Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Totty’s Treasure- The Search For A Family Heirloom

My siblings and I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was always there, lurking in our closet, though we rarely spoke of it. I knew both my parents had numbers on their arms, they were the sole survivors of their large families, and had met in the DP camps. My mother's twin sister was chosen to be part of Dr. Mengele's sadistic experiments, and her little brother was sent with her mother to the gas chambers. Mommy never spoke about it, though. We only absorbed little snippets and clues over the years.

Totty’s family was large and illustrious; he came from a well-known Rabbinic dynasty in Poland. When war erupted, he had been learning in a yeshiva in Hungary, and thus was spared the mass deportations. Hitler arrived in Hungary several years after Poland was Judenrein, and far more Hungarian Jews survived. By the time my father and his friends were crammed into cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz, the war was waning, and the Nazis were in desperate need of manpower.


My father spent months working in a munitions factory under desperate conditions, battling typhus and malnutrition. He finally collapsed several days before the Russians liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. Thankfully, a Jewish Russian soldier found him lying on his bunk and took him to a nearby field hospital, where he slowly recovered.


Though my parents rarely mentioned those horrific years, they often spoke of their meeting in the D.P. camp of Feldafing, and the kindness of the Klausenberg Rebbe zt”l, who was both their shadchan and mesader kidushin. At their wedding, held months after liberation, my mother wore a borrowed dress, and her veil a thin piece of cloth. My father’s suit was chosen from the numerous care packages sent from America. Their home was a one-room ‘apartment’ in the DP camp, lacking a kitchen or even the most basic amenities. Though they had no living relatives at their wedding, and no money or possessions, they recall those years as being saturated with Hashem’s kindness.


“We thanked der aibishter that we survived, and were grateful to have met,” my mother often said. “Your father was so good to me, especially since I had no other relatives.”


She would often talk about her siblings, whose lives were so cruelly cut short, and adjure us, repeatedly, to cherish one another. “Take care of your sisters and brothers,” she would plead, on the rare occasions that we would squabble. “How can you be hurtful to your own flesh and blood?” Seeing her tears and genuine distress was our greatest incentive to make peace.


Totty spoke about the war years sparingly, yet he often reminisced about his dear parents and siblings. He was the eldest of five, the b’chor, and the only son. His father, Reb Yossel, had been a distinguished parnas in his town, and had been a renowned baal tzedakah. Totty recalled how his parents would care for the homeless beggars who would wander from town to town, seeking a hot meal and lodgings. His mother, whom they called the ‘tzadekes Sarah,’ would bring these wayfarers into her home, wash their clothes, and cook them nourishing meals. Totty would often give up his bed for a homeless beggar.


Totty chose special occasions to reminisce about his family, sharing poignant memories of his childhood. Prominent among these times was the seder night, when Totty recalled the miracles he experienced, and on Chanukah. As we would sit around the menorah, entranced by the flickering flames, my father would recall his devoted melamed, Reb Velvel, and the one room cheder where he learned the Aleph Bais. He would reminisce about their daily chores, recalling the way he would draw water at the well, dragging the heavy pails home, and help his father milk their cow, which provided them with fresh milk each morning.


Totty would also speak with nostalgia of the priceless family heirlooms they had owned, including his father’s precious menorah. “This hand-carved silver menorah had been given to my father by his father, who received it from his father, my great-grandfather. It had been passed down from father to son for four generations. Tatteh said it would be my inheritance when the time came.”


 Predictably, Totty’s eyes would fill with unshed tears. Yet he stubbornly wiped them away and gave us a wan smile. Totty never wanted to live in the past, to dwell on his tragic losses. Instead, he focused on the future, on his precious children and the joys of watching them grow.


From time to time, we would ask about these treasures, and fantasize about going to Poland to find them. My sister Shoshana, in particular, was fascinated by these heirlooms. Totty assured her they were as good as gone; after all, the treasures been buried in their backyard shortly before their village was liquidated. Even if they were still there, their childhood home was no longer their own. There was no way they would be allowed to dig in a Polish peasant’s backyard.


 “I had been learning in yeshiva then, in Chust, and we corresponded by mail,” Totty told us one night, as we sat around the menorah. “It was only a few weeks before the Germans invaded Poland, in 1939, that Tatteh wrote to me, telling me the matzav was bad. He was considering escaping across the border with Mama and the children, and was trying to obtain papers. In the letter, Tatteh also mentioned that he had buried the family’s valuables in a safe place, and included a crude map. From the drawing, I recognized the area, located behind a small shed in our spacious backyard.”


Totty, who was artistically gifted, drew a rough sketch of the antique menorah. It was the old-fashioned kind, with a tall wall, or base, attached to a row of hollows, where the oil was placed.


