portraits

NewYork Day 4

In On the Road in NY on June 21, 2010 at 3:43 am

I am now writing to you from New City in NY – about an hour north of Manhattan. I am staying with Harry’s godfather Dick and his wife Susanne. They are very generous having me stay here and the area is just beautiful. As soon as we arrived in this area the freshness and sweetness of the air was immediate and we knew that weren’t in Kansas anymore … Nature surrounds us, tree-lined streets, birds chirping – it’s quite fantastic.

Today we visited six survivors. From Brooklyn all the way up to the Bronx then Nyack and then finally crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge to New City. These are parts of NY I have never seen and I am very impressed. Knowing that there is nature of this magnitude just an hour from Manhattan is very comforting and I am glad we have made the effort to get here.

So stop one – 73 year old hidden child Debora in Brooklyn. Debora’s daughter Rochelle contacted me through the Hidden Child organisation to include her mother in the project. Debora is quite nervous to share her story and her daughter sits at her side throughout our interview, sometimes intercepting, nodding her head, supporting her mother. For Debora, who was a hidden child and therefore in a sense brought up as Christian during the war years, she says rediscovering that she was Jewish after the war was a deep comfort to her. she was reunited with her parents after the war and says she would ask her father about the row of coloured lights they would have on the table – Hanukah – her memories of her childhood before the war would come back to her.

Harry took this photo of me as I was interviewing 93 year old Felix Fibich – a dancer and incredibly inspiring man. (see my little belly!) He lives with his friend of 20 years, 85 year old Marco. They take care of each other and it is a very sweet scene to witness. Felix, despite his ageing body is still a dancer. When he moves his arms in gesture, his whole body is transformed and you can feel the depth of his soul moving through him in an ageless way. And his eyes – there is an intensity, a liveliness that surpasses time and suffering. What will stay with me most from our interview is what kept Felix going after he lost his whole family – he visited an orphanage after the war where he later worked – “I just reached my hand and patted this one child, he was so hungry for affection for attention that they came and sat down on my knees and embraced and I felt the warmth of the child and i start to cry and that was the reason i am alive. the children gave me a reason that i have to do something for these lost children. and i started to work with children – teaching them dancing.”

Already running late, we quickly grab some bagels and water and eat them in the car around the corner from our next survivor. On the way up to the next apartment we share an elevator with a young jewish man wearing a kippah and a very elderly man who speaks with an accent. i smile at them and they exit on floor 7. i remark to Harry that i think he is a survivor. I think to myself, i should have said something.

Frances is a child Holocaust Survivor born in 1942 in the middle of a massacre of women and children in the Transniztria region of the Ukraine in the Zmerinka Ghetto. Frances’ father was very involved in Yiddish theatre and Frances has kept many of his photographs from the time and hopes to have an exhibition one day soon. I can feel the obligation and responsibility that Frances feels to remember her father and this precious time after the Holocaust. I sense the overwhelm that a big project can induce and I hope that Harry and I have inspired in her some way to continue and to go for it. On our return to the lobby, we stop again at floor 7 and in walks the old man again, this time with his religious daughter in law and 3 grandchildren. This time i say something. And yes, he is a Holocaust survivor. I leave Harry with them in the elevator to explain the project as they are going down to the pool. We are now hoping to include him. Harry and I agree that we need to make an extra effort to include the older survivors. Their time is obviously more limited. I hope we can.

Bertha’s younger brother Leo is our next stop in Hartsdale NY. When I ask Leo how he was able to able to leap from surviving the Holocaust to living an ordinary life in America, he says that it was easy once you learned ‘this language’ – English, which he and Bertha were able to do in a relatively short time. Leo, who was a school teacher and also served in the army in the US says he is not that hopeful for humanity. “I love this country but in the back of my mind there is always this thing it could happen here as easy as anywhere else given enough hate and the situation is strong enough I always feel that you’re really not safe anywhere, maybe in Israel that would be the only place.” History is repeating itself all over the world he says, Darfur an example. He says he does have faith in individuals, but like in Germany during the Holocaust, those people didn’t open their mouths, they were not in power, they were afraid also.

