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The Last Survivor

By: Cecelia Margules Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My father, Morris Berkowitz, Moshe ben Zisa, would have been 99 this April 21. In my mind, in his later years – years of ebbing strength and diminished health – I came to envision my father, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, as the embodiment of “The Last Survivor,” a musical piece I composed several years ago. Both the music and lyrics were created with him in mind. The old man refuses to die, fighting his impending end of days as he laments, “Who will tell the story, who will light the flame, who will bear our legacy of pain?” This was my father’s story as he neared the end of his days.

The survivors of the Shoah are not mere mortal men; they are supermen, unlike any other. They are men of unimaginable strength, endurance and determination. They were the true heroes of the generation, men of uncommon belief and unswerving faith. Surely my father, a man of quiet power, unbelievable capacity for pain, and unwavering courage to accept his fate, epitomized that superman. During the years of my youth, he bore his past, his burden of memory, in silence. He could not, he would not talk about those painful years. The wound was still too raw, too exposed and inflamed, to unearth from its hidden place.

We, his three daughters, felt that constant sense of sadness as he quietly went about the task of living. He worked endless hours to support his family, but also as a means of escape from the agony of thought and remembrance. He spoke little, but his silence was pregnant with meaning. We knew that he loved us with all his being and would give the shirt off his back for us, but he found it difficult to emote or demonstrate that deep affection.

He lived in New York City, the world metropolis, but his heart remained on the farmlands of Carpathia where he had known the joys of childhood, family and the pastoral life of nature. He had carried the simple joys and pleasures of life across the ocean to this new and strange life in America. His wants were little, and easily satisfied. He only needed a warm bed, a tasty bowl of soup, and the warmth and comfort of his home. He delighted in fixing and tinkering around the house, whether painting, tarring or spending hours repairing a leaking roof. Never did he exhibit an ounce of laziness or resentment towards any task set before him.

While recuperating in Sweden, where he had arrived straight from the hell of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he translated his years among animals to a profession as a furrier. There he met and married my mother, a fellow survivor from Lodz, Poland, who herself had lost her entire family to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He cultivated his new craft and turned it into a lifetime livelihood. From childhood on, I delighted in watching my father as he patiently stretched the fur paws, and painstakingly put together a pelt, much like one does a 1,000-piece puzzle. What pride and pleasure he exuded with each completed coat! They were his paintings, his symphony and the masterpiece of his creation. It was a livelihood, but more so his outlet, his creative expression and intense release.

But it was shul that brought him great spiritual satisfaction and continuity in his life. He relished the Shabbos services; he savored that piece of herring at the kiddush. Infinite pleasure was derived from his role as shul gabbai, and the constant politics that went with the position. How he loved the niggun of the Siddur, the melody of the davening, which he sang in his sweet, natural voice, blessed with a perfect pitch.

My father did have one guilty pleasure. He was a master of the chessboard and almost no man could conquer him in his domain. With a gleeful twinkle in his eye, he would victoriously call out shach (checkmate) as he vanquished his contender. If only he could have called out “shach” to Hitler, Mengele, Himmler, etc. and defeated the Nazis as they invaded his home in Drahova, murdering his mother, seven brothers and sisters and their many children in Auschwitz. If only he could have cried out “shach” as he was forced to take his young family to the cattle cars for the journey to Auschwitz, as he carried his young son in his arms on the path to extinction.

These were the secrets he bore within, buried inside these many years. And then one day the dam burst and the terrible burden of his past was released in an accidental moment of truth. For my siblings and I, life would never be the same. I could never pass a day without envisioning his feisty two-year-old son on the way to his death. I could not spend a happy moment without reverting in thought to this catastrophic disruption in his bucolic existence. My father’s underlying sadness was explainable, and he had unwittingly transmitted those years of contained pain to his children. I now fathomed his years of silence, his defensive armor of survival.

As my father grew older, he began to slowly shed the layers of silent armor, as he became softer and less guarded about the increasingly distant past. He started to release the well of pent-up emotions, cautiously speaking to us of the unspoken years of torment. He unraveled fragments of the tragedy, piece by piece, experience by experience, the unspeakable losses, the many beatings, the injuries sustained, and finally the miracle of survival. Just when he and his brother thought they could not endure another day, a pack of cigarettes miraculously appeared. That pack of cigarettes, half a cigarette at a time, was his daily bribe for a piece of bread and their ticket to life till the day of liberation.

And now, back in the present, as I gazed at my father during those descending days of his life, I saw him call on those same inner resources of courage and grit that had sustained him through his tumultuous life. He never uttered a word of complaint, never cried out, despite the obvious pain he endured. He never said, “enough.” But finally his body, so frail and fragile, did say “enough.” He left this earth as quietly and humbly as he had lived. I believe the heavens rejoiced as they welcome to yet another remnant of the Shoah, another superman.

The lyrics of “The Last Survivor” continue, “. . . and the old man cried, I dare not go, I dare not die, who will testify?” I believe my father came to accept that we, his children, the children of the second generation, would bear the legacy of remembrance and the banner of “Never Again.” Finally, he could let go.

And the lyrics continue, “. . . Sleep in peace, my brother, know that when you are gone, the memory of Six Million will go on and on and on . . .”

Rest in peace, my dear precious father. Sleep in peace.

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