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NewYork Day 8

In On the Road in NY on June 25, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Today is our last day. Can’t quite believe it. The week has flown by and also felt very long – we both know we will look back on this with a sense of awe and feeling of achievement. It has been intense but very rewarding and I feel I have grown as a person in this very short time.

I am now at the airport – Harry and I said our farewells on the airtrain at JFK and went to our separate terminals. We are a bit delirious by this time of day especially given it is our last day. Now I am sitting in terminal 4 on my way to Israel which is very exciting and I am looking forward to seeing family, relaxing, swimming and eating lots! My belly has grown daily and this little baba is due to enjoy the best humus, salad and cheese around. I found myself a little spot where I can charge my laptop but there is no free wifi here so will have to post this when I arrive in Israel.

So what can I say? I guess I should complete this part of the journey in the same way it started and talk about each individual that we saw today. But before I do that I want to take this moment to reflect on this part of the journey as a whole. If I compare this trip to Israel last year – one distinct difference is that these Holocaust survivors are American. America, like Israel, has a very strong culture and despite that all of the survivors we meet come from Europe, they have nearly all integrated into American culture and have become American. There are definite similarities between Holocaust survivors worldwide but I definitely noticed the force of the American way of life. We met many authors, artists, teachers and scientists – these professions stood out. Family photos adorned most people’s lounge rooms and fridges. We were offered Seltzer a lot (just like soda water I think) and iced tea. Gotta catch a plane …

I am now in Israel at my parents in law. I managed to sleep about 7 hours on the plane which was great. For those of you who haven’t flown El Al – it is an experience like no other. If the majority of the passengers are Israeli you are in for a cultural treat. On  what other airline do people applaud when you touch down? On what other airline are there ten or so men standing at the back of the plane ‘shockeling’ or swaying as they recite the morning prayers in unison? In my experience only on El Al.

It is now 5am – I wonder what the significance of 5am in any country is and as I cannot sleep I will now add the people of our last day in NY. I have many thoughts about the project as a whole but will write that up as a separate entry in the next few days.

The day started out with a few hiccups – including a potential leak in the apartment i was staying in which then delayed us to our first meeting in Queens. No problem of course and we were not only welcomed warmly, but welcomed with a delicious lunch of bagels, cream cheese, cold cuts (which i sadly cannot eat!) salad and seltzer. Inge was born in Germany and spent three years between 7-10 years of age in the Terezin concentration camp. She has written many books, but her most famous book is “I am a star”. She still has her yellow star “jude” from the war years which she keeps carefully wrapped  in plastic to preserve it for years to come. Inge suggested she wear her star for hr photograph – a decision both Harry and I agreed is very powerful. I didn’t interview Inge, but rather she read her poem “I am a Star” on camera in both english and german. Both readings were incredibly compelling though in German haunting and more emotional. Inge says when she goes to schools and speaks about her book she gets al the kids to stand up and declare “i am a star”. she says at first they just say it quietly, shyly. But once she encourages them to really say it, they do. This reminds me of a scene in Dead Poet’s Society where the students stand on their desks and read a poem aloud. It also takes me back to my own highschool days when the fantastic Mrs Wenig also got us to stand on our desks when reading some literature. When Inge then sees the kids in the hallways she goes up to them and asks – who are you? – and they all respond – I am a star. Inge has no children of her own, but from what she has shared with us, it seems like she has many children all over the world, sending her gifts and letters of gratitude, following her trail on the ‘starlit’ path.

As our day was already delayed I didn’t get a chance to interview our next survivor on Long Island, hidden child Gloria, who when she wrote to me said, “I am alive only by the courage of my parents who gave me away to a benevolent Christian woman who sheltered me throughout the Shoah.”

Next stop was further along Long Island to meet with 80 year old Rudy, a hidden child from Belgium. When Rudy emailed me a picture of himself I knew we were to be meeting with quite a character. Rudy wears rather big glasses, a bow tie and has a thing for hats which lay in single file on the couch as we enter his home. Though Rudy says he is not a practicing Jew, he is very jewish. I ask him what this means – “to me being jewish is almost a nationality.” He then explains that when his father would refer to a Polish man, he meant a real Polish man, not a Polish jew. “and so to me it’s a nationality”. This reminds me of a question we were asked as teenagers – are you a Jewish Australian or an Australian Jew. I still don’t know which come first, but probably being Jewish. I still feel more connected to my cultural heritage than my Australian heritage and this has nothing to do with religion for me. The older I get however, the more I appreciate being born in Australia and the more i am eager to explore Australia and its indigenous people. On the first day Rudy was liberated he went on a tram in Belgium and was verbally abused by a man who pointed to him and said in french “hey kike, how come they didn’t get you.” Rudy said more than just being mad, he was ashamed that this person could tell at a glance that he was not only a jew but a dirty jew. Rudy said he then got off the streetcar and went back into hiding for the next 20-30 years – “a psychological hiding where i didn’t want to be jewish. To me being jewish was a disease and i had it and i didn’t like it.” I ask him how he came out of this – he says it was gradual. I later ask Rudy what makes him happy, he says so many things. When i ask him what he is most proud of he refers to a Peurto Rican saying – In his lifetime a man should write a book, plant a tree and have a son. He has done all three and is proud of all of them. Having the respect from others is very important to him.

