Stefanella's Drive Thru

Israel, U.S., conflict, war, peace, humor, travel, romance, fashion, fun

Only The First Four Hurt: Part V October 3, 2010

This is the fifth part in a series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust.  Previous entries include Only the First Four Hurt , Only the First Four Hurt: Part II, Only the First Four Hurt: Part III and Only the First Four Hurt: Part IV..slf

******

We had bunks and I don’t remember who was next to me or who was my neighbor. We were all in our private worlds.  Trying to survive.  That’s what we thought about all day long.

I remember one guy who was with me in Auschwitz from the town I came from.  I didn’t even know he was there in the camp.   But he must’ve known that I was there because one day — we each got a small piece of bread every day to eat.  It wasn’t really bread.  It was made of sawdust.  Every person got half a loaf of those sawdust breads every day –  A few months into being in the camp this man from my town came to me with half a loaf and said:  ‘Take this. I can’t eat anymore.  Maybe it’ll help you.’  Maybe he knew something I didn’t.  I never saw him again.

There are a lot of things you try to push away.

Irving’s face crumbled.  He bowed his head and with shoulders heaving with sobs, he divulged:

All these years I tried to black all this out.  For me it was natural.  That’s why I’m breaking down now. For me it was always natural.

He continued sobbing quietly.  And then he wiped his face with one of the white, paper napkins on the table and pressed on:

Things continued like that until February 1945.  The Russians were coming close to the camp.  Of course we didn’t know that.  But the Germans decided to clear out the camp and sent us marching.  I don’t know how many days we marched in the snow and rain without food.  But if anyone fell, they were shot dead on the spot.

Irving was referring to the death marches.  As Russian troops advanced from the East and U.S./British troops approached from the West, a panicked German army attempted to clear out concentration camps and “erase evidence” of the atrocities committed within by marching camp prisoners to remote locations. Lacking food, water or insulation from the freezing cold, scores of already weakened and ill prisoners died en route.

After walking many days without food or water we got to a camp.  It wasn’t a camp but that’s what they called it.  It was a forest called Gunzkrhin.  And I remember that when we walked into this forest area, dead bodies were piled one on top of each other as high as a building.

I fainted.  And from that point I don’t remember any more until…I have no idea how long I was unconscious but it must have been a very long time.  The next thing I remember is that one day  the army – the SS army – came in and they were passing out food.  Gift packages to everybody with drinks and food and bread and chocolate and I don’t remember what else.

Nobody could believe they were doing that.  We thought they just wanted to bribe us before killing us.  The Red Cross came in the same day to see how they were treating the prisoners.  Then it was clear why they were feeding us.

I don’t remember if I ate anything but I lost consciousness again.  I do remember that whoever stayed alive….

Irving trailed off here…crying quietly.

Most people died.  There were only a few hundred of us left that were even able to move anymore.

The next thing I remember is that the Germans disappeared.  People were laughing and screaming, saying that the Americans had come.  I was in and out of consciousness.  But I remember them yelling and screaming that the Americans had liberated us.

The Americans were passing out food and feeding people.  But whoever ate dropped dead.  I wasn’t strong enough to eat or get up onto my feet. I guess I was just lying on the ground. I was lucky.

When liberating concentration camp survivors, unknowing soldiers offered food to the starving victims.  The sudden onslaught of solid nourishment was such an overwhelming shock to survivors’ systems that many died of “food overdose”.

I remember the American soldiers had taken SS as P.O.W.’s  and they were helping to feed us.  After people died from the food, they sent SS people with porridge and very light food to eat.  I was there for two days.

Then I was taken to a sanitorium in Lindz, Austria at an American army camp. I was unconscious and I woke up in the sanitorium a month or maybe a few weeks later.  I don’t have an exact recollection of time but at the beginning May or something similar, they took me to a recovery place.  That’s when I got my mental faculties and consciousness back… he indicated, tapping his head.

We were there until they got ready to send people who had stayed alive off to different places.

Some of the long time of blackout from the time I was in the field to the time I was taken to the  sanitorium I was unconscious.  Sometimes today I try to remember things like the day before the Red Cross visited us when the Germans gave us those nice things. I also try not to remember other things.

But there must have been a time lapse from the time the SS left the forest to when the Americans came in.  I’ll tell you why: I was weak but I left the camp with one of the boys and found a dead horse in the town where normal Germans lived. We decided to cook the head for ourselves.  I remember this and the horse very clearly but then I don’t remember all of it.  Maybe it was a delirious nightmare.

