The Birnbaum’s Life Story

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The Birnbaum’s Life Story

Today we’re telling you a story out of Israel. But like most stories from Israel, it doesn’t begin there. This story centers around Ervin and Hadassa Birnbaum. It’s a story that includes at least five countries, several languages and one very big war, World War II.

Episode 1

https://ranlevi.podbean.com/mf/play/dw499f/Sipur-Mishpahti-The-Birnbaums-EP01-MST-v2-2-FINAL.mp3
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Episode 2

https://ranlevi.podbean.com/mf/play/2y5dz9/Sipur-Mishpahti-The-Birnbaums-EP02-MST-v2-2-FINAL.mp3
Download The MP3

Transcript

Episode 1

Ervin and Hadassa Birnbaum live in Netanya in the center of Israel. It’s the kind of neighborhood where everybody knows everybody else.
This is turning into a neighborhood meeting… This is our lovely neighbor.

That’s us standing in the street, next to the Birnbaum’s apartment building on the morning I visited. We chatted with neighbors and family in a mix of Russian, Hebrew and English.

I sat with Ervin and his wife Hadassa, who are the main characters in our story, in their living room, as well as two of their three sons, Aiton and Liel. We’ll also hear from their third and youngest son, Dani.

Oh and we can’t forget Ervin and Hadassa’s dog, a 12-year old mixed-breed named Dolly. She’s considered an important member of the family, and the Birnbaum’s wanted her in the room for our interview. So if you hear something like this:

{Ran} Is she licking herself? Yeah, She’s quiet and she’s licking herself and I can hear everything (laughter) OK, I’ll be the dog watcher…

at any point of this audio story, that’s Dolly putting in her two cents.

{Ran}: Introduce yourself.

{Ervin} I’m Ervin Birnbaum, I was born 86 years ago, and a half, in what was at that time Czechoslovakia, now its Slovakia, in the city of Kosice. And I came to Israel in 1970. And in between, many things happened.

Born in 1929, Ervin was the son of a street-smart businessman and shop-owner Eliash, referred to as Reb Eilish, or Eliyahu in Hebrew, and his mother Marian, known as Marishka to the family. Ervin was the youngest of three brothers. Franz, the eldest, 7 years older and the middle brother Michael, or Miki, two and a half years older than him. Inevitably, the three boys spent plenty of time roughing around.

I remember once I picked up a pencil holder, in Europe it was made out of wood, and I hit my bother on the head. And my mother was crying on the side, for a short while, covering her head. But we were really a close bunch.

Ervin also spent parts of his childhood in a town that’s located in the northeastern corner of Slovakia, then called Lipiany, now named Lipany, from where he recalls some of his fondest memories.

In my hometown we had grandparents on my father’s side. And there was a small village about two-hours’ train ride on the Polish border where my mother’s parents lived. And that was actually the town I loved above all the other places in my childhood. I spent a lot of time there. All the years that it was possible, I would be in constant communication with that little town—called Lipiany. And actually, I always referred to that town as the Garden of Eden of my childhood, of my life.

The village was idyllic, the kind of place where milkmaids would offer Ervin a cup of steaming milk straight from the cow and people regularly fished in local streams.
In Lipiany, Ervin’s childhood revolved around school, extended family and friends. He attended public school during the day followed by class in a one-room Hebrew school, called a cheder, and was taken care of by his grandparents, the Krischers, but also his aunts and uncles. And his schooling pretty much went without incident, well, almost.

{Ervin} I don’t recall any difficulties with it. I had a good time with it. Even though once, when I arrived to the cheder, the teacher asked me, probably a few minutes later, to continue reading. And I couldn’t find the place. I wasn’t oriented (again this word orient.)… But the fact is this, he had a stick next to him, which was very common in those days. Not only in the cheder, also in public schools. And he gave me a hit from a distance because I couldn’t find the place, so I was smacked over the hand. But to smack—they called me Nusn, the Hebrew name was Natan, so they called me Nusn—that was a dangerous thing and they didn’t know that.

So I told some older boys that I wanted to get even with that stick, with that teacher. So according to instructions by my older classmates. When he went to the kitchen, he always went out at 4 o’clock to cut his onions and his bread, and while he was out there, I rubbed the stick in the middle, because by that point if you rubbed it, it would break in the middle. But I didn’t have the patience to wait until it would break, the next day or two days later. So on the spot I thought I’ll take the situation into my own hands. And I broke the stick and put the two pieces under his book on the seat.

And he comes in with his plate with bread cut and onions and sees the broken stick and all hell broke loose. ‘Who did that?!’ And of course since the whole group there—20,25 young people, stand accused. So I told him, I did it. So he was burning with rage at me, ‘You go home!’ He knew that I was staying with my grandparents, my mother was in America, my father was in the city running his business. So he says ‘You do not come back without your grandfather!’ So I went home and I told them what I did. I didn’t at all paint it or try to explain it. To my great amazement, ‘til this day I look back on it with amazement, my grandparents didn’t at all reprove me. I wasn’t at all set straight. They just told me, should that happen, please come and tell us before you take any action on your own. And the next day my grandfather came with me on the one condition that I express apologies, I would say I was sorry. And I did. And I was taken back to the class and I was never hit again. So that’s one experience in the early days.

The small town had a population that was about 20 percent Jewish, and Ervin quickly joined a close-knit group of friends with whom he would play soccer and chess after school. But though he had a good group of Jewish friends, not everything was perfect.

{Ervin} Here and there, I remember, when we were on the bank of the river Torrissa, it was a little river-lette actually, which was big enough where it had to carry a name. It’s on the map I would say. And we would be standing on the shores of the river and a Goyish kid passed by and he picked up a stone and threw it very gently at my brother’s head.

It wasn’t uncommon ‘cuz we were the dirty Jews in their eyes. And they would call to us: Jews go to Palestine. Now they want us out of Palestine. But then they wanted us in Palestine. But at any rate, the fact that the Goy did that. I picked up a stone, and the way I was you know you could tell by the way I broke the stick of the Rebbe, I picked up a stone it was at some distance, and I threw it with full force at the Goy. If it would have hit him it would’ve killed him. But luckily it zoomed by his head. So we had such moments too you know, we had such encounters with the Goyim. I couldn’t tolerate it when they tried to hit at us. When they called us words that were not so nice, that were cursing words, I didn’t care about the words. But I very much cared about the action.

The Krischers didn’t own a radio. But back in the city, Ervin’s father owned a radio shop, and his parents spent time listening to their favorite stations at home.

My father loved to listen to the Belgrade station, because he loved the Oriental music, the Oriental beat. And Yugoslavia, at that time Belgrade, the capital, they were already under the influence of the Oriental music, the Oriental culture, the Arabic beat. And my father loved it. I had a wonderful childhood

———
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away, a young girl was listening to a very different radio program. One with an anonymous, but very famous Texas Ranger catching bad guys in the old American West.

{Hadassa} I would run home from Hebrew school to listen to the Lone Ranger, because he was on at seven o’clock. And I’d finished my regular Hebrew school and get home to listen to the Lone Ranger. That was very important because of course we didn’t have television in those days.

That’s Hadassa, Ervin’s wife. I’ll let her introduce herself because her name’s, well, a little complicated.