Our final stop in NY is to visit with Kindertransport survivors and married couple 84 year olds Kurt and Margaret. Kurt first checked with the Hidden Child organisation in NY if we were considering Kindertransport children as survivors. In short, yes. Certainly their experience was different being in England during the war years, but these children are survivors too. I don’t get a chance to interview Margaret but luckily i have a quick chat with Kurt. Both Kurt and his wife do a lot of community work and Kurt is the president of the Kindertransport Association. “Both of us feel that we learnt the lesson from the Holocaust – to give back in a sense. I’m a firm believer in the civil rights movement, i was active in it because i believe that all people are created equal and w should get equal treatment. Unfortunately we haven’t learned anything we still have the horrors going on like in Darfur and other places. Despite this, Kurt says he is hopeful. He says the KTA’s commitment is twofold – firstly to tell their stories to students and secondly, they have a fund that members contribute to that goes to children in need today “regardless of their ethnicity or colour or whatever may be.” I ask Kurt what he has learnt most about himself from his experience he responds – “that as a human being I can do something for the community and people are very satisfied with that.  i think that’s probably to me the best lesson that it gave me is that life is not central alone to yourself – it’s the total community that has to get together and develop the kind of program which is helpful to everybody.”  I am happy to end our trip on this note.

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NewYork Day 7

In On the Road in NY on June 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I write now from a cafe in Brooklyn on Decalb Ave. We have just photographed our first person for the day and there is a window now for us to have a break – this is the first time in the whole week that i have sat for lunch in a cafe alone (Harry is watching the GAME)  and i can just breathe a little slower, watch the world as I like to do, John Lennon playing in the background and take a moment on this intense journey. Not that I am complaining – because really this is how i like to live – to be engaged and moving and doing projects like this one. I feel very lucky to be in the position  that i am in to be able to travel and meet with people all over the world. Professionally and in a sense spiritually, this is the kind of journey I enjoy. Moving Trains Productions – that is my business name, decided in a moment – because it is really part of my essence to be moving both physically and also spiritually – a progression – a movement. Meeting with Holocaust survivors is quite apt as they too speak of moving forward and as wandering Jews, culturally we are on the go.

I feel i should take this time to write about my feelings about the project. Harry and I are working well together – we do make a good team and have a lot of laughs in the car as we drive from home to home. It is an intense schedule and we are engaging with people on subject matter that is generally quite serious and often emotional. Having our time in the car is important – the radio provides an outlet and Harry and I can talk about anything really, from our childhood experiences to becoming parents (Harry’s partner is also pregnant, though he has 3 children already) to our observations about America to how toilets work (the plumbing went in my bathroom this morning). For those of you readers who have worked on projects like this, a shoot or 14 hour day – you will be able to empathise with the kind of relationship you can build within this structure.

In terms of the project we both feel it is creatively evolving for each of us. My interview questions have changed somewhat since Israel and i feel i am becoming more confident in asking the more difficult questions. I realise that what most interests me in  the world is the human spirit and how we live and feel and breathe and relate to one another. I have also been speaking with my friend Jax about taking all this footage and presenting it as  multimedia installation of sorts – rather than a linear documentary. I have always wanted to do this but talking with Jax and fleshing it out has been most helpful and has brought some clarity to my vision. Harry is very supportive of this and is keen to have this accompany the exhibition of photos on their travels around the globe. I feel like my part of the project brings another dimension to the photos and as someone who values seeing behind the scenes – it meets that curiosity.

Harry is here now – both of us sitting and typing along with the 10 or so other laptop users. This is reality of cafes today.

