The Holocaust Box
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.
The girl and the pony.
The boy came in the house at breakfast time from feeding the horses. He was young but just learning to strut when he walked to show how big he was getting.
“That damn mare is getting fat.”
He was twelve and some of the boys at school explained how you weren’t allowed to swear until you were thirteen or even older. But it was just another way of proving to everyone that he was no longer a pussy cat.
“There won’t be any breakfast for you if you keep using that language. You ever hear your father swear?” She was cross and tired. She had stayed up late last night waiting for the father to come in from the shed. It was close to shearing time and the weather looked like there was a bit of wet on the way. He had to get the roof on the shed fixed so he could get the sheep under cover. And she was up early when she heared a dingo howl out near where the young lambs were.
“Sorry mum. But that mare is getting very big.”
“Yep.” said the father. “I think she’ll foal in a week or a bit, if I’m any judge.”
The boy’s sister jumped. “Can I have the foal, Dad? You promised.”
“No!” cried the boy. “I’ll be thirteen next week and I should get it. I need a horse to help Dad with the sheep, and all.”
And that started a day of arguments which were only put to rest the next night at the tea-table.
“Who ever gets the foal has to earn it,” said the father. “I’ll think up something and let you know. But Jim, you have to keep feeding the horses every day without fail and not miss like you did last week. And Beth, you’d better keep Currie combing that mare ’til she shines like a chocolate bar.”
They did. She combed and he fed and they both snapped and squabbled. And the boy kept strutting and swearing and earned a couple of clips on the ear.
“I’m thirteen and I deserve to have a horse.” he said. “You’re only eleven and you never come out of the house to help around the place.”
“Do so. Anyway I’m not as stupid as those girls at school you think so pretty.”
And on and on.
After school next Friday the boy came in in a rush.
“That damn mare’s gone missing. Where’s she gone, Dad?”
“I reckon she’s gone up into the scrub behind the shearing shed. She might have the foal tonight. And whoever sees the foal first, it’s theirs. That’s how you get to earn it, like I said.”
The two children jumped for the door but were stopped by the mother.
“You two sit right down and finish your dinner. Nobody’s going out tonight. I heard that dingo again and I don’t want you near it. You heard what your father said. She might have it tonight and if she does she won’t want to be upset by you two fighting.”
Next morning was Saturday and the boy was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s that boy of yours James? I hope he hasn’t gone off looking for that foal without finishing his jobs.”
But the boy had gone off looking and suddenly yelling and laughing he burst through the door.
“I found it. I found it and it’s mine.”
“Well you better have a wash and then sit down and eat. That foal isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And you, Bethany, sit still and wait. And take that silly grin off your face. If the wind changes you’ll look silly for the rest of your life.”
“Yes Mother. I will be quiet and dignified in the presence of my half mad brother.”
So the boy sat down.
“You finish eating and then you can talk.” He was so excited he choked and spluttered his way through breakfast and just as he finished Beth said, “Daddy, I think I’d like to call my pony Goldie.”
“Didn’t you hear what Dad said. The first one to see it gets it and I saw it. So there.”
“O.K. you two settle down. Beth I think your brother should tell us what the pony looks like, before you get carried away with names, and he should be able to name it whatever he wants.”
“Well,” said the boy, “I didn’t get up too close because it was lying down but it’s a very light bay colour. Not nearly as dark as it’s mother.”
“Her mother. Not nearly as dark as her mother,” interrupted Bethany.
“Its mother!” said the boy.
“And what is more,’ continued Bethany, “she isn’t just a light bay. She’s a golden colour and she has a white blaze down her nose and she has a white stocking on her right front leg and I’m calling her Goldie.”
The boy spluttered and looked at his little sister, “Wh.., wh.., when?”
“This morning just as the sun came up. That’s when. While you were snoring and dreaming. Somebody in this house has to get up early if things need doing.”
I was up at Coober Pedy scratching for opals having left my burgeoning career as a Lawyer with no idea of a direction anywhere when Dad wrote me a letter.
The gist of the message was that there was a huge shortage of teachers in the Victorian Education Department and if you had a minimum of ONE YEAR of a university degree you could start work as a Temporary Teacher. I just qualified. Little did they know. So the next thing I knew, one week later I’m walking in the front door of Pleasant View High School where I land a job teaching English to 3F. That was back in the days of strict streaming and by the time you got from 3A down to 3F they were not the kind of kids who should have been in a classroom. What a con job we’ve pulled on thousands of kids telling them that staying in school is a guaranteed passport to wealth, wonder and wayward women.
