Never Forget Where You Came From

August 13, 2018

I never knew my grandparents, Pinchas and Sarah, Avraham Tzvi and Tsiriel. 

 

I never knew my aunts and uncles Chaim, Dvoire, Eliyahu, Esther, Freindel, Frimit, Hershel, Libe, Mendel, Minka, Ne’chem’ye. Yisroel, Yokheved, or Zelig.

 

Among the 20 aunts, uncles, grandparents and countless cousins I could have had, only 2 survived!

 

The rest were all murdered in Treblinka.

 

My parents, Sam and Sabina, were from Poland -- my mother from cosmopolitan Warsaw or Varshava (as they say in Polish) and my father from a rural town called Kozenitz or Kozenitza (also in Polish). Having purchased false documents indicating that my brother was born in Germany, they came to the United States in 1949. Being the first-born U.S. citizen in my family of illegal immigrants, I guess that makes me a DREAMER. 

 

My brother later in life learned that he actually was born in a DP camp in Lodz, Poland. My father’s brother, Uncle Max -- Motel to my father -- left Poland before the war and sponsored our entry into the United States. We moved into his small apartment in Brooklyn, New York until we found a place to live. 

 

Uncle Max had a daughter, Julia, who married Yussel Shapiro and they had three children, Lenny, Eric, and David.

 

In 1951, my mother’s one surviving sister, Tanta Genya, was sponsored by my parents and brought to the United States. 

 

I grew up in a Mafia-controlled neighborhood consisting of Jewish and Italian immigrants… where, I like to say, you were either Jewish, Italian, or dead. We all got along well and, as you might imagine, the neighborhood was always very safe. My first language was Yiddish, which gave me the ability to mimic my parents' accent and tawlk like dis ven eva I need to. It’s really amazing that I don’t sound like Jackie Mason today.   

 

Many of my parents' friends landed in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. To me they became our family and we theirs. All of them lost loved ones. They were my aunts, uncles, and cousins. They were the most loving people I ever met, generous and kind to a fault. They all lost little brothers and sisters, so everyone’s children were treated as their own.

 

My uncle, who was a Socialist and was involved in the New York labor unions, helped my father get a job leveraging his learned trade as a shoemaker in a factory on the Lower East Side in New York, where he was paid by the piece. My father worked hard all his life providing what he could so that his family could survive. Education was most important to both my parents, and although lacking in any formal education, they were very smart. They had little in the way of material wealth, but somehow my brother and I earned advanced degrees in our chosen fields of study. My mother didn’t start working outside of the house until my brother and I were in high school. She worked in the New York City Library system, also a skill she attained in Poland.

 

While in Poland, my father, when not in cheder, was being trained by my grandfather to make shoes and other leather items of clothing. My grandfather was learned in Talmud and was the Baal Tfilah at the town’s shul. My mother’s father was a government official and they lived well in a city home, although they were more secular in their approach to life -- but nonetheless, he was learned in Torah.

 

To say that my parents' lives were changed by the Holocaust would be an understatement and disrespectful of everyone else who survived and perished. When the winds of war were stirring, my mother left Warsaw to stay with an aunt in another town where her parents felt she’d be safe. When the Germans invaded Poland and eventually overran Warsaw, she tried to return home but by that time, Warsaw was under the firm control of the Nazis. My mother was sent to the Ghetto and was part of the Zionist-led resistance movement; and when not fighting for her own life and those of others, she cared for children in the Ghetto hospital. When she arrived in the Ghetto, she learned that her family was taken to Treblinka and she never saw them again. 

 

My father’s town, Kozenitz, was near the border of Russia separated by the Vistula River. Kozenitz, had a vast forest of pine and birch trees that surrounded the town. In the summer, people would come from near and far to breathe the fresh country air and lounge in the abundant lakes and waterfalls. It also was the home of the famous Kozenitza Magid. 

