In their stead: Seeking forgiveness of the dead

Cousin Gus once wrote to me that someday he would tell me the story of how my parents and older brother were able to escape from Belgium to the United States in 1940. Gus was 84 when he wrote to me. But though he lived to be 100, he never followed through on his promise.
He had, however, fulfilled a much greater promise in his lifetime: to get my parents and brother out of Antwerp and safely on a ship headed for the United States. And this week, Gus’s son Lewis told me what he knew of the story.
My parents were living in Vienna when the Germans invaded in March 1938. Like many other Jews, they had good reasons for staying and hoping for the best. My mother was six months pregnant; precarious travel was out of the question.
But my father was arrested on November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht (known in English as the Night of Broken Glass)—a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany and German-held areas. He would have been deported to a concentration camp had not a guard let him escape in exchange for a gold watch.
Unable to return home, my father hid in the home of a non-Jewish employee of my grandfather. And as soon as he could, he fled Vienna, making the exhausting trip on foot to Antwerp, which was still free. My mother and three-month-old brother remained behind.
Eventually, my mother received false papers provided by British Quakers, enabling her and my brother to travel to Antwerp and join my father. There my parents wrote to all their relatives in the United States, asking them to provide an affidavit, the document without which they would not be admitted to the country.
They waited in Antwerp for more than a year. At last, it was cousin Gus who came through for them. I still have two copies of the original affidavit. They show that Gus worked in the film industry, had a very good salary, and owned two cars. If necessary, he could support them and they would not be a burden on the state.
But an affidavit was not enough. Everyone was trying to get out, and my parents’ papers were low in the pile of requests. And this is approximately what Lewis told me this week: Gus knew an executive in Columbia Pictures who was in Antwerp, and he knew the U.S. ambassador, and the ambassador knew another diplomat. Gus asked the film executive for a favor, the executive asked the ambassador, and the ambassador asked the diplomat. And so, through this chain of favors, my parents’ papers were moved up in the pile.
My parents’ names appear on the passenger manifest of the S.S. Pennland dated March 21, 1940, as does the name of my brother, already then anglicized to Harry. The Pennland was the last passenger ship to leave Antwerp before the Germans overran Belgium. Had my parents not been on it, they and my brother might have been murdered by the Germans and their henchmen, as were nearly all the members of my father’s family. I would not have been born.
And now I can’t help but wonder whose places my parents and brother took. Did those unlucky people survive the Holocaust? I will never know, but it is not very likely. This week that ends with Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement, when one must ask forgiveness of people before seeking forgiveness from God), I reach across the years and ask their forgiveness.
Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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13 Responses to “In their stead: Seeking forgiveness of the dead”

  1. David Bennett Says:

    You probably remember, I think it was Primo Levi, talking about people in the camps calculating where in the food queue was the best place to be. Too early in the queue and the soup was just water. Too far back and maybe the soup was finished. And each person could feel guilty for placing themselves in the most advantageous position in a life or death situation.
    But that is not the correct analysis. It is the bastards who placed people in inhuman situations with inhuman choices. They are the ones to bear the guilt. End of story.

    Happy New Year and a good fast.

    • estherhecht Says:

      David,
      I am very aware of this analysis. Of course, the perpetrators and not the victims bear the guilt. And yet, these events, like so many others, create emotional and other ties between the living and the dead that cannot be ignored.

      • David Bennett Says:

        I sympathise tremendously with how you feel.

        If it teaches us anything, it is to see in our mind’s eye the end point of what we do and see every day – pushing to get on the bus ahead of someone else, grabbing a bargain, – the list goes on.

  2. Marilyn Bono Says:

    Esther, that was a moving and awe inspiring – and very personal – story. Your reach across the years, and the tears, is so touching. Thank you for writing it.

  3. estherhecht Says:

    Thank you, Marilyn, for reading this
    and commenting.

  4. Lior Says:

    So strong, Esther! You never know, maybe no one would have given the chance instead, but I understand why you are existentially thinking about it. Love!

  5. Ira L. Jacobson Says:

    Your story brought tears to my eyes. There are also halakhic aspects to this story, but they are best left unstated.

  6. annginsburghhofkin Says:

    We are driving back from Chicago to Minneapolis, having spent Yom Kippur there with our older son, Dan. While Mike took his turn driving, I read your latest blog aloud – I cried…it is very powerful and sobering, as you well know. Thank you, Esther, for sharing this with us.

    Sent from my iPhone

    > Ann Ginsburgh Hofkin, photographer > e-mail: ann@aghofkin.com > website: http://www.aghofkin.com

    >

    • estherhecht Says:

      Thank you, Ann, for your comment. Today we will have a remarkable family gathering in San Francisco, including relatives I have never met. Our younger son, who lives in Boston, is here with his family and it should be extremely interesting.

  7. Tamara Says:

    Esther, I am only reading this post of yours now a number of weeks after you put it up.

    What a moving story! All the layers and what-ifs that could have occurred otherwise…

    I was initially surprised to read that it took a year for your parents to hear from anyone, but then I recalled my late parents saying repeatedly in anguished, heartbroken tones that American Jews did not know very much of what was going on.

    How great that your Uncle Gus came through!

    Sensitive, beautiful, gutsy, from the heart writing you have penned here – and I hope the writing of it gave you some solace too.

  8. estherhecht Says:

    Thank you, Tamara, for your comment and kind words. Regarding the time lapse, I wonder whether my parents wrote to their relatives in succession, waiting after each request to see if they would receive a response. From my own experience with US immigration, it is also possible that amassing the documents required to provide an affidavit took a long time.

    • Tamara Says:

      You’re most welcome, Esther.

      Yes, I can imagine your parents doing that – and therefore perhaps being reluctant to contact other relatives until they had heard back from those whom they had already contacted.

      Ah, yes, US immigration has got a lengthy procedure too, I hadn’t thought of that…

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