A letter to my uncle
Dearest Uncle Joseph,
I found a letter. Four yellowed, fragile pages in almost indecipherable Yiddish. Sadly, sorting through my father’s belongings, there was a bulging wallet. After a full ninety-eight years, he took secrets to his maker as in it were never before seen ‘photos, surely my never met family. Then, in its depths – a letter!
My heart beat madly. Addressed to you, Yoseph Henech in February 1939, from your father Avraham Markiewicz. The grandfather I tragically never met.
To you I must write, as though you are still here in this world, still visiting my father, your brother Aron in London, on business trips from New York. Then I loved how you sat me, skinny eight year old niece, on your knee, singing Sabbath songs, saying ‘Pessele, du bist ein gold’ (Pessy, you are a golden child). I feel calmer sharing the original letter, sent to you, summarized here in English.
To my son Yosef Henech Markeiwicz, London from Avraham Markiewicz Lowitz, Poland 21.2.39
My dear son Yosef Henech,
Although I am not really brave enough to write this letter, I must write it all down.
Thank G-d I’m well. With G-d’s help, I hope to hear the same from you.
You sent for your sister Zelda’s dowry 4000 zlotys and for us 500 zlotys. We put the dowry in the bank and of the 500 hundred that we received we owed half. I still owe 50 zlotys.
Making a wedding is not an investment that brings in money. Now there is no bed linen. I wish the wedding was already finished. About the chossen, he wants the wedding to take place before Pesach.
I can tell you that I am very satisfied with the chossen and they are both very satisfied. Zelda received a diamond ring and a gold watch and the chossen is also asking me for a present of a gold watch. I can’t give him an answer because I have nothing in my purse.
I am writing to you not as a father to a son but as a son to a father. My dear son, if you have enough money, please send me some to make the wedding.
Your loving father who has only good things from his children. Good wishes from Zelda and her betrothed. Please answer me.
Joseph’s imagined response
To my father Avraham Markiewicz, Poland from your son Yosef Henech Markeiwicz London 20-3-1939
Your heartbreaking letter arrived yesterday. You made a living stuffing wadding into coats against freezing Polish winters. But now your purse is empty. Urgently I must help with the chossen’s gold watch, and more, for Zelda’s wedding.
Good you left our home town of Czychlin in 1931 for Lowitz where, as you know, both had an amazingly 50% Jewish population. But Lowitz, with 1000 more Jews - approximately 4,500 - had strictly religious Beth Jacob schools, a weekly Mazovsher Vokhenblat paper , and a more Zionistic outlook. So there was a much better chance of finding a chossen for Zelda. We know how you longed to reach Palestine. We admire your efforts, but tragically, no Jews are left there at all today.
You wrote her betrothed preferred her to Yankelevitche’s daughter even though he offered 10,000 zlotys dowry and you only 4,000. Of course! Zelda is a talented beauty. Can make something out of nothing.
We three brothers, as you know, at seventeen fled to Germany. Better than being conscripted into the Polish army for 25 years. First me in 1917, two years later, Aron, your middle son, then, in 1928, then your youngest, Pessachye, joined us to work in Leipzig’s fur trade. When Nazis clouded Europe two years ago Faigee and Shulamith smuggled through Czechoslovakia, and I, by business visa, to London.
Tattele, in 1922 when you made our twenty-two year old sister Chava’s wedding, her betrothed, David Zandelevitz was happy with his Balebusta. A home maker like Mama Pessya, of blessed memory, who passed away so young. When Chava moved to David’s home town, Kutno, barely 20 klm away from Lowitz, your old horse and carriage took hours, so you rarely saw their little Nuita and Zusha.
Just as you did everything for us, your three sons will help you. Aron, his wife Regina and baby Pessy miraculously escaped on Kristallnacht when Nazi Stormtroopers smashed shop and synagogue windows, and forced Jews out of their homes. Righteous non-Jewish neighbours, at peril of their own lives, hid them. Next day they fled Leipzig for Antwerp, where Aron again makes a good living. Pessachye escaped to Marseilles, marrying Hannah, his childhood sweetheart.
It broke my heart, dear Tatte, that now your purse is empty. My express letter confirms my bank will transfer Zlotys to your bank account as before.
The gold watch will be the chossen’s! May he and Zelda have a joyous wedding,
Mazal Tov to you all.
Your loving son Joseph.
Zelda’s imagined letter
Lodz, December 18th 1941
Dear heart Hiller,
Too short was my name Domankiewicz. How wonderful our wedding four years ago. Tattele led me to the chuppa where your waiting smile warmed my heart. A happy home we made, then with little Nutek, bitter sweet, knowing not what awaited us.
Down the road I hear Nazis shouting, banging on doors. Hastily I take paper, envelopes and pen to write you this letter. I have hidden the diamond ring and gold watch inside the rice barrel. Keep safe your gold watch you wear only on Sabbath. Here they’re coming for us. Rushing as fast as Nutek’s three year old little legs will go, with his small case and a bundle of money, I’m desperate to hide him among the children of our friendly neighboring farmers.
For me, no escape. Nazis force me across land, then into a carriage on a long train, passing from Lowitz, then Lodz, then Kutno.
With no room to breathe, I squeeze towards a narrow slat. The Polish countryside rolls past. Trees’ icy fingers point goodbye, farewell. To where? Some said Auschwitz.
I squirmed looking around. Imagine, there was Tatte, tall enough to see over heads. Pushing towards him, I found also my beloved sister Chava with her terrified 12 year old Nuita and 8 year old Zusha clinging to her skirt. I write jogging.
Crashing brakes screech to a shuddering halt. I stuff this page into the addressed envelope. Doors bang open, more people pushed in. On the platform stands a lone woman. I will push this envelope through the slat. Maybe she’ll snatch it. Who knows?
Farewell my all too brief, always beloved, chossen.
Yes, Zaide, I always was a dreamer. But I couldn’t imagine you would appear, tonight, and looking just like your photo.
Ah my Pessele – I thought I looked better by now! After all, I am together with your dear Bubbe, Pessya, who you’re called Pessy after.
But where are my aunts, cousins, Chava, Zelda, Nuita and Zusha?
Dearest granddaughter. Auschwitz was cruel – but not so cruel. Some of the marches were mixed men and women. So on ours we were all five of us together. I gave what morsels of bread I managed to scrape together to little Nuita and Zusha. Of course not enough. Starvation is not what it’s made out to be. First you are used to having less and less, then none, then you are hungry no more. On that march we five managed to slip into the forest. Together we slept and together we found ourselves in a place of light, golden and warm.
Zaide, you comfort me. But how come I found your letter to uncle Joseph in my father’s old wallet?
Ah! When you and your parents escaped to London, Joseph had not left for the States and was there. He gave it to your father to show Uncle Pesachye when he came on business from France. They all helped with the wedding. Pessele, I have to go back soon but...
Zaide, before you go, just tell me. What became of little Nutek? The gold watch, what became of it? Did Zelda’s letter reach Hiller?
Some things, better not know. We share endless time without watches, gold or any other.
Zaide, seems a topsy-turvey world. I do know my brother, Aubrey, of blessed memory was named Avraham after you.
Of course, we are together. He loves playing chess, and so do many of our family who “perished” in the Holocaust.
Pessele meine, who has given me countless grandchildren great, and great, great grandchildren, may you all be blessed.
Zaide, the poet T.S. Elliot wrote, “We thank thee for the lights which we have kindled.”
True. My child, As I leave you remember also, “Man tracht und Gott lacht” – Man proposes and God disposes.
I wake. I check my sophisticated chronometer watch. It seems to have gone fast forward to 2021!
All was turned upside down when, not so long ago, we celebrated Purim – the Festival of Fate. Now it is Holocaust Remembrance Day. We remember. Soon it will be Israel’s 73rd Independence Day.
I will read these letters to my blessed four generation family. We gather for our traditional picnic after prayers thanking the Almighty for the miraculous rise of the State of Israel. Now we no longer ask, “Which country will let us in?” We have our own precious Israel.
Truly it is said, “The fire that destroys us creates the ashes from which we rise.”
The people of Israel is alive! Am Yisrael Chai!