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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Not my story…

Yesterday morning I was in Zichron Yaakov on business. I hadn’t been there since the summer of 2002 when Zahava and I visited this charming little winery town (the Carmel Mizrahi winery is its cornerstone), and I had nearly forgotten about this picturesque community overlooking the Mediterranean.

My surreal meeting (which warrants a journal entry of its own, I assure you) ended around lunchtime, and my colleagues were anxious to try out one of the trendy little restaurants in the center of Zichron. I wasn’t particularly hungry so I opted to wander around and look in the shops instead.

After I had exhausting the complete gambit of arty boutiques that seem to populate every ‘wine community’ in the world, I wandered over to the old 19th century synagogue which Zahava and I had visited during our previous trip.

I was really hoping that the caretaker, an elderly holocaust survivor, would be somewhere in the synagogue... but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. I was deeply disappointed because I had really wanted to ask him some details about a story he had told us during our 2002 visit.

As I wandered around the old synagogue, I started to worry that perhaps he had passed on... he had to have been in his late 80’s when we met him.

As I was passing the wall full of memorial plaques on my way out, I decided that even without the few details he might have been able to provide, I wanted to share his story here.  As I said in the title of today’s post; it’s really not my story, but it is a story very much in need of telling:

This caretaker, originally from Slovakia, had lost his entire family in the holocaust and had spent the final months of the war as a laborer in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.

Each night while he was in the camp, he shared a wooden bunk with another man of about the same age named Jacob Katz. Jacob Katz had been taken from his wife and daughter. And while he was fairly certain that his wife had been killed, he stubbornly refused to believe that his teenage daughter ‘Magda’ was dead. Each night Jacob took a picture of his daughter from its hiding place and kissed her goodnight.

After some time, Jacob Katz and his bunkmate created a ritual whereby they would both kiss the picture and say goodnight to Jacob's beautiful blonde daughter, Magda.

As the allied troops advanced towards Auschwitz during the final weeks of the war, the camp guards began making preparations to move the inmates, and decided to kill the ones who were too sick to walk. Unfortunately Jacob fell into this category, and he was led away to be shot... all the time thinking that he was being taken to the infirmary. His longtime bunkmate heard the shots that waited for Jacob at the end of this terrible ruse.

Jacob’s bunkmate survived the war and made his way to Israel where he raised a family on a Moshav not far from Zichron Yaakov. In his retirement years, he became the caretaker and default tour guide for the old synagogue in Zichron, and was happy to do the countless small tasks that came with that role.

One day while the caretaker was puttering around the small lobby of the synagogue, making adjustments to the memorial plaques on the wall, he noticed a group of three women standing nearby. There was an elderly gray-haired woman, a middle aged woman, and a pretty teenaged girl with blonde hair. It was this teenager... the identical image from that long-lost photograph... that completely took his breath away.

He went over to the small group and interrupted the two older women to ask the older of the two if her name was Magda. When she said yes, he asked her if she was the daughter of Jacob Katz. She said yes, but wanted to know how the caretaker knew who she was... she couldn’t remember having met him before.

Through his tears the caretaker explained the story of how, though they had never met, he had kissed her goodnight countless times when she was a young girl.

It turns out that Magda had also come to Israel after the war and had never found out what became of her father. She explained that he had been taken away by the Nazis and she had assumed he had been killed... but she never knew the time or place of his death. That afternoon she finally learned of her father’s fate, and that his thoughts were on her up until the very end of his days.

And she, along with her daughter and granddaughter, got to meet a living link to Jacob Katz... a man who, during the darkest days of his life, had given her countless kisses goodnight.

As I said, this was really not my story to tell, but walking around the quiet synagogue in Zichron Yaakov (which fittingly means ‘the memory of Jacob’), I was suddenly afraid that the person from whom I had heard the story might no longer be around to tell it. I really hope I’m wrong about that... and that he was simply taking a much-deserved afternoon off. But if not, you now know one of the millions of stories that exist in this tiny country of mine... stories that too frequently are left untold as the last of the ‘holocaust generation’ takes its leave to ask the important questions of the only One who can possible answer.

220_6

Posted by David Bogner on January 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Wow. What a story.

