Lessons in love
A documentary to be broadcast tonight charts the heartbreaking journey of two brothers from the Krakow ghetto to Israel and of their eventual deep reconnection to each other.
Avner Kerem walks into the Krakow municipal archive in Poland without any great expectations, and the tall, skinny librarian hands him a thick, old book. The book documents all the births in Kerem's presumed birth year, 1931. He leafs through it, name after name, month after month, until he encounters a name that is familiar to him. Alter Shaiya Weinberg. Brief examination and cross-referencing of information yield more findings. There is also documentation of his older brother and the names of his father and mother, whose photos are appended. "Mindaleh," he whispers in a choked voice to the picture of his mother. "I have so much to tell you."
"That was one of the most difficult moments of my life," says Kerem this week, about a year after that scene was recorded for the documentary film "Here I Learned to Love," which will be broadcast tonight on Channel 2. "It's something I didn't know I was looking for. In retrospect, the search for identity was the most important thing in my life. It's been 70 years and only now are we finding out. Suddenly seeing my name, pictures I had never seen before. I understood the background I came from. It's lucky the Nazis were so organized."
Even among the mass of heartbreaking human stories created by World War II, the story of Kerem and his brother, Itzik Weinberg, is unique. The night before the aktion roundup in the Krakow ghetto, when they were little boys of 3 and 4 years old, the brothers were smuggled to a hiding place. They spent the war years fleeing from one hiding place to another, from country to country, owing their lives to each other, an amazing ability to survive and women they met along the way who became temporary mothers to them.
In this scene in the film Kerem uncovers evidence of his early years for the first time. In that same room in the municipal archive he first learned about his kinship with his brother, his roots and even his name. "Until a year ago I wasn't at peace with regards to my identity. Everywhere I went they called me by a different name - Alik, Alter, Binyamin. At the archive we found my real name - Alter Weinberg."
'I know I am a father'
"Here I Learned to Love," directed and produced by Avi Angel (see box ), tries to trace the journey of the brothers' survival. Now they are adults, grandfathers. Kerem lives in Eilat and Weinberg lives in Tivon. Today they seem very different from each other and only in the film does a warm relationship blossom between them again. But the years that have gone by since they immigrated to Israel and the gulf that was created between them do not dim the extraordinary story.
The epic journey of the two children spans six years and six countries. It also includes coming to Palestine from Italy onboard an illegal immigrants' ship, from which the passengers were taken by the British to the internment camp at Atlit before being freed in a raid by the Palmach pre-state underground militia. And after all that, life was not at all simple for children in this country, though that part of the journey is not described in the film. Subsequently the brothers were taken in at Agudat Yisrael educational institutions and then at Bnei Akiva orphanages.
"I experienced all the events of the Holocaust on my own flesh," says Weinberg. "I arrived in this country in September of 1945, at the age of 7 and with the life experience of a 17-year-old. I was my brother's father from the age of 3."
In June 1942, on the eve of the transport of 5,000 Jews form the Krakow ghetto to a death camp, the brothers were smuggled to a hiding place inside the ghetto. In the film they are seen as adults, with their backs to the house in the ghetto where they had lived, recalling the way to the hiding place and trying to reconstruct how they ran there. "We weren't even aware then of what was happening to everyone we knew," says Weinberg. "As a little boy I kept asking the whole way where Mommy and Daddy, Grandpa and Grandma were. Our aunt, Malka, with whom we escaped, did not answer."
After being torn from their mother, and after two years of fleeing, the two brothers had to separate from their aunt as well. At the train station in Budapest she managed to smuggle the brothers onto a rescue train operated by Rudolf Kastner, the leader of a group helping Jewish refugees escape from Nazi Europe. Having no alternative she separated them and smuggled each onto a different car. She too survived and eventually immigrated to Israel.
"She threw us on [the train] in the evening and I fell asleep and woke up in the morning," Weinberg recalls. "There is straw on the floor and people are speaking an unfamiliar language - we were Polish children and this was Hungary. I woke up and I was hungry and thirsty and I see a man in front of me and somehow or other I communicate with him and he points to the buckets, a water dipper, a loaf of bread and the toilet. It was only after several days that the train stopped to refuel and we met, my brother and I, and suddenly we could talk."
At that moment, says Weinberg, "I know that now I am a father. He is dependent on me and I am responsible for him."
The train, which was supposed to take its passengers to safety in Spain, was stopped en route and the passengers were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There too the brothers survived after a young woman named Naomi Mayer adopted them. Ironically, for them the period in the camp was a time of revival and recovery. The film's title, "Here I Learned to Love," is taken from something Weinberg relates about their life in the camp. "Naomi was a 20-year-old Hungarian girl," he says. "At first a girl names Litzi Deutsch took care of us and after 40 days she managed to escape and handed us over to her. We were two children without a language, without a childhood, who stammered only the things we could remember, and those were terrible things. She took us, taught us a language and love. Hugs and kisses all the time. She managed to give us back our life and childhood and she neutralized us from everything that had happened in Poland before we met her. In the heart of the inferno... she built a bubble for us. Bergen-Belsen was a pleasant moment in our lives. There we sang and learned, we spoke, we loved."
