Mazel Tov! It is a bittersweet day in Vercenik, Poland, 1942. The young couple, Tzvi and Pifa Hershman, have just become the proud parents of a beautiful baby girl. With her tiny, perfectly formed features, her small, delicate hands and feet, and that piercing purity of innocence that belongs to newborns alone shining out, she is a glorious site to behold. But even in these moments of celebration, they are painfully aware of the large shadow looming behind them, settling unwanted in their midst.
The flames of the Holocaust rage, and when this new life reaches three months of age, Tzvi Hershman is summoned to the notorious “labor camps” and Pifa inexplicably joins him in the pitch blackness from where there is no return. Treblinka. May their memories be blessed and may the Merciful One avenge their martyred blood.
But Tzvi and Pifa Hershman did everything within their power to give their precious child a chance to live. Who can describe the emotions surging in the breasts of these desperate parents at those crucial moments? Could the pen of the loftiest poet or the music of the most sensitive pianist ever claim to capture the cacophony of feeling; agony, heartbreak, hope, despair and faith, of loving parents forced into this type of heartrending choice?
They handed their tenderly wrapped baby girl into the arms of a neighboring Polish policeman along with a carefully penned letter intended just for her.
We will never know how they felt as they handed their tenderly wrapped baby girl into the arms of a neighboring Polish policeman, along with access to all their earthly possessions and a carefully penned letter intended just for her.
We may have also never known that Tzvi and Pifa Hershman had named their baby girl Leah, were it not for a picture of the newborn, on the back of which her mother penned her name, preparing to send it to her own mother and father as a wartime gift, a burst of white light in a blackening world. A sister of Pifa carefully sewed this picture into her clothes just before being sent from the home of her parents to the notorious labor camps. She faithfully kept it until the end of the war, unwilling to forgo this remembrance of her little niece, this small symbol of hope for her survival.
The Polish Policeman tremulously brought the surprising bundle home, containing little baby Leah. But he had yet to face The Wife. And, as it turns out, The Wife was decidedly unhappy with this turn of events. She did not want any involvement with a little Jewish girl who could only bring them trouble. She bid her husband to get rid of the troublesome package and he followed her orders conscientiously as his already depleted conscience swiftly passed into a deep slumber. He placed the desperate young parents’ beloved only child onto cold, unforgiving train tracks and quickly walked away.. Who would ever fault him or his wife if an unfortunate accident happened to follow? Who, indeed? Who but himself?
For his conscience soon stirred from its slumber and began to attack him. Uncomfortable and disturbed, he ran to the local priest to confess. The priest relieved him of the test that he had so nearly failed, and asked that the baby be brought to him immediately. After some contemplation, Baby Hershman was placed at an orphanage alongside other orphaned or abandoned little souls, to await the next shift in the winds of Providence.
A Baby to Call Her Own
Congratulations! The Yopowicz couple has adopted a nine-month-old baby girl. Mrs. Yopowicz, having known the poignant longing of the childless, is very grateful to have a baby to call her own, and becomes attached to this sweet little girl. There is no reason to over-speculate as to her origins. She has been baptized like any properly raised child of her small Polish village. Baby Basha Christina Yopowicz has come home.
But Mrs. Yopowicz, what do you see in the depths of your new daughter's intense dark eyes?
But Mrs. Yopowicz, what do you see in the depths of your new daughter's intense dark eyes? Do you see the shifting shadows that hint of a secret pleading to be recalled? Can you sense the restless agony of a misplaced soul that none of your gentle affections ever seem to touch? Can you feel the weighted pressure of repressed lofty light when you cradle her tenderly in your arms and proudly display her as your own, for all to admire? Why do you think you hear the muffled sound of a distant ram's horn deep within a dream when this baby cries?
She's mine now, you harshly tell the troublesome dissenting sentiments in your hearts deepest depths. We have rightfully adopted and baptized her. She belongs to myself, my husband and my people.
Does she really, Mrs. Yopowicz? Will she ever?