{Hadassa} My original name was Helen Halperin, and I’m one of three children to my parents. My father was Charles Halperin, my mother Ida Halperin, and apparently when I was very little somebody asked me my name and for some reason I said ‘Honey.’ And the name stuck. So my entire family only knows me as Honey.
But when I was in Hebrew school—my fourth year I got a new teacher, Dr. David Greenberg, who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and he became my teacher. Somehow there was a great connection between me and him. And he asked me about my Hebrew name. My Hebrew name is Huddle, which is Yiddish. It’s like in Fiddler on the Roof, one of the daughters is Huddle. And he said ‘We’re not calling you Huddle, your real name is Hadassa.’. So I’ve got all these names.

Hadassa came from a Russian immigrant family. Her father was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States in 1906. Her mother was born near the Polish border and immigrated in 1905 after her grandfather witnessed a pogrom in the paint shop where he worked. In the United States that grandfather became a house painter and did relatively well for himself, eventually owning property, including the home where Hadassa lived with her parents and grandparents.

The middle child of three (she had an older brother named Lloyd and a younger brother named Arthur), Hadassa was born in New Jersey in 1934. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the President. “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable was released; F. Scott Fitzgerald published “Tender is the Night.” And America was still in the clutches of the Great Depression. Like millions of other Americans, Hadassa’s father found himself struggling to find work.

He was a very outgoing type of person. He loved to meet people and socialize and sing with them. He was less, he gave less attention to his own children than to people outside, but he had a lot of worries on his head. He had to grow up real fast. He took over this brother. His mother died fairly young.

Hadassa’s mother, Ida, worked as a grade school teacher.

{Hadassa} She was a teacher like they don’t make them anymore. She loved teaching and if she saw a child didn’t understand the material she would go to the child’s home afterwards and teach them for no money. She had some really rough kids in the class who would bring her presents. They would walk by a store and something in the store, maybe a pin, would stick to their clothing. And they bring it to her, and bring her a present. And she would know that they couldn’t afford it but what could she do? She’d accept this little, we’re talking about something that’s grushim. But she was beloved by the children and she loved doing it.

On Sunday December 7th, 1941, Japanese aircraft launched an attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor killing more than 2,400 unsuspecting Americans. FDR declared war against Japan the next day. Germany and Italy, who had signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan in 1940, declared war on the United States, officially bringing the ‘Sleeping Giant’ into World War II.

The United States went into the war on December 7th, 1941 after Pearl Harbor and immediately they had to start making weapons, because they were, the United States was completely unprepared to go into war. And they opened all these munitions factories, and my father got a job.

While the war helped pull America out of the Great Depression, life had already changed for millions across Europe.

By 1938, things were changing for Ervin. A portion of Slovakia was under Hungarian rule. As part of Hitler’s agreement with Hungary, called the First Vienna Award of 1938, Hungary would get a southern slice of Slovakia. The new border meant that Ervin’s hometown of Kosice was now in Hungary, while Lipiany remained in Slovakia.

At first, Ervin didn’t notice the changes. He still managed to visit his grandparents and relatives in Lipiany, crossing the border on the train and having his papers checked along the way.

{Ervin} The first time I was aware that the war was on, not that the war was on, but that there were clouds on the horizon, that dangers are approaching. But it didn’t upset me because I wasn’t yet aware, I didn’t know what it could lead to. I was still in a childish approach in a sense. It was 1938, I was 9 years old when my father turned on the radio to Austria, to Vienna and it was Friday afternoon. It came to—lighting the candles for Shabbat and going to shul. My father said, by contrast to all former Shabbats, we’ll leave the radio on and just make it quiet. And you come to shul. We went to shul with the radio on. We came back, we made Kiddush, we sat around the table, we observed the Shabbat. At close to eight he knew that now was the decisive moment, he made the radio louder and we listened to the farewell message of Schuschnigg, who was the Chancellor of Austria who gave his farewell words to the Austrian people. Because by that point, we knew—we heard the announcements that preceded the whole day—there were announcements coming from Austria on the Vienna station that the German troops are marching, they’re advancing forward, they’re approaching Vienna. And Hitler also stopped by the grave of his mother who was buried in a place called Braunau and after putting a wreath on her grave and paying due respect to his mother, he’s back in his vehicle and they’re approaching slowly, but they’re approaching Vienna. At eight o’clock Schuschnigg gave his farewell address to the Austrian people and I remember his closing words: ‘God should protect Austria.’ And he made it clear that we are German speaking peoples—we are not going to war and kill each other. I hope that we Jews could be as good to each other because we speak Hebrew…

But the fact is this, it was eight o’clock and the radio was on. I remember that episode very clearly. And then we didn’t go to sleep which for me at my age was probably fairly unusual. It was close to 12 o’clock midnight when the radio was on of course. You could hear the ringing of St. Stephen’s church bells, it’s the big church in Vienna. When you go to visit Vienna, you probably go to that church, it’s a major church in Europe. And the bells were ringing triumphantly and you could hear the shouts of the crowds around, welcoming Hitler, who was entering the city.
Once that happened, we knew. That was in March 1938, and Vienna is less than an hour from Slovakian capital of Bratislava. All you have to do there is cross the Danube and you’re in Slovakia from Vienna. So that’s when my father said, I recall he said, ‘That’s the beginning of the end.’

Still, Ervin says he didn’t know what the war would mean for him and his family. For a while, things continued along as usual. He spent another summer in Lipiany. He already spoke German, Yiddish and Slovakian, and learned to speak Hungarian during this time.

But in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. This was the start of WWII in Europe. Now things began changing quickly.

By the middle of 1942, the entire Lipiany family had been deported and, as later discovered, exterminated. By then, the family had lost touch with another aunt and her 3 children, who lived in Poland. They feared the worst.

After the war, an uncle received a postcard written by Ervin’s grandfather that had probably been thrown out of the moving cattle-car transport.

Only after the war, did I hear that my uncle in America, that he received somehow in a postcard written by my grandfather by Lipiany, that writes, that your mother, or my wife, I don’t know the exact language but the intention was obvious, went for a visit to an aunt and we hope that she’s alright, something like that. But that aunt had already died some years ago and now in this postcard he writes that she went for a visit. It was probably a postcard written under duress, something every Jew had to write upon arriving at Auschwitz. Or the other approach to that story is that he may have thrown it out of the wagon, that my grandmother actually died in the wagon on the way to the camp, and he managed to somehow throw the postcard out of the side of the wagon, one of the windows, and some Goy picked it up outside and somehow mailed it.

It was a clear indication that the grandmother had died on the way to the extermination camp.

In 1941 I believe, the end of 1941, was the last time I got to Lipiany. And in 1942, sometime in the beginning of 1942 a person came from Lipiany who managed to escape to Kosice, now Kassa by the Hungarians. And told us that the Jews were concentrated there in the synagogue courtyard and from there were taken to wagons and transported to Poland. They didn’t know where, if it was to Poland, but they were taken out of Lipiany. Lipiany was made Judenrein – free of jews. That was the end of my travels to Lipiany. I was now in Kosice.

Other horrific stories were coming out. Ervin heard, for example, that officers on the home front who wanted vacation had to be sure they didn’t let even a single Jew from the work battalions under their command remain alive.
I must admit, maybe because I was childish, maybe because I couldn’t comprehend so much evil, I couldn’t take it in that these stories, these events may have a meaning that I’ll never see these people again. And I lived with the belief that it was impossible that I should never see these people again. Until the deportations in our hometown.

At this point, 1942, Ervin’s father Eliash was already busy building relationships with individuals who would prove invaluable to helping people in this difficult time. Ervin recalls how a police detective named Geza would supply his father with blank documents of people who had left town. Ervin’s father in turn would give them to Jews fleeing from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary. Ervin remembers how Geza would visit them at home and drink three shots of whiskey with his father.

