My grandmother, Rachel* Rozsa, was born in Nagy (pronounced “Noj”) Szolos in Hungary (now Vinogradiv in the Ukraine). An idyllic spa town nestling in the Carpathian Mountains, whose name means “Large grapes” – indicative of its wine production. (Also famous because the composer Bartok moved there with his mother.)
Her father was Rav (Rabbi) Itzhak Braun, who was renowned for being a miracle-worker. At the end of WWI, mothers would come to him to find out where their sons were. It was described to me that he would close his eyes and grab hold of the mother’s arm, then after a while, he said: “He is crossing the border NOW!” banging his cane on the ground at the precise moment at which the returning soldier was crossing the border, and it would turn out to be accurate. It was also described to me that he would take children who were sick in their spirit into his home and they would heal in his atmosphere.
I was the first family member to visit Nagy Szolos in 70 years. The previous visit was by Rachel Rozsa, who went to her father’s funeral taking my father when he was just a baby.
When I visited Nagy Szolos, I tried to find Rav Itzhak Braun’s grave in the Jewish cemetery. The Mukaceve Rabbi’s driver took me there, and we stopped at a house on the way to pick up the key to the cemetery from the lady who lived there, returning it on our way back. I spent 2 or 3 hours in the cemetery searching, but couldn’t find the tombstone. Half of the cemetery was overgrown with weeds, so it was hard to access those stones. Even where the weeds had been cut or trampled down, I was getting grazed and scraped by weeds, and burnt in the hot sun, trying to find it. Many of the stones were eroded by the elements, so it was difficult or impossible to read the script.
Overgrown with weeds:
Rachel Rozsa’s marriage was arranged by a matchmaker. So after her marriage, she made the journey – a whole day by ox and cart (now an hour by car) from Nagy Szolos across the border into Mukacevo in Czechoslovakia, to live with a man she had met once or twice. This is the view along the way:
My aunt told me she was not happily married. Her mother-in-law would come into the kitchen, lift the lids off her pots on the stove, and exclaim: “What? Is this what you give my son to eat?!!!” So one can imagine this did not go down very well with Rachel Rozsa! Being Hungarian, she made goulash. She also made dumplings and pancakes. When food became scarcer – probably after they were closed inside the ghetto – she was able to make a chicken last for 3 meals for 6 people.
My father couldn’t remember the colour of her hair. Probably she kept her head covered most of the time. I think it must have been brown – her daughter had brown hair, and her sons had almost jet-black hair. She loved reading and was well-read, took pride in her appearance, and one of the very few things I know about her is that she used to sing a song with the chorus:
Van London, van Nápoly, van Konstantinápoly, Van Róma, Barcselona, Madrid, Csikágó
…. and that she used to dream of going to these places. If she had known that two of her sons would end up living in London and the other son in the States……said my aunt (who lived in Israel)! (And of course …. if she had known that she would have 24 great-grandchildren, plus one brand new great-great-grandson…so far….)
When I was in Budapest (the nearest airport to Mukacevo & then a 7-hour train journey) I tried to find this song, and asked in a number of shops and museums. Eventually someone told me it came from a film called Kek Balvany (“The Blue Idol”), and it was quite a feat to access a DVD copy of this film from the National Film Archive in Budapest, with the indispensable help of a Hungarian friend who also watched the film with me, patiently translating it! I think my grandmother must have seen this film at the cinema in Mukacevo. The family was religious, like all the Jews of the region. But they sent one of their sons to the Zionist school (which the Mukaceve rebbe referred to as “that goyishe (colloquial & derogatory term meaning non-Jewish) school”, which indicates that they were not ultra-ultra religious. And therefore I imagine she would have gone to the cinema. Although my grandfather would consult the Mukaceve rabbi if he had any concerns about anything. The song must also have been broadcast on the radio.
My father felt that his mother knew what was happening to Jews during WWII.
In 1944, Rachel Rozsa was transported to Auschwitz with her family. They were forced off the train by barking SS with whips, and lunging alsations. She was forced to separate from her sons and husband. Someone, or some people, had decided that she should be exterminated, and had plotted, planned and collaborated to achieve this. Someone made her strip. Someone made her enter the gas chamber. Someone had designed the gas chamber to accommodate her and others like and unlike her. Someone released the gas into the chamber. Zyklon B. She would have been in her early 40s.
Before she was taken to the gas chamber, she told her 15-year old daughter, Miriam: “I have lived. Just that you should survive.”
A silver leaf in her memory was affixed to the silver tree installed by Tony Curtis outside the Great Synagogue in Budapest, each leaf commemorating a Hungarian Jew who was murdered in the holocaust.
Apparently Rachel Rozsa did go to Budapest once with her father (and sister – I’m not sure how many sisters she had), although it is so far away from Nagy Szolos.
* * *
* Rachel is pronounced with the “a” sounding like the “u” in “up“, the “ch” sounding like the same letters in the Scottish word “loch“, & the “e” sounding like the “e” in “bell“.
In Buddhism, the characterisation of harmful acts which we repent and resolve to avoid, includes harmful acts of the mind. There is the idea that thoughts can actually cause harm per se, rather than just being a precursor to the possibility of physical harmful acts. Such harmful acts – whether of the mind or otherwise – are characterised as stemming from ignorance, but are “evil” nevertheless.
The idea of acts of the mind being harmful is actually widespread in the world. In the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and parts of Africa, protection is required against the “evil eye”. This refers to jealousy which is seen as exerting a harmful force.
