Apr/May 2012 Nonfiction

The Miracle of My Father's Hat

by Gloria Garfunkel

My father dug up Jewish gravestones for two years, escaped and hid in a hayloft for two others. He dug up the gravestones of Polish Jews who watched him from the sky, crying at his labors, watery soup, bones scraping, never imagining such a thing could happen to their sons and daughters, begging to a deaf God to intercede. (Oh, what a joke on those who pray!)

His father was lost, a brother with two small children. He never knew for sure who was dead and who alive. Only his mother who died of tuberculosis when he was twelve. He prayed to God to save them all as he lifted, hauled, crushed the tombstones, stomach scraping, stooped, skin-and-bones arms aching, slaving for the well-fed laughing Gestapo bosses, laughing with God who was undoubtedly on their side.

He dug up the gravestones for two years, until he could carry them no more. And as he walked to the edge of the cemetery to meet the Jewish couple disguised as Christians who had arranged to regularly bring him some bread, a Nazi shot him through his hat.

"I never miss," he shouted. "That I missed means you will live."

"There is a Yiddish saying," says my father to me, many years later. "Prophesy is often given to fools."

That gave him courage. And so that night, he hid in a mausoleum. After everyone left he ran away to his friends who arranged for him to hide in the hayloft of a barn. For two years he hid in a hayloft studying Torah and writing poetry alone in dim light: long days to think about missing faces, voices, smiles. A brother visited nights, bringing gold to pay the farmer who hid him. And he asked a married brother, who is dead and who is alive? But the brother refused to answer.

And in the confusion of liberation, my father lost all his poems, books of a young man's thoughts about losing everything. And then he lost the ability to speak his native tongue, Polish. And lost his faith in human beings. But never in God, who had spoken to him in the camp, in the hayloft of the rescue. Even though God had not protected his own father, who was shot by the farmer hiding him when he discovered the stash of gold and no longer needed him for it.

During the liberation, there were Russian Jews in the army who asked the Jews who had been the most vicious and cruel to them. And my father gave them the name of the farmer who murdered his father, and this man's son was sent straight to the Russian front and killed. Years later, when I wanted to visit Eastern Europe, my father wouldn't let me. He said the Polish farmer still had a contract out on him, and