Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Business of Survival

My father, Henry Blumner, flanked by my mother, Lillian, on his right, and his sister, Linda, on his left, after World War II.

I like to sweep the sidewalk in front of my office building.  It reminds me of my father. 

As the broom flicks up the dust and leaves that seem to gravitate toward the entrance to the building every morning, I recall the dust clouds that my father’s push broom would launch, as he swept up his building site at the end of each day.  I could delegate this particular task to the company that cleans my office building every day, but I haven’t, and I believe that this is the reason.   

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is fitting for me to remember my father in the words of this blog, because he and my mother were survivors of that most infamous period in the history of mankind.   My mother survived the death camps by the grace of G-d.  My father survived the war in the woods in Poland for two and half years, through a combination of grit, cunning, iron will, and fortitude.

I was never able to beat my father in an arm wrestling contest.  Not even as he lay in bed in the intensive care unit of North Shore Hospital on the last day of his life, three years ago.  I held his hand just hours after he had been weaned from the respirator, and said to him teasingly, “How’s your grip?”
“You want to try?” he answered.  I knew immediately from the tension around my fingers that I didn’t have a chance.
I had tried to take advantage of him a few times before in a hospital setting.  One Sabbath I had taken him to the emergency room at North Shore because of a bout of pancreatitis.  After a long day lying on the hospital gurney, I slipped my hand into his, and squeezed it strongly.  “Are you ready?” I asked him.  He said, “I am too weak.”  I knew this was a set up.  And, of course, my arm was down before I could even muster a challenge.
Those who knew my father, knew him as a kindly old gentleman with a powerful handshake, but that handshake was the vestige of a powerful man, whose strength of mind, body and spirit I would like to recall today in his merit.
My father was born in Bielsko-Biala, Poland in 1913, the son of Chaim and Malka Blumner.  He was one of six children, only one of whom is now left. 
Early in my father’s childhood, his family moved to the town of Zasuv, which was not far from the  city of Radomysl Wielki.  My brother was doing some genealogical research a few years ago and came across the Radomysl Wielki Memorial book. This book, and others like it were written after the war to record the life and the lives that had been obliterated by the Nazis.  The Radomysl book also tells about the life and people of the surrounding towns.  In this book, I was excited to find references to both my great grandfather and my grandfather.  About my great grandfather it says in Hebrew:
Mr. Yichiel Forstenzer was respected in the town, would give charity generously, and participate in all the organized activities of the Jewish people of the place.
About my grandfather, it said:
Chaim Blumner, the son-in-law of Yichiel Forstenzer, was a member of the younger generation, and took upon himself demanding tasks for the benefit of the [community].
It is easy to see how my father's menschlich  character emerged from such a background.
My father was an ardent Zionist in his youth.  He felt his destiny was to go to Israel.  As the story goes, he was attending Hachshara in Poland, preparing to move to Israel.  Then, in 1938, one of his friends drowned in the harbor in Haifa as a result of the British policy of denying entry to ships carrying refugees.  As a result my father’s parents asked him to postpone his plans for a year.  But a year later the war broke out in Poland, and my father was caught in the tragedy of the Holocaust. 
My father rarely spoke about the Holocaust when I was a boy, though the unspoken words weighed as heavily upon us as if we knew the awful details.  My father was not one of those who endured the concentration camps.  Instead, he survived the war by hiding in the woods with his father and younger Brother, Beryl amidst a group of about twenty others for two and a half years.  They did not actively fight the Germans.  My father wanted to, he told me, but his father cautioned against this desire, knowing that it would bring more Germans into the woods to hunt and kill them.  My grandfather was about the sixty years old when he was in the woods with my father. 
I can barely imagine how it is possible for anyone to survive outdoors in the wintertime, with rags for clothing, and no food, in temperatures that often fell below freezing.  Sometimes, when I would push my father to synagogue in his wheel chair in the wintertime, I would bend close to his ear and say, “Was it as cold as this in the woods?” and he would laugh.
How, indeed, did my father endure those long years in the woods, I have often wondered, especially on those wintry days when even the down in my LL Bean parka can’t keep me from shivering.  My father gave the answer to my children a few years ago at the dining room table.
“Leaves,” he said.  Leaves are very warm, he told them.  He made a bed of leaves to lay upon, and a blanket of leaves to cover him.  “You would be surprised,” he said. “Leaves can keep you more warm than a blanket.” 
