ONLINE NEWSLETTER (No. 12/2006 - November 2006)

Editor: Fran Bock

Leib Reizer wrote this poignant obituary for his older brother, Nissan, in the “Grodner Opklangen”, Number 16, June 1966, a Yiddish newspaper published in Argentina until 1980. It tells the unusual story of an early emigrant to the Holy Land who left later for New Zealand, seeking safety for his family in the fearful atmosphere of the Hitler-Stalin alliance.

We thank Nissan Reizer’s daughter, Naomi Barnett of Melbourne, Australia, for sharing with us her uncle’s tribute, of which she was unaware for many years. We thank also Leib’s daughter, Betty Broit, for her translation.

© This article is copyrighted by Leib Reizer and Naomi Barnett.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed without prior permission from the copyrightholders.

A Belated Regret: The Sum Total of a Grodno Family

by Leib Reizer

I was barely 10 years old when my older brother Nissan, a man of about 20, was preparing to make aliya to Israel . It was in the year 1920, just after the Polish/Russian war. I can remember my brother standing in the front of our small house putting together boards and building a crate for his tools. Long twisted wooden chips fall on the ground and fill the whole forecourt with a scent of the forest. My brother is confident and sings happily:

In the smithy by the fire
Stands a blacksmith and he pounds
He blows on iron, sparks are flying
And he sings this happy song

The crate is finished, my brother packs inside the saws, drills, planes, chisels and other such carpenter tools. The mother is drying rusks and preparing preserves for my brother’s long journey. In the home there is a yontevdike atmosphere, a son is going to Israel to help build the land and later the whole family will join him there.

And now it is after Yom Kippur and the father is busying himself by the sukkah. The night is cold and the moon shines brightly. A heavy wagon arrives to the house, making a clatter on the cobblestone pavement. Soon a crowd of neighbours gather around the wagon, each one wishing my brother and each other “next year in Jerusalem.” The mother is quietly wiping her eyes and slowly the wagon moves away on the stony pavement. I sit on top of the wagon and the whole household slowly follows it as it makes its way in the direction of the train station. Father had requested that the coachman should drive around the big shul - as a tribute and mark of respect for an easy journey....

The train station looked like a ruin after the last battles around Grodno. And here comes the out of breath train, covering the crowd around it with clouds of steam, breaking the night stillness with its whistle.

The baggage is taken onto the train, people are hugging each other and tears are held back. The train begins to move. The youth cuts through the atmosphere with the Hatikva... The train vanishes.

Letters began to arrive from Warsaw and Vienna, Herzl’s memorial tomb, Franz Joseph’s palaces, from Trieste, from the boat (a cargo boat - because it was cheaper), and later from the holy land. My brother wrote often. His letters were interesting -- he had inherited the writing skills from our mother, who used to write letters for all the women in the street to their relations in America .

Mother would wait anxiously every day by the fence for the postman to arrive, having prepared a coin to give him. My brother’s letters were full of hope, breathing with sunshine and joy of the land, a land that was awaking to a new life. The house became full of photos of the Western Wall (kotel hamaaravi), of Rachel’s tomb, King David’s tower, Mount of Zion, etc. Often my brother would enclose in the letter an English pound, and then a yontef would be in the house. My brother would describe with enthusiasm of his walks in the land, the new orchards, new settlements, new kibbutzim, about the “gdud haavoda” (work brigades), the first Jewish communes in Eretz Israel , etc.

Father did his own thing. He continued looking and searching into the kabbala for certain meanings and connections, and in the end discovered that the redemption is close.... He shared his discovery with my brother in a letter to him: “this is to inform and let you know dear son, that your cheerful letters confirm the prediction of the redemption. The nation will G’ willing become prosperous. The Almighty will have pity on us and will release us from our troubles (tzores). But see to it dear son, not to dishonour the holy land, don’t desecrate the Sabbath, and do not sin.”...

In one of his letter my brother had enclosed one Eretz Israel cigarette for the father. Several of the people in the synagogue held it in their hands with great pride and emotion, smelling it like connoisseurs. The congregation had put forward a suggestion that the father should give the cigarette as a present to the rabbi. The rabbi held it in his hand for a while, straightened his yarmulke, made a “shechianu” and slowly smoked it, and with great pleasure murmured “ha, ha a taste of ‘gad eden’”.