We drive to Belgian hidden child Diane in Nyack. From the outset, Nyack looks like a hippy village. I see a rainbow flag as we drive down Diane’s street and the gardens are less manicured like in many other suburbs we have driven through. We make our way up the garden path and are greeted at Diane’s door by a sign that says: ‘Let all peoples praise the name of the lord” and below that are different religious symbols. I am comforted by this sign and immediately decide that, yes, this must be one of those more alternative neighbourhoods and ask myself, could I live here? Once inside Diane however shares with me that this is not so. About ten years after she had been living there and no one had befriended her in the neighbourhood she found out that many of her neighbours were anti-Semites, to the point where not so long ago, someone wrote JEW on her house. I shudder when she tells me this and feel betrayed by the beauty and character of the street. To survive the Holocaust and then deal with that? Diane’s house is like an antique store and I imagine myself spending hours walking around and looking at all her wares. When the war ended, Diane was 18 and had a nervous breakdown for two years. On her first walk of freedom her first contact was seeing a coffin and finds out it was a friend of the family. Then she discovers the great losses of the holocaust – this sends her into a depression which she says she still struggles with. A couple weeks ago she found out her last two cousins have died in America and she is now the last of her family in America. When I ask her what keeps her going she says “we are Jewish, we just go, we don’t stop. Even during hiding, there was not a single sentence that didn’t start with ‘when we will be liberated, when the war will be over, when the day they will free us’. This is the way we survived.” She says if she met a survivor of genocide today she would just listen to them. I think of my women’s group and the power of listening and how much happens for someone in that space of being heard – not spoken to, not judged, not advised – just to be able to talk freely.

Our final stop for the day is in New City, NY. Now this is a beautiful area. The more we drive further north, the more striking the surroundings become. 75 year old Charles has already been sending me emails since we made contact about a month ago. Though I didn’t have time to look into everything he sent me I now realize Charles is a very intelligent, alert and well read man. Once I start talking to Charles, I am reminded of my father and I wish he were there to share in the conversation. Charles is an entrepreneur and was instrumental in the beginnings of IVF. After a few days of being in America as an 11 year old child after the war, he says he noticed that this is a land of opportunity – “you can do anything you want, there is no class system.” He says one of the best pieces of advice he ever got from someone was – just read everything. He says everyday he thinks about the war – but this drives him to accomplish things. “I’m not afraid of trying something or doing something.” I ask him if he is a risk taker, he says no – he knows what he is doing – intuition. When I speak to Charles, he is calm, looks me in the eye. He values friendship. Though he considers himself a survivor everyday, he has taken the positive attributes from this label – he is forward thinking. “I look at the world events and see how it’s is going to affect my family and I and we go in that direction. He says he is always thinking ahead. Having lost 300 members of his family in the war, Charles says he is always looking for new family and whenever he travels to a new place the first thing he does is look in a telephone book to see if there is a name. Does he have faith in humanity – “yes very much so.” Why? “it’s the only game in town.” When I leave Charles hands me an article on anaerobic digestion – he has read my website and my articles. This is a well read man!

Finally at about 9pm we make our way to Harry’s godfather’s place to stay for two nights. A delicious chicken salad awaits us and we chow down, grateful for a healthy home cooked meal. I gain insight into Harry’s past through his godfather’s stories of his father and once again the wheels of time turn back and I am transported sleepily to another scene, one that I can take a backseat in and watch from afar.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this remarkable journey with us Mim! I loved reading your experiences intertwined with the stories of the people you are interviewing! Just lovely! I will keep checking in!

  2. PS> We had our women’s group last night! You were missed but I see you are having a different kind of open hearted listening experience over there!

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