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Only the First Four Hurt: Part II August 1, 2010

I still have nightmares about the camps.  It’s always the same:  I’m in a camp and I can’t get out and I’m hungry.  I’m always hungry….Irving Kutas, May 2010

My Uncle Irving isn’t really named “Irving”.  His real name is Tibor Klein.  But after WWII his siblings changed the family name to ‘Kutas’ because they wanted something less Jewish sounding.  Despite the war being over and all, Hungarians weren’t particularly fond of or kind to their Jews.  And with the Klein parents no longer there to make decisions, the  children felt they couldn’t take any chances. So Sandor, the oldest of the boys, had the family name officially changed to Kutas.

Irving, or Tibor, was born in January 1929 in Fulpos: a small town in northeast, Hungary on the Romanian border.  He was the 5th of Andor and Maria Klein’s five boys and two girls and his siblings were Erszebet, Borbala, Sandor, Erno, Gyorge and Dezso.

Fulpos was a tiny, close knit, agricultural community of about 100 families with a population of 100,000 characterized by cohesive families. “Not like today,” Irving commented as he shared his history while seated at the dining room table of his Tel Aviv suburb home.

Irving’s father Andor was in the business of buying agricultural products to loan out to farmers who didn’t have funds to pay for equipment.  When they eventually turned a profit the farmers paid him back.  It was semi-lucrative because everyone in town was a farmer subsisting off of corn, potatoes, poppyseed, wheat & barley crops.  There were also a lot of cows in town and most families, aside from Irving’s, owned at least one cow for seeing to their dairy needs.  No one had electricity.

Aside from loaning money to farmers, Andor also ran a small mini-market out of one room of their farmhouse style home and he operated a pub out of another room.  His ”enterprises” were the only official businesses in town.

“My mother raised us kids and managed the bar and washed clothing by hand.  My father was smart but they had too many kids to support so we were poor.  We had enough to eat and we owned our home – it had the bar and store and the main house had three bedrooms, a balcony and an outhouse –  but that was it.  I remember that it was cold in the winter,” he shared.

“They were good and kind parents but they didn’t have time for us.”

Andor and Maria were born and raised in Hungary and both were observant Jews.  They observed the  Sabbath and except for days Maria stayed home to prepare meals, the entire family walked 3-4 miles to the neighboring town every Saturday to attend synagogue as there was no synagogue in Furpos.  There wasn’t a hospital either.

A total of four Jewish families lived in Furpos and until the 1940’s the Klein family was well liked by all.  “Everyone in town came to borrow money from my father; they knew he was approachable and that if they were having a bad year, they could hold off on paying him back until things were going well,” Irving recalled.  Knowing Irving today, it is clear he inherited his father’s generous spirit.

“My childhood was very good until the 1940’s.  I was a good student in school – I was best at math and I got straight A’s all the way through.  But when laws against Jews came into play in the 1940’s, we weren’t allowed to go to school anymore.  And my friends became anti-Semitic overnight,” Irving shared.

He was referring to offshoot decrees throughout Europe resulting from Germany’s insidious 1935 Nuremberg Laws that strangulated Jewish populations by barring them from basic rights.

As Irving relayed, around 1940 the anti-Jewish laws kept him and his siblings from attending school.

“I went to grade school until age 12 and after that I wasn’t allowed to go to junior high or high school because of the laws. Instead, I was ordered to go work for the “public youth  organization” which meant doing whatever town officials told me to: cleaning out cemetery grass, weeding lawns… whatever they decided.

“Luckily we weren’t really supervised so we did whatever we wanted to do.  But we made sure to stay away from our peers.  If I had played cards with my friends before, all of a sudden they’d beat me up. So we stayed away from them.”

At the time, his three older siblings – Erszebet, Borbala and Sandor – were staying with wealthy relatives in Budapest so they could get a better education.

The laws and growing anti-Semitism lasted from the time Irving was 12 until he was 15, in 1944.  That’s when the home and family life he had known all of his life came crashing down.

“In April 1944, the Germans ordered all Jewish families to leave their homes and go into a forced ghetto.  It literally happened overnight.  One night they announced that at 9 a.m. the next day we were to leave everything and congregate in the town square – each Jewish family with its horse drawn wagon.  We loaded onto the wagons and the  police escorted us… Within a few hours all of us were placed in a centrally located ghetto –  Mateszalka.”

Irving’s parents had already heard stories leaked across the borders from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries: Jews were being taken away to concentration camps.  But the children were unaware. “We weren’t old enough to catch onto what was in store for us but our parents knew what was going on.

“But that day we were put into the ghetto and in the ghetto we had homes. . .”

At this point, Irving trailed off.  He wept quietly into the table napkins, his shoulders heaving.

“There we had homes.  They closed a few city blocks off and the Jews were concentrated into five or six blocks and everybody moved into the homes together.  It was one family to a room so there might be five or six families to each home.  There was no bed, no food, no nothing.

“I remember we kids went out to the street together to cry and beg for food for the family…”

Overcome, Irving trailed off again, crying.

“The police were on horses all the time both inside and outside the ghetto to make sure nobody escaped. They would beat up Jewish children and openly rape the girls.  The Hungarian police basically picked up young girls and did whatever they wanted to do with them.