He would take one, this policeman, he would really pour it down his throat, and then a second one, and then he lifted up the third one and said, ‘A Hungarian drinks thrice,’ and that too would go down. And then they were ready for business.

Eliash’s good deeds didn’t come without serious risk to his life, however. At one point, he was implicated after one of the Slovakian Jews he helped was caught and tortured for information. Eliash himself was moved to a Gestapo interrogation center at Kohner Castle, where he was held for months in terrible conditions and developed a technique of fainting to withstand torture and keep from giving up information. Eventually the family, together with the Jewish community, pulled together enough money to buy Eliash’s freedom.

Eliash also built a relationship with a military officer named Rutka who would later help Ervin’s mother Marishka, Ervin’s brother Franz and three other relatives escape to the Hungarian capital of Budapest.

My father was a person who really knew how to establish human relations. He was nice to people, he was pleasant to people.

Ervin was in 10th grade when the Germans occupied Kosice in 1944.

That was on March 18th, 1944. The Jews were being concentrated in Kosice, in our hometown, into the Brick Factory—that became the temporary ghetto in town. When this began happening, my parents escaped to Budapest with my oldest brother and my middle brother—Miki and I remained in our home. We were meant to go individually, on the day of the deportation to a place that my father had arranged, in an attic in a particularly home on the main street—something like the Anna Frank thing.

Ervin recalls the last time he saw his paternal grandparents Leizer and Malcsi.

When we saw that the police is beginning to surround the block, beginning to take the Jews from that block, ‘cuz they did it block by block, we went in, Miki and I, to my grandparents. My grandmother’s sister and brother were there. That’s where they met, and they were going to go together. And we have to say goodbye to our grandparents. I remember I still couldn’t believe that that’s the last time I see them. I remember how both of us were sort of saying that we are pretty sure we’re going to see you again, our last words. Grandfather didn’t allow us to speak too much. He stopped us. And he came over and embraced me and he whispered in my ear, ‘My child, I want to live.’ Then he gave me a push, ‘Go already, go already.’

The boys tore off the yellow stars that identified them as Jews and nonchalantly walked to a theater house on the main street, where their father had arranged a place for them to hide in the attic with a group of other Jews. Eliash was already in Budapest with Marishka and Franz, and Ervin and Miki were to hide in the attic with 20 other people. But the hiding place wasn’t safe for long. After 10 days, the woman who looked after them presented the group with a blackmail letter. The group decided that if they gave the blackmailers the money they demanded, they would come back for more and eventually turn them in. Those who could escape should do so immediately.

So Ervin, Miki and their cousin Shloimi left that night on a train for Budapest.

The two brothers had Aryan papers, but Shloimi, who was concerned that he looked too Jewish, came up with a cover story that he was in a work battalion and on leave to Budapest to visit his sick mother. On the midnight train to Budapest, Miki and Ervin sat together facing Shloimi, who sat next to the door at the end, rationalizing that if they checked papers, he would be checked last and be able to slip out. One hour from Budapest there was indeed a check, but the officials came from the back and checked Shloimi first.

Of course, they didn’t accept his story and I remember until now his big eyes—he was aware what would happen now. They took him off the train, and no one ever saw him again.

Miki and Ervin got to Budapest, which was considered to be relatively safe, since Jews weren’t immediately forced into ghettos and instead lived in apartments scattered throughout the city. Once there, the boys settled in with two different Jewish families. The Birnbaum family, now reunited in the same city, wanted to meet with Rutka, the high ranking military officer who helped Marishka and Franz and other relatives get to Budapest. The family invited the officer to the place where Ervin was staying, but the meeting didn’t go as planned.

There was a knock on the door, and it’s the police. It was a pure coincidence, no one reported us. Occasionally they went from house to house and they were searching for Jewish escapees and what not. After some commotion, of course the door was opened to them, the owner of the house couldn’t keep the door locked constantly. They came in and we were standing in the living room there. I had two sets of papers on me. That was my worry. If there was a body search, and I has two sets, that surely betrays something is wrong. In the meantime my roommate, Honigwachs, heard this commotion and he heard police and he didn’t speak Hungarian well, so he ran to the window and climbed out the window to the fire escape and went down to the third floor. But he didn’t realize that downstairs, while the police were up going from door to door, some policemen remained downstairs and they caught him. So he too wasn’t seen again anymore.

Honigwachs unsuccessful escape indicated to the police that the building and even the apartment might be harboring Jewish refugees, increasing the danger for the rest of the group. Ervin managed to slip one set of papers under a cabinet. But it was the military officer Rutka who saved the family again by vouching for them, saying he knew who they were and that the family was from his hometown.

Somehow they bought his story. He kept his cool, I can tell you he was really, he would’ve deserved to be one of them—the people in Yad Vashem—the Righteous Gentiles. He really deserved it. I could never follow him through. You also helped us in trying to locate him, and he certainly would’ve deserved it because he saved a few Jews. Not only us, but also some others.

But the family knew they had to move. It was more dangerous on the flat side of the Danube, known as Pest. The family decided they would meet in Buda, on the mountainous side of the Danube.

As we walk there, I see a sign that they’re looking for workers. I didn’t know what that place is; all I knew is that they’re looking for workers. So I went in and it turns out that it’s the most famous bath in Budapest. It’s a sanatorium. It had a hotel, it had the baths, it had the sanatorium where they took care of officers who were wounded in the army and they had to be sent for treatment—it was a rehab. So they had these divisions.

Eventually all three boys got jobs in the sanitarium, working under Aryan names and papers. During daily air raids, as part of their job, they would wheel sick patients, including high-level military officials, to underground shelters. Even their mother checked in as a patient to be closer to her sons. Everything was going pretty well until staff started to notice that the boys, especially Ervin and Franz, looked alike. Since they weren’t related according to their papers, they were at great risk of getting caught.

They had one extremely close call when a distraught relative unexpectedly burst into the building.

So we were at this high level spa with the hotel and sanatorium, and my uncle, my father’s brother, Miklos, checked in with his family to a neighboring hotel also on the Buda side because this side seemed to be safer. It was after an attack—the bombings from the allies came usually before noon in the morning and the Russians would come at night, at about 7 o’clock the warnings would start. In the morning came the all clear, and at that point Miklos and his family left the hotel, and as far as I remember, they were trying to go to town, to the other side, for whatever reason, to meet family or friends or just to get out a bit.

And there was a big explosion and stories began flying in the sanatorium that there was an explosion in a nearby place or from a delayed bomb or whatever, and a rock came flying through the air and killed a child, or tore a child’s hand off, all sorts of things. For some reason, it’s one of those things that one has to attribute to some other source that is not in our capacity to explain, I decided that I would leave the place where the staff was meeting at that point and talking about this.

And I went to the staircase of the sanatorium, we were one floor up, and who do I see coming up the stairs, all-shaking, is my uncle. And he wails ‘They killed my child! They killed my child!’ It took me a while but bot that long, to put two and two together that the person, the child they were talking about, whos hand was torn off or wondered what happend to the child, seems to be his child. So I stopped him dead in his tracks. He wanted to come up the stairs. He knew that my mother is at the sanatorium. And I told him, no don’t go up. I tried to comfort him but I didn’t know what to say… he kept saying ‘the child is dead’ and I kept saying ‘no but the child is only hurt.’ But he stuck to his version, the child is dead and he needs my mother. So I said you must wait here and I’ll bring my mother out. If I had let him in, it would’ve finished us all.

The family realized they had to come up with a new set up, and the boys were again on the move.

