My Holocaust Survivor Friends Tell It As It Is
Erwin was much more than just a friend. He moved into our flat when I was just six months old, only leaving, to a little place right across the road, three years later when my brother was born. Erwin was my father's business partner in various endeavours for nearly ten years in the fifties and early sixties. Later, though they each went their own way in business, they remained the best of friends. Perhaps uniquely, they never had a disagreement, even after working together for so many years. Daddy was always very close to Erwin, and I was too.
Erwin had a special place in his heart for me, he said, because I was born on the same date as his little brother. While he missed others' birthdays, he never forgot mine, even after we moved to Israel. When the phone rang first thing in the morning, I knew it was Erwin.
His brother died at a young age, before the war, of leukaemia. Erwin was very attached to him and also to their mother, almost in Oedipus proportions. They were direct descendants of the renowned and brilliant Hatham Sofer, the predominant sage of the region, perhaps of all Europe.
Erwin's visits were always the arrival of a favourite uncle, or even the grandfather whom we never knew. He always picked me and brother up and twirled us around his head. He was generous and very, very intelligent. Though he had no formal education, he was able to speak to me as a six or seven year old, and later of course, in a way that always left me enlightened. We often played chess together. He played an amazing game. Though he would take three pieces off the board as a disadvantage, he would still thoroughly thrash me. And I was on the school chess team.
Though Erwin was thirteen years younger than my father, they become best of friends when they, and their few remaining landsman, returned home to Topolcany following the German killing spree. Each of them found only a couple of cousins remaining alive. Everyone else had vanished.
Though they had "come home" to their birthplace, they were shortly on the move again, fleeing now-communist Czechoslovakia for Melbourne, Australia, in 1948. My father moved to Sydney after my mother arrived there from Europe in 1951. Erwin followed a couple of years later.
Erwin was just sixteen years old on the day that the Nazis marched into Budapest. He was studying at the Budapest Yeshiva. He knew he had to get out of there very quickly. Using guile and an audacity whose source he himself told me he could not explain, he managed to "cross" the wartime border from Hungary into the puppet republic of Slovakia, bluffing his way at every checkpoint. Though most Slovak Jews had already been transported (I love that euphemism — they just took a little train ride into the countryside) by this time, Erwin was fortunate to find his parents still living in their own house. Some Jews with money or working in positions important to the regime, managed to remain.
Sadly this situation wasn't to last very long. Just a few months later, following the failed Slovak partisan uprising, the Germans punished the remaining Jews (who of course had nothing to do with the insurgence) by sending them for immediate extermination to Auschwitz.
Erwin survived. But while he returned home, his parents did not. He decided, sadly like many in similar circumstances, to throw away God and Judaism. Whenever anyone would ask him why, he would, without fail, answer, "because my mother did not come home".
Erwin never hid his Jewishness. He was proud of it. It was part of his identity — as was his tattooed number. But he never cared any more about Jewish practice. Other than my bar-mitzva, I don't know if he ever entered a synagogue during his sojourn in Sydney.
Once my mother was talking to him about his cousin in Switzerland. "Is he religious?" she asked. "Of course he is" was the reply, "he is very religious".
"Erwin, what do you mean of course? — look at yourself!"
"Yes, but his mother came home."
Erwin never believed that anyone after the war was truly religious, not like the people and communities he knew before the war. We just weren't religious like his family and circle had been.
Once when I was visiting him in Australia he happened to mention that when he died, he had left instructions to be cremated. "Erwin, you can't do that. You weren't religious, but cremation, that's a very UN-Jewish practice. At least return your body to the earth from which it came. Consider your antecedents."
I could not talk him out of it. Why, Erwin, why are you doing this?
"If it was good enough for my mother, it will also be good enough for me."
And so it was, the day after he passed on from this world, at not so advanced an age, well short of his deserved 120 years.
Erwin, I still miss you.
Read eyewitness accounts from other friends.
Menachem Kuchar, 16th September, 2009