In late February, my aunt Micki received a birthday card sent from my grandfather’s house in Lakewood.
This was good news. No one in my family had talked to my grandfather in three months. His phone was disconnected, and no one knew where he was.
In January my great aunt Rita called from Israel. Rita told my mother that my grandfather had shown up at his old house in Jerusalem, wanting to evict the tenants staying at the house. He had not visited Israel since 1965. We contacted a lawyer he was using in Israel, but the lawyer refused to put us in contact with my grandfather.
“He missed Thanksgiving, but he never misses a goddamn birthday card,” my mother half chuckled over the phone. This was true. I have received three cards from my grandfather every year of my life: one for my birthday, one for my brother’s birthday, and one for Hanukkah. I have never spent a birthday with him, but I always get the card. I had been trying to track down my grandfather for two months before Micki got the card. I wanted to write about him, to tell his story. I had spent the past two months preparing to interview him. I interviewed the rest of my family, researched the places he lived throughout his life, and I combed through the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem’s records in a vain attempt to find the precise location where his siblings were murdered. When my mother told me he was back in New Jersey, I was apprehensive but eager.
After my mother told me about the card, I called my grandfather. His phone was still disconnected. I called back my mother and asked if I should just show up at his door.
“Do not surprise him,” she warned. “That’s a really bad idea.”
Chapter 1- Tata
When I was a child I could not pronounce safta, the Hebrew word for grandmother, and so my grandmother became tata, which coincidentally is the Yiddish word for father. My tata is the type of person who sneaks her grandchildren dessert when our parents are not looking. In her mind, we never have enough to eat. She bought me a copy of Dumb and Dumber when I was ten because, “I thought you would like it.” My tata always tells stories with a smile on her face.
I was always conscious of my grandparents’ past. The idea of the Holocaust has been within my psyche for as long as I can remember, but growing up I did not think of it as a tragedy. My tata never complained about her past. She told me stories of her childhood in a Siberian labor camp as if it was a big game. She would tell me how her family had their own room when everyone else in the camp was forced to bunk together, or how her mother managed to put together a Passover Seder. It was exciting.
At the time, I did not know that my family had their own room because they were quarantined after my great grandfather rubbed blood and mucus onto a handkerchief to convince the guards he had tuberculosis. I would not find out until later that the only reason they were able to have a Passover Seder was because my great grandmother sold contraband on the black market, and managed to scrounge together a meager meal to celebrate the holiday.
I did not think it was strange that I saw tata every holiday and every family occasion, but that the first time I remember seeing my saba, the Hebrew word for grandfather, was when my uncle Mikey graduated from college. I was six years old.
Chapter 2- Saba
When I was a child, my saba’s stories were told in a similar tone as my tata’s, but with similar crucial omissions. I remember being told that my great grandfather led a partisan brigade in the woods. They fought the Nazis, and stole cows from farmers. I remember the story of my grandfather jumping from a moving train. It felt like an adventure.
The first few times I saw my grandfather, my mother warned me that he was different. She explained that he had led a hard life, and that I should be careful what I said around him. I learned that lesson the hard way.
At a dinner where my entire family was together, I made the mistake of discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had just finished my freshman year at Tufts University, and I recently decided to major in Middle Eastern studies and political science. My grandfather wanted me to be an engineer or a physicist. Before I went to Somerville to begin college, he warned me to stay away from politics and girls. He wanted me to focus on math. It was hard to explain to him where my passions truly lay.
At the time, he was designing laser guidance systems for the Navy. He has two PhDs in various disciplines of engineering and physics. At this point, my family has lost count of his Master’s degrees. Life for him was about numbers and enduring. He spent his days working, studying, and exercising. Anything else was a distraction. Living was a distraction.
At the dinner, I was telling my family about my inspiring Jordanian professor. I was expressing my admiration at this professor’s ability to represent both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though he had served in the Jordanian army. My saba fought against the Jordanian army during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and the memory visibly lingered. He glared at me. The veins on his neck pulsated.