The first person I got to know in the staff room was Luke. He was a Temporary Teacher in 4E Maths and here we were, two teachers without qualifications trying to find ourselves. Luke had a room at the back of some house with a mattress, an electric fry pan and a great recipe for lima bean curry.
After school we’d get in my little Morris Minor 1000 and head into town with a flagon of dry vermouth. It was always the same. Luke was searching for himself and we’d stand around at parties drinking our vermouth out of cracked coffee cups being very deep and profound. I remember little.
Up near the Royal Melbourne Hospital between the hospital and the University there were, and probably still are, lots of dives where Uni students lived. In one of these dives there was a married couple that worked at the Uni and they had a huge big upstairs room or loft with mattresses all over the floor and they were always so spaced out on grass that they didn’t seem to notice or care how many people crashed there at night. I don’t know if they lived a solitary life during the week but Friday Saturday or Sunday there were maybe twenty people with long hair or beards just hanging around, talking or writing poetry and reading all the new books and getting very angry about Vietnam.
Then one night Sally turned up. She was small, pretty and blonde and nobody knew her – not even the happy couple that owned the place. We just staggered up the stairs and there she was sitting yoga style on a mattress in the dark. I tried to be cool and intelligent cos I had a job and a quarter of a degree. Luke ignored her completely.
We talked for a while and the big surprise to those of us with one quarter of a degree in legal magic was that the pretty little blonde had just presented her Doctoral Thesis on something about the psychology of Alpha Males in troops of baboons. Luke suggested a celebration so we hopped in my little Morris Minor 1000 and headed for the Oxford Hotel, me driving, Luke and Sally in the back. And that was it.
Luke had a problem. Luke’s father was Luke’s problem. His mother had died when he was born and his father, who wanted a career in Federal politics, dumped the baby Luke on his five maiden sisters who lived in a huge country mansion in Coldstream.
And his aunts raised him.
About midnight on weekends the Carlton Cops would arrive at the Oxford to make sure everyone was being good and going home. Everywhere else in Victoria it was Six o’clock closing but a few hotels had special licenses. And what more special clientele is there than the uni students of Melbourne who are going to very soon become the leaders of our great nation.
On one particular night Luke decided to stand on the bonnet of the cop car and rip the wires out of the siren and stomp on the flashing blue light. The guardians of the law, quite naturally took Luke back to the Police Station, and rang Sally the next morning to come and get him and take him home. But first she took him to the hospital to have them look at his broken nose and count his broken ribs.
“Why do you go out of your way to get bashed by the cops?”
“If your father had left you when you were a baby,” his exact words, “you’d have to have been a pretty rotten person.” (There’s a bit of a step of logic that isn’t quite right here.) “I know I’m not worth a pinch of dog shit. So let ‘em have their fun.”
I know it’s not my fault but could I have stopped him?
Another night we were driving up the Nepean Highway and he says, “Let’s grab a beer at that place.”
It was somewhere in Balaclava. So we stopp and drift into the bar and buy a beer each. Then Luke buys another and says “Get the car round the front door and get ready to scram.”
And I do. And the door of the bar is open. Luke goes to walk out and turns and throws his beer into some poor unsuspecting guy’s face. And that poor unsuspecting fool quite reasonably punches Luke in his face. Luke screams out of the bar, jumps in the car with blood pouring out of his nose laughing and whooping with joy and I’m shaking and driving as fast as I can and looking in the mirror to see if any mad beer drinking enemies are chasing us. They weren’t.
Sally, who as I mentioned before is into psychology, and with whom I would have liked to to have been in love, falls in love with Luke and not with me.
So we all head off to the aunts’ mansion in Coldstream for a wedding and drink lots of scrumpy.
And Luke’s father doesn’t come to the wedding because he’s busy in Canberra helping to run the country.
On a very cold night only six months later, when I am in a warm bed and dreaming, Luke takes his father’s service revolver and goes out into Victoria park, sits under a tree and blows his head off.
I am older now and no longer part of that world where people search for themselves. I still miss Luke. He was my friend. I miss him because he is dead and I couldn’t stop it.
Many years later I see Sally on TV one night and she is senior lecturer in psychology and she is still using Luke’s surname even although she was only married to him for three months. I don’t know if she still loves him or if she feels guilty like I do. It would be nice to know. I don’t think you can ever go back to the sad, sad days we all enjoyed so much.