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[Pages 243 - 246]

Belated grieving

Written by Otto Rappaport

Translated by Susan Geroe

My mind is clearing slowly
And here the legend ends.
The child clinging to his mother's love,
Realizes now his foolishness.
                           (Attila Jozsef)
Nobody should hold it against me that I had been postponing this meeting for twenty years. Even the most coward of men holds out with all his might against having his hopes extinguished by the certainty of implacable anger. It is not easy to meet the deceased whose authenticity is confirmed by the “Here lies” engraved in marble or in oak. I, however, am summoned, called upon for a meeting by the dead of uncertain fate, to the Dantesque stage of their incomprehensible trials, by those departed whose stories I heard from strangers and people I knew well, everyone telling me that it is useless and foolish to wait for their return with a warm cooked meal and clean clothes, because - they are dead.

Yet, since I didn't keep watch by their sickbeds, did not escort their coffins to the cemetery, did not place flowers on their graves and did not light candles for them on All Saints Day, it is understandable that I could not acknowledge the fact without reservation.

Today I can confess, that although aside from eyewitnesses whom - God forgive my sin - I doubted as biased companions and looked upon with shock and distrusting shivers as ghosts from another world, there were other attesters to their deaths, such as Thomas Mann and Arthur Miller, George Sempran and Lord Russell, or Adolph Eichmann and Hoess; altogether and in reality, I still did not believe it as final.

Case in point, for many years, on my way home, I was secretly hoping that my father would be sitting there on the steps with his little bundle, waiting for me. I wasn't really offended that he had me wait so long for his return from abroad. If they took him ever so far away from his home against his own will, then he was right to look around the world a bit, I thought. Late as he was, he would come, he should come. Surely we must finish the important conversation interrupted so abruptly and suddenly twenty five years ago, when I last saw him. Even if he is late, he will come, he has to come.

He didn't come. Years were spent waiting and my entire youth went by with those years and he still didn't come.

I could wait no longer. I started out to Auschwitz to meet with the unburied dead, to end the conversation started twenty five years ago.

In the Kattowice hotel, I woke at dawn to bird chirping. By the time our car started out toward Auschwitz, the soft, warm rays of the sun were gilding the surrounding houses, the blooming trees, the fields. I have never seen this landscape. Even though I read exact and detailed descriptions, I could never visualize this region, where very old men and babies, men andwomen were burned under God's open sky in the same way as one burned dry corn husks or wood. People sitting next to me, knew very well this region. They had already been here once before. Twenty four years ago. “Then too, it was such a bright sunny day”, says someone, ”but back there one could never see the sun from the smoke.”

A few days ago, I was at the funeral of Maria's mother. Relatives and close acquaintances were crying. At the end, everyone went to her, hugged and kissed her. They expressed their condolences, as they say. Not long ago, at the funeral of an elderly actor, when we escorted the coffin to the gravesite, suddenly, from behind the tombstones, spread out on the hillside, Gypsy violins and a contrabass started to play the song “Deres mar a hatar”... The fascists killed my father, my mother, my siblings, my close and extended family, most of my friends. Nobody said to me “Mr. Rappaport, please accept my sincere sympathy”.

I am reading the road sign: Oswiecim 3 km. So, another three thousand meters. Tracks. Cold, rusty tracks. So these are those tracks! The wagons which brought them, spread out, ran away. Only the tracks remained put, to recall for all times the summons to reveal the identity of the murderer to the clattering music of the train wheels. I wonder what they were thinking about on this journey? Nobody will ever know.

Strained, wordlessly, we're peering at the sky-line. We are expecting to see the emergence of the ovens and the smoke at the horizon. I am trying to recall the facial features of my father and my little sister. What were they thinking about, what were they saying on this journey? Or, were they holding hands and keeping quiet? I will never find out anything. And suddenly, I ask myself: can I feel completely innocent, to take this very same journey in comfort, freshly shaved andwell dressed?

