A man fell off the roof of a twenty-floor building. As he was falling by, someone shouted at him from a tenth-floor window, “How’s it going?” The man shouted back as he kept on falling, “So far so good!”
So, what can I tell you about my life, other than it has been too short?
I was born in Tel Aviv in 1955. My parents came to Israel through very different routes. My mother grew up in a small South African town, Oudtshoorn, which at the time was the only place in the world where ostriches were grown commercially, and her family owned an ostrich farm. We still own it. Ostriches were farmed mostly for their feathers, which were used to decorate fancy hats like those worn by the queen of England, fancy bottoms like those featured by Folie Bergères dancers, and dusters like those found in your local supermarket. There was a small Jewish community in Oudtshoorn at the time. As the legend goes, a newly arrived Jew would make his way down the Cape to Oudtshoorn, find a bag, and walk from farm to farm asking each farmer for a feather or two. When the bag was full, he would sell it and go into business…
How did my mom end up in what she now considers a hick town in the middle of nowhere? Well, her parents got there first. Her mother, Granny to me, had grown up in what was then, and has recently returned to being, Lithuania. Her own mother had died when she was seven, and Granny resented her father’s second marriage and disliked his new wife. When I knew her, decades later, Granny still bore many grudges against her long-deceased stepmother, and would vividly describe incidents that shaped their relationship. In one that I have often imagined, the stepmother is sitting in front of a mirror, putting on a necklace that had belonged to Granny’s recently deceased mother. She turns to the child standing silently behind her, awash with memories of the necklace glittering on her beautiful mother’s neck, and asks her to fasten it for her. Granny obeys, but she never forgets or forgives.
With tensions and new babies in her father’s house, the family decided
that it would be best for granny to be raised in her grandfather’s home,
a great man by her accounts. Late Grandfather, as Granny always referred to
him, was a deeply religious and learned man, and had been ordained as a rabbi.
But when he wished to marry, his intended bride’s parents said he could
wed their daughter only if he promised that he would never work as a rabbi.
They viewed being a rabbi a lowly job, despite its moral stature, because rabbis
earned little and were pretty much at the beck and call of their communities.
They didn’t want that kind of life for their daughter. So he became a
wealthy businessman instead, and married happily. Like many in the community
who could afford to, he hosted a group of yeshiva boys for lunch once a week.
As Granny grew older, sparks would occasionally fly between her and one of the
boys. The relationships would proceed, at most, to the ribald point of the boy
leaving a little note under her plate. But one such relationship went much further:
Granny actually touched hands with the boy across the fence! When Granny told
me about this, in a different world and time, I asked her if she had ever regretted
not consummating her relationship with any of those boys. “Again too late…”
What Granny really regretted was that she was never allowed to become what she really wanted to be—a dentist. Late grandfather explained that if she took on such a job, she would never have a family or children. But one day young Granny came home full of excitement; her dentist was pregnant! A girl could have it all! It didn’t help, though. Her education continued to focus on literature and religious studies rather than dentistry. A brilliant woman with an astonishing memory, Granny seemed to remembered everything she had ever learned. When she was in her nineties and her mind had deteriorated so badly that she could no longer recognize her daughters, she would entertain the Russian-born attendants at her nursing home by reciting from memory Pushkin’s entire book Yevgeny Onegin in Russian. She would then translate the poem to Hebrew for the benefit of those who hadn’t been able to follow her the first time. I often wonder what she would have become if she had been allowed to pursue her dreams.
Granny revered and adored Late Grandfather, and never tired of telling stories that illustrated his many virtues. In fact she never tired of talking, period, often leaving her husband and daughters exasperated, but the Late Grandfather stories were among her best. Late Grandfather gave generously to the needy, but always anonymously, embodying the Jewish ideal that giving should be done in secret. So, every week, when a group of yeshiva boys came to his home for lunch, he would check the boots that each had left in the hallway, and would replace them wordlessly if they seemed to have worn out. Late Grandfather walked to synagogue every Saturday, and at one point his route went by the house of a man who owed him money. Concerned that the man might be embarrassed to see him, Late Grandfather, by them an old man with swollen, painful feet, would make a lengthy detour to avoid the man’s house. Late Grandfather was a wealthy man, and preferred to send important letters by courier. But, not wanting to rob the Czar of his deserved income, Late Grandfather would tear up a stamp every time he did so. And most important, Late Grandfather treated young Granny like a princess. She had such a wonderful collection of toys that her cousins and friends wanted to play only at her house. Granny made it quite clear that she knew no other man who came close to Late Grandfather in stature. I’m afraid these endless stories made her husband feel that he could never quite match that standard.