 

Once the Germans occupied his town, my father knew it was time to leave. He tried to convince one of his sisters to go with him but she decided instead to stay and care for their elderly parents. Once out of town, my father initially joined the Polish underground and eventually the Russian Army, in which he proudly served until the end of the war. Like my mother’s family, he never saw his again, as one day they were transported and murdered at Treblinka. I remember once asking my father how G-d could allow the Holocaust to happen. He said, “We were religious people and believed that G-d would save us. Our people (like my father) should have fought for themselves and their families. They never did.”

 

While some of my friends learned about the birds and bees when they were young, when I was about 8, I first learned of the Holocaust. One morning, I jumped into bed with my parents and noticed a footlong gash on my father’s calf. I never noticed it before. I believe he consciously tried to hide this and other wounds he had suffered while at war from his children for obvious reasons. When I asked him what it was, I still remember a long pause and a worried look on his face as he began to tell me his story in the gentlest way you can tell this story to an 8-year-old. He told me about our family, the brothers and sisters he lost, why I had no grandparents, and about a bad person named Hitler who tried and succeeded to destroy much of our family and the Jewish worldwide population. 

 

While some survivors never spoke of what they saw and endured, my parents made a point of telling me their story with greater and more descriptive detail as I grew older.

 

My father told me many war stories and showed me other wounds he had sustained on his neck and finger. He told me about how he got shot in the hand and how he had the strength and courage to remove a piece of shrapnel from his finger, by himself, without any anesthetic. He told me how the Nazis captured him twice and how he escaped from their prison of war camps both times. As a result of this, later in life, on the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when my family went back to visit Poland, my father was afraid that he’d be arrested because of his distrust for the Polish people, many of whom collaborated with the Germans.

 

My mother told me her story shortly after I heard my father’s, about how she worked in Nazi labor camps making munitions. How she survived typhus in the camps, slept 6 to a bunk on a wooden plank and a straw mattress, and how she walked miles back to Kozenitz, in what had been called the coldest winter ever in Poland, with my aunt and her best friend after her camp was liberated. Ironically, this is where she met my father, who had returned to his hometown to look for any of our family. 

 

Everyone loved my mother. She was beautiful, charismatic, and charming. My mother fashioned herself as the great romantic actress, Marlene Dietrich, and her favorite fictional character, the Countess Anna Karenina. She was very dramatic. Today we might call her "high-maintenance." She was a stay-at-home mom and loved to write in her spare time. She had a voice that rivaled Sharon’s. When she sang at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, the bandleader asked her to join the band. She was very creative and was a great storyteller. I attribute my sense of humor and creativity to my parents but especially to my mother.

 

My parents were two wonderful people who were hardened by war, terror and loss. While some survivors never recovered and couldn’t find happiness again, my parents chose to live a life well measured and to be thankful for every little thing they had. They learned to survive and fight for their lives under the worst conditions possibly known to mankind. Their stories are memorialized at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, at Yad VaShem and Yad HaYeled in Israel, by providing these institutions with photographs and video testimony. My mother told me a story about when she was asked how she could part with her photographs. She said, “They have been wandering around with me for so many years and now it’s time to put them to rest. They will not lie in unmarked and unknown graves like my loved ones. My family of photographs will live forever, here, where my children, grandchildren, and I will be able to see them.”

 

Growing up in the hippie generation, I still believe in peace and love, but what my parents taught me and what I taught my children was:

 

-Cherish every moment in life….because you never know when it could end

-Love your children…..regardless of their faults

-Fight for what you believe in

-Fight for the State of Israel

-Fight against bullies, whether they be political or members of our community

-Fight against violence and hatred of any kind

 

But while you’re fighting, remember who you are. Never forget where you came from. And never forget Pinchas, Sarah, Avraham Tzvi, Tsirel, Chaim, Dvoire, Eliyahu, Esther, Freindel, Frimit, Hershel, Libe, Mendel, Minka, Ne’chem’ye, Yisroel, Yokheved, or Zelig.

 

 

Share your "ancestory:" commonthreads@jewishphilanthropyct.org.

 

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