I only met my grandfather's little brother twice, once at his grandson's wedding and a couple of years later at his house where he was then living with the same grandson and his wife.
My great uncle was very deaf later in life. The first time I met him I was unable to communicate with him due to the level of background noise that is typical of religious Jewish weddings. I'm actually hoarse right now from shouting to my cousins at my niece's wedding last night. This now seems to be the trend today in our circles.
How I came to meet Uncle Lipot* (the second time) is an interesting story. We had been living in Israel for two years and I was at business meeting somewhere up north. A couple, who had been the Bnei Akiva shlichim (emissaries) in Sydney at the time we left Australia, had recently returned to Israel and were living in Ra'anana. So I took the opportunity to drop in and say Gidday on my way back home that the evening. We are talking about 1985.
We were catching up on old times and the travails of returning to Israel. There was a knock at the door. My friends were selling their apartment and a young couple had arranged to come over that evening to inspect it. The couple came in and were looking around the flat. Something looked familiar about them, but I am really bad with faces. The man also glanced at me as he passed by, but only on the their third circuit around the apartment, did Avishai say, "Aren't you my cousin Menachem from Australia". Of course I had to plead guilty and realised immediately whom he was. We talked for a while, ignoring my friends, the apartment owners. Avishai's grandfather came up in conversation and when he realised I had never really met him, he said that's where we, including you, are going right now.
I told my friends I would be back in an hour or two — I left my car there — and drove down the road with Goldie and Avishai. Family reunions are always emotional affairs.
My cousins took me over to Uncle Lipot's flat. I had known of this uncle's existence for many years, but my mother and her sisters weren't on great terms with him, largely ignoring him. My mother though was occasionally in contact with his daughter, Sonya (Sara in Israel) who was her age and a former classmate. I still don't know the exact source of the problem between them, but as in most family feuds, it had something to do with money and family pride. In the end things did work themselves out. Sonya took my mother to visit her father (we're talking now about more than thirty years ago — by then Lipot was about eighty years old and widowed). Following this encounter, my mother said the state of enmity was now forgotten (Baruch haShem).
Of course as is usual in these meetings, Avishai says to his grandfather, pointing towards the stranger he had just brought into his house, "Guess who this is?" He had to ask the question three times, each time raising the volume a few notches. In the end, his wife seemed to have better contact with the old man, and only when she yelled the question to him did he start to look me up and down. He did figured out that I was "Gluck" from my face but of course couldn't guess whose offspring. But he was happy to make my acquaintance and really had nice things to say about my mother.
The conversation was more of a monologue than a dialogue, given my uncle's auditory challenges. If I really had a question, Goldie would yell it out at many decibels, and sometimes I got a relevant answer. So I did a lot of listening — not easy for me.
Uncle had recently undergone a cataract operation, which back then was rarely performed on people of his advanced age. Before the surgery, he could barely see and could hardly hear. Since the operation his sight was so good that he was able to read the super fine print (four or five point type) in the back of the Talmud, without any aids. He told me he was so happy that haShem had restored his sight, he feared requesting an improvement in his hearing too. He happily spent his days studying the holy Jewish texts alone at home.
He told me stories from the wartime, the Holocaust, the shoa. He didn't see the end coming on that last fateful day in Košice in May, 1944, when the city's Jews were deported to Auschwitz for forced labour and extermination, the final solution to the Jewish problem of Europe. The city of Košice and its surrounds had been seceded from Czechoslovakia to Hungary in 1938. Hungarian Jews were pretty much left alone in the next few years. However the stalled deportation of Hungarian Jews was now beginning. And to Košice, the end arrived very suddenly, although it had really only been a matter of time. The writing was on the wall for those who could see.
On that fateful day, when Uncle Lipot realised that it was all over for Jewish life in this part of the world, he did not know what to do, where to go. A well-to-do businessman, a religious Jew, he was lost, nowhere to go, nothing planned. He went to my grandfather's house. "I said to my brother, 'Mendel Boorikh**'", reverting from his almost accentless Hebrew to the Hungarian intonation. "Mendel Boorikh what are you going to do today?" My grandfather had just found out that his brother-in-law had sent a car to fetch him, his wife and one child. They were going to run the gauntlet, cross the new, artificial border to Prešov, some sixty kilometres to the north. Following the Chamberlain-Hitler realignment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Prešov was within the Slovak republic. My grandmother's brother, Uncle Vince Treitel, had made the arrangements.
My grandparents and their five year old granddaughter did make it safely to Prešov, only to be later betrayed. The three were murdered in Auschwitz, nearly five months later. The car, which Vince hired, was supposed to return to ferry my mother, her four sisters and their brother to Prešov as well. However another Jewish family — also called Treitel though not related to us — paid the driver more than Uncle Vince was paying and got themselves across the border instead. My mother and her sisters ended up on the transport to Auschwitz the next day. No-one knows the fate of their brother, Laurence, until this very day. For many years my mother expected him to walk across the threshold of one the sisters' houses. She told me he was too smart to not have escaped. He still hasn't appeared.
Back to Uncle Lipot. He realised my grandfather was unable help him. I imagine he did not have too many expectations, but an older brother is a sort of a father figure. Lipot didn't know what to do. Returning home now would be suicide. A religious Jew normally finds solace in the study hall, over a tome of Gemara or other holy book. Neither was this an option on this day. So my uncle went to his place of work. He owned a large lumberyard on the outskirts of the city. I don't know what he expected to do there on such a calamitous day, nor even what he thought was awaiting him there. He certainly did not expect to spend a normal workday in the office. But it turned out to be the best thing he could have done, perhaps the best thing he did in all of his long life — and he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-eight.