Nevertheless, when she was about 17, world events caught up with Granny, and drove her away from Late Grandfather’s home. Like many young Jews at the time, Granny felt she had to escape Eastern Europe, and was trying every which way to do so. She had relatives in America and South Africa, so she applied for visas to both these countries. The American visa arrived first, but Granny’s name was misspelled on it and, afraid to travel with an inaccurate document, she sent it back for correction. But her South African visa arrived while she was waiting, and so she headed for Oudtshoorn instead. My mother’s father, also born in Eastern Europe had escaped with his brothers to the land that is now Israel, where his brothers remained. But he fled the country when pushy relatives tried to impose an unattractive bride on him (years later, my mother met this person and confirmed that she was, indeed, ugly and unpleasant…). Eventually, he landed in Oudtshoorn. My grandfather’s eyes lit up when my beautiful, well-bred, well-mannered grandmother arrived at the home of her Oudtshoorn relatives, and it wasn’t long before he asked her to marry him. She agreed (he was a nice Jewish boy and there wasn’t much competition), but they couldn’t get married quite yet; they first had to obtain her father’s permission. It took several months for the letters to make their way across the ocean and back, so that they could finally tie the knot.
And so my mother grew up in Oudtshoorn. A gifted student, she later attended
the University of Cape Town. But she didn’t much enjoy her classes there,
and had no desire to continue on to a more advanced degree after her graduation,
despite her parents’ prodding. “How can you turn down an opportunity
to study???? ” demanded her exasperated father, “I would have given
anything for such opportunities!”). But she was not convinced, and took
an administrative job instead.
At about that time, Granny received a terrible letter from a cousin who had remained in Europe. World War II had just ended, and the cousin wrote to report that she was the sole survivor of Granny’s extended family. Late Grandfather, her father and his new family, uncles, aunts, cousins—all gone. After she read the letter, Granny came out with boils all over her body. She then took action. She wanted her cousin to join them in South Africa, and the family tried desperately to obtain the necessary documents needed. But no matter what they did and who they approached, the documents were not forthcoming; Jews were not especially welcome in South Africa at the time. So the cousin traveled to Israel instead, and Granny arranged for her to stay with an old friend of hers. But the two could not get along with one another, and it wasn’t long before the friend wrote to Granny, complaining that she could not possibly tolerate having the cousin in her home any longer. At that time, Israel had just become an independent state, and Granny was eager to visit there anyway, so she decided to head there and see what she could do. My mother, who had no pressing obligations in South Africa, decided to go along. And so my mother arrived in Tel Aviv.
After a few weeks, Granny was ready to go back hone, but my mother was not. She decided stay on for a while, take a job, and see how things went. Things went well. She applied for a secretarial job at a military hospital, and was interviewed for it by the hospital’s military commander, a tall, strikingly handsome, officer—my father. She got the job. A few weeks later, my father announced proudly to a friend, “Guess who I’m going out with tonight—Doctor H’s new secretary!” It must have been quite a date. My mother had learned some Hebrew growing up, my father knew a smattering of English. Her Afrikaans and his Polish and Russian weren’t much help. So they kept a dictionary close by, and somehow managed to communicate; they still manage, somehow.
My father came to Israel through a far more tortuous route. He grew up in a small Polish city, Pinsk, which has obtained mythical proportions in my eyes, I have heard so much about it. It had a large, thriving Jewish community, with many Jewish schools and institutions. My father actually attended a high school where everything was taught in Hebrew, so when he arrived in Israel it felt to him like coming home. The Jewish community of Pinsk was, of course, destroyed in the war. Perhaps because the world he grew up in no longer existed, my father couldn’t stop talking about it. Whenever he saw his sister, the two would be reminiscing about Pinsk within minutes, while my mother and uncle would retreat to a different room to talk about something, anything, else.
