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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

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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. 

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Only the First Four Hurt: Part III August 8, 2010

“A week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto.  They  picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz.  We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp“… Only the First Four Hurt: Part II.

The following is Part III in an ongoing series documenting my Uncle Irving’s account of his personal and family history during and after the Holocaust. Prior entries include Only the First Four Hurt and Only the First Four Hurt: Part II. . . slf

“We were among the first transports.  About a hundred of us were forced into a train car with two sliding doors.  Space was so tight we could only stand and there was no toilet for us.  The Germans put a bucket in the train to be used by everyone.  So if you had to go, it was in front of everyone in this bucket.

“We traveled like that for two or three days – I’m not really sure how long.  It was April so it wasn’t really hot but on a sunny day on the train it could be.  We passed through towns where we’d stop to wait for other trains to pass.  I remember people watching us – town people – and everybody on the train was screaming for water.  We were so thirsty.  There was no food or water.

“We got to the final destination which was Auschwitz but at the time I didn’t know what it was or where I was.  Germans were there with whips and dogs and they were yelling and screaming for us to ‘Rush! Rush! Rush!’ to get off the train and go stand in line.

“I was with my two youngest brothers and my mother and father – there were only three of us kids at home at the time.  My four older siblings had moved to Budapest to stay with family and get an education.  I remember my father was holding my youngest brother Deszo’s hand and my mother was holding my other brother Gyorge’s arm.  He was about three or four years old.

“When the Germans formed lines, they separated me from them.  Now I know it’s because I looked older.  My relatives in Budapest were rich and they owned clothing stores and  they had sent us clothing to hide.  The anti-Jewish laws were affecting all Hungarian Jews, even in Budapest.  So they sent men’s suits to our house for us to hide in case their stores were taken away from them.  At 15, I had dressed in a man’s suit before leaving home; never in my life had I ever worn a suit like that.

“Because I was dressed in that suit I looked older and I was sent to the line for people going to the work camp.  My family was separated into the other line and sent to the crematorium. But at the time, I didn’t know where my family was going.

“They took us into Auschwitz into a camp where we got undressed and went to take a shower.  We had to undress completely and get our heads shaved and then we were issued our pajamas.  They were like striped overalls.

“The kapos in the camp weren’t German – only Polish – and I didn’t speak anything other than Hungarian.  So I asked them when I would see my parents and they pointed to the sky. We were so scared at the time that I don’t remember understanding what that meant.  I couldn’t think about it.  I was scared and shaking. It all happened very fast.

“On the first day I was taken to a barracks and there were hundreds of people inside.  But there were no children around.  And if there were, they were kept alive for medical experiments.  They didn’t leave any kids alive that they didn’t want to use for something.

“Each barrack had a Schreiber and a kapo.  A schreiber (literal translation from German: “scribe”..slf) keeps records and the kapo carries out Nazi orders.  These people weren’t Jewish.  They were Polish or from some other country the Nazis took over.  Usually they were criminals who had been given authority.  Some of them were homosexual and although I didn’t know it at the time, a few kids were spared for each barracks for the kapo and schreiber to….

Irving trailed off at this point and looked down at his hands, resting folded on the dining room table.  He resumed a moment later.

“When we got out of the wagons at the barracks and were being rounded up with whips and dogs and they yelled ‘run!’ and go here or there, 99% of the kids were gone.  Teenagers, like me, were beyond kid status.

“I remember the first night.  We fell asleep on bunk style slots that ran three to four levels high.  We were so tired from standing on the train for days that as soon as we got our clothes and went in, we went to sleep.

“The next day they gave each of us a container to be filled with soup once a day.  I didn’t want to look at the soup let alone eat it.  It wasn’t soup.  It was grass mixed with water.  I refused to eat mine that day and some of the people who had already been there for a bit were more than happy to take it from me.  They said:  ‘By tomorrow you’ll be hungry enough to eat it.’  Sure enough, after 2-3 days of not eating, I ate.

I was curious:  Did he see anyone from home?  Did he recognize anyone?

“That first day I met a guy from the neighboring town where we went to synagogue.  He was an older person, my parent’s age, in his 40’s or so.  He was the only person I knew from our area because most of the others that I remember were Polish.  But I spent a very brief time at Auschwitz – maybe three or four days.

