The face in the forest

In plain language

April 16, 2015 15:57
Forest hiking

People hike in a forest (illustrative). (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: REUTERS)


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I was raised in California. But I grew up, one summer, in Canada.

I was 14 then, your typical Valley girl, hopelessly, gleefully immersed in all the glitz and glitter that is LA-LA Land. I knew the words to every new song, I used the hippest expressions, I wore the most outlandish clothes, with heels that could have made me a basketball star if I’d been the least interested in sports – which I wasn’t. Speaking of stars, we had lots of them in our neighborhood, and we mixed and mingled with their kids who attended our school. We went to all the latest movie premiers, and we hung out at all the chic hangout spots, and “star-gazing” was the thing to do on weekends and throughout the summer.

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Our clique was definitely the teenage in-crowd; we were cool and hot, all at the same time.

But in the summer of 1985, everything changed, at least for me.

Mom and Dad decided to do a month-long cruise to the Far East, and my siblings and I were “farmed out.”

I was sent – “forced” would probably be a better word – for the summer to Canada, to stay with Bubby and Zaydie.

I was, to say the least, not a happy camper. Now, don’t get me wrong; I loved my grandparents. They showered me with presents on their once-a-year visits, and they never, ever forgot my birthday. But – let’s face it – they were old, or more accurately, “old-country.” I had virtually nothing in common with them – besides their being my mom’s parents – and I couldn’t imagine what I would possibly talk to them about when the “Hi”s, “Hello”s and welcome kisses were over.

So when my parents announced that I was headed north, I kicked and screamed and made the kind of fuss that teens are famous for. But then, as always, Mom got her way and I was on a plane to Toronto.

It was easy to spot B and Z when I got out of baggage control at Pearson; they were the ones with the faces beaming out like twin lighthouses.

“Rebekka!” they screamed in unison across the terminal when they spotted me, totally oblivious to any reaction from the crowd. They ran over and hugged me for about 10 minutes – or was it an hour? – before driving me to their house in Thornhill. And then, between fielding questions about school, boyfriends and the too much makeup that I was apparently wearing, I gulped down Bubby’s famous onion pletzlach and her crispon- the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside potato kugel, topped off by a slice of her delicious chocolate babka, and I watched my ever-present teenage-girl diet balloon off to never-never land.

The next day, we headed for their cottage.

The cottage is where Torontonians go when the snow finally melts and school lets out, whichever comes first (usually the latter). Sitting right on beautiful Lake Ontario, at the edge of a lush forest, the cottage waits patiently for nature to heroically emerge from winter’s icy grasp and reveal God’s beauty. Even cynical me was impressed by it, and I actually loved spending every day doing the many water sports on the lake, though I had little choice of any other entertainment, seeing as how my grandparents had no TV (can you believe it?!).

On the second week of my trip, after I’d had my share of swimming and sailing and sunning, Zaydie asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him. This was his favorite pastime, just walking through the woods and along the water’s edge for hours on end. So I exchanged my flip-flops for sneakers, and off we went for some quality alone time together. I was apprehensive at first. I had always been in awe of Zaydie; while I knew he had been in the Holocaust and suffered a lot, no one in the family had ever really talked about it in any specific way. And when the subject did come up, from time to time, I was always kept at arm’s length from it.

Until, that is, that past school year, when I had decided to take a Holocaust Awareness course in junior high.

We walked for a long time, just admiring the scenery, and then Zaydie said, “Rebekka, I was very glad to learn that you have started studying about the Shoah.

I know that can’t be very easy for you. But now that we are here together, do you have any questions you would like to ask me? Anything at all?” At first, I was too shy, too scared to say anything.

But then Zaydie held my hand and smiled. “Don’t be afraid, my sweetheart; I won’t bite you. And don’t worry; I’m okay talking about it. So tell me, what would you like to know?” “Well,” I said, “I can’t understand how people could be so mean, so cruel to other people. If you don’t like someone, then just stay away from him. Why hurt others in such horrible ways? What makes people do that?” Zaydie nodded his head in agreement.