Back in the United States, Hadassa was fighting her own battles and surviving her own hardships during and after the war. She faced anti-Semitism in New Jersey, starting with having permission to attend a school that was closer to her house revoked when her Christian neighbors complained about it.

{Hadassa} There was plenty of anti-Semitism in the United States of America. It must have been during … so let’s see: I was born in 1934, so 38’… 39′ I was in first grade and the war was in Europe. So when I was in third grade, all of a sudden the permission to go to the special school was cancelled. We found out our Christian neighbors had reported us and said ‘why should they have special permission,’ and therefore it was cancelled.

It was particularly hard for Hadassa because her family was one of the only Jewish families in the neighborhood.

My brothers and I were sometimes we were prevented from leaving the house, because the glass was shattered by rocks. The Christians would gather at the next house, which had an open section and they would toss rocks across and we were inside this glass house until they got tired and then we were able to leave. Then there was a kid on the block whose name was Peter Dalton, Catholic; the ones next door were Protestant. His mother they said was a drunk, and she’d be upstairs and sometimes when I walked by she’d shout at me ‘You dirty Jew!’ And Peter one day, we’d have an occasional horse and buggy come down the street, and he ran after us, my brother and I, and he picked up horse manure with his hands and was throwing it at us, trying to catch up to us and throwing it at us.

She recalls another incident while visiting a neighborhood department store.

I was in the store one day and I finished looking around and I wanted to go out and there were some of the goyim standing at the door and they wouldn’t let me out. I didn’t even know them. And then I went to another exit and there were several exits and I went there and there were a group of them and they wouldn’t let me out. And I had to stay in the store and it didn’t occur to me to ask a grown up to help me. I was scared. Ididn’t know what did they want from me? Apparently they knew me because my father had the store and everyone knew that we were Jews. We were different. The neighborhood was 95% Christian, we had a very small Jewish community.

Despite this, she had good friendships with Christian children, even though her friends knew there was something different about her. Her friends would even invite a Jewish boy over for her to kiss during kissing games. But she never truly fit in.

She recalls the helplessness she felt living with institutionalized anti-Semitism.

There was rationing in America. Sugar was rationed and meat and eggs, and certain things, and you had little coupons, each family each person had so many coupons, like Tzena’ here. And I remember so vividly, when I was nine—so it was 1943, America was in the war—my mother stopped next to the next-door neighbors’, the ones that were the troublemakers regarding the school. And we stopped there and she was trying to ingratiate herself. And she gave them our sugar coupons, because we didn’t use almost any sugar at all. And I remember standing there mad as hell—I wanted to say something and do something and I knew I couldn’t do anything but stand there and swallow.

Back in Europe, the USSR had joined the allies in 1941 after Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. With the counter-invasion that started at Stalingrad, the Soviets pushed the Nazi army back, leading in late 1944 to the siege of Budapest. Having worked for a brief period on a farm in southern Hungary, Ervin was by now back in Budapest dealing with daily air-raids in Pest and living with an elderly Christian couple in a building across the street from the opera house.

{Ervin} That house was, I believe, the very first house that was hit by Russian bombing, because they had surrounded the city that day and they wanted to knock out the anti aircraft guns, because they knew they were going to start strafing the city. So they wanted to knock out the anti aircraft guns. And on the opera house, which was just opposite the street from where I was now with that couple—stood on top of it was a beautiful big gun and they wanted to hit that gun. But they hit short a bit, we were right across the street, so the house that I was living in was amongst the first to get a bomb and then a second one, and then the house was declared unlivable by the local agencies – every house had aits comander. And the next morning we left, and that’s when I got over to where my father was.

So the house was declared unlivable, and he was reassigned to another residence. Amazingly, it was the same house where his father was staying.

In the morning, as soon as dawn broke, we left the house and were given an address across the street, on the main street, and we had to cross the street. So each one was on his own. There was a woman and a man and me, and as soon as I left, stepped out, came the rattle of machine gunning. A Russian plane came strafing by, and I jumped behind a tree. And that tree was hit several times, so that tree saved me. And after the war, every time I went back to Budapest I went back to that tree.

And when I got to the other side, I went to the house where they sent us to and it was the house—and again, to show how much you depended on the unknown really, my father was hiding in that house, it was in that house. I didn’t know and the authorities didn’t know!

He recalls the beginning of the Soviet siege of Budapest.

The beginning of the siege was Christmas day, I remmber it because we were sitting at the Christmas table, and the couple wanted me to help them bring the Christmas tree out from the basement. We sat at the Christmas table. I don’t know what what food they had, but it was very meager. It began on Christmas night and it ended on January the 18th. The Russian occupation began on January 18th.

The Siege of Budapest was a critical and decisive victory for the USSR, since it ultimately opened the road to Berlin. A few months later, the war in Europe ended.

Then I had to make up my mind what I wanted to do, and I decided that I wanted to go to Israel. I don’t want to have anything to do with Europe anymore.

In New Jersey, Hadassa remembers the end of the war.

{Hadassa} August 1945 the war ended, both in Europe and in Japan, in the Pacific. And the day it ended, they closed all the munitions factories and fired my father among all the other millions of workers. So once again he had no job, because he didn’t have a profession. And my mother quit teaching and they bought a store. It’s ice cream, candy, greeting cards, newspapers, magazines, books, pocket edition books. There was two telephone booths inside. Cigars, cigarettes. Milkshakes. We had a fountain with ten seats and when they first bought it I was 11 years old. Just turned 11. I remember how people who were starved for rich ice cream—and they sold the best ice cream—Häagen-Dazs? No no, not Haagen-Dazs, it was even better—Dolly Madison—it was made in Philadelphia and it had very rich heavy cream, which made it fattening of course, but delicious.

Hadassa worked in the shop throughout summers and when she wasn’t in school, filling pints and quarts with ice cream and serving customers. They owned the store until 1962. And Hadassa worked there until she went to university.

I had a muscle in my right arm, wow, for a young girl.

So Hadassa was surviving anti-Semitism, working hard and getting tougher by the day in New Jersey after the war. Though Ervin lost several family members in Europe, miraculously, his entire immediate family survived the Holocaust.

But what would come next? If you’ll remember, we’ve been telling this story from the couple’s home in Israel. In our story so far, Ervin has already set his sights on Palestine. But before he could get there, he would face a fierce battle on one of the most famous ships in Israeli history.

Episode 2

We’re continuing to tell you the story of Ervin and Hadassa Birnbaum and their family. In the last episode, we heard how Ervin and Hadassa survived WWII, Ervin in Europe and Hadassa in New Jersey.

Today we continue our story after the war, when both Ervin and Hadassa wanted to move to Palestine, which was still under British mandate. But they had different ways of reaching the same conclusion.

{Ran} Why did you want to go to Palestine?

{Ervin} I tell you there was something with the family which was so close, I just recall now again on Chanukah, my mother used to sing a song to me, when I was a little baby, she sang it to me virtually every evening when she put me to bed. In English translation, the original was German, the translation would be:

There where the giant cedars kiss the deep blue sky,
There where the Jordan flows gently by,
There where the ashes of my fathers rest,
There where the Maccabees withstood every test,
In that lovely land,
Green hills and desert sand,
There is my ancient motherland, in that lovely land!

So there was something about Israel, I’ll give you another example about the attachment: in my grandparents—in Lipiany—in their bedroom—there was a picture of the third temple on the eastern wall.