 “It was a beautiful menorah, with a unique flower motif sculpted onto the base. Our menorah was the envy of the shtetl,” Totty recalled. “In fact, I remember that Reb Shraga, the richest man in our village, offered my father three thousand rubles for it! Tatteh said that his menorah was not for sale, and that there was nothing to talk about.” He smiled at the memory.


“If you know where it’s buried, why don’t you go back to get it?” asked my eldest sister Sarah, who was named after Totty’s mother. She was the practical one, who often got things done.


Totty gave her a look, determination mingled with pain. “I should go back to Poland, to the land soaked with blood, where the ashes of my father and mother are scattered? I should give money to the blood-thirsty Poles who cooperated with the Germans? Never!”


My parents both felt strongly about this. They refused to patronize German products, and so we did not own a Bosch mixer or Pfaff sewing machine. They also never went back to Europe, unable – or unwilling – to face the ghosts of the past.


From time to time, especially on Chanukah, we would ask Totty about returning to search for the menorah, but his response was always the same. Even if he would have agreed to travel to Europe, there was a very slim chance that it would be found. “I am sure the peasants that moved into my parents’ home dug up the entire backyard,” he stressed.


– – – – – –


Years passed. We grew up and got married, building our own families. Totty and Mommy remained strong and active well into their golden years, seeing nachas from their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.


When Mommy was in her early seventies, she was diagnosed with the dreaded disease. The doctors gave her little hope, due to her age and the advanced stage of her illness. Though we tried various treatments, Mommy seemed to wither and grow more frail each day. She was niftar a year after she was diagnosed, leaving Totty, her partner in life for almost fifty years, and her children bereft.


Totty had played a traditional role in our childhood, working to bring parnossa, as the only breadwinner of the family. Throughout the years he never washed a dish, cooked a meal, or washed a load of laundry. Mommy had devoted herself to raising the children, and would never have allowed him to do household chores. In fact, she strongly disapproved of women working outside the home, or husbands taking care of the children. In her mind, these were symptoms of an ‘upside down world.’


Now that Mommy was no longer here to care for him, Totty was completely dependent on his children. As I was the eldest son, Totty decided to move in with us. My wife and I were already empty-nesters, having married off all our children. We felt privileged and honored to care for Totty in his golden years.


As it turned out, Totty was content in our home. He attended a daily shiur at the local senior citizen’s center, followed by lunch, and made some new friends there. His other children and grandchildren visited him frequently, and included him in all their milestones.


As the years went by, Totty’s health failed, and his memory was no longer so sharp and clear. True, he still knew all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren by name, but he no longer recalled the details of who was doing what. His recollections of his early childhood, though, were vivid, as if they could have happened yesterday. He would frequently speak of his beloved siblings, his childhood home, and the precious valuables buried in his backyard. “If only I could have my Tatteh’s menorah again,” he told me wistfully one day, a few weeks before Chanukah.


It was then that the idea, which had been percolating in my brain for years, took root. “Tatteh, shall I go and bring back the menorah for you?” I asked.


“Go back? To Poland?” Totty looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Why would you want to return to Poland?”


“I want to see your childhood home, to try and look for the menorah. Also, I want to daven by the gas chambers in Auschwitz, for the neshomahs of Zaidy and Bubby. I’ve never been to Poland.”


“It’s dangerous to go there, Yossele.”


“I wouldn’t go alone. There are tours nowadays, with a coach bus, or you can hire a private driver. Do you want to come with me?” I asked, on impulse.


“Of course not. I am never going back to Poland again,” said my father, a steely glint in his eye.


I knew how Totty felt, and respected his decision. Besides, he was too frail and weak to travel, even had he wanted to go. Yet I still felt a tremendous urge to make the trip.


 My father tried to dissuade me, but when he saw my mind was made up, he gave me his blessings. I called a travel agent to make reservations for the following week. During my absence, my father would move into the home of my sister Shoshana.


The day of my departure, my father gave me his blessing, and we both choked back tears of emotion. Shoshana took Totty home, and we drove to the airport. As we waited anxiously to board the flight, I felt dizzy with emotions I’d suppressed for years.


“Don’t expect to find your father’s menorah,” my wife, Esther, reminded me during the flight. “I don’t want you to be disappointed.”


“I know. It’s sort of like… looking for a needle in a haystack. I’m really going to see Totty’s childhood home, and to tour Auschwitz. But still, I can hope, can’t I?”


After a lengthy flight we landed in Krakow, jet-lagged yet eager to see the city. We had hired a driver, Anton, who was waiting for us at the airport. We introduced ourselves, found our luggage, and went into his surprisingly modern Volvo. Anton took us straight to the city proper, where we toured the famous Rema shul, davened at the kevorim in the historic bais olam, and visited Sarah Schneirer’s seminary. Then our affable driver dropped us off at the Novotel, which, we were grateful to discover, was clean and well-equipped. After a good night’s sleep we started our next day, bright and early.


