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My Father’s Holocaust Secret

A yellowed photo hidden with an heirloom watch led me to discover a prewar life I never knew existed

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(Tablet Magazine)
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Grandpa’s Secret Shoah

My grandfather never talked about his time in a concentration camp. Five years after his death, I finally heard his story.

Soon after my father passed away in 1995 at age 86, my mother presented me with his watch, enclosed in its red case adorned with gold letters. The 18-karat gold Patek Philippe was the only expensive thing my father ever bought for himself.

We were very poor when I was young. We shared, with another family, a small, one-bedroom apartment in a poor Haifa neighborhood, living off rationed eggs and butter. By the time I reached the age of 13, however, our financial condition had improved. Although by nature modest and humble, my father surprised us by buying himself the gold watch. “After 120,” he would proudly tell me, “this watch will be yours.”

Gingerly opening the case in 1995, I was astounded to find in addition to the watch, hidden underneath, in the folds of the guarantee booklet: a minute, yellowing photograph of two beautiful young women. I did not recognize this photo or these young ladies. My mother was taken aback by this find but did not offer any explanations. I knew my father wanted me to find this photo. I could not fathom why.

the photo from the watch case

Only now, 17 years later, has this mystery truly been solved, and the photograph’s place in my father’s life—and my own—finally become clear.

***

One of 10 children, my father grew up in Krasnik, a town near the Polish city of Lublin. His parents, who owned a large kasha grain mill, were wealthy. They were members of the Gur Hasidic dynasty, and my father was named after the Sefat Emet, one of this movement’s great leaders. During the Holocaust, when he was in his late 20s, my father was taken to the brutal Budzin labor camp near Lublin, where he survived by pretending to be a carpenter. In May 1944, the camp was closed, and the prisoners were marched to the Majdanek extermination camp. Jumping into a ditch at a curve in the trail, my father escaped this death march and hid in the forest with the partisans for the remainder of the war.

After the war, my father returned to Narutowicza Street in his hometown of Krasnik, but he found no survivors. His parents, grandparents, and all of his siblings—except for one sister and one brother, who had immigrated to Palestine before the war—had been murdered. He left Krasnik behind and moved to Germany, where he met my mother and married her in a gloomy displaced-persons camp in 1947. I have a single black-and-white frayed photo from their wedding. No one is smiling. Not the guests, not my mother’s parents (who were saved by deportation to Siberia), not even the bride and groom. My parents left for the Land of Israel immediately after the wedding. Within months, my father was drafted into the newly formed Israeli Army and served as a mortar operator in the Galilee during Israel’s War of Independence. Later, when I was a child, my father made sure to show me his battlefields in the old city of Tzfat and at the Dan and Dafna kibbutzim. I particularly loved hearing about the bridge he built over the Banias River in a long dark night under enemy fire. For me, the bridge became a symbol of his valiant struggle to traverse his crushing past with his empowering new life in Israel.

In Haifa, my father owned an all-consuming wholesale produce business. Every morning, he rose at 2:30 a.m. to trek down from Haifa’s Hadar section to the wholesale Tenuva market close to the port. Even in the glaringly hot summer days, when temperatures often climbed over 100 degrees, my father sported a straw fedora. He loved my mother immeasurably and was a devoted husband and father. He rarely disciplined my sister or me and was most proud of his two children, named after his father and my maternal great-grandmother, both of whom were murdered in the Holocaust.

He rarely spoke of the Holocaust. I recall, however, being startled the night my father was ill and running a high fever when he began singing “Es brent briderlech, es brent” by Mordechai Gebirtig. This poem was written in response to the 1936 pogrom of Jews in the shtetl of Przytyk:

It’s burning, brothers, it’s burning!
Our poor shtetel is burning,
Raging winds are fanning the wild flames
And furiously tearing,
Destroying and scattering everything.
All around, all is burning
And you stand and look just so, you
With folded hands …
And you stand and look just so,
While our shtetl burns.

My father was short but physically strong; even in his 70s, he easily won our arm-wrestling matches. He was gentle and kind and mostly silent. He spoke little of his past, was equally silent about his hardships and years of struggle in the nascent State of Israel, and was hermetically closed about the Holocaust years.

After his retirement, my father set up a carpentry studio in a windowless bomb shelter. Using the skills he developed in the labor camp, he carved birds out of olive wood. I know why he loved to sculpt birds. They have wings.