My father further explained that he found moisture a few feet below the earth’s surface, and was able to collect spoonfuls of water to sip.  They also had a cup to collect rainwater, but were challenged to drink from it because it had three holes.
Potatoes constituted the bulk of his diet, stolen at nights from farms along the periphery of the forest.  My father had a nickname in the woods, he told me.  It was “Two Potatoes for My Father.” 
The loving and gentle man that raised me often told me that he was, “sixteen times surrounded to death.”  I was highly suspicious of this claim when I was a boy.  I wasn’t sure if this was true, or whether it was a self-aggrandizing myth my father had developed about himself as he grew older.  But eventually, I realized it had a strong basis in reality.
I am aware of many circumstances in which my father cheated death, and helped save the lives of others, such as the time my father had hidden his father in the barn of a Polish farmer.  My grandfather had been discovered, and the barn was surrounded by the Polish police.  My father, against the dire warning of his younger brother, crept into the barn and led his father out to safety.
There was another time when he returned to his bunker only to discover that Nazis had surrounded their hideout.  My father, acting with four others, created a diversion, giving him a chance to evacuate his father and the other members of the group.  A bullet went through my father’s cap, missing his head by an inch. 
There was another story my father used to tell about the time he and his father and brother were caught between the crossfire of the retreating German army and the advancing Russians.  My father found himself in the middle of a cornfield, with bullets and missiles flying overhead for a full day, until his brother lost his composure, got up and ran in the direction of the Russians.  They all scattered, but miraculously, all made it to safety.  My father told me he found a sympathetic Russian Jewish officer who cried when he beheld my father’s pathetic appearance.  This officer commandeered a tank and helped my father find both his father and younger brother.
There was a young boy with my father in the woods.  His name was Phil Jochnowitz, and he was a first cousin to my father.  In 1998, Phil attended the 50th wedding anniversary celebration we held in our parents’ honor.  He made a short toast to my father.  Here is what he said:
There are many remarkable human beings in this room.  One of those remarkable human beings is Henry Blumner.  It’s a joy for me to be here to celebrate this wonderful milestone in his life.  You know how modest he is, how funny he is, and how he hates attention because it embarrasses him.  My name is Phil and I’m his cousin.  I’m also a holocaust survivor.  I’m witness to his extraordinary heroism during World War II.  He saved many lives and risked his life many times to save me.  We lived in the woods for 2 ½ years.  I was four years old and when the Germans were trying to kill us, I could not keep up with the adults, so Henry carried me on his shoulders.  Believe me when I tell you that I was a rotten little kid.  But you won’t be surprised that Henry always accepted me and loved me.  There is no way to repay someone who saved your life again and again.  I can only tell you, Henry, that I admire you and love you with all my heart.  Let us drink to a man among men. Henry, biz hundred und zwanzig.”
My father told me that his longevity was the reward he received for keeping his father alive during the war.  He was very proud of this fact.  He often lamented that he was not able to save the life of his mother.
G-d loved my father, and apparently this blessing extended to his immediate family, as well.  Five of the six children survived the war – my father and his youngest brother in the woods, and the others in separate concentration camps.
My mother met my father’s sister Faicha, in the Leipzig concentration camp.  My mother described Faicha as a great survivor, who was very handy with sewing.  She was always fixing a pair of slacks or something for the German girls in order to earn an extra piece of bread.  Faicha would sometimes share this extra ration wish my mother.  She said to my mother, “One day, if we survive the war, and my brother Heshe will survive the war, I would like to introduce him to you.”
And so it was.  My father’s family gathered in Kracow at the end of the war.  The smaller towns were unsafe, because the Poles were killing Jews who returned to their home towns.  My mother reached Kracow, and heard that Faicha was alive and had a family. She went to visit her, and thus the shiduchwas made.
My parents were married in Bad Ischl Austria on June 28, 1947 in the summer palace of Kaiser Franz Josef, which had been turned into a DP camp.  I have pictures of my parents in Bad Ischl.  It is here where they began to smile and laugh again.  They formed friendships with other concentration camp survivors here, while they waited for their immigration papers to the United States.  The friendships they made here replaced the brothers and the sisters and the cousins that they lost during the war, and they were to remain closely connected to them throughout their lives.
My parents arrived in New York on May 28, 1948, aboard the SS Marine Flasher, which carried holocaust survivors from Germany to New York between 1946 and 1949. 