Only one other person turned up to work on this day of infamy. His goy, as my uncle referred to this gentile employee, said, "Well boss, what are you going to do?" My uncle replied that he did not know. The goy said, "I'll look after you."
"Come with me." My uncle wasn't sure what to do, whom he could trust. On the other hand he had nothing planned, no idea of how to proceed, how to save his life. This wasn't a normal business transaction. His experience and his learning had not prepared him for such an awful day. He agreed to surrender his fate into the hands of this non-Jew.
The goy walked out of the office, my uncle following. They walked past the timbers and onto the road outside. The employee tells his boss, "If you want me to help you, then walk like a goy." My uncle related, "What!? How does a goy walk? — I asked him to show me." The old man stands up from his chair in his lounge room and demonstrates how the timberyard worker walked. I burst out laughing even though this was a very serious story. Uncle walked around the room, moving hip and shoulder in one movement, alternating sides. It certainly was a strange gait.
"Then the goy told me to take off my cap. 'What take off my cap?!'" I think my uncle had never walked four feet in his life with his head uncovered, with the sun beating down on his pate. "Yes, you look too Jewish with a hat". "I saw his point, so I removed it, throwing it into the bushes".
"Then he said, 'Whistle!'. What, whistle — this was too much — I don't know how to whistle. Jews aren't supposed to whistle — we just don't do that." "Just copy me and whistle." "So I whistled", and he resumes walking around the room, in this strange stride, blowing air through his lips, making some kind of strange, totally unmusical hiss. "We continued like this all the way to the goy's house, me pretending to be a goy", he said as he continued around his living room, blowing white noise out of his mouth.
No matter what my uncle's doubts must have been, and he had good reason to doubt the gentile's ability to hide him, and his long term interest in the face of likely threats and punishment, in doing so. He could have turned my uncle over to the authorities, then stolen his business, his house and whatever other property there was. And they all knew that anyone caught harbouring a Jew was summarily executed by the Nazis.
But this righteous gentile hid and looked after my uncle, his wife and their youngest son for the ten or eleven months until the eventual liberation of the city by the advancing Red Army.
Being in his home town, perhaps the only Jew remaining in Košice at the termination of hostilities, Uncle Lipot was the first to come back home, to return to his own house. As the surviving Jews eventually reached the city, returning from concentration camps, from slave labour, from hiding places in the forests and from surviving partisan groups, as they arrived back to Košice, many dropped by my uncle's house. He gave many their first real meal, gave them somewhere to stay, provided a shoulder to lean on, someone with whom to cry and to mourn, to find some hope to continue living. Most did not return.
Uncle told me of one particular day, like so many others in those first weeks — a group of returnees were in the house, and he was entertaining them, a lively conversation: people relating their stories, their personal histories, their terrible experiences, the tragedy of the Jewish people. Suddenly my uncle became aware of a person standing by the entrance of the house. He did not enter. Something was very eerie about this newcomer, something very strange, very uncanny — my uncle could not put his finger on it. The man, was it indeed a man? He looked terrible, a mere shadow of humanity. Then he sort of started to smile, a very weird smile, or to be more accurate, a bizarre half smile. What did he want? Was he a real person? Uncle Lipot did not recognise the stranger, he was completely unfamiliar.
The stranger didn't budge. He just continued staring towards my uncle — staring right through him. By now the room was silent, all eyes were on the visitor by the front door. Who was he? What had transpired with him over the long months since the last Jews were forcibly removed from the city? This silence probably only lasted a few seconds, but Uncle Lipot felt an eternity passing. It was impossible to even guess this man's age. What did this man want? Who was he?
Finally the sickly, thin, gaunt man very slowly approached his father and hugged him. Yes, Uncle Lipot had failed to recognise his own son.
* Lipot Probably short for Leopold.
**Mendel Boorikh I am named Menachem Barukh after my Gluck grandfather and also after my paternal grandfather, Barukh (Béla) Kaufman, who was born one hundred years before me.
Uncle Lipot survived the war, hidden by his gentile employee. He had managed to send for his wife and youngest son, Kalman, (about fourteen years old) and they were hidden in the gentile's house. Sonya and her husband, Zolly, survived the camps but lost their baby. Two sons returned home. All of them came to Israel after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and have remained here since.
My uncle and aunt had another daughter who died of natural causes before the deportations.
Another son was in Budapest during the war. He penetrated the Nyilas Keresztes, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the pro-German, anti-Semitic brown shirted paramilitary, which terrorised Hungary during the war years. They were the military wing of the national socialist party, led by Ferenc Szálasi. They ruled Hungary from 15th October, 1944 until January 1945. My cousin was discovered and murdered for being a Jew.
Incidentally we had a Treitel (Ehrmann) cousin who also infiltrated the Arrow Cross. He too was discovered after being wounded in his leg. His comrades removed his trousers to treat his injury and immediately saw his circumcision. He was, without delay, thrown into the Danube, the river dividing the cities of Buda and Pest. I heard that, wearing his brown shirt, he was able to help many Jews in wartime Budapest.
Unfortunately, many of our fellow Jews met their Maker in the Danube. The Danube was red with Jewish blood during those years.
Menachem Kuchar, 26th March, 2009
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