Off to the side, my Aunt Babe had been listening.  She signaled and shook her head ‘no’.  “Hallucination” she said, looking at Irving.  “There’s no way you would have had the strength to go into town and get a horse and cook it.”

But I do remember waking up and discovering that the SS were working for the Americans. 

Advertisements
 

Only The First Four Hurt July 20, 2010

This past Holocaust Day I stood with head bowed during the moment of silence, attempting to contain the flood of emotions that washes over me each year when the sirens sound.  But this time as the wailing powered down, I had an epiphany: It’s time to get Uncle Irving’s history.


Uncle Irving is married to my dad’s sister Esther or Aunt Babe.  It’s been her nickname since childhood.  Growing up in Cincinnati, my Aunt Babe, Uncle Irving and my four first cousins were fixtures in my life: We dined together at our house on the Jewish holidays, BBQ’d and played badminton on the lawn of theirs on July 4th, the cousins and I went to the same sleep-away camp each year and we attended the same youth group.

When I needed information or immediate advice while both parents were at work it was Aunt Babe I phoned in search of answers.  For new gym shoes, socks or underwear it was off to the downtown warehouse Uncle Irving worked in & up to the top floor inside the creaky freight elevator to take my pick from multiple boxes and shelves of assorted wear-ables.

Whenever holiday dinners rolled around, though, my siblings and I were instructed prior to guest arrival:  “Put the dog in the laundry room.  Uncle Irving is coming over.”

We had been briefed numerous times:  Uncle Irving, a Holocaust survivor,  was frightened of dogs.   The Nazis had used German Shepherds to instill fear or attack Jews in the ghettos and camps.  And although we didn’t have Shepherds – ours were small Boston Terriers – we had to  enclose them regardless.

Uncle Irving had a whole bunch of “isms”.  He was super careful about the food he ingested, the utensils he used and the venues in which he was willing to eat.  He had a habit of inspecting all three for a measure of cleanliness only he could grade.  He would wake up at 4 a.m., his family joked, in order to arrive at the bakery doors prior to the 5 a.m. opening.  He wanted to buy his rolls fresh from the oven before anyone else had a chance to touch them.

Our mother told us his food “isms” were a result of camp survivors being forced to use the same container for receiving doled out “meals” as for collecting personal waste.

That’s what our Mom told us.  Our parents also shared that both of Uncle Irving’s parents and several of his siblings had been gassed to death at Auschwitz.  And we knew he hailed from Hungary.

But I never confirmed any of the stories with Uncle Irving himself.  Except for his Hungarian roots which was an obvious personal characteristic because he spoke Hungarian with his brother and sisters whenever they were together.

The truth is, decade after decade, nobody, including his wife and children, confirmed anything about the years he spent in the ghettos, concentration camps and hiding out  in the forests.  His kids and Aunt Babe knew he’d been through tremendous trauma but the unspoken rule was that he didn’t talk about his past.

And no one dared trespass into that realm.

As years passed and he moved to Israel with Aunt Babe to be closer to three of his four children and the grandchildren, the silent oath remained in place.  Even when his grandchildren worked on obligatory family tree school projects necessitating interviewing and digging, information regarding his past had to be gleaned from Babe.

But something shifted after Uncle Irving suffered a sudden bout of agoraphobia in his 60’s that kept him house-bound for a year.  Agoraphobia, I discovered while writing a story about 2nd Generation Holocaust Survivors, is common among survivors who have internally buried their trauma.

When he was able to leave the house again, he began disclosing bits of information about the past.  Seated at a dinner gathering, someone’s comment or remark would spark a personal story.   The family, starved of information thus far, would sit in silence absorbing the revelations. Or, upon discovering that a new acquaintance had also been in the camps, he would swap information in the presence of Aunt Babe or other family members.

The instances were random, unprovoked and family members were stunned but grateful when they occurred.  But they were the stirrings of something looming larger and as I stood with head bowed last April, it occurred to me that as a non-immediate, once-removed family member and a person who routinely interviews others for a living, maybe my uncle would talk to me.  I knew it was important to document his story and I also felt that this was something I could do for him and his family to repay them for their generosity and kindness throughout the years.