 

Today was our designated day in Brooklyn. 87 year old artist and survivor Frederick led us through his beautiful home and showed us some of his paintings, one of which was Kabbala inspired. Fred’s home is exactly the design and style that i like, high ceilings, old but renovated keeping the charm intact. Fred’s son was also home and we all got into some great conversations about film and photography. I interviewed Fred in his studio which was very organised, and Fred being an artist and German reminded me of my nana. Everything had its place and was labeled and this sense of order and creativity felt familiar. When I asked Fred about making the leap from the extraordinary circumstances of war to living an ordinary life – he responded – “well it wasn’t an ordinary life”. At 23 years old he weighed 35 kilos at the end of the war and was hospitalised and then returned to Prague. He married another survivor in 1946 and life was challenging in those years straight after the war. “Survival alone was a job.” He says looking back he was very much in denial – “the world didn’t want to know and you were a nuisance to most people.” He says they suppressed the ‘expression’ of the past – “it was there, the memory was there, the past was there but i did not dwell on it.” It was more of what do you do with your life, rather than what happened, the questioning started much later. Before the war, Fred’s father was an amateur sociologist and had taught Fred well – “to step and look back what is going on here, trying to analyse it, looking at it not only look what they’re doing to me, but what is it that these guys are doing.’ Fred says this gave him a stance – “that was looking at myself somewhat from the outside.” He says all that he is saying now is somehow tainted by that distance – can’t say exactly what he felt then. Fred began drawing in Terezinstadt. He says his paintings have become more than just an activity – “a tool for myself – a psychological tool – I painted what I call toilet paintings – all the anger and anguish that goes into a painting so I had an outlet.” when his wife would see him painting a sweet landscape she would ask him, what’s bothering you, because she knew he was escaping into a never never land.

After a short break for lunch at Tillies cafe (thinking of you Tan!) we made our way deeper into Brooklyn to meet with Ruth and Jack. Ruth was a hidden child during the war and Jack survived 10 concentration camps and then fought in the Korean war. Ruth has written a book about her experiences in “Destined to Live” and is very committed to teaching people about the Holocaust through her own experience of surviving. Jack and Ruth travel from school to school around America, speaking with children and adults about the war. Jack has also written his story and is looking for a publisher. When Ruth was 17 and in highschool she wrote about her experiences in the war. Her english teacher wanted to include it in the yearbook but the principal said that although it was a very good story, “it is too sad for our children.” After this Ruth decided not to talk about it, “nobody wanted to know.”

89 year old John nearly missed out on participating in the project because he was out when we were due to visit him. But hs daughter Shirley and I who had set up the time stayed in touch and we were able to quickly stop by and tak his photograph. It is a shame we didn’t have longer because i think John would have been an excellent interviewee – sharp and funny – John reminded me of Herschel Balter – a Holocaust survivor I grew up with who is a very good friend of the family. John was in Buchenwald and when I mentioned the name Balter – he said he knew a Balter in the camp. I always find it strange and kind of eery to remember someone from the camp and then find them – there is something wonderful about rediscovering something someone from your past but also strange to ask, ‘oh do you remember so-and-so from the camp?’ It wasn’t school camp, a social event or even school.

Still in Brooklyn, we meet with 75 year old Helen, a hidden child from France. Helen is a very gentle, soft spoken woman and her sensitivity is immediately apparent. When asked how she managed to live an ordinary life, Helen refers to the ‘The myth of silence’ – “we did not talk about it.” she says she has friends that till this day she does not know where they were during the war. “We just simply made believe it hadn’t happened – i think this is what helped us get through it.” Not until Helen went to a hidden child meeting, many years later, did she know that this was a common experience. “at which point I was able to kind of forgive myself, like it’s ok, it’s alright not to talk about it.” Holding back the tears, Helen says though she doesnt feel the shame anymore, she still finds it hard to talk about it. She says remembers everything. The big thing for Helen was the feeling that she could be proud of being Jewish in America, that it was ok, that was very helpful.

When 77 year old Toby opens the door to her Brooklyn home, I am shocked because throughout our email exchange, I have imagined that Toby is a male. She laughs when I tell her this. Her daughter is named Miriam and her late husband Harry so immediately there is a sense of the familiar. (Harry and I often joke that our names are for older people and that’s why people are surprised we are SO young when we arrive) Toby is a striking woman, full of life, joy. She immediately goes in the kitchen to make us something to eat – cottage cheese, toast, salad … an ideal 6pm meal on a very hot day. (not sure i have mentioned in the blog but it has been VERY hot throughout our trip). Toby is what I consider an evolved person – she has done a lot of work on herself to learn who she is and I have the utmost respect for her. She says she thinks she came out of the war ok, but when she looks at her children, she is not so sure she was so ok. “was i the right mother, did i do the right thing …”  She has done some therapy in her life and says she has learned not to beat herself up – “i have learned to say I did what i did at the time what it was that i understood. I understand better now. I can’t correct it.” I ask her how did therapy help – “By me having to be honest. You can’t lie to yourself.” Toby now meditates on her couch and talks to herself the truth – this image will last with me.

