AN UNFORESEEN STROKE OF GOOD LUCK!
Do you still believe in miracles? Do you still believe in coincidence? How about just plain old good luck? Do you get some sort of messages from the universe, guiding you? How important is luck in your life?
Here’s a quick story about my mother, Mira, my father, Joe, my cousin Yair, and my unforeseen good luck. I plan to listen to the universe.
Mira Heinsdorf bolted straight up when she awoke in a makeshift Red Cross hospital tent outside of Linz, Austria. She last remembered stumbling out of a cattle car, barefoot, wearing dirty, tattered clothes that hung on her emaciated frame, and standing on a line with 1,000 other gaunt women, mostly naked, totally shaved, and beaten down with exhaustion and disease. Nazi guns were trained on her. She had been grasping a pair of insoles that hid her only possessions – two family photographs. But now the insoles were nowhere to be found. She panicked and screamed, but no sound came out. When she was driven out of her family home at gunpoint just a few months ago, she had to leave everything behind, but she grabbed the photos and a small piece of jewelry, a family heirloom, and hid them inside the fine leather insoles in her shoes before the butt of the rifle cracked the back of her head.
Mira was the teenaged daughter of one of five siblings, who collectively had more than two-dozen children and half a dozen grandchildren in the early 1930s. The ultra-wealthy family had descended from high nobility in Germany just a few generations ago, and they were part of the ultra-Orthodox Chassidim, the Gerers, now living in Lodz, Poland. Wealthy as they were, they were not immune to the anti-Semitism prevalent in Europe, which increased when Hitler came to power in Germany around 1932.
Around this time, two of Mira’s first cousins left Poland. She was very close to them. Dov Heinsdorf, who had rejected the tenets of Chassidism, fell in love with a secular Zionist Jew and left for Palestine. This was, to his parents and the rest of the Chassidim, as awful as the death of Dov. His parents mourned for him in the Orthodox Jewish way, by sitting shiva and rending their garments, and they were forever cut off. An older but close first cousin, Mendel Mozes, was the chief of the Warsaw Bureau of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He escaped Poland and continued on the staff of the JTA in New York. Everyone else remained in Poland.
And then, in September 1939, the Nazis marched into their town of Lodz. Systematically and savagely, the Nazis slaughtered every member of Mira’s family over the next three years, along with millions of other innocent victims. From her very large family in Poland, only she survived.
Mira spent the next 61 years suffering from survivor guilt.
“I was born under a lucky star,” sighed Mira. “In fact, if you ask a hundred survivors how they survived, ninety of them will tell you it was luck. They will all tell you they were lucky, and it is better to be lucky than smart; it is better to be lucky than anything else.”
By the late 1940s, cousin Mendel Mozes had built a family and a strong literary reputation for himself in New York. Cousin Dov Heinsdorf, along with wife Irina, helped build the nation of Israel. Mira, in the meantime, was on the mend, and when she was stable enough to travel in 1947, the Red Cross sent her to Italy to a health restoration hospital to recuperate. She had no possessions, poor health, no country, and no sense of self. She had lost everything. Then she became lucky again.
Joe Littner had survived the war along with two of his three siblings; but in the course of his “escape” from Poland to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, his mother, aunt, and other family members died of starvation or extreme weather conditions. When the Red Cross found the emaciated survivors, sick with pneumonia, weighing less than half of their normal weight, they sent them to the same hospital in Italy where Mira was recuperating. Joe’s brother Erwin and sister Rosa recovered and moved to Israel. Joe was going to join them when he met, and fell in love with, Mira. In the breathtaking beauty of the Italian Alps, they married.
By 1953, Mendel’s son, Sam Mozes, was a successful city planner in New York, and sponsored the young couple to the United States, graciously assuming financial responsibility for them until they could support themselves – which took exactly one week. Mira and Joe got jobs and settled right outside of New York City. I was born in 1954 – on 5th Avenue.
Mom, Dad and I traveled to Israel in 1968 and we were able to locate Dov and Irina Heinsdorf. There had been no communication between my mother and Dov since Dov left Poland in the early 1930s. The Heinsdorfs were very gracious to us. On one of the tables in the living room was a photograph of a small boy with glasses, but no one said anything about him, and the two couples were too distant now to ask any personal questions, such as about the photo. I took a picture of the two couples with my new Polaroid instant camera, placed it on the table near the photo of the boy with glasses, and left.
In December of 2006, Mom tripped over a chair leg and fell to the ground. Two days later she was dead. The woman who had survived six brutal years through a bloody, senseless war, the loss of everything she owned, as well as almost her entire family, was taken out by a chair leg. I mourned her death and it ripped me apart. By the beginning of 2007, I gathered myself together and decided to find Dov, my closest living relative, to relay the awful news. I typed “Heinsdorf” in the search box on Facebook, hoping to find Dov. I got over 50 hits, mostly with names such as Timothy, Christopher, and Mary – commonly Christian names. But then a “Nurit,” a Hebrew name, popped up. I wrote a message about finding Dov, with a long-winded explanation of why. Could Nurit help me find a Dov Heinsdorf? The trail went cold; I never heard from Nurit.
But two weeks later, a Yair Heinsdorf responded. Haltingly and distantly, he corresponded. “My daughter Nurit passed this message on to me.” And then – in a nice manner – “Who the heck are you?”
I explained the entire story once again, explaining who I was, and the unfortunate purpose of my contact. Two months of skepticism followed. He asked question after question, purportedly to authenticate my veracity. I was getting frustrated. Finally, Yair sent me a photo and said, “If you can tell me who two of these people are, I will talk to you freely.”
I had not seen Dov since my last trip to Israel in 1975, 33 years prior. I had no way of recognizing what he’d look like now, nor would I have remembered what he looked like then. Hesitantly, I clicked on the attachment – but then instantly smiled.
“I’m not certain who two of these four people are,” I started, “but two of them are my parents!” It was the Polaroid photo I had taken 45 years ago. I had passed his test.
“These are Irina and Dov.” And then slowly – “Dov was my father.”
“You must be the boy with the glasses in the photo!” “Yes. By 1968, I was married and out of the house already.
“My parents never told me about any family,” he said. “I only knew that everyone who remained in Poland, where my parents grew up, had been murdered in the Holocaust. My father did not want anything to do with the Chassidic family and did not tell me about your parents or you. I am sorry that your mother has passed away. Dov passed away earlier this year, but I did not know I had anyone to contact. I found this old photo when I looked through their possessions, but by then it was too late to ask them. You knew my parents existed but I did not know your parents existed. That is why I gave you such a hard time when you were just trying to find my father to talk to him. Tell me more.”
Before the end of 2013, I am planning to travel to Israel to meet Yair, my “unexpected” second cousin. The meeting will be documented along with photos and videos. Those memories will bring closure to my non-fiction narrative, Living with Ghosts: Three generations haunted by a legacy of anxiety, guilt, and fear, which chronicles the complete story of the post-traumatic stress disorder that was unintentionally passed down from generation to generation, despite the massive effort to hide the pain from the next generation.
This is, indeed, an unexpected stroke of good luck, and you know what my mother would have said: “It is better to be lucky than anything else.”