I Finally Meet My Father's Long Lost Relatives
As I was growing up, I did not know too much about my father's family nor his early life. Unlike my mother, much of whose family survived the Holocaust, it seemed that my father had almost no relatives. And this was largely true. I did not know for example, until I was twenty-three years old that my father had been married during the war. His wife and baby daughter were murdered during the shoa. My brother found out of our father's previous life at almost the same time as I did, but in Israel, when a cousin was showing him photographs and said, "That's your father with his wife and daughter". My brother did not know what had hit him, but it felt like a direct lightening bolt strike. My experience was similar.
I am getting ahead of myself. Another reason for our lack of knowledge of our father's family was that in those days, most Survivors did not speak about their past, almost to the point of obsession. There were probably good reasons. Like my father, many had lost spouses and children. They had returned all alone. Now they were in new relationships, I suppose trying to pick up where they were brutally cut off. Also the trauma and horrors were still too terrible to comprehend and too close in time. A period of healing was still needed. I am quite sure that people, both Jew and non-Jew, who had not spent the war years in Europe were totally unable to empathise. This too was difficult for our Survivors. They needed to get on with their new lives, their new families, their new country, a new language, a different culture. They had to work hard just to survive — few had a family safety net. This was a psychological blocking out of the past in order to allow the future to continue, afresh.
My father was born Emil Kaufman[n] in 1915 in the old, pre Treaty of Versailles, Europe, in what was then a corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He died in 1966, far from that place, in Australia, when I was thirteen years old. So, even if he had wanted to tell me about our family and his previous life, I was probably too young to absorb very much, intellectually and emotionally. I do distinctly remember a number of things he said, but not a great deal. It is difficult — you feel so mature at that age, but you are so much still a child.
My father was the youngest of six children, the only one in Europe to survive that terrible conflict. His oldest sister also survived because she left Czechoslovakia for America in 1929. She was just not getting married and the family thought she might do better elsewhere. I do not know if she had children or was even married.
My grandfather was very old when he met his death on Sh'mini Aẓereth in 5704, 1944. By then, my father had already spent considerable time in the forests with the partisans (hence his name change to Kuchar, a common Slovak surname — it was deemed unacceptable to have a German name as a member of the Slovak resistance underground) and later with the Russian army, until the ultimate allied victory*.
Following the Slovak partisan uprising in 1944, the Nazis decided to punish the Jews, as if they were responsible for this rare, perhaps unique, act of defiance against the mighty German war machine. Most Slovak Jews had already been expelled, murdered, exterminated or transported during 1941 and 1942. Some, largely those who were needed by the Germans or could afford to pay requisite bribes, stayed put, at home ... until the aftermath of the revolt. For example Dad told me about his cousin and close friend, Ali, who was the largest prewar European supplier of horse feed, as well as other grain products. My father worked in this family business before the hostilities even though he was licensed electrician and had dreams of becoming a teacher. It seems that during the war, horses were still an important resource and the Germans kept Ali alive in order to manage their business for them. On the day they pulled out of (actually ran away from) Topolcany, the Germans deemed Ali, and his younger brother Natzi [short for Ignatz] to be redundant and shot them, point blank, in their yards. My father would return afterwards to manage the business. He was also engaged to Ali's wife, Miri. As a result of this when my father was introduced to my mother, orchestrated in Prague by his cousin, Jana and my mother's sister, Bozsi, he declined the offer. However not long afterwards Miri decided she could do better and set her sights on America where she married a New York Fifth Avenue millionaire. A few years ago I attempted to locate her but without success. My parents eventually met up again three years later in Australia. Miri and her husband visited Australia in the mid-fifties where they met up with my parents.
