My Uncle’s Story Begins
One afternoon after Polish class, I reached for my laptop and opened the file containing the transcript of my uncle’s biography. He had dictated it a few weeks before his death, almost four years ago, but I’d received a copy of it only recently and read it once in Boulder. The biography began with memories of his childhood in Lodz, went through his experiences of survival in the ghetto, in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, and the re-union with his sister (my mother), in Paris. From there, it went on to describe his life in Montreal, his family and relationships, the family’s move to Florida and the development of his career as a successful real estate developer.
It bothered me how little mention there was of my mother and our family after leaving Europe; we were virtually absent. This aspect was so painful that I’d put it away. But here in Poland I was grateful to have this record of their lives before the war. I wished my mother had recorded her own life story directly. When she was diagnosed with cancer, I encouraged her to tell her story on film as part of Spielberg’s Shoah project. “Later, when I’m better” she had said. But she never got better. It was far from ideal to have to read about her life through the lens of the youngest of her three younger brothers, but it was all I had, and suddenly it was precious.
Before the war we were a middle class income family, we lived very comfortably based on the times. We were children’s shoe manufacturers that dealt mainly with German shoe shops. Living in Lodz we were a family that did things together and loved each other. Family life in Poland was such that we were not Orthodox but we followed some Orthodox rituals. Friday night we went to shul and when we came home Ma prepared a dinner of fish and chicken. When Papa sat down to the table we all sat down to the table.
I went to public school starting at the age of six and I had five years of public school education. In addition to that I went to Chader, studying mainly Jewish theology. My older brother Mordechai went to high school, my middle brother Moshe to public school. My older sister Masza went to an Orthodox school of higher learning and my little sister Ceszia who was two years younger than I also went to public school. Sometimes my father would take me to a movie. But mostly we leaned towards books. My sister was very literate and so was my older brother. We were a family of literate people. As children we would play around after school, we had a good time. My older brother helped in the shoe factory, I tried to help but I was too young. As we grew older each one of us helped and life became better.
The fact is that the closeness of the family made life beautiful. We always were a family that did things together and loved each other.
Was it possible my ancestors were the Polish-Jewish equivalent of a “Leave it to Beaver” family? Perhaps that explained why I often felt inexplicably happy in Lodz, as if that closeness was still here, as if invisible family members still embraced me. Even though I had dharma friends in Krakow and Warsaw, I was somehow compelled to be in Lodz instead, although I had no one here at all.
We had a large extended family and many cousins the same age as me, our immediate family consisted of seven and we also had many relatives from both the Goldblum and Lask sides of the family, as well as relatives by the names of Kleinman and Altman. We used to get together for Passover.
I knew the name Lask of course. It was my grandmother Etla’s maiden name. But I had never heard of Altmans or Kleinmans. Had all of them died?
One month had passed since arriving in Poland, the point when I would have headed home on previous visits. My fascination with the corner grocery was fading and the three blocks I walked to and from school each day no longer intrigued me. I’d begun to feel poorly and couldn’t tell whether I had a low-level virus, or was simply depressed. I wondered if I had eaten something bad, or not boiled the tap water long enough. Getting to class in the morning was a struggle, and it was hard to get through our five hours of instruction, despite institutionalized breaks after every hour.
I seemed to have lost my identity. No one knew me here. In a certain way, I was in hiding. I began to experience it as a kind of hell, the walls of which were my negative opinions of myself. People on the street seemed animated and engaged with lives that were real, whereas mine seemed insubstantial and contrived, without basis. There were no friends here to contradict my inner doubts, no support system. It was as if private ghetto fences encircled me. And when I thought about trying to break out of them, I experienced a strange sense of fear.
When negativity and confusion reached the point where I was homesick, I knew I’d lost track of why I was in Poland. I began to focus on the idea of purpose. If I could get in touch with my purpose for being here, the world would make sense again. But what was that? I was more and more lost in a nameless fog.
It continued to haunt me. One morning the words “What is my purpose?” echoed in my brain, at first chaotically and then like the perimeter of a corridor that was leading me somewhere, like a thread pulling me forward. It became a mindfulness practice of its own, a mantra, as if the question was alive and had its own purpose for being there. I kept coming back to it as I ran errands in town and it started to inhabit my heart and my belly with a different way of being present, a new openness.
As the hours passed, it seemed clear there might not be an answer to this question. Still, the question itself was full of so much longing and heart, so much reality, that I was in touch with something much more alive, a stream of beingness very light and soft, and yet steady and reliable. I can’t say I “stayed” with the question, and I can’t say I “returned” to this question. It was more like an animal tracking—single-minded yet without manufactured effort.