Our last stop for the night was to meet with Tova who lives in NJ but offered to meet us in Manhattan at her son’s place so she could participate as we couldn’t fit her in on the NJ day. Tova and I spoke to each other numerous times during the day today as we could not commit to meeting with her in case we were delayed and the sun set before we would get there. Luckily we made just in time. Harry managed to take a fantastic photo of Tova standing outside a handball court. The sun was setting, kids were playing ball in the next court and Manhattan was winding down for another day. I didn’t get to interview Tova properly but we did go to a diner across the road with her son for a quick dinner. Tova is a therapist and counsels people of all ages from morning till night. She loves her work, is ‘in love with people’ and is very much in the world. After our meeting she was going to get the train back to NJ on her own late at night.

NewYork Day 6

In On the Road in NY on June 23, 2010 at 2:44 am

I write this now back in Manhattan after a long day from New City through New Jersey to finally Manhattan. I am alone in the apartment which is slightly eery (Yael warned me) but also a great relief to be back ‘home’ with my belongings and in a space that feels familiar. I also love Manhattan. Just seeing her from the distance as we drove alongside from NJ made me smile. I remember as a child having this sense of safety when thinking of being surrounded by tall buildings. It’s strange because i really do love nature and the outback and don’t like Sydney’s city at all. But Manhattan is another thing… I remember when i lived here that i just felt at home immediately. I still feel this strong connection. Here is Manhattan in the rain tonight on our way home:

Today has yet again been a day where it feels like the morning was three days ago and we have been on a long journey. We spent most of the day in New Jersey and Harry was on the look out for Tony, Pauly or Sal’s but surprisingly they weren’t hanging out in the Jewish quarters. By this stage you would think we would be more punctual and better equipped at keeping the schedule moving accordingly, but actually we are still arriving late and then all of a sudden the afternoon arrives and we have to check if we have eaten lunch. Like I have said, the hardest part is saying no to survivors who want to participate and we can’t fit in. Equally, we are learning that it is also hard to simply leave someone.

Our first stop (an hour late!) was at Jerome’s. Jerome is married to an Israeli woman which immediately makes our visit more familiar to me. (They also have fantastic Danish furniture in their home which I certainly appreciate).  Jerome was 9 years old when the war ended and he says that being this age possibly helped him as even though the memories are there they are probably buried deeper inside more on an unconscious level. He says his family complains that he doesn’t like to talk about his experience. He responds – Perhaps this is because in a way it diminishes you in your own eyes that you were subjected to something like that. He says when he does talk, sometimes he feels like it happened to somebody else. “The memories are there but sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish whether almost if i had read about it or if it really happened to me.”

When we arrive at Rose’s place her husband Howard, dressed in his tennis gear greets us warmly at the door and asks if he will be in the project too. Are you a survivor we ask? He says he spent the war years as a refugee in Shanghai. To be honest, I have never thought of these people as Holocaust survivors but according to Harry’s definition of a survivor – someone whose life has been irrevocably changed due to the Nazi regime – Howard fits in. If i think about it, Howard and his family lived a compromised life in Shanghai because they fled from Nazi Germany. Though Howard himself does not consider himself a survivor, we included Howard and he delayed his tennis match to participate. we then sat down to a spread of biscuits, coffee and water and learnt more of Rosa’s war experience. As a child survivor, Rosa had to deal with things that no 7 year old should even have to contemplate. When she recalls her story to us, i can feel the terror and anxiety and i wonder how this lives now in her body. Many child survivors had to deal with responsibilities way beyond their years. The fear of giving up your parent to authorities just because you said the wrong thing or walking to the ghetto alone on the streets – the fear of being picked up and taken to the concentration camps. When talking to Rosa, this fear was palpable. We had to leave her quite abruptly because of our schedule and this is the first time on this journey that i felt uncomfortable for leaving too early. I discussed this with Harry in the car – I felt like Rosa had opened up her old wounds and we left prematurely. I can reconcile this as for the good of the greater project but the discomfort i felt after we had left was not a good feeling at all and I hope we don’t repeat this.

