From October 2015 through November 2016, The Jewish Press featured on its front page a monthly serialization of a story I was in the process of writing about my maternal grandmother, Freida Sima Eisenberg Kraus, who as a teenager in 1911 had traveled all alone from Europe to America in order to make a new life for herself.
And then from January through December 2017 the paper ran monthly front-page installments in which I told the story of my mother-in-law, Bernice Cohen Schwartz, whose experiences reflected the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children.
(Peter Lang Publishers subsequently released expanded versions of both series in book form.)
During the run of the Freida Sima articles a number of readers wanted to know more about my father; apparently I had included just enough information to pique their interest. And yes, he was a larger than life figure about whom I’d actually written a book several years before I began writing about my grandmother and mother-in-law.
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I was born when my father, Chaskel Tydor – Yechezkel Shraga ben Yehuda Leib Halevi – was almost 56 years old.
Only rarely do children and even young adults dwell on the fact that after their parents pass away they will no longer be able to fulfill the biblical commandment to honor them, at least in the usual sense of the word. As far back as I can remember, however, I was aware that, due to my father’s advanced age, the time I would have to honor him would probably be quite limited.
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. 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 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’s second wife was 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).
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My father was born into a chassidic family in Bochnia, Poland in 1903. The family fled to Germany at the outbreak of World War I. My father remained there 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 it was on to Auschwitz and then finally back to Buchenwald where he was liberated by the US. army on April 11, 1945.
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 Israel.
In 1951 he moved to New York where he managed a travel agency and, to the delight of his two grown and married children, fell in love with his young secretary and married her. 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 prewar, wartime, and postwar experiences.
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 prewar 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 that he was retired and had plenty of time to spend with his second family and youngest daughter.
As an Orthodox Jewish young woman, kibbud av va’em – honoring one’s father and mother – was a pivotal factor in my upbringing and education. It wasn’t difficult to honor my father. He was a strong but gentle man, always with a smile and a kind word. 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.
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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 one, he was the Zeide who would give a dvar Torah at the Shabbos morning table. To the younger one, 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 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, thankfully, I still 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 the essence would be lost forever.
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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 both of us delighted in the kind of love 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 him.
Finding ourselves with a large merged family as a result of our marriage, we had little 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 one.
“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 his or her honeymoon, I thought faceciously as I showed Josh through the main camp, having been there professionally as a 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 that had been 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.
“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.
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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 would’t be that difficult; after all, I had already written more than half a dozen historical books, most of them about the Holocaust. All I needed was to do a few months’ research, find primary sources, put together a detailed outline, and then 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 from Bochnia.” When I was a little girl, week after week my father would tell me stories that interwove Torah, faith, and the history of the Jewish people, embodied in the adventures of the imaginary little fellow featured 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 from 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 letters and documents my father had kept about his prewar and postwar life.
Fearing I would overly idealize him, I decided to forgo describing him from memory and relied only on descriptions provided by others – family, friends, concentration 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. I often found myself e-mailing my mother at 2 a.m., 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 in 2009, a little more than a year after I began the project, the book was published with the title The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Bochnia (68715) – the Story of a Galician Jew: Persecution, Liberation, Transformation (Sussex Academic Press).
That month, my then-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.”
There was only one thought that came to me that moment as I looked up at the perfect blue sky of Eretz Yisrael: “Thank you, Ribbono Shel Olam, for the zechus of one last chance at kibbud av, of honoring my father.”
This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, z”l, whose yahrzeit is 7 Adar, which this year falls on Feb. 22.
In addition to the three books mentioned in this article, she is the author of, among several others, “The ‘Bergson Boys’ and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy” (Syracuse University Press); “The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain, 1938-1945” (Purdue University Press); and “Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory” (University of Wisconsin Press).