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.
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 Ger 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.
Itzhak David Goldberg is a professor of clinical radiation oncology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the CEO of Angion Biomedica Corporation.