He did not yell; rather, in an almost rough whisper he said to me in his thick Eastern European accent, “They all want us dead.” He was clutching his glass by the stem so hard that I thought it was going to break. Then he turned to my mother and growled “You send him to school for this?”
This was the first and only time I have seen his anguish emerge to the surface.
I left the table.
Chapter 3- Hate
Three years later, I graduated from college. My saba was visibly proud. Middle Eastern Studies degree and all. At one point he took me aside, “They tried to exterminate us,” he said, cracking a rare smile, “But look where you are today. Never forget that.”
After the ceremony, my family went to my house in Somerville where we sat on my lawn, eating and drinking wine. In the midst of the celebration, my grandfather’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed. He smacked his head onto the pavement, and then came to. We gave him water, and brought him into the shade. He was in shock, and had a lump on his head, but otherwise he seemed fine. He was in the sun all day, and we attributed the collapse to dehydration and fatigue.
He went home to New Jersey with my cousin who lives in New York. A couple of hours after they left, my cousin called my aunt. She seemed out of breath, “Saba lost consciousness again on the train. We are in the hospital.”
My family got on the first plane to New York. My grandfather’s heart had stopped on the train, and he flat-lined at the hospital. He had to be resuscitated twice. He was attached to an external pacemaker, which stabilized his condition. His doctor said he needed an operation to install a pacemaker, or he would die.
My grandfather did not trust the doctor. His three children pleaded with him to submit to the operation, so he insisted on seeing the schematics of the pacemaker. The doctor was taken aback by the unusual request, but managed to find the plans for a pacemaker. My grandfather studied the schematics, and quizzed the doctor concerning the physics behind the device. Only after my grandfather understood exactly how a pacemaker works did he agree to the operation.
My grandfather grew up malnourished because of the Holocaust. He is only 5’5”, but extremely strong. His obsession with exercise borders on addiction. In his 70s, he boasted about how many miles he could run, and how he could still do a back flip. He has always had a powerful build to complement his powerful presence.
My aunt Micki recalls him lying in the hospital bed — “I have never seen him that frail, or that weak. He seemed like a different person with all those tubes sticking out of him.” A rabbi came to his bedside before the anesthesia was administered. My grandfather, an atheist since the Holocaust who contends that no one in his family should fast on Yom Kippur because, “I fasted enough for everyone,” was initially unresponsive.
Then the rabbi asked him, “How are you doing?”
“I have hate in my heart,” said my saba.
The rabbi reminded my grandfather that he had a loving family who were with him now. The rabbi asked him, “Why do you have hate in your heart?”
My mother recalls that my grandfather stared at the rabbi with a look she had seen many times while growing up, “that piercing steely look that is full of pain and hatred.” My saba responded, “One cannot translate it into words.”
Chapter 4- Survival
In the early 1940s, when the Ukraine was under Nazi occupation, my saba’s family was living in the Bursztyn Ghetto. They were forced to move there from their hometown, Wonilow. Other than my great-grandfather Mendel, who was placed in a labor camp at the beginning of the war, the entire family was still together.
It was a family of six, and the rations given to them by the Nazis were not enough to feed everyone. My grandfather was eight years old when the Germans reached the Ukraine in 1941. A large brick wall surrounded the Bursztyn Ghetto. The wall cut through certain buildings, and so in these buildings there was a Jewish side and an Aryan side. Many of the rooms on the Aryan side were unoccupied. Jewish children regularly took out bricks on the Jewish side in order to pass undetected into town.
My grandfather has translucent blue eyes, a small nose, and pale skin, so he could pass for a non-Jewish Ukrainian. He would sneak through the wall to do odd jobs or trade for food. Then he would sneak back into the ghetto at night and bring the food to his family.