Soon after two more sons left to build Eretz Israel . The family was full of hope, as ot ot -- but here a tragedy happened. The younger son, while bathing in the sea by Haifa, drowned. Like thunder,r the news hit the whole house. Mother didn’t stop crying “such a young victim, barely 21 years old taken by the sea in the prime of his life.” This all the more pulled her to travel to the Holy Land - at least to look at the tombstone of her son...

In the meantime the situation in Eretz Israel worsened. The letters arriving told of crisis and unemployment and of workers not being paid. It was a risk now to bring over the family. The sparks of hope were being extinguished in the house. The mother did not stop the mourning. But here a new casualty appeared: her youngest son was incarcerated for political reasons. When on the second day after his arrest she arrived to bring him food and found him in the investigation room all beaten up she fainted. During the following couple of years that he was in the prison she would stand every day for hours by the prison gate, did not sleep the nights and continued crying all the time because of the hunger strikes in the prison. The violent screams that were coming out of the prison walls enveloped the town in fear and caused my mother and other such mothers enormous pain and suffering. Until one night she breathed her last painful breath. Father with dried tears in his eyes threw a few handfuls of soil in the grave and quietly murmured “G’ gave and G’ takes” (Adonai natan veAdonai lakach).

Several years after mother’s death, father walked around like a shadow and continuously reminded the now released son that he should remember to say Kaddish for his mother. Until he too died, and with him died also the hope of the remaining family of making aliya to Eretz Israel .

The terrible days of the Nazi occupation drew closer. Poland was already divided in two between the “partners” of Hitler and Stalin... Once a creased letter arrived for the family from Eretz Israel . The older brother wrote “the Nazis are threatening the world. Danger is spreading out. I have therefore decided to leave with my family to a far away country that is called New Zealand , which is a neighbour of Australia .”

Once again years passed. Years of fire and smoke, blood and total destruction. My remaining family was killed together with the rest of Grodno Jewry. I, the youngest, by a miracle survived and found myself after the war in an Austrian DP camp (Trofaiach). Around the camp were brother graves of murdered Jews. The earth was split open. Torn prayer books and talaisim were scattered among the rubbish and around the camp. Happy Austrians were strolling, hoping to do business with the Jews. Young Austrian women were shamelessly offering their bodies for cigarettes and coffee...

I received a letter from my older brother in far away New Zealand that I should try by all means available to get to Eretz Israel . The English Foreign Minister - Bevan - however did everything he could to make sure that the surviving Jews did not reach Israel ... Without a choice, I made my way to my brother in the far away land.

After a separation of 28 years the two brothers met. I looked older than my brother. I was gray, with a wrinkled face and the fear in my eyes had not yet vanished. It was winter time when I arrived in the far away country. And there I found that the trees were green, flowers bloomed, the sun with its gentle rays was caressing my gray head and aged face. I inhaled the fresh air, looked at the green fields with its abundant white sheep and after the destruction of Europe I found myself enveloped in a happy contentment.

My brother all these years tried to keep in his home the spirit of Eretz Israel . The children besides speaking English also spoke a good Hebrew. As a prior chalutz who gave his young strength to Eretz Israel his abilities and ambitions were not to become an “alrightnik”. He worked hard and quietly in his heart he carried a longing for the Jewish state. And when the state was established his yearning grew. He put away shilling to shilling, hoping with the small savings to be able to return to Haifa which he left 10 years ago. But from hard work and conscience anguish he became weak till one beautiful July day he was struck by a blood stroke in the brain. He lay in the hospital for a long time with vacant eyes. When he was able he leafed through Israeli journals and absorbed with his eyes the picture of the Jewish flag that fluttered so freely.... His thoughts took him back to where he spent his youth, the second twenty years of his life. Tears were running down his face. He was continuously wiping his eyes with his left mobile hand (the right side of his body was paralyzed). With questioning eyes he looked at the doctors wanting to read from their faces the condition of his situation. The words of comfort from his friends he took with tears. Yes, not so did he visualize his future and the future of his children, which sooner or later will be swallowed by assimilation.

He felt like a broken branch that was carried far from its roots and whose leaves will wither and fade. He turned his head away from his friends who were standing around him as though he wanted himself to take account of his life and finish with the pain and the belated regret. But the account was already done - his destiny was sealed: the burst blood vessel in the head atrophied the remainder of the tissues in the brain in which to his last breath the belated regret seethed...

Wellington, New Zealand , 1966