A Parcel of Stones

Faded papers in a Babel of tongues led two families to uncover a shared past during their flight from the Nazi spread.

Papers of Jacob Morgenstern

Finally, I have hurled myself into something I have been meaning to do for years, a wad of documents left by Granny and Grandpa. The pages are packed tightly together, some are worn through at the bends, others have long since lost their edge. By the time I emerge, days and nights later, I am unquestionably shaken.

What strikes me most deeply are the numerous documents I find pertaining to visa requests. From what I can make out, all of them, without exception, say the same thing: "Please, get me and my family out of here!" The requests are carefully hand-written with a rapidly fading pen. I am almost relieved every time I reach a brief, typed-up document, only to be overcome, first with the rise, then with the steep fall of my grandparents' hopes – "visa …. nao possivel."

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Clearly, their main efforts were focused on the United States. Secondarily they tried Brazil. Maybe there are others in there that I fail to understand. All we knew growing up was that my grandfather had succeeded in obtaining a visa as a diamond-cutter to Lourenco Marques, now Maputo, Mozambique.

The last train out

The papers of Jacques Morgenstern

My father didn't like to talk about his family's flight through war-torn Europe. We knew he had been born in Poland and that his family moved to Antwerp when he was a baby, primarily to make a living.

My grandfather began working as a diamond merchant, a common profession for Jewish men. One Friday, he failed to reach the bank in time to deposit "stones" he had in his possession. That weekend, the bombing became unbearable. My grandfather decided they should take the next train to France. It was early May, 1940.

Papers of Jacob Morgenstern

My father, so he told us, was furious. He was a headstrong teenager, adamant that they should "stay put" along with the other Jews, who were waiting for the banks to open on Monday, in order to withdraw money for the inevitable journey. My grandfather stood firm. He took his family, a few essentials and his little parcel of stones and somehow managed to cram them all onto the coach to Brussels and then, onto the one bound for Paris. Once it became clear that the train they had caught was the last to leave unoccupied Belgium, my father never got over the guilt – "What would have happened to us had I got my way!""

We knew the broad outlines of the story, that the train had been diverted from Paris and had wound its way through the south of France, eventually docking at the village of Ravel, the first in a line of eventful stopovers. After that came Toulouse, Marseille, Perpignan – at the foot of the snowy Pyrenees and on the other side -– Barcelona and Madrid. Finally they reached Lisbon, where they remained for some months, until setting sail for Mozambique, a Portuguese colony at the time.

We were also aware that at some stage, a 16 year-old Jewish neighbor from Antwerp, joined the quest. The boy had become separated from his parents and five brothers and sisters and was clearly exhausted by his efforts to find them when my father's family came upon him and persuaded him to stay. He appears to have lived in their home for some time, and the two youngsters must have become something of brothers.

In the end, however, the youth chose not to accompany my father's family on their trans-oceanic voyage. Instead, in the wake of renewed contact with his parents in Antwerp, he had apparently opted to "go back" and find them. I often wondered what happened to him but more than that, none of us knew.

The 'adopted boy'

I return to the old records, in their faded garb and foreign tongue. I find an address and laboriously type the letters into a browser. They open onto the impression of a block of flats in Lisbon. The outer walls are painted bright blue. The effect is overwhelming: I believe I am staring at the home of my father, some 60 years ago.

I look up other streets and numbers. I find a brick-faced block in Antwerp; a road in Ravel; another pretty building in Lisbon, this time pink; and a grand apartment block on Piotrkowska Avenue in Lodz. This must have been the home where my grandparents began their married life.

I look more closely at the names. I am fascinated at how they change from document to document. The women's appellations are particularly susceptible to change. My maternal great-grandmother goes from Rayzl to Rywka to Ryfka-Chaia. I read them carefully and find the ones I am familiar with – Leibish, Witta, Hanna and Jacques – and then one more – Abram. For the first time, I hold the possibility of the "adopted" boy's identity in my grasp.

I try different versions of the name in various combinations. Eventually I find it, an obituary, a few years old by now, but the description of the early biography seems to fit.

I recover the names of 'Bram's children. There are four brothers and a sister, spread between Belgium and the U.S. I write them, in the way of "Dear madam/sir. There might have been a connection between our fathers during the War. Please be in touch with me. Regards."