In the West, there is much interest in psychic phenomena. The College of Psychic Studies in London, and other institutions, offer courses in energy healing, developing psychic intuition, mediumship, etc. Among the “psychic community”, there is also the idea of harmful acts of the mind, referred to as “psychic attack”. Through intentions to heal, we can affect healing in people, and conversely, through negative thoughts or intentions, we can connect with and produce negative energy which may be harmful not only towards the person such thoughts are directed towards, but may also cause collateral damage in adversely affecting those physically or psychically close to the target. Harm may occur even if the negative thoughts are unconscious and if harm if not specifically intended.
In Buddhism, the purpose of meditation is primarily to avoid the main “evil” and source of suffering – that of clinging. We aim to train our minds to recognize that we are thinking, and then to let go of the thought, no matter whether it is a positive or negative thought. The idea is not to push thoughts away if they are negative, or to hold on to them if they are positive, since by doing either, we are practising attachment, and feeding the thought. By trying to resist an unwanted thought…. perhaps a traumatic or disturbing memory – for example – we are actually giving it energy. If we cling to a positive thought, it will cause some degree of suffering when this thought ends, and we are practising and strengthening our habit of clinging.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is the idea that when we feed thoughts they solidify. By allowing thoughts to pass like clouds through the sky, we do not allow them to become solid and to exert a force over our minds.
So all these factors relate to the potential of thought to become solid; to exert a force; to take a shape. “Thought forms” – a term which comes up often in psychic literature. Eckhart Tolle, in the Power of Now and his other books, refers to “pain bodies”. These are, essentially, solidified energetic entities created by our own negative thoughts and pain, which we may constantly tap into, tune into, connect with, and feed with further pain, and which seem to exert a life of their own! They may, it seems, commune with “pain bodies” generated by other people’s minds.
French sociologist Durkheim refers in his work to the “collective consciousness” – which appears to refer to a giant thought form which may engulf a collectivity of people, from a family, to an entire society. This would consist in a collection of values, ideas, prejudices. There is the implication that while one person or group of people may be predominant in generating and solidifying the cluster of thoughts and ideas which make up the form, each person is tapping into, contributing to and strengthening this “cloud” of thought. (Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa come to mind as among the most extreme malevolent examples.). For those who get a feeling that this “collective consciousness” conflicts with their true individual consciousness, it must take a great deal of strength of mind to break out. This notion of the “collective consciousness” implies the impact of external forces on the individual mind.
A psychiatrist once told me that there is a view in the field of psychiatry of the healthy mind being “sealed”. That if people feel that their minds are being controlled, or invaded, or permeated from external sources, this is a measure of mental illness. That a healthy mind is an impermeable one, essentially. One can imagine someone in Nazi Germany going to a psychiatrist, complaining of a conspiracy by the Reich to act on his mind and control his actions…. and being diagnosed as having a mental illness for reporting such experiences!
Much of the world in fact operates on the basis of the permeability of the mind: the advertising industry; the brainwashing of commercialism – to name a couple of the more benign (although often far from benign) examples.
Then there is toxic exploitation of the belief in the permeability of the mind. There are voodoo practitioners who – if they are unethical – may employ ritual procedures to solidify thought forms to harm their targets. A Western couple who lived in Ghana related how they witnessed for themselves a schoolteacher being the target of voodoo (or juju as it is called there) and instantly becoming mad from that point on. In another case, a young woman made a suicide attempt, and her West African mother believed that someone had “worked” on her. I’ve heard it said a number of times that voodoo cannot work on someone who does not believe in it. It is fear that lets it in. Similar ideas exist among the “psychic community” – through fear, one becomes more open and susceptible to psychic attack. But this does not explain why a psychic or voodoo attack might also fall onto those who are physically or psychically close to the victim – who may have no knowledge of the attack, and no fear.
To continue on the subject of the problem with proposing the impermeability of the human mind, those who rape the minds of entire generations of entire nations to the purpose of evil seem to know differently, and it has been demonstrated to work. At the Institute of Propaganda Studies in Israel, we were shown techniques used to brainwash the German people before and during WWII into believing the Jews and other races were subhuman; techniques which were first honed in relation to the Namibian peoples – the first victims of genocide perpetrated by Germany in the 20th Century. Then there is Hamas and Isis – infiltrating the minds of their human instruments of mass murder – “grooming” them for this task from infancy.
A summary internet search offers many techniques designed to get rid of negative thought forms and the harm they may exert on people.
Tibetan Buddhism offers a very powerful antidote. For while there is an emphasis on letting go of thoughts, there is, at the same time, the ritualised solidifying of thoughts in a controlled way in order to cultivate such qualities as fearlessness, compassion. In the Green Tara Practice, for example, we visualise this deity, who has formidable superhuman qualities: she is very swift, appearing in an instant to anyone who calls upon her; her face is like 100 full moons in a Tibetan autumn. If just one full moon can light up a night sky, think how bright the night would be with 100 full moons! Her body is like a multitude of stars. Well – taking the sun as one star, a multitude would be blindingly bright! With her frown, she can destroy all adverse machinations. She whirls around surrounded by a garland of blazing fire. And these are just a few of her attributes! During the practice, we invite Green Tara into the space before us; then in an instant we are in her body, and finally, the visualisation melts into light and merges with us.
