conversation flowed. Somehow, half stammering, I tried to say that I was, like, a little hesitant about expressing, by this meeting, my thanks to his father for taking us off the train to Lublin and the fields of certain death. Why did I hesitate? I explained to him and to myself, that some say he was motivated by a technical necessity to operate machines, not to save lives. To tell the truth, he was embarrassed. Although he was pleased by my gesture of thanks to his father, he understood why I hesitated.

We spoke for about two hours, about those years. His father, he said, supplied weapons to the partisans as well as to the Nazis. This suited the positive image I was trying to build. I liked hearing that his father had employed other Jews, too.

“Father was imprisoned, you know.”

“Really? On what charge?” I asked.

He didn’t know. “In those days, with the communists, you didn’t need a charge,” he said, trying explain.

“Do you remember if maybe your mother packed food for partisans and Jews hiding in the forests?”

“How can I remember? My head was filled with teasing my little brother and playing games. I can’t say I saw any such gesture.”

I trusted him for his frankness. He brought me a booklet he had published in memory of his brother, a well known scientist, and showed me a photograph of his father in the book. “Maybe you remember him?” But I did not. In any case, it was taken when he was an old man.

We were honest with one another. Yozko did not feel any guilt that needed repentance. If he had doubts or anti-Semitic hatred, he easily concealed them from me.

The meeting raised my spirits. Whatever there was, was real. Lichardus is more than a name, it is a factory, it is a rescue.

On parting, I gave him a copy of “My Torn Roots”, the collection of my poems that was launched the day before. On the flyleaf I wrote: “A gesture of thanks to your late father who removed us from the cattle cars in May 1942 and saved our lives. Vera Meisels.”

We arranged to meet the next day for Yozko to show me his studio. However, I heard from him before then, when he phoned me that evening to ask if he could buy two copies of my book for his children: “You have no idea how excited we are. My grandson walks around with the book, filled with pride in his great-grandfather who was a hero who saved people.”

As chance would have it, I came across an article and historical documents mentioning the name of our rescuer as one of the leading nationalist fascist ideologues, as early as 1921. I have to say that there was nothing in the learned article to persuade me to believe in the humanitarian motives of Mr Lichardus. His nationalistic views in 1921 could have taken a turn towards  fascism in all its ugliness. As a member of the Young Guard Zionist Youth Movement [Hashomer Hatzair] I was educated to adore Stalin and afterwards learned of his deeds. It is convenient for me to believe that Lichardus senior had been a humanist rebel in a totalitarian post war regime and as a result paid dearly when he was imprisoned.

Postscript:

I have written these lines because it is difficult to bury the absurd past. It is hard to believe that an active member of the nationalist party since 1921* (as I discovered from the learned article by Prof. Yishayahu Jelinek) rescued me from certain death. Therefore I feel obliged to seek documentary justification and reinforcement for facts that, with time, seem like illusions.

* My thanks to Prof. Jelinek, who took the trouble to send me his research, Slovakia’s International Policy and The Third Reich, August 1940 -1941.

V.M.  2010

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About Zolly, My Father, 1904-1965

 Needless to say, I am captivated by my father’s charm, wisdom and, above all, his resourcefulness.

Father Zoltan-Zolly was born to a poor family in Slovakia. He was the oldest of his seven brothers. After four years in elementary school, he was obliged to contribute to the support of the family. The rest of his wisdom was acquired in the “street”. My father was gifted with an inquiring, creative, resourceful mind, characteristics that are my guiding light to this day.

Father survived the hell of Sachsenhausen concentration camp by his split second decision to change shirts with a political prisoner who had died next to him. From then on his life changed and he was no longer regarded as a Jew.  He must have taken into account the fact that they did not tattoo numbers on the prisoners’ arms there, as in other camps. Political prisoners were marked by a red triangle and Jews by a yellow triangle. I regarded my father as someone courageous and strong on whom I could lean.  Indeed, he came back broken, the shadow of a man, yet for the rest of his days he fixed his gaze ahead, as if propelled by a tailwind. We again had a head of family, concerned for the welfare of his wife and two daughters. Over the four years following his liberation he managed to establish a regional shopping centre on the lines of ACE. He became a hedonist, with a car and chauffeur, workers, a secretary, food and more food so that it is no wonder he became plump. We, his daughters, received the most modern bicycles when he returned from the Prague Fair. My thirteen-year-old sister Aliska and myself, aged nine, were immensely proud of those bicycles.

Father was very generous, an observation that was not only mine, but was prevalent among the new immigrants who came to Nahariya when he was already established. When he died, many of them told me how much help they had received from him. Not only encouragement, but his signature on bank guarantees and giving cash loans, which were always repaid.

I admired him for all he did, never judged him even when, in 1949, he did not accompany us to Israel, but stayed behind to wind up his business. At first we received a few letters from him, promising to come soon. Then the contact ended for a long time.

We learned the reasons for this only when he finally joined us with empty pockets. It emerged that Father was sentenced to prison for “incitement to Zionism and other felonies” fabricated by the Communist regime. The accusation concerning incitement to Zionism was not a complete exaggeration. The existential reality created in Trebisov, near the Hungarian border, was that very few of the town’s Jews came back after the war. The Jewish community numbered some twenty or thirty people and my father, who was not religious, but was regarded as having some influence in the town institutions, was elected “Community Head”. I remember how, in the small hours of the night, the local police used to phone him: “Mr. Meisels, we have again caught Jews crossing the border with Hungary.” In such cases, he answered, “I’m coming,” and immediately went to the police station, paid what he paid and brought the Jews home with him. I don’t know if he received the money from some organization, or if he paid the bribes from his own pocket. Anyway, on the following morning the people took the train to Bratislava, where their contact was waiting to send them on the next stage of their journey to Israel. It is possible that these details were on the charge sheet when he was arrested. After a long time in jail, he was tried in the Bratislava District Court and sentenced to seven years in prison. After the trial, when he was being led by two secret policemen along the streets of Bratislava, he broke away and shot through the crowd like a rocket. I remembered him as fat, I find it hard to imagine him running and running until he came to the wall of a church, climbed over it and ran into the church. The priest, seeing him pale and puffing, took pity on him and hid him. I have been told that they searched for him throughout the city and even announced his escape on the radio. He hid in Slovakia for a long time until he grew a thick beard to look as a Rabbi. As mentioned, we were not religious and Father didn’t even know how to pray properly. Eventually, he contacted a group that smuggled Jews towards Austria, where he was caught. This time, posing as a rabbi from Budapest (he knew Hungarian) and swaying like a willow branch, he pleaded not to be sent back to Hungary, since all he desired was to die in the Holy Land. They were persuaded and they agreed. They transferred him to Austria and there, in Vienna, he contacted the Jewish Agency who helped him to reach us.

In Israel, he started to work as an iron bender on a building site and, after a while, opened a bicycle repair workshop that eventually became a shop that is famous throughout Western Galilee to this day.

My father died without prior notice. And who notifies in advance that he is going to die suddenly of a heart attack? But for me, Father was solid, healthy, not one of those with a cold or other complaints. I never saw him lying sick in bed in pajamas. I had so many plans I wanted to carry out around him. I didn’t get to ask him about the concentration camps where he was imprisoned, I always put off having that conversation. Suddenly, when he was only sixty, I was called to Nahariya – Father had a heart attack and died. Unbearably orphaned. My big blunder. I had hardly tasted his wisdom, I hadn’t even reached the main course and as far as dessert is concerned, there’s no point even in dreaming. But I feel his encouraging spirit at my back and my loss of him in my heart.

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