I wait impatiently for replies. Finally, they begin to appear on the screen, cautiously at first, then spilling with emotions, like me and my sisters, all taken up in this unexpected brush with some terrifying untold past. Something of a story begins to unfold.

"Dear Omi,

"Our late father did not talk much about those times, it was certainly too painful, so we really know very little. From what I remember, he did mention something about a family who took him along on the run, and the name does seem to ring a bell. I also do remember him saying that some families had ended up in South Africa, so it could very well have been your father's family.

"From what we know, he actually left Antwerp of his own will. War was pending, and besides, he was anyway eager to get away for a few days, being tired and annoyed at having to go to cheder so often, as he used to say. He met his sister on the way to the railway station, and asked her to tell their parents not to worry, that he would be back before shabbes. The Germans invaded Belgium while he was traveling, and that clearly changed his plans.

"It seems that while in Lisbon, our Dad received a free pass from the German authorities, allowing him to return to Antwerp to be reunited with his family. When my father was informed that such a pass was issued, he sensed that it was a trap, and decided to continue his trip.

"With the help of an Antwerp man in Lisbon, he managed to attain a visa for Cuba, where he ended up meeting my mother, who was also on the run from Belgium. After the War, he finally made his way to New York to try to see if any of his family had survived. Nobody had. He never got over the guilt... Where do you live now?"

Us? I write back. We are six daughters. We were born and grew up in South Africa. Today we live in and around Jerusalem. I am proud to write that. I am also suddenly struck by the arbitrary, the fragile, the tenuous nature of my own identity. I am frightened by the way in which my very existence owes itself to a little parcel of stones, the outcome of a quarrel over a jam-packed train and the yea or nay of some anonymous clerk. Mostly, I am in awe at the foresight and strength that drove the actions and decisions of two people, my grandparents, only my age at the writing. My oldest son is just sixteen.

Sanctuary in Johannesburg

My father's family eventually arrived in Lourenco Marques and some months later, obtained a permit to enter South Africa. When they arrived in Johannesburg, my father, Jacques, flung himself into his studies, attaining within two years a school-leaving certificate that sported the highest number of "distinctions" the district had ever seen. He went on to excel at university, where he studied architecture, eventually setting up a successful co-practice with his life-partner, our mother.

My Aunt Anne completed her social work studies and channeled her survivor's guilt into a working trip to a D.P. camp at Bergen Belzen. She eventually married and settled in South Africa, where she continued to carry out acts of chesed and was outspoken in her renunciation of apartheid.

My grandparents bought an apartment in the center of town in a building with the presumptuous name of Buckingham Court. They tried to make a life for themselves, though I don’t imagine they ever felt quite at home. Grandpa Leibish made frequent trips to the Holy Land and became a well-known and well-loved figure amongst the many communities and individuals whom he helped throughout his life. He was deeply mourned when he died, at the age of 66.

After that, Granny Witta went to live in Israel and my father took over the diamond business that was left behind, finally earning an award in successful recognition of his long and outstanding service to the Industry. In this sense, his life took on contours strikingly similar to those of the sixteen year-old 'Bram, himself the son of a Polish-Jewish family that had moved to Antwerp, where his father had found work as a diamond merchant. After the War, 'Bram returned to Antwerp, where, along with two orphaned cousins, he began a diamond business. It grew into one of the largest family-owned diamond companies, a typical development that tends to happen when Jewish diamond merchants have sons.

It is hard to believe the two diamond men never met up in later life, even by chance. Indeed, my initial realization that such a meeting would never take place – 'Bram died in 2003, my father, in 2013 – met with great regret and frustration. I berated myself for not having probed those documents earlier.

Now that I know a little more about what happened, I wonder if it was a blessing. One can only begin to imagine the pain such a reunion would have meant for them, both for the boy who had lost his closest family in the deluge and for the one who was lucky enough to get away with them.

So I believe I am pleased that this stone was well-browned before being turned over. And I am reminded of what my father would say whenever he saw me get upset over something, "Life is full of surprises, my cookie, that's what gives us the drive to keep on living. You never know how things will turn out in the end."