***

When I received my father’s watch, I was flummoxed by the yellowing photo hidden within the case. I sensed that I had inherited a part of my father’s sanctum sanctorum, his innermost being. But my mother was unwilling, or unable, to answer my questions about the photo. Out of deep respect for her, I decided to emulate my father’s lifelong covenant of silence. I too would remain silent, for a time.

After my mother’s passing, in 2008, I presented the mysterious photo to several distant survivor relatives, who could not identify the women. My next impulse was to search the newly available online records in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial that houses a large database of victims and survivors. I was stunned to unearth a digital image of a handwritten card penned by my father for the Yad Vashem archives in the early 1950s, and a second record submitted by an unknown person documenting the murder of a woman named Chaya Holzberg Goldberg and her two daughters from Krasnik during the Holocaust. We discovered that several Holzbergs—my father’s first cousins, whom I’d met briefly decades earlier—were still alive and residing in New York City.

At an emotional meeting attended by myself, my wife, and our children and grandchildren, we were astounded to learn from Chaya’s younger brother Jack Holzberg that my father had been married to Chaya (who was also my father’s cousin) before the war. With tears in his eyes, Jack pointed to the woman on the right of the photo from my father’s watch case: “This is my sister,” he said.

I learned that Chaya and my father had two daughters, Chava and a nameless newborn baby daughter. Shortly after the second baby’s birth, the Nazis searched the family’s hiding place in Krasnik. When the newborn started to cry, a hand was placed over the baby’s mouth to muffle the sound, and the baby girl was inadvertently smothered to death before her parents could name her in the synagogue. Chaya buried her dead newborn in the cemetery in a shallow unmarked grave. Jack recalls his sister telling him that the following night their mother assured her in a dream that the dead baby was “with her.” A short period later, the remaining family was captured by the Nazis. My father was transferred to Budzin, but his wife Chaya and 7-year-old daughter Chava were gassed at Majdanek.

Like other second-generation survivors, I will never know what my father was like before the war, nor grasp the magnitude of his devastating losses. His fortitude in shielding his new family from the horrors that haunted him came from a courage and resilience that I deeply admire and cherish. Would that I could tell him now.

Several months ago, my daughter gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Chaya. I called Jack. He wept. My father would have been proud.

***

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Very moving account. Thank you — lest we forget

Natalie_W says:

 Thank you for sharing such a devastatingly poignant story. I have yet to grasp how so many people who have been through so much pain were able to keep going.

As one who was lucky to avoid the many direct stories, relative to the Shoach, I was deeply touched! The ability of these individuals to continue to lead a normal life, is beyond my comprehension!

Well written, poignant, meaningful, but what significance the expensive gold watch? The first wedding gift he gave himself? 

I was overwhelmed with emotion as I read your beautifully written story.  I agree that your father would have been proud.

Unbelievable; thanks for sharing; crying as I type this

azigrae says:

This was a very moving essay. Thank you.

My father had somewhat of a similar experience.

His father was also part of a Gur Hassidic family from Warsaw which emigrated to NY between 1906 abd 1921. He was the oldest of three brothers, or so my father thought until he was sitting shiva in 1984 (about a month after I was born.)

During the shiva his uncle mentioned something about his brother and sisters in Warsaw that remained there and never joined the rest of the family in NY. There were three sisters (Malka, Esther, Bluma) and a brother (Yaacov Graber) who were all married with children, which is why they didnt come.

Not once did my grandfather ever mention this fact to my father. It was a complete shock to him. I have since been able to discover their names and ages and I’ve submitted them to Yad Vashem, however, I do not know who their spouses or chidren were.

Oudtshoorn says:

Thank you for this, for sharing it with us.   A very moving story.   It brings back many memories, and also the memory that my parents, aunts and uncles simply kept silent about the Shoah.

philipmann says:

 Beautiful story, in many ways. Does anybody know how many survived the war by being exiled to Siberia ?

yisraelf says:

very beautiful, just beautiful.  It was kind of you to tell the story the way you did

Utterly moving. That he kept the photo with his watch shows he wanted someone to know about his life. It was a message to the past that he had achieved blessings, and to the future in the knowledge that you might carry on his legacy (which you have, kol ha k’vod). I feel some pity for his wife, your mother; it might have been good for her to know she represented his present happiness, or at least positiveness, but must also have been a bit hurtful. Yet who knows what secrets your mother was keeping – which you may never know. Thank you for your fascinating story.  

PeterKinder says:

Thank you for sharing your story.

PeterKinder says:

Thank you for sharing your story.

