Picturing the past

Seeing his mother's picture on the wall of Yad Vashem closes a circle for a Holocaust survivor's son.

yad vashem pics 88.298 (photo credit: )
yad vashem pics 88.298
(photo credit: )
I recognized her immediately. I was shocked, I felt weak in the knees." Last week, walking through the new exhibits in Yad Vashem, Isaac Hoffman, 60, suddenly saw the photograph: A picture of his mother, Ita, taken by British soldiers only a day or two after they liberated the Bergen-Belsen death and concentration camp, where she had been imprisoned. Ita Hoffman died nearly six years ago, but for Hoffman, finding that picture meant that "something that had come full-circle and reached closure, at least for my mother." The picture contrasts sharply with the other pictures on the display wall. Ita's features are still strong, soft and pretty, even in those horrific circumstances. She is helping another woman choose a dress. The other woman looks much older, sick and frail. The caption reads, "They have no strength and a woman helps a friend to choose a dress." The "friend" is Ita's younger sister Friedel, whom Ita had just located in the camp infirmary. Already sick with typhus, Friedel has the look of die Muselm nner, the living corpses who had lost the will to survive. She died two days later and was buried in a mass grave on the grounds of the camp. Ita Hoffman (n e Deutsch) was born in the town of Ternova, near the Carpathian mountains. Well-off and comfortable, the Deutsches were a hassidic and Zionist family; an uncle, David Deutsch, had been a prominent leader of religious Zionism in Europe. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, the Jews were sent to the concentration camps and the family was dispersed. Ita was first sent to Auschwitz as a worker. Hoffman doesn't know exactly how or why she arrived in Bergen-Belsen. The death routines separated people in the camps, and Ita apparently did not know that she and her sister were in the same camp, or for how long. After liberation, Ita heard that someone from her village was in the infirmary. The sisters were reunited, briefly. Alone, Ita traveled back to Budapest, looking for survivors. Of the 11 Deutsch children, only Ita and three others survived, two of whom are still alive today. She met her husband, Hoffman's father, in Budapest. Since he had fought with the Czech partisans against the Nazis and was entitled to a veteran's pension, they resettled in Czechoslovakia, in the homes of Germans expelled from the Sudetenland. Isaac was born in Czechoslovakia. But when the Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia and Jan Masaryk was pushed or jumped from his office window, Ita convinced her husband to come to Israel. "'I've had enough of the goyim,' she told my father. 'I want to live with Jews,'" Hoffman says. "My father might have preferred to go to America, but my mother had the motivation, the strength and the will, so they went to Israel. "Imagine! They had a house, a business, a family. They had financial security. But they left, and they had to make a new life for themselves, again. That is true courage," he says. Hoffman continues, "This country was filled with people who didn't come here because they wanted to, they ran away from somewhere, so they came here. And they were heroes. My mother was a heroine. She had to rebuild her life more than once, And she did." They came to Israel in 1949 and settled in Netanya; Hoffman's sister was born five years later. They had a vegetable store and made a reasonable living. They raised their family and made friends. They created a new world for themselves. And in that world, Ita would not talk about the camps. "Her new life, her children, the State of Israel - these were her revenge. Raising a new generation of Jewish children, healthy, educated and successful - these were her victories," Hoffman says. They kept the other life locked in a drawer, like so many other survivors, and warned their children never to open the drawer. Which is why, of course, Hoffman opened that drawer one day. "In that drawer, I found documents from Czechoslovakia and pictures of the crematoria. My mother never talked about it, but she held on to those pictures as evidence, as proof that it had all really happened. As though she knew that some day, in the not-so-distant future, someone would deny the Holocaust," he says. Hoffman had wanted his mother to visit Yad Vashem with him. For years, she refused, and then, when he was a teenager, she agreed. "The minute she walked into Yad Vashem, she became a different person," he says. "She seemed to float above the floor. She went from picture to picture, her look was strange, mysterious, like a zombie. She was in her past, the past that no longer existed. She was looking for the people she knew. The events she remembered. She was looking for herself. "She walked for hours and she never found herself there. But now she is there. Out of the tens of thousands of pictures from the days of the liberation, they chose her picture to display. "When I saw the picture, sweat poured over me. Several nuns passed by, and they saw me, pointing and pointing at the picture. I could barely talk, I could barely breathe. 'Deine Mutter?' they asked me. I nodded my head, 'Yes, yes.' "A group of students passed by. I told their teacher, 'I am a teacher. I need a class. This is how I can cope.' I wanted these children to learn that these people weren't inanimate objects, they were real people." He told them his mother's story and his own. And the students, he feels, really listened. Reflectively, Hoffman says, "Each of us has to come to terms with our parents' lives. When we were growing up, we, the generation of macho Sabras, didn't want to hear. Arrogantly, we thought that we would not have been led like sheep to the slaughter." But now, at this stage in his life, he has come to appreciate different kinds of victories. As he tells his story, Hoffman looks around at the trendy, upscale Jerusalem coffee shop where the interview takes place. He smells the strong coffee and enjoys the grace of the warm Jerusalem winter morning. His Hebrew is rich, almost poetic, and articulate. "These are victories, too," he says. "I know that now." Hoffman eventually built his own life in Skokie, Illinois, where he established the Hebrew-language instruction program in the public schools. He has four children, two of whom live in Israel [including Gil Hoffman, the Post's political reporter - E.P.G.]. Hoffman completed a PhD and held high-ranking positions in educational departments, but he thinks of himself as a Hebrew teacher. He remembers that when he delivered vegetables from his parents' store to the ulpanim in Netanya, including the renowned Ulpan Akiva, he was inspired by the way the teachers taught Hebrew. "A gifted teacher is a master artist, and that's what I wanted to be in life," he says. In 1977, when the Nazis threatened to march through Skokie, Hoffman played a leading role in the community. "I tried to calm things down, but I didn't want the community to be passive. Not again, not in Skokie. I thought, what if my parents had lived here. I had help to defend them." Hoffman had seen the picture now displayed in Yad Vashem 25 years ago, in a survival album that he found by chance. But he had not thought about it again until he saw it on the wall this week. He thinks about the chance meetings, the vagaries of fate that determine our lives. "Just think! Out of the hundreds of thousands of pictures, they chose that picture of my mother! The coincidence is mind-boggling!" And he is struck by the coincidence that this reporter has the same name as his mother. "Fate, the real meaning of life, the small victories that matter. Courage. My mother's life finding closure in that picture, she is there, after she couldn't find herself. I think about all of that," he concludes. Ita Hoffman died in June, 2000, at the age of 81, and was buried in Netanya.