Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Saturday morning, December 13. Our hotel in Jerusalem is in full Shabbos mode. The elevators are riding up and down by themselves, guests are using Shabbat keys instead of electronic door cards, the sensors and timers in the rooms are directing lights and air, the cold buffet is laid out.

We're heading for Jaffa, then Tel Aviv for a full agenda. Yotam Gur-Zeev, wonderful son of the wonderful Yoram Gur-zeev, picks us up at the hotel. We talk about music, performance art. In Jaffa we meet up with Yoram and his wife Dana, and head for St. Anthony's Church. Yoram is marvelously prepared with maps, printed photos, research.

When I first found out I was a Jew, everyone in my family was Jewish back to Moses, all their names were made up, that was shocking enough. But those were facts withheld from me. Finding out I had actually lived in Israel from age 2 to age 4 was a different order of shock. My own experience of my own life, erased. Shouldn't I have a trace of memory? Where were the photos? I had a false history of my own life as well as theirs. It was created for me, shaped for me, retold to me. I had absorbed it as my own, and retold it myself to friends and lovers. It went like this:

I was born in Zabrze in 1947, where my parents lived near the end of the war. My father had continued his private construction business defying nationalization orders and the communists were out to get him. We applied for US visas, and traveled around Europe waiting for them. We lived in Bern, Paris. Later my uncle Ziggy joined us. We lived in a rooming house on a park. We had our Giant Schnauzer Peter with us. When it seemed that US visas were not coming through, we decided to go to Canada. We moved to Genoa to wait for papers, spending several months there. Peter swam on the beach everyday in Genoa, and one day he swam out too far. Italian fisherman rescued him and took him to their village. My parents decided he would be better off there. When the visas arrived, we took an Italian liner to Halifax, then a train to Montreal.

Here's a version closer to the truth, so far as I've been able to piece it together. Like most fabrications, the story was woven with bits of truth. My parents moved to Zabrze as Polish Christians after the war. That area had been Germany in 1939 -- Zabrze was the now renamed town of Hindenburg. It was a perfect place to hide and prosper. Germans were being moved out, Poles from the east were being moved in, my father's civil engineering skills were in demand. Yes, the nationalization problem was true enough. The real impetus to leave Poland, however, was more immediate. Sometime around the winter of 1948-49, my father was out driving around with a girlfriend. He was drunk, drove the car up a wall, and killed a German woman pedestrian, seriously injuring her child. My mother took wads of cash and spread them around, the police, the victims' family, special medical care for the child. My father was successful in the town, he knew and had greased everyone, and was soon tipped off that he was about to be arrested. He went into hiding in a nearby village.

My mother immediately launched a plan to get out of Poland. There was no place to go, especially quickly, except Israel, now a full state. Her uncle Yakov Halperin, her mother's younger brother, initiated immigration proceedings from Haifa where he lived. Of the documents hidden in my mother's files that I recently discovered, a number date about March of 1949, including a "copy" of my birth certificate. My mother was putting it all together. They were living under their new Christian names in Poland, but would have to be Jews again to make Aliyah. They left Poland by train in late 1949. My uncle was with us from the start. So was Peter the Nazi-trained Giant Schnauzer. We spent spent several weeks in a transit camp on a Venetian island. My uncle and my father were in a separate camp from my mother and me. Then we went by ship to Haifa. My grandparents arrived from Poland soon after.

In Haifa, we stayed with my mother's Aunt Yetka and her son Arie Kinsbruner. They were wonderfully generous. Their small place was "one big mattress", my new-found cousin recalls. Then we all traveled to Jaffa, so the men could look for work.

The search for the first place we lived in Jaffa was the first agenda item on our Saturday itinerary. My uncle Ziggy had described our home to me last August. It was in Jaffa, near the beach, next to a Coptic church, on a roof. A big, flat roof. On the far end there was a small wooden shack. In it were two large tubs, where laundry was boiled. There was water but no toilet. There were six of us living there -- my parents, Ziggy, and my grandparents Dorka and Bernard. I was two years old.

Ziggy showed me photos of the roof. I had never seen them. In one photo he was with my grandfather Bernard, another he held a black-and-white kitten, in yet another my mother sat costumed with Arie. None showed any trace of a child. I have to assume since there are a number of photos of others on that roof I have seen since that my mother destroyed any that included me.
(Many years ago, I told my mother about an early childhood memory, and asked her where the setting was. I remembered being small, on a big flat roof, with a number of other children who were running wildly around. I was younger than they, and hung back watching. Near the edge of the roof was a pile of construction debris. One of the boys ran into it and a protruding nail pierced the top of his scalp. I remembered the blood, and adults yelling at us to stop running. My mother said, oh, yes, that was at Appleton, our first apartment in Montreal. I drove over there when I was last in Montreal and was not surprised to find a peaked roof. The memory is undoubtedly of Jaffa.)
Since last August, I had been tracking down the location. My cousin Ron Karas and I identified the church as St. Anthony's in Jaffa. It looked from contemporary photos that the church had an attached building, with a flat roof and similar parapet. We'd found it!

That Saturday morning, we talked our way onto the roof of the attached church building. No bells rang. We took some pictures and asked if anyone really old lived in the neighborhood, someone who might remember that era. We were directed to a pharmacy a block away, and were thrilled to find the ancient pharmacist behind the counter. No, no, he said, after I explained what we were doing, it's not that building, it's the one across the street, and drew us a map.

"This photo gives the best sense of the funky space and view. Our little shed was in the back corner, to the left of the cute white hut, and in front of the ingenious hot water heater."

Back we went. And there it was, flying an Armenian flag, a ramshackle architectural oddity, my first Israeli home. Up on the roof, a tiny dwelling had been built since we lived there, and our shack had been torn down. I compared buildings visible with the old photos. This was it. Bathtubs filled with flowers, an amazing view, part of a decrepit half-abandoned complex owned by the Coptic church. 1900-1977 Yitschak Avinery Street. Later that day, my cousin Arie gave me my first photo of myself in Israel, with my grandmother and the same kitten my uncle held in his photo.
A few days ago I ran across a photo of a little boy in the family collection. I had seen him before and wondered who he was. Suddenly his outfit looked like -- what -- like the one I had on in Arie's photo. The background was unrecognizable until I compared it dot by dot. There was the parapet, the skyline, the chair legs from other photos of the roof. I had never seen a photo of myself during that three-year period, from two to five, and kids change a lot at that age. The little guy was me.


Post a Comment

<< Home