On one occasion he crawled through his usual spot in the wall to find a Ukrainian man living in the Aryan part of the room. The man kicked my saba in the face and stomach. He yelled, “Get out, you lousey Jew! Next time I’ll hand you in to the Germans!” By lousey, the man meant that he was full of lice. This was a common insult to hurl at Jews during that time because it was true. The health conditions in the ghetto were so poor that most Jews had lice. After that incident, my grandfather found a new spot in the wall to sneak into town.
The Germans would conduct Aktions, or Actions, which were series of concerted efforts to gather up as many Jews as possible to send to the death camps. These would occur inside and outside the ghetto. In one such Aktion outside of the ghetto, my grandfather was caught trying to work for food. It was the summer of 1942.
He was brought to a walled-off train station. A large courtyard was inside the wall in front of a house where the train attendant lived. In the courtyard were hundreds of Jews being watched by German guards. They were waiting for the train to come to take them to a concentration camp. For children, this meant inevitable death. For everyone else, it meant probable death, but at the time the horrors of concentration camps were only rumors.
The Jews were not allowed to move, stand, speak, or use a toilet. They sat in the courtyard frightened and helpless for days on end, defecating in their clothing. A Jewish Russian prisoner of war was among the captives. The first night my grandfather was there, the Russian snuck around warning people, “Try to save yourself. You are going to your death. Join me, and we will escape.”
My grandfather recalled many of the women captives telling the man in hushed whispers, “You just want to start trouble.” They warned the others, “Do not listen to him, he is a Communist.” My saba listened to the Russian—he was the only one. The Russian told my saba, “Tomorrow night we escape. Just follow me.”
The next night the two crawled together towards the wall, my saba at his heels. It was pitch black. When they reached the wall the Russian approached a hole he had already begun to dig. He widened the hole under the wall, and stuck his head out the other side.
My grandfather recalled seeing the glare of a flashlight, before hearing a muffled blast. The guards had stuck the gun in the Russian’s mouth to mute the sound of the blast. Blood and brains splattered all over my saba, but the guards did not see him. My saba crawled back to the courtyard with his clothes soaked in blood, and stole clean laundry from the home of the train attendant. He then rolled around in mud and feces to appear dirty, so the Germans would not know he tried to escape.
That was his first attempt at escape.
Eventually, the train arrived. The trains used to transport Jews were cattle cars with a wide gap between the bottom of the car and the ground. The Germans began to order the Jews onto the platform. As my saba went to the top of the platform he saw the wide separation between the bottom of the car and the ground. He saw an opportunity.
He ran across the platform, jumped onto the tracks, and dashed under the train unnoticed. He made it into town. He was returning to the ghetto when a Jewish policeman recognized him. The Nazis had appointed Jewish policemen to do their dirty work. They would give them special privileges to turn against their brethren. The policeman wore a yellow leather jacket. He grabbed my saba by the collar, and hauled him back to the train station.
My grandfather’s third attempt at escape was identical to the second. He ran under the tracks again, but this time the Germans were wiser. An officer caught him, and beat him so savagely my saba blacked out.
He came to in a cattle car. His body ached from the beating, and he saw bruises running down his arms and legs. The train was moving. A man sitting next to him pointed to an open slot in the top of the cattle car and said, “I cannot jump out of the train, I am too big. Jewish boy save yourself.”At nightfall, the man hoisted my saba through the slot on the top of the train. He jumped off the train and into the neighboring fields. He walked back to the ghetto. He walked back to his family.
And so he survived.
Flash forward twenty years: It is the early 1960’s in Lakewood, New Jersey. My grandfather is visiting Max Karp, a friend from the war. They are in a room full of greeners, Jewish immigrants to the United States who came from Eastern Europe. There is a knock on the door.
Max opens the door to reveal the Jewish policeman that turned my grandfather in to the Nazis 20 years earlier. The man walks in with his American wife. My grandfather’s rage was uncontrollable.
“I saw white,” he told my mother.