Birkenau. Here we are. We have to get out. I am afraid to step on the ground... After all, one should not step on the burned ashes of his loved ones. Why dear God, how strange and curious is all this. Was the death factory once here? But this place is so peaceful and quiet, the sky is clear and blue, the grass silky. Well, is it possible that the fields, the sky, and life here be the same as everywhere else in the world? How should it be? I don't know. The ground should be scorched by the vast amount of hot ashes, let's say.

Birds did not become extinct here from smoke?

Well then, let us also go forward nicely. My travel companion, who was a slave here twenty three years ago, says that to the right and left of us stood barracks, and that on this road, where we now step, hundreds of thousands marched to their deaths. Overgrown grass has covered everything. I bend down, and I caress the ground with both of my palms; the grass is velvety soft, delicately tender. How heartless, unmerciful this spring is, how indifferent and forgetful. Only the crooked concrete columns rise petrified, cold and gray from the warm ground. The stiff concrete columns, dressed in twisted cooled off electrically charged barbwire and insulated by buttons from head to toe, stand in the spring sunshine with unappeasable anger. As far as the eye can see, the columns line up gloomily and the sun rays refract on the dull rust of the barbwire the German fascism used to braid and tie up Europe's body. These stones have heart and soul, to be sure. And the power of memory. They did not forget, did not forgive anything.

In a ditch to the right, the grass covered apocalyptic yet trite rotting ruins of the crematorium blown up by fleeing nazis can be seen. In the ditch where they once disposed of ashes, there is no water today, only grass. Grass had overgrown and covered everything. People are kneeling and are searching cautiously for delicate field flowers within the thick turf. Others are searching for their memories; the place where they had last seen their father, where they shot their mother, where they trampled over their children. I don't see anything, only the endless green fields and the silent blue sky. Stone columns and barbwire. So I lift my two arms and I lie over the thick wire net.

Perhaps Arthur Miller was right when he said in this place: nobody who did not die here can ever be innocent.

*

I am crying. On the stone plaque, the same text in several languages:
“The death place of the four million tortured and murdered victims of the Hitlerist evil-doers. 1940-1945.”

Gradual terracing. The memorial's sculpture section extends from the ruins of the crematorium all the way to the railroad crossing gate. The tall, black marble wall in the form of the crematoria's chimneys is surrounded by gigantic perpendicular stone groupings. The lines of the stones remind of people who hold their heads up with the last of their strength. On the terrace behind the stone wall, there are hundreds and hundreds of horizontal slabstones of various shapes and sizes. The stones, although without specific lines, seem to express attitudes, personalities, fates and it is almost as if they express opinions. It resembles an apocalyptic cemetery of trampled, crushed beings; small stones are jammed, some pressed close to larger stones, helpless, hopeless stones, stones begging for mercy and forgiveness. Stones that look toward the sky praying and cursing. Stones that are dead and stones that are alive. It is the image of a Roman sarcophagus cemetery, stirred up, devastated by an earthquake. In front of the terrace, where the railroad crossing gate ends, four iron chimneys stare out from the ground; the flames of the fires rise slowly toward the sky. It was somewhere here that doctor Mengele stood, not so long ago, without a gun or a sword, and by a single, gentle, soft, feminine movement of his index finger, called out God.

But let's leave God alone. Perhaps he didn't do, didn't say anything, because he has no hands and has no voice. But the people, the four million people who filed before Mengele on this spot, had hands, has voices, why didn't they say anything, why didn't they do anything?

It looks as if here, by the railroad crossing gate, it was too late to say or do anything. It should have been done earlier, because the least bit of reconciliation, compromise with the tyrants, despotism and force, always starts with the hardly perceivably, with indifference, and it ends unavoidably, implacably with Auschwitz.