We spent most of the day traveling to various cities, including Lizensk, Lancut, Lublin, and others, davening at kivrei tzaddikim for our children and extended family. It was very late by the time we warmed up our frozen supper and called it a night.


On the third day, we traveled to Auschwitz, the blood-soaked ‘gehenom on earth’ where my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and extended family had breathed their last.


As I toured Auschwitz I, its brick buildings carefully preserved, I could almost delude myself into thinking this was merely a replica of a historical site. But not for long. We paused at the giant pile of shoes, the collection of eyeglasses and uniforms, each one representing a person, and my last vestiges of equanimity crumbled. Then we entered the crematoria, with the ovens still standing, mute testimony to the depravity of this murder factory.


And then the tears came. I am not an overly emotional person, but I cried like a baby that day.


Next we visited Auschwitz II, or Birkenau. This camp is half-destroyed, only the forbidding watchtowers casting their eerie shadows, with some of the barracks remaining. We were guided to the gas chambers, which lie in ruins, along with the crematoria. During the height of the deportations, they had been working 24 hours a day.


 I whispered a poignant tefillah for the neshamos of my loved ones, and spoke to Hashem from the depths of my heart, begging Him to protect us and redeem us. We were emotionally wrung out as Anton drove us back to our hotel. Sleep didn’t come easily that night; Esther and I both tossed and turned until dawn.


A few hours later, after a hurried Shacharis, we were on the road again. On that fourth day, our final one in Poland, we were scheduled to visit the village where my father had spent his childhood. This, after all, was the purpose of our trip. I clutched a piece of paper with a crude map, and the address my father had given me: Tablonska 24.


– – – – – –


As Anton’s car passed miles of verdant fields and greenery, I was suddenly consumed by regret, and even a trace of fear. What would I find in the shtetl where my dear father had spent his happiest years? Was his home occupied by an anti-Semitic Pole with a shotgun? Was it wise to confront the new owners?


As if reading my thoughts, Esther murmured, “If you feel it isn’t safe, perhaps we shouldn’t knock on any doors.”


“I didn’t come all the way here just to take a tour of a tiny hick town,” I replied. “This – meeting the people, seeing Totty’s house, is the purpose of our trip.”


We rode the rest of the way in silence. And then we entered the village proper, which still looked like it had been caught in a time capsule. Everything appeared the same as it had been three quarters of a century ago; the ancient, barn-like structures, the muddy dirt roads and cows that wandered freely in the fields.


Thanks to my father’s map, and some crudely scribbled road signs, it didn’t take us long to find the street. We pulled up to the house, which was more like a dilapidated bungalow, with broken shutters and peeling paint. It was hard to visualize that this once belonged to my ‘wealthy’ grandparents.


Anton sat in the car and we cautiously got out, surveying our surroundings. I carefully approached the door, and froze in fear. A giant dog began to bark wildly nearby.


“I’m going back into the car,” said my wife, her face ashen. She has a long-standing fear of dogs. The barking grew louder, stronger. I was about to join her, but I clenched my fists and approached the door.


I began to knock, timidly at first, and then stronger. Suddenly I heard a voice behind me.


Ja? Czy moge ci pomoc?”


I whirled around, my heart pounding. A heavy-set, stocky man stood there, wearing dirty coveralls and holding a pitchfork. He looked like he’d been working in the nearby garden. He surveyed me with a hard, shrewd expression, and repeated his question. “Czy moge ci pomoc?”


Helpless, I gestured to Anton, who came out of the car and began a dialogue with the stranger in rapid-fire Polish. “He lives here, with his old mother,” said Anton after a pause. “He wanted to know if he could help you, and what you are looking for.”


“Tell him my father used to live here, and we want to tour the house. We are willing to pay,” I responded.


Anton resumed the conversation with the Pole. At first, he appeared angry, and even more suspicious than before. But then Anton mentioned something about zlotys, he perked up. “Give him money,” our driver mouthed. I reached into my pocket and handed him a handful of ruble notes.


The man’s face lit up as he pocketed the money, which we’d exchanged in the airport. Then he marched into the home, slamming the door behind him. My wife and I waited anxiously for several moments. Finally, the door was opened, and our ‘friend’ stood there, next to a wizened old woman wearing a babushka.


Anton greeted her and gestured to us, talking incessantly. The woman nodded, her eyes sparking with sudden comprehension. After lengthy negotiations, and another exchange of rubles, Anton turned to us. “They will allow you to visit the home for a few minutes, but then you have to leave and never come back again.”


I nodded somberly. At that point, I would have done anything to see my father’s childhood home up close.


