The big, moist, rolling wave of sadness came as Izzy recounted the day he last saw his parents and younger brother, Josek, who was just seven years old at the time. The same age as my youngest son, Aaron. That is the connection that the wave rolled through between Izzy and me in that moment, in the restaurant, confronting what he describes as “the darkest day of my life.” From the Boston Globe article:
He last saw them alive on Oct. 27, 1942.
“The darkest day of my life, and it is still with me,’’ Izzy says.
That was the day SS troops entered the ghetto in Starachowice, the Polish town south of Warsaw where his family had arrived from East Prussia a year earlier after being deported from Plock. In the middle of the night the Germans ordered everyone into the Starachowice marketplace.
The SS separated the people into two lines. Those who they figured would make good slaves went into one line. Those they considered unfit went into the other.
The Nazis deemed Izzy and two of his brothers robust enough for work.
They put his parents and his 7-year-old brother, Josek, into the other group.
Izzy remembers the soldiers shouting and ripping babies from the arms of mothers, tearing apart husbands and wives, dragging screaming children away from their parents. He remembers running over to the column where his mother and father were standing.
“I had never been separated from my parents,’’ he explains. “But my father realized what was happening.’’ Icchak Arbeiter sent his son back to the other column.
“He told me, ‘Children, go back over there, and if you survive, remember to carry on with Jewish life and Jewish tradition.’ And those were the last words I heard from my father before they took him—and everyone in his column—off to Treblinka.’’
Izzy repeats this story all the time. Every single time, 70 years later, his voice cracks. But he does not cry.”
When Izzy’s voice cracked at that part of the story, something cracked inside of me, as well. It was too much. The image of my smiling son’s face, Aaron’s face, came immediately into view, as if from the mist of memory. I hadn’t seen my sons in four days as I away, here in Boston, at this powerful conference on the Holocaust. Then my older son, Joshua’s, face emerged as if from out of the mist. Aaron. Josek. Joshua. Josek. Icchak, Izzy’s Father. Hugara, Izzy’s mother. Suddenly, there, at the table in the oldest restaurant in America, in Boston, the city that gave birth to American liberty, the images of Izzy’s family, which I had imagined, faded away, down, down, down into the mist. And away. As Izzy explained, they were gassed, turned into the mist of memory, that same day. The wave of regret and anger and sadness and grief and fear for the lives of my own sons all intermingled and crashed with a muffled thud, there on the shoreline of my heart, as if, from out of the mist.
I looked at Izzy, imaging the image of Josek’s face in his memory… just seven years old, perhaps waving good-bye, holding his parents’ hands, tiny, vulnerable, innocent, then turning and walking away. Into the mists of memory.
I have to move away from writing just now, just for a moment or two, as the same rolling wave of sadness is making its way to shore once again…
To be continued… More of Izzy’s story next time…