The question was a groundless resting place, an antidote for everything that otherwise crept in and stole my mind. In it I felt grounded and cleansed. There were no words, no answers, nothing that made logical sense, but at some point nothing could distract me from it. The question had life and power. I knew I could make no mistakes from that place of unknowing and everything around me seemed to join its dance.
Walking home from class the next day, shiny plumbing fixtures were lined up in a row, eight or ten of them, perched on a narrow brick ledge, only a few inches deep, just about chest height, on the corner of Kopcinskiego and Naurutowica. A smile passed over my lips. I crossed the street and bought a pastry in the tiny bakery trailer. I realized that everything that felt good to me felt good in the way that it did as a child. Ladies’ underwear, fruit, and now plumbing fixtures glinting, silver and pristine. It all seemed part of an elaborate display of opposites and extremes, a kind of theatre. Even depression didn’t obey the rules here. Anything could appear anywhere and things were not always what they first appeared to be.
When the loss of heart that had birthed my question about purpose vanished, familiar thought patterns gradually returned. Perhaps such radically pure openness could only be experienced in brief gaps. In any case I was soon my usual self again.
A week later I stepped outside for a breath of air during the last break. It was Friday and our seven Muslim students had left class at noon to attend prayers, leaving only four of us. I put my empty bottle of juice into the only recycling container on the grounds. Nearby I noticed a trash container with bottles and newspapers in it so I pulled them out of the trash to recycle them as well. On one of the newspapers, the words “GETTA” jumped out at me. I straightened out the paper. The headline read “Remembrance of the Ghetto”—I understood at least that much Polish.
From the text and photos, I could see there had been an event at Stary Rynek, the old market square where my mother had lived, commemorating those who had died in the Holocaust. Israelis had flown in for the ceremony which had taken place on Yom Hashoa. How could I have missed it? My inner judge began to feast. Perhaps I was still ignoring the larger reason I was here. Yet somehow I’d fished this particular piece of newspaper out of the trash. That evening I went back to my uncle’s story.
My father’s brother was a civil engineer and lived in the Gentile district and many times he came to us and many times we went to him. He was busy making a living and he lived far away but we made the effort a couple of times a year. My uncle Hershel, my mother’s brother, he was a very handsome looking guy. He got married and had 2 children and he lived in another town. His business was wholesale food distribution. He made a nice living but we didn’t see him that often because of the distance, but we did see each other at least twice a year on the Jewish holidays.
Some of our close relatives were farmers, Goldblums, and they were living in Tuszyn Las about 15 kilometers outside Lodz. There were two families of Goldblum, they were very Orthodox and I believe they had at least 15 children. Every summer we would vacation there, as a kid I had a wonderful time. We would run in the orchards, swim in the lake and they were also traders of horses, very wealthy. They gave us a cottage to spend 2 months in during the vacation. Naturally my father didn’t come; he would stay a few days then go back to the city. We would chase cows, ride horses, milk cows, we did some work but we loved it. Every Friday we’d have to go to the Mikva and naturally I went and Saturday morning we had a special meal called Chulent, you put it in at night and take it out at 12:00 in the afternoon fully baked. This was Saturday, a total day of rest. I befriended some other Jewish kids from the village. The family also owned a lake and in the wintertime they used to cut up the ice and cover it with sawdust and in the summer they would sell it and did very well.
I remembered the summers when our families rented a summer cabin together somewhere in the country outside of Montreal—my parents, my brother Marcel and me; Uncle George, Aunt Evelyn & Elise. I remembered the dense forest and getting up early in the morning to follow my brother fishing while I tried to catch frogs.
I took out a map of Poland and tried to find Tuszyn. It was not very far from Lodz.
As the war approached we knew there was going to be fighting and we assumed there would be bombing. We were afraid of the bombing but it never occurred to us to fear the Germans or anticipate the atrocities they would capable of. We prepared ourselves and, knowing we didn’t want to be in the city, we packed our goods, we had wagons with horses (from our farm relatives) and we were on our way to Tuszyn Las. The Germans invaded while we were on our way, they met us going one way and they were going the other on their way towards Warsaw. They were the first Panzers entering Poland. We didn’t get harassed, we just continued. Not long after we realized that there was not going to be any bombing in Lodz and we turned around and went back. There was discussion at the time, should we continue going to the East like some families had decided? Many went to a city which was at that time occupied by the Russians. The decision was between my parents, they felt that the Russians weren’t any better than the Germans. Little did they know; it was a very bad choice. We found out how bad a decision not long after, it took only about 60 days.
If remorse for fatal choices and a fear of making mistakes could be inherited, I was that theory’s poster child.