Judaism is something that I hold really close to my heart. I am going to say right now that I am not very observant. I do, however, often think about God, why certain things happen, and what I should do, based on the morals I grew up with. I don’t practice as much as I would like, but still identifying as Jewish is very important for me because of the way that I was raised and the history behind it that has led me to where I am today.
Let me explain one of the reasons why I love Judaism. This goes back to honor and appreciation of my grandfather. I don’t know much about him except from small stories retrieved from my father, from research, and several short publications of him I have gathered.
My grandfather was born in December of 1924 in Poland. He had a father, mother, older brother, and a younger sister and brother. They lived in Wloclawek. Living in Poland in this time period was very dangerous because of the rise of Hitlerism. Henrys’ father, older brother and younger sister were sent to Belzec, an extermination camp, where they died from the gas chambers. After the loss of half of his family, his mother and younger brother and himself fled to a village in Krasnobroid in 1942.
picture from www.krakow3d.com
They lived in the village of Kransnobrod. Henry was 18 when the SS invaded their village in the middle of the night. Henry, his mother and younger brother were awakened by shots of the Nazi’s guns. They ran to their attic to hide from the outside destruction. Henry watched his town blow up into flames. He saw the Nazis throw grenades into the houses and fire their bullets without restraint nor remorse. Henry watched with fear his neighbors’ houses burning. The house that was falling in flames spit out a family with younglings; they were running to save themselves from being burned to death. As if waiting for them to run out, the Nazis shot down every last one of them. Henry watched this all from the crack in his attic where they took shelter.
He comforted his mother and then realized that they were most certainly going to die that night. Not only that, but that death could serve them well. He realized death could save them! It could ‘liberate’ them forever; they would no longer need to fear the SS or the terror of the Nazis. His mother even reasoned, “Why should we get to live when they [her husband, daughter and son] are dead? We are all together and let us be happy and die together.” Henry wrote only 4 short pages describing the terrible memory of his burning village.
My father once told me another story of his dad. Henry told my father that the Nazis had the Jewish people being marched away. Henry and his friend were among them. They wanted to escape and decided to make a break for it and run across the land. Henry’s friend was a big, strong, well built man. Henry, on the other hand, was very skinny and malnourished. On cue, they took off running. His friend was much faster than he was. Henry was too weak to keep on running so he threw himself into a pile of hay filled with dung. He looked up and saw his friend get shot and murdered down the field. My grandmother also used to tell my parents the story of how grandpa barely survived the Nazi inspection. The Nazis would flip over those who were dead back side up. My grandfather was among a group of Jews who were murdered; people were getting stabbed and shot left and right. He played dead, and flipped himself on his stomach so they thought he was checked dead. They went a second time around, stabbed the bodies with their bayonet, to ensure their death. They stabbed the person next to him and by mere luck, his life was saved.
My grandfather was liberated in Flossenberg in April of 1945. How my grandfather came out of the holocaust is a bit of a mystery to me. He was incredibly lucky for having survived when his whole family, among millions of others, perished. He didn’t like to speak about his experience in the holocaust; as a result, his memories are lost forever.
After World War II, the Jewish people had nowhere to go and nothing left for them. They could return to their home town, but why would they want to be reminded everyday of what happened in that same land? They didn’t want to go back to the land where their friends and relatives were murdered. Their belongings were even stolen from them by neighbors. Their towns were still full of anti-Semitism as well. There was nothing left for them at their home land. At the end of 1946 there were 250,000 Displaced Persons in Europe. My grandfather registered as one of them.
The Allies controlled the camps where these displaced people lived. The people who lived here were called Sh’erit ha-Pletah, which means ‘surviving remnant’ in Hebrew. The conditions in these camps were not much better than the camps of the Nazis. The Jewish people were still treated as criminals, given limited rations, still wore their concentration camp uniforms and Nazi collaborators even lived in their same camps. President Harry Truman sent the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Earl G. Harrison, to check out the conditions of the camps. Harrison reported,
“…we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under military guard instead of S.S. troops.”
After that, the conditions improved. They housed Jews separately according to their needs, and in these camps the Jewish people were aided and built their own community. They had newspapers running, theater, plays, education, and torah studying. The DP camps were meant to be short term relief help that would last less than six months, but ended up taking more time than expected. The last camp closed in 1953.
President Truman relaxed the immigrant quota to help the Jews immigrate to the United States. Israel was made a state for Jewish people. Two thirds of the Jews went to Israel, and the rest went mostly to America. My grandfather immigrated to New York from Weiden in Germany on September 8, 1946.
My grandfather was given a Hillel Foreign Student Service of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations at American Universities Scholarship and went to study Chemistry at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He entered the Fall of 1947. He wanted to get his Ph. D. and work on Chemistry research. Shortly after graduating, he got a job. He worked many jobs and met his future collaborators (and wife). They set up to start their own industry involving airplane parts. They worked out of their garage every day developing parts and material. He fell in love with the nurse of one of his family friends, and took her out on ‘cheap dates’ of walking to the park or watching the fisherman. They got married. My grandmother used to make them sandwiches while they worked long and hard in the garage (I imagine they were as good at the sandwiches she used to make me as a child!).
My grandfather was naturalized on January 22, 1954 in Los Angeles, where they moved. He ended up starting his own company. They made a massive amount of profit and greatly affected the aerospace industry. They were extremely well off a couple decades later. This brings me back to memories of waddling around my grandparent’s huge house; walking up the never ending staircase, being afraid of the magnificently painted artworks that lined the walls, wanting to use the elevator instead because it was scary, but not being able to use it alone. Or other great memories of the beautiful driveway that seemed to take 10 minutes on its own (childhood exaggeration, mind you!), or exploring the vast backyard which seemed like another world! with all my cousins. My grandfather worked so hard for everything in his life and he accomplished so much. His perseverance is my motivation. Because of everything he did in his life, he was able to bless me with a great future as well. Of course, the jack pot of money he made is no longer thriving. Smartly, he did leave a hefty amount to me, my two brothers, and my four cousins (not counting the savings for my father his sister), for our college education. Thanks to him, I am able to afford to go to University to learn.
me and my mothers mother
the backyard of my grandparents in Fullerton, Orange County, California.
Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful for what he has given me. My grandfather is my idol. I look up to him and the great things he did. He adopted my father and aunt, and as a result gave us 9 kids an amazing life and opportunity to thrive in this world. My grandfather survived watching his friends and relatives die, being an inmate at 5 different concentration camps in Poland and Germany, and the depression and horrible effects of being in the Holocaust. If he can go through all he did and still find the motivation to live and succeed in this world, then surely I can as well. Henry died on May 2, 1985 due to skin cancer. I am so grateful for all he has done for his (my) family. My prayers and blessing go out to all those who were also affected by the Holocaust in some way.
The women my grandfather left behind
The Root and the Bough, The Epic of an Enduring People by Leo W. Schwartz
In remembrance of Henry Motek Deutsch ❤