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Trashy December 19, 2010

While out covering a story today I heard a must-share anecdote

Background:  The locale was Tel Aviv’s landfill.  Not the most pleasant of surroundings, admittedly, but one eventually adjusts to the pervasive odor generated by multiple tons of trash.

I was interviewing the head of Tel Aviv’s recycle/renewable energy site at the landfill and as we watched tons of plastic bags, bottles, cartons, containers and the like empty onto conveyor belts aided by municipal employees, I commented:

“God, I’ll bet you’ve had some nasty accidents here with people falling into the compactors…”

The head of the recycle plant nodded his head vigorously and replied:  I could tell you some stories.

“Go on then, let’s hear,” I replied.

And this is how it went:

A few years ago the trash conveyor belt recycle line employees came banging on his office door in panic: 

“There’s a baby in the compactor!  There’s a baby in the compactor!”

He ordered an immediate machine shut down and then ran to the area to investigate.

Sure enough, there was an arm sticking out of the trash compactor heap.

But it clearly wasn’t a baby’s, he explained.

Someone called out in Hebrew: “Come out of there!” but there was no response.  Then in Russian. Nothing.  Arabic.  Still nothing.  Amharic.  Nada.

Then someone  yelled ‘Get out of there!’ in Yiddish.  And a reply in German came from inside the heap: ‘No!  I’m not coming out!  I’m naked’

The men gathered some clothing together and coaxed the man out.  He then told his story.

A German tourist, he had gotten drunk in a Tel Aviv pub the night prior and en route back to his hotel, was accosted, beaten up, robbed, stripped and then tossed into a dumpster.

The trash assembly line crew discovered him moments before he was headed into the “crusher”

They summoned an ambulance and police and when the medics arrived, one of the women commented: ‘He’s awfully good looking; shame about the smell.’

Divine intervention?

(more…)

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Only the First Four Hurt: Part IV August 20, 2010

This is the fourth 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 and Only the First Four Hurt: Part III...slf

My Uncle Irving has a habit.  When he tells a story he sometimes breaks into a wide grin. And a slight chuckle.  His narration continues but within seconds his face goes distorted, his voice cracks and he breaks down into sobs while delivering some sordid twist to the tale he is telling.  At this point, the narration stops and he hangs his head, shoulders heaving with sobs.  This is a habit I witnessed numerous times while documenting his story…slf

**********

After Mauthausen I was taken to another camp – Gusen II.  This was a real work camp.  A camp where people were sent to different kinds of factories and were given jobs.  It was very serious.  First they took me to – I have no idea what the factory was but it was underground and there were real big pieces of wood – trees – that we had to move from one place to another.  They brought them in with trucks and we had to move them.

One time a big piece of lumber fell off the truck and I got hit by it, I think in the head, and fell over.  After that they decided I was too weak to do that work anymore.  So they took me to a place where we had to fill up small wagons the size of cars with broken stones.  The wagons sat on train tracks.  Somebody would push the cars away and when they brought back the empties we’d fill them again.  What they did with it I have no idea.

Between all these things, something happened every day.  People got killed, people got close to the fence and were shot or electrocuted, people committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the electric fence.

Something, indeed, happened every day at the Gusen Camps.  Gusen I, II and III, three of 49 Mauthausen, Austria sub-Camps, came to be recognized as particularly tortuous.  “Compared to Gusen,” one historian commented “the other camps were paradise.” Scores of children in Gusen were “euthanized” by lethal injection to the heart and the elderly and ill were put to painful, slow death by being forced underneath pummeling, freezing cold shower water in freezing cold temperaturesThe main focus of Gusen labor centered around mining stone quarries.

The inmates’ nickname for Gusen II:  “The Hell of hells”

I remember it was very snowy and cold.  That was winter.  We would stand out there for hours in our pajamas  and wait for them to count us. And people got beaten up for all kinds of reasons.

I had no friends. No people I talked with or anything like that. It didn’t work that way.  We were all trapped in our own private worlds. Everybody was out to save his own life and to survive.  There are a lot of things I didn’t tell you because I wanted to block them out.  There are so many stories that I could tell you….

In Guzen II they had a latrine for the whole camp.  For everyone.  It was a long toilet where you sit on a wooden plank that has holes.  You sit there to do what you need to do.  It was walking distance from the barracks – a 5-10-minute walk.

One night in middle of night – I didn’t know it but they knew it.  I guess I was sort of sleep walking .. I went to make pee pee and I couldn’t make it.  So I must have made in my pants.

The next day, they called me – the Kapo to the Schreiber’s office at the end of the barracks. I didn’t understand the language. But they had decided I would get 24 lashes with a stick.  I asked: “For what?  What did I do?”  It was because I made in my pants in the middle of the night. And I didn’t even know I had done it.

In case you ever have to get 24 lashes with a stick….

my Uncle looked me straight in the eye and then grinned and chuckled.  It was his habit.

Only the first four hurt.  After that you feel nothing.  I fainted.

His head bowed and shoulders heaving with sobs, he paused for a few minutes.  His sobs audible, he wiped at streaming tears with a table napkin.  A few minutes later, he resumed.

You lie naked and they hit you on your toochas.  They don’t hurry.  They take their time.  And you faint. And you can’t sit down for a week.

So many things happen in the camp that you black out.  Certain things I remember but I’ve blacked out a lot of things. I remember standing in line and every third or fourth person is getting shot and I happen to not be the third or fourth person.

I remember that people who couldn’t work or who got too weak were put into a room at the end of the barracks – it was a long barracks.  The room was closed and it was for people who couldn’t work or stand up anymore. Once a day they came with a wagon pushed by two people and they carried the people away to the crematorium while they were still alive.

Everybody knew that if you were put into this room, that’s the end.

One day I got an infection – I don’t remember exactly when this was – and it was on my inner ankle and it was very bad.  It was getting worse and worse.  It wasn’t painful but there was no way to treat it.  So you just ignored it.  Every time they talked or decided what to do with me I had no way of knowing what was going on because I didn’t know the language.

But they decided I couldn’t work anymore with my foot the way it was and they put me into that room.  It was a closed room with a wooden slide that went directly down to the wagon that takes you away.  I don’t know if they wanted to scare me or send me to the crematorium but I was there for half a day.  At the time you don’t even care.  That’s what they’re doing so you do what you have to do.

After half a day they took me out of there to a place where you get bandaged.

A long time later, after I got home I thought to myself: I was so close so many times. Why was it that so many times I got out at the last minute?  I can’t remember everything.

 

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.”

 

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.