You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Resistance: Camp Hemshekh and a Survivor’s Daughter

Lawrence Bush
March 30, 2009
by Margie Newman My childhood home was filled with a sense of loss and heaviness. It was as though we lived with a phantom, more an absence than a presence, never named, tiptoed around but never explored. My mother spoke of it only as “What Daddy Went Through,” “What Happened to Daddy,” or “The War.” There were signs I tried to decipher — the stiff, crooked fifth fingers on both of his hands, the brown, withered indentation on his shin, his angry silence when I tried to complete homework assignments to make a family tree, his rage at the sight of large, happy families, like the Italian-American family next door, whom he called “The Bastards,” whose only crime seemed to be having too many members and perhaps too much fun. I had no specific knowledge of what had occurred. There was no timeline, no map, not even the names of those family members my father had lost. The dense silence was interrupted by his high-pitched screams in the middle of the night, and fragments of his experience, devoid of context. My father burst forth with these fragments while I sat next to him in the basement, sewing clothes for my Barbie when I was younger, patches on my jeans when I was older, while he stitched, cut or ironed for his customers in the evening after his day’s work in the garment district. I knew the precise hues of a woolen dress — coral and aqua — that a kapo stole from a prisoner (somehow the young girl had managed to hold on to it), and how the kapo, a Polish woman with a severe limp, paraded before the Jews at roll call, strutting before them in them in her ill-gotten finery. I knew about how a fat guard (my father always puffed up his cheeks in caricature) ordered the two prisoners who dragged the vat of watery soup that was the day’s only rations, “Oysgisn, oysgisn” — pour it out. The prisoners did as the guard commanded, and overturned the cauldron. The laughing guard whipped the starving prisoners as they scrambled to lick the soup from the floor. I knew how after being marched in chains from the camp to a nearby town to work on the property of the Burgermeister, Jewish slave laborers had crumbs of bread thrown at them by school boys brought on a field trip to see them. I knew how a kapo beat my father savagely on the head — A zets nokh a zets nokh a zets — for running to grab those crumbs, and how the beating halted only when the Burgermeister’s daughter, a girl of about 14, leaned out of her window, pointed a gun at the kapo and threatened to shoot if he didn’t stop, saying, “Who do you think you are? You’re just a Jew, just like him.” I was given to understand some things by mother, who along with her family was in Uruguay during the war years and acted as a buffer between my father and my sister and me: that the Germans were responsible for “what Daddy went through,” that we mustn’t cause aggravation, make trouble, cry, no matter what, because “it reminds Daddy,” or even laugh too loud because it caused too much commotion. Daddy was fragile and was to be protected. We were to be quiet: Daddy could tell and we were to listen, but we were not to ask questions. When I was 10, in 1971, my parents sent me to a summer camp that was transformational. It was the first summer of eight that I spent at Camp Hemshekh. Founded in 1959 by a group of survivors active in the Jewish Labor Bund, Hemshekh had as its goal instilling in its campers the ideals of the Jewish socialist movement that flourished in interwar Poland: socialism, secular Yiddish culture, equality and justice, and the Bundist concept of doikayt, “hereness,” that Jews should live, build their culture and struggle for their rights wherever they dwell, rather than seeking refuge in Zionism. Many of Hemshekh’s founders, including Chaya and Shimon Palevesky, Yakov Tselemenski, and others, had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement, as couriers and partisan fighters. Memory was embedded everywhere, beginning with the camp’s name: Hemshekh means “continuation.” A banner above the stage in the hall where we performed plays and had socials implored, “Lomir Trogn Dem Gayst Vos Men Hot Undz Fartroyt” — “Let us carry the spirit that has been entrusted to us.” A small rock garden where we held campfires and meetings was named in honor of Froim Lozer, a Bundist who had fought for a small park to be built in the crowded, dirty industrial city of Lodz for workers to enjoy a bit of air after long hours in the textile factories. Even nature was pressed into the service of memory: Small wooden plaques nailed to trees bore the names Henryk Ehrlich and Viktor Alter, Bundist activists and resistance organizers murdered by Stalin’s police, and Mordechai Anielewicz, the 23-year-old commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The seventy-mile drive to the Catskills brought me to a world that was upside down. Suddenly, the things I tried to hide in Canarsie — being poor and having Yiddish-speaking, immigrant parents — became sources of self-respect and a sense of authenticity. At camp, a small, shabby house in the city was far better than a large, opulent one in the suburbs; too much material comfort could cause a girl to be saddled with the most dreaded label in camp, JAP. Better to have parents who didn’t own a car than to be the unfortunate young camper whose parents drove to camp in a Bentley; we snickered at him all summer for being capitalist. Gone was my pre-teen angst over never having