Ultimately, when we are ready to transcend notions of dualism, we see that there is no real separation between Tara and ourselves.
A practice that takes much time and commitment, but perhaps it can be a lifesaver!
28 recordings accompanying my book Gondar’s Child until recently could be accessed from Africa World Press/Red Sea Press’s website. At the moment the link from their website is not working. So instead the recordings can be accessed here:
This work was written by me, with the idea of bestowing healing and calmness – a feeling of being at one with the world. It is strongly influenced by jazz, in style, and also in method of composition. I started this composition by setting out chords on the strings, and improvising over them for the trumpet part – this provides the opening of the piece.
In the very last section, the trumpeter has the option of either playing the pre-written part, or of improvising within specified parameters over the strings, which play the same chords as in the opening of the piece. In this performance, the trumpeter has chosen to improvise. You can hear the abrupt change in melodic style at this point! Until the final bar which was pre-written.
Performed here by the Impromptu Quartet and Clare Thorne on trumpet, at Lauderdale House, London, 2012.
My first love from early childhood was music: classical piano-playing, and singing (especially folk), accompanying myself on my beloved guitar.
However, it was social anthropology that I took to doctoral level, and as a way of not letting go of music, I specialised in the anthropology of music.
During my doctoral fieldwork, I performed with an Ethiopian-Jewish band called “The Band of Blossoming Hope” for 9 months. (See my book: Gondar’s Child.) I also had lessons with the famous Ethiopian Christian singer Aklilu Seyoum, who coached the Band, in the Ethiopian intervallic mood-mode systems known as “keñetoch”.
Prior to this, I conducted research on Jewish society and music in Yemen, and wrote a substantial thesis on this subject. Very many hours were spent listening to, analysing, and even painstakingly and painfully transcribing their music, and other kinds of Yemenite music.
Perhaps it was Ethiopian music, and also the American blues singers who frequented the folk clubs in Israel, which opened me up to jazz. Upon returning from my fieldwork to the UK, for years to follow, jazz became my passion. I studied with established jazz vocalists, performing at jazz jams, working hard on my vocal improvisation and learning the standard repertoire. Among the early tasks I was set was to sing along with recordings of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet-playing: a great training! In my quest for jazz, I went to Manhattan where I attended lessons and vocal masterclasses, went to all the jazz jams and performances I could manage, and generally infused myself with jazz.
I am glad to say I finally returned to “my own” music and first love. I resumed my classical piano playing, and took it to another level – the most meaningful thing I feel I could have done with my life!
Years ago, I told a jazz musician about my background in music – all these diverse intensely-studied and deeply-internalised influences – and he said: “It will be dynamite when it all comes together!”.
Swing Abeba, a work for solo bassoon, is an example of some of these influences coming together. Whether or not it is “dynamite” – even a small quantity of dynamite – even a teaspoonful, is for the listener, or player, to determine!
“Abeba”, means “flower” – part of the name of the Ethiopian capital city where modern Ethiopian music took root. “Abeba” is also a common refrain in their vocal music. True to its title, this work is influenced by Ethiopian popular music, which in turn was strongly influenced by swing rhythm in American big band jazz transmitted from an army radio station in Kagnew, in neighbouring Eritrea in the 1950s.
Ethiopian music – essentially song-based – consists of pentatonic melodies which tend to be deeply embedded in copious melismata, progressing in an improvisatory manner, similarly to jazz.
Accordingly, Swing Abeba begins with an Ethiopian, pentatonically melismatic treatment of an un-Ethiopian theme. The music then breaks into a jazz-swing scherzo. The call-response nature of this scherzo recalls this feature of Ethiopian music. The second section begins with a slow, heavily melismatic ad lib passage marked “molto espressivo e pensivo”, which leads into a second swing scherzo, the opening themes reappearing in a different guise in the closing section.
In the recording here, it is played beautifully by John McDougall. An earlier version of Swing Abeba was performed, equally beautifully, by Glyn Williams at the 17th New Winds Festival at Regent Hall in London, 2014.
Following on from my previous post: “Bell, or Pas Belle”…..
A while back, I read an article about a composer who found some old cassettes of his which had decayed over time, and he wrote a composition using these decayed tapes.
This caused me not a little concern. I have boxes and boxes of cassettes with irreplaceable data and recordings. So I am in the process of having my most precious recordings digitalized, although apparently my cassettes are, on the whole, in quite good nick – having been safely stored.
One of the recordings I’ve just had digitalized is of a song which I called Positive at the time, because it was about trying to think positively. Here, I’ve decided, instead, to use the beginning of the song as a title. It starts:
See it thus
Thin’s a child to the adult sex
I want none of that….none of that
This was when Susie Orbach’s book: Fat is a Feminist Issue, had made a big impression on me. The idea that the idealised thin (and devoid of body hair) aesthetic imposed on, and adopted by, women in the West, belongs to the concept of women as the child-like sex.
I was also influenced by an album by This Mortal Coil. In one of the songs on this album, you cannot make out any of the words which the singer is singing – intentionally. It is part of the style and atmosphere of the song.
This seemed like a great idea! In this song that I had written, I felt quite exposed by the words after the initial lines. So I decided to sing it disguising the words in a way that they were almost impossible to make out: the voice would be more like an instrument providing melody, atmosphere and emotion, without fully-decipherable words. After the opening lines, the words are not positive at all, but give expression to the way in which, in certain life (and death) situations, your pain can spill over, and other people’s pain can spill over onto you, in a way which can sap your confidence completely, and make it impossible to act on feelings of love, or of being in love. I had recently passed through such a time, writing songs which gave vent to some intense emotions. (“It’s slash your wrists time!” would be uttered – it was later revealed to me – when I got up to sing in my local folk club!)