“I don’t know exactly how often but maybe every few days or every week there would be a transport and people would be taken from the ghetto. They didn’t do it all at once because there were too many people.

“And Jewish community leaders were elected to make sure everyone was following orders.  Probably 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.”

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Tel Aviv: Lifeguard Etiquette July 23, 2010

I came across this saved blog entry in my Drafts folder and decided it should see the light of  this July summer’s day. . .Enjoy

Israeli lifeguards

They sit on the decks of their wooden watch towers facing the sea & eyeballing water frolickers throughout the day.  When the Mediterranean is calm, ne’ery a peep is heard from them.  But get an undertow or high tide and they go into fast-forward, non-stop barking mode issuing relentless streams of orders through their megaphones.

“Move away from the breakers!”… “Hey you in the white swimsuit, did you hear me?”…. “Okay that’s it. All three of you come over here to the lifeguard tower right now”…..

Pretty standard stuff. But sometimes they veer off into ”creative license mode” because…gee I dunno.  It’s Israel and the rules don’t necessarily apply? Or they know they won’t get sued for poking fun or being rude? Or because it staves off boredom?

“Hey parents! Where are you?  Do you think this is your private bathtub?  I am not your babysitter. Does that kid in the blue even have a parent here?”

or:  “All of you move away from the breakers. That goes for you, too, Mahatma Gandhi.  Go meditate on the sand!”

or:  “Gina! Where have you been all morning? Come over to the tower.  I’ll make you coffee! I dreamed about you last night!”

(i swear)

Welcome to Tel Aviv.

 

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.

 

Boys’ Toys February 19, 2010

Every Thursday my son’s classmate comes to our house after school.  It’s an arrangement between the boy’s parents and I and so far it as worked quite nicely.

Yesterday the two boys met me at the school gate as usual but out of the ordinary was their hyper-animated state.

I have 100 shekels (U.S. $25) Sonya gave me for my birthday and I brought it to buy Gogos.  Will you take us to the store?” my son’s friend asked.

Sonya is a classmate.  But I didn’t know that.  I figured Sonya was an aunt.  Gogos are the craze du jour among Israel’s elementary school set.  They’re highly appealing, mini-plastic figurines that come three to a packet.  They cost about $1.75 per.

Your mom said it’s okay for you to spend your birthday money on that many Gogo’s? I asked.

It’s my money.  My mom lets me do what I want with my money.  As long as I take her to a hotel for vacation, he responded, laughing.

How very liberal of her I pondered.   I wouldn’t let my son do that. Maybe I should loosen up. . .

Okay then, I capitulated.  Let’s go.

At the store, I browsed front page stories about Mossad agents, assassination and dual identities while the boys handled the transaction.

They purchased 14 packets and split them – my son’s friend is quite generous – and then clamored to get home and open the goods.

They alternately ran and walked the 5 city blocks to our place, urging me to hurry.  My son actually screeched aloud with anticipation as I unlocked the front door. The neighbors! I chastised with an internal smile.  Their enthusiasm was refreshing.

They dumped book bags in the entrance hall and spread the packets across the coffee table, busying themselves with the business of divvying treasure.

When lunch was ready, I called repeatedly to no avail.  Eventually I threatened to lock up the kitchen for the day in order to cajole them into eating.

At 3, the boy’s father came to retrieve him.  And Gogo Hell broke loose.

You bought WHAT?  he asked incredously.  With what money?  After I told you there would be no more Gogo’s?  Where did you get a hundred shekels?  WHO gave it to you?  You’re in some serious trouble, young man

They exited and as I heard their exchange in the hallway, my cheeks flamed red with shame.  It hadn’t occurréd to me to phone one of the parents and check the story’s legitimacy.  I assumed if a kid says he got some money for his birthday and he’s allowed to spend it….Criminy.  Silly me.

THE TRUE STORY:  Sonya, presumably wishing to curry favor, gave the boy a hundred shekels she got from God-knows-where a day prior.  He decided to purchase the toys without telling anyone – other than a gullible ME, that is.  The part about the birthday and his mom knowing?  Mmm, Mmm, mmmm.  My son was also clueless to the dupe.

Okay so I learned my lesson.  The opened Gogo packets can’t go back to the store but the money has to go back to  Sonya.   I won’t take the loot away from my son – he was an innocent.  So I’ll cough up half the $$ and give it to the boy’s parents.  Peace offering sort of thing, Innit?

When the winds of war calmed later in the day, I texted his mother:  “You have to admit, it IS funny

She texted back:  This story is going to make the rounds for years to come.

 

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.

 

Oil & Steel: Art Round Up January 31, 2010

I recently stopped by the Tel Aviv Museum to check out the current exhibits and I’m glad I did.

For me, getting to the museum is sort of  like exercising:  I generally have to convince myself to do it but once I’m there and committed, I never regret it.

Two of the exhibits I saw while there were really good.  High, high recommendations from this admiring art browsing type.

  • Zadok Ben DavidHuman Nature. Two halls of installations, steel sculptures, parallels between human nature and the natural world, an intense amount of work invested into the vision of this London-based Yemenite artist.  The huge Human Nature installation is an absolute must-see.  Don’t be surprised if you exclaim aloud while circling it.

Both are at the museum through most of February. That’s what I’ve got for now.  Over & out.