A bright yellow front door marks 87 year old Arno’s house and this is the first indication that we are entering a special home. Arno’s home is filled with beautiful art and furniture – most of it hailing from Europe where Arno was born. Arno’s home is very much a reflection of his love of Europe, his connection to his past and his appreciation of the finer things in life. At 87, he lives alone but has a partner who lives in Israel and Switzerland that he speaks to regularly and visits when he can. After being liberated in Holland at age 21, Arno joined the British army till the end of the war in May 1945 and then after some time joined his father in the US despite being happy in Holland. Arno’s father had gotten out of Berlin in 1942 via Portugal. When I ask him how made these decisions – he said you just keep going  – subconscious that you do what comes next, one step after the other. Arno was hidden in Holland for two years in an attic. Though Arno did not have therapy to deal with his traumatic past and loss of youth, in hindsight he says he wished he had. Arno has never really felt at home in America, a true base, he feels very European, different. “I have a hole in my coming of age, a void that just cannot be filled anywhere else.” Throughout the interview, Arno challenged my questions and really contemplated what I was asking. As an interviewer, this was a breath of fresh air and kept me on my toes more than usual. When i asked him what has brought him the most joy in his life he said meeting his partner very late in life (15 years ago). He says – “we are so close, we are fitted to each other and it’s very unusual and very wonderful.” His soulmate. He just wishes it had happened decades ago.

Our next stop in West  New York NJ gave us the opportunity to drive alongside the Hudson River overlooking Manhattan – now this is a view! 70 year old Aviva had an appointment in Manhattan so we literally spent about half an hour with her at her home. Given this time constraint I didn’t get a chance to interview her but it was lovely meeting with her and learning about her life.

Yesterday we were meant to meet up with another hidden child Robert but timing and lack of daylight prevented us from getting there. With a short window of opportunity Harry and I trekked backwards into NJ and made another quick stop to photograph Robert. Again, no time for interview but now Robert is able to participate in the project. Robert’s wife Marcia asks me where we were before. When i tell her at Aviva’s she laughs and says that Aviva introduced her and Robert. It’s a small world in NJ! (just no Sopranos in sight)

Our final stop for the day was back in Manhattan – right near where i used to work 10 years ago. Lea’s sister participated in the project in the UK – before i came on board. when I ask her how she managed to live her life after such an extraordinary experience, she says “actually the way to do it is certainly at least in our early years here in this country was to forget about the past.” Lea has hardly any memories of the war despite being 10 years old when the war finished. but she remembers when her family first arrived in America she was very insistent that everybody speaks english. “I wanted nothing more than to become Americanised.” Lea says that for almost all her life she has simply not talked about the past – which has been easy because she has so few memories of that time. “so when people meet me they just see a woman, very similar to the other women walking around in the streets of NY and they have no idea and in a way i like it, i have this little secret thing that you guys don’t know.”

NewYork Day 3

In On the Road in NY on June 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Day 5 began with the table already set for breakfast the night before by Susanne. This reminds me again of my grandmother and aunt Ida – especially my grandmother because Susanne is German, grew up in Berlin and has that European sensibility that makes me feel at home. Susanne is not Jewish and her being German makes me feel that this project in a sense has come full circle. This train of thought is probably for another time because I have many thoughts on this but let me just say that for me, being friends with German people and talking about the Holocaust gives me hope and comfort. It brings us to the essence of being human, takes away labels and countries and religion and makes room for deeper connection. I know this may upset some people, especially holocaust survivors but I have always felt this way. So day 5 began in my grandmother’s kitchen with muesli and engaging conversation between the four of us.

Our first stop was far away in the lush, picturesque town of Newtown, Connecticut (nothing like the urban sprawl of Newtown Sydney!). We were greeted by Jodi the dog and then child survivor Peter, who survived Bergen concentration camp with his brother and only in recent years discovered a photo of the two of them standing behind the barbed wire fence on liberation day, Peter 9 years old. Peter who was a school teacher, says in many ways the child survivors were much more aware of potentially what was happening than some of the adults, you were able to say this is what it is. I asked him what he would say to that 9 year old now – “It’s going to be nicer than you think it is because it’s been a good life.” To a child of survivor of genocide today he would say, “Get as much education and love as you can.”

What’s in a name? Next stop was Hamden CT, another hour or so north. We met with 73 year old hidden child Mira – also a Miriam who also was a documentary filmmaker. Mira emailed me a few days ago to ask if we want to include her mother Dora in the project. (Dora is my mother’s name too!) Dora survived two winters in Auschwitz and is now 95 years old. She lives 15 minutes away in a retirement village. Mira warned me that Dora has dementia and may not be able to participate plus she is hard of hearing but hates it when people yell at her – we will have to see how we go. When we arrive at Dora I am amazed. Dressed in a red top, wearing red lipstick and looking rather immaculate – Dora is a picture of elegance. Watching Harry engage with her was incredible – it was like he had Dora in a trance of sorts – she responded to him accurately, understood all his directions and definitely enjoyed the experience. Even Mira was amazed. I think Harry’s gift is that he is always himself. He doesn’t change for anyone and this in a sense gives people a sense of comfort and trust. Harry then took a photo of mother and daughter – it was a very delicate moment – seeing mother and daughter look each other in the eye. And of course not just because of the names, I thought of me and my mother, us ageing and sitting on a couch together and looking into each other’s souls. When we leave I ask Mira what her middle name is – she says Rahel. This my mother’s middle name. She ask me mine – Esther I tell her. She says that is her mother’s middle name. What’s in a name? There is something.