*

Auschwitz. Now, I have seen everything with my own eyes. There is no longer any hope, everything is true as the stories were told, as they were written. The grass here had not gown as it did in Birkenau, it had not covered anything. Here, everything stands steadfast and still, as it did on the day of creation. The landscape is no longer idyllic and it does not resemble the sight of a May Day celebration. Silently, with our heads hanging, we stand in front of the glass walls and we take in everything, but even here one can't comprehend by way of reason. Thousands of eyeglasses. Mountains of hair; black and blond, red and gray, curly and straight hair. Blankets made of hair. In one window, braids of girls and very little girls. I take a step closer, perhaps I can recognize, discover a familiar braid. A mountain of shoes. Shoes of all forms and sizes. Worn down shoes of beggars and patent leather shoes of the rich, stiff boots of soldiers and children's soft slippers, high hills and flat shoes. Shoes that came here from every corner of Europe. Crutches. Wooden prosthetic legs and hands. Artificial limbs of the lame, crippled, disabled. If these artificial legs were to set out marching in the world, if these shoes were to move and head out to find their lost legs!

'And the Lord spoke to Cain: Where is thy brother Abel? And he answered: I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper? And said the Lord: Your brother's blood calls to me from the ground.' Foolishness. Nobody said anything. The Lord did not ask, and Cain is hiding out in the jungles of Paraguay. But who is singing here? I'm going in the direction of the sound. I descend a few steps. Hardly anything is visible from the smoke, from the smoke of the candles. Nothing is visible, except the oven's open mouth, because the steel body of the crematorium is covered from top to bottom by thick layers of melted candle wax. Even now, candles are burning by the thousands. A short man with gray hair stands really close to the door of the oven and prays before the open steel mouth which has already swallowed hundreds and thousands of people, as if it were some kind of altar. 'Praised be the Lord, Master of the Universe...May His name be always sanctified.' Well, this is not the most likely place to sanctify the name of the Lord, to be sure. Here, in this place, let's admit openly, the Lord did not behave quite as it was expected of Him. No matter. I flee from here. It was enough. It was enough for a whole lifetime. I am running towards the gate. But it sounds as if someone yells after me, or is it my imagination? Yes, it is my imagination, that near the fence, my father sits on a bench by a poplar tree, quietly, calmly, a little pale, as if he were convalescing. It is strange that in twenty five years he did not age. It seems that the dead don't get any older. 'Father', I say, 'forgive me, I can't cry, I can't pray for you, for you all. I know well you were observant, but here I can't praise or sanctify the Lord.'

He:You need not pray, my son.
I:Then, what can I do for you all?
He:You don't have to do anything for us. Whatever you do, it has to be done for the living. We should have lived differently and died differently.
I: Then, what can I do for you all?
He:Man should rise while he is alive, for when he is dead, it is too late. You see, when I was young, they taught me that God was also respectful of his own laws, to give the right example to mankind. Well then, why did He not respect his own laws? He commanded us not to kill the cow and her calf on the same day. How many mothers were killed on the same day with their own children? Why did He not observe the law? He commanded us not to stand with wide open mouth and hands in our laps on the banks if we see a man drowning in the river. How many from among his creations drowned in Europe's bloodied rivers and He stood on the banks with his hands in his lap? Why did He not observe the law? He commanded us to help if we saw a man on the road fall down and break his back from the load he carried. How many from among his creations fell and broke their backs under the insupportable burden on the roads of this world and He did not help any of them? Why did he not obey the law? He commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Very nice, very useful. Well, why did he not respect this law? Why I was his best, his closest friend, from my first cry to my last sigh. Why did he not obey the law? He abandoned me in my most difficult hour. He turned his back to me in the most pressing of circumstances.

Who will observe, preserve the commandments of the one who does not obey his own laws?

It was getting dark. Slowly, quietly, we head towards the gate. Nobody looks back. In the far corner of the sky, a dim star is visible. Perhaps, the sign of hope, that man is not yet completely alone.