Their first stop in the Goldeneh Medina was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But after six months of working in a mattress factory for relatives, my parents made their way to New York’s lower East Side.  My father told me that when he told his relatives of his decision to go to New York, they said to him, “But you will get lost in New York.”  To which my father replied:  “If I didn’t get lost in the woods for two and a half years, I won’t get lost in New York.”
My parents’ first apartment was an apartment on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side.  It was a 5thfloor walkup, with a bathroom outside in the hall, and the bathtub in the kitchen.  After my brother was born in 1950, they moved to into a one bedroom apartment in Union Square.  “This was already a luxury for us at the time,” my mother once recalled to me.  Eventually they moved out to the greener pastures of Queens.
Meanwhile, my father graduated from making mattresses to making table pads.  He went on to a variety of jobs in the food business, until one day a construction project across the street from the Daitch Shopwell where he was working, caught his attention.  He went outside every day to watch the construction.  Then, as legend has it, he went out and bought a set of architectural plans for a house for $50, and began his career as a builder.  He built homes in New Jersey for 40 years, until we had to retire him at the age of 75.
Life was hard for my parents in America in the early years.  They didn’t have much money, but they worked hard and saved and were satisfied with what they had.
I was always proud to be the son of Henry Blumner.  In my life I haven’t met too many people who were nicer, kinder or friendlier than my father – or my mother, for that matter.  I have countless memories of my father extending himself for others.  I don’t remember bitterness or cynicism or hostility in my house.  What I remember is empathy and good will toward everyone.  It is good to like people, as my parents did.  People who like others are liked in return.  And my parents had a great many dear friends.
My father had a wonderful uncomplicated view of life.  I remember a conversation I had with him when I was in college.  I was at a crossroads in my life, not knowing which fork in the road to take.  My father looked at me in bewilderment and said, “What’s the problem?  I don’t understand.  This is America.  There is no one shooting at you here.  You can do anything you want.”
And he always ran at an optimal level of efficiency.  He was always up at six o’clock in the mornings.  When I walked groggily into the kitchen at 10 o’clock or so on a Sunday morning, he would say to me, “Nu, so what did you accomplish today.  So far, I prayed, I did some gardening, I read the newspaper and I ate breakfast.”
My father also had a twinkle in his eye, which I believe he inherited from my grandfather.  I saw the same quality in his older brother, Nathan.  His jokes were unbearably corny.  I used to tell him that age improves the taste of wine, but had nothing for his sense of humor.  I used to rate his jokes on a scale of one to 10, usually giving him a one or two.  That would always make him laugh even harder.
Another wonderful characteristic my father had was that he never complained about anything.  He was not one to moan or kvetch.  If you asked him how he felt, he would say, simply, “fine.”  Rabbi Polakoff of the Great Synagogue was the last person to see my father alive.  On Tuesday night, October 7, he saw Rabbi Polakoff passing by his room in the intensive care unit at North Shore Hospital.  He called out to him, “Rabbi Polakoff, in here!”  Rabbi Polakoff said at the funeral service that he gave him such a hand shake, he nearly pulled him into his bed.  Rabbi Polakoff asked him how he was feeling.  How well could my father have been feeling?  He was hooked up to a million tubes.  He had pneumonia in his right long on top of an underlying condition of pulmonary fibrosis.  He was breathing with the aid of oxygen.  His heart had been jumpstarted two nights before, and he hadn’t eaten for two days.  And his answer was, “wonderful.”
My father taught me a great many things in life, not so much by instruction but by the example that he set.  One of the things I appreciated most about him was the love and respect he had for my mother. I had the chance to talk at length to my father on the last day of his life.  I asked him, “Pops, do you think you have lived a good life?”  His answer was, “Yes – because of mom.”  I said to him, “A lot of bad things happened to you during your life.”  He waved them off with his bandaged hand.
I do indeed remember my father as an exemplary husband.  My mother was the love of his life, and he always helped her in whatever way that he could.  He was not the kind of man who was embarrassed to put on an apron, though I remember him looking pretty silly in one.  He washed and dried the dishes alongside my mother at the kitchen sink, and assisted her with housework, even after a long day of work. My parents had a large network of friends – mostly survivors – and once my mother told me with a smile that the men in the group were angry at my father.  They were aware of the loving assistance my mother received from my father, and apparently he set the bar a little too high for everyone’s comfort.
His message to us about her was clear and unwavering throughout all the years of her life. “Your mother,” he always said, “is one in a million.”
