The Second Generation
I received interesting and positive feedback to the publication of my two short partisan essays, That Cigarette and The Existential Barber. People wanted to know more about what happened to our partisan after things in his hometown eventually returned to normal.
I continue the portrait in the third person.
In essence things never settled down. Normality was never to return. A pogrom took place in Topoľčany on 24th September, 1945. The underlying cause was secondary antisemitism, directed at Jewish survivors who were rightly demanding the return of their property, stolen in their absence. The locals never expected any Jew to return. The feigned catalyst for the persecution was a doctor, Karol Berger, who was vaccinating seven and eight year olds at the local school. Their catholic mothers claimed the Jewish doctor was poisoning their children. Forty-eight Jews were injured in the ensuing riots, fifteen requiring hospitalisation. The police were understaffed to prevent the violence. Soldiers also participated in the riots. Contrary to the expressed desires of the rioters, very few Jews left in the immediate aftermath of the pogrom, most remaining to rebuild their lives and continue the fight for the restitution of their real estate.
However just two years later, most surviving Jews again ran for their lives as the communists took over Czechoslovakia. Property was again appropriated in the name of nationalisation. Along with many Jews, our partisan once more fled, with only what he was able to carry.
In response to That Cigarette, one reader commented, "Happy endings are always good ... is this fiction or a reality based story? Who is 'I'?" To me the latter question answers the former. My response however targeted the former. "Funny. I didn’t write it as a happy ending. Too many open-ended questions and too many still open wounds. How could the partisan continue living?"
My correspondent replied, "The partisan went on to remarry and have children. Is that not a happy ending?"
Unconvinced I proposed an alternate final paragraph. The partisan did indeed die in the volley of SS bullets. This is a more anticipated and logical conclusion. However in truth, since this piece is not fiction, he did survive. Let us assume, in the vein of the legend that Yitsḥak actually died on Mount Moriah at the hand of Avraham his father, that our dead partisan was lifted up into the arms of the angel Gavriel. Looking heavenward, he petitions haShem appealing that the partisan has yet to fulfil his predetermined assignment on earth, that he should breathe again, continue living, that he has not lived long enough to bring me and my brother into the world, to substitute for some of the murdered lost souls. We humans are unable to make such calculations. They are beyond the realm of our human perception.
Sadly I know very little of my father. Based on either ending, his reprieve was far too short, an insubstantial twenty-one years. Rav Yisroel Shurin, whose father had the foresight to bring his family to Israel in 1935, once told me, without knowing about the firing squad, that my father, dying at the age 50 so soon after the shoa, was without doubt a victim of it. I find wisdom in his assessment.
I often dream of just one more conversation with my father. Then I wonder, if that request were granted, what would I ask, what I would ask first? My father never talked much to me about the shoa. That's not unexpected for at least two reasons. One, no-one in the sixties talked about their shoa experiences. There was too much pain in those memories. Survivors wanted to reconstruct their lives in their new world, through new families and offspring. For us, the second generation, this was one of the tribulations of the world in which we grew up. We were living our parents' lost lives without fully understanding. We were aware of something but knew never to ask. Second, how much can you tell a child? I was just 13 when he passed away. And he certainly told me a lot more about himself than to my brother, 3½ years my junior. But it was all piecemeal, almost in code. As in a puzzle, I have had to arrange the pieces to build his life's mosaic. Even in his short time with me, he very strongly instilled in me what it was to be a Jew. I only now in hindsight understand his motive, he a survivor of the tragedies that befell him and our nation, purely for being Jews.
In my mid-twenties, after learning some more detail of my father's life — in reality it was still just a drop — I asked my mother questions about him. Surprisingly she stopped me in my tracks. "I don't know, really. He never wanted to speak about those days." Implying she knew not to bring it up with him and thus had no unknown information to provide me.
My father came back from the war a religious Jew. It is difficult to understand how. Many who suffered did not. A cousin told me, on returning from a year of backbreaking slave labour, ending the war on a death march to Buchenwald at the age of 16, that there was spiritually "nothing left for me". While some of his siblings survived, neither of his parents came home. He said he decided he wanted no further part of it. He start living it up, eating everything, hanging out in not such "good places" etc. Until one night, during a very deep slumber, his father appeared to him. "What are you doing? For this we died?!!" He told me he woke up in a cold sweat, shaking uncontrollably. On that day he returned to the ways of his parents.
My father worked hard to restore the Topoľčany Jewish community. Then in Australia to bring a Jewish family into the world. He was very active in Jewish and Israel community affairs.
My mother left God in Auschwitz. Her father never visited her. She loved my father greatly and went along with him. Now I am older and understand a little of the ways of the world and of relationships. I no longer rush to judge people like that hotheaded teenager living in a black and white world. There was incongruity. He loved her a lot, incredibly so — I don't know too many love stories like it, especially post-shoa and second marriages — but there were pressures. The shoa effected each of them in different ways. Friends have told me they would hear their father often, screaming and crying aloud in the middle of the night. I don't remember anything like that, though that's not to say it didn't happen or that it would not be comprehensible. I am sure that knowing one is certainly imminently about die, must have more than just a minor effect, both physically and psychologically. It took him two years to actually document what transpired during the war. In a very depressing letter to his cousin, one of his best friends and a former flatmate, he summarises the horrors that occurred to the Jews of their hometown.
Now, less than eighty years on, I see it all before my eyes, in all its detail. I often wondered how the Germans pulled off the annihilation of the Jews along with others, with the full compliance of most of the European, not uniquely the German, population. I no longer ask. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1945, summed it up in one word at the Nuremberg war trials. "Fear — all you need to do is to instil fear into the population. Then they will do whatever you require."
I now see it all so clearly, certainly more distinctly than my father did when he escaped into the forests. Where is my forest? If I do make it there, I pray that, if necessary, Gavriel will also be there for me.
Posted 11th October, 2021 -- 5th Marḥeshvan, 5782