{Hadassa} I come from a family that didn’t know about Palestine, that didn’t know about Israel, had no connection. My grandparents were religious people; my grandfather spent a lot of time in the synagogue—Cohanim. He was a Cohen My grandmother on my mother’s side was from a Cohen family. But my parents were busy becoming Americans—my mother in particular was a teacher and she felt extremely honoured to be an American.

But when Hadassa was nine, two women from the Jewish community came to their house and convinced her mother to enroll Hadassa in Hebrew school, where she met teacher Dr. Greenberg, who survived Auschwitz.

In the Hebrew School, as I said, I had Dr. Greenburg, who came from Auschwitz, and he was very Zionistic, I don’t think that he ever made it to Israel. But he taught us a lot of songs and he wrote plays about Israel. I acted in a couple of the plays, I was a mother pushing a baby carriage singing Numi Numi yaldati

It was at this time that Hadassa also independently decided to become observant and keep kosher.

We had Oneg Shabbat on Friday nights. I used to go, and we’d sing Hebrew songs and the cantor taught us Hebrew songs.

{Ran} It was only you, not the family as I understand?

{Haddasah} No, my parents were still with the American ideal and everything, no—my parents weren’t involved at all. And my brothers also weren’t involved at all. But I loved everything that had to do with Judaism, I loved going to services and Friday night Oneg Shabbat and singing and doing the Hora.

Later, the same women who convinced Hadassa’s mother to send Hadassa to Hebrew school started a Zionist youth group called Gesher haZiv within the HaBonim movement, and Hadassa served as president.

So that put the spirit into me. So it was two things: Dr. Greenberg from Hebrew school and this brief Zionist connection to HaBonim. So when I was 15, I said to my mother, ‘I’m moving to Israel’ I looked at her and said that. And she looked at me and she said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’.

—-

Ervin’s first attempt to get to Palestine was in 1947. But Palestine was still a British Mandate, since the end of the First World War. By 1947 Jewish immigration to Palestine was restricted to only 18,000 people per year and thousands of Jews were trying to leave Europe by boat or plane and immigrate to Palestine illegally, known as aliyah bet. Though the majority were unsuccessful, approximately 80,000 Jews succeeded in reaching Palestine illegally between 1945 and 1948. Ervin was determined to be one of them.

By mid-1945 he had left his family in Budapest to join a Zionist organization and train for agricultural work. He didn’t know it at the time, but his efforts to get to Palestine would put him on one of the most famous boats in Israeli history.

{Ervin} Now that the war was over, I was a free agent, I was a changed person. I was very outgoing now. I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to do things, as if I was in chains for all those long months, which I was. The opportunity arose, they sent the first group from Hungary to Israel, and the Bricha, an organization which was in charge of helping the refugees and escapees from Europe to get to Israel illegally, promised that this group will be there, in two or three weeks, she will be on the shores of Israel. I was latched onto the group. Of course my father said, if I go, then I’m out of the family. My mother kept pleading, ‘God help us. We’re one of the very few families. How many other families do you know that had three brothers and (two) parents who survived? You can’t do that, you can’t leave us, you can’t break the family!’ But I went on a hunger strike and in the end my mother took me to the train so that I should catch up with the group.

Ervin and the group spent a few weeks getting to Germany, and then a year and a half in Germany, in a place near Nuremburg called Struth. They wrote a book about the experience, called “Egy Ev Struth” in Hungarian, which translates to “One Year in Struth.” From there they went to a camp near Marseille, France, to prepare for the boat, a passenger ferry originally called President Warfield that had transported people and goods between Virginia and Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. Originally built for 200 or so passengers, it was acquired by emissaries and stripped to accommodate 4,500, including Ervin. On a hot July day, the group embarked from a port called Sete. It was the first time in his life that Ervin had ever seen a boat.

Here’s Liel reading a passage from Ervin’s memoir about his impression of the ship.

“We didn’t see the Mediterranean until we jumped off the truck. Then all anxiety disappeared. There was a brilliant, exciting glitter in everybody’s eyes. The ship was a few feet from the shore. No one from our group had ever seen a ship. It seemed to us a very big ship—a giant of a ship. The place was like a beehive, bustling with activity. Soon it became clear that ours was not the first convoy to arrive. Transports from other camps and meeting-places had arrived during the night bringing 4,530 passengers—the largest ‘aliyah-bet’ on one boat ever recorded. When the group boarded the vessel, I noted a sign on a nearby wall. Capacity: 116 passengers, 72 crew. One of the sailors led us to the place assigned to our group for the duration of the trip. We were lucky. Although it was well below deck, it was still above the waterline. There was a little port-hole that was to offer unexpected relief during the dreary days of the voyage that lay ahead. Our sleeping accommodations were less than luxurious. Imagine layers of connected boards as wide as the average adult and several yards in length, covered with straw mattresses, stretching the whole length and width of the ship. Add three or four such shelves, one above the other, the top almost touching the ceiling. Between the shelves there wasn’t space enough to sit up. Places were big enough to lie flat on one’s back, but the slightest movement brought you in contact with another body.”

Eventually we were out on the open seas undamaged and we were headed toward Israel. There was a discussion among the passengers about what should be the name of the boat. Under what name do we come into Israel? And many of them were Polish, so they wanted the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But eventually it was decided that this was the biggest ‘aliya bet’ enterprise since anytime, so it should be a name which fits the occasion. Just like there was an exodus from Egypt, we’re having an exodus from Europe: Exodus from Europe. And in short, Exodus 1947.

The crew and passengers of the Exodus had hoped to avoid detection by the British navy, but within hours a warship was on their tail.

What happened was, every day the British increased their force by one war ship, or a cruiser. And everyday they approached our boat and said we know that you are illegal immigrants trying to make Israel and His Majesty’s government appeals to you that you should turn around and not try that because you will not be allowed to land. So everyday it was an extra boat. So by the time we were 8 days into the voyage we must have had at least 6 or 7 boats that were accompanying us and surrounding us. We had a nice entourage. The first few days nobody was allowed on deck because the Hagganah leadership on the boat wanted to hide the fact that there were so many people. That was one of the things. This was meant to be a breakthrough because it was clear that the British military would have a problem taking us all to Cyprus which was the place where they took all the illegal immigrants. But to put 4,500 people all at once, they wouldn’t have facilities for that, they would have to leave a good part of the people in Israel. When the last day came before the landing, and preparations for landing were already worked out. People knew that the good swimmers would jump when we are 5 km from shore and there was such a thing as territorial waters. Nobody expected that the British would attack before territorial waters, which is 5 or 3 km from shore— forgot now exactly – close to shore. So then the best swimmers are going to jump, their places assigned, and then those who are less good swimmers will jump when we’ll get somewhat closer. And eventually when we’ll get to the point when life boats can be released and sent down, because there were life boats on the ship, all the people who are still on the boat will get in to the life boats and be released, and they will jump in the water or be on the boats, and then the Chalutzim will come from the shore and pick them on the shoulders to the shore, and take them to Kibbutzim.

But the British decided to board much earlier, about 60 kilometers from the territorial waters.

Then came the battle. The battle was a fairly fierce one. There were several dead and a number injured. And the British at first just used—they tried to jump. They sandwiched our boat and lifted the boat out of the water and then parted and the boat fell but this was just a question of feeling bad. But we heard the cracking or splitting of the wood as they kept repeating that, so there was concern, and also they made holes in the boat and from the side. And for some reason these were still days when they did not allow girls or women in to battle. So, all the women or female part of the group was down in there and they weren’t any better off than those on top, because they didn’t know what was happening. They were in terrible uncertainty; they heard the shooting and outcries and what not. And then when the British started using thick heavy black oil—hosing it down, things became very slippery on the deck, so we couldn’t move actually. And when they came with the tear gas, it was terrible.