I live in Tel Aviv, about twenty minutes from Aunt Babe and Uncle Irving’s place.  In recent years I have been through some taxing personal times and Uncle Irving, Aunt Babe and my cousins have been staunch allies providing refuge,  advice, legal counsel, love & faith.   Uncle Irving even put up his house as equity on my behalf in a time of need.

And so I approached him with my proposition:  Can I come over and document your personal history?

And he agreed.

I spent several sessions talking with him, asking questions, probing and typing.  The sessions were not comfortable and he warned in advance that he would cry.  And he did.  At times he sobbed heavily into dining room table napkins.  I  offered to stop saying I could come back another time.  But he wanted to continue.

In the coming blog entries I will share Uncle Irving’s story because I believe that re-telling his history is as important as the documentation itself.  As I share, the above title will become clear.

 

Risky Business February 13, 2010

I was chatting on the phone with my friend “G” the other day and the subject of his 20-year network news career came up.

How did you get started with them? I asked. 

His story was fascinating.

It was 1982 and Israel was going into Lebanon to root out the PLO. Being an elite paratrooper, I got a “Tzav 8” – it’s an emergency order for reservists calling for immediate mobilization.

At the exact same time, I was offered the chance to go into Lebanon and cover what was happening for one of the major American networks.

I was conflicted at first.  I mean, a military order is a military order.  But on the other hand, I knew that this was a huge break that wouldn’t come around again.

So I opted out of the order and went with the network.  And that’s how I started my career with them.

The irony?  After the dust cleared and I was back in Tel Aviv, I never, ever heard from the army.  It was if they’d never sent out the order.  And one of the funniest parts of it all is that while I was in Lebanon working, I SAW my unit.  They all called out to me and waved: “Hey G!” Of course, they didn’t know I’d been called up.

I was stunned by my friend’s story.  His gamble turned to gold and he has enjoyed a prestigious career that has taken him from Winter Olympics, to war in Somalia to an airlift operation that saved more than 14,000 lives to the fall of Berlin’s Wall and beyond.  He has met heads of state, international terrorists, world class artists and athletes and he has worked with the best in the business. He now languishes in retirement on a small Caribbean island.

When he relayed his tale I was reminded of Martin Fletcher, NBC News Israel correspondent of several decades who I worked with in the early 90’s.

I was always impressed by Martin’s ability to predict industry trends.  But when I read his book Breaking News I  discovered he had something in common with my friend ‘G’:  Martin took big risks that paid off.

In his book he writes that while he was stationed in South Africa, he advised editors at NY headquarters to send him into a nearby country as conflict erupted.  They refused.  He was so certain the story was cover-worthy that Fletcher went in anyway without informing his higher ups.  A short time after, entry to the country was cut off.  His editors phoned to see if there was any way he could get in.  He was already there.

I found that, too, to be remarkable.  The move could have jeopardized his career and instead it put him ahead of the game.

Internally I laugh.  My acquaintances take BIG risks.  I debate over which swimming pool membership to get.

I’d say there’s a lesson in there to be learned.

 

Israel & the Oscars: Round Three February 3, 2010

There’s a Hebrew saying two acquaintances exchange when unexpectedly running into each other twice within the same day or week:  “If we see each other a third time, you buy me ice cream!”

I thought about that yesterday when the American Academy announced Israeli film Ajami as an Oscar contender in the Best Foreign Film category.  This is the third year running for Israeli films to be nominated in the foreign movie category and I’m hoping it’s “third time lucky”.  Third time ice-cream.

I have to admit, though, that yesterday’s announcement took me by surprise.  I didn’t expect Ajami to make the short list.  And that’s because – and here goes another admission – I made an ignorant, snap judgment about the movie and wrote it off.

Months ago I attended Israel’s  version of the Oscars – the Ophir Awards – and watched, unimpressed, as Ajami knocked out Venice Film Festival winner Lebanon to take top honors.  This will never make it to the Oscars, thought I.  Not that I had seen any of the Best Film competitors…My opinion was based upon seeing the trailers before and during the ceremony.  And I was appalled.  Ajami appeared as an amateurish piece of work featuring non-professional actors and dealing with local crime issues.  This will never get picked up.

After yesterday’s announcement – and considering the fact that I am on deadline to write a story about it- I sprinted to a midday movie screening to come up to speed.

Hours later, I am still processing what I saw.

The film is good.  Really good.  It’s complicated and intense and brilliant and it’s a microcosm within a microcosm  with numerous parallels, messages and sub-plots – so many that it was a bit mind-boggling.  The story takes place mostly in the Ajami Quarter of south Tel Aviv’s mixed Arab-Israeli Jaffa enclave and it deals with issues faced by local residents while simultaneously fanning out as far as the West Bank and southern Israel.

In addressing local issues, it manages to touch on the Arab-Israeli conflict, poverty, organized crime, scandal, co-existence, futility, loss and the simultaneous complex& simple mix that is life  in this part of the world.  The actors were all non-professional – I nailed that one during my trailer viewing – and this is a first film for Arab and Israeli co-directors/writers/producers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani.

I won’t give away plots or divulge anything about the characters or story but I will say that I walked away with a few distinct impressions:

1) Like it or not, the Israelis and Arabs living in this region are inextricably linked.  For better or worse.

2) That saying “It’s all Good”?  It’s not.

3) I got scared for a bit watching the film and contemplating where I live…the deception, thuggery, payoffs, crime, big shark eats small fish messages.  Then I remembered:  Oh yeah.  It’s the same everywhere.

I’ll be pulling up to the t.v. set on March 7th with my bowl of ice cream.  I hope third time charm works its magic.

 

Lisa Meets Prince Albert October 31, 2009

Earlier this week my friend Lisa posted this as her Facebook status:

lisainviteIn deference to 5 high school years spent in Mr. Hayden’s basic and advanced French classes, I was able to decipher that:  1) Lisa was being invited to a journalism awards ceremony  2) The ceremony would take place in Monaco, and 3) Bleedin’ Prince Albert II would preside.

I phoned her straight away to get the scoop.  And found out that she would be the one getting the bleedin’ award!

Lisa wrote this piece for The Columbia Journalism Review back in May.  It’s an analysis of Israel’s media cover during the January 2009 military incursion into Gaza aka “Operation Cast Lead”.  Based upon the entry, she was chosen by the Anna Lindh Foundation to receive the 2009 Mediterranean region Journalist Award for cross cultural dialogue.

I found out totally by surprise,” Lisa disclosed. “I’m on the foundation email list and I got an announcement about the prize and my name was on it.  I squeezed my eyes and rubbed them and looked again.  I couldn’t believe it.  About ten minutes later, the head of the jury called from Rome and made it official.  He said I was the only category winner the jury had unanimously favored.

I read the CJR analysis.  It’s good, important and the issues raised surrounding Israel’s collective consciousness are critical.  The timing of the award is not to be missed: it comes as a storm brews in Israel over the UN’s Goldstone Gaza Report – a summary of Cast Lead human rights issues findings named for the person who headed the fact-finding mission into possible abuses.

Lisa told me she worked harder on the piece than anything she’s ever written.  “I wrote three drafts, interviewed a lot of people, transcribed – I spent 8 weeks on it and felt it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I thought it would ignite discussion and debate.  But it disappeared like a drop into the Pacific Ocean.  And friends told me it was boring, too dense and not my best work.  So there was certainly a worm of self-doubt after that.”

When she received news of the honor,  it was,  in her words, a moment of quiet gratification.

And deservedly so.  Talent aside, L’s good people.  We met four years ago when I returned to Israel from a long hiatus in the U.S. & I’d all but given up on journalism; burnout & cynicism had put me off the profession. A mutual acquaintance advised: “If you want back in, give Lisa Goldman a call.”      lisa

I did.  She was connected and forthcoming with phone numbers, information & advice.  We met for coffee, she hooked me up with gigs and in later years she addressed a Writer’s Group I moderate.  During our first phone talk, she offered invaluable advice: “Start a blog.  You need a blog.”

Back to this week’s award, the foundation is flying her to Monaco, the ceremony takes place at a super fancy hotel, dress is formal, there’ll be a cocktail hour & round-table discussions and of course, the Prince will preside.

“I don’t have a thing to wear!” she lamented on FB last week but has since hit the Tel Aviv boutique circuit, spending “the equivalent of a secretary’s monthly salary” on an all-black Escada number.

On the eve of flying out to rub elbows with royalty, a different worm of doubt niggles.

As an Israeli, you always wonder:   ‘Is the European jury choosing my piece because the zeitgeist is to be critical of Israel?  Previous winners have done that.  But that’s insidious and I try to push it aside. I hope and think it was chosen because it was a good analytical piece.  I wrote it because I really care and worry about this place and want it to be better.”

You are making it better, says this jury of peers.  Go. Have. Fun.  Tell Albert:  HEEEEYYYY!!!!

