blogitto ergo sum

November 11, 2010

#160 – My dad’s name isn’t Jakob Wagner

My dad’s name isn’t Jakob [Yaakov] Wagner

Everyone who knows my dad, knows him as wagner.  To his biological dad however, he was Schwartzblatt.  The Germans/WWII eliminated Yitzhak Schwartzblatt , the grandfather I didn’t have.  The grandfather I had was called Moshe Wagner, the best grandfather one could wish for.  He had to die before we – his four grandchildren – found out he was our grandfather by choice.  I should state it again, he was the best grandfather one can wish for, and he was MY grandfather.

Yet this is not about him.  My dad’s wasn’t born a Wagner, yet that’s the name he goes by.  And there’s guilt, and deep buried memories and nightmares and lots of stuff I don’t know and probably will never find out.

My older brother is Yitzhak Wagner; one of my younger brothers added Schwartzblatt to his name, and that’s about as much remembrance there is.  Oh, there’s the plaque on a memorial wall of their eliminated hometown community somewhere in Givataim.  I even went with them once.

This all started with a nice Friday dinner in Israel with a Romanian majority [Romanian refers to place of birth].  Somehow, the conversation parked for a while on identity issues.  The other Israeli and I pointed out that we are more Israeli than the Romanians, who’ve been living in Israel for the past 30 years or so.  It was taken as an offense.  A major one too.  we talked about Israeli folk dancing and sing-along, two common popular pastimes,  very Israeli indeed.  Everyone has to go through it at some point in life; high school, university, scouts… Somehow, at some point in your life, you’ll end up in the middle of an Israeli folk dancing circle.  Not knowing HaGashash Hahiver idioms, language and classical acts was brought up too.  We then pointed out that “your first language isn’t Hebrew”, “you don’t read in Hebrew”, “at home, you don’t speak Hebrew” and so on.  Volume and tempers were going up; the Romanian observer [visiting, lives in the US] across the table from us took pictures of our heated discussion.   The Romanian answer, other than accusing me of being or becoming an American was “I MADE the decision to live here, I MADE this my home, therefore I’m an Israeli”.

“Your passport, your citizenship is Israeli, that’s true.  But the essence of being an Israeli, the language, the culture is not.”  It didn’t sit very well.  M. shifting to a “peace talks” approach, offered “you are not a typical Israeli” as a better, less offending phrasing of the point discussed.  It was accepted.

A morning later, @ breakfast, I asked my mom if she gets offended when told she is not an Israeli.  “No”, she said.  “But I got offended and hurt when called “olah hadasha” [Heb. new immigrant] when we just got here after the war” [1949].  “Why?”, I wonder, “you were indeed olah hadasha.”

[Before continuing, PLEASE READ NOTE @ BOTTOM]

“We were promised that we were going home, where we belonged.  All these Israeli emissaries who came to visit us, talked about how we’ll be welcomed with open hands.  They said we’ll be coming HOME, our HOME.  Instead, we were placed in a town where everyone was new, not local, not an Israeli, struggling for survival and settling down, finding its place.  No one welcomed us, and we were called ‘soap’.  Can you imagine this?  I never forgave that.”

“Did it ever occur to you that they were calling you “soap” as in the Hebrew slang, and it had nothing to do with the human soap”, I dared to ask.

Silence.

“Yes, maybe.”

“Was it common knowledge at that point?” I asked.

“Yes.”  “No.”  It seems that my parents are not really sure.  Interesting.  I grew up on this story, of how my mom was offended and hurt upon her arriving in Israel.  Given that her older sister was shipped earlier to serve in the army, something that in their mind was linked [not to say a pre-condition] to bringing them all “home” didn’t help.

“They had to know” my father says.  “Your grandma even brought soap to burial. “

“What?!”

“Yes, when we were living in Karkur, she gave that piece of soap and they buried it with Kadish and all.”

This takes some digestion.  “Grandma brought Jewish soap to be buried here?”

“Yes!”