PeterKinder says:

Thank you for sharing your story.

vic_tortor says:

My wife Daphne G. is from Oudtshoorn. Would you know of her ( you must obviously be of a younger generation)? Vic

Esther Feldman says:

As my survivor mother is nearing ninety, I am spending more time on JewishGen to learn as much as I can about my relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. While my mom  is still alive I feel it is vital to open her buried emotions and details about family I never knew. I want to  talk more with her and even inform her of information that was quite fuzzy to her as a teenager during the war. One detail that is now haunting me is having learned that my namesake grandmother was on one of the first transports to Chelmno during the final liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and that she was brutally asphyxiated in a truck -a mobile gas chamber. The detail that makes this information additionally disturbing is that my grandmother was exactly my age when she volunteered to go to the Chelmno “work camp”. My mom never knew exactly where her mom was sent, even to this day, but holds on to the memory of the piece of bread that was messengered back to her in the Lodz Ghetto after the Chelmno “worker recruits” were rewarded with a half a loaf of bread. 

Thank you for sharing your story, we survivor children have a tremendous responsibility to never forget. These revelations we have are the tools we must use for that purpose.

sam wineburg says:

A very moving story, by a talented stylist. My only question is why, in a story laced with Jewish themes, the author would appeal to the Latin sanctum santorum, the Vulgate’s translation for kodesh hakodeshim. I am perplexed by the logic behind this editorial choice. 

Ahasver1943 says:

Your F

Ahasver1943 says:

What is lingering in me, his carving  the birds in isolation in the bunker, because they have wings. They were the wings of his memories, wings of his immense pain, wings of his double love, and wings of his desire?! This story touched me deep and will resonate for a long time, if not forever. I feel very close to the Father in the story. My eyes let the tears out flowing with the depth of the sorrowful memories.. What puzzles me is the reaction of the Mother by seeing the picture of the two women; why she would not tell her son more about the picture? Human Nature is …..!

Hacoah says:

 You can probably get the answer to that from Yehuda Bauer’s “Death of the Shtetl”. He describes the Siberia deportations in detail and makes the point that what appeared at the time to be a death sentence turned out to be salvation for those who survived. By contrast, almost all the Jews who remained in the Marches, Poland, Belorussia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, were annihilated.
BTW, the Siberian exiles were told they were traveling back to Poland by the NKVD.

Leah Perl Shollar says:

 Powerful.  Thank you for sharing.

הדסה פוקס says:

That must have assured that it would be kept as an important inheritance, if it was  something of lesser value
it might not have been so carefully tended !
Not surprising that he was a very ingenious person, as well as very special.

philipmann says:

Thanks for the tip. I knew somebody who had spent a while in Siberian exile-he`s since died. It seems that while conditions were harsh, at least the Russians weren`t trying to kill them.

  I have a book here ,Fugitives of the Forest,about the partisans . Conditions there were also quite harsh,and by the book`s estimate,about five percent of Jewish partisans survived . The only way they did survive  was by being useful to the Soviet army.

dutchessabroad says:

I’m cryin as well. Mazzel Tov with the birth of your little Chava, thanks for sharing!

This narrative is beautiful!  Thank you for sharing your story with us!

I’ve recently become passionate about discovering our family stories and capturing them on a blog: http://yomhashoahpictureproject.com/. I’ve included a link to this story on the blog. As a blogger newbie, I’m a bit confused about permissions. Are you OK with the link appearing on the Yom HaShoah Picture Project site?  

irisgoldson says:

I was born in Poland in 1935 and was lucky enough to be able to leave in December 1938.  half of my fathers family were still there and my mothers entire family (she was one of 9 children) did not get out.  I have not been able to find anyone that has any record of what happened to them. 
My father tried to find them with the help of HIAS after the war but was not able to find anyone.
As of today i still havenot fond out what happened to them. The name was Szturm we changed it to Sturm when we came to the USA

This was written so well, it really brought tears to my eyes. The father had so much courage to have kept all his past  to himself- but he did find a good life in Israel. May he rest in peace and hopefully be united  with all his loved ones.

MosheLachter says:

A very moving story. What giants they were.  What they went through and the pain they
endured is almost indescribable. 

Like your father, my mother was also at Budzin.   She was
deported first to the Budzin concentration camp, then to Majdanek and finally
to Auschwitz.

 

The Kotzker Rebbe once said that the
loudest scream, the scream loud enough to break through the gates of heaven,
the scream loud enough to be heard by G-d Himself, is . . . . . silence.