Kerem adds: "My first concrete memory is from the camp. From before then I remember the transitions from place to place. We would play among the sacks as we moved from farm to farm in carts. But there we learned to write and read, we heard children's stories. I turned that into a kind of game, with one eye half laughing. With the other eye we saw what should not be seen. But we were able to live."
'We thought no one would believe us'
The question of memory, and the way different people experience the same events, also comes up in the film. The brothers are different from each other in every way, from their external appearance, through they way they express themselves and live, to the way they deal with the past.
Weinberg kept his original name and in 2005 he published an autobiography, "Three Mothers for Two Brothers," through the Yad Vashem publishing house. His description of the period is solid and systematic. Today he serves as a witness and accompanies trips to Poland and is now working on a study of the Belzec concentration camp, where their family perished. Kerem, on the other hand, seems to have decided to recreate himself as a sabra. The first time he spoke about the events of his childhood was about two years ago and when he talks about them he has difficulty being systematic, mingling his feelings in the past and the present.
"We never talked about it, not I and not the people who grew up alongside me in the orphanages," he explains. "Only now is it coming out."
Kerem: "Apparently the time has come to talk. When it was fresh no one asked us about it. Even Yad Vashem missed tremendous traumas experienced by Holocaust children, which is what we call ourselves and children like us. Those children were afraid to tell and there were things that were so terrible we thought no one would believe us. Everyone who grew up in the orphanages, all of them went through terrible traumas and even among ourselves we didn't ask, 'What happened to you? what have you been through?'"
Weinberg: "My brother fled from this, he didn't want to know, he was even ashamed of it. I was raised with lots of survivor children and 95 percent of them acted that way. Perhaps he survived because he wasn't inside that story and was always jolly and happy. To my mind, that's an attempt to escape."
It can't have been easy to embark on this journey for the purpose of making the film.
Kerem: "I didn't want to go. It's baggage that's hard to unload and I am proud of myself for beginning to let out what I had hoarded inside me for 70-something years. I was afraid to take the trip. I was afraid of myself and I couldn't explain to myself why I was afraid. I was afraid to discover things. And all of a sudden I know that's my name, I have a birth certificate, I know who I am. When we were children I would quarrel with my brother and yell at him, 'How do I know you are my brother?' I was never at ease with that."
Weinberg: "Everyone around me kept silent and I realized that if I didn't speak out it would go with us to the grave. After I wrote the book I saw how he also opened up, but it wasn't enough. Only when he was in Poland - and it was the first time for him since then - was it therapy for him."
'We needed to feel each other's embrace'
The film ends with the brothers' rescue from Bergen-Belsen together with the survivors from Kastner's train, though, of course, that's not where the real story ends.
In the army Weinberg served as an aircraft technician and met his wife. They had two daughters and today he has seven grandchildren. Kerem enlisted in the navy and went on to the merchant fleet. He too married, and later divorced. He has two daughters and five grandchildren.
"Coping is such an individual thing, there are no two worlds that are alike," says Weinberg.
Kerem adds: "Itzik is alive because he knew he had to take care of me and I had him. There was nothing more than that. The 'mothers' kept changing but he and I were together all the time. The separation was here, in this country. I gradually lost faith - 'Maybe that isn't really my name, maybe I don't really exist.' Only at the age of 70 did I begin to understand who I am and what I am. I can't explain why we grew apart. Apparently each of us was fighting in his own way to establish a home. I had to get free of him and he apparently had to get free of me, but each of us apparently has the need to feel the other's embrace and warmth."
A sabra’s secret
For decades Avner Kerem did not speak openly about his past as a Holocaust refugee. When he did this for the first time it stunned the members of his family and also led to the film that has been made about him and his brother, “Here I Learned to Love.”
“Two years ago my brother’s son had his bar mitzvah,” says the film’s director, businessman Avi Angel, brother of Udi Angel, one of the owners of Channel 2 franchise-holder Reshet, which is broadcasting the film. Udi Angel’s wife, Anat Kerem, is Avner Kerem’s daughter. “It was a small family event, which we marked with a tour of the Western Wall tunnels, and then Avner hugged his grandson and said in front of everyone, ‘Now I feel we have defeated the Nazis.’ I remember that I didn’t understand. Avner is an Eilat man, a bohemian, suntanned − where in his life did he meet Nazis?”
Only then did Kerem’s extended family discover the story of his early childhood and his original name. Angel, who wanted to film his older relative, thought it would remain a private film for the family. “Avner had never talked. His daughters thought he was the ultimate sabra.”
Angel says that, after 30 hours of footage had been filmed, he and his crew realized that the main story is that of their various ‘mothers,’ especially since the loss of them continued to sadden the brothers’ adult lives. “Three times those children were abandoned. It’s easy to understand why Avner clung to the image of the sabra [for a sense of belonging]. In one of the scenes in the film we see him pacing back and forth, restless. Suddenly he connects to a smell, a place, a sight.
“If there’s one thing I’ve understood from this film, it’s how important it is to document,” Angel adds. “It’s important that history, these stories, not remain only in the minds of those same people.”