I Finally Meet My Father's Long Lost Relatives
When I was growing up, I didn't know too much about my father's family. Unlike my mother, much of whose family survived the holocaust, it seemed my father had almost no relatives. And this was largely true. I didn't know for example, until I was twenty-three years old that my father had been married during the war, before he met my mother. My brother found out at almost the same time, but in Israel, when a cousin was showing him photographs and said, "That's your father's wife and daughter". My brother didn't know what had hit him, but it felt like a direct hit lightening bolt.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Another reason for our lack of knowledge of our father's family was that in those days, most survivors didn't speak about their past, almost to the point of obsession. There were probably good reasons. Like my father, many had lost wives and children. They were now in new relationships. Also the trauma and horrors were still too terrible to comprehend and too close in time. A healing period was needed. And I'm pretty sure that people who had not spent the war years in Europe were not able to empathise in any way. Our survivors needed to get on with their new lives, their new families and their new country. They had to work hard and they had no 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 in 1915 in the old, pre Treaty of Versailles Europe. He died in 1966, far from that place, in Australia, when I was only thirteen years old. So, even if he wanted to tell me about our family, I was probably too young to absorb too much, intellectually and emotionally. I do remember a number of things, but not a great deal. It's difficult -- you feel so mature at that age, but you are so much still a child.
My grandfather was very old when he met his death during Sukkot in 1944. By then, my father had already spent considerable time in the forests with the partisans (hence his name change to Kuchar, a Slovak name -- 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 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 been expelled, killed or transported in 1941 and 1942. Some, mainly those who were needed by the Germans and those who could afford to pay the requisite bribes, stayed put, at home, until after the revolution. For example Dad told me about his cousin and close friend, Ali, who was the largest prewar producer of horse feed in all of Europe. My father worked in this family business before the hostilities. It seems that during the war, horses were still an important resource and the Germans kept Ali alive in order to manage the business for them. On the day they pulled out of (ran away from) Topolcany, the Germans deemed Ali to be redundant and shot him, point blank, in his yards.
Grandfather stayed in his own house right up to the end, and maybe even past it. When the vicious archenemy finally took the few poor remaining Jews out of our town to neighbouring Nemcice, to shoot them in the back, they left grandpa behind -- he was too old, and I suppose decrepit, to bother about. No-one really knows what happened to him and how he finally met his demise, but when my father returned home, the wonderful (non-Jewish) neighbours said he'd passed on and "we buried him over there". My father dug up his old father (may no-one have to go through that kind of trauma) gave him his required Jewish last rights (taharah) and buried him next to my grandmother who had died of natural causes early on during the conflict. Dad then also organised some friends to exhume with him the bodies of their fellow townsmen, murdered in cold blood in Nemcice. They reinterred them, in a mass grave, back at home in the old Jewish cemetery of Topolcany. The monument these friends erected stands in the centre of the graveyard to this very day.
We always knew my father had one living cousin, the Rebbetzin. She lived in Newcastle, Wellington (New Zealand) and Brisbane before they finally moved nearby to Maroubra, a suburb of Sydney. We had met up with them periodically before that, but not too often. People didn't travel as frequently and as easily back then. I spent a couple of weeks with them in Brisbane after my father died. We were sure that this was my father's only living relative. But it was not so.
A year or so before my barmitzva, we suddenly made contact with a lady in London. It turned out that she was my father's older brother's wife. This uncle and cousin perished in the slaughter, and she survived on her own. She remarried after the war, but was again a widow; she had no children. My father was elated to receive this communication and connection to the past. Aunt Elizabeth sent my brother and I a couple of coins that had been collected by her late son before the war, and she also sent me a nice barmitzvah gift. It was great to suddenly have "new" family.
Like many other kids in my generation, I collected stamps, quite seriously. You learned geography, history, zoology, botany, politics and lots more from these little stickers that arrived with 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 these distant locations. I never knew the source of my Israeli stamps. My mother had a cousin here, but that didn't cover all the stamps I had amassed.
I left Australia in 1976 with the intention of spending a year learning in Yeshiva. This was my second trip to Israel. Before I left, my cousin, the Rebetzin, said, "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. This felt a bit weird and it took me a couple of months to pluck up the courage to ring one of my 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 grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Prager). He and his wife were living in Arad. Ali's wife suffered badly from asthma and her doctors suggested the dry desert air of Arad may be beneficial to her health. Ali and No'omi didn't have any children. They were lots of fun to be with. Ali was a fountain of information. He had been my father's flat mate in Topolcany for a couple of years. He left for Palestine in August, 1939, following his parents and five siblings, leaving behind in Europe three sisters, two of whom were then already married; they perished with their husbands and children.
Ali told me stories about my father that I didn't know. The local Nazi sympathisers in Slovakia were know as the "brown shirts". Already before the war, they were known to torment the local Jews. Ali said that one day when he arrived to shule early in the morning, everyone was abuzz over an attack on the brown shirt boys during the previous night. Someone, no-one knew who, had knocked the stuffing out of them. Then Ali remembered that my father had gotten home very, very late that night.
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 and guess where I spent the next day (luckily yeshiva was on vacation) and another three siblings elsewhere in the country. It turns out their mother (my grandmother's sister) was very close to my father. They communicated regularly (hence all the stamps). When my father died, her children decided not to tell her. Not sure why. She was 86 and died a couple of years later. She would often ask why father wasn't writing any more. It upset her, but they didn't tell her the reason.
I discovered other long lost relatives, not far away in Melbourne. I was at the Bnei Akiva Minyan down there one shabbos. After the service, a little girl came up to me and shyly said, "My mother said to tell you that we are related and she would like to meet you" and she disappeared. Not too much detective work and I was sitting at Vera's house. Her grandmother was another of my grandmother's sisters. This meeting occurred after my father had died. But my father lived in Melbourne for his first two years in Australia. The sixteen year old Vera would act as chaperone for my father when he went out on dates. How times have changed.
My father didn't tell me many stories about the war. But he did relate some. He was the youngest of seven children, the only one to survive that terrible conflict. He told me that a lighted cigarette can been seen ten miles away. A little boy thought that was pretty useless information to retain. But I guess someone he knew was discovered and captured because of such an object. He told me that he spent time with the Russian army. They made him their 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 literal short, back and side variation of the haircuts we all had in our childhood, but a bit longer on top than my mother would tolerate. My father said they loved his style and always thanked him for his expertise.
He didn't 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 he was a Jew, immediately decided to execute him, by firing squad. They had him up against the wall and the Amalekite 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 the reburying his father. He told me about the neighbours. And about returning home from the forests. About digging up his father. He told me that his father was ninety-one years old at the end.
Then my father promised his eleven year old son that he too would live a long life, just like his grandfather -- unlike himself, who would not approach anywhere near to his own father's longevity. He told me he would leave this world at a young age. And so it was -- he died less than two short years later, at the early age of fifty. I am now five years older than my father was on the day he died.
Perhaps my father too was a victim of that awful conflict?
Menachem Kuchar, 28th August, 2008
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