I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. No grandparents. No aunts and uncles around. In their place – big black holes. While my parents tried to shield me from the details of the horrors they experienced in Poland during the 1930s and ’40s, they couldn’t protect me from them. No one goes through something like that and leaves it behind. Misery, sorrow and pain are such clever hitchhikers.
Growing up in New York City during the ’50s and ’60s, my childhood outside my home was exciting, interesting, stimulating. But inside those four walls, I felt like I was living within a box – one that contained a giant jigsaw puzzle. Many of the pieces were not exactly missing; some were faded, or frayed, and hard to discern; others were locked away – on purpose. My mother Roza (her American name) had a great capacity for joy, but she could also quickly slip into a state of melancholy. My father Jack (also his American name) was remote, quiet, off at work all the time, and had little patience for the precocious, artistic, curious child I was. I had an older brother, Joseph, who found his own coping mechanism for our dysfunctional family. He was never home. We were four people living under the same roof. But we really weren’t a family. Our home was full of secrets. Full of walls. Full of feelings that were alternately repressed – or suddenly, explosively – released.
For most of my life, my parents’ story remained shrouded in mystery. It was something they just couldn’t bring themselves to talk about. At the age of nine, I was shocked to learn my father was Catholic. And yet, my mother was Jewish, and all the cousins we knew – all Holocaust survivors – were also Jewish. So not only was our refugee family different from most Americans, we were different from all our relatives. How did that happen? No explanations. Shhhhhh! Don’t ask questions. My mother and father were unknowable. So… if I couldn’t know my parents, how could I ever hope to truly know myself?
In 1963, when I was 12 years old, I got a glimpse into the mystery of my identity. After much talk and planning, my mother and I boarded an El Al jet and flew to Israel – to spend a summer with her surviving brother and sister, who’d emigrated to the Promised Land after surviving the ravages of Nazi-occupied Poland. We split our time between visits with her brother Jacob, who delivered baked goods in Tel Aviv, and her sister Clara, who ran a small farm with her husband Herman in Nahariya.
Two things struck me immediately about Israel: It felt like a frontier, a work in progress, lacking some of the conveniences we took for granted in America; and yet, everyone seemed happy. Really happy. Passionate. Excited. Hopeful. I never witnessed emotions like that before. But the most incredible aspect of this experience was that at last, after feeling like an olive in a dish of cherries my whole life, I suddenly felt a sense of belonging. Not just with my aunt and uncle and their families – with whom I experienced an immediate bond of love – but with the whole country. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was with family. A taxi driver wasn’t just someone hired to take us from point A to point B. For a brief moment in time, he was a part of our journey. He wanted to know all about us. And he wanted to share things about himself as well. My big black holes of the Holocaust were now being bombarded with millions of sparks of light.
Until we left.
The first night away, I began to cry, and couldn’t help myself. When my mother asked me why I was suddenly so sad, I told her how much I missed my family in Israel. But my tears weren’t only for them. My mother had told me there were two other siblings – her older brothers Salo and Muno – resistance fighters murdered by the Nazis. I had never emotionally connected to them. They were just names. But now, having spent time with my mother’s surviving brother and sister, I suddenly felt the full weight of the loss of the two other brothers. My brave, beautiful uncles. How can you miss something you never had? You can’t. But somehow, I did. I missed Salo and Muno. I felt them. I loved them. I would never stop cherishing them.
The echoes of my summer in Israel never subsided. The door that had opened prompted me to become a person who would open as many doors as possible. I was fearless. I was determined to explore the world. To dig into the past. To uncover the motivations of people who shaped history. To just know things. I carved out a satisfying career as a journalist, an occasional university instructor and a documentary filmmaker (returning to Israel to make King David, and King Herod’s Lost City) – sharing my passions, telling other people’s stories.
Then in 1999, my life took an irrevocable turn. After the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, based on Thomas Keneally’s 1982 book (originally entitled Schindler’s Ark), Hearst Entertainment hired me to write, produce and direct an A&E Biography of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi who saved over 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Was this by coincidence? Nothing happens by coincidence. This was my gateway to the dark days of the Holocaust. In the process of making this film, I interviewed survivors, Thomas Keneally, world-renowned Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum, did all the necessary research and legwork, and looked at all the horrific film footage. When I told my mother about this project, she showed no surprise at all. “Oh, Oskar Schindler?
Yes, I knew all about him. You remember my friend Sally Huppert? She was one of the people he saved.” I considered the irony that one of the greatest stories of the 20th century had been right under my nose for all those years.