|Grandfather stayed in his own house right up to the end, perhaps even past it. When the vicious archenemy finally hauled the sixty-six last poor remaining Jews out of our town to neighbouring Němčice, to shoot them in the back into the pits they had been forced to dig, grandpa was left behind. Seemingly he was too old, and I suppose decrepit, to bother with**. No-one really knows what happened to him and how he met his final demise. When my father returned home, the wonderful (non-Jewish) neighbours said he had passed on and "we buried him over there", in his backyard. My father dug up his old father (may no-one have to go through that kind of trauma) gave him his required Jewish last rites (tahara) and buried him next to my grandmother who had died of natural causes early during the conflict, in 1940. I assume on exhumation Dad would have known if his father died naturally or by foul play. He also organised some friends, of the few who had returned, to exhume with him the bodies of their fellow townsmen, murdered in cold blood,
The marker on the mass grave of the reinterred
in the Jewish cemetery in Topolcany
in Nemcice. They reinterred them in a mass grave, back at home in the Jewish Topolcany cemetery. The monument which they erected to these landsmen stands in the centre of the graveyard to this day.
We always knew my father had one living cousin, the Rebbetzin. Jana lived in Newcastle, Wellington (New Zealand) and then Brisbane before finally moving nearby to Maroubra, a Sydney suburb. Her husband Vojta was the rabbi in these remote Jewish communities. Spreading Judaism to the periphery was his revenge against the Germans. Like a majority of Survivor couples, they had two children. Vojta too had had a pre-shoa family. We only met up occasionally over the years. People did not travel as frequently, easily or cheaply back then. They attended and took an active part at my barmitzva. I spent a couple of weeks with them in Brisbane after my father died. We were certain that these were our father's sole living relatives. However it was not so.
I discovered other long lost relatives, not far away in Melbourne. I was at the Bnei Akiva Minyan down there one shabath. After the service, a little girl came up to me and shyly said, "My mother said to tell you that we're related and she would like to meet you" and she disappeared. After not too much detective work and I was sitting at Vera's house. Her grandmother was the oldest child in my grandmother's family. This meeting occurred three years after my father passed away. I knew he had lived in Melbourne for his first three years in Australia. The then sixteen year old Vera would act as chaperone for my eligible bachelor father when he went out on shidduch dates. How times have changed! Her brother Boobie was also at the house. I know visited us in Sydney when I was young but really only remembered him by name.
About a year before my barmitzva, my father suddenly made contact with a lady in London. It turned out that she was my father's older brother's wife. This uncle and his son, my cousin of whom I previously knew nothing, perished in the slaughter. She survived all on her own. Not one member of her family returned from the extermination sites. She had remarried after the war, but was by this time once again a widow. She had no living children. My father was elated to receive her communication and a connection to the past. Aunt Bozsi, Elizabeth, sent my brother and I a couple of coins that had been collected before the war by her late murdered son, Walter. She also sent me a nice barmitzva gift. It was great to suddenly have new family. I visited my aunt in London in 1974. She was a very warm lady and I immediately became attached to her. She told me a little about the war years and sadly how she lost her husband and son. She apologised to me for remarrying after the shoa. "I was very lonely." I was very embarrassed by this. She discerned me to be her closest living relative, perhaps her link back to happier times. I visited her a second time before I left England. Regrettably she passed away the following year.
Like many other kids in my generation, I collected stamps, quite seriously. You learnt geography, history, zoology, botany, politics and lots more from these little stickers that arrived glued to your correspondence from all over the world. I knew the source of my Canadian, English and Romanian stamps as my mother had a brother and two sisters in those then distant locations. I never knew the source of all my Israeli stamps. My mother had an uncle and aunt in Yisrael, living with their daughter Ora and her husband and children on a moshav in the north. However that correspondence could not account for all the Israeli stamps I had amassed. (It later transpired that there were more cousins in Yisrael, from both sides of my mother's family. However she had largely lost contact with them. She renewed her relationship with some when she visited first Yisrael in 1976, staying in contact with some and visiting them on her many subsequent trips. I too met others of her cousins.)
In 1976 I travelled to Yisrael with the intention of spending a year studying in a Yeshiva. This was my second visit. Before I flew I called on Jana and Vojta for their blessing. He said, "You'll go and study and come back and get married". And added, "Don't become a rabbi — it's not a good job for a Jewish boy", a joke he liked to repeat. I responded to the first statement, "What's the rush? My father didn't marry until he was 35!" His response certainly was not what I expected, "Yes, but that was his second marriage". I was dumbstruck, unable to respond to this casually spoken revelation. While I was still recovering, Jana said, "While you are there, you have to look up our cousins". Cousins? We don't have any cousins! Sure we do, and she gave me a couple of phone numbers. She was in mail contact with some. She was very diligent at maintaining contact with her relatives. This second sudden disclosure felt more than a bit weird. I suppose you could say this was a very worthwhile visit, though it shook me to my core.
