In Holesov (which I visited for the first time this week)
My father said, ‘One day we’ll go to Holleschau together’. He always used the German name of the town, ‘Holleschau’, not the Czech ‘Holesov’.
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
We left it too late. He’s been gone seven years now, and here I am without him, to visit his grandfather’s grave, to see the old synagogue where he served as rabbi for almost 20 years until 1914, to gaze from the street at the house from which his widow and daughter were deported, to wander the uneven pavements of this small, poor town and stare at night at that railway siding from where they were taken, first to Uhersky Brod, then to Theresienstadt, and then…
My great-grandmother never got to Palestine to join the three of her six children who escaped there to a new future between 1933 and 1937. By the time the papers came through it was too late to travel. Maybe, had she stayed in Berlin, she would have made it out even then at the close of 1939, or during 1940. But she’d gone to her eldest daughter back in Holleschau, in Moravia, and from there the Nazis allowed scarcely any emigration.
‘I’m entirely at one with our beloved Papa, visiting him once a month, but in my thoughts I’m with him always’, she wrote on January 17th 1941, ‘and the little vase with flowers always stands next to his picture on the night table. My prayer every morning and evening is that our good gentle father should protect you on all your paths and lead you to where you can live in quiet and at peace and free from worry.’
I went to the old Jewish cemetery today with my daughter Libbi. The beautiful Ohel, the chapel, was closed. We’ll see it tomorrow. We followed the path my great-grandmother must have taken every month over those bleak years, to where the solace of her great love might embrace her. We paused to decipher weather-beaten Hebrew inscriptions, to puzzle over details on different stones: did that mother and daughter come back here after the horrors, or did the June 1945 date indicate that this was a memorial placed here by others to one whose foot found no resting place even in death? We managed the more recent German better; Libbi asked why there were more in German than in Czech. We wondered why the graves were facing not just south-east but in every possible direction.
Then we saw it: there before us was my great-grandfather’s tombstone, tranquil amidst the resting dead, peacefully protected by the crumbling walls of the cemetery, the over-long grass: ‘Here lies buried Rabbi Yaacov, son of Rabbi Avraham Chaim Freimann; he wrote many books and taught Torah in great congregations’. His death in December 1937 released him from the fate which would not spare his wife.
I looked around for signs of withered forget-me-not leaves, the blue flowers which had often filled that bedside vase to which my great-grandmother had referred. I failed to find them; maybe they too were by now forgotten.
My great-grandmother made her last visit here in the second week of January 1943: ‘My dear children’, she wrote, ‘Today I took my farewell from your beloved and good father; may his spirit hover over us in these difficult times’. She and her daughter Sophie knew that this would be the last letter. ‘So that you know where to look for us afterwards’, Sophie had written; as the continuation made clear, what she really meant was ‘where to look for our possessions’.
My great-grandmother was a lady who embraced whatever fortunes God sent her. And yet she had not been able to help reminiscing as she contemplated Pesach under Nazi rule in 1941: ‘In the year of ’35 we arrived in Palestine during these very days; the joy of our dear departed Papa when he saw the land from the ship was indescribable.’
How she would weep for all its wounds if she knew how little that land had been able to find peace; how she would weep for all the children. But she would never have lost her hope. ‘In spite of everything, my faith in God remains unshakeable’: that was her final testament as remembered and recorded and transmitted to the surviving family after the war.
Dusk had brought on the twilight birdsong; the call of a swift accompanied our prayers as Libbi and I washed our hands at the stone basin: ‘God has swallowed up death forever, wiped the tears off every face’. Amen and may it be God’s will!
Later that night
I went back after midnight to the deserted station
to stare at the empty tracks:
So it was from here?
Slowly the nose of an inquisitive hedgehog
emerged from among the sleepers.
I hastened to the platform to check
the yellow schedule:
‘Hurry’, I willed it, yelling in my head, ‘Hurry’
as it lingered between the lines:
‘You have till 3.12 precisely. Get out of here!’