{Hadassah} And what were you fighting with?

{Ervin} We were fighting with sticks, {Hadassah: and potatoes} and containers of canned goods.

Here’s Liel reading another passage from Ervin’s book.

“The duty of our group was to protect the wheel-house. We were surrounded and practically covered by the wire netting. It was expected that the English would try to cut the netting and storm the wheel-house. But they didn’t. Their attempts to board the ship were made at the center…A few English soldiers succeeded in boarding our ship. They were dressed in tight-fitting green uniforms. In their left hands they held shields for protection against our primitive weapons. In their right hands were clubs; on their heads—big, white, steel helmets. They had guns, ammunition and a flashing red light attached to their belts—in case they fell into the water. They tried to capture the wheel-house and engine-room. Two of them came running forward and began circling the wheel-house. Some of us ran to the top of the wheel-house. One of the Englishman was struck on the head by a rod. He fell to his knees, but quickly regained his feet and with his companion ran back toward midship. The wheel-house was not taken. It remained in our hands to the end of the fight… On the deck fierce resistance continued. During one of the English boarding attempts, some of our heavy life-boats were disconnected and fell with a crash on the deck of the iron monster. In the face of Jewish obstinacy the English became more brutal. They began to use their weapons with less hesitation. News of the bravery of a sixteen-year old youngster spread like wild fire. He threw himself on tear-gas bombs and had succeeded in flinging some back at the British ships. He was shot by the British and, before the end of the fight, died of bullet-wounds and burns. Bill, an American sailor, was shot in the chin and died soon afterwards. A number of our young men lay wounded—some with cracked skulls. But every English boarding party was met by a shower of potatoes and canned goods.”

Eventually the British took control of the Exodus. The fight lasted two or three hours. One crew member and two passengers died of gunshot wounds. Many more were injured.

By the time the battle was over it was beginning to dawn. We had a long trip to Haifa.

Though the passengers and crew had lost control of the ship, they were still overwhelmed by their first sighting of Palestine.

I remember when we were approaching the Haifa Harbour, and we began to see the Carmel Mountains and we recognized there wasn’t a soul on the street – probably the police imposed curfew. And as we got closer we could hear the sounds of Hatikvah at one of the houses from the rooftops. So they were singing Hatikvah probably to encourage us. We all stood up on the boat along the deck and they finished singing, then the boat picked it up and we sang Hatikvah and the British soldiers, who were walking back and forth who were guarding us stopped in their tracks and some of them even saluted. They recognized something special to the moment. And then we got to port.

The British weren’t the only ones to witness the scene. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine also happened to be there.

The United Nations Special Committee was there to decide which way to work out the Palestine dilemma. And Abba Even without knowing what’s coming in with the ship like the Exodus with 4,500 people. But he brought them to Haifa, this United Nations committee. And they were there in a hotel, and they saw this whole scene and it turned out without any preparation nobody could tell how this is going to work out. They were there in the hotel in the Carmel watching the boat entering, hearing the sounds, seeing, even though the distances are not so small, but they could see how the dead were taken off and then how the wounded were taken off, some of the wounded were wounded in such a way you could really see the bandage, some were carried off on stretchers, so this allegedly contributed to their decision that there has to be a Jewish state. There’s even a book I came across not long ago about the Exodus called “The Boat that Created the Jewish State.”

Once landed, the British Navy loaded the passengers onto three British boats and sent them back to Europe. The ships eventually arrived at a French port near Marseilles called Port-de-Bouc.

Now came the point of unloading. They wanted us off and we didn’t want off. And we resisted, nobody’s going to leave. We’ll leave only, a Palestine, in Palestine, only in Israel.

The group refused to leave, and stayed on the ship for three weeks, during which time the issue made headlines around the world. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, aware of the scene that had transpired in Haifa, discussed the issue at their meeting in Geneva.

Then the British gave us an ultimatum, if we won’t get off the boat, they will take us back to Germany, to Hamburg. And we did. They gave us a day… I won’t go into details… The boat picked up anchor and we were on the way to Gibraltar and anchored in Gibraltar for a day; that’s where they changed the soldiers. The group that was with us until that point sang the Hava Nagila.
{Hadassah} The British?
{Ervin} Yeah, they learned it by then. They heard it so much, But now they were off the boat and a new group of soldiers came, and now we continued and we sailed through Gibraltar and out to the Bay of Biscay, and took a while – the boat came to the entrance of the old bay in Hamburg and we landed in Hamburg.

According to Ervin, the passengers of his ship unloaded mostly without incident, because they hoped to sink it! The British had intelligence that, indeed, the passengers had managed to smuggle in explosives hidden in matza boxes while they were in port in France. The Brits found and defused them, and sent the would-be immigrants to two German detention camps. The fact that Holocaust survivors were being held in German camps did not escape anyone’s attention. In September, militant Zionist groups even blew up the central Police headquarters in Haifa in retaliation. By April 1948, more than half of the Exodus group had managed to escape to the US Zone, from where they made more attempts to get to Palestine.

Ervin, however, didn’t stay long in the camp. He had received a telegram from his family stating that his mother was very ill and decided to return to Kosice. On the way he was caught crossing the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia where he was suspected of being an escaping Nazi and spent a week in jail with Nazi prisoners! Ervin demanded to see a Rabbi; the Rabbi got word to his family, who sent a lawyer and got him out.

Eventually he made it to Kosice, where his former family-home was now a brothel and the family was living with relatives. Reunited with his family after more than two years, Ervin immediately asked about his mother, who was now in fine health. But how did his family know he was on the Exodus? In those times, the cinema played important newsreels before movies. Ervin’s family had watched a movie in the theater, and recognized his profile from a news story that was filmed about the Exodus. Another amazing coincidence.

As I mentioned before, the Exodus 1947 is one of the most important ships in Israeli history. The image of more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors, defiant in their resolve to reach Palestine; and the scenes the United Nations Committee witnessed in Haifa—highlighted the need for an immediate solution in Palestine.

By March 1948, as a result of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, Czechoslovakia was on the brink of a Soviet-backed communist takeover. Ervin’s parents obtained a family visa to the United States (denied them by the US before the war). The visa stipulated entrance for three children. Since visas were difficult to obtain and maintain, Ervin and his brothers decided to give up their plans to go to Israel in order to allow their parents to immigrate to the United States. The family settled in Brooklyn, New York in April 1948.

In New York, Ervin attended Yeshiva University because he wanted to understand where his father and grandfather’s religious beliefs came from.

{Ervin} During the war I didn’t see God acting with us because I knew, maybe not until the last few months, that there are millions who perished, including children, and I couldn’t come to terms with that. That seemed to me a very alarming that there is a God that can allow so many hundreds of thousands, I thought at that time, it turned out to be a million and a half, children who are innocent and never harmed anyone—to perish. So I didn’t believe in God, and I didn’t believe in God for a very long time. I got to America, I began thinking about this whole situation, I didn’t return to God. I wanted to find out, what is it that my very wonderful grandparents – those in Lipyani particularly, they believed to such an extent. I remember, I had a room there, next to my grandparents, with glass doors and glass doors leading to kitchen living room combination; he’d be up when it was still dark outside, and I knew that he’s up to read Tehillim an hour before he went to services. Sometimes I joined him for Shacharit and he was no dummy. And my father was no dummy either. And they were very religiously motivated. So I began searching why they were so religiously motivated. That was my original search in America. And thus I began studying Judaism.