Signs of Life
From the blood stained, charred incinerators of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, Esther Eisenberg and her daughter Tzipporah emerge, fragile, broken and whole. Has anyone else survived? Perhaps her mother, a sister or brother? Perhaps a cousin, a neighbor, a friend? Anyone? Quivering voices call out in hope and longing, and silence responds in deafening, rippling echoes. Like so many others, Esther turns to one of the many hastily set up centers for the remnants of surviving European Jewry, and anxiously interrogates the young female secretary regarding her sister Pifa and her brother-in-law, Tzvi, as she dutifully notes her own and her daughter's survival and whereabouts in the log presented to her. The harried secretary listens distractedly and then suddenly glances up from her sacred work and gazes at Esther intently.
“Vercenik? Did you say Vercenik?” Her hometown.
“Yes, I knew Pifa and Tzvi Hershman....” Her voice trails off and thins into silence for some long moments as her heart turns over and remembers. Yizkor.
“Your sister had a baby before they were taken...and her whereabouts are recorded here.”
Esther's heart skips a beat. Then, like gasping waves of water under a rushing, surging tide, the thin, wavering voice of a five-year-old child rises above the din of outraged graves and reaches the avidly listening ear of her mother's sister. A surge of triumph momentarily overwhelms and rejuvenates her nearly depleted being. Life! She had found Life! Her sister's child was alive!
Life! She had found Life! Her sister's child was alive!
And for Esther, there was no debate as to whom she belonged to, nor would there ever be. A singular mission instantly enveloped her as she set out to claim her sister's child and bring her home. In the ocean of wrongs that heavily blanketed the harsh, frozen landscape of the aftermath of Evil’s army, Esther Eisenberg would set one particular wrong right.
Familiar with the perversity of the times, she knew that she would be refused if she simply asked for the child to be returned. Turning to the often lawless law for justice could also yield an uncertain and possibly irreversible outcome. So Esther Eisenberg, together with her nephew, Pinchas Eisenberg and Captain Yeshayahu Drucker (both notable activists in saving Jewish child survivors after the Holocaust) became the ringleader of a small band of kidnappers. The threesome daringly drove into the small village early one morning, intent upon executing their mission, swiftly and finally. However, several of the villagers took notice of the strange car and its inhabitants, surmised its purpose, and promptly began a rumor that spread to eagerly receiving ears. Jews had come to kidnap a good Christian child! The horror of it!
An angry crowd soon formed, and guns were readily poised and aimed. With their lives now under direct threat, they quickly reversed directions and accelerated the vehicle, just narrowly missing a hailstorm of bullets as they sped away.
The initial rescue effort had failed, but Esther's determination remained as strong as ever. With no other recourse, she turned to the oft corrupt police and the tainted courthouses. Ultimately, it would take two full years of trials, mistrials and retrials, before she could claim her own, including many long, cold nights passed on hard, narrow benches outside of police stations and courthouses under the black, star-studded blanket of the ever watchful heavens.
At long last, the fated day arrived. Then, Providence and earthly Justice embraced to deliver the favorable verdict that sent the now five and a half year old Leah into the arms of her devoted aunt and the lap of her nation.
Long Journey Home
For Mrs. Yopowicz, it was time to say goodbye. She fabricated a tale for the child who knew her only as Mother, explaining that she that she had no more money to care for her and was therefore delivering her into the hands of strangers. Confused, agonized by a searing sense of abandonment, Leah screamed to stay with the only parents she had ever known. Her borrowed identity had been branded upon her heart as deeply as the dehumanizing black string of numbers branded upon those sent to labor for the eternally enslaved and she simply could not comprehend the unfolding drama. Why was she being taken from her home? Over time, kind, meaningful explanations were gently impressed upon her, but as she was so young, this primal question would remain largely unanswered somewhere deep within, for a very long time and the scars of this trauma would not easily heal.
They drove to the town of Zabrze, where Leah was placed in a temporary home along with other rescued Jewish children, as her aunt prepared for their eventual journey to Israel. There, the slow process of learning about her identity, her past and her people commenced as adult Jewish caregivers, mostly fellow survivors and refugees, tirelessly attempted to educate the tragically misplaced children with stories of the Land of Israel, demonstrations of the lighting of Shabbat candles, and spontaneous plays and skits enacting various elements of their heritage. However, for a long time, this little girl and many of her peers, would resist the transfer from the kneeling position and the cross to the erect posture, raised arm and covered eyes of the Shema, even as their souls found instant recognition and increasing peace with each remembered bit of their identity and heritage.
Days came and went and soon, Esther Eisenberg was ready. She picked up Leah from the children's home as promised, and together they began the long and perilous journey to their destination, the Land of Israel. Each challenge or roadblock along the way was lightened somewhat by the knowledge that they were truly going home.
Leah's first destination in Israel was a temporary shelter for incoming refugees of the Holocaust in Netanya where she joined half a million other survivors, each with their own private stash of searing memories.
"It seemed plain to me that there was something or someone larger at work, guiding me all along the way."
Determined to expose Leah, not only to the Land of Israel, but also to the Judaism that had defined the life of her martyred parents, Aunt Esther sent her to a religious elementary school for Jewish girls, and later, to a religious High School at the Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim. Leah testifies that her ultimate decision to live a fully observant life was her own, albeit favorably affected by her education.
In her own words: “As I matured, my faith matured along with me and in time it seemed plain to me that the events of my life and those around me could not be a coincidence, that there was something or someone larger at work, guiding me all along the way. I also saw that the religious Jews had value and meaning in their lives, something which I did not see in the wider world”.
Leah Hershman would never know her mother or father, nor would she have any memories of the place from whence she came, and as a result, her search for identity would be long and painful. But despite her personal travails, despite the horrors her eyes had seen and her heart remembered, she would victoriously join the legions of heroic persons from time immemorial who achieve the ultimate triumph over Evil by embracing its opposite.
Indeed, her life today is a shining testament to the resilience of the Jewish People and the Jewish faith. Leah (Hershman) Nebenzahl is a renowned Israeli poetess and has produced two brilliant books of poetry that chronicles both her literal and inner journey back to her people and homeland in complex, moving prose whose many references and quotes from the Torah, testify to the depth of her knowledge and understanding of our ancient texts. Now residing in Jerusalem, Leah enjoys a decades-long marriage to the physicist and Torah scholar, Professor Shaya Nebenzahl. They are the proud, devoted parents of five children and doting grandparents to many more, each a lasting symbol of the triumph of faith, each another precious light unto our nation.
“Sometimes there are cries in color
and sometimes in words and notes
and sometimes they stop
at the threshold”
(Nebenzahl 49: 1-4)
Yes, sometimes there are cries in color; in muted shades of red, black and grey, in deep mournful purples and midnight blues, in shifting shades of light and night.
Some cries have words that were never heard, others have words that were never spoken and still others have words that will never be remembered.
Some cries are comforted, others are stifled, some are stilled, others are muted, and some are consoled until next time.
“And some nights I would wish
to string them
until You come down”
(Nebenzahl 49; 8-12)
Books of poetry by Leah Nebenzahl: Sometimes There are Cries in Color. To Those Who Gathered Me In*. Tel Aviv: Eked Publishing, 1998. The Perfect Circle of the Agapanthus. Tel Aviv: Eked Publishing, 2002. Books can be ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Leah's poetry is elaborated upon and explained in the following study unit: Turning Darkness into Light: On the Poems of Leah Nebenzahl, A Hidden Child. Devora Mann, Shoshana Bakshi, Raab Holocaust Education Center; Michlalah College, 2007. The study unit is accompanied by the film “Like a Branch to the Root” produced by the Center for Holocaust Studies at Michlalah College in Jerusalem and contains discussions with Leah Nebenzahl about her life and poems; including readings of seven of her poems. These can be ordered at www.michlalah.edu