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written by: Michal Reibenbach
Try as she would Anna had never been able to understand her father’s behavior; he’d always remained an enigma to her. She’d notice that he'd change his behavior radically according to the situation in which he found himself in. Towards the world at large, he’d appear to be a harmless, if somewhat eccentric old man; his pockets were always full of squashy sweets which he’d hand out to anyone he happened to meet. In addition, he’d give them a broad smile for he obviously wished strangers to think well of him. During A.A. (Alcoholic Anonymous) meetings, which he had regularly attended during the last thirty years, he’d spent his time doing crossword puzzles. Although he’d listen to his fellow participants' testimonies, he himself had never uttered a solitary word in contribution. At family gatherings, he behaved as if he’d rather be invisible and would always look for a convenient place where he could curl up and fall asleep. Anna’s various attempts to engage him in pleasant small-talk were inevitably always futile. He’d responded in a ‘cocky,’ hurtful manner, after which his eyes would light up in a self-satisfied way as if he was pleased by the hurt he had managed to inflict. Anna's father was simply incapable of participating in small-talk. Being a clever man and having the ability to discuss ‘facts and figures’ were the traits that had enabled him to succeed in life. Anna had always felt as if there was an impenetrable wall which surrounded him and she was afraid of him. However, when he reached the ripe old age of ninety-two, she decided that it was high time to ask him all manner of questions before it was too late. By now a mature woman herself, she’d reached the conclusion (from reading various books and watching films on the subject of ‘losing a parent’) that it might be beneficial to establish a sense of ‘closure’ with one's parent before they passed away.
On several occasions, he’d promised that he would leave her a substantial financial legacy upon his death. Anna now realized that her father's words had just been a ploy in order to keep her thinking favorably of him. It was blatantly obvious to her that after the distribution of his estate between her mother, and his various children, the amount left to her would be negligible.
An opportunity for her to question him finally presented itself during a car trip to the countryside for a family picnic, in honor of her mother’s birthday. Anna was driving, beside her sat her mother, while her father sat in the back. Although she didn’t have much hope of receiving a normal reply, she tentatively ventured a question to him, “Daddy you don’t have to answer me if it makes you feel uncomfortable, but I’d very much like to hear about your childhood and your past life?” As she spoke she felt rather fearful since she fully expected to be rebuffed with one of his usual sarcastic and hurtful remarks. She was exceedingly relieved and astonished when instead her father launched into a long narrative about his past; since this was the first time in her life that he’d actually spoken to her properly! Anna wasn't able to catch every word he said, for he spoke softly while the car’s windows were open, causing the wind to make a swishing noise in her ears.
The following is an account of his reminiscence…
“My grandmother worked as a gentile maid in a Jewish household. The master of the house was a Russian man with olive-colored skin. He’d immigrated to Germany and eventually married a rich, blind, elderly woman, who was past child-bearing age. Therefore he’d wooed and seduced the beautiful gentile maid; as a result of this love affair, an olive-skinned baby girl was born. The master, together with the blind mistress of the house, raised the baby up as if she was their own. They promised the servant maid that both she and her child would always be well-cared for. Actually a great deal of the time it was the servant-girl herself who looked after her own offspring. When the child turned fourteen, the master of the house fell ill with a bad bout of influenza and sadly passed away; left all alone, the blind mistress failed to keep her word. She immediately cast the maid (my grandmother) and her child (my mother) out of her house. In order to survive, they posed as sisters and supported themselves by working long, arduous hours in a draper's shop. Eventually, after quite a few years of hard work they managed to scrape together enough money to enable them to buy a small live holding.” “What sort of live holding?” inquired Anna. Her father gave an enormous sigh and then said, “I don’t know exactly, probably some chickens, geese and a couple of goats.” After several long moments of silence, he returned to his story. “As a young woman, my mother was considered to be quite a beauty. During an evening out at a concert in Leipzig she caught, the eye of a young salesman and thus began a courtship between the couple. On their very first date, Hans declared that he had no intention of ever getting married. In the course of time my mother, Gertrude came to understand the reason for him feeling this way. He was the youngest child among his many older brothers, who had all ‘flown the nest’. As a result, he was, deeply attached to his mother. This problem was eventually resolved when Gertrude became pregnant, and the couple hastily got married. After the wedding, they went to live in a poor area of Leipzig for they only had a meager income. Even so, after I, was born, I thrived and grew into a strong little boy. My father utterly refused to have any more children since he felt that ‘times were hard’, and so I remained an only child. At my school, a Nazi group had become active, and one day I was asked by a boy to hold the Nazi flag for him while he went off to ‘pee’. I readily agreed as I didn’t