Reading books aloud to her now 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, David Prince, led Frances to write one of her own.
Her book is memoir and oral history. It encompasses the Holocaust. It focuses on rebirth, resilience and determination. It takes on the form of intergenerational conversations and it attests to the power of books and reading.
By reading memoirs of the experiences of other Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, David was prompted to recall his own experiences which he shared with Frances.
This extract is from their reading of Hiding Places: A Mother, a Daughter, an Uncovered Life, Diane Wyshogrod Published by Excelsior Editions, 2012. Diane Wyshogrod has written the story of Helen (Lutka) Rosenberg Wyshogrod, her mother.
We read about Lutka’s charmed childhood. She was born in 1925. So was Dad. That makes it easy for him to place himself within the narrative. He doesn’t need to do his stop-and-start interruptions: “What year is it again? How old is she?” He doesn’t need to search for experiential ‘parallelism’. Lutka was an only child. We learn about her parents and extended family members. She was educated by nuns at a Catholic primary school. We enjoy reading about her childhood.
I ask Dad to tell me about his Lodz childhood. I already know bits and pieces. I am hoping for some new snippets. “Start with school,” I suggest. Maybe a framework will help order his memories. He began at the Fajnhaus School at 26 Zawadska Street. He lived at 17 Zawadska Street. A short walk. This private Jewish school, founded by Lithuanian Jews, operated according to the Litvak tradition which is known for a certain intellectual approach to Jewish learning and a specific Hebrew pronunciation in prayers. Dad loves displaying his knowledge of this Litvak enunciation. However, to the unfamiliar listener, it is nearly impossible to discern from any other rendition.
Then, after grade two, Dad went to the state school at 21 Wolczanska Street. State school number 123. Dad explains, “This was the best school that was close to us. What do I mean by ‘the best’? I’m not talking about the quality of the teachers, but the quality of the kids. There were less ‘lobbuses’ there than at the other nearby school my parents considered.” ‘Lobbuses’ is the plural of ‘lobbus’, the Yiddish word for a little rascal or cheeky, mischievous kid. “A better class of children were at my school,” Dad concludes. He went to school six days a week from 8am to 1pm. He remembers the name of the principal. Pan (Mr) Lewkowicz. I am thrilled when he adds, “I remember where his office was in the school.” Even though it was a state school, every single student was Jewish. Every teacher, bar one, was Jewish. This is what it meant to be a Jew in Lodz before the war. As an addendum, Dad says, “Next door to our school was the Hochsteinover Girls’ School. This was a very poshy school.”
This is an appropriate segue into Mum’s schooling in Warsaw. She went to a very ‘poshy’ school. The Perla Wubinska Jewish School for Girls. Her mother and her aunts had all gone to the same school. This was the alma mater of the women in the extended Gringlas family. My mother’s Jewish history teacher became very famous. He was Dr Emanuel Ringelblum, the Jewish historian who instigated the Oneg Shabbat underground archive that recorded virtually all that is known about the Warsaw Ghetto. Many years ago, when I was studying all about him and telling Mum about his amazing contribution to Jewish history, she laughed uproariously. She told me that he was the worst teacher she ever had. He couldn’t address the class without his spittle flying over all the girls in the front row. The girls behaved disgustingly, doing their utmost to ridicule this great scholar. I came to the conclusion that, as an academic, Emanuel Ringelblum had to supplement his income by teaching these spoilt Jewish girls. Recorded history and private memories don’t always coalesce.
Back to Dad. I wonder about his Jewish education. I understand it was possible to have a Jewish life by merely inhaling the Lodz air, but even in that intense Jewish milieu, a child needs some formal instruction. Dad tells me that a tutor came to their home about twice a week to teach him and Uncle Heniek Modern Hebrew and the prayers.
Dad’s one precious year of secondary school took place at the Szwajcer School. Its full formal name was Gimnazjum Oswiecenia Kultury I Oswiaty. Google Translate tells me that this means ‘Junior High School Enlightenment of Culture and Education.’ What an imposing and ambitious name. Dad thinks that ‘Szwajcer’may have been the name of the founder. Dad explains that high school lasted four years. The final two years were called a lyceum. “We had the usual subjects: maths, Polish, geography, history and Hebrew.”
I love the fact that Dad considers Hebrew one of the ‘usual’ subjects on par with maths and geography. This is a value that I share with Dad. I have always considered the study of the Hebrew language, for my own children, to be equally important as all their other subjects.
Dad continues, “We had a choice between English and German. I did German. I can’t remember if that was my decision or that of my parents. It ended up being a good decision because of my later studies in Munich.” This reinforces my opinion that Dad’s facility with languages is extraordinary. Learning German for one year, in Year 7, somehow assisted him to study at the Ludwig Maximilian University. Most impressive.
Dad tells me about his German teacher at the Szwajcer School, Fraulein Dr Schochter. When I ask whether she was Jewish, he answers, “Of course!” As if she could have been anything else. Dad tells me he knows one other person who would also remember her.
“Who on earth is that?” I ask.
“Wolf Deane.” Wolf lives in Melbourne and is one of the survivors who participates in our annual Lodz Ghetto Commemoration which takes place every August at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne. I am part of a small multi-generational committee that has been organising the memorial event for the last fifteen years or so. Wolf attended Szwajcer School in the same one year as Dad. But he was in the English rather than the German language stream. Nevertheless, “I am sure he would remember Fraulein Dr Schochter,” asserts Dad. Wolf’s son, John Deane, is also on the Lodz Ghetto Commemoration committee.
The Szwajcer School was about a 20-minute walk from home. Today, the building is part of the University of Lodz. I know that my uncle Heniek went to a different school. I ask Dad about this. It was a state school called Kupieckie Gymnasium. This translates as ‘salesmanship’. Dad says it was sort of a business school. “It was very hard to get into.” I’m not sure if he is referring to scholastic difficulty or Jewish difficulty. He clarifies that it is the latter. He continues, “There were six Jewish kids in his year, including him. That was it.” Then Dad whispers, “My father had to use ‘protectsia’ to get him in.” The term ‘protectsia’ refers to accessing connections who can pull strings for you. A strict number of Jews were allowed entry into this school, so my grandfather had to pull in favours to get his son enrolled. The whispering? I guess you never know who might be listening.
I love trying to pronounce the Polish words in all these books: places or people or particular foods. Dad corrects me after each attempt. I don’t seem to get any of them right. And that’s after growing up hearing Polish daily. Szodmaysker, Wolczanska, Oswiecenia, Oswiaty, Kupieckie—they all defeat me.
I know Dad’s standard description of his youthful activities. It is part of his regular testimony to students at Melbourne’s Holocaust Centre: “What were 14-year-old kids doing? Hanging around other kids, skating in winter, soccer in summer, running 400m and 800m races, indoor gym and chatting up girls.” This last activity always gets a snigger from his young audience.
Today I ask, “What else did you do?”
“Collected stamps,” he answers. I already know this too. And then he adds, “I tried to learn the trombone, the small alto trombone. There was a school orchestra. I tried out for it. I have no musical talent.” He looks at me with a twinkle in his eyes, “But I loved walking around with it, in its special bag. I carried it as if I could play it. I was a show-off with the alto trombone I couldn’t play.” This is today’s little gem.
GIFT OF TIME. DISCOVERIES FROM THE DAILY RITUAL OF READING WITH MY FATHER
By Frances Prince. Published by Real Film and Publishing, 2021
Book launch details here