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.