[Pages 246-248]

Panorama of Oradea

By Dr. Imre Kirsch (Haifa)

Translated by Susan Geroe

There is no doubt that the horror of Auschwitz found us unprepared. We were unable to comprehend in time what it actually meant. We felt at ease… Outside, the storm was already raging, thundering and lightening, but we just closed the windows. There were some who prayed, others who danced, and yet others, in large numbers, who played cards…

*

I lived through the marching parade of two conquering armies into Oradea. As a five-year old in my father's lap, on the corner of Saint Ladislau's Square and Kossuth Street, I was staring with disappointment at the entrance of General Mosoiu into Oradea. Carts filled with sleepy haggard soldiers were trudging along from Velence to the Aradi Road army barracks. (This road has been later renamed Calea Victoriei, Gyozelem utja (Hungarian) TN, Victory Road (English) TN. And in turn, when I was twenty-six, the dashing brazen-faced arrogant Horthyist soldiers “conquered” Oradea, singing all the while “…gyöz a szittya fergeteg…” (the relentless Schtythian consciousness is victorious) TN At this time, I had been seriously doubting whether Mr. Cotrus, my history teacher had correctly taught his material. Since then, unfortunately, I've lived through plenty of history and realized that not only Mr. Cotrus was wrong. Everybody was wrong…

*

At the age of 14-15, I lived under the influence and with the teachings of the world's most pacifist colonel. Oradea shaped this man in her own image as well. He was Reb Mordche Csesznye, who as a Russian soldier fell Hungarian prisoner of war. He arrived to Oradea, got married there, and had six children. Since he had no talent whatsoever in the area of commerce, all his trials ended in fiascos.

The Schwartz and Ullmann house had a passageway. By its main entrance on Nagypiac Square was the ironmongery establishment of Soma Schwartz. On the other side, one found Izidor Ullmann's paint warehouse, while the back entrance gave onto Deak Ferencz Street, a quieter avenue. The owners built a smaller Bet Hamidrash in the backyard for morning and evening prayer services during weekdays. The place was about six by eight square meters in size. The proprietors also permitted Reb Csesznye, the Spartan looking saint with a goatee, to open a top quality yeshiva preparatory Cheder. That is when he became known as the colonel. In those days, tuition in a comparable educational institution ran about 100 - 250 leis per month. At this school, the cost was one thousand leis. Not more, not less. This is what gave him the prestigious rank. I studied at his school before entering the first yeshiva in Szekelyhid, and later, the one in Frankfurt.

From among my schoolmates, I mention Majsele, presently known as Reb Mose Hager, the Head of the Rabbinical Dynasty of Wishnitza, the three sons of the Vizi Rabbi, and the two sons of the Pava Rabbi. My schoolmates included also Imi Ullmann, Karcsi Ritter, and Janki Reich. Three of us survived Auschwitz: the Rabbi of Wishnitza, Janki, and I. Our poor master who instilled in us love for humanity, who taught us to love everybody and forgive everyone, became a forerunner of the Oradea Jewry even in the act of annihilation. Already in 1941, as a stateless foreigner, he was deported with his wife and six children to Kaments-Podolsk, where they were all executed.

*

I made a long journey - partly of my own will, partly due to that of others until I arrived to my homeland. Today, I know for sure that one of the greatest merits of my birthplace was not to give into pretense. It was capable to appreciate the inner strength of each individual and it never discouraged him from making his own case. It did not know favoritism, a consequence why no one could be named into a leadership position with responsibilities, unless the person reached the level of accomplishment required for the task.

Here is a concrete example. Dr. Imre Fischer, a greatly renowned surgeon of the Jewish Hospital, died in the winter of 1933. Since the hospital could not function without a surgeon, they advertised the position. Good Lord, how often have I experienced that when a position was advertised - it was only a formality. Those people who placed the ad knew ahead of time who would fill the position - everything else was “formality”, sprinkled powder on the top of the cake. That was not the case in Oradea. I have personally witnessed the practice interview of several applicants for the position of Chief Surgeon of the hospital. Every candidate performed surgery for eight to ten days in the hospital. Well-respected City and Hospital doctors were present during surgery. We, medical students were also participating with the others - sometimes assisting, other times, placing the patient under anesthesia. The hospital committee reviewed each certificate, every suggestion. There were no party affiliation related advantages or party affiliation bonuses.