It’s rare that the puzzle called my dad’s past get a new piece added.  takes years.

“Do you feel guilty for not using your own dad’s last name?” [logic: funeral for a soap, nothing about your own dad?!

“I couldn’t do it as long as your grandfather was alive”.  This is the only answer I ever got to this question.  Mind you, as long as my grandfather was alive [until 1979] I didn’t know that he wasn’t.  however, my grandfather had been dead for 31 years and two months.

“What will you want your tombstone to say?” I push.

“Wagner I guess.” Pause.  “You know that Shai [brother] changed his last name, right?”

“Yes, I know, but this is about you now.”

You see, he doesn’t talk. Not about this.  Yet he feels that we don’t want to listen.  What a great defense mechanism.

I left Israel asking my dad to spend his time writing his story.  I doubt he ever will.  And I’ll say nothing about the emotional cost of not being completely who you are.  Not making peace with your past ghosts and demons, let alone your own father.

I know he went through hell and shit [literally, when he was in the ghetto.  no, i don’t know the name or location of this ghetto, since he won’t talk] and survived.  I know his mom – my grandma- is the one that pulled him away and they escaped on the day the ghetto was “cleaned” of his condemned residents.  there’s no story though.  it’s bits and pieces and broken memories that somehow escaped, sneaked out. I know that it’s unlikely that he’ll ever share the complete story.

Is he an Israeli?  unlike my mom, unless you know it for a fact, you’d never suspect he wasn’t born Israeli.  denial is yet another defense mechanism.  no one asks you about your past if they assume they “know” it.

What do i do now?  I stare at the monitor, debating with myself  if i should publish this post on a Thursday or on a Friday.  without much thought i  click on their name on my Skype contact list.   it rings forever, and i visualize my dad slowly dragging his feet towards his home office where the computer is.  i managed to get as far as asking “so, what’s going on with your writing?  did you write anything yet?”

“I don’t know”  he said. “and, to be honest, I don’t have much desire.”  my mom join the conversation.  “where did he go” I demand to know.  “he went to measure his blood pressure” is the unsatisfactory answer.  “WTF.  Tell him that I’m not going to hang up until he comes back.”

that worked.  then, as unpredictable as life can be , what I would have never anticipated happened!!!  after 15 minutes of his best performance of “let me change the subject on you and distract you”, we are talking.  and I get more than I ever got.  until he breaks down and cries, like you never want to hear your dad cries.  NEVER.

I typed as fast as I could.  I’ll share the story once it’s cleaned up… once I found some historic facts for background if I can find any… I’ll get to it once I’ll be done crying myself.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

IMPORTANT:

Many survivors believe that among their unimaginable crimes, during WWII the Germans were making soap out of Jewish human fat.  Researching for this blog, I wanted to find out more about it. I heard it from my parents time and again, and wanted an independent reference. The links below, among others i found, lead me to believe that this wasn’t the case.  there is no evidence of mass production of soap from human fat, but there was evidence of experimental soap making.

Independently, the word “soap” in Hebrew was used as a derogatory term for nerds, those without any tan… very uncool.  easy to be called one and hear the other. and the survivors who arrived in Israel from Europe, were indeed pale and un-tan, anything but the proud Israeli outdoor type.

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28 Comments »

  1. Powerfully written, to say the least. I hope telling the story helps your father gain the peace of mind he justly deserves. And that it brings the two of you closer.

    Comment by Paul — November 11, 2010 @ 08:18 | Reply

    • thanks. for the past hour or so he’d been looking for the correct spelling of his hometown so i could search for it. and he promised that while he couldn’t and won’t continue the conversation even when he stopped crying, he will in few days. and you know I’ll call and ask, and ask until i get more, right?