understand its implications, and I held the flag. This led another boy, who was a member of the Nazi youths, to shout out at me accusingly, “You’re not allowed to hold the flag, you’re Jewish.” Without thinking twice I punched the boy in the nose, for I lived in a rough neighborhood where I had become used to street-fighting. The headmaster of my school summoned my parents to a meeting in order to discuss the incident. He urged them to withdraw me from the school for their own safety as well as mine. My parents complied with the headmaster's advice and swiftly removed me from his school. They then sent me to a religious Jewish school. Well, I was like a ‘fish out of water’ in this new environment. I’d never seen a religious Jew before, not to mention the caps they wore and their side ringlets. It was a completely new world to me, and one in which I felt lost and bewildered. My mother decided to ask for advice from a good friend of hers 'Hannah,' (who also happened to be a Zionist) as to what she should do with me? Hannah felt that the best solution would be to send me, abroad. Now it so happened that the man who ran the ‘Comrades Youth Group’ which I attended was opening a school in London to which his own son Ari (a friend of mine), would soon be going. Hannah suggested to my mother that it might be a good idea if I could also attend his school. In order to make this proposition come about she would need to search for a wealthy relative, someone who would be willing to pay for my education. My father remembered that he did, in fact, have a wealthy relative, a certain 'Uncle Arnold' who lived in America and was the owner of a grain business. Uncle Arnold and his wife were also childless. Hannah who would soon be traveling to Israel offered to pay Uncle Arnold a visit on her way over. In this way, she would have the opportunity to explain the situation to him. The outcome of Hannah’s visit proved to be fruitful because Uncle Arnold agreed to pay for my tuition. Upon hearing this good news my mother was extremely relieved and grateful. So it came about that Ari and I soon found ourselves aboard a ship sailing towards a new destiny in England. This was in the year 1933. Upon arriving in England we attended school in an old building near Regent’s Park and also near the zoo. We boys had a great time and often went to see the animals. Every holiday I’d travel over to Germany to visit my parents; but after about three years, I refused to go over to Germany anymore. In England, the newspapers were full of news about the dangerous Nazi rulers. News which my parents in Germany didn’t get to read, for the German newspapers were carefully censored. I insisted that if my parents wished to see me they would have to come over to live in England; that for them to remain living in Germany was very risky. My father, who was a veteran of the last war protested, claiming “I’ll be the last Jew to leave Germany, on the last train, in the last compartment of that train!” My mother who was an intelligent woman thought differently. One day she simply packed up all their worldly goods and shipped them over to England. As a result, when my father came home from work to their empty rented apartment there was nothing more for him to do there…and that’s how my parents came to move to England in 1936. To enable them to survive financially, I was taken out of school; and the money which had previously been used to pay my school-fees was now used to support the three, of us. Luckily life in England at that time was relatively inexpensive. In the beginning, my parents were also helped by ‘The Zamar’, a group of German veterans and they were able to rent an apartment in an inexpensive area of London. My father did his best to make a living as a salesman. As he didn’t speak English I had to accompany him in order to translate. It was very frustrating since we never succeeded in selling a single thing! Then as luck would have it an artificial-flower company went bankrupt and my father was able to buy it very cheaply. Hence ‘The Workshop’ came into being. It was a place of great pride to my father. He added other items to the plastic flowers, such as masks and dolls. My mother, who had previously worked for many years in a draper’s shop, had her own little business going. She would cut fabric and sew gloves by hand, which she would then go on to sell.” “She handmade gloves?” asked my mother incredulously. “Yes, she did…Our luck changed when one day my father noticed that in butcher’s shops the meat was decorated in live parsley which would go limp after a few days. Thus the idea came to him that he could make plastic parsley. It was an immediate success and soon he had to hire scores of workers to make the plastic parsley. In order to be near ‘The Workshop,’ we moved to live in Shepherd’s Bush. During this period, although I was only sixteen years old, I was accepted into a technical college where I studied to become an architect. I was younger than the other students but I was able to manage fairly well. By now the war in Europe was raging. In 1940 the Germans captured Belgium, Holland, and France within a period of a few weeks. In England, the whole country was thrown into a state of panic lest the Germans now decided to invade us. In response to the pervading trepidation, the Government decided that all foreigners from alien countries, especially Germany should be rounded up and transported to Australia. It was all rather illogical since the foreigners were grateful to England for saving them from the Nazis. My father and I were among those who were duly informed by some unpleasant policemen who turned up at our doorstep, that we were to be transported. Thus began a frightening period for our little family. My mother had to prepare herself to look after the business on her own, while we men-folk had to get ready for deportation.
