The Mystery of 1964
A child's shocking discovery of his father's painful past.
The year was 1964.
The World's Fair opened in Flushing Park. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," by some long-haired kids from Liverpool, was #1. Some far-out location called Vietnam dominated the news. The Mets played their first game at Shea Stadium. And Dallas' "grassy knoll" was becoming a familiar term in the American lexicon. Those were the headlines that danced in the mind of a 12-year-old New York City boy. That boy was me.
Life was good, I recall. Lots of friends, loving parents, Leave it to Beaver, my trusty Vada Pinson black outfielder's glove, and an older brother to show me the ropes. What could be bad?
I suppose that in my own naive way, I was decidedly unaware that there was anything special or distinctive about being a child of Holocaust survivors. Everything seemed so very normal. In fact, it was.
As it turns out, many of my baby boomer friends were of similar ilk. Their parents had also either spent years in concentration camps or had barely escaped the clutches of catastrophe on more than one occasion, and lived to tell about it. But looking back, I find it odd that we were all so oblivious to our lineage. We never compared notes, never wondered if we were "different," never discussed how our parents' suffering and deprivation may have affected us, never seemed to even notice that we were members of this proud yet sad club. Not in class, not in the synagogue, not even during sleepovers when the darkness sheltered our fragility. Never.
And I guess that's how our folks really wanted it to be. "Blend in, be normal, forget the past, look ahead…" read their unspoken banner of post-war parenting. I suppose that they had had quite enough of being part of an exclusive grouping of any kind. Being special does have its disadvantages, you know. No. Now was the time to de-emphasize our distinctions and hope for a brighter, or at least, normal tomorrow.
And if this society of kids of survivors was, in fact, bent on changing its moniker to "Club Inconspicuous," then surely I was prime candidate for President. Despite having spent over 3 years in the torture cavities of Puskow, Mielec, Wieliczka, Flossenberg, Leitmeritz, Dachau, and Kaufering, my father, of blessed memory, never ever uttered a single word to us about the butchery and carnage he witnessed there daily. It was as if life on this planet somehow began in 1947 -- when he arrived on Ellis Island.
It's not like we didn't know that "something" dreadful had happened. We cried when we were awoken by his terrifying nocturnal screams and tremors.
It's not like we didn't know that "something" dreadful had happened. We saw the "KL" that had been eternalized on his wrist, we knew about the huge bump he carried beneath his black, shiny yarmulke, and we cried when we were awoken by his terrifying nocturnal screams and tremors. Oh, we knew. But the horror was just too ghastly to verbalize. The "pink elephant" could not be spoken about. The children had to be protected.
The only exception to this pact of silence was when Daddy took me to Riverside Park just about every Shabbos afternoon. It was there that Paul and Danny and Joey and the rest of my fellow club members would join me for a weekly Freeze-tag or Ring-o-leevio game. But it wasn't long before I noticed that while we were busy darting and leaping on and off base, and releasing our pre-adolescent tensions, our fathers formed an enclave of their own.
The spirit and animation of their discussions always seemed a trifle inappropriate; until one day I happened by within earshot and discovered that it was there that they swapped horror stories, never to be forgotten. It seems every week for 2 hours or more, these valiant heroes turned the clock back 20 plus years and compared their dreaded experiences, to re-live and recount what their eyes had witnessed and their hearts had endured. It was a support group of the most therapeutic kind.
THE MYSTERIOUS TRIP
The mystery unfolded that summer. Like every year, I was safely ensconced in my home away from home -- my summer camp near New Paltz, New York -- when I received a letter from home. This itself was a rather common occurrence in the pre-email decade of the 60's. Preposterous as it sounds, people (especially parents with kids in camp) would actually sit down at a table or a desk, pick up a ball point pen and some blank paper (ruled or unruled), and communicate news from home and abroad. The paper would subsequently be inserted in an envelope (#7 or 10), which was then addressed, sealed, stamped and brought to a mailing receptacle. Days later, the letter invariably arrived.
After the usual maternal exhortations to wear a sweater at night, learn how to swim, and eat my veggies, Daddy would customarily add a few obligatory greetings in his forced, but loving, broken English. But this letter was different. No message from Daddy. He would never say very much anyway, but I always looked for his unfinished, yet ever so sincere message of missing me and loving me. It wasn't there. At 12 years old, that struck a chord.