My saba went to Max and said, “Do you know who this man is?”
“Yes we know,” said Max, “but what can be done?” My saba walked up to the man’s wife and told her, “Your husband helped the Germans.” The man abruptly left.
Chapter 5- Family
Living in the ghetto with my saba was his mother Frida, his older sister Perl, his older brother Hersh, his younger brother Yakov (whom I am named after), and his youngest brother Zalman (whom my brother is named after).
One day my saba returned to the ghetto with food from town only to find his building deserted. It was 1943, and my grandfather was now ten years old. All the doors were open. There had been an Aktion while he was in town, and his family was gone. He sat on the stoop of his building, in a state of shock. He waited there for a few hours not knowing what to do when all of a sudden his brother Zalman ran up. He was crying hysterically.
“Moshe! Moshe!” he yelled recognizing my saba, “They took mommy!”
The other children had escaped, but Zalman was taken with Frida during the Aktion to a holding area. While they were waiting to be deported, Frida saw an opening between the guards. She pushed Zalman forward, and told him “Run and hide!” Zalman ran until he saw my saba—he was five years old. They never saw Frida again. My family believes she was murdered at Treblinka. My mother is named after Frida.
From then the children were on their own, surviving one day at a time. Perl, the oldest, was 12 years old. This living arrangement lasted for a few months until a man knocked on their door. It was a policeman from Wonilow. He was their father’s friend from before the war. When the family moved to the ghetto, he had agreed to take care of their German Shepherd Fifi.
“I am here to take you to your father,” said the policeman.
Chapter 6- Mendel
My great-grandfather Mendel was a strong, stocky man. In World War I he fought in a Ukrainian cavalry division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the sort of man whom the Jews of Wonilow turned to if they needed a problem solved by the use of physical force. People feared and respected him.
At the beginning of the war, the Nazis deported him to the Rohatyn labor camp where he was set to work with other Jews. One day, while building a road, he was carrying a large rock and made the mistake of putting it down to rest. A Ukrainian guard took a pipe and smashed him over the head. He did not fall because he knew he would be shot. He swayed until he regained his senses, and picked up the rock. The guard snarled, “The next time I hit you, you will die.”
Mendel knew that if he stayed in the camp he would be killed. He saved up his rations for a few days, and waited for an opportunity. He was working in the field, and when no one was looking, he hid in a ditch by the road. He covered himself in leaves and dirt, hoping that the dogs would not be able to catch his scent because all the smells by the road would confuse them.
He lay in the ditch, and watched the Nazis search for him with their dogs. After two days they stopped searching. He ran back to Wonilow, and found his friend the policeman. Now, the policeman told the children that he could only risk sneaking one of them out at a time from the ghetto. My saba was the first to be taken. My mother “has never had the guts” to ask my saba why he was chosen that night.
When my saba reached the policeman’s house, Fifi caught his scent. The dog came barreling out of the house, and jumped on my saba. As Fifi licked him, Mendel came outside. My saba had not seen his father for two years. They embraced and cried in each other’s arms. The policeman said that they could stay at his house until he brought the rest of the family from the ghetto. Then they had to leave.
The next night the policeman went back to the ghetto, but all the children were gone. To this day, my family does not know what happened to them. We believe they were killed at Treblinka. My mother remembers as a child listening to the radio in Israel, and hearing programs that tried to help family members who had survived the Holocaust to find one another. She and her parents would listen to the lists of names, waiting to hear: “Perl, Hersh, Yakov, Zalman, Reichbach.” But they never heard their names.
Chapter 7- The Forest
My saba hid in the woods with his father. Soon more Jews in hiding found my great-grandfather, whose reputation before the war made him a leader of a partisan unit that formed in the woods. The winter was brutal and the snow was relentless. Those partisans who did not die of cold or starvation struggled to stay warm. My saba did not have shoes and was left to wear rags on his feet. His father found a farm, smashed open the door with his axe, placed his hands on the farmer’s mouth, and growled, “Don’t open your mouth, or I’ll kill you.” He took the farmer’s shoes and left. To this day, my grandfather feels at peace when it is snowing outside because he can watch it from the warmth and safety of his home.