Though he still hadn’t found God, he did however, find something else at the time, while working as a waiter in a hotel in the Catskills Mountains near New York City.

Until then I earned whatever I needed – I earned while being a waiter in the country in the Catskills’ in New York, which is also how I met this woman here.

He’s referring of course to Hadassa, who was staying at the hotel with two friends as a reward from her parents for working in the ice cream shop. Here’s how Liel, their middle son, who is 55 and is a teacher, described the story. It starts with Hadassa being invited to go on a trip to the Catskills Mountains with two older friends:

{Liel} My grandmother told my mother, “Why don’t you go with them?” and she gave her some money and then sent her off with her friends to the mountains to this hotel to the Pine View Hotel in Catskills’. And they spent the weekend there and at the Oneg Shabbat, it was very Jewish, to this day there’s a big Jewish connection (Catskills… stand-up comedy…) A strong Jewish connection there; so there was an Oneg Shabbat, and my father at this point was a student. And he was working there as a waiter and he was trying to make some money. And they have the night off Friday night, the waiters had the day off. So during the Oneg Shabbat So he asked her to dance and they danced for a bit, and they sat down to talk. And the story goes she asked him how old he is, and she’s 16 remember. And he said I’m 23 and she said “Oh you’re too old for me, this can’t work.” And then he said, “Wait a minute, I’m not 23 yet, I’ll be 23.” And then she said “Oh you’re 22?” And he said, “No wait actually, I’ll be 22 next year.” So you had this negotiation about his age but actually he really was only 21 at that point he was 5 years older than her which she thought was reasonable. And the rest is history.

Their first date in New York was to the Sadler Wells Ballet at the Met. The two also shared a love of music, and did long distance between Brooklyn and Jersey City. It was even harder when Hadassa started college in New Brunswick, to get her BA in Sociology. But the couple managed to see each other almost every weekend.

They got married on Tu B’shvat in February 1955. From there, they had to decide what kind of life they wanted to design for themselves and their family.

{Hadassa} In the back of our heads and in our hearts, we knew we would one day live in Israel. In 1955, when we were married a half a year, we hadn’t had a real long honeymoon and Ervin was in the middle of his studies for the Rabbinate and he had just finished his Masters, and there was a possibility that we could join a group of Rabbinical students and spend a year of study in Israel. So we joined the group, we went privately with another couple through Europe, we came to Israel after 3 weeks of traveling on land . And we had a fantastic year in Israel. We had a wonderful year in Israel. We traveled. I studied in the ulpan, the grandmother of ulpanim, Etzion.

After the trip, Hadassa says it was imprinted on their minds and souls that they would return to Israel as a family. It would ultimately take 15 years.

Meanwhile, after Yeshiva University, Ervin continued his studies simultaneously at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was located next door. Though he still didn’t believe in God—after all, how could God allow such a devastating series of events to occur during the war?— he wanted to better understand Judaism. After being ordained, he actually began working as a Rabbi, first in Danville Illinois and then in Queens, New York, without believing in God. With the help of a conversation with his father’s physician, Dr. Rosenthal, and plenty of searching, Ervin eventually resolved his inner turmoil over his belief in God.

{Ervin} I came to an acceptance of God. I didn’t do that because my tradition convinced me of that but because I came to a conclusion as a result of what’s happening in the world, in science. In nature, in science. The fact that when you see flowers you see the buds of flowers, you see the same number of petals in each of them. Why should this one have 12, why isn’t it random? I believe, what I have sort of an undercurrent of an approach which makes me doubt which makes me doubt, which makes me question and which somehow holds me back from becoming a total believer, somebody who is a blind believer. I still need an explanation. I look for an explanation for every miracle. For the spreading of the Red Sea or anything else. I’m looking for scientific explanations. Every time when I don’t find any I tell myself there must be I just can’t find it yet. Which means my questioning now isn’t about whether there is or isn’t that kind of an event, but how do I find an answer to it.

In 1970, when Ervin was entitled to a sabbatical from his congregation, the family took the opportunity to spend the year in Israel. In addition to a part-time position at the Haifa University, Ervin agreed to take a job as the director of an English-language college-preparatory school in the Midrasha of Sde-Boker—which is in the middle of the Negev desert.

{Hadassa} So we get in the car and start driving and we get past Be’er Sheva. And we don’t know where the heck we are, we’ve never been there before. And we’re driving and see nothing but camels and Bedouins and Bedouin tents and maybe 5 trees in an experimental thing. And we’re looking around, and it looked like what we figure the moon must’ve looked, and we don’t see another car and we look at each other and said ‘Maybe we should turn around and go back?’ Because it’s endless. In those days it took at least an hour from Be’er Sheva to get to Sde Boker.

We had a wonderful year! That was a trial year that first year. Since we came without a job, with no house to go to, we had no family to go to, besides some cousins here and there, and we fell into this terrific place. The kids loved it, they were delighted, they had freedom to run around, they had nature. They fell in love with the desert. It was a great challenge, it was a fantastic challenge. And we were working very hard but it was good, it was good and we enjoyed the atmosphere.

After a year back in New York, the family moved to Israel permanently. Aiton, their oldest son, was 12 during the family’s initial year in Israel and 14 when they returned permanently. So he’s the son with the clearest recollection of what that time was like. Today he’s 58 and lives in Kfar Yona and works as a clinical psychologist.

Initially Aiton attended a boarding school for New Olim at Yemin Orde. Speaking little Hebrew, he had quite an adventure getting very lost the first time he went home by bus. By Chanukah he rejoined the family in Midreshet Sde Boker.

{Aiton} It was an interesting year, it was a good year because the class was very small, this is now in Mitzpe Ramon where I went to the public school. There were 14 of us at most in that class. Most of the kids were top-notch kids. So I had childhood experiences, some other funny ones, like getting lost, not understanding what’s going on and not having the language to find out what’s going on. We were very few kids my age in the midrashah, there were basically like two girls my age, so by the time I finished high school I had dated all the girls, very nice girls. Daphna and Ma’ayan. In the Nativ that’s a different story, Nativ is the school, that was the English language high school but I was more Israeli by then.
{Hadassah} He dated all the girls and they loved him.
{Ervin} Ma’ayan was one of your girlfriends
{Aiton} And Daphna before.

Hadassa taught English in the Israeli high-school and Teachers’ College in the Midrasha. When they eventually left Sde Boker in 1978, she took the opportunity to follow her dream of becoming a social worker, which she did, working in the town of Kadima for 21 years.

Today, Hadassa and Ervin both maintain active lives. Hadassa has been working for many years as a volunteer in Netanya with the Department of Social Services, Services for Disabled People and another department that aids battered women, which is under the auspices of the Hadassah Israel organization and the Department for Prevention of Violence in the Family. She also teaches English as a volunteer in a school, and serves as one of the presidents of BICA—Beit Israel Community Activities within the Beit Israel Conservative congregation in Netanya.

Ervin continues to run a Russian outreach program called Shearim Netanya—Open Gates of Netanya, which he began in 1989 to help absorb a huge wave of Russian Aliyah. His organization has programs supporting musicians. It runs a kindergarten mainly for children of single parent families, a program for youth at-risk, conversion courses accepted by the Rabbinate, monthly trips around Israel, a senior choir, where the average age is 81 and the conductor is 90, and other activities.

