There are only a handful of mitzvot about which the Torah hints to their reward and even fewer about which we are told precisely what the reward will be. One of these is kibbud av va’em, honoring our parents, the fifth of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai.
As teenagers chafing at parental limitations we dream of the day when we will be able to leave home and make our own decisions. As adults and young parents we often have little patience for our parents’ suggestions about child-rearing or financial planning. In middle age we become part of the sandwich generation, caring for our children and our sometimes ill but almost always elderly parents, feeling ourselves squeezed simultaneously from both ends.
Only rarely throughout these years do most of us dwell upon the knowledge that the mitzvah of honoring our parents is finite and that after their death it is a commandment that we can no longer fulfill, at least in the usual sense of the word.
I was born when my father, Chaskel Tydor – Yechezkel Shraga ben Yehuda Leib Halevi – was almost fifty-six years old and as far back as I could remember I was aware that for me, as a result of my father’s advanced age, this mitzvah would probably be quite finite.
But in this I was not alone in my circle. Many of the children in my Orthodox New York elementary school of the mid-1960s had older parents who were Holocaust survivors. The number of those whose parents’ arms bore an Auschwitz number was almost equal to those whose didn’t. Like my father, some had lost wives, husbands or children during the war.
When we were born in the mid- to late-1950s our middle-aged fathers were still in the process of rebuilding their postwar lives. Meeting at school on parent-teacher nights they would speak to each other in the Yiddish of their youth, recalling names and places that meant a world to them and very little to us.
But I was the only one whose father had founded a kibbutz after the Holocaust; the only one who had a brother and sister almost thirty years older who had survived the war as children; the only one whose father had remarried a woman twenty-five years his junior. And I was the only one whose parents had lived in South Dakota and Montana before her birth (when my father was the general manager of a number of uranium mines).
* * * * *
My father’s unique life story was actually a slice of Jewish history. He was born to a chassidic family in Bochnia, Poland in 1903. The family fled to Germany at the outbreak of World War I. My father remained for two and a half decades, marrying and raising a family. In September 1939 he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald, from there to Auschwitz, and finally back to Buchenwald where he was liberated by the American army on April 11, 1945.
During the war his first wife had perished at the hands of the Nazis but his two children had been saved and eventually brought to the United States by a Quaker rescue group in late 1941. In the spring of 1945 he was among the founders of Kibbutz Buchenwald, the first hachshara kibbutz formed in liberated Germany, and in September of that year he brought the first group to Eretz Yisrael. Learning that his children were alive in America he spent the next few years traveling back and forth, unsuccessful in convincing them to join him in the new State of Israel.
In 1951 he moved to New York, managed a travel agency, fell in love with his young secretary and married her, to the delight of his two grown and married children. After a two-year sojourn in the “wild west” they returned to New York for my birth so that I could be raised within an established Jewish community. I was their only child and brought up almost from infancy with stories about my father’s pre-war, wartime and post-war experiences, and my half brother and sister’s miraculous rescue to America.
When I was fifteen my parents, grandmother and I moved to Israel where I connected with another part of my father’s life – relatives of his first wife who became “my” relatives as well, and friends from his pre-war and wartime lives. There I learned about the hundreds of Jews he had saved during the war in both Buchenwald and Auschwitz-Buna where he had been incarcerated for more than five years. There I learned about the dozens of young survivors, both men and women, he helped bring back to life in the kibbutz he founded.
It was only after moving to Israel that I truly got to know my father, now retired and with time to spend with his second family and youngest daughter.
As an Orthodox Jewish young woman, and particularly the daughter of a very European Orthodox father, it was obvious that kibbud av va’em would be a pivotal factor in my upbringing and education. But it was also not difficult to honor my father. He was a strong but gentle man, always with a smile and a kind word to people.
True, his Yekkish background occasionally came to the fore, such as when he sat with me for hours as a child making me practice until I learned the correct way to use a pencil eraser. But he could also be spontaneous, a man with an impish streak and a sweet tooth that he shared with me, and later with my daughters. He never stinted in showing me his overwhelming love and the joy he experienced in being given a second chance at fatherhood after the war had robbed him of that experience with his two older children.
* * * * *
When my father returned his soul to its Maker at almost ninety years of age, he was survived by three children, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Soon after his death, a sixth great-grandchild was born who received his great-grandfather’s name. Throughout the years that followed my siblings and I all honored his memory in different ways, and though we never forgot him for a moment, his image at times began fading in its intensity.
My daughters, who had been six and eight at the time of his death, remembered incidents with their Zeide but barely knew his essence. To the older he was the Zeide who would give a dvar Torah at the Shabbos morning table. To the younger he was the Zeide who would play hide and seek with her and always let her find him. To both, he was the beloved grandfather who would sneak them bittersweet chocolate between meals, making them promise not to tell their grandmother of the lapse.
They remembered him with love, but other than the occasional stories they would hear from me or their grandmother, he was barely a ghostly presence in their lives. I often wondered if his other grandchildren in America even thought about him and the legacy he had bequeathed all of them by his life and accomplishments. And while I thankfully had a mother I could love and honor, I occasionally thought of the fact that since my father’s death, that mitzvah had been cut in half.
