I lit a tall stick of incense today for my uncle who passed away some years ago. His name was Simcha Singer. The ch is soft, as in my Hebrew name, Chava. Simcha means joy.
My family, like others, has lost people over the years, but many of the cousins of my generation, on the maternal side, feel they owe a special debt—in fact, their lives—to this uncle.
How to describe him? He was born two years ahead of my mother to a poor Jewish family in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia. The brother and sister, two siblings among 11, with a mother who could give but little individual attention, hung out a lot together.
He looked down from the roof when the Nazis entered Bratislava in the middle of the night in 1944 (the second time they came in), woke up the family, and took them into a rarely used room in the very back of the basement of their apartment house. Once they were safely inside, he shut the doors on them and piled up wood, boards, and thrown-away objects so that it would look uninhabited. Other families from the building rushed downstairs into the basement proper, were discovered, and sent to Auschwitz. No one discovered the family behind the hidden door.
Rather than taking shelter, my uncle, around 18 at the time, leaped from roof to roof and knocked on as many windows as possible to tell people that the Nazis had come in and to save themselves. There are some funny stories about those hours, too, that I won’t detail now.
He had planned for the Nazis’ arrival for a while.
“I tried to talk to Abba (Dad) about it but he never liked to listen to me, he had other favorites among his sons,” he told me many years later.
He had met a non-Jewish construction worker who had a cellar in his house. That’s where the family hid out. The cellar was so low, damp, and crowded they could only sit huddled inside, unable to stand. They were finally discovered by the Nazis.
“I think it was a Jewish man from somewhere else who joined us for a short while,” my mother remembered. “We were found right after that, they knew exactly where to go to find us. They probably caught him and promised him his freedom if he’d tell them where he’d been, not that they ever had any intention of keeping their bargain.”
It was often my mother who was sent out to get food because she was more Aryan looking, but her brother also sneaked out though he looked as dark and Jewish as could be. Their toddler nephew, his mother killed at Auschwitz, was being hidden and raised by a non-Jewish woman in the country, and she insisted on being paid monthly. Month after month, regardless of what happened to the family, one of them had to get to her and make that payment.
My uncle was caught more than once, even tortured, but he had a way of evading his captors. Once he was put on a train to a concentration camp, and as soon as the train pulled away, he started whittling away at the heavy wooden door, trying to create an opening big enough to escape through it.
“The others there were afraid of the guards,” he remembered. “I told them I had to pay for my nephew; besides, we had nothing more to lose.”
The story of that escape is even more bizarre, complex, and inspiring than I can relate right now. Books and books can be published about the heroism of people who were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. My mom is no slouch in that department, either.
When I was a child, I looked at him as a hero; I think we all did. It was hard to believe that this thin, diminutive man had done so much; we felt we owed him our lives.
It took my uncle a long time to settle into his own life in Israel. He had a family but not a particularly happy marriage. He opened up an appliance store which made money and bored him, so he tried many different things, investing in various companies, and even traveled through Asia as an arms dealer, purchasing American weapons abandoned in Vietnam and selling them to other bidders.
There was a time when he dreamed of leaving everything and everyone, going away to Argentina, and starting anew. There was always that restlessness about him, searching the horizon for new ventures. But he stayed put, went to class, and learned how to be comfortable with computers.
The final stage of his life was characterized by a small series of strokes. My mother, who adored him above all other men, couldn’t understand it. “What’s wrong with him?” she’d say. “Why doesn’t he do something?”
But he was through doing things. He was a grandfather, a family patriarch, and I think he found happiness there.
According to my count, he died some eight years ago. Time goes by and it’s hard to keep track. The marker on his grave acknowledges the sacrifices he made to save Jews from death.
Between him and my mother, I feel I’ve lived in the shadow of heroism and self-sacrifice from the time I was born. Given the stories I grew up on, Mother Goose and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales paled in comparison. Children’s stories and books had no interest for me. I was proud of this family. You read and watch TV about courage, I used to say silently to the other kids around me, but our family’s the real thing.
I grew up wishing I could prove myself as they had. I’m very, very lucky not to be challenged in that way. I know what a blessing it is to have daily, uninterrupted routines.
“So, what’s new?” my mom asks in our daily phone calls.
I try to comb through the day to find something to entertain her, but finally I say: “Nothing, mom. Nothing’s new. We’re closed up, just like you.”
“Why?” she wonders, because she can’t remember.
Nothing’s new. What a privilege, how special! Even with covid around, there is no enemy with boots and guns at the door, no deportations, no need to hide. Others experience that—it’s why I help immigrant families—but that’s not my karma right now. No need to feel afraid. I miss certain things, and at the same time relish the ordinary routines of daily life: get up in the morning, shower, sit, coffee, greet the dogs, check the news and emails, look at the calendar to see what’s up for me that day, get to work.
Is there a greater blessing than that?