As I was reading the morning’s headlines, my cell phone rang. Caller ID revealed it was my cousin Vivian, my father’s sister’s daughter. She’s my age, forty eight at the time, and lives in Netanya, Israel, a pleasant coastal resort town twenty miles north of Tel Aviv, with her husband David. Though it was already mid-afternoon in Israel, she usually didn’t call me this early. I answered my phone.
Normally we would begin by comparing notes on our children, my three teenagers and her two boys who were doing their compulsory Israeli Army service. Not this time. Vivi, as I called her, got right to the point.
‘I was on the computer looking for something for my mother, and I saw your father’s picture,’ she said in her melodious voice. She had learned English in Israeli schools. ‘Did you know he’s on the internet?’
‘My dad?’ I asked incredulously. ‘No, I had no idea. Where did you see him?’ Why, I wondered, would he be on the internet six years after his death? Maybe she’d made a mistake.
‘He is on the Mauthausen Concentration Camp website,’ Vivi replied. ‘It says he escaped from a death march.’
‘It’s true, he did,’ I confirmed. I had no idea Mauthausen even had a website. I’d never bothered looking.
‘Jackie,’ she said, addressing me by the childhood name my relatives still use, ‘you make it sound like it’s nothing, but it seems your father is special. I’ve read about the death marches. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to march thirty, forty, even one hundred miles to get away from the Russians and Americans who were coming near to their concentration camps. Almost no one escaped from the marches. But your father did.’
‘Well, he actually escaped twice,’ I said. ‘He told me the story many times over the years.’ I stole a peak at my computer screens.
‘I think you don’t understand.’ Now I heard a distinct note of irritation in her voice. ‘His is the only story on the Mauthausen website about escaping from the death march. No one else is there, only your father. I don’t think you know the whole story. Please, type Mauthausen and his name into Google. You will see.’
I did as she said, and my father’s name appeared atop a full screen of search results.
‘Huh, I had no idea,’ I said, more to myself than to Vivi.
Clicking on the first link took me to KZ Mauthausen’s website. I was instantly drawn to my father’s name in the menu on the top of the webpage, in a section called Death Marches . Sitting straighter in my chair, I clicked on it, and after a beat, a black-and-white picture unfurled onto my screen. It was a head shot, a brilliantly clear photo from the shoulders up.
A young man who looked remarkably like my seventeen-year-old son, Sam, was staring at me. I stared back, frozen.
It was my father, as a teenager.
I had never before seen this photo, or any like it, of my father in his youth. I kept all my parents’ old photographs. I had only a few of my father from before the war, and all were taken at a distance. None let me see so clearly the angular planes of his young face, and the impish eyes that belied a man with a monumental determination to survive. My father told me that before being sent to a concentration camp he had done modeling work for his town’s photographer. The professional-looking head shot now on my screen must have been one of those pictures. His hair was wavy and thick. He was wearing a light colored, pin-striped, open collared shirt and a stylish, peak-lapel blazer. He looked like he was about to tell one of his unlimited supply of jokes.
How had the people at the Mauthausen website gotten this photo?
I noticed the English caption underneath. I read it aloud:
"In April 1945 Ignaz and Barbara Friedmann from Enns Kristein rescued the completely exhausted David Hersch from the death march from Mauthausen and Gunskirchen and hid him until the end of the war."
I knew about the Friedmanns. I knew the story of how they’d found my father the day after his second escape and had hidden him, at great risk to themselves, until American soldiers liberated Enns, their town. How did the Mauthausen website people know his story? Why had they singled him out? Why was his story the only one here?
My world had gone silent.
I had often heard and read that survivors of the ‘Holocaust,’ Hitler’s nearly successful attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe, are reticent about recounting their experiences in ‘the camps’ (survivors, I knew from growing up with many of them, referred to concentration camps as, ‘the camps’). Supposedly many survivors have gone their entire lives without breathing a word of what they’d endured. I had even heard many of them had not cracked a smile or told a joke since the day they were crammed aboard a cattle car bound for places like Auschwitz and Treblinka.
My father was nothing like those survivors. He told me often about his time under Nazi occupation in Hungary, his year in the camps, and his escapes. He told his story lightly, almost breezily, and without hesitation.
He particularly liked to tell his survival story on Passover. After all, the holiday commemorates the Jews’ breakout in the dead of night from Egyptian bondage under the command of Moses and presumably with supernatural help. The first night of Passover is marked by a traditional family meal, the Seder, where it is customary to recount that ancient midnight adventure. Since the Passover meal is, at its core, a celebration of escape and deliverance, at every Seder my father recounted to my brother and me his own adventures of escape, capture, near-death, and escape again.
As readily as my father told his tale, I sensed a hidden darkness within him, pain he never shared with me. The only hints he ever gave of it was when he’d tell me he hadn’t slept well, or he’d had a nightmare about the camps. But then he would quickly toss it off with a casual wave of his hand, saying it was, ‘no big deal,’ just an off night.
‘You have this picture, yes?’ Vivi snapped me back to the present.
I took a deep breath. ‘No,’ I confessed, 'I don't. Does your mother?’
Vivi’s mother, Rosie, and my father were two of eight children in their family. Four of them – my father, Rosie, and two uncles – had survived the Holocaust. The other four had been murdered by the Nazis.
‘No, but she remembers it. She said it was taken when your father was seventeen. A local photographer used it as an advertisement for his studio.’
As I’d suspected. ‘Interesting,’ I said. ‘But I can’t imagine how the people at Mauthausen got it.’
‘Do you think maybe he gave the picture to them when he visited to there?’
‘What?’ Now alarm bells rang in my head. ‘My dad never visited Mauthausen,’ I said firmly. ‘He never went back there, he hated that place. He nearly died there.’
‘Yes, he did,’ Vivi replied with absolute conviction. ‘He went back in 1997. He told this to my mother. He didn’t tell you?’