My father never had a father himself. His father died ten days before my father was born, from one of those diseases that nobody dies from anymore. When my father was born, the family sent a messenger to the rabbi to ask what one should call a child born in such circumstances. The answer came back—his first name should be Menachem, which means consoler, and his middle name should be his father’s. And so it was. His extended family all lived in the same house, which had separate apartments for his immediate family and for that of his grandparents and uncles. The family was very wealthy, which ultimately saved their lives, because when the war broke out and the Soviet army took control of the town, they immediately deported all the filthy capitalists to Siberia. Fortunately, that included most of my father’s family, because the city was later taken over by the Germans . My father’s oldest sister, who was by then already married with children, had stayed behind, and was killed by the Nazis, along with the rest of her family and most of the city’s Jews.
My father was away from Pinsk when his family left for Siberia, and traveled to join them there only later, when the Germans invaded the area. He had so many exciting adventures and close calls along his journey there that I have never been able to keep them straight in my mind. This was also true for my brother, who recently determined to get an orderly version of the whole story. He wanted his own kids to hear my father tell it, too. So they all sat down in my parent’s family room on a recent Saturday afternoon, and my brother got our father to tell them about this journey. It didn’t take much inducement. Dad, now in his eighties, enjoys telling his stories more than ever. And my brother took notes, and emailed me this account of our father fleeing east one step ahead of the Germans, dodging bombs and anti-Semites on the way:
germans invaded june 22, 1941--breaking the molotov von ribbentrop agreement. bombing started at 4am, he was dragged onto the last bus out of there evacuating non combatants--staff officers and families. at some point due to bombing he split off from bus and hopped trains, crossing the ural, combatting typhus thanks to a farm women who helped him so that maria would help her son out on the front, and a wayward medical unit that figured out he had malaria and gave him pills, and then heading south to kazakhstan, to a town called kokcetau, and from there to the village where he his family was located--imentau. his uncles had already started making money showing the locals--kozaks and tatars, both warrior-farmers, or as dad called them, settlers, how to operate flour mills after their traditional methods had been destroyed by collecitivization. he arrived covered with fleas, he told us…. from there he proceeded into village life with kozaks, telling of one who had two sons called ivan because he had been drunk on the night ivan 2 was born. This kozak recieved a telegram from the front that ivan had been killed but couldn't figure out which.
My father says life in Siberia wasn’t so bad, and that he wouldn’t have minded it too much if he had known that he would eventually be able to get out of there. He was eventually able to leave, after the war ended. He headed back to Poland, and spent about a year working for the Jewish Agency in Warsaw, looking for Jewish children who had been left by their parents to live with Christian families, or to hide in places such as monasteries, or orphanages, where they were often raised as Christians. Many of these kids didn’t even know their real background. My father gathered dozens of such children, and brought them with him to Israel. Some had relatives there that they could live with, but most did not, and these were distributed among kibbutzim that were willing to take them. I once asked my father if he had ever thought that some of these children may have been better off staying with the families that they loved and, in many cases, thought of as their own, rather than being ripped away to a live as orphans in a foreign country. My dad thought about this for a moment, and then said “You may be right. But the thought never occurred to me then; I was on a mission to salvage my people.” My father still has an album with pictures of all these children. I couldn’t help noticing that most were blond and blue eyed—the looks it takes to masquerade as a non-Jew. Throughout my childhood and until today, one of “Dad’s children” would show up at our house, often in search of information that could reveal their true identity—Who were their parents? Where did they come from? My dad would do everything he could to help them, but most are still searching.
Dad and his children traveled to Israel by ship, and Dad was met at the port by relatives who had arrived there before him. Most of his family had survived the war, and soon they were all living in Israel. Occasionally my dad would go for a walk with his mother, along with his sisters and their babies. People would stare at them; a family with three surviving generations—grandparents, children, grandchildren—was not a common sight on the streets of Tel Aviv in the wake of World War II. Israel was then in the midst of a different war, its war of independence, and Dad enlisted immediately in the army. Since he had to take care of his sick mother, he was appointed to a non-combat position—commander of a military hospital, where he would eventually hire my mother to work. The conditions necessary for my arrival were finally coming into place.
Forward to chapter 2.
Back to autobiography.
Back to memorial.
This page updated March 3, 2004.