Our final stop for the Connecticut journey was in Stamford. Hungarian hidden child Agi immediately offered each of us a bowl of vegetable soup when we walked in the door. It is around 30+ degrees each day we have been on the road – but there is nothing like a bowl of soup with barley in it when you are on the road everyday. The soup was delicious and Agi a wonderful host. Agi only moved to the US in 1956 when there was an uprising in Hungary – she survived not only the Holocaust but then communist Hungary. She says what kept her going was that she was looking for freedom.

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.

NewYork Day 3

In On the Road in NY on June 18, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Up at 5.29am again. Had about 6 hours sleep so not sure why my body clock continues to wake up sooooo early! we are going to Queens today – a day on the road in our slightly beat up car! I am having an issue with the playback on my camera with one particular recording – am slightly worried but will see if Harry can shed some wisdom. Guy returns tonight from Boston – looking forward to seeing him 🙂

What a day it was.I am now writing this the morning after – our only day off in the week long journey. Got home last night after 10.30pm – so it’s around a 14 hour day – even longer for Harry because he has to drive further. If I think back to the morning of the day – it feels like days ago. so many stories, energies, emotions, I cried today for the first time in an interview. maybe it’s partly the pregnancy, but I don’t think so. I couldn’t contain my emotion.

Stop 1 – 83 year old Ruth. We arrive in Queens at these huge apartment blocks – one after the other – and are met by Ralph, Ruth’s husband who has been keeping a look out for us. He walks us in the building and stops to chat to a young Hispanic man who has just had a baby. The interaction between Ralph and him is warm and friendly and is my first  indication of who Ralph and Ruth are – very kind people who accept everyone as god’s children and help a lot of underprivileged people. Both dressed in yellow tops, they invite us in, offer us tea, juice, cake and make sure I am eating well for the baby. Like most Holocaust survivors we meet, the living room is cluttered with family photos, each one remembering a story, a milestone, a moment. Before I start recording I ask Ruth what is it that keeps her going, and she says her faith in god. “god is blessing me. anytime I ask him something most of the time he grants it for me.” I told her many people don’t believe in god because of the Holocaust – she responded: “The bible says there comes a time when the jewish people do not obey and they’re being punished and I’m afraid that’s what happened because really there was a lot going on that we did not observe and that we did not do.” When she says this she is referring to everyone, that “we should all go back to our house of prayers, house of worship and god is really good and we have to pray. the world is really in need of great prayers. and please god it should never happen a Holocaust again.” I have never heard a Holocaust survivor say this.

We arrive at hidden child Judith’s place and after a miscommunication about times and confirmations we finally make our way up to her apartment to meet with her and husband Dr David – who used to be a comic on the road with Jackie Mason.  Both Judith and David are interfaith ministers and Judith is also a Reiki Master. Initially, due to the miscommunication there was a little tension in the room but after Judith prepared herself for the photo shoot and showed me a photo of her parents and her as a baby, my heart opened and I could already feel my emotions being stirred in a way that I would not be able to control. This photo will stay for me forever – such joy in her parents’ faces, hope for the future, innocence and wonder.  I don’t know why this photo of all photos has had such an effect on me, but it does. She then sat down with me for an interview, and all the tension disappeared and we were transported to a much deeper space. Judith’s parents both died in the camps but before going on the train they organised for her to survive. she lived with a Catholic family and was Catholic for 4 years.  Because of what her parents did for her, to save her life, she says she lives according to the third commandment – honour your father and your mother – she says their wishes were for her to live – and what is she living for? – she is living to honour them, to remember them and to try to bring a message across that we have to get together, there is a lot of love outside of the jewish religion. As a survivor, she wants to carry this message that the Holocaust did happen in her lifetime and she has a responsibility to let people know about it. Judith then told me in detail about the moment she had to say goodbye to her parents. “Look over there…” Her father let go of her hand. I cry even now rewatching the video – the fragility of life, the responsibility of a parent, the lack of words, the feelings of abandonment, the forces of circumstance, the messy nature of love.

