My father dug up Jewish gravestones for two years. He escaped and hid in a hayloft for two others. The stones marked the graves of Polish Jews who looked down and cried. They never imagined such a thing could happen to a Jew, and beseeched God to intercede.
His father was lost and a brother with two small children. He never knew for sure who was dead and who alive, except for his mother who died of tuberculosis when he was twelve. He was eighteen when the Nazis came.
He paved a road with Jewish gravestones until he could carry no more. One sweltering day, he walked to the edge of the cemetery to meet a Jewish couple disguised as Christians. They brought him bread and sometimes messages from his brother in hiding. A Nazi guard shot him through his hat.
"I never miss," he shouted. "That I missed means you will live."
"There is a Yiddish saying," says my father to me, many years later. "Prophecy is often given to fools."
He took it as a sign. That night, he hid in a mausoleum. When the prisoners and guards left, he fled to his brother Isha's hiding place. Isha arranged for him to hide in a barn. For two years he hid in that hayloft studying Torah and writing poetry in notebooks alone in dim light. Isha visited nights, bringing gold from a hiding place to pay the farmer who owned the barn. Each time, my father asked his brother, “Who is dead and who is alive?”
But his brother refused to answer.
Later, in the confusion of liberation, my father lost the notebooks. And he lost his faith in goyim, the world outside of the Jews. His best friend had betrayed him, laughing as the Nazis dragged his family away.
“Now you will get what you deserve,” the boy had said.
“I'll never forget that,” my father tells me, still stunned. “He was my best friend.”
But my father never lost faith in God, who had spoken to him in the camp, through the words of Nazi guard, in the hayloft through Torah and poetry. Even though God had not protected his own father, who was shot by the farmer hiding him when the farmer discovered the stash of gold and stole it.
During the liberation, a Jew in the Russian army, asked him who had been the cruelest. My father gave them the name of the farmer who had murdered his father, and was later told the farmer's son was sent to the front and killed.
Years later, when I wanted to visit Eastern Europe, my father refused to allow it. He said the Polish farmer still had a contract out on him, and I wouldn't be safe. How much was paranoia? How does one know with the Holocaust? I didn't go.
But a generation later there are whole groups of Jewish teenagers visiting the Jewish teens of Eastern Europe, to forge connections and teach them about their Jewish heritage that was erased in the Shoah, meaning Destruction, as the Holocaust is referred to in Hebrew. Two of my nieces went, one to Poland, my father's homeland, and one to Hungary, my mother's. For my nieces, the Holocaust seems far enough away to fear no danger at all. For me, the Holocaust had always loomed close.
After the war, my father accepted that almost everyone he ever knew was dead. But he held out hope for his missing middle brother. He was the youngest and Isha the oldest and Isha would not speak the truth for many years. Their brother, his wife, and two young children were dead.
For years my father held out hope that his middle brother had survived, had just been separated from them and they would find him some day. He wanted to believe that Isha was wrong. Only after decades did he come to accept that his middle brother, too, had “perished.”
After the war, my father could no longer speak or comprehend Polish. He spoke only in Yiddish to other survivors. When my mother's cleaning lady addressed him in Polish, he turned away and said he couldn't understand.
He spoke very little of what happened in the Holocaust, usually just in brief, horrorific bursts, in contrast to my mother who repeated her Holocaust stories to me over and over. Writing and telling about trauma and loss are both healing. I think my father did one and my mother did the other.
I think of the lost poems when I read Nelly Sachs, Abraham Sutzkever, Charlotte Delbo, Jerzi Ficowski, Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Tadeuz Borowski, the last three of whom eventually committed suicide. And I wish that my father's poetry, too, had survived, and been published and that I could have read them. I live by Jerzy Ficowski's line from him poem The Execution of Memory.
I would like just to be silent
but being silent I lie
Though my father's poems died in the Holocaust with his loved ones, the shards of my father's broken heart that he formed into words are now embedded in my own heart, and drive my need to write.
At the end of a hard-working life, my father died peacefully at home. He was eighty-nine. He died in his sleep after a long night of praying, his family from this world surrounding him with love, his family from the past reaching out to him from above.
He was buried in Israel with a large gravestone marked with the names of all those he lost.
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This story is about my father in the Holocaust. I have been writing it for years, but its publication was triggered by my father's recent death. It was published in an earlier version in Eclectica and I think of it as flash memoir. I thank my husband Jim Ennis for being my best writing workshop, helping me to revise this post-publication. The original can be found here: