Ask, or you’ll live to regret it

There are so many stories and memories that will only be preserved if we ask our grandparents about their past, and record it for posterity, writes Camilla Turner

January 19, 2017 12:42

"I always remember your grandfather. He didn't have any toes," an elderly lady told my friend, as he bent down to greet her at a shiva.

“He used to work at my father’s shoe factory when he came to England. One day he showed me his feet. I never forgot what they looked like.”

I was intrigued, and later asked my friend Dan how it came to be that his grandfather lost his toes. It was a fascinating tale, and one which may be familiar, as Jack Kagan — who sadly passed away last month — devoted a great deal of time in his latter years telling his story.

Jack was born in 1929 in Novogródek, which is in modern day Belarus but at the time was eastern Poland. The Russians invaded in 1939; they nationalised businesses, shut down synagogues and Jack’s Hebrew school. Two years later, the Nazis came. In December 1941, thousands of Jews were murdered, but Jack was among those selected to work in the Piereszeka Ghetto, a forced labour camp.

After a year in the bleak conditions, he got hold of special felt lined boots and attempted his first escape. But after falling through a icy river, his feet became so frozen, he knew if he continued he would die. So he turned around and broke back into the labour camp in secret. A fellow inmate, who was a former dentist, chopped off his frostbitten toes.

A group of prisoners devised an ambitious plot to build a tunnel, and orchestrate a mass escape. After months of work, it was declared ready in September 1943 and over a hundred prisoners sneaked out of the camp to safety.

Jack joined the Jewish partisans led by the Bielski brothers, the three men who set up a resistance movement fighting the Nazis from their camp in the forests of Eastern Europe. He spent the rest of the war living in the Naliboki forest where the partisan group set up a community, with synagogues, bakeries and a hospital.

At the end of the war, Jack made his way to London. When he died, aged 87, he was the last known surviving member of the Bielski partisans in Britain. His cousin Dov Cohen travelled to Palestine, only for his ship to be boarded by the British. The passengers were forced to return to camps in Germany and the boat, named Exodus, became a symbol of the struggle of Jewish refugees to emigrate to Palestine after the war.

Another close friend of Jack’s from Novogródek, who also joined the Bielskis and lived alongside him in the Naliboki forest, made his way to America after the war. His name was Joseph Kushner. His grandson, Jared Kushner, is the son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump.

I’m glad I had asked Dan why his grandfather didn’t have any toes. Because the answer touched on some of the most fascinating chapters of 20th-century history —– the Bielski partisan movement, the Exodus, and the American dream. These events have been captured in books, plays, and even Hollywood films (Daniel Craig starred in Defiance, a film about the Bielski brothers).

But important, too, are the lesser known tales of 20th-century Jewish history. Not everyone’s grandparents will have pasts that connect with the multitude of historical events in quite the same way that Jack’s has. And not all grandparents will be willing or able to devote years of their lives to educating younger generations about their childhoods, as Jack bravely did.

But every grandparent will have their own story, which may not be the subject of documentaries and films — but are nonetheless integral to our heritage and understanding of our past.

I recently read a booklet written by my great grandfather’s brother, which recounted his poverty stricken childhood in east London. One of 11 siblings, he told of his stern mother’s Yiddish catchphrases and his father’s many unsuccessful business ventures, including trying to set up a kosher butcher in Lambeth, which was then “99 per cent gentile”.

There is a note at the beginning of the book, in which he laments that he never asked his parents what their life was like in Lithuania, before they moved to the East End. “I can only surmise about the kind of work they did from incidents in our childhood,” he wrote. “For example, when we acquired a goat, my mother bent down and milked it like a complete professional.”

I share his yearning to find out why my great-great-grandmother was so proficient at milking a goat, and what her life was like in Lithuania at the end of the 19th century.

It is easy to rely on museums, authors and film-makers to capture history. But there are so many stories and memories that will only be preserved if we ask our grandparents about their past, and record it for posterity.

Camilla Turner is education editor for the Daily Telegraph

January 19, 2017 12:42

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