The terrifying hammering on the door came again, that summer night in 1947. I jumped out of bed in panic. Anyway, I was a light sleeper. During the war, I used to be on the alert for any unusual sound; it was part of how I was educated to cope with the unexpected. Well trained, I knew I had to act fast. I dressed, gathered my treasures from under the mattress and joined my parents, who were hurrying to open the door.
Although they had explained that the war was over, that it had ended when I was nine, two years earlier, I didn’t believe them. Why believe, when it was obvious that what grownups said could not be trusted. I didn’t trust them when they promised me that the Russians had killed all the Germans. I couldn’t think of a single promise they kept. I didn’t believe them when they promised that all those decrees that had prevented me from entering first grade or playing in the park were a thing of the past. I clung to the habit of alertness to cope with unexpected situations, like alarms or orders to get ready to move. As the days went by, I listened intensely to conversations not meant for my ears, mesmerized by the adult’s talk about survivors and their fate. I wasn’t able to follow some of the concepts and some of the references to places, but their stories accompanied by bursts of bitter tears were enough to cause me great sadness. I felt helpless at the sight of grownups crying, in my opinion crying was for babies. I seemed to be silently attending to my own affairs in the background, but my ears were tuned to everything being said. Some held on to the hope, however faint, of tracing relatives and eagerly grasped every scrap of information. I identified with them.
Even today, sixty years later, against all logic, I continue to search. I diligently trace every new documentary film mysteriously discovered in the legacy of German soldiers who filmed in secret. I am almost certain that one day, soon, I’ll identify my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts. It’s hard to convince myself to stop trying, in spite of the fact that by now I wouldn’t recognize them anyway. They faded into the mist a long time ago.
On that night in 1947, we were living in my mother Lily’s hometown, Trebisov- Slovakia having come there for lack of an alternative. By we, I mean my mother, my fourteen year old sister Aliska and my father Zolly, who had made his way back to us from Sachsenhausen, many months after war’s end. At first, we went to Presov, where I was born and where we lived till the outbreak of the war. Since we had no house to return to, we were placed in a hotel where we waited, hoping Father would come back to us. We ran to check the Jewish community’s lists of survivors every day for three months until, at last, Aliska saw Father walking towards the hotel and recognized him! What joy!
Now that the family was reunited, my parents considered their next step. My mother opted for Trebisov, her birthplace, where her prosperous family had lived before being forced to leave. Many of the survivors first made their way “home” in the hope that somebody from among the family would be there, waiting for them. Clearly, my mother hoped to be there to meet her parents and sister when they returned.
My parents, at the door, were not dressed for moving, but I was. I stood next to them with my knapsack, awaiting what would come. Instead of praising me for my alacrity, they sent me to my room. Nevertheless, as I withdrew, I turned to look at the door. Since they were welcoming the pale, rather stooped man standing on the doorstep, I understood that there was no cause for worry. The man was breathing heavily, as though escaping from a Jew-hunting Aktion. Extremely agitated, he held out a weekly publication called “Kep Figyelo”, which he had brought from Budapest.
“She’s alive!” he cried. Taking a deep breath he continued, “Look! It’s our Olga!” Her eyes wide and staring, our Olga gazed at us from the cover. The caption under the photograph was: “Who knows, Who Recognizes? This woman is listed as unidentified and does not relate to her surroundings”.
It is impossible to describe the excitement that gripped all the adults when they saw the photograph, which was published more than two years after the end of the war. Nearly everyone believed that there was no longer any hope of finding her. Olga’s eyes seemed to beseech us to come and save her.
In the wake of the troubling information, I remember mainly that my mother went away for a long time. I was told that she went to Austria with Olga’s brother Alexander, to bring his sister home.
And who was Olga Izso?
Before the war, which reached us on Passover 1942, most of the Jews of Trebisov lived in contented prosperity. The Izso family were wealthy and respected members of the Jewish community, owners of a house and a successful grocery store. There were four children, of whom Olga, born in 1920, was the eldest. Their mother, Ethel, was born in Trebisov and was a distant relative of my mother.
Then came the Aktions and the transports to the East. The family was wiped out, apart from Alexander, who fled to the forest and joined the partisans, and his sister Shatzi, who survived by escaping to Hungary.
After the war, only a handful of survivors of the community of 647 Jews returned to Trebisov. My mother, aged 38, was the only remaining member of her branch of the extended family and Shatzi and Alexander invited us to live with them.
They asked my father to help them to re-establish the family business. He agreed and quickly turned the grocery store into a wholesale and retail business selling everything from shoelaces, needles, nails, pots, paints and whitewash to motorbikes and agricultural machinery. Within the year the store was successful enough to provide a dowry for Shatzi, who wanted to marry and establish a home of her own. Her brother Alexander also became a rich man.
That day, the 21st of June 1947, on hearing the news about Olga, Alexander and my mother left immediately for the sanatorium in Lintz, Austria, to bring Olga home. All of us looked forward to her return, especially her sister Shatzi, who chose to wait at home with her husband. The joy and excitement are hard to describe. It was the town miracle. Shatzi, who baked cakes for the celebration, had a sister. The family was expanding! We were happy and optimistic. Although we knew that Olga was sick, we had no doubt that with her family’s encouragement she would soon recover.
However, to our great distress, it turned out that Olga had died two days before the arrival of my mother and Alexander. She was buried in Lintz and my mother and Alexander laid the tombstone on her grave. Alex decided to leave scorched Europe and immigrated to Israel in 1948. Shatzi and her husband settled in Canada.
My sister and I immigrated to Israel with the Youth Immigration Organization in 1949, followed by our parents in1950.
I have never seen Olga’s grave. I find no comfort in the fact that she was granted a grave and a tombstone.
In my opinion Olga is commemorated only by virtue of the cover photograph which my mother guarded like the apple of her eye.
When she died, the only family “photograph” we found among her effects, was Olga’s cover picture.
(Translated from Hebrew by Riva Rubin)