“You’re a pretty smart girl,” he said. “You already came up with a question that I can’t answer. In fact, maybe nobody can answer it, though lots of people wiser than me have tried, for a long time. But let me ask you, Rebekka: Do you know who the very first Rebekka was?” “Sure. One of the four great mothers of Israel,” I answered.

“The mother of Jacob.”

“True. But she was also the mother of Esau. And as good and righteous as Jacob was, that’s how evil Esau was. In fact, it was Esau’s own descendants who would carry out the Holocaust against his own twin brother’s family! So how can one mother produce two so totally different children? If you can answer that, then perhaps you can also answer how two peoples – the Nazis and the Jews – could come from One God, and still be so completely different.”

I THOUGHT a lot about that as we walked on, and then, the ice having been broken, I started to ask Zaydie all kinds of other questions: “What happened to you during the Shoah? When were you liberated? And why do you love to walk so much?” Zaydie gave me a squeeze. “You’ve asked me just the right questions, my darling, because they’re all connected.”

And he opened his heart to me.

“I was 25 years old when the Nazis came to my small town in Poland. Because I was young, and strong, they sent me to work at a slave labor camp. It was a terrible place, and many died there, but I hung on. We were taken each day to the forest that was just outside the camp, to gather wood. Separated from my family, I was terribly alone. I was hungry, and completely weak from almost no food or rest. But there in the woods, the trees became my friends, and that’s why I love the forest to this very day. I spoke to the trees about my troubles, and they waved their branches in response to my suffering. And every day, nestled among those trees, I saw a face that smiled back at me, urging me to go on, and said, ‘Things will be all right. Some day this nightmare will come to an end, and you will survive.’ “I was in that camp, and several others, for a long time, but then one day my name was called, and I was sent to Auschwitz. I can’t describe that place to you – words alone are not sufficient – and I try not to even remember it.

“But let us just say that it was a planet of pain.

“Constant pain of every type – pain that beat night and day against your outside and against your inside.

But somehow, I managed to stay alive there, too; that face I saw in the woods was also in Auschwitz, and many times, when I wanted to give up, it whispered to me, ‘Do not let go – stay alive!’ “In January of 1945, the Russian Red Army was advancing through Poland. We could hear their big guns firing in the distance and we thought, we hoped, that they would soon come to free us. But nine days before the Soviets reached Auschwitz, the Germans gathered us up – we had been many hundreds of thousands, but now only 60,000 remained – and they marched us toward the train station at Loslau, many kilometers away.

“We walked and walked in the bitter winter cold, wearing only rags, feeble, freezing and frightened.

The Nazis moved us along with whips, shooting anyone who fell out of line, or even stumbled. Two-thirds of the people died along the way, but as I marched, that same familiar face marched with me, giving me strength, and hope. It was my only companion, and it would not leave my side. And so, somehow, I trudged on, and somehow I made it to the train station, where I was shoved onto a freight car and sent to Dachau.

“There, three months later, just after Passover, I was finally liberated by the United States’ Seventh Army infantry division.

“Since then, every chance I get, I walk. I walk so I can thank the Almighty for sparing me when so many others died; I walk so I can thank the trees for befriending me; I walk so I can replace the sounds of the victims’ screams with the chirping of the birds, and see the splendor of nature rather than the sadism of the cursed SS.

“I walk because now it is I who choose to walk, and not some murderer with a gun who forces me.”

Though I was almost too numb to speak, there was still one question that I had to ask.

“Zaydie,” I said, “whose face was it that you kept seeing? Whose face was it that helped you go on to survive?” Zaydie stopped walking, and I could see the tears coming down his cheeks. He wiped them away, and then he looked at me, his face full of love.

“That was your face, Rebekka, the same face I am looking at now.”

■ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.

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