By Manya Friedman
In 1970, on one of my visits to Israel, I attended, with my Israeli cousins, a meeting of members from my hometown. As on previous occasions, I was warmly greeted, both as an old acquaintance and as a visitor from America expected to make a donation.
It was a pleasant get-together, though as at every gathering of Holocaust survivors, the camps and the names of the perished came up in conversation. I met some who had known my parents and some schoolmates, though no close friends. We were reminiscing about the “good old times” and I even received “a left-handed compliment”: “That is you, that beautiful girl, what happened to you?” One of the men recalled that the boys were too bashful to approach me because I was walking around with my nose in the air. “Gee,” I thought, “was I really so inapproachable?”
While we were joking around and talking about our childhood in that small town where everybody knew everybody, which seemed like centuries ago, an elderly man approached. I recognized him at once; he had been a very good friend of my parents. Seeing him, the image of his beautiful wife and young adorable son flashed through my mind. They had not survived. He had remarried. We clung to each other for a long time while scenes from the past flew in front of my eyes. I recalled the many Saturday evenings when he and his family and many others of my parents’ friends had gathered in our home. The men played cards or chess, talked about business or politics. The women chit-chatted while sipping mother’s homemade cherry wine, accompanied by mother’s famous sponge cake.
After my parents’ friend and I finally separated from our embrace, he started telling his present wife about many “antics” from my childhood. Most of them silly, some embarrassing. He told her that they used to call me the Kopf (old head), because I always listened in on every conversation, pretending not to be there, but then I would say something that gave me away. He also remembered when I had a big argument with my parents because they agreed for the young man who was employed by my father to take me ice-skating. I told them that I would die if my friends would see me with that old guy. He was maybe 17 or 18 years old, but I was only 12. There were many more similar stories which to the reader may seem silly, but I became very emotional. Here was someone who knew that I once was a part of a family, to which I had once belonged.
Then he took me aside and asked me if I would like to meet someone who was with my family on the same transport when the Germans liquidated the ghetto in our city. I think I did not respond at once. I was either shocked with disbelief, or maybe afraid to hear the truth for fear that it might be worse than my own imagination. What could have been worse?
We agreed to meet the next day and travel to see the person he spoke of. We met early in the morning and boarded a bus to Beersheba, the town where this man resided. He and his wife greeted us kindly. I could not recall if I had ever met him before. We spent some time just exchanging frivolities while I was anxious to hear about my family. He was telling us about life in the ghetto the last few months that he was there. He told how the people built bunkers under each house. He told how one day, while most parents were at work outside the ghetto, the Gestapo raided the ghetto and took all the children and whoever was around for deportation. He told of the despair of the parents when they returned home. And finally he told about the transport he and my family were on. He had worked with my father, therefore he knew the family.
When they arrived at Auschwitz, the segregation began. Father and my older brother were sent to one line, while mother and my younger brother were sent to the other line. Apparently father did not want to be separated from mother, so he and my brother crossed over to the line where mother was. It was easy to cross over to that line. That line was destined for the gas chamber.
At the moment I heard this I was very sad and very angry at my father and brother. My emotions were confused. Why? When they would have had a chance to survive? I was furious. Though it did not take long for me to come up with an answer.
My parents had married for love after several years of courtship, and I had always loved to hear the stories they used to tell about their endearment. As a young girl I thought it was so romantic, especially that they had come from different backgrounds, and the many obstacles they had had to overcome. I no longer had to ask “Why?”
They had married for love, and they had chosen never to be separated.
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