 

Israeli Oscars September 27, 2009

Last night I slipped into a little black dress and a pair of heels and made my way to Haifa for Israel’s version of the Oscars: The Ophir Awards.

Attending Israel’s upscale events is always an interesting venture. Because, compared to the U.S., they’re pretty scaled down and lacking pretense. Dress codes don’t rule and most anyone can get away with whatever their personal interpretation of gearing up or down might be.  That includes nominees, as demonstrated here by Best Actor winner Sasha Avshalom Agronov for his role in The Loners. Dig the hat.
IMGP0051

Also glaringly absent at these affairs are hulking bodyguards (unless government ministers are present). Sure, there’s security at the entrance but once inside, the press mingles with celebs and it’s a sort of everyone hangs out with everyone free-for-all at the bar and buffet kinda thing.

Which is why I was able to walk straight up to Ajami Producer Mosh Danon, congratulate him on taking best film and wish him luck at the Hollywood Oscars. I grabbed this shot of the film’s Israeli director Yaron Shani as he was being interviewed for radio.  His Arab co-director Scandar Copti was, unfortunately, in Europe.     IMGP0047

I also shook Lebanon film director Samuel Maoz’s hand and congratulated him on his Venice win.  I felt truly sorry that his film didn’t clinch the top seed.  Because imho, the movie based on his personal experience as a soldier during the 1982 Israel incursion into Lebanon, would have been a serious Academy Awards contender for best foreign film.  I’m not sure about Ajami, a story about the crime ridden mixed Arab-Israeli neighborhood of the same name in southern Tel Aviv.   Yes, it’s a microcosm of the Israel-Arab flashpoint conflict at large but it somehow feels too local.

But then, I’ve seen neither  and am basing that rather broad opinion on trailers,  discussions with colleagues and the reception for Lebanon thus far in the world arena.

Here’s a clip.  A reportedly super intense film, it takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank  in Lebanon.  Last night the movie nabbed top honors for Best Supporting Actor, Best Soundtrack, Best Cinematography and Best Design.

A few notes about the ceremony:  The high point was seeing Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Assi Dayan take to the stage.  A legendary Israeli actor and director, he has been plagued by negative press throughout his career for drug abuse, mental instability and domestic violence.  But he is talented.  And his peers gave him a standing ovation.

Heart wrenching, on the other hand, was witnessing producer Uri Segev’s widow and two young children take to the stage to receive an honorary award in his name.  46-year-old Segev died last year of heart complications during the wrap of  Lebanon. The audience, on their feet again, applauded warmly as his wife and children stood at the podium. And there was neery a dry eye in the house as his wife thanked the film academy with broken voice and his 8-year-old daugher sobbed quietly beside her.

A final note to self:  MUST SEE A Matter of Size – a film about a diet club support group that decides to start up their own Sumo Wrestling team.  It looks poignant, funny and visually beautiful.  And Best Actress recipient Irit Kaplan made a distinct impression upon the uber looks-conscious crowd by advising in her acceptance speech that we all go beyond exteriors and start digging deeper to the core where it really counts.

Lacking pretense, indeed.

 

Matthew the Bully July 24, 2009

In the car driving home from summer camp this week. . .  

Mom, there’s this kid at camp.  His name is Matthew.  And …well…last week my friend Kenny made a joke about Matthew and I laughed.

Now Matthew says that because I laughed I have to pay him two dollars.

Pay him two dollars or what?  What is Matthew **f**k** going to do? I muttered under my breath, gripping the steering wheel tightly.

What mom?  What did you say?

What did Matthew say would happen if you don’t pay him? I asked, all sweetness and light.

He’ll hit me.

He’ll hit who? I internally raged.  We’ll see who’s going to get hit.  Threatening MY BOY??  Uh uh.  No.

Sweetheart, I reassured, You don’t owe him anything and you didn’t do anything wrong.  Laughing isn’t a crime. What do you want me to do?

Could you talk to Matthew or to the camp counselor? he asked.

Sure doll.  And don’t worry about it.  It’ll be okay.

I later consulted with a level-headed male friend who confirmed that  since my son doesn’t live here or see Matthew on a regular basis i.e. he doesn’t present an ongoing threat, it would be best to bypass the bully – unless I want to add legal implications to my troubles – and consult with a camp counselor.

So I heeded his advice.  And so far, all is quiet on the Matthew Front.