enough Huckapoo shirts, platform shoes or colors of nail polish; camp fashion dictated overalls, t-shirts, workboots or Dr. Scholls, and the occasional gauzy peasant blouse. A father who spent his days at a sewing machine instead of in an office was no embarrassment; suddenly he was a member of der proletaryat (the proletariat), glorified in the songs we sang and the plays we performed. Above all else, the shame I had felt about having a father who had been in the camps, whom I thought of as a weak victim, humiliated and abused, was transformed into pride and strength. Camp facilities, though modest, included a basketball court, baseball field and paddleball wall — but the grounds included something different from other camps. Down a small slope from the volleyball court stood the Denkmol, a cinder block wall about 6’ x 5’, with barbed wire and broken glass cemented into its top. It was a replica of the wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto. Inscribed in a concrete block at the foot was the entreaty, “Gedenk Di Zeks Milyon” (“Remember the Six Million”). Some summers, the ga-ga court (Hebrew for dodgeball, and perhaps the only Hebrew word allowed in Bundist Hemshekh), consisting of benches turned on their sides to make an octagonal enclosure, was set up next to the Denkmol so that the wall served as backdrop for our crouching and dodging the big red rubber ball. The Denkmol ensured that the Six Million were never far from our minds, but on the third Sunday of every August, designated as “Ghetto Day,” remembrance reached its peak. Preparations began days before. The oldest campers readied the Denkmol, pulling up weeds and planting flowers. Out of storage came six black signposts, bearing the names in Yiddish: Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor and Ponar, three on each side of the wall, with a mosaic figure of a partisan standing at the wall’s center. The camper artist, Daniel Libeskind, became a famous architect who went on to create many more Denkmoln, including the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabruek, Germany (Nussbaum was a Jewish artist murdered in Auschwitz), Memoria e Luce (a 9/11 memorial in Padua, Italy), and Memory Foundations, the master site plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. His mosaic partisan was a young man dressed in military-style garb, triumphantly stepping out of flames, one arm thrusting a rifle, the other with fist clenched. The face was an oval devoid of features. There was a certain incongruity, most days at camp: We would spend hours learning songs about the downtrodden working class’ destiny to free the world, then sneak into the woods to smoke cigarettes and, later, pot. We would perform plays like Hirsh Lekert — a tribute to the Bundist shoemaker’s apprentice hanged in 1902 for an assassination attempt on the brutal governor of Vilne for using troops to break up a May Day demonstration and whipping the protestors — and then, in night-time “raids,” we would play “Spin-the-Bottle” and “Truth or Dare.” On Ghetto Day, however, the usually boisterous atmosphere was subdued. The day was spent in discussion, reflection, and preparation for the culminating Ghetto Night Program. Throughout the day, a boy and girl from the group of oldest campers stood vakh (watch or vigil) at the wall. Dressed in work-shirts and red bandanas, they were silent and solemn, changing shifts every hour so that the wall was never unguarded and all the oldest campers had the chance to perform this honor. Every year, I spent time at the wall, superimposing my father’s face on the mosaic’s blank oval and imaging him as a partisan. I looked forward to being old enough to stand vakh, and imagined myself as a partisan, proud and brave, standing next to my father. The Ghetto Night program, titled “Varshever Oyfshtand un Geto Akademie” (“Warsaw Uprising and Ghetto Program”), was as close we came to a religious service in the adamantly secular Camp Hemshekh. The program is so deeply fixed in my consciousness that I can recite it from memory thirty years later. It began with a bellowed command: “Z’khor! Gedenk vos es hot geton mit dayn folk der daytshisher nazi amalek” — “Remember! Remember what the German Nazi Amalek did to your people.” It closed with a pledge that we chanted in unison: “To remember and remember and remember for all time.” This was followed by a call and response: “Let there be no forgetfulness! No forgetfulness! Let there be no dimming of memory! No dimming of memory! Let the memory be clear as glass, cold as ice and bright as a diamond.” The Ghetto Night Program included the heartrending, such as the untitled poem that concluded: “The hands of the killers/Broke the locked hold/Of our mother’s mad embrace/It was all in vain/The frantic cries/The murderer-hands clawed our flesh/Hurled us against the wall/To instant death.” It included the gruesome, like Yuri Suhl’s “The Permanent Delegate”: “I am the spasm of a body convulsed in flames, the crumbling of a skeleton, the boiling of blood,” and the macabre, such as Aaron Zeitlin’s “Kinder fun Majdanek” (“Children of Majdanek”): “Kopele, where is your head? Where is the light of your eyes?” At its heart, however, the program was a tribute to resistance. Much of the text was taken from Never to Forget: the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, written by Howard Fast and William Gropper, published in 1946 by the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, I.W.O. These readings, along with the up-tempo, bold songs like Shmerke