It is important to know that the leadership of the Oradea Chevra Kadisha selected the medical staff. In this particular case, the choice fell upon Dr. Erno Eliasz, a 34-year-old native of Targu-Mures, a Danzig Medical School assistant professor, an assimilated person far removed from his Jewish traditions. The most important principle behind the choice was his skill: an excellent, steady handed confident surgeon.

*

Every war brings along its own revolution. First World War resulted not only in the vanquishing of the Russian Czar, or of the Hapsburgs, but also in bringing forth a more refreshed atmosphere, rich in ozone. We became witnesses to the manifestations of new phenomena - people, the street, ordinary citizens who began to think for themselves. The privilege of leadership fell from the heights of the closed private elitist groups.

The Orthodox Jewry of Oradea also started to awaken. Part of the Orthodox Jewish Community leadership found that Zionism could coexist within the religious traditions. Members of the World Jewish Leadership who visited Oradea were also impressed. That was the case first of all with Nachum Szokolov, Menachem Uszinski, but above all, with Rav Fischmann, who later, under the name of Rav Majmon became Israel's first Secretary of Religious Affairs.

Rav Fischmann's visit to Oradea was one of my childhood's unforgettable experiences. Before his evening presentation, all the Mizrachis gathered in our home for a preliminary meeting. The participants included Jacob Mittlemann, Sandor Wasserstrom, Mose Goldstein, Ignac Grunberger, Sandor Gutfried, Dezso Leitmann and many other names I can no longer recall. From my father's point of view, he being the Chief Notary of the Orthodox Community and whom the anti-Zionists would have preferred to know as a party non-affiliate, this gathering was a quasi cell meeting. Even for my father, the experience was well worth the attacks that followed. For me, it was certainly significant, for I still feel the warmth of Reb Fischmann's hand on my face, when, at the end of the meeting, as he was leaving, he caressed my cheek.

*

The surrounding estate of the Oradea Orthodox Synagogue was huge, both in physical and spiritual sense. It housed three places of worship - the Great Synagogue, the Sasz Chevra, and the Marpe Lonefes, the place of worship of the Jewish Community's Health Center. Besides these buildings, there were the offices of the Jewish Community, those of the Chevra Kadisha, the buildings of the elementary and middle schools for boys, a people's canteen, the slaughtering houses for fowls, as well as several dwellings for the employees of the Community. The Free University of the Orthodox community was located at 2 Zarda Street, later 2 Fuchs Mor Street. That is where each thought was born, every idea, which extended its influence from the Orthodox point of view towards Hungary on the west, and towards Romania on the eastern side.

Very few people were aware of the fact that the Sasz Chevra also supported financially the Romanian, and later the Hungarian sport activities. I did. And now, I will disclose how. Bandi Krausz, little Mosko, and Kiki Feuerstein, three years older than me were my classmates. There was a long and wide area between the Sasz Chevra and the Slaughterhouse, where we kicked the rag ball, later the leather ball during our free time (sometimes not really free), and often our “touch” landed through the windows of the Sasz Chevra. Of course, uncle Kollmann the Shamesz acknowledged already in the evening the draft in the synagogue at the sight of the small pieces of broken glass on the floor. Being a very tidy man, by morning, he had the new windowpane already installed. Our soccer cost the Sasz Chevra some two to three thousand leis. This is how Bandi Krausz, Kiki Feuerstein - several times all-star players, and if I'm not mistaken, even little Mosko for half a game, gained their fundamental knowledge in soccer playing.

*

Epilogue

I feel that these rhapsodically grabbed crumbs that opened up old wounds did good to the soul, even though the body can no longer take it…

**TN - Translator's Note

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