I met up with a guy who I have to credit with producing this recording: Sal Paradise. He got me to work properly on the guitar part until it was perfect before he agreed to record it. He then doubled the guitar part with a delay inbetween the doublings, and added chorus, and a tabla sample on a loop. (On his travels, he had recorded musicians, but I omitted to ask who the tabla player was behind this sample.) He said he would make the vocal part “sweet”, but I think it is pretty much how I sounded back then, in the late 1980s.
He then made us both a curry.
Unfortunately, he never let me have a decent copy of the recording.
The recent poll claiming to reveal “what Muslims in Britain really think”: claiming to have identified “a community within a community”, and a proliferation of attitudes unpalatable to what we assume to be predominantly liberal Britain. On the one hand, I am sceptical that a poll conducted on 1081 adults can really tell us what 2.71 million Muslims in England, and 80,800 in Scotland and Northern Ireland (2011 census), all think. Among these adults, we have different ethnicities, different generations, different countries of origin, different degrees of religiosity/secularity. If we break up the 1081 “polled” adults equally into different generations alone, we have approximately 360.33 young adults, 360.33 middle aged adults, and 360.33 elderly adults. Is it valid to treat these “polled” Muslims as representative of their generations of co-religionists in Britain, let alone their entirety?
On the other hand, this news item drew me back to a certain memory. We may assume that some more unpalatable, unliberal and violent views may be held by those who dress differently from liberal Brits, segregate the sexes more; attend their place of worship more regularly; etc. In other words, those who look less acculturated. So, my memory….
At some point while I was completing my thesis in Oxford, a photo competition was organized in my college, and winning photos were blown up, mounted and displayed in the college common room. I shortlisted a few photos from my doctoral fieldwork in Israel, and from a subsequent visit to Ethiopia, to submit, and asked my neighbour to help me choose from among them.
Above, is one of the photos I chose (which also appears in my book, Gondar’s Child). The period of my fieldwork in Israel included the first Gulf War, and these children are in a shopping mall with their gas masks. Saddam Hussein was threatening to use mustard and nerve gas in attacks on Israel – a prospect which terrified me, as there was a precedent: he had already murdered whole villages of Iraqi Kurds using these chemicals. Everyone was issued with a gas mask, which we had to take with us everywhere at all times, and children had all decorated the boxes containing their gas masks at school.
Back in Oxford, I was living in postgrad student accommodation, and my neighbour, in the next room, was a science doctoral student of Iranian descent (“Y”). We were in and out of each other’s rooms most days, and I considered her to be a warm and supportive friend. When she saw this photo, she thought I shouldn’t submit it for the competition because she considered it to be “controversial”, because “there are people who think that Israel shouldn’t exist!” Why is it controversial that Saddam Hussein wanted to gas these children? – I asked her. But she just repeated her assertion as if it were self-evident. This caused a lot of tension between us. A few days later, I brought up the subject and gave her the chance to take back what she had said, but she just repeated it again, and I let her know in no uncertain terms that it was an anti-Semitic view. After this, I did not feel that we could continue being friends, but of course, how could she ever have been a friend if she considered it “controversial” that Saddam Hussein had wanted to gas me?! Having an enemy, once considered a “friend” who is still a neighbour, living in the next room in the same house is not something to be recommended!
Perhaps if I had told her these children were not Jewish, she might not have thought it controversial? After all, these lovely children who let me take their photo might have been Muslim or Christian. Would she then have minded that they too were threatened by Saddam’s chemical weapons, which he had incidentally used against Iran?!
It was such a mindless assertion by a British-born entirely secular Muslim of Iranian descent! So we can’t necessarily judge people’s views and values – for example, the extent to which they may justify extreme violence and evil against a certain religious, ethnic or national group – according to whether or not they are wearing the religious gear! Other Iranians who have come into my life – Iranian-born secular Muslims – do not appear to hold such views! One only has to look at the Israel Loves Iran and Iran Loves Israel Facebook pages to see that there are plenty of people living in Iran who do not hold such views! I have read that there are a number of Iranians who are supportive of Israel especially in defiance of their own government.
To return to Oxford, two former housemates, one a Jewish doctoral student from Germany (whom I characterised as having a mouth like a sledge hammer, before Y showed me a true sledge-hammer mouth!), another a Norwegian PhD (“K”), (yes – we were a diverse lot! – probably unlike most of the undergrads!) both commented that Y “isn’t political”, but, K wrote to me from Norway, she should know what she’s saying and who she’s talking to! Surely she should have known what she was saying whoever she was talking to! So: “not political”, highly educated (in science), but expressing the view that the threat or use of chemical weapons on a group of human beings is “controversial” – i.e. “open to debate”, and having obviously come down on the side of the “controversy” that would state that this might be valid in the case of Jews in Israel, since there are people who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist! (So if we apply such a conclusion to the aforementioned poll, could it be that there are some “non-political” Muslims who nevertheless find the threats and actions of Islamic extremists to be “controversial”, possibly justifiable?!)