      Comment by yael wagner — November 11, 2010 @ 08:25 | Reply

  2. wow

    Comment by ant — November 11, 2010 @ 09:38 | Reply

  3. Impressive writing.
    However, on the question of “Jewish soap”, what little research I did shows this does have some truth in it,
    and can’t be dismissed as 100% not true. It seems the Germans at least experiented with it.
    for example, look at the relevant Wikipedia entry and the sources it cites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soap_made_from_human_corpses

    Comment by Michael Orr — November 11, 2010 @ 11:11 | Reply

    • Thank you. You are correct of course, as [almost] always 😉
      D. called my attention to 2 of the links having hidden agenda. i updated the blog and replaced the links. there was indeed experimental manufacturing, never turned industrial/mass production.

      Comment by yael — November 11, 2010 @ 11:35 | Reply

  4. This is an impressive story. Issues of identity are always difficult to talk about for many people and especially difficult for Jews and Israelis who survived the Holocaust or their descendents, and who changed their home from a country and continent where their ancestrors lived for century to a new, dynamic, challenging but sometimes also rough and difficult place as Israel is. Making judgments about other people identities is always to be avoided in my opinion, it’s a very personal thing, and a very important thing for many people. Everybody should be let to speak for himself or for herself.

    Comment by Dan Romascanu — November 11, 2010 @ 21:33 | Reply

  5. So some would call your father a Romanian 🙂 Czernowitz a.k.a. Cernauti was part of the Romanian province of Bukowina between 1918 and 1940. Then it became part of the Soviet Union following the division of Europe between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union conlcuded by von Ribbentrop and Molotov (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov%E2%80%93Ribbentrop_Pact). He must have survived the deportation camps in Transnistria as my father did, where all the population of Bukowina and Bassarabia (now the Republic of Moldova) and part of the population of the Romanian Moldova were deported. Less than half of them survived.

    Comment by Dan Romascanu — November 12, 2010 @ 04:42 | Reply

    • not really, i mean not according to the research I’ve already done. i have no problem having Romanian roots and heritage, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
      “The town may be listed under Ukraine, Poland, Russia (USSR), or Belarus (White Russia). Variations on the name include: Vladimerec, Vlodimiretz (Yiddish), Wladimirets (German), Volodymyrets (Ukranian) and Wlodzimierzec (Polish).”
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volhynia
      Vladimerec was the big town in the area. My dad’s hometown – woronki – was about 8 KM away and much smaller. my dad says he was the only kid in that little village.
      however, with all due respect to history, this is going to be my dad’s story, not a historical research.

      yes, i will look for data, background, photos… but my challenge, my goal is to get and share his story, the way he remembers it.

      Comment by yael wagner — November 12, 2010 @ 05:51 | Reply

      • yes, i will look for data, background, photos… but my challenge, my goal is to get and share his story, the way he remembers it.

        Good for you, Yael. Over the years I’ve realized ‘truth’ is incredibly and uniquely personal, and people all remember things differently. If this is what your dad needs to be able to live in peace with himself, then more power to him — and to you for enabling this.

        As Toni Morrison noted, “Fact can exist without human intelligence but truth cannot.”

        Comment by Collie — November 12, 2010 @ 11:13

    • almost forgot, there was a ghetto in Vladimirets. its condemned residents were led to their final destination on Friday, 28 August 1942, in the nearby Zhulkin Forest.

      Comment by yael wagner — November 12, 2010 @ 06:21 | Reply

  6. Wow.

    My mother’s maiden name is not Sarah Solomon (as I put in all the security questions…) but Sarah Klinger. The story is virtually the same. From the history, down to the inability to recount it, 65 years later.

    Just like you, me and my sisters are trying to get the stories out of her, for many years. But sometimes sometimes I think my desire to know is egoistic, and that her suppressing it serves a purpose, and we should not change that.

    Comment by Nadav — November 12, 2010 @ 10:15 | Reply

    • gave it some thought. more so after we spoke. so far it seems that my dad got an energy boost out of his sharing. if i am to take one thing from our conversation today, it is to be careful and not to push harder than what he wants to be pushed and can deal with. yesterday is was ten, maybe 15 minutes, lets see if he’ll repeat it. meanwhile he have been looking for maps and in the past 24 hours we spoke more than we speak in a week or so. i think it’s a good thing.
      and i will be conscious not to do the selfish thing.
      thanks.