After wolfing down unhealthy burgers and fries in the car, Harry and I made our way to 85 year old Hana – who is related to friends of my family – the Kaplans. Hana’s granddaughter Jodi and I have been coordinating this meeting for about a month – Hana was not at first keen to participate but after some insistence from Jodi (under my instruction!) she agreed. Hana is a smart lady, a writer and she welcomed us in her home with fruit and biscuits and a TV for Harry to watch the GAME. (This is somewhat of a sore spot between me and Harry – but as all our conversations go – we have found the lighter side.) Hana says her hope kept her going. “I was hoping for everything. It doesn’t cost anything.” She says this with a smile on her face, a sparkle in her eyes and I can feel her hope. Later while Hana was writing her testimonial at the kitchen table and Harry was sitting right next to her watching the soccer – I saw how life is everything in a moment. From the banal to the fragile – it is all happening at once in synchronicity. And to watch it without judgement – to just see it all happening is very freeing. My mind wanted to say – how can Harry watch football while Hana is writing her Holocaust testimonial – but this is life. It also reminded not to underestimate the strength of survivors, their resilience.

Bertha waited many hours for us to visit her. The schedule got a little crazy and I had to change her appointment twice that day. Luckily we made it. By this stage of the day I was very tired plus we were running very late for our next appointment further up Long Island, so I didn’t get a chance to interview Bertha. Harry of course managed to take some beautiful, striking photos of Bertha – one of which reminds me of a Monet painting. We left Bertha’s with granny smith apples for the journey – reminding me of my papa.

Our final stop for the day was in Stony Brook, Long Island – an hour from Manhattan in good traffic not so much fun in Friday 6pm traffic. After much consideration, we decided to go anyway – take the risk of losing daylight and getting there with little time to work. Saying ‘no’ to a survivor that wants to participate is basically difficult and probably the hardest part of this project.  Harry sped along the HOV (can’t remember what this stands for but basically it’s a fast lane for carpooling – like the T2 in Sydney) and we got there by 7.30pm. Christine, her husband Mel and son Hal were eagerly waiting for us at the front door. Hal had just seen Harry’s photographs and was in awe of them – a perfect welcome for us weary, slightly emotional travellers. While Harry photographed Chris outside, I chatted with Mel and Hal in the kitchen – where all good conversations occur – and within a short time we were in a wonderful discussion about India, spirituality, family dynamics and just generally life.

NewYork Day 2

In On the Road in NY on June 17, 2010 at 10:57 am

Good morning Manhattan. Have been waking up at 5am everyday since we got here. It is sunrise and although I would prefer to be sleeping there is something quite extraordinary about those early hours especially in Manhattan. Today we will be visiting survivors in Manhattan from the Upper east side to down town – we will be going door to door, doorman to no doorman and the sun is shining today.

 

More later today …

A day in Manhattan has got to be interesting. We saw 6 survivors today, each with a different story, smile, energy, space, political view and outlook on life. We walk into each person’s home, their cultivated mise en scene and immediately we have entered into their life. It’s a very intimate project, the more we do this the more I realise  how personal this all is and how vulnerable in a sense each person is and how much trust they put in us.

We began the day uptown at 75 yer old Henry. Somehow through my mother in law Marsha, Henry heard about our project. Henry’s apartment is beautiful with a wonderful view of uptown Manhattan. We met his second wife too and it was very emotional watching her watching him share parts of story and insights on life with us. She is Polish, not Jewish, and you can see her admiration for him. She said that although she heard these stories so many times, hearing and watching Henry tell us moved her so much. Henry said not having his siblings survive the war with him was the hardest part for him, ‘really, I missed them very much’. He survived with his mother and always felt a constant responsibility to take care of her, this weighed very heavily on him. Henry is very hopeful for the future of humanity. He believes one day all the hatred among people will disappear.  When I left Henry and his wife they both cried – not because I was leaving, but because of what he has shared and what has happened – it was a very moving moment for me.

Our next stop in the bustling streets of Manhattan took a little longer to get to and luckily, thanks to my friend Yael where I am staying, we were able to park in her building. Yael was the saviour of our day because driving around Manhattan is challenge enough even with GPS, parking on the other hand is a rather anxious inducing adventure. when parking in the car park however, we did discover a lovely scratch on our rental car – this knowledge unfortunately haunted Harry for the remainder of the day.

Next stop – the lovely Lilly. 80 year old Belgian born Lilly was hidden as a child in Belgium in a convent as well as in a farm near Waterloo starting at the age of 12. Recently Lilly returned to Belgium with her daughter where her brother still lives. Lilly made us lunch and really took care of us – she reminded me of my nana and my great aunt Ida in the way she prepared the food and set the table effortlessly but with such grace. Lilly’s smile lights up her whole face. I loved being around her and felt very comfortable with her. She asked us if she could take us for dinner  but unfortunately our schedule is too busy and runs late each night. I hope to see her again one day, as does Harry.