*wipes tear from eye*

Posted by: Dave | Jan 6, 2005 11:28:18 AM

Unbelievable story. We all know similar stories happened over the years, but you write it so well that I feel like I was in the shul loby that day.

Posted by: Passing Through | Jan 6, 2005 4:56:09 PM

Wow! Good one. My husband loved it too.

Posted by: Alice | Jan 6, 2005 4:57:52 PM

Thanks for sharing it... I trust you won't mind if I retell it.

Posted by: oceanguy | Jan 6, 2005 6:21:51 PM

A beautiful story, beautifully written. Thank you.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jan 6, 2005 6:48:22 PM

I too, am teary.

Posted by: lisa | Jan 6, 2005 7:18:12 PM

As soon as my words are back, I will tell the story to my grandmother. There is always hope to meet somebody again of whom you think you lost forever.

Posted by: sandra | Jan 6, 2005 8:38:12 PM

That is a beautiful story.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 6, 2005 8:52:28 PM

So very touching -- I have a lump in my throat.

Posted by: Stacey | Jan 6, 2005 9:05:22 PM

Thank you for that.

Posted by: Isaac | Jan 6, 2005 9:13:48 PM

Dave... It had the same effect on me (still does, to be honest). As I said, I can't take credit for the story... it's not mine. This was just a reminder that many stories bear repeating.

Passing through... Thank you. One of the wonderful things about keeping a journal or blog is that you start to organize your thinking about important things so that they can be presented logically in the written form. The man from whom I heard the story was speaking from the heart, but may not have had the ability or presence of mind to write it down. That is one of the reasons I wanted to share it in this medium.

Alice... I'm glad that you and your husband got as much from the story as I did.

Oceanguy... WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!? One day I go to get my daily fix of 'my man in Florida' and I get bupkas...404! I was like a rat ina skinner box for days trying to get your site to load!!! Then I figured you'd suddenly hung up your spurs of something! I'm so glad to have your new URL... and yes, of course you can, and should retell the story. That's sort of the point.

Doctor Bean... Don't thank me... I'm just the messenger.

Lisa... Sorry, but sometimes it feels good to cry, doesn't it? This is one of those stories that reminds me of the anonymous poem that was found in the Therisenstadt concentration camp... the last stanza of which reads:

"Open up your heart to beauty
and go to the woods someday;
And weave a wreath of memories there,
and if the tears obscure your way
you will know how good it is
to be alive."

Sandra... If you feel like sharing, I'd love to know her reaction.

Jack... If I get the opportunity to meet the caretaker again (in this world or the one to come) I'll pass along your compliment.

Stacey... You can ask my wife... every time I have tried to tell this story to somebody in person, I can't get through it. I'm glad I finally wrote it down.

Isaac... Again, I'll pass along your compliment.

Posted by: David | Jan 6, 2005 10:32:04 PM

It is a beautiful story. And if he's gone - which does happen to old people - your memory and retelling of his life are his immortality.

Posted by: Tanya | Jan 7, 2005 2:38:44 AM

Thank you for that, David. Truly beautiful.

Posted by: Carol | Jan 7, 2005 4:07:14 AM

Hmmmmm.... [checks watch, does math] 8:50 am Israel time. No Photo Friday yet. That's OK. I can wait......

[clicks the refresh button, checks watch again] 8:52 am. It's worth the wait. I hope I didn't wake you. No hurry. I'll make some more instant coffee...

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jan 7, 2005 8:49:04 AM

It's a great story. My Father was from Cosice, Slovakia and was in Auschwitz - probably one of the youngest survivors there because he was 15 at the time in general most people were sent straight for gassing if they were 16 or younger - or they were too old for working.
I often wonder if any of his family that we presume were murdered are still alive. If anyone reading this knows anyone from Cosice and remembers Alfred Steiner..he's still alive and kicking and living in Melbourne Ausralia.

Posted by: Anita | Jan 9, 2005 4:15:27 PM

Wow, David, I had forgotten his story. I remember being there that day in the synagogue, but I couldn't, for the life of me, recall the caretaker's story. All I remembered was his beautiful old face...
Thanks for the reminder!

Posted by: Chavi | Jan 10, 2005 7:49:05 PM

Anita... Thank you for sharing your father's story... he should live and be well 'til 120.

Posted by: David | Jan 10, 2005 10:43:44 PM

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