It took me a couple of months to pluck up the courage to phone one of these long lost cousins, whom I had no idea for over twenty years even existed. I rang Ali (also a cousin of the Ali mentioned above — they were both named after their common grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Prager, as was one of my father's older brothers). Ali and his wife were living in Arad. No'omi suffered badly from asthma and her doctors suggested the dry desert air of Arad would bring her some relief. The couple did not have any children. They were lots of fun to be with. Ali was a fountain of information. He left Topolcany for Palestine in August, 1939, following his parents and four siblings who had departed a year earlier. However three sisters remained behind, two of whom were married. They were murdered together with their husbands and children. The third, Seren, survived amidst great hardship. Following the shoa she too moved to Yisrael where she married. I loved visiting them whenever I passed through Tel Aviv. They were a very charming couple. Sadly they too had no children.
Ali told me stories about my father. The local Nazi sympathisers were referred to as the brown shirts. Already before the war, they were known to torment local Jews. Ali said that one morning when he arrived to shul, everyone was abuzz over an attack on the brown shirt boys during the night. Someone, no-one knew whom, had "knocked the stuffings out of them". Then Ali remembered that my father had gotten home very, very late that night. And he was not, as usual, in shul now.
As I was about to leave, Ali said, "You've met my brothers and sisters?" What — I just found out you exist — you have siblings!? He had two brothers in Yerushalayim. Guess where I spent the next day (luckily yeshiva was on vacation) and another three siblings elsewhere in the country. Unknown to me, their mother (my grandmother's youngest sister) was very close to my father. They communicated regularly. (I'd found the source of all the stamps!) When my father died, her children decided not to inform her. Not sure why. She was then 86 and died a couple of years later. She would often ask, "why is Emil not writing to me any more?" It upset her, but they did not reveal the reason.
Dad told me very little regrading his experiences during the war. He did though relate some seemingly odd facts. One time the two of us were outside on a particularly dark night — I do not recall where. In the middle of some conversation which I cannot now recall, he says, "A lighted cigarette can been seen ten miles away on a dark night like this". A little boy thought that was pretty useless information to retain. I guess now that someone he knew was discovered and captured in the countryside during the war because of such a burning object.
He told me of time he spent with the Russian army. (It made little sense how someone from western Slovakia was in the Red Army.) They appointed him to be the unit's barber. "It was really easy to cut their hair", he reported. "You just put a soup bowl on their head and cut around it." Sort of a short, back and sides variation of the haircuts we all had in our childhood, just a bit longer on top than my mother would tolerate. My father said they loved his style and always thanked him for his expertise. The best barber we've had all of the war!
He did not tell me this part of the story himself — I heard it from his cousins — but the Russians had saved his life. He was captured by the Krauts (was he perhaps the man with the lighted cigarette?) and they, as was their custom in these circumstances, even without knowing that he was a Jew, immediately decided to execute him, by firing squad. They had him up against the wall and the Amalekite firing squad had already cocked their rifles. The Russian cavalry arrived in the nick of time — this was a real live event and not an episode from a movie.
My father narrated to me a few things about returning home from the forests. About the neighbours. About digging up and reinterring his father. About the family granary. Not much more. Nothing about his lost family.
My father promised his eleven year old son that he too would live a long life, just like his old grandfather, but unlike himself who would not approach anywhere near to that longevity. He told me he would leave this world at a young age. And so it was — he died two short years later, at the early age of fifty. I am now five years older than my father was on the day on which he died. How did he know this and why did he want to reveal it to an eleven year old? Did he divulge this to anyone else?
My father too was a victim of that awful conflict. How could anyone survive, unscathed, the trauma of a firing-squad followed soon after by the reburial of one's father and many of his townsfolk?
Menachem Kuchar, 28th August, 2008