When I couldn't speak to Daddy on my weekly call home, an explanation had to be tendered. "Oh," Mom stumbled, "he went to Israel to attend your cousin's wedding."
Plausible enough. But not for 1964…and not for my father…and not without months of preparatory excitement and anticipation. I knew it didn't smell right, but hey, I was only 12 and heavily involved in Color War and batting leadoff. Priorities, you know. I let it slide.
And so it remained -- a minor mystery -- tempered somewhat by Daddy's return home two weeks later, armed with wedding pictures, a silver candelabra for Mommy and Jerusalem trinkets for the boys. Perhaps I was wrong.
Fast forward nearly 40 years. Daddy is with us but in spirit and memory now, and big brother Izzy has grown fascinated with Daddy's earlier years in particular and our family genealogy in general. In frenetic fashion, Izzy assumes the identity of an impassioned world class detective, gripped with the unyielding determination to shed light on the questions we never dared ask.
- What were Daddy's formative years like?
- Where did the family come from?
- What were they known for?
- Where were they before and during the war?
- How many were killed?
- Who else, if any, survived?
- Did Daddy begin a family before the war?
- What happened to them?
- What horrors did he witness?
- How did he stay alive?
- …and where did he go in July of 1964?
Izzy traveled…to Poland, to Israel…and he asked questions. He read. He surfed. He called. He wrote. He wondered. He dreamed. He interviewed. He cried. He uncovered. He discovered. He was stymied, exhausted, confused, elated, obstructed, and jubilant. Sometimes all at the same time. But most of all, he was driven. Driven by a passion to know, to understand, and to connect.
And he found answers -- at least some of them -- that help to fill part of the void we grappled with for so many years. The "research" is ongoing and more answers may be forthcoming. Some questions will never be answered and perhaps that is how it should be, but the mystery of 1964 is no longer. A short time ago he received a correspondence from the Provincial Court of Bochum, Germany. In it was a transcript dated July 21, 1964. It was Daddy's verbatim testimony at a trial for Nazi War Criminals.
"In April of 1942 I was arrested by the Jewish police. I had heard that the Gestapo ordered the Jewish police to arrest young, strong, able-bodied boys and men. The police had a list of about 100 names, and I was one of them."
Daddy then identified Nazis, unfamiliar to most: Johann, Labitzke, Rouenhoff, Bornhold, Brock. It seems that all of them must have been on trial. I trembled as I read on. I can hear his gentle voice speaking.
"The prison cell was so overcrowded that we had no room to stretch out at night.
Before shipping out we were assembled in the prison courtyard and had to line up in three rows. I stood in the middle row. About 8 to 10 Jews stepped forward and declared themselves sick. One Jew, for example, had bloody feet."
It was incredible to read the words my father had said, describing events that I never could have heard him say directly. It was a glimpse into a corridor that had been closed off to all of us as long as he lived. His next words merged the unspeakable with staggering historical irony.
"A second Jew dropped his pants and showed his hernia. These sick people were told to step aside. Hamann pointed to the wall, and they went there.
I saw these SS people from Puskow approach the sick Jews and stand near them. Then I heard Hamann calling out "fire," and the SS men fired. The 8 to 10 sick Jews were shot to death."
My face dropped. Reading the eyewitness account of my very own, tender, loving father bearing witness to watching Jews being shot to death is an experience that defies description. But learning that the Nazi in charge of this particular bloodbath was Heinrich Hamann, the namesake of the villainous protagonist of the Purim story, whose intent was to exterminate masses of Jews, was truly mind-boggling.
"I am the only survivor of those sent to the Puskow Labor Camp."
And with that, Daddy's testimony ended.
My understanding is that these Gestapo thugs all received sentences of life imprisonment. Whether they actually served them full term is unknown to me.
Daddy, I have spent many adult years wondering what really happened to you before 1947. I believe it is something that all children of survivors would do well to look into. But looking back now, and knowing that I am now privy to but a speck of the terror you lived through, I say thank you. Thank you for making me President of Club Inconspicuous. Your loving shield was a blanket of normalcy for two little boys who love you now, even more than we ever did.
Life was good, I recall.
You made it that way.