Shortly after this incident, another housemate and friend, a British doctoral student of Nigerian descent, “L”, came into the kitchen one day, agitated and perturbed. A stranger had stopped and asked directions, addressing her query to L’s “white” friend. L helpfully gave directions, but the stranger refused to acknowledge her, and asked further questions, continuing to address them to L’s friend, and to ignore L and her further attempts to be helpful. (It could not have been that she could not see or hear L, blessed with a resonant voice and a tall stature.) This was offensive enough, but what troubled L perhaps even more was that her own friend had unconsciously cooperated with this, and then questioned and doubted whether the stranger’s behaviour had in fact been racist.
L was in a grumbling mood for which she apologised. I said it was OK – she was angry, and she was right to be, and this acceptance of the validity of her anger, and acknowledgement that she had in fact been subjected to racism, seemed to lift some of the burden away from her.
I then told her that Y and I were not speaking because she had said something anti-Semitic, and related the incident to her. “Ah! But is that anti-Semitism?” L asked. My expression must have been full of indignation and outrage. As I opened my mouth to respond, she quickly answered her own question: “Of course it is, because it can never be right to use chemical weapons against anyone!”
I submitted the photo of the children with gas masks to the competition, and it was not selected to be displayed in my college common room! These two photos were, however, displayed:
Ethiopian Jewish boy who had just arrived in Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, posing for me when he saw me with my camera!
Shoeshine boy, Addis Abeba, 1992. The colours in this photo are not right – when I had jpeg files created from the 21 year old negatives, I was told this is because the negatives had become “magenta” with age, but I don’t think that’s true! I have the original photo somewhere…
When I tell people that my father was imprisoned in Auschwitz, the question that invariably follows is: “How did he survive?”
As is the case with most of “The Boys” (732 child and teenage holocaust survivors admitted into Britain after WWII), the fact that my father survived is almost inconceivable. And as we know from Martin Gilbert’s book, The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity, survival depended on a combination of factors: kind acts by others, chance and luck against improbable odds, the will to live in the face of all that was happening; and physical and mental strength and stamina.
Since Transcarpathian Ruthenia, where my father, Abraham, lived, was occupied by Hungary in 1938, Jews in this region were not subjected to deportation until 1944. However, by this time, the Nazis were in a hurry to complete the job of exterminating the Jews. This was their priority.
Deported from Mukaçevo not long after his Bar Mitzvah, Abraham was among the youngest concentration camp survivors, and the only survivor of Birchashof Birkenau – one of the camps – a farm complex – at Auschwitz. Almost all of his entire age group were exterminated with all the other children upon arrival at Auschwitz, but as is the story with many of the other “Boys”, he observed the advice of one of the Polish inmates upon arrival, given in Yiddish: “Say you’re 18!” As his family were being selected either for work or for immediate extermination, he insisted that he was 18. It seems someone wanted to believe him, and so he was steered in the direction of those selected to work and starve to the point of death, as his father did, rather than face immediate extermination in the gas chambers, as his mother did.
The photo shown is the earliest photo I have of him. It was attached to his form held by the Jewish Refugees Committee, and seems to have been taken immediately upon his arrival in England, when he was 16. This is more than three years after someone accepted his insistence that he was 18, and let him live.
In the Auschwitz barracks where he and his father were imprisoned, there were two kapos: “a nice one and a nasty one”. The “nice” kapo was a German man called Peter: “a very tall fellow: 6’6” or thereabouts” – who had been serving his sentence in a German prison after being caught just after robbing a bank. The “nasty” kapo was a brutal, heavy-set Ukrainian man called Otto. When Otto hit a prisoner, that prisoner never got up again:
“He was a real criminal. He was a murderer. He must have murdered at least one a week there – beating him to death – giving him twelve lashes – and from him, they didn’t last long. He was doing all the beatings – you know – during appell. He was always doing it. People were really shuddering.”
Peter, the German kapo, took Abraham under his wing, looking after him, bringing him extra food, and protecting him from the brutal kapo: “He told this Otto that if he does anything to me, he’ll kill him!” When the SS there wanted fruit that had ripened on some trees, Peter recommended Abraham for the job of climbing the trees and picking the fruit, and while up in the trees, he was able to eat his fill of fruit.
“So I remember we went with a horse, a German guard with a gun, there was this German kapo [Peter], and me. We had lots of baskets. So we went, and I picked fruit for them….That was in [the summer of] ‘44.”
Abraham derived food from other sources:
“…there were the Polish boys – Jewish, who would go and work on transports. They’d bring some extra food back. Often it was green [with mould]…but it doesn’t matter. It was still good enough.”
Another source of food came from a Hungarian guard who had “ …some German-speaking girlfriend”.
“He asked if I would write a letter in German for him. I said: “You write it in Hungarian, and I’ll write it in German.” I had learned German…. before the War. I started German, I think I must have been five or six, I started to learn German – at school. And my father spoke German, and I was writing the Gothic German… the reason I was doing the old-fashioned German was because my father knew the old-fashioned German. Of course I learned it at school as well.”
I understand that this demand for Abraham’s translating skills was an ongoing state of affairs, as was the extra food he received in appreciation.
Although Abraham would give some of the extra food he received to his father, instead of eating it, his father would give it to the Mukaçeve rebbe (rabbi) who was with them, since the rebbe would not eat the food they were given apart from the bread, as it wasn’t kosher.
There seems to have been a relationship of trust between Abraham and Peter, the German kapo, as Abraham discussed with him the possibility of escape.
