Discovery & Tears
It's a hot day in June and Gidon and I are headed to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, famed worldwide for its extensive database and collection of artifacts. I have been before, several years prior, but I’d never been to the central reading room and that’s where we were headed. It is 101 F in Jerusalem; the heat wave that has descended this morning has brought with it a fine dust from North Africa and it hangs over Israel like a yellow shroud. Yad Vashem is located on Mt. Herzl, named after Theodore Herzl, and it lies in the hilly Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, in the south west of the city. I had finally gotten my Israeli driver’s license a couple of months earlier, so I drove, which gave Gidon a rare opportunity to enjoy the golden fields of his country from the comfort of the air-conditioned car, rather than wrangling with traffic as he usually (expertly) does.
The reading room at Yad Vashem is not an especially large room. It’s wall-to-wall books - encyclopedias, records of names, ledgers, maps – impressive and complete as it is, this is but a fraction of the information to be found in the database which is available to search on the ten or twelve computers located at the desks clustered in the center of the room. Outside, there is an incredible view of Jerusalem, shimmering in the heat and it felt good to be inside. There were about eight or ten other people there, looking things up. Some seemed to be American tourists, taking advantage of being in Israel to look up information about relatives. At another desk, a whole family was sat around a computer listening to the filmed testimonial of an elderly man, who I presumed was their grandfather. The testimonial was in a language that I did not recognize but the family seemed to understand just fine, exchanging smiles and sad looks with each other, as they watched their relative speak. The American couple stood to leave and Mickey, the librarian and researcher told them in English that she was so sorry they didn't find what they were looking for. The couple shrugged apologetically and left.
Mickey sat down with an older, religious couple, the man wearing prayer fringes under his heavy overcoat, and his wife, wearing modest long sleeves, had her head covered. As Gidon I waited our turn, we leafed through books about villages in Ukraine or names of Jews who lived in Lodz. With effort, I picked up a book that must have been 4 inches thick, and coffee table sized. It was a list of Jewish villages destroyed in the Holocaust. Villages under the letter "A" alone took up 40 pages. Gone. Disappeared. A whole world.
Mickey, was young and beautiful, head also covered and she flitted from one person to another efficiently in the quiet space. Occasionally a young girl of about six or seven, with a head full of unruly, curly red hair sidled up alongside her and spoke to her urgently in hushed Hebrew. Finally, it was our turn. “What country?” Mickey asked. Czechoslovakia, I said, then pointed to Gidon, he survived Theresienstadt. Mickey’s whole demeanor changed instantly. She peered at Gidon then said something sweet and sincere about Gidon’s appearing much younger than he is. It’s true.
Gidon explained that we were planning to travel to the Czech Republic later in the summer. Gidon had been back before, but he wanted to show me the place of his birth, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) as well as Prague and, naturally, Terezin. As I peppered Gidon with questions about various family members, he realized that in some cases, he only had scattered, incomplete information. So he wanted to go to Yad Vashem to do some sleuthing.
Mickey sat us down at a desk and the keyboard clattered away under her touch. The database at Yad Vashem is incredibly complete but not very user-friendly, which is half the battle. In only a minute or two, Mickey had located the records of Arnöst Löw (Ernst in English) – Gidon’s father. She clicked through several pages of documents and information, written in Czech and in German then stopped and looked at Gidon – “Who did your father piss off?” She explained that when Ernst had been transported out of Terezin, to Auschwitz, he had been put on a family transport – without his family. “Something happened here,” Micky murmured as she flicked through documents.
Gidon and I were flummoxed. “Ah. Look at this,” Mickey said. “From Auschwitz he was sent to Buchenwald.” No, no, Gidon explained, my father was sent to Auschwitz and died on a death march right before the end of the war, in the spring of 1945. “No,” Mickey said.
Her nail tapped the computer screen and and there they were, the records of Ernst, who had by then been tattooed as number B12156, “He was quarantined for a time and then..." she peered more closely. "He underwent medical experiments.”
