By Limor Shiponi
My father was a ‘sabre’*. When still young, his parents decided there was not enough culture over here and returned to Poland, their homeland, so their children can receive good education. They returned back here during 1936 with a large group of Jews that understood that place was for them no longer. He changed his family name from Huberman to Shiponi upon reaching a high rank in the Israeli military as was the custom those days.
That was the story I’ve heard for many years.
55 years later he returned to Poland. He joined my mother on a cultural delegation. On the only free day she had he suggested visiting his home-town, a village really. They mounted a taxi in Warsaw and after an hour and a half the taxi stopped in front of the house. He got out, looked around and asked my mother, “How did we get here? How did he know where to bring us to?” she was surprised by his question but answered anyway, “you told him exactly how to get here”. My father didn’t remember speaking polish or even knowing how to speak it fluently.
That wasn’t so many years ago. Upon returning he refused to tell what happened there during the trip or many years earlier.
He died around six years ago. A short while before he died the time was ripe to pursue a challenge given to me by Erick Shmeidler (May his soul rest in heaven. I’m sure he and my dad are having an interesting time). Erick, who besides being a gifted storyteller was also a holocaust researcher on his own behalf. “He suffers from survivor’s syndrome” was his theory, “and he will tell you nothing. You’re only chance to get anything will arrive if he meets someone like him or before he dies. If you want the story to live it is your duty and you know enough about storytelling and people to get it out of him”.
My father died of old age in my parents’ home. That was his wish. In his room in front of the bed stood a computer. One day I sat at the computer and asked him “how do you spell the name of your home-town in Polish?” since Polish spells in awkward ways. Asking my father a question that requires the demonstration of knowledge was the oldest trick in the book – he would answer immediately. Only that this time, his answer led to a surprising outcome – on his behalf. When I hit the first search entry a picture appeared – the picture of an elementary school building. He jumped from the bed and started firing words into the room which ended up being unreasonable in their amount for a person that had kept silent for so many years.
This is the real story…
He was born there. His family name was changed already there by a family member who was a school principle in the “Tarbut” network. The family didn’t have an easy life but the connections between family members were strong enough to keep them going. The person he loved most was his grandmother. One day his father decided they need to leave. The place was no longer their home. They left and a couple of years later he returned to visit his grandmother and the rest of the family. During 1938 he attended a summer camp in Warsaw. How do I know? I found the train ticket hiding in a photo album he showed me during that conversation. An album I’ve never seen before. When I found the ticket he remembered what it was for. That was the last time he saw them.
All 1,500 members of the Jewish community** from Otvotsk in Minsk-Mazowieckie were murdered the same day – all shot in the forest across the railroad passing through the village until today. Sitting at the edge of his deathbed I heard a list of names I never knew. A list of people he was silent about for many years, a list of people whom stories were cut into him. Judging by what he did through his life it’s obvious he was desperately trying to continue their stories, so they won’t be just wasted. But how many stories can a man continue? By doing – many, by telling – only one at a time. Telling one at a time was probably too painful so he did a lot.
Through all those years I’ve observed him doing, I always wondered why he seems to me like many people. Eventually I received the answer. I tell myself this story again and again and every time I tell it, it seems to me different. Maybe one day it will stabilize after all those people will stand in the light of words, all their stories told.
*’Sabre’ means – native Israeli.
**There was one survivor – David (Jurek) Plonski. His unbelievable story is told in the book ‘The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square’. David died during 2009.
Translated from Hebrew. If you can read the Hebrew, read to comments. One of them is by a family member I never knew about who figured we are relatives through the story. Never stop telling such stories, they have a purpose in the world.