When my mother passed away six years ago, I did not think at first that my father would endure her passing.  Steve and I took him to the intensive care unit at North Shore, twice a day, for three weeks, where he would kiss her hands and kiss her feet.  We sat many long hours together at her beside, and I will never forget the things he said to me about her.  “She was so good,” he said. “She was so fine.  I adored her.  I had 60 beautiful years with her.  She gave me such a good life.  She gave me beautiful children.  She was everything to me.  I was so proud that she was my wife.  I kissed her hands every day.  I love her today, I loved her yesterday, and I will love her always.  She will be on my mind until the last moment of my life.” 
And this was true.  In the three years and three months since my mother passed away, she never left his mind.   He wouldn’t let anyone sit in the chair in the dining area that she used to occupy.  He dabbed the tears from his eyes every day.
My father may have missed my mother terribly, but he did not lack perspective.  He often said to me: “I had sixty beautiful years with your mother.”  Nothing is forever.  I am grateful for what I had.”
It was hard for me to see my father without mother during the last years of his life.  To see him often caused me more pain than satisfaction. 
But there was a silver lining.  When I visited my parents while my mother was still alive, it was she who tended to dominate the conversation (as Jewish mothers often do).  My father would sit contentedly at her side, while my mother jabbered away.  But in her absence, I got a chance to connect to my father again.  I saw him almost daily, visiting him for lunch or taking him to the Samuel Field Y.  He was with me every other Sabbath, and with my brother on alternate weekends.
On Friday mornings, I would buy him the Jewish Forward, the Algemayner Journal and the Jewish Press.  On Sabbath evenings, we would sit and read together, if my girls allowed us to. He loved to talk to my wife, and arm wrestle with the girls.  This past summer, when my family was away in Israel, we had the opportunity to spend a few Sabbaths together alone.  I spoke to him about my life, about its joys and its travails, and he gave me fatherly advice.  They were two very special days, though I did not realize it until his passing.
I didn’t have the good fortune of having grandparents when I grew up.  I am forever grateful that my children knew him, that they had a chance to climb on him, to laugh at his corny jokes and shenanigans, to hear his stories about the war, and to feel his love.   I’m glad that they heard his Yiddish and his accented English.  His life was a connection to the long generations of our ancestors who lived in Europe.  He was the last link to an era that has all but disappeared.
There wasn’t a day that passed that my father didn’t tell me that he was proud of me, that I had a wonderful wife, and beautiful children.  He adored Bosmat, and the kids, of course, were the feathers in his cap.  He always told me that I was a lucky man.
The week before my father died, he reached his 95th birthday.  They had a birthday party at the Samuel Field Y on Thursday afternoon.  He was so pleased.  When I picked him up, he said to me, “They made a beautiful party for me.  We have to get them a cake or something.” I said, “Pops, it’s your birthday.  The cake was in your honor.  We don’t have to replace it.”  It was not his nature to take, but only to give.  On Thursday night, he enjoyed another birthday celebration with my brother’s family.
On that Friday night, when I picked him up before the Sabbath, I knew something was wrong.  He was very quiet, and he had more difficulty than usual walking from the car to the house.  He sat quietly at the dining room table during dinner, and dozed off after the meal.  My father was diabetic, and I was usually strict with his diet.  But on this night, I indulged him.  I had bought him a nice rich creamy birthday cake, and cut him a good slice.  We read our cards to him because he didn’t have the strength to read them himself, and the children showered his head with kisses. 
The next morning, after a difficult night, I called Hatzalah Ambulance to bring him to the emergency room.
Among the letters of condolence that we received was one from a cousin in Israel who had seen little of my father throughout his entire adult life.  Yet, her description of him was as accurate and perceptive as any that we received.  She said:
“Your father had immense wisdom, courage and capacity for loving his nearest and dearest and even strangers…he gave to each what they needed most and was grateful that he could give, could encourage, could save their lives and most of all – bring a smile to their face.  What I will remember most about your father is his jollity.  His jokes, his laughter...his cherubic face watching the mad world around him and trying to do what he could to make it better..
..and his special loving expression as he gazed upon his wife, children, and grandchildren.  You must find the strength to bear this loss and celebrate the life of a very great man, never to be forgotten by all those who knew him.”
It is hard for me sometimes to believe that my father is gone.  He always seemed so ageless, as if he could outsmart even time, itself. 
Though my heart is pained by his absence, I am grateful for the 95 years G-d gave him on this earth.
My father had a good long life.  He had a happy marriage for sixty years.  He had two sons who tended to him lovingly in his old age, and six grandchildren who adored him.  Indeed, we should all be so lucky to live such a full and satisfying life.