Gidon and I were thunderstruck. What kind of experiments?! “It’s hard to tell,” Mickey said as she drew her face close to the screen. “A series of injections.” Do you mean he may have seen Mengele himself, I asked, in shock. “Not necessarily,” Mickey said mildly as she continued to look through records. “See? There he is, number B12156. It’s him.” She then muttered to herself about a date being off by a day or two but that happens, and then continued, “then he was sent on a transport to Buchenwald.”
How – how did he die there, I asked. Mickey looked at me as if I had asked whether the moon is made of cheese. Gidon was sat between Mickey and I, and that’s when I noticed that his eyes were closed and his shoulders were shaking. I put my arm around him, you okay? Yes, yes, he said, wiping his eyes. Go on.
Why had Gidon’s mother told him - and written down on official Yad Vashem paperwork in 1987 - that Ernst had died on a death march? Did she not know the truth? Maybe his records had not yet been collected and completed? Or did she know the truth and not want to tell her son? Maybe she couldn’t bring herself to make it more real in the retelling? We don’t know.
And there was now another mystery – Gidon’s father had given his mother, Doris, a necklace on the day he left Terezin on the transport to Auschwitz. On the necklace is a pendant with the emblem of Terezin and a date – April 8th, 1944. Gidon wears the necklace on special occasions and has always believed that the date was the date of his father’s departure. But it isn’t. Ernst was sent to Auschwitz on September 28th, 1944. So – what is that date? What does it signify? What was Ernst telling Doris on that necklace? We don’t know. But we did now know that Ernst suffered much, much more than we had ever imagined.
Since the age of 11 and until this moment, Gidon thought that his father had survived a few months at Auschwitz and then died either from exhaustion or execution along with other prisoners on the death marches as the Nazis frantically tried to empty the camps. A horrible fate. But somehow this was worse – far worse. Medical experiments. On a man who was already exhausted, probably sick with Typhus, separated from his wife, child and entire family, and no doubt starving and beaten. And finally, a transport to Buchenwald, which must have been an agonizing two or three days by train from Auschwitz without food or water. Ernst died on January 3rd, 1945. Official cause of death – murder.
How do you do this, I asked Micky. "Oh, I'll cry after you leave", she said. "I don't cry in front of people but this is bad." Suddenly, the cute, redheaded, curly-haired kid was back. She threw her arms around her ima's waist. I'm hungry! "The natives are getting restless," Mickey said, with an apologetic smile. She invited us to come back, anytime.
A day later, a picture of Gidon's father Ernst came crashing out of the past and into our possession when a friend on social media managed to find it in an online database. The photo was taken in 1941 in or near Prague, as Ernst, and all the other Jews were being forced to register. I stared at the photo hoping that maybe it was a mistake; the resignation and fatigue on Ernst's face is heartbreaking. But the resemblance was clear. I had to show Gidon the photo but I was anxious. How would Gidon handle seeing this photograph after the news of the prior day? Gidon had not seen a photo of the father he barely remembered in years, and never at this age and stage of life. I asked him to sit down and handed him a copy of the photo and the paperwork it came with. Gidon stared at the photo at length. Yup, he said.
In three years, Ernst will no longer resemble this picture, I think we both thought, at the same time. He would be in Auschwitz and then in Buchenwald, emaciated, skeletal. Then I had a thought - Gidon, wait - I ran to grab one of my favorite photos of Gidon, taken in 1959, grinning, from atop a tractor. There he is, 18 years after this photo of his father. In this photo, Gidon is hale and hearty, a kibbutznik on a tractor in the hot sun in the Jezreel Valley. Gidon would work, sing, dance, love, marry, have children and help build Israel. Look, I tell him. Listen. Somewhere, somehow, someway, Ernst smiles down at you and at his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great granddaughter and smiles with pride, I say. But Gidon looks at me sadly. He doesn’t believe in God anymore.