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Uncle Mordechai's Scars

January 23, 2020 | by Michelle Halle, LCSW

Through his mother’s quick thinking, my uncle survived the Holocaust. But the older he got, the more reclusive he became.

I look at the picture of my grandmother, Klara Granek, taken some time during the beginning of the war. She was in her late forties but looked closer to seventy. She is standing with her daughters and son. Her husband and her other boys had already been taken away by the Nazis. So had her mother. Her girls, Rivka and Henna were seven and five years old. Her son, Mordechai, was twelve.

She was desperate. She knew the Nazis would be coming for the rest of the family and she had no idea what to do. She had to come up with a plan. Her children’s lives depended on it. She needed a hiding place. Frantic, she took her children and walked until she found a farm she thought might be good for hiding. She took the children into the barn and they all climbed up the ladder to the hay loft. Once there, my grandmother pulled the ladder up, hoping she had removed any clue that Jews were hiding there. She told the children to lie down and covered them with hay. As she murmured silent prayers, she wondered what she would do tomorrow.

Listening to the routine sound of farm life, she suddenly heard the terrifying squeal of the barn door opening followed by the stomping of boots. The farmer’s young son, a child himself, had seen my grandmother enter the barn and he reported this to the Nazis. My grandmother heard the German command, “Herunterkommen, herunterkommen, schnell, schnell!” She pointed to Mordechai and pressed her index finger hard over her lips, anxiously signaling him to be quiet. She descended with Rivka and Henna while Mordechai remained behind.

Mordechai inched towards the small window to see what was happening to his family. He watched his mother and sisters being shot in the head point blank.

As the Nazis marched them out of the barn, Mordechai inched towards the small window to see what was happening to his family. He watched his mother and sisters being shot in the head point blank. The Polish farm owners were congratulated for their good work. Hours later, in the middle of the night, Mordechai left the barn and escaped into the forest only to be captured the next day.

Mordechai survived five years in the labor camps. Although he was an exceptionally handsome and charming man, he never married. For several years Uncle Mordechai lived in the second story apartment of our two-family house and I spent lots of time with him. He often placed the Yiddish newspaper in front of me, asking me to read it to him. Mordechai had a wonderful sense of humor which made him very popular. In addition to his emotional scars, he had deep scars from lashes that crisscrossed his entire back that were visible when he walked around in his sleeveless undershirt.

Too frightened to ask about those scars, I never learned anything about the whipping he endured, and no one ever talked about it. Through his mother’s quick thinking, Mordechai survived the war but was seemingly unable to move forward and get married. And the older he got, the more reclusive he became. It was hard for me to watch him deteriorate in this way.

It was heartbreaking watching him live a lonely existence. I never understood why he didn’t marry. He surely had the opportunity. As I grew from childhood into adolescence, my sense of responsibility for Uncle Mordechai grew too. Although he lived in close proximity to an older sister and brother, he seemed alone and disconnected. I suppose this was his way to cope with his memories and feelings that continued to haunt him.

My parents' wedding

My father called Uncle Mordechai every Friday afternoon to wish him a good Shabbos. One Friday, he tried calling but all he got was a busy signal. It was worrisome that Mordechai’s line was constantly busy. My father left the house a few minutes earlier than usual to go to shul so he could stop by his brother’s apartment and check up on him. The door was locked and the building owner let my father in. Uncle Mordechai was on the floor and the phone lay beside him. It seems he had a heart attack and knocked the phone down while trying to call for help.

Whenever I remember my Uncle Mordechai, it is with a blend of delight and sadness. His sense of humor drew me to him like a magnet. He earned a special place in my heart by virtue of being my father’s brother and I loved him for that.

Rivka and Henna, like millions of other children were killed at a young age. They died before they had a chance to live. If not for the children named after them, they would have no memory on earth. Even Mordechai, who survived, left no memory except for the great nephew who is named after him. Those who perished will never be forgotten, and those, like my Uncle Mordechai, who survived, but were deeply scarred, live in our memories as well.

The number six million is hard to imagine but as I recently sat in MetLife stadium during the Siyum Hashas I saw 92,000 people. The gathering was huge, but the crowd represented a small fraction of the number of people who were murdered by the Nazis. Having thoughts of the Holocaust during a large celebration such as that one is not unusual. And it wasn't the only one I had.

I got up to go to the warming room, a large glass-enclosed room that was heated. The room was full and I stood shoulder to shoulder with other women trying to warm up. More people tried to push in but the room was packed, filled to capacity. Not one more person could safely fit. The image of a cattle car popped into my mind.

I returned to the stadium as the speaker said that Hitler referred to Jews as Talmud Learners.

Yes, we are Talmud Learners! He wanted to destroy us and here we are en masse, celebrating the learning of Talmud.

Although the Nazis murdered millions and scarred the lives of millions of survivors and their children, they did not accomplish their goal of annihilating us or our spirit and devotion to our heritage. We continue to thrive.

In Memory of Rivka bas Yaakov, Henna bas Yaakov. Mordechai ben Yaakov and Klara bas Yaakov. May their memory be a blessing.


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