“We basically stayed in the barracks all day long.  Once a day we went to stand in line for soup and we also got counted every day and the schreiber took note.  But I wasn’t there longer than a week.  After that they transported us to Mauthausen by truck.  It took a few hours to get there and when we arrived, we were put in the same style barracks.

“There they separated different people off into different work areas.  It was more of the same: We stood in line a few times a day to be counted.  They kept counting us to make sure nobody escaped.  I would say I was there a couple weeks and it was standing in line, getting beaten up and sometimes, randomly, they would shoot every third or fourth person in line.  Standing there you never knew if it would be you.  Or if they didn’t like the way you called out your number, they would shoot you.

“My number is 71943, by the way.  It was on a band I wore.  Most people who got there before me had tattoos.  I mean, people started coming in the 1930’s in Poland but by 1944 they didn’t have the time to burn the numbers on people’s arms anymore.  I don’t remember where we got the band but I remember my number.”

 

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.

 

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.

 

Dedicating Life in the Aftermath of Death January 12, 2010

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealisticJohn F. Kennedy

I spent last Saturday in Nablus.  Not the prettified city in the link here but a small outlying village perched on a hillside right below Elon Moreh settlement. Elon Moreh is where, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham he was giving “your descendants this land”.  It’s why the Jewish settlers are there, for the most part, and it’s down the road from Yasuf Village, recently in the headlines when settlers set fire to the local mosque and burned holy books.

But I digress.

I went to the area with an Israeli  who, after his son was killed in Lebanon, chose to dedicate his life to fostering understanding between Israelis & Palestinians.  He works on projects like bringing Palestinian kids who have merely read about seashores to Tel Aviv’s beach – a half hour’s drive from their village.  He hires clowns and entertainers for village events,  helps re-plant old growth olive trees uprooted by…you know who… and this weekend, he dedicated a new playground built to replace the previous one destroyed by …you know.

To get to the village,  we had to pass through three Israeli army checkpoints and sign a waiver. But it was a feel-good day and upwards of a hundred children, teens and Palestinian official types were there.  I wasn’t nervous about violence.

After being there, the closest thing I can draw a comparison with in  U.S. terms is  inner city projects – just a lot greener and minus the dealers and drive-bys.  The village countryside is beautiful – lush green,  graduated craggy hills characteristic of this part of the world, olive groves stretching forever and partially built skeletons of homes awaiting further construction.

And yet, basic infrastructure was lacking.  Trash was strewn by the roadsides and along the hills and raw sewage streamed between olive tree rows.  As we approached, children swarmed, touched, patted, fired questions in Arabic and stared unabashedly, taking in every utterance and movement.   Allah help me had I pulled a stick of gum from my backpack.  Unless, of course, there had been enough to go around to all 4 dozen kids.

The dedication itself was run-of-the-mill:  Clap clap.  Smiles all around.  Hand shaking.  Photo opp.

What’s interesting is the response I got when relaying my plans for the day to friends.     It’s been the same response for more than a decade whenever I announce I’ll be going into the West Bank or Gaza. That is, unless I’m talking to a journalist. “Why are you going there?  Did you lose something?  Aren’t you afraid?  It’s dangerous!  Are you crazy?”

I won’t downplay the serious nature of the political conflict nor will I make light of terrifying lynchings Israelis have fallen prey to in Palestinian areas.  But most people on the Israel side of the Green Line haven’t crossed to the other side unless they’ve served there in the military or they’re journalists, settlers or peace activists.   Ditto vis-a-vis Palestinians coming to the Israeli side of the line.

Both populations get most of their information about “the other” from what they see on the news:  often frightening and violent depictions.  Mainstreamers on both sides are scared and have no idea what life looks like “over there” beyond the lenses of extremism, suicide missions, military uniforms, rocket launches and bombing campaigns.


My strong sense after visiting this weekend is that there’s not a hope in hell for working anything out in the long-term between the parties until getting to know “the other” and moving beyond “Arab terrorists” and “military occupying Jews” stereotypes.

And for the record, I’m not trivializing the pain or suffering others have endured nor am I lightly suggesting a kumbaya-live-in-love-and-harmony approach.  There’s no easy fix and it may never happen.

But I figure if the Israeli who devoted his life to reaching out can do it after his loss. . .

 

Death and Facebook December 11, 2009

I love Facebook.  Since signing on a few years ago, I have met new people, hooked up with loads of old friends, laid some ancient squabbles to rest and scored invites to parties, political events, gallery showings and lectures.