My saba remembers stealing a cow. He walked it to their encampment where it was slaughtered. The cow was a luxury; the partisans subsisted on rats. Meanwhile, their reputation grew. People began to call Mendel the Jewish Petliura, after Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian who died fighting the Soviets after World War I. My mother says that whenever she met someone who knew of my great-grandfather they would affectionately call her and my aunt Micki, “Petliura’s grandchildren.”
Eventually, it became too dangerous to stay in the woods, and Mendel told my saba that he had to leave. My saba found a farm where he pretended to be a gentile named Peter. He herded cattle for a year, until the Russians liberated the Ukraine.
My grandfather still could not admit he was Jewish, because even after liberation the Ukrainians were still killing Jews. He worked at the farm until one day a man on a motorcycle saw him working in a field, and to run after him. My saba ran away, but the man caught up. “Moshe!” he yelled,
“Don’t you recognize me?” My saba looked up to see the son of the policeman who had saved him from the ghetto.
The policeman’s son took my saba to Mendel, who had survived the war. They were the only remaining members of their family. As they embraced, my grandfather cried, “I don’t want to be a Jew! I don’t want to be a Jew!”
Mendel replied, “It is not a choice.”
Chapter 8- Secrets
After the war, the Jews who had survived could remain in Europe where their homes were stolen, and their murderers were their neighbors, or they could leave. Some went to the United States. My saba immigrated to Palestine, a British colony where immigration was tightly restricted for fear of worsening tensions with the Arab population. Initially my saba lived in the Ukraine with my great-grandfather and a woman named Anda who had lived with them in the forest. Mendel married Anda when the war was over. My grandfather resented Anda for usurping his dead mother’s place.
He was 14 when he left in 1946, finally making his way to Palestine, but not before being remanded to a displaced person’s camp in Cyprus.
After Israel gained independence, my grandfather joined the Israeli Air Force, which sent him to Italy to learn to fly planes. My grandfather was not much of a pilot—he was never good at landings, and so, given his modest prospects as an aviator, he took advantage of a program by Jewish social service agency, where he finally began the formal education so long denied him. He was attending a high school in Poland when, in 1955, he met my grandmother.
My tata recalls that my saba initially lied to her about the existence of his father, whom she assumed had perished in the war. Mendel, however, had since immigrated to Israel and was corresponding with my grandfather through letters. My tata discovered these letters. When she confronted my saba about keeping secrets from her, he explained that he was afraid that if she was ever caught, he did not want them to be able to torture her for information about him. By this demented logic, he was keeping her safe.
After my saba finished school, he became an officer in the Polish army. In 1956, my mother was born. My grandparents wanted to raise their children in Israel, so in 1957, they moved to Jerusalem. My saba studied to became a physicist. In time, he would be conducting research at the Hebrew University.
The family had settled into a life in Jerusalem, but the war was always present. My aunt Micki recalls the time she was playing in her yard with another child, who in the course of an argument, hit her. My saba watched this unfold from the window of his house. He raced out of the house and set off after the child who had struck his daughter. At the time, Micki thought that this was “normal” behavior. She remembers later realizing “that this was not the way parents are supposed to behave.”
In 1964, the family moved to Lakewood, New Jersey, and my saba continued his research at Columbia University. His father, who had also moved to the United States, died a year later. My saba’s family from before the war was gone. His need to protect his family verged on becoming suffocating. His emotional state began to deteriorate. At his father’s funeral he got into a fight with his 19-year-old half-brother, Abie, the child of Mendel and Anda. Mendel died of a heart attack, and my saba blamed Anda for his death. She had a daughter with another man before Mendel died, and had tried to convince Mendel it was his child. When Mendel discovered her deception he left her.
