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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Not my story

[Another one from the archives while I'm out recharging my batteries]

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.

Posted by David Bogner on August 23, 2006 | Permalink

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Now you have gone and made me cry...

I am always amazed at the stories that come from the survivors and how when they think they have been forgotten, someone comes out of nowhere to find their past usually right around the corner.

Thanks you for sharing the story and hopefully preserving for the generations yet to come.

Posted by: Renee | Aug 23, 2006 8:15:34 AM

This was one of my favorites. Glad to have the opportunity to read it again...

Posted by: mcaryeh | Aug 23, 2006 9:17:04 AM

I know I love this blog because it brings me to tears and laughter. This one touched my heart (again). You should write a book....

Posted by: aliyah06 | Aug 23, 2006 10:22:28 AM

I love these stories. I hear them again and again, how Gd brings the right people together at the just the right time. Survivors meet the people they need to find in the most benign circumstances.

Zichron Yaakov. What else would it be?

And just because it's not "our" story, doesn't mean we don't have an obligation to tell it. Thank you.

Posted by: projgen | Aug 24, 2006 4:44:46 AM

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