      Comment by yael wagner — November 12, 2010 @ 18:22 | Reply

  7. אני אכתוב בעברית. אמא שלי ספרה לי פעמים רבות איך כינו את הניצולים “סבונים” והכוונה היתה כמובן להעליב. זה היה בשנים הראשונות. מאוחר יותר כשכבר ידעו יותר, המנהג הפסול הזה דעך. לא סתם אמא שלך זוכרת את זה בזעזוע.
    הלוואי שאבא שלך באמת יספר לך – אבל אני לא חושבת שאת צריכה למצוא תימוכין לדבריו בשלב הזה. למה להיות כל כך דידקטיים? למה צריך תמיכה? כשהוא סוף סוף יספר, מי שחווה את הדברים כילד, הוא יספר מה שנטבע בו אז והעיבוד שהזכרון והאישיות עשו למאורעות.
    אולי אחת הבעיות בלספר זה החשש להיות “רחוק מהאמת ההסטורית”
    האם ארוע כמו שקרה באמת זה מה שהכי חשוב, או מה זה השאיר באדם, הצלקות שזה שרט בו, ואיך צלקות אלו מחספסות את החיים של הסובבים אותו?!..

    Comment by Ahuvik — November 15, 2010 @ 07:41 | Reply

    • agree with you 100%. however, there’s a part of him that wants history’s backing. we both know +ima of course, that what matters is his story, his experience. and are working on it.
      here, history will be playing 2nd violin or 3rd, never in the forefront.

      can you get your mom to read it?

      Comment by yael wagner — November 15, 2010 @ 08:14 | Reply

  8. My personal experience is that it is not easy at all for people who survived the Holocaust to open and share their experiences. I lived through this with my father. He was deported as a young boy in the work camps in Transnistria. These were not death camps, but ghettos and hard work camps were the Romanian government (which was an ally of Nazi Germany) deported the Jews from some arias under Romanian control. Around 250,000 Jews never returned from there. He was in the camps for two years period in which the family did not know if he was alive or not. Only two boys of the 100 deported from his town returned, and my father was one of them. He did not want to talk for many years about what happened there, and actually never told it all. I actually knew more than my mother, as he opened to me on some of the details very late a few months before I made alyah to Israel and at a time when he knew he was terminally ill. But he also told me that he will never tell some other details and that he may have intentionally buried part of the pain he went through.

    Comment by Dan Romascanu — November 15, 2010 @ 08:28 | Reply

    • thank you Dan for sharing.
      from the few people who have parents/survivors and shared their experiences, it seems that many survivors, just like your father, are willing to share as their life is almost over. TBH, my dad’s “life expectancy” was indeed part of the conversation before my dad started talking. yes, i was the one who brought it up, and yes, it’s a legitimate topic in our discussions.
      did you ever ask [as a kid, youth…?]

      Comment by yaelol — November 16, 2010 @ 20:04 | Reply

      • Did I ever ask? Yes, and the answers were different at different periods in time, and the story was not simple. In Romania Communism almost immediately followed Fascism. The Holocaust in Romania was during the Communist regime some kind of a state secret, a taboo subject, because many of the war crimes including the extermination of approximately half of the Jewish population of Romania were perpetrated by the Romanian army and government. Survivors were intimidated into silence, no excuses were made, no compensations were paid, as all other survivors of the Holocaust received in other countries including Israel. Only 60 years after the war the (now democratic) government of Romania assumed responsibility. Romanian Jews during the times I was a kid were afraid to tell their stories as they risked to be condemned for calumnies against the state if they talked about a Holocaust that did not exist in the official history. This added to the reluctance of my parents and other people in their generation to talk about their Holocaust experiences, as they wanted to protect me (I was a child, I could tell this to my friends, somebody could here and come after me and after them). So I heard the story under great secrecy and mostly indirectly from my grandparents for example. They also did not know all. Of all my family only my father was sent to the camps for two years and survived, and he started to tell his story very late, when I was a mature man, and he knew that he was ill and I was preparing to make alyah. He told me I think much more than he told to anybody else, but also explicitly said that there are some things he remembers and he does not want to share, and other things that he forgot and even does not want to remember.