 

Many survivors intuitively understood
that, and we, their children, never heard their screams of pain.

psydneyh says:

I am amazed by your pedantry

what an endearing story of the beautiful watch and secreat hid within and how proud your father would have been in heaven you shall have such a happy reunion
 

4 BILLION JEWS MURDERED & NOT A WORD ABOUT IT FROM ABE FOXMAN!

The Talmud is Judaism’s
holiest book (actually a collection of books). Its authority takes precedence
over the Old Testament in Judaism. Evidence of this may be found in the Talmud
itself, Erubin 21b (Soncino edition):

“My son, be more careful in the observance of the words of the
Scribes than in the words of the Torah (Old Testament).”

Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, in “Judaism on Trial,” quotes Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph:

“Further,
without the Talmud, we would not be able to understand passages in the Bible
… God has handed this authority to the sages and tradition is a necessity as
well as scripture. The Sages also made enactments of their own … anyone who
does not study the Talmud cannot understand Scripture.”

4 BILLION JEWS SLAUGHTERED BY EMPEROR
HADRIAN

Over
four billion Jews were killed by the Romans in 135AD… 64 million children
wrapped up in Torah scrolls and burnt…. apparently

The Jews’ last
stand at Bethar, Judah

in the final
Roman Jewish war 135AD

“The voice of Jacob’: this is the cry caused
by the (Roman) Emperor Hadrian who killed in the city of Bethar four hundred
thousand myriads”

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 57B

Myraid = 10,000

.

400,000 x a
myraid = 4,000,000,000 (four billion)

“There
were four hundred synagogues in the city of Bethar, and in every one were four hundred
teachers of children, and each one had under him four hundred pupils, and when
the enemy entered there they pierced them with their staves, and when the enemy
prevailed and captured them, they wrapped them in their scrolls and burnt them
with fire.”

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 58a

Four hundred synagogues each with

Four hundred teachers each with

Four hundred students

400 x 400 x 400 = 64,000,000 (sixty four million)

There wasn’t
4,000,000,000 people on Earth, until 1970, and ancient demography indicates
that there were not 16 million Jews in the entire world at that time, much less
64 million Jewish children or four billion Jews.

Gittin 57b

4 BILLION JEWS MURDERED & NOT A WORD ABOUT IT FROM ABE FOXMAN!

The Talmud is Judaism’s
holiest book (actually a collection of books). Its authority takes precedence
over the Old Testament in Judaism. Evidence of this may be found in the Talmud
itself, Erubin 21b (Soncino edition):

“My son, be more careful in the observance of the words of the
Scribes than in the words of the Torah (Old Testament).”

Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, in “Judaism on Trial,” quotes Rabbi Yehiel ben Joseph:

“Further,
without the Talmud, we would not be able to understand passages in the Bible
… God has handed this authority to the sages and tradition is a necessity as
well as scripture. The Sages also made enactments of their own … anyone who
does not study the Talmud cannot understand Scripture.”

4 BILLION JEWS SLAUGHTERED BY EMPEROR
HADRIAN

Over
four billion Jews were killed by the Romans in 135AD… 64 million children
wrapped up in Torah scrolls and burnt…. apparently

The Jews’ last
stand at Bethar, Judah

in the final
Roman Jewish war 135AD

“The voice of Jacob’: this is the cry caused
by the (Roman) Emperor Hadrian who killed in the city of Bethar four hundred
thousand myriads”

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 57B

Myraid = 10,000

.

400,000 x a
myraid = 4,000,000,000 (four billion)

“There
were four hundred synagogues in the city of Bethar, and in every one were four hundred
teachers of children, and each one had under him four hundred pupils, and when
the enemy entered there they pierced them with their staves, and when the enemy
prevailed and captured them, they wrapped them in their scrolls and burnt them
with fire.”

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 58a

Four hundred synagogues each with

Four hundred teachers each with

Four hundred students

400 x 400 x 400 = 64,000,000 (sixty four million)

There wasn’t
4,000,000,000 people on Earth, until 1970, and ancient demography indicates
that there were not 16 million Jews in the entire world at that time, much less
64 million Jewish children or four billion Jews.

Gittin 57b

On the opposite hand, if you have got a watch that you just
very failed to pay abundant for otherwise you ar short on money, then perhaps
you must rethink. however keep in mind that if you actually love the
aforementioned watch or even wear it everyday, then plow ahead and take it to a
watch store that you recognize doesn’t charge abundant. a way or the opposite,
you’re still obtaining it mounted and this shows you price your piece of bijou.

2000

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My Father’s Holocaust Secret

A yellowed photo hidden with an heirloom watch led me to discover a prewar life I never knew existed

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