But what happened to everyone else in the story? Did Aiton, Liel and Dani stay in Israel? Did Ervin and Hadassa’s parents ever join them? What about their brothers? Here’s Dani, Ervin and Hadassa’s youngest son, with the afterword:

{Dani} Well, all three brothers now live in Israel and have children, who are more Israeli than anything else. My brothers are both brilliant and special and they’re great guys. Both were officers in the IDF and both are strict vegetarians (Liel is even a vegan). They each have 3 great kids and thankfully we all live close-by, and get to see each other quite often. Aiton and Liel also share a pulpit in Netanya where they have a high holiday gig leading services in Dad’s shul and with our proud parents sitting in the congregation—I guess that would be one definition of nachat.
Aiton was married to Liora and is now with Liat; his kids are Sheer, Yami and Meshi. He is a clinical psychologist with his own private practice and teaches courses in Israeli universities. His expertise is trauma therapy and collaborative divorce. He’s worked with the IDF and traveled several times to help train therapists for victims of colossal catastrophes like earthquakes or the Asian Tsunami of 2004. In recent years, he also started composing music to Biblical and liturgical phrases and he’s also the best tour guide in Israel. He has tremendous knowledge, and I remember that when he was just 15, he represented the US in the Int’l Bible contest in Jerusalem when our neighbor from Sde Boker – David Ben-gurion – asked him a question.
Liel is married to Dafni, and their kids are Chen, Aviv and Shir. He’s the science brain in the family. He studied computer sciences and worked in the software development industry for many years until he decided to transform to the spiritual. He began going on wander-gathering trips where he lives only off the fruit of the land, became a vegan, and travelled to India. He then decided to leave the golden-cage of high-tech, and went back to school to earn a teacher’s certificate. He works as a school-teacher in the Democratic School in Hadassim. He also has a black belt in Aikido. Liel regularly leads services at Hod VeHadar Masorti congregation as their Cantor and has become an environmental activist.
As for me, Dani, I’m the business-minded one, motivated by challenge and creativity. As a kid I would sell stones, sabras and honey in Sde Boker. Today, I’m the CEO at Soda Stream and work to cultivate coexistence between Arabs and Jews within the private sector. I’m married to Bat-Ella and we have four amazing, super-talented kids… Nitai, Nitsan and twins Shai and Gal.
Charles and Ida Halperin continued life in New Jersey. Charles, who we remember as a wonderful and happy guy, was also an avid baseball fan, bowler and singer. He died in 1976 after suffering several strokes. Grandma Ida, an unusually dedicated educator who taught for many years in Jersey City, spent many winters and the last two years of her life in Netanya with the family while I was in the Army. She was the special assistant in my dog grooming business that was operating right out of my parents’ Histadrut 7, 4th floor apartment. Grandma, a devoted dog-lover, received the clients and kept them and the dogs happy while I was busy grooming. Grandma died in 1990. In the last few years Mom’s brothers Lloyd and Arthur passed away in Florida where they retired after living most of their lives in New Jersey.
Our father’s brothers, Franz and Miki, immigrated to the U.S. with the rest of the family after living through the Holocaust. Franz became a Cantor whose career took him to places like Philadelphia, New Orleans, Charlotte and Fort Lauderdale, where he retired and died in 2005. Miki worked in New York as a CPA for the State of NY and married Elisheva, a child survivor of Bergen Belsen who was brought to Israel after the State was born. After serving in the Army, she went to work for the kibbutz movement in N.Y. where she met Miki, and, like my parents, it was love at first dance. They have three children, Ronnie, Noam and Ilan, who are all married with kids. Now almost 90 years old, Miki still insists on driving us to and from JFK when we come for a visit. He’s a real golden heart.
Eliash and Marishka Birnbaum lived in New York after immigrating from Kosice in 1948. Eliash died of cancer in 1963. Though we were young when he died, he’s kept the family (and many others) alive with his foresight and preparation for the unbelievable. So he’s always around in that sense. Marishka, or Savta, was a wonderful cook, and we remember her rice pudding and other dishes very fondly. In her 70’s, totally fearless of thugs on the subway, she loved to ride from her home in Queens to Manhattan two or three times a week where she enjoyed lectures at the Herzl Institute. She managed to join us at Aiton’s wedding in Israel in 1985 but died a year later after a battle with cancer while living with Miki and Elisheva in NY.
Aiton, Liel and I would like to dedicate this podcast to our parents, Hadassa and Ervin, who had the courage to abandon the comfort of their lives in New York and come on this adventure called Israel. They just picked themselves up, without a job or savings but with lots of faith and determination, and with us three little kids. They showed us, through their example, how to take risks and deal with uncertainty, how to be driven by a purpose and live a meaningful life dedicated to building a secure home and a wonderful future for the people of Israel.

By the way, the family is very musical – the song in the background is a family production: Aiton wrote it, and it’s performed by Chen and Shir – Liel’s girls – his wife Dafni, Dani’s wife Bat-Ella, Aiton’s partner Liat, and Hadassa!.
When we do these audio documentaries. I ask the subjects of the story to leave a message for the future. I posed the question to Hadassa and Ervin.

{Ran} If you can pass on a message to future generations, it’s not an easy question, but I mean you both had very long and fulfilling lives full of many challenges and experiences. What would you say to these future generations? What would you say to them that would give them maybe a sliver of this expertise? It’s not an easy question. You can take a minute to think about it if you want.

{Hadassa} I have two thoughts come to my mind. I think it’s important for a person to do what he enjoys doing. And we have other examples in the family with people who have decided to do what is meaningful to them or will give them satisfaction and what they do best. And I think I’d like my grandchildren to consider that as something very important. And another thing that is very important to me and very central is family unity. I think it’s very important for brothers, sisters, cousins together with their parents and grandchildren never to lose that affection and that feeling for one another and their togetherness. To be together and to enjoy being together and I think we have it in our family. We have lots of positive good moments and I’m happy if I contributed to it, and I hope that all future generations will contribute to it.

And Ervin wanted to read a passage from the last page of his memoir, “Turning Obstacles into Stepping-Stones,” which he wrote in 2014.

“This memoir is meant to be addressed for the general public. But allow me to assure my children and grandchildren, if I admit that I lived under the cloud of the Shoah, by no means does that mean that I don’t enjoy life. I delight in life superbly. To many, the Shoah became a propelling agent, to enjoy more, to embrace with open arms. To give with open hands. To hold on more determinedly. To delight more in beauty. Under the cloud of the Shoah, you can shout Hurrah! to every ray of sunshine. That’s what I wish to do, that’s what I want to do. Even when I complain once in a while. That’s what I’m doing. As the play-wright said: ‘singing in the rain and holding on relentlessly to a dream.’”

That’s the end of this Family Sounds documentary. Thanks for listening. The music that you heard throughout the podcast was by Aiton or Bat-Ella, Dani’s wife.
You can find their songs and albums on the internet. Bat-Ella’s latest album features Debbie Friedman songs that were translated into Hebrew by Liel’s wife Dafni.
We also want to give a special thanks to our producer, Tiffanie Wen and our sound engineer Nir Sayag, I’m Ran Levi.


Media notes

Music
Shalom Aleichem by Aiton Birnbaum

Miriam’s Song by Bat-Ella

וארשתיך לי לעולם by Aiton Birnbaum

L’chi Lach by Bat-Ella

מה דודך מדוד by Aiton Birnbaum

T’filat Haderech by Bat-Ella

Dort Vu Di Tzeder by Cantor Beny Maissner.

T’filat Haderech by Bat-Ella

Sounds

Hitler arriving in Vienna
Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

SFX

At the Stream
Glass Breaking
Cow Bells
Radio Tuning
Lone Ranger Theme Song

The post The Birnbaum’s Life Story appeared first on Family Sounds.

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