Kaczergin-ski’s Yid Du Partizaner — “Fun di getos tfise vent/in di velder fraye/anshtot keytn oyf di hent/kh’alt a biks a naye!” (“From the ghetto’s prison walls/into the free forests/Instead of chains on my hands/I carry a new rifle!”) — allowed me to think of Jews in the ghettos and camps as heroes rather than victims, in control, brave and strong. Prior to Hemshekh, I knew nothing of the resistance movement. Learning of it was a powerful antidote to the humiliation and shame I felt about my father’s travails. Although I had always known on some level that I was unjustly blaming the victim, I couldn’t make myself feel differently, even though I was ashamed of my shame. After the program, everyone walked under an arch of torches held by the oldest campers to the Denkmol. One boy and one girl were chosen for the honor of standing night vakh, the red light of the torches casting a fiery glow on their faces. We stood in silence, sang songs from the program, then filed back to our bunks. After “lights out,” the cabins were filled with uncontrollable weeping and sobbing. The camp mother, a lovely woman with a number tattooed on her forearm that we saw every day as she handed out milk and cookies and filled our canteen orders with Nutty Buddies, BB Bats, and Twizzlers, went from bunk to bunk, carrying a flashlight to make her way between cabins to comfort us. Even then, I sensed the dissonance of someone who had endured the camps charged with soothing children who had led, for the most part, lives that were safe and comfortable. The next day, the Denkmol again stood alone, the signs and the mosaic partisan returned to the storage shed. Camp was slightly quieter than on other days, but the usual tenor returned — an amalgam of socialist idealism, adolescent sex and drugs, sports and Yiddish culture. Having participated in the Ghetto Memorial Program every summer from age 10 to 17, I turned its story into a tale of my father as a ghetto fighter, throwing Molotov cocktails, ambushing Nazis, blowing up bridges and supply trains, standing up heroically against the Nazi might. Since all I had from him were fragments, there was more than enough empty space to allow myself these fantasies, which were easier to carry than thinking of him chained, breaking rocks to widen German roads, being beaten by a kapo, or standing in terror of being the tenth man in line, the one who would be “finished.” The Camp Hemshekh program did not reflect my father’s experience, but it provided me with a story I hungered for, quite literally a script that served to put an end to my attempts to piece together the fragments I caught, gleaned or extracted from my father to form some sort of whole narrative. It wasn’t until well into my adulthood that I learned my father’s full story, as completely as it could be told, with the places of his captivity and the names of those closest to him whom he lost. He was a slave laborer from 1939 to 1945: in the ghetto of Cmielow, Poland, the Skarzysko-Kamienna slave labor camp, the HASAG Czestochowa slave labor munitions factory, and finally in Buchenwald, until the liberation on April 11th, 1945. He lost his parents, Kopl and Perl Najman; his sister Rukhl Khaye and her husband Yosl Fenekel and their two-year-old son, Hershl; his sister Leah Gitl; as well as aunts, uncles and cousins, his sweetheart, friends, and all but a few of Zawichost’s approximately two thousand Jews. I learned this only by questioning my father aggressively, against his fierce resistance. I pried the information from him in defiance of my mother and sister’s anger — they preferred that the phantom remain undisturbed — when my need to know the whole instead of just the shards of his stories became greater than my guilt at stirring his demons. In 1995, as part of my effort to learn my father’s history, I convinced him to be interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s Survivor’s of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. On the videotape, as my father describes how he and others were loaded onto a truck for transport to the Skarzysko-Kamienna slave labor camp, the interviewer asks him if he and the others were aware of what awaited them. He answers that they were. The interviewer pauses and asks, “Did anybody resist?” My father’s face clouds, the question clearly causing him pain. After a few moments of silence, he responds, “Resist? Who could resist? Every day, we were looking day and night, we saw the machine gun in front of us.” There I had it, for the first time clearly: He was not a partisan, not a resistance fighter, was never in the Warsaw ghetto. He never blew up supply trains, never revolted, never escaped. I know now that his survival was his resistance. While growing up, I had always thought of him as weak and fragile. I now understand the magnitude of strength and courage it took to stay alive, to endure, to evade the myriad of strategies and tactics devoted to his destruction. My father passed away almost two years ago on April 19th, the anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Though I’ve long stopped believing in signs and wonders, I can’t help but attach meaning to the fact that he died on this date. Because my father was a complicated man, it’s fitting that the precise meaning eludes me for now, though I ponder it often. Margie Newman lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband David Unowsky and her son Owen. Her work has appeared in Outlook magazine, Dislocate, the American Jewish World and the Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.