“I was in situations where I could have escaped, but I didn’t know in which direction. I did discuss it with Peter, I remember… He said there’s no way. I’m in the middle of things. Right in the middle. If I manage to get through this wire, which is easy enough….because we did get out… but you’ll not get through further. There were wires within wires within wires within wires. There’s no way. At least not from there, and with this tattoo, I’d be recognized anywhere. Yes, the only other thing I had was prison uniform. Not a very good thing to cover it with.”
Abraham’s father grew weaker and weaker with starvation and labour; he was taken to the hospital, and Abraham never saw him again:
“….he was writing notes for two weeks. And then they stopped, finished.”
In my father’s dossier, a summary of Abraham’s background provides the information that his mother (Rachel Rosza) was sent to the gas chambers in May 1944, and his father (Chaim) was sent to the gas chambers in July 1944.
When Auschwitz was being evacuated and the prisoners were forced to go on their first “death march”, the German prisoners were free to join the German army and head for the Russian front (which I doubt Peter would have done!) or to go wherever they wished or could get to.
Recently I have been wondering about Peter.
“….he looked after me – the tall fellow. He told me his story: he was robbing a bank, so he said, on a motorbike, and they were chasing the robbers, and he said: ‘Over there! Over there!’ So they didn’t believe him. They arrested him.”
I have been wondering what kind of person he could have been, to plan and embark on a bank robbery, and then, in Auschwitz, to make it his mission to protect and look after a young Jewish boy. My father assumed that his own father had asked him to do so, but Peter must have wanted to help Abraham regardless. He obviously hadn’t been susceptible to Goebbels’ anti-Semitic crushingly heavy-duty brainwashing and propaganda campaign.
Having lost his father, and without Peter to protect him, it seems Abraham wasn’t completely alone: during his first “death march”, he walked alongside a Hungarian doctor who kept himself alive with pills for as long as he could. Abraham, having been based on the only farm in Auschwitz-Birkenau, (along with his father who had declared his trade as “farmer”), had to walk with the horses and carts containing agricultural machinery which he and the other prisoners helped to push.
“We were in Birchashof farm complex, and the Germans decided they were going to save the machinery and take it to Germany with their horses, carts. And it was winter, December, 1944…. or maybe even the beginning of 1945….
“So there was a long line of people, about four or six abreast…I remember it was about six….and that line must have been miles long because they had been evacuated from other camps at the same time. Only we were at the end of the line because we had these carriages, horses, carts, machinery….and we were marching – starting to push it. Now it appears that the Russians were advancing pretty quickly, so we were going day and night….. And anybody who couldn’t keep up just sat down and he was shot. There were soldiers at the back who would shoot them. Nobody could escape. Every time somebody sat down you would hear a shot after, as we passed. And in any case, as we were at the back, there were other transports in front of us, who had marched before us, half an hour or so earlier, and the sides were littered with dead prisoners shot all along the line.”
“While we were marching, walking, the soldiers would take it in turn to sit on the carts and have their sleep. As we were pushing uphill …..there was a road once upon a time there, but there was a little track – a snow track – we had to push the carts uphill, and there were always the Germans with their truncheons: “Los! Los! Aufgang! Los! Los! Los!”, and hitting, always hitting – some of them were just hitting in any case for no reason at all….that if you were on the outside of the line, you had a very good chance of being hit….and one hit of that on the head, you’d fall down, you’d stumble, you’d stay there, you wouldn’t get up anymore. In any case, many people couldn’t keep up so they just sat down, they just gave up.” (1984 interview)
“We were marching for two weeks. At that time, all the horses…had to be shot. The horses couldn’t march any more either. They can’t go on forever….People couldn’t push anymore.” (1989 interview)
During the last stretch of the journey to Buchenwald, the surviving prisoners were squeezed into open-top train carriages, exposed to the elements. At the last stop before being forced onto these carriages, Abraham’s Hungarian doctor companion encouraged him to try to grab some carrots from the kitchen, which he managed to do without being shot, as others were. In the absence of any other food, these carrots kept him alive.
“Now I’m going to give you an episode which sticks out in my mind. Now where I come from there were two brothers. They were hardy people – they were selling coal….they must have been 19 or 20 – and to carry coal in sacks to sell – so they were really used to hardship. There were two brothers, and they were with me on one of these open trucks…. railway carriages. After a number of days – since the total travel was only about two weeks – without food – all we had was snow for water – one of the brothers died. Then all of a sudden, somebody saw the other brother eating the flesh of his brother. And then he was pointed out: ‘Look what’s happening! Look what’s happening!” And this person all of a sudden stood up – we were all huddled together in an open carriage – stood up as if to walk on all of them: “I’m going home for Shabbes! I’m going home for Shabbesl!” As if to walk over the people, as if nobody was there. And the guard shot him. Others died, but more calmly. Just fell asleep and they never woke up. But that was something which…. It’s not that he was shot – that he was ‘going home’, that his mind had gone. [It’s] that he had eaten of his brother.”
The Hungarian doctor did not survive this stage of the journey. My father noted that about 10% of the prisoners on the death march from Auschwitz survived the journey to Buchenwald.