I was twenty years old when in July 1940 my father and I were transported to Liverpool docks. There we were boarded onto the troop ship 'Dunera,' together with well over three thousand other men. We were squashed into a ship which had been originally designed to hold only about a thousand men. As well as us Jewish deportees there were also war prisoners on board. The Dunera set off on a voyage which lasted for forty-eight ghastly days. After the first few days, a gale began to rip around the ship. The waves thrashed at our vessel with such ferocity, that we believed every moment would be our last! All the passengers suffered from terrible sea-sickness. We Jews were packed into three decks. We slept in hammocks. There were only a few lavatories, so buckets were distributed for us to shit in. When the buckets were full we emptied the contents out into slot openings in the hull. All the portholes had been covered for fear of torpedoes from submarines. We were very seldom allowed on deck because the weather was so awful. Also, there had to be enough soldiers on hand to be able to search and guard us. We felt as if we were in a closed box that was being tossed about in the stormy sea. Obviously under these conditions life was extremely claustrophobic and overcrowded. When we’d boarded the ship all our belongings had been confiscated and placed into enormous heaps in the ship well out of our reach. As a result, we were left with only the clothes we were wearing during the whole trip. Showers could only be taken with sea water since pure drinking water was scarce; while our food would be handed down to us three times a day in army containers.” “What kinds of food were you given?” asked Anna. “We were mostly fed porridge and quite often also bread and herring which came out of barrels. Sometimes the food was rotten and as a result, many of us refugees got dysentery. I spent my days mopping down the deck from all the vomit. When my father came on board one of the soldiers had forcibly removed his wedding ring from his finger, an incident which had upset him greatly. There were scarcely any good things that happened to us, but occasionally they did occur. A German torpedo aimed at our vessel failed to hit us as a result of the stormy foul weather. One of the refugees, a sea-faring man was able to rig up an instrument enabling us, by the location of the sun, to know in which direction we were heading. On board there was a blind man who had come along with his two brothers; they had refused to leave him behind as he wouldn’t have been able to fend for himself. Therefore the deportees would hide their valuables in his clothes since he was the only person on board who wasn’t searched. Upon arriving in Australia our luggage was handed over to the Australian soldiers. Instead of keeping it for us, they immediately set about pilfering all our baggage. What they didn’t want they threw into the sea, which was a disaster! The clothes were of no importance but many of the deportees had Passports, visas and other valuable documents in their luggage which were consequently destroyed. We were taken off the ship and herded into wire cages like wild beasts.” At that degrading memory, Anna’s father took a break and stopped talking for a while. She thought to herself, ‘It’s amazing that such an old man has the strength to talk for such long a time.’ Afraid that he’d stop his story altogether she prompted him on, “This is all so interesting, what happened next?” Her father took a deep breath and then continued, “Later we were boarded onto a train which took us to the Hay internment camp which was in Tatura, Victoria. All around us the landscape was of parched grassland. The Australian National Guards soon realized that we were not dangerous and so they were friendly towards us. The camp was extremely over-crowded, and we lived in huts with about thirty men in each hut. Our days were filled with working, talking, listening to lectures, studying, writing letters; also worrying and hating. There wasn’t a single radio in the camp, however, we did send and receive lots of letters; also in our hut, we had some kittens. My father who was a very honest man and a good bookkeeper was put in charge of the canteen; his job entitled him to leave the camp in order to replenish his supplies. Each man was allotted a card, and those of us who worked had two points printed on their cards. This would entitle them to buy more at the canteen than those men who didn’t work (and only had one point printed on their cards). I worked in the kitchen; at first, there wasn’t enough food, and we weren’t able to make enough bread for all the men. In time the situation improved.” Anna’s father paused once again in order to remember back in time. She looked back at him through the driving mirror, saw his glasses flashing in the sunlight, and urged him to keep on talking…“How awful it must have been for you and your father. I’m sure you also constantly worried about your mother?” “Yes, obviously we did worry about her all the time…” he replied and then resumed his tale, “The camp eventually set up its own printing machine, which enabled us to print our own