My armchair voyeur side enjoys viewing pictures and perusing real time text depicting the diverse lives my friends and family lead.  From reading one friend’s description of Japan’s meticulous recycle and trash laws to following scores of Cincinnati friends’ enthusiastic postings about the local college football team to friending and helping out a fellow journalist I admire,  to keeping up with popular culture:

But there’s one wee kink I think Facebook has yet to iron out.

A few weeks ago, a pop up window appeared on my Home page suggesting I reconnect with a friend I haven’t communicated with for a while.  Well..uh..there’s a reason for that.  My friend died this year.  But when I saw her photo surface on the right hand corner of the screen, I experienced a very surreal brain blip: “She’s alive!”

A super uncomfortable, conflicted state followed when the reality of the situation dawned.

If there’s no one to log a person off FB, does their profile live on forever?

A friend of another FB friend recently shared that when someone she knew committed suicide, that person’s FB friends continued posting on his wall as a means of transcendental communication.  They hoped to reach him in the world beyond.

And when a person has, indeed, passed to that other realm, what of the phenomenon of discovering the news via FB?  It is chilling to learn of death via a wall posting:  “John Jones  – 1955-2009″.   The news of a person’s passing is a jolt even when it’s expected.  But I have mixed feelings about the informal, public announcement aspect of receiving the news via The Wall.  And experiencing someone’s real time agony as he/she publically anguishes over a loss is equally discomfiting.

I wonder:

 

Missing in Action November 9, 2009

It’s another Ruth-themed blog entry day.  Ruth, for the uninitiated, is the in-her-eighties-woman at the Tel Aviv dog park I frequent who I’ve been fascinated with lately.

Ruth has spunk, attitude and sass to spare and I’d wager she’s the type who stocks vodka in the freezer for guests.  And if the guests don’t drink vodka?  She’d probably press a bill into her visitor’s palm and send him or her off to the corner store for an alternate libation of choice and some ice.

For the past few weeks, Ruth hasn’t shown up at the park at the usual hour.  And because her health is sketchy and she has already had one near-death experience, my ruminations have meandered to concern regarding her whereabouts or possible demise.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

As I climbed the stone stairs of the dog run entrance yesterday, Jacob, another octogenarian park regular, posed:  Have you seen Ruth lately?” I shrugged and motioned for him to join as I crossed the grass path to the stone bench beneath the orange tree.  I sat beside David, a middle aged regular whose dog is named Meeklee and whose American partner is also named David.

Have you seen Ruth lately? I asked him.

No & I’ve been worried.  I know that when she was hospitalized for a month, she put Jessie in the Dog Farm.  Maybe something happened to her and she put her there again.  Maybe they know something, David offered.

I had the Dog Farm number handy – Ruth had given it to me as a kenneling recommendation – so I dialed the number from my mobile phone and awkwardly explained to the proprietor that a group of dog park people was concerned over Ruth’s disappearance.

Did she bring Jessie there?  Do you know anything about where she might be?

The Farm owner understood the gist and said that Jessie wasn’t at the Farm.  But she offered up Ruth’s last name.

One call to information later, I was ringing up Ruth’s apartment.

Hello? a small voice answered.  I didn’t recognize the accent and guessed it might be the Russian caretaker she had mentioned several times.

It’s Stephanie from the dog park.  I’m looking for Ruth.  Is she there?

Yes, mamaleh (English: sweetie).  What is it you need?

Ruth?  Is that you?  We haven’t seen you in a while.  So a few of us are sitting here and we were worried so we decided to —-

Tell her the view’s not the same without her! Jacob interjected, the relief in his voice audible.  I think Jacob has a thing for Ruth, between you and me.   

Oh,  I’m fine.  I’m fine.  Thank you for calling, Ruth soothed and I could tell she was touched.  I don’t come in the evening anymore because Jessie gets into the garbage and eats trash and it drives me crazy.

I laughed aloud and David commented  Well if she’s laughing, everything must be okay.

Ruth, give me your cellphone number, will you?  Just so I have it.  And take mine, I urged.  We exchanged and then she said:

Thank you mamaleh.  Thank you for calling.  I come on Saturday mornings so I’ll see you then.  But listen, I have to go.  I’m watching my German mystery series on t.v. and I have to see how it ends.

That’s the Ruth I know.