Upon arrival at Buchenwald:
“We get food there, and it seems to be a bit better than the others, but every day I see people pulling carts – skeletons – dead people – to the crematoria to burn – all the time they’re pulling them, pulling them. Therefore this event of people dying there like flies seems to be an occurrence wherever we were. However I’m told: ‘Look, you’re a young boy, you’re under 16, you can stay in the children’s ward. And you will be all right.’ I said: ‘No. I’m 18 and I want to go to work.’ I thought to myself: If I work I’m all right. If I don’t work, I’m useless and we die…I was healthier when I left Buchenwald than when I had arrived there. Because we did have regular food. And not only that, the person who was serving the food, seeing I need a little bit extra, he gave me the extra little bit…he just gave me the bit which just had a bit of meat in it. These are these little perks which made the difference between people surviving or not.”
From Buchenwald, Abraham was taken to Rhemsdorf to work in a factory which was serving the German war effort, and which was being bombed by the British, day and night.
“…There were 30,000 prisoners, and for the first time I saw American prisoners, British prisoners, Russian prisoners….all there, trying to work, trying to … rebuild the factory after it had been bombed. And the bombs kept falling almost any time.”
“So there [in Rhemsdorf] they did give us food simply because we were doing a useful job….so to speak, but not very much of it. People still kept dying all the time. There were always the ‘musulman’. The ‘musulman’ is the person who was skin and bone.”
In the case of the American, British and Russian prisoners of war, however, “…we were not together. They were looked after better…..they were demoralised, but they seemed to have been fed well. But there’s no comparison.”
In Rhemsdorf, he found his brother, David who was carrying out carpentry work. “…the point is, he was there. That is important. And now we were two together.”
The allies were advancing.
“We were told again that we were going to be evacuated, and I saw people were running to the kitchen to find some food for the journey. I also ran to the kitchen, and I found, and I took, three carrots, and I ran away. But others managed to get shot for their troubles. I did get away with three carrots.: Now, we were put on the trains….after one or two days, their locomotive was bombed….The train came to a sudden halt, and as the aeroplanes came and our guards were frightened, they ran away. And many of us, prisoners, started to run away into the woods, only to be rounded up by local Germans – old people and young people, and most of those running into the woods – not knowing where to go – they were all shot by the local people, local Hitler Jugend. All young people were taught how to handle guns in Germany. Therefore I don’t think anybody will have escaped that.”
“After that we had to walk, and we were walking….I think a couple of weeks ….maybe even longer – through German towns and villages, and most of our shoes had long worn out. Some had rags [on their feet]. We did stop now and then, for a bit of soup….”
“They didn’t shoot the prisoners in the towns, but as soon as we got a certain distance from a small town or a village, we’d stop, and those they thought unable to continue were shot. Or they would just take a group of people and shoot them in any case because they wanted to reduce some of the guards. Some of the guards wanted to go away. Some said they wanted to go to the front to fight, others who had other reasons. So since there were too few guards, they reduced the number of people in the march.”
During this “death march” to Theresienstadt, Abraham and David shared the carrots Abraham had managed to take from the kitchen at Rhemsdorf – one between them each day:
“…and it kept us going: half a carrot for me, half a carrot for my brother, and it makes all the difference between whether you live a few days longer or not – whether you make it or not.”
They would eat grass along the way, and then would get stomach cramps, and want to sit down and give up. If they had done so, they would have been shot by the German guards. But neither of them would allow the other to give up – mercifully, it seems, their stomach cramps were not simultaneously severe. David and Abraham enabled each other to survive the “death march” from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt, which alone, each would not have survived.
Part of the story of my father’s survival is a Czech woman who gave him bread when the “death march” was proceeding through Czechoslovakia. While they had been marched through Germany, my father recalled that women, old people and children – the Hitler Youth – would smash bottles at the prisoners’ bare or rag-bound feet in order that they should tread in the broken glass.
By contrast, when they were being marched through Czechoslovakia, the Czech people were throwing bread. However, for every piece of bread thrown, there was such a scramble that the bread would get broken into little pieces and no-one would get any. One of “The Boys” said it was a form of sadism: that bystanders were deriving amusement from these scenes. Whatever the case, one woman wanted to be sure that my father received bread, and ran out to place it firmly in his hands, even though the German guards were threatening to shoot anyone who gave food to the prisoners. The Czechwoman who wanted my father to live, to the extent that she risked her life to make sure he got his piece of bread, then had a rifle butt slammed down on her head by a German guard as she was running back out of the line of prisoners.
When I was in Prague in the summer of 1998, one day, as I stood waiting for my friend to turn up, an elderly woman kept staring at me. When my friend arrived, he noticed how she was staring at me. I wondered: was she the one who helped my father? Did she recognize my father in me? Recently, it dawned on me that the woman who had given my father bread probably never got up again after the rifle butt crashed down on her head. I had always assumed that she had lived on, but it seems, in all likelihood, she gave her life to make sure my father got some bread. That the last thing she did in her life was to hand my father the bread, and then try to run back out of the line of prisoners.
This act of hers obviously made an enormous impression on young Abraham. The German Nazi Reich was focused on hunting him; its military machinery was designed to exterminate him and other Jews; German women, elderly people and children smashed bottles under his feet; and suddenly, here was someone, a gentile, who not only wanted him to live, but probably gave her own life to this purpose.
As with Peter, I have recently been trying to imagine this woman and the kind of life she came from. For her, we do not even have a name. Probably she was fairly young, as she was depending on her speed and agility to get swiftly in and out of the line of prisoners, and out of reach of the guards, which she didn’t succeed in doing. A kind-hearted, brave and defiant young woman, as the Czechs in general were defiant at having their country occupied by the Nazi imposters.
