As stories go, it’s nothing short of improbable. Teenage sweethearts separated for years by war and the worst human cruelty imaginable, finding each other again against the odds and reuniting for a happily ever after. And yet for Henry Rosenbloom, it’s also a true story; that of his parents and now the subject of a memoir, Miracles Do Happen.
The book gathers the testimony of Felix and Fela Rosenbloom, teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, following her through the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and the death march to Ravensbrück, and him through a remarkable escape to Communist Russia, where he endured the war in different forced labour situations, nearly succumbing to starvation and cold. Sparsely edited by Rosenbloom, founder of Australian publishing company Scribe, the book is a moving account of not only the Holocaust but of a young couple, alone in the world, rebuilding their lives halfway across the world.
As Rosenbloom acknowledges, there’s no shortage of Holocaust memoirs out there — he’s even published some — but this story is unique (although it may remind readers of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a love story that begins in the death camp and also ends with the couple settling in Australia). Still, says Rosenbloom, he’d never seen anything about “a boy and girl who lived in the same street, who were friends, both of whose families were wiped out, who then came together, then had the capacity to write about their experiences.” As he says, “the fact that, out of the deaths of I don’t know how many family members, they found each other again is really remarkable”. The couple were reunited after both returned to their home-town after the war.
The couple recorded their testimony in 1994 before Felix died, but for decades it was only shared in close circles, as was Fela’s wish. “Extracting it from her was like getting blood from a stone,” Rosenbloom explains. But recently she surprised her sons by expressing a desire to see it in print. “She said the world really needs to know what happened.” The book was published in Australia before Fela’s death in January, at the age of 94.
Although Rosenbloom and his brother John gave it a light copy-edit and fact-check, and added some explanatory footnotes, the book is very much their parents’ words. Fela’s share is far slimmer; Felix delves not only into his experience under Communism but explores post-war Poland, the political rows among members of the post-war Bund, the couple’s escape through refugee camps to Paris and their eventual arrival in the alien setting of 1950s Australia. “My father was an extraordinary observer — it’s very valuable to get his account of all those different things,” says Rosenbloom.
Both stories were hard for Rosenbloom to read, especially the description of his mother in Auschwitz, “as close to dying as possible”, saved by a friend (another Fela, who, remarkably, also survived and also moved to Australia). “She went through such horrific experiences and her rendering is so powerful, I was virtually weeping,” he recalls. “With Dad’s it was different because he was experiencing war from outside the camps, and he became a kind of socio-political observer.”
Growing up, he knew only the basics about what his parents went through. This is a common story; as a teenager he was involved with Jewish youth movement SKIF and almost all his peers were the children of survivors, equally in the dark. “I knew my mother was deeply emotionally disturbed about what had happened, I knew they both wanted to put it behind them, but very little beyond that.” When his mother’s saviour, Fela ,visited, the pair would shut themselves in the kitchen and talk for hours. “Even that was private, it’s not something she would do in front of us.”
The couple dealt with their experiences differently. “My mum was deeply traumatised. It was difficult for her, certainly in the early years, to be emotionally stable, she was always flying off the handle. But she was also an incredible maintainer of family life, an extraordinary cook and she loved having friends around. She built a home-centred life but was not very interested in the world outside.” Felix, meanwhile, was shaped by his opposition to communism — a stance the teenage Rosenbloom railed against but now agrees with fervently.
“Dad had a terrific insight into the real nature of communism and everything he said has come to pass many times over. I think it also stimulated his general interest in politics. We always used to argue about politics at home.”
Like many Holocaust memoirs, Miracles Do Happen is a tale of human resilience; 1950s Australia, he points out, was a very different place to anything they’d known, with only tiny remnants of a Jewish community of their peers. “They came to a foreign land as traumatised as human beings can be, with hardly any material resources, no language they could use, and just set about rebuilding their lives with enormous energy, goodwill and optimism,” marvels Rosenbloom. “It’s an extraordinary thing about the human spirit. It’s not just Jews, it’s migrants everywhere.”
Rosenbloom was born in Paris but grew up in Melbourne and has never visited his parents’ home country. Although he knows they were Nazi death camps not Polish ones, he still views the country “as a vast Jewish graveyard.
“I’m highly aware of Polish antisemitism which goes back centuries. When the Jews came back from the Holocaust, they were greeted with comments like, ‘how come Hitler didn’t finish the job’. That embitters me, so I think I would find it emotionally very difficult to be in Poland. It’s not something I can imagine readily subjecting myself to.”
At the same time, this is why he wanted to publish the book. “You’re essentially talking about a life and a culture that was annihilated and it deserves testimony,” he says. “My mother was one of the very last voices who could tell a story about not just the Holocaust from direct experience, but about pre-war Jewish Poland. A thousand years of Jewish life in Poland came to an end, more or less, with the Holocaust, she is a link to that time.”
He hopes the book will be a weapon against Holocaust denial —“ the beast that never dies” — but also that it is an uplifting read. “It’s a tremendous testament to the human spirit.”
The recent loss of his mother clearly weighs heavily — Rosenbloom occasionally lapses into the present tense when speaking about her, then quickly corrects himself — but he is happy to have shared a published copy with her. “She was very taken by the fact it existed.”
Above all, Miracles do Happen is a love story, with a suitably Hollywood ending. Would his parents have gone the distance had the Holocaust not thrust them apart and then back together? “Many post-Holocaust marriages were kind of convenience,” points out Rosenbloom. “The story was common that families had been annihilated on both sides and they were desperately lonely, they both came from the same city or the same country and felt they should get married. Many of those relationships foundered quite quickly.”
In his parents’ case, he suggests, there was something more, something that made them hold on to each other through years of separation. “You can only speculate, of course, but I think you’d have to say there’s a very good chance.”
‘Miracles do Happen’ (Scribe) is published on April 12.