money; however after a while, both the machine and money were confiscated as they were considered illegal. I was able to successfully hide some of the money which I later sold after the war when I was skint.” “How long did you stay in the camp? How come you were finally released?” Anna asked. “The whole time that we were in the camp there had been considerable pressure from all sorts of people to release us. Eventually, the British government came to the realization that they’d made a big mistake. Finally, after a year, we were given our freedom. The date upon which we had arrived at the camp was exactly the same date a year later that we were released. As a way of compensating the deportees in some small measure for our suffering, the British Government allowed us to decide for ourselves in which country we wished to continue our future. They handed out suitable certificates: a few of the deportees remained in Australia, others decided to go off and live in Israel, while some headed for America where they had relatives. Those men of suitable age who decided to return to England would be enlisted in the army. Sailing back to England was extremely risky because the sea was full of German submarines; in fact, one of the ships with returning refugees was torpedoed and subsequently sank in the ocean! My father and I decided to sail back to England on separate ships in case one of our ships was torpedoed. Finally, we made the journey back to England. I was almost immediately enlisted into the Jewish Brigade division of the army. As yet I hadn’t finished my studies at the technical college, so the army sent me back to finish my studies as an enlisted soldier. Later I was sent to a training camp; after which in June 1944 our unit was sent to Normandy, France. We camped out in tents in the Cericy Forest, where our job was to fell trees in order to build bridges. After the breakout at Cain in July 1944, my unit was moved across France ---Well I don’t want to bore you with army maneuvers. Later I was granted a transfer to a unit with the grand title of Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives. The unit’s base was situated in the Zelle castle in Belgium. There was a list of important objects, precious paintings, archaeological artifacts, ancient documents and so forth; things which the English wanted to save from being destroyed in the war. Our Unit’s job was to search for these items, bring them to the castle and if necessary to restore them. The castle was surrounded by a mote of water which meant that there was only one entrance into and out of the castle- therefore it could be easily guarded. Everything that went on there was kept very secret. I was enormously excited to be able to touch 2000-year old Greek vases, or ancient documents--which otherwise I could only have been able to see in a museum. One day I went off to visit the nearby town of Bergen- Belsen; there was a concentration camp there, which didn’t have a crematorium. When the Americans arrived it was full of dead bodies; on the same day that I visited the camp, an American film group was filming all the dead corpses.” “What an awful sight!” said my mother. After stopping briefly Carl pressed on with his narrative, “Eventually I requested a transfer because I witnessed all sorts of illegal things going on in the castle. I was then assigned to the field-security police as I spoke German fluently. My job was to interrogate various German prisoners, mainly because we were looking for a German scientist who knew how to build bombs and would, therefore, be useful to us. I was finally demobilized at the end of 1946.”
Anna’s father had arrived at the end of his story and they had arrived at their destination at precisely the same time. She thanked him heartily for she’d found his story profoundly interesting, and at times heart rendering, especially the part about the voyage on the Dunera. For a man of ninety-two, his memory on that particular day had been amazing. Even if her father had told a little white lie or made a mistake here or there, his reminiscences were, after all, a story, rather, than a chapter out of a history book. Anna felt that by telling her his past history her father had given her a precious gift. As it turned out it was, in fact, his final goodbye present to her for soon after that trip he died of a stroke. For her part, she was glad to receive it, for it would at least leave her with a greater understanding, as well as a few good memories of him.
Anna's mother had constantly claimed that her husband’s strange behavior was the result of his past because, as she stated, “He was an only child and had been forced to grow up too fast.” After his death, Anna’s sister confided in her: “We’re almost certain that he suffered from a mild form of Asperger, a high functioning Autism.” This well-kept family secret astounded Anna, but it also explained many things about her father’s strange conduct. It certainly left her with a lot to ponder over!
She has two boys and six grandchildren.
Lives in Jerusalem.
The author has had stories published by Cafelit, Literary Yard, Grant Hudson's Anthology, 'Miracles' and Spillwords.