“Your mother is a whore, and she killed our father,” my grandfather told Abie.
“Your mother is a whore,” said Abie. This was unwise. My grandfather does not take well to criticism of his family. They got into a fistfight. They have not spoken since.
Still, the rest of the family loved Abie, and kept in touch despite my grandfather’s wishes. For years they kept seeing Abie a secret. “That’s how it always was,” recalls my mother, “everything was a secret.” My grandmother explains that she “told him only what he wanted to hear” because otherwise my saba was impossible to live with.
My saba did not allow my mother or Micki to date or have sleep overs. My mother was not allowed to go to her prom; Micki snuck out to hers. They would lie to him about boyfriends, and about going to friends’ houses. My uncle Mikey was born in 1969, and even as a child knew to keep secrets from my grandfather. My saba lived in a world where his rules controlled those he loved, and kept them within the confines of his protection.
My tata could not bear this. Finally, in 1981, after 26 years of marriage, she divorced him. Their divorce, rare as it was for their generation, was especially contentious. My grandfather did not attend my aunt Micki’s wedding, or my bris, because he would not be in the same room as my effusive and buoyant tata.
My mother is quick to say that my grandfather’s approach to parenting, flawed as it was, nonetheless instilled in her a will to persevere. When my mother was a child, she recalls coming home crying one day when she fought with another child. My grandfather told her, “You should never go home crying. Let the other kid go home crying.” That day my saba taught my mother to box. At a time when women were told they would never be good at math, my mother and my aunt were “expected” to do well in math and science. My saba was tough, but, my mother says, he “gave us incredible self-belief. He made us believe in ourselves.”
Today my grandfather lives by himself in Lakewood. He wakes up and runs seven miles. Then he goes to lift weights at the nearby naval base, where before retirement, he designed smart weapons and laser guidance systems. He returns home to eat and read. My mother says his house is in a “disgusting” state.
“He was never able to throw anything out, but we used to do it for him,” she says. “Now he keeps everything.” There are books, papers, and boxes everywhere, and his house is a dilapidated mess. He has no television or computer. He does not buy new clothes, so Micki, Mikey, and my mom buy them for him when they see him. My family has tried and failed to convince him to move closer to them, so that they can take care of him. He lives the life of a recluse, and we seldom see or hear from him.
“We want him to live a decent life without suffering, but all his demons stay with him,” says my mother, “There is not one holiday that I do not cry. That I do not think of him. How he suffers when he does not have to. That he is alone for no reason.”
Chapter 10- Trapped
I never got the chance to talk with my saba. His phone stayed disconnected, and no one can track him down. I took my mother’s advice and did not surprise him with a knock on the door.
I thought I could capture his experiences on paper, and in doing so I would be better able to understand him. Yet for all that I read and worked to reconstruct my grandfather’s story, I came to see that I would never truly comprehend the depth of his experiences. What he had told the rabbi at the hospital was true — “one cannot translate it into words.”
My mother paused to reflect when she told me the story of how my grandfather was forced to roll in mud and feces to keep the Nazis from learning of his attempted escape. “It’s amazing as a ten year old, after all that, he realized he needed to make himself appear dirty,” she said.
I replied, “He knew how to survive.” The war, yes. But not peace, not the life he created afterwards, the life that leaves him alone and isolated.
“He wants us to live like that,” my mother said. “He wants us to be ready for whatever happens, and not to be distracted by living.” My grandmother left him because she was could no longer live this life of fear, distrust, and sadness.
“It was not living,” my tata explains.
My grandfather is obsessed with math because he can control and manipulate numbers. Numbers make sense, and he can predict their actions. People do not move through their lives so predictably. My brilliant physicist grandfather will never be able to wrap his head around this discrepancy. The lack of control is more than he can abide.
The Nazis were unable to take my saba’s life, but his spirit died in the Ukraine 70 years ago.