Carless and free we took a cab further uptown to hidden child Julian. Whatever people say about New York cabbies being brash can of course be true (later in the day we had a 71 yr old cabbie who had been cabbying for 50 years in NY – what a character!)  but this particular cabbie was so concerned for our welfare that after we paid he saw we were looking for our destination and made us get back in the car so he could drive us to the actual building. now that’s service.

Our next stop was further uptown near Columbia University. There’s a different vibe further up town and you can definitely feel the presence of a student community with bohemian cafes and the sense that some intellectual conversations are going on. We met with another Belgian hidden child, 71 year old Ava. Ava is an artist so her home was full paints, paint brushes, canvases and artwork. I especially liked Ava’s apartment – high ceilings, old and very NY. When Ava wrote to me to be part of the project she said she especially wanted to participate because she doesn’t have children so this would be a way of documenting her story. I loved talking with Ava – she was very candid, very honest and very emotional. Ava is on a mission to find out more about her childhood and past. I asked her if this brings her solace – she said no, rather it reminds her of how much she has lost. But she is still compelled to keep searching.

Now for a change of pace. We took three subways and a cab to meet with 67 year old Dutch hidden child Joseph downtown in the east village. Across the road was an organic market so I already felt like we were in a ‘familiar’ neighbourhood. Joe is certainly an evolved person. We talked at length about life and I really felt a connection with Joe – a kindred spirit on this very complicated planet. From Obama to therapy to Israeli politics – we talked and I learned. When I asked Joe what he would say to a child survivor of genocide if he met him today – he said first of all he would hug him. For me this says everything.

Our final stop for the day was to visit John – a 75 year old survivor from Slovakia who spent the final year of war hidden with his parents in his school teacher’s apartment. John and his parents became Christians to survive the war and it is only recently, in the 90s that he decided to reclaim his Jewish identity. Though he married a Jewish woman over 40 years ago he would still introduce himself as a christian, fill in forms and tick ‘christian’. He had his bar mitzvah at 72 years old, learnt his parsha and is now learning hebrew. In a few months he will be travelling to a family reunion in Slovakia. John lectures regularly to school kids about the Holocaust. He and his wife Annie were very warm and when I told them we were going to Arturo’s for dinner – my favourite pizza place – they said it was theirs too 🙂

It was a great, intense day. I fell asleep in the cab on the way home. On a personal note, my belly is growing daily and I feel like our little being is being enlightened daily by the people we meet. Before I left someone shared with me that a friend of theirs worked on a Holocaust project while she was pregnant but it was very distressing, and she was worried for the baby. I don’t feel this. This is life and death and life again.

NewYork Day 1

In On the Road in NY on June 17, 2010 at 3:35 am

So we are back on the road. Met Harry at JFK, picked up a rental car and made our way to Lynbrook via printed out google directions and then stopping at Starbucks to go online and see a map. we made it.

First stop – Sarah, a 71 year old child survivor from Poland who spent the war years in Uzbekistan. Sarah and her husband Ted welcomed us very warmly into their home with delicious homemade cookies and iced tea on arrival. Sarah is a counsellor and says she has only really spoken about her war years in the last 15 years. When asked what she would say to other survivors of genocide in terms of living their lives, Sarah says you just do – what’s the alternative? you can go on with your life – nothing should totally demolish you.

We next made our way to see 85 year old Olga  in Long Beach. Barry, Olga’s son asked us to include Olga. We are so glad we could. When we arrived we were welcomed by Olga, her two sons and her grandson. It was very obvious how much the family cherishes her. Olga says friendship is what got her through the war years. She says there were many times in the concentration camp Auschwitz where she wanted to throw herself on the electric barbed wire but her friends stopped her and reminded her of her two sisters in America – they said she had a reason to live.

Our last stop for the day was in Lawrence to meet with 82 year old Gail. Gail was not exactly expecting us and when we arrived we stumbled upon a very serious card game with 5 of Gail’s friends – all Holocaust survivors. It was like walking in on the Golden Girls. Gail was very gracious and still managed to participate in the project. Harry caught the last moments of light  on the balcony. An Auschwitz survivor, Gail has a number on her left arm. When I told her I was pregnant she said isn’t it incredible that I am producing a fourth generation. I had not thought of that till now.

It’s been a long day – up at 5.30am and Harry is still on UK time so we are both knackered. But it does feel great to be back on the road again, meeting this wonderful, strong, unique group of people and working on this amazing project. It is a labour of love.