“MOM,” I said, “what other stories haven’t you told me about? Isn’t it finally time for you and dad to tell me what happened back in Poland?” My mother took some time to consider what I had said, and the fact that I had been adequately inoculated by all my work on the Schindler documentary. One morning, she phoned me and said, “Okay, I’ve thought about it. I’m appointing you family historian.” We had had a historian in our family. The late Dr. Philip Friedman, widely considered the father of Holocaust history, was our cousin. Could I walk in his giant footsteps?
At long last my mother felt I was ready to face the demons and ghosts she and my father had tried to tamp down in that jigsaw box for a lifetime. They too had to face them. It was difficult for both of them to delve into their tragic past, but they did it, and they did it for me. Often with tears. Often with self-imposed interruptions, when the burden of memory threatened to crush them.
I spent a year interviewing my parents and doing background research. The story was revealed gradually. Like some sacred, mystical text, it required study, meditation and a pilgrimage. I felt compelled to make a trip to Poland, a place I’d never wanted to visit. I needed to experience total immersion in this process. But by this time, my mother was too frail to make the trip. Still, there was no turning back. I packed a video camera and embarked on a journey to spend nearly a month on the road with a stranger – a man I hardly knew – my father. I had to learn the true story of my parents’ survival and unravel the personas of the two people whom I’d sought to know and understand my whole life.
In Poland, as I walked on ground that held the blood and ashes of millions of murdered souls, I pointed my camera at my father and all the places he wanted to show me. I found out that over half a century ago, my father Olek (his Polish name), a brash Polish Catholic boy of 19, had met my mother Ziuta (as she was known back then), a terrified Jewish girl of 20, when she was on the run after she’d survived two Nazi massacres of 6,500 Jews in her village, some 400 kilometers away from his. The Nazis had murdered her two older brothers, Salo and Muno, shortly after they’d gotten my mother out of the Jewish ghetto.
One day, she walked into the tavern that my father and his father Antoni ran, asking for a job. She was hired on the spot. Olek took an immediate liking to her. A few months later, in a private moment, he confessed to Ziuta the feelings that had grown and overwhelmed him. He told her he’d fallen in love with her.
She was shocked. “Well, I have a shock for you,” she replied. “I’m Jewish.” My father considered the full weight of what she’d said. And then, as only a 19-year-old with stars in his eyes and love in his heart could respond, he said: “You’re Jewish? That’s great! Now I can prove my love for you. I can lay my life on the line.” And he did just that. For two and a half years, they were on the run, with the Nazis at their heels. With bravado, with cunning, he protected her every step of that perilous journey. Or did his love for my mother create an ever-expanding state of grace? One that produced miracle after miracle. In any case, this is why I’m here today. My brother Joseph, too, who was born during that time.
In the course of my research, interviews and journey to Poland, I finally got to know and truly appreciate the wonderful, albeit strange people who’d raised me and made me who I am. When I returned to the United States, I sent a detailed account of this story, along with supporting documentary evidence, to Yad Vashem in Israel. About a year and a half later, they came to a decision. On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, 2003, in a packed ceremony at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles – before the mayor, and diplomats from Poland and Israel – Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, bestowed my father with Israel’s highest honor, the Righteous Among the Nations award – the very same medal of heroism Oskar Schindler had received. The story had come full circle.
My mother passed away on the night of January 16, 2009, at the age of 87. My father and I were at her bedside, holding her hands, telling her how much she was loved. She’d led a full and incredible life. I know I was blessed to have her as a mother. But twice blessed to have had the opportunity to discover the truth and meaning of the life she and my father had led before I came into this world. They were together for 67 years.
As for my father and I – we are no longer strangers. I won’t sugarcoat this – we can still get under each other’s skin. But I see him with greater clarity now. I have more compassion for the man. Love doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings for him.
The ghosts and demons my parents tried to keep from me for nearly a lifetime are still there. But they’re no longer a gnawing mystery. I’ve shared a vodka with them. I’ve looked into their eyes. They no longer have power over me. As difficult as my experiences were, I have no regrets about the doors I chose to open and enter. I hope our family story inspires others to open some new doors – to look inside, to fathom the mysteries of the heart, family, and discover stories never known. I hope it inspires tolerance of those who pray to a different deity, look different or look at the world differently. And lastly, I hope it inspires unconditional love – not just romantic love, but the love of fellow human beings. We needed that so much back then. We certainly need it now.