Within seconds we were inside the bungalow, which, if anything, looked even smaller and more dilapidated from within. The main room was almost completely bare, aside for a mantelpiece with some pictures, and a wooden table surrounded by some mismatched chairs. Off to one side were two bedrooms, and in the back, crudely attached, was an outhouse. The tiny kitchen abutted the other side of the home: it consisted of an ancient oven, encrusted with years of grime, a small refrigerator, a microwave and some pots hanging on hooks.


Esther and I looked at each other, the same question in our eyes: Is this the palatial mansion my father always spoke of? Perhaps we had the wrong address?


The Pole assured us that this house had once been owned by Jews. He showed us the indentation in the doorway where the mezuza had been, and a square of paint, a zecher l’chorbon, that had been scraped off on one wall. Since the address, and my father’s map matched, we knew it was the correct house.


Yet we didn’t glean too much information, aside for a few pictures I carefully snapped. The grand tour was over moments after it had begun. Despite our exchange of money, the burly Pole was eager to escort us outside. The entire time, his mother glared at us with hatred and suspicion. I wondered if she had been the one to witness my grandparents being dragged away.


Esther was eager to go, but I was reluctant to leave. I wanted permission to check the backyard and see if I could somehow uncover our family treasures.


“Don’t even try,” Anton warned me. “This man has no more patience. He will set the dogs on you.”


Sensing that we were unsatisfied, the Pole turned to Anton, and another heated conversation ensued. This time, both the mother and son glared at us. “They claim that there is nothing in the backyard, and that they want you to leave right now. Come.” Anton was clearly anxious for us to avoid trouble.


I panicked, sensing that my last chance to recover my father’s treasures was rapidly fading. My wife gestured to me that we should hurry. The dog had been tied up outside, but his barking was growing more frantic. It wouldn’t take more than a few moments for the young man to untie him. Just picturing his sharp fangs in my flesh made me feel lightheaded.


It seemed that all was lost. “Totty, I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I tried, but I wasn’t successful.”


Reluctantly, I turned to go. Our chance was over.


And then, out of the blue, I withdrew a 100 ruble note and handed it to the old lady, a goodwill gesture. I don’t know what possessed me. It certainly wasn’t a calculated decision. There was no reason to reward her. After all, she and her son had not been especially gracious, nor welcoming. And we had already paid them to allow us into their home. Besides, my father would never agree to my giving money to the Poles.


Yet it seemed that my decision was guided from Above, in an inexplicable manner. As soon as she pocketed the money, the old woman’s wrinkled face spread into a small smile.


She began to talk to me in rapid-fire Polish, and Anton listened intently. “She says she has something for you,” my driver said. “As a parting gift, because you were kind to her.”


The old woman went into one of the small bedrooms and returned with a bundle wrapped in old newspapers. Esther and I stood there, frozen in shock, as she handed it to us.


The burly Pole threw open the door and gestured for us to leave. I smelled alcohol on his breath. He was clearly displeased with his mother’s gift. In one motion, he reached to untie the dog, who was already foaming at the mouth.


It was twilight, and the sky was streaked with pink. My wife and I followed Anton to the car, nearly stumbling in our haste. Anton gunned the motor and we sped off.


I didn’t dare open the package until we had left the village. Then I unwrapped it slowly, with trembling fingers.


Esther gasped. On my lap was an ancient menorah, bent out of shape, streaked and tarnished. But as I beheld the flowers sculpted into the delicate silver base, I saw it was an antique, a work of art.


I knew it was Totty’s heirloom.


I didn’t let the precious menorah out of my sight as we went to the hotel, quickly packed our bags, and traveled to the airport. I paid a grateful Anton an extra bonus for helping us achieve our goal.


All the way home, I kept the priceless family heirloom in my hand luggage, checking on it compulsively, every five minutes. Soon we were pulling into my sister Shoshana’s driveway and entering her kitchen, where Totty was waiting anxiously.


My father looked older and more frail than when I left him. I hadn’t told him anything about the menorah, yet I sensed that he knew I’d been successful. His eyes were clear, shining with joy and anticipation.


“This is for you, Totty,” I said, handing him the package.


The look on my father’s face, as he reverently clutched the family heirloom to his chest, and whispered thanks to der aibishter, was one I shall never forget.


It was less than a week before Chanukah.


On the first night, as Totty lit the menorah, all his children were gathered around him, watching and waiting. Totty made the brocha, his voice breaking, and then he lit the match, igniting the very first lichtilah.


He turned to us, his beloved children, and the light of the fire was reflected in his eyes.


“They wanted to destroy us, kinderlach,” Totty whispered, a small tear stuck on his eyelid. “But we’re still here. All of us, my precious ones. And so is Tatteh’s menorah.”




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