Maya Orbach

I was too scared to ask my grandfather about the Holocaust and when I finally did, it was too late

Saba survived the ghetto, forced labour and Buchenwald concentration camp, but dementia took away his memory

January 27, 2023 11:22

“Hi Saba. It’s Maya, your granddaughter.”

A moment of confusion. His eyes searching my face.

And then a familiar, warm look. Slowly, as if every facial muscle is working overtime, a wide smile emerges.

My Saba was one of the happiest, sweetest people I knew. And I’m not biased, everyone who met him thought that. The sweet old man who never left the house without his flat cap (which he had in various patterns) shared his positivity with everyone he met.

My grandfather was also the strongest person I knew. He was a survivor in every sense of the word. He survived the Nazi invasion of Poland, the ghetto, forced labour, Buchenwald concentration camp, and then the haunting memories which come with life after a horrific tragedy.

Born in Czestochowa, Poland in 1921, Tzadok Orbach (or Cudek in Polish) had a joyous childhood. The third of five children, he came from a relatively affluent Jewish family who worked in the shoe-making business.

After the Nazis took over my grandfather’s hometown, their house was invaded by Hans Krueger, captain of the Gestapo in occupied Poland, and ten other Gestapo soldiers. Krueger personally beat the family and screamed at them. The youngest brother, Zeev, was only eight years old at the time and witnessed the horror as Krueger continued to beat my great grandparents and took members of the family away. He went on to terrorise the neighbourhood, organising and taking part in many massacres.

Zeev’s testimony in 1996 would become one of the few links to my grandfather’s story. I discovered the videos a few years ago and was overcome by emotion at finally hearing more about my family’s history during the war.

In 1940, my grandfather and his family were forced into the ghetto. David, the second youngest was taken to Treblinka extermination camp where he was killed. Heniek, another brother was enraged by the death of his wife and new-born baby. They were taken to a cemetery and shot two days after she gave birth. Heniek joined the partisans, smuggled weapons and was caught and hanged. My grandfather’s parents perished as well, with my great-grandmother sent to Treblinka’s extermination machinery. The oldest sister Regina was sent to Auschwitz, but survived and married a fellow survivor. I discovered this information through Yad Vashem's documents and family members.

My grandfather and his youngest sibling Zeev were chosen for forced labour and relied on one another to survive. After Zeev was selected to be taken to Buchenwald, my grandfather chose to go with him. Like most Jews during this time, they arrived at the concentration camp after a horrific journey inside cramped, inhumane cattle trains with no food or toilets. Zeev was taken to the same children’s barrack as Yisrael Meir Lau, who would later become Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Towards the end of the war, my grandfather was selected to go on a death march. He escaped the march and pretended to be a guard for a Russian prisoner barrack in Buchenwald. As a skilled mechanic and fine tool maker, he helped Russian prisoners with weapons and became an important asset to them until the liberation.

The brothers eventually emigrated to Israel on the first ship that came from the concentration camps to live and work on a kibbutz. My grandfather settled in Haifa, married Etka (who escaped Poland and lived as a refugee in Siberia during the war) and had two children: my father Izak and aunt Tova.

I am eternally thankful for Zeev’s testimony which helped me discover new details and dates. But I had never heard the story from my grandfather about what happened to him when they were separated. There are gaping holes that will never be filled: my grandfather’s thoughts and emotions and the specific details that are unique to his story.

Growing up, my father rarely asked my Saba about this terrible time and his experience, only during remembrance days. My grandfather, usually a quiet person, would not talk about the war unless specifically asked. My father and I were both scared to ask in fear we would cause sadness or a reliving of the trauma he endured.

As time went by, I learned about the Holocaust at school, and I heard survivors’ stories. Just not my grandfather’s. Still, I had a debilitating fear that somehow, I would make my grandfather cry. This was a possibility that I was uncomfortable to even think about. He was getting older and more fragile and all I wanted to do was to provide him with happiness and “naches” from his granddaughter. So, I read Night by Elie Weisel who was at the same concentration camp. I read other heart-breaking testimonies, I watched many Holocaust movies and documentaries, visited museums, participated in remembrance ceremonies, and researched. I did everything I could to learn about my people’s tragic past and that is still not enough.

When I matured and was finally ready and brave enough to ask, it was too late. Dementia had taken my brilliant grandfather’s memories and communication. A Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Polish and German speaker, my grandfather now only spoke Polish and German (the latter he only learned and used during the war).

I would communicate through the translations of his caretaker, but his condition worsened and the Saba I knew and loved smiled less and became more confused. He hardly recognised his son and granddaughter when we came to visit him. Sometimes, perhaps because of the strong connection between the brothers, he would mistakenly call my dad “Zeev”.

My father, aunt and uncle had the honour of visiting our family’s hometown with Zeev in 2013. After my grandfather passed, I also visited Zeev and his wife Debby in Florida. Though he was getting older, he was able to share more pictures and information about his experience and my family’s history. When I was 18, I journeyed to my grandfather’s country of origin. My experience was extremely powerful, but I kept on thinking how I wish I could tell him what I saw and felt.

Through the years family members have introduced new information but I will never be able to sit next to my lovely Saba and hear him talk about what he went through personally. My unanswered questions will remain unanswered. What did he experience in the horror of the Buchenwald concentration camp? How did he stay alive? How did he continue to live after the tragedy? I will never be able to ask him these questions and tell him how brave and inspiring he was and will always be to me.

As the population of Holocaust survivors dwindles, these stories must live on. If survivors are willing to speak, we must listen, learn, and ask. No matter how difficult these stories are to hear, it is our responsibility. And if your story is like mine, I urge you to do the research. You may find your great uncle’s incredible testimony from 26 years ago.

January 27, 2023 11:22

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