There comes a time in life when people start reading obituaries. For me, that began several years ago, and it continues to this day. I’ve met some pretty interesting people that way. Too bad I was late.
I recently read about the life of a man named Norman Katz and wished I had known him. Mr. Katz spent three of his 88 years with his father and aunt in the woods of Lithuania, hiding from the Nazis In 1951 he came to the United States, where he found freedom and opportunity.
Our family had its own version of Norman Katz, my Cousin Chaim. Like my Firestone grandmother, he was from Dereczyn, Poland. As the Nazis approached their village, he led his wife Lisa, and their sons Martin and Stephen, into the forest. It was 1943. Martin was 8, Stephen was 4. They moved continuously, mostly at night, and during much of that time the father carried the younger son on his back. Fortunately, he was a bear of a man.
They remained in hiding for two years, and like Mr. Katz they survived the Holocaust. In 1947, they left the displaced persons camp and came to Claremont, where my cousins entered Bluff School without a word of English and lived with my grandparents for a year. Chaim and Lisa went to New York, where his sister Romaine lived. (She got out in 1938, just in time, as I wrote two years ago in “My Cousin Romaine and a Letter from the Old Country.”) Chaim and Lisa opened a small store, and the boys joined them there at the end of the school year. They grew up, attended college, married and had children.
In the late 1970’s, NBC broadcast a four-part mini-series called “The Holocaust.” A few months later, I attended the bar mitzvah of my Cousin Martin’s son. After the ceremony we gathered at Martin’s home, located in one of New York City’s nicest suburbs. We stood around the swimming pool while the catering staff passed hors d’oeuvres. Cousin Chaim came over to me.
“So, Choi (Joey),” he asked in his heavily accented English, “Did ya see ‘The Holocaust?’” “Yes, Cousin Chaim,” I replied. He looked at me. “Vat did you tink?” “It was horrible,” I answered. “I vant ya t’ imagine someting a tousand times verse.” “I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “Vell,” it’s OK, Choi, because ya still vouldn’t know how terrble it vas.”
The movie Schindler’s List came out in 1993. Martin called and asked if I had seen it. I hadn’t. “My father was my Schindler,” he said. I saw the movie that night.
Lisa died first. At Chaim’s funeral, the young rabbi regretted that he hadn’t known my cousin, but he would do his best to convey a sense of the man, based on his conversations with Martin, Stephen and Romaine. The rabbi said that this man had led a quiet life, content to raise his family and count his blessings. In every person’s life, the rabbi went on, there comes a time when you are called upon to do something important. For Chaim, that time was 1943, and he was called upon to save his family. As the rabbi described those two years in the woods, I looked at the backs of two heads, Martin’s and Stephen’s, and wondered, “What must they be thinking?”
“One person of integrity can make a difference,” according to the well-known writer, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Mr. Katz surely did, to his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and to all who knew him. The same is true of my Cousin Chaim. I think of him often, especially at Thanksgiving.