The Hungarian Jewish doctor who had walked alongside Abraham during the first “death march” had told him: “After the War, when there is food, don’t eat too much. Just have a piece of bread and a piece of cheese.” Once he was liberated from Theresienstadt, and able to go out of the concentration camp and find food, Abraham remembered the words of the doctor. Abraham was obviously someone who took advice very seriously – whether to say he was 18, or to eat moderately after starvation. Others found food and died from eating more than their starved systems could take. One of Abraham’s uncles, having survived up to that point, went out and found a piece of fat which he ate, and then, after everything he had gone through, contracted typhoid and died.
“People still kept dying, because it doesn’t end at a certain point. People got used to not eating. They couldn’t take food anymore. And when they got food, a little bit of food, [they] got typhoid. [They] died of it.”
Abraham, as advised, ate a piece of bread and a piece of cheese. As long as I remember, my father always ate in moderation, despite having been so severely starved at such a young age. After Yom Kippur, he would break the Fast with bread and cheese.
The net result of all these factors is that – against all the odds – my father survived.
“…..one day we saw the first Russian motorcyclist, and that was the end of the war. And we weren’t allowed out straight away, but as soon as we heard there were no more Germans, some of us found a hole to climb out of Theresienstadt, and there were strawberries there. Some of us had some strawberries.”
An interviewer once asked my father: What kept you going mentally? And my father replied:
“Oh – the war will end and then everything will be fine, and one day I’ll have enough bread, butter and milk…. If I keep alive long enough, the war will end and I’ll still be there.”
Having survived all that he survived, he then faced the task of living the rest of his life having experienced and witnessed the horrors of Auschwitz and the “death marches”. This, it seems, he achieved largely through music. In Munich DP Camp where he spent a year waiting to go to Palestine before deciding, instead, to join his brother, David, in England, he sourced two lots of food rations. He would exchange the extra food (with the exception of chocolate which, as far as he was concerned, was not extra and not exchangeable!) for piano and violin lessons from teachers who taught at the Handel Conservatorium. In a letter to the Jewish Refugees Committee in September 1950, requesting help with fees for continuing his piano studies at the Toynbee Hall, he wrote:
“I began to play the piano at Handel Conservatoire in Munich four years ago. There, not possessing a piano, I walked every morning three miles to the street-car where I continued my journey, by street-car, for another 30 minutes to the Conservatoire, and there I was allowed to practice on one of the College pianos (if I bribed the school-keeper) until 9 a.m., when lessons started.
“Since then I have been keeping up my studies in music.”
In fact, my father’s recently released dossier kept by the Jewish Refugees Committee during his early years in the UK, is full of documentation relating to the urgent nature, and great priority, of his need for piano lessons (and his depression before accessing these), a piano to practise on, piano repairs, further training in piano.
Abraham’s brother, Zruli, while he was in the DP camp together with Abraham, studied opera at the Handel Conservatorium, and my father seemed disappointed that he did not become a major opera singer, which he felt was within the range of Zruli’s abilities and talent.
I have no doubt that it was largely through playing the piano that my father returned to humanity, received healing, experienced the sublime, and rose from the ashes.
Thus, my father survived. Because of someone who accepted his insistence that he was 18 when he looked and was in fact only 13; and thanks to Peter – the German bank robber; thanks to his fluency in German and Hungarian; thanks to the advice of the Hungarian doctor and to my father’s strict observance of his words; thanks to the person serving food at Buchenwald; thanks to joining forces with his brother, David; thanks to an unknown heroic Czech woman; thanks to the carrots he found; thanks to his ability to eat in moderation even after having been so severely starved; thanks to the piano, and to Schubert, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Manuel de Falla; thanks to his physical and mental constitution and his will to live. And with all this, essentially, thanksto remotest chance, and luck, my father survived.
* * *
Note: Except where otherwise stated, quotes are from interviews conducted with Abraham Herman in May 1984 and March 1989.
Postscript: From an interview in 1984, my father talking about his time in a DP camp in Munich: “And for studying I had extra rations. Now I had two lots of food , and for two lots of food I could pay for some of my private lessons in food, to a German music teacher, because music was not provided as part of the learning. All the other lessons I had free….I attended Handel’s Conservatorium …….there was a woman teacher who gave private [violin] lessons in exchange for tinned food…..She invited me to her home and she had very many musical instruments: violins and others. So I said: “You have very many musical instruments. Where do you get them from?” She said: “Oh, my nephew was an officer in Poland. Whenever he came home on leave, he always brought me something.” And I remember particularly that she showed me: “This is an Amati,” and then she mentioned the others….. And if you think about it, there must have been between thirty to forty musical instruments in that room, it will give you some indication of what was going on.
“Well, after that I left her. I didn’t go back to her anymore. I didn’t want to know her….”
“So I went down [to]…a place who arranged the administration of people leaving. So I said: ‘Look, I think I should go to England now.'”
Map showing route of train journey from Mukaceveo (Munkacs) to Auschwitz. (Martin Gilbert: Atlas of the Holocaust )
Maps showing route of Death March and train evacuation from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Buchenwald (Martin Gilbert: Atlas of the Holocaust [216-7])
Map showing route of Death March from Rehmsdorf to Theresienstadt (Martin Gilbert: Atlas of the Holocaust /. According to Abe’s brother, David, they crossed the border from Germany into Czechoslovakia at the Czech town of Chomutov (David Herman: David’s Story).