I have a box on my desk. Here is where my father lived.
One year ago today I received a large box with all Papa’s papers in it. It came from Douglass and Cohn, Solicitors of Bank Place, Melbourne. In it were all the records of my family’s dealings with the law as long as I can remember. They keep all documentation for twenty years and then destroy it unless any of the family wants it and I am the only family.
I have two fathers. I know that now but I only found out one year ago. One year ago I only knew Papa. Mama died when I was twelve and I loved her dearly. She was always such a happy person. I really could do with her now but that is asking too much – I am eighty years old and I will join them all soon.
Papa died in 1993. He was as old as I am now and he never told me who I was.
Here is where my other father lived – in a box.
My first real memory was of the ocean. I cannot remember my childish feelings but I do know the ocean was cold and then very hot and then quite cold again and we were on a boat with thousands of other people, old and young but mostly sad. I remember coming to Melbourne although I didn’t know what a Melbourne was, then. But it was a house and it was quiet and peaceful and I think I know that because I felt that it was different.
At home we spoke German. At school I spoke English and as the years went by I spoke German less and English more. But on Sunday we all spoke only German for Papa was the pastor at the German Lutheran Church in our suburb.
I was proud of my father. He spoke well. His sermons were clear. The congregation were very supportive. But as I grew and went to school I learned that being German was not as good in this world as I had thought. I learned about Hitler and the things that had happened in Europe. I put my age and the dates together and knew that we had been involved.
I knew without asking that something momentous had happened in our small family but I was busy with my school and although they said little I asked even less.
At school I learned that Australian soldiers had died in the war against Germany. I knew that some Australians hated Germans with a clear and open hatred. And I was included in that. And I wondered what I had done.
But as the years went by, and as I grew and my friends grew we forgot the early hatreds of the war and established our lives and established our families and I married and went to work.
At the church where my father had been pastor we stopped using German and all services were in English. Many parishioners were ordinary Australians and the German character changed and we became an ordinary old “Aussie” church. I became a member of the church council and some people suggested that my commitment was such that I should study to become a pastor as my Papa had been but work was also an attraction and I never did commit myself. I knew, always, that I was a true and faithful Christian.
This is not about my life and my marriage and my children and all that that entails. I could talk forever if I was writing a history of my life but I am not. Because everything that my life, my marriage, my children were to me, changed that day, one year ago, when I opened the box.
I am Jewish. I am not my father’s son. My mother, whom I loved dearly, lied to me all those years. In the box I learned the truth. I learned that I am Jewish. I am a ‘Yid’. I am supposed to have curly hair and a big nose. Oh, and I am supposed to be in the financial world. And I am not. I knew nothing of being Jewish, only those stereotypes.
And in the box I learned that Papa, and Mama, whom I loved dearly, were no longer my parents. And I slammed the lid of the box shut and cried and cried as only an old man can cry. I had few tears left inside my head but I sobbed and sobbed.
And I opened the lid of the box again and read. And again I slammed the lid of the box shut and cried and cried as only an old man can cry.
And then I stopped. I stopped sobbing for I am an old man and sobbing is for old women.
And I will tell you the box.
The box spoke of Hitler and the Brown shirts and Kristallnacht which I didn’t need to learn because I had learned it at school. At school it had just been one more factor in our year twelve Modern History Course – just another subject to pass to get into University. Make sure you impress the examiners if you want a good score. Do you want to study Law? Modern History is a fairly easy way to get a good score. Crystal Night. They burnt books. Or was that another night. I don’t remember. It was the Jews.
I am a Jew! I slammed the box shut. I will leave it for a while. Maybe it will be a dream.
But the dream did not let me alone.
I opened the box. I will tell you the box’s story.
The box told of the Jews disappearing. They got on a train and were never seen anymore. Papa was a young Pastor then. But he had a very old friend from when he was a boy in school in the village. Yakob Aronheim and Papa had played together as friends. And now Yacob was a Rabbi. And Papa and Yacob were still friends. The Nazis knew that Papa was sympathetic toward the Jews. Many Christians were not. Papa was so concerned that he was soon to be targeted by the Nazis. He decided to go quietly to Belgium. He spoke with Yakob and Yakob’s wife and suggested that they should also leave. But Yacob could not get the right papers. I know this sounds very terse but it is as the box told it.
What way can I help you?
Miriam and I have talked. Would you take Yacob, our son, and have him as your son?
And do not tell him we left him.
Of course not.
And don’t let him be Jewish or he will die as we will.
Of course. But No! Not of course. He must know who he is.
Then when he is old enough to understand.
But I do not understand and I am old. And I slammed the lid.
I opened the lid. The box will tell. But the box told no more.
And I am a Jew. And I have two fathers and two mothers and I knew only one father and for a short time a mother. And I am a Jew and I have nothing to say – nothing to think – nothing to know.
And I started to run – to run to books – to run to friends – to run to my father. But my father was dead. Who is my father? Papa, are you my father or is Yakob my father?
And as I cried this time I cried, ‘My father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy …… ‘ And I slammed the lid shut.
I am a Jew. I am a Christian. My God, My God, who am I. Why hast thou forsaken me? Who am I now?
And I ran to the box but the lid was shut. There was no more in the box. I knew I was alone. No father, no parent, no God.
And I stopped crying like an old lady.
There is a suburb in Melbourne that I drove through every day to work. Carlisle Street, Balaklava. Strange men walking with large black hats on their head. Young men with yarmulkes keeping their heads covered whether they know why or not. So I stopped and walked down Carlisle Street. I won’t say I felt at home. But I was quite at ease. A young man in a beard and a black suit with his white shirt hanging out and tassels stopped me.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“No,” I answered. “Do I look Jewish?”
“Well, yes you do.”
“Well I am not. What do you want?”
“We are praying for peace in Israel,” he said, winding some black string around his arm. I ignored that.
“No,” I said, a little more gently than before, “But I think I am on your side.” And I walked away feeling quite pleased with my self although I had no idea why.
I looked up Jewish Museum in the phone book. I lived quite close and it was Friday and I drove and parked and walked and it was closed. It is always closed on Fridays and Saturdays when all the other museums in Australia are opened.
And the days passed. And the weeks. And I went to libraries and read and read and read and then I started to cry again.
When I was in school we learned of things that the box had said. The box spoke of Hitler and the Brown shirts and Kristallnacht. But I already told you that. At school it had just been one more factor in our year twelve Modern History Course. And I told you that as well. I don’t remember Year Twelve Modern History. I learned more now. I learned of Crystal Night and Dachau and burning and gas. But now it was personal. I went back to the box.
And in the bottom was a small dark letter and my father Yacob was dead in Auschwitz. My father and mother had made it to Belgium but that was not enough. My mother was Miriam.
And I am a Jew. The box could tell me no more. It told me where to start but I had to find my own way.
The next Sunday I went to church – as I have done for all my life. And I know that when I got up, halfway through the sermon they all looked at me. Is Jacob all right? Why is he leaving? Why doesn’t someone go after him? He doesn’t look well.
I will tell you this. Jacob is not well. I am Yacob, and I am not well.
My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me? No I am not well.
I walked that day right in to town. I left my car. I did not notice the tram. I walked all the way to the Cathedral. If God is here, here will he be.
I knelt to pray. But I could not pray. “Father forgive me for I have sinned.”
My God! My God! Why did you forsake me? Why did you forsake my father and my mother? How many did you forsake?
I was Jacob wrestling with the angel. I was Job in all his torment. And God replied but I could not listen.
For I am a Jew and I haven’t learned to forgive God.
And I closed the lid, and I took the box.
And I burned my own private holocaust.
I am glad I will die soon.