        Comment by Dan Romascanu — November 17, 2010 @ 01:20

  9. My response is also “Wow”. Thanks for sharing. My dad’s parents were already in the US before WWII (emigrated from Poland). My mom was born in Holland while her parents were on the run from the Germans, but soon after they all emigrated to New York. They didn’t talk much about this period of time either. My grandmother on my mom’s side was named Sarah, however she did not use this name and always went by the name Ruth. Most likely because of certain rules (see August 17 entry on this page http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007761).

    Comment by Jeff Hoffman — November 16, 2010 @ 13:18 | Reply

    • i knew nothing about this one. i think my grandmother on my mom’s side was Sarah, but they spent the war in Siberia, so the German rules wouldn’t apply to them. can’t blame your grandma for not wanting to use it.

      Comment by yaelol — November 16, 2010 @ 21:29 | Reply

  10. a week later, i have a much better understanding of identity and how people define themselves. fortunate to work in a very heterogeneous team, i asked to discuss the subject over lunch. apparently, for some this is a touchy subject, for some a no-brainer. Two days later, people still stop by to discuss and share in 1/1 their thoughts. thank you!
    unrelated, a distant cousin of mine who is in the process of becoming an orthodox Jew and moved from Canada to Israel, asked about our old, mostly dead relatives. his questions made me call my dad and ask a lot of questions about his family.
    all questions were answered, no problem. however, we stayed away from his personal story. this weekend should allow enough time to continue.

    Comment by yael wagner — November 19, 2010 @ 02:24 | Reply

  11. Yael I wanted to write & say thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Hema — November 19, 2010 @ 11:01 | Reply

  12. research is not an easy thing. not at all.
    digging into people’s past, painful, horrible, unimaginable past is even harder. more so when it’s my father.

    doing my research, i came across a PDF file covering the history of Valadimerets.
    the author signed off with:
    “When I was little, I used to ask about Vladimirets. My bubbie (Rifka Chase Barill) would say “Why are
    you asking about that place? There’s nothing left. Nothing to tell.” Eventually, I realized that the town
    was still there, even some of the buildings. I thought she was wrong, that she was just covering up the
    pain of losing so much. It took me a long time to realize that she was right — the Jewish community of
    Vladimirets is gone, there’s nothing left. However, it still has a lot to tell us about where we came from.”

    i now need to translate it for my dad.

    Comment by yael wagner — November 21, 2010 @ 01:48 | Reply

  13. […] was struggling with my “disposition, trying to understand others.  between Israel, India, my dad’s story and the discussions that followed, it seems that all agree that these are tough nuts to […]

    Pingback by Pre-Thanksgiving thoughts « blogitto ergo sum — November 21, 2010 @ 13:06 | Reply

  14. […] #160 – My dad's name isn't Jakob Wagner […]

    Pingback by Moshe wagner | ExerciseBikesStore — March 28, 2011 @ 09:17 | Reply

  15. […] above lacks context, story started in an earlier blog on Mov. 2010 about my dad and can be found HERE.  [#160 – My dad’s name isn’t Jakob […]

    Pingback by #190 – my grandpa was Moshe Wagner [AKA My dad’s name isn’t Jakob Wagner part II] « blogitto ergo sum — June 25, 2011 @ 17:59 | Reply

  16. Hello! My family was from Czernowitz and I’m researching Klingers from that region, too.
    Have a listen to our story.. http://www.cbc.ca/livingoutloud/episode/2012/04/13/places-we-have-known/
    Drop me a note? — Shula

    Comment by Shula — December 3, 2013 @ 16:01 | Reply


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