True, as a historian specializing in, among other things, the Holocaust, I would tell stories about him to my students and had even dedicated books to his honor and later his memory, but it was not the same. It was his memory, not his essence, and I feared that as time progressed, that essence, too, would be lost forever.
* * * * *
In the autumn of 2008, fifteen and a half years after my father’s death, I began a journey that led to my once again being able to fulfill the commandment of honoring my father, albeit in a somewhat unconventional way. Two years earlier I had married my second husband, Joshua Jay Schwartz, a historian like myself and also a former American living in Israel for many years, but with no immediate family connection to the Holocaust.
We married when he was fifty-four, the exact age my father had been when he married my mother, and delighted in the kind of love that I can only imagine my parents must have known. My one sorrow was that though he had heard many stories about his late shver (father-in-law), he would never know my father.
Finding ourselves with a large merged family as a result of our marriage, we had litle chance to contemplate a honeymoon of any kind. As we neared our first anniversary my husband suggested the time had come for us to have a belated honeymoon.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked him, thinking he would suggest London, Rome or Paris.
“I want to go with you to Poland,” he said, “to Auschwitz, to Bochnia where your father was born.”
Two months later we were in Poland, basing ourselves in Warsaw and Krakow. Not everyone gets to go to Auschwitz for their honeymoon, I thought facetiously as I showed Josh through the main camp, having been there professionally as a Holocaust historian several times in the late 1980s.
The next morning we drove to Bochnia, the town of my father’s birth, which was now a bedroom suburb of Krakow. Together we visited the house in which my father was born, the garden in which he had learned to walk, and the town archive where I found documents dating back a century and a half, listing my great-grandfather’s birth in 1845, his purchase of the house in Bochnia after marrying my great-grandmother, my grandfather’s birth, my father’s birth, and my father’s first marriage in 1930. Now they were finally real.
The portraits of all these people on the wall of my mother’s living room, none of whom I had ever met other than my father, suddenly sprang to life. Wandering with my husband through the rainy streets of Bochnia I could see my family walking those same streets over a century ago. My great-grandfather with his long gray beard walking side by side with his only son, my grandfather, and behind them my father, who like any young child was stopping to step in the puddles.
“Why don’t you write a book about them,” my husband suggested when we returned home, a thought I immediately put aside with my usual “maybe some day, God willing,” thinking that in about twenty years I might get around to it.
But “man plans and God laughs,” according to the old Yiddish proverb, and the Master of the Universe obviously willed that day to come sooner than later.
* * * * *
Less than a year later I stood at an unexpected professional crossroads and decided it was time to put aside my other projects and write that book. I figured it wouldn’t be that difficult; after all I had already written over half a dozen historical books, most about the Holocaust. All I needed was to do a few months’ research, find primary sources, put together a detailed outline and then finally sit down and write. Eventually I might find a suitable title that would give my father the honor and dignity he deserved. That was the standard order I had always used when writing a book.
But I was in for a surprise. Sitting down at the computer that evening I found myself opening a new document and typing the words: “The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill of Bochnia.” As a little girl, week after week my father had told me stories that interwove Torah, faith, and the history of the Jewish people, embodied in the adventures of the imaginary little fellow featuring in all the tales, whom he had named “Buffalo Bill from Bochnia.”
Whatever my father’s intentions were when he told me those stories as a child, the more I learned about his experiences, the more his image truly meshed with that of “Buffalo Bill of Bochnia,” the courageous young boy on whose stories I was raised. To me, that was my father. I now had my title.
Looking back at the six months that followed, it seemed as if the book actually wrote itself. The words flowed from my fingers in torrents, my brain picturing the images as the phrases appeared on the screen before me seconds later. Finally, I sorted through the hundreds of documents my father had kept about his postwar life, and the prewar copies of letters he had written in trying to save his family from Hitler (which he received from their recipients after the war).
Fearing to idealize him, I decided to forgo describing him from memory and relied only on descriptions provided by others, family, friends, camp comrades, business acquaintances, neighbors.
Night after night as my family slept I sat at the computer and wrote, alternately laughing and crying at the descriptions that filled page after page. At 2 a.m. I often found myself e-mailing my mother, asking whether something I found in my father’s papers could actually be true. Oh how I missed him! It was as if he had died only yesterday. The book that began as a challenge became a labor of love, a catharsis, the most important project I ever undertook.
Six months later I completed the manuscript, found a suitable publisher and a bit more than a year after I began the project the book was published. That month my 79-year-old sister came to Israel on her annual trip as a “Sarel” volunteer for the Israeli army, and together we visited our father’s grave.
“Dad, she did it, she wrote your book,” my sister said to our father. “You can be very proud of her! She did it for all of us.”
And all I could think of, looking up at the perfect blue sky of Eretz Yisrael, was “Thank you Ribbono Shel Olam for the zechus of one last chance at kibbud av, of honoring my father.”
Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is the author of “The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill of Bochnia (68715) – the Story of a Galician Jew: Persecution, Liberation, Transformation,” Sussex Academic Press, 2009. Portions of the book appeared, pre-publication, in The Jewish Press.