I was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962 when Dad was the ripe old age of sixty-two. To reach Brazil, he had travelled a convoluted road. Two-thirds of his Jewish family from Poland – mother and father included – were victims of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” for my tribe. The funny thing was that although he had already gone completely grey by the time I was born, he had blue eyes and was blonde when he was young.
In the 1920s and the 1930s, Dad had lived in Germany. Following Hitler’s rise to power, as the situation became unbearable, Dad and his two brothers moved to neighbouring Holland. There, Dad became the working piglet of the three, with his older brother, Ziesch, marrying into a wealthy family and the younger one, Heimish, indulging in a bohemian lifestyle. In May 1940, when they realized that neutral Holland was about to be conquered by Hitler’s armies, the brothers decided that they would have to escape. Dad was aware that the Nazi thugs meant business. One year earlier, when the Nazis invaded his country, he had gone through the traumatizing experience of crossing Europe to see his parents for the last time at the Polish frontier without even being able to approach them to say goodbye. A few weeks after that final hand wave, they were to be deported to a ghetto and later on, to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.
Amidst mounting chaos around him, Dad managed to buy tickets for passage on a ship that was heading for safety in Britain. At the crucial moment of rushing to the harbour, Heimish was nowhere to be found. Dad and Ziesch set out on a frantic search and, by the time they realized that there was no way of finding him, the ship had already sailed.
In despair, Dad somehow managed to buy a small fishing boat. In that precarious wooden craft, Dad and Ziesch’s family rowed out to sea, expecting that a larger vessel bound for England would pick them up. This never happened: ten long days and nights went by with no food or water aboard, and no other boat or sign of life in the open North Sea. Dad carved his name into the wood, resigned to the fact that he and his companions would not survive.
The awareness of their location and the course to take depended on the ability of Dad’s fourteen-year-old nephew, Eli, to read the stars, something he had learned in the boy scouts. One morning, a military plane flew over them and Eli had the idea of using a mirror to reflect the sun into the pilot’s eyes. This worked, and luckily the plane was British.
The pilot must have radioed his command because the Royal Navy sent a ship to the rescue. The crew had to move fast as they were close to a minefield – a delay of a couple of hours would have meant death, either by explosion in the middle of the sea or by starvation. During the operation, German planes attacked the rescue ship and several men perished. My sympathy and admiration goes to the anonymous heroes who put their lives on the line so that my dad could continue living and that these words could be written.
Life changed for the better after their arrival in England. Later on, the family would love to boast that, as they were among the first refugees to arrive from Holland after the German invasion, the story made the headlines. My dad also liked to tell us how his dramatic escape brought him and his brother’s family momentary fame, with members of London’s Jewish community holding dinner parties in their honour. At one of those events, Dad met a Jewish “princess” half his age and almost twice his height; my mum. She was from Golders Green, a well-to-do London suburb where aspirational British Jews had established their “headquarters” and where many of the more prosperous Jewish refugees were living.
The news of the refugees from Holland traveled across the Atlantic. Eleanor Roosevelt heard the story and decided to adopt my cousins, Eli and Josephine, and take them to the United States. The First Lady’s wish came to nothing as my uncle had second thoughts after the Germans torpedoed the merchant ship that was going to transport them back to America. Instead, my cousins went to school in London where they excelled, Eli even being awarded a national prize for being the best pupil in England.
As the allied forces prepared to liberate German-occupied Europe, the Dutch authorities in exile forced Eli to enlist into their army. In 1944 he fought at Arnhem, a battle memorably depicted in the movie “A Bridge Too Far”. Legend has it that he was one of the sole four survivors in his division. It took years for Eli to get over the trauma. He would never talk about it. When, years later, I visited Eli in London, I tried to bring up his wartime experiences, but he was quick to change the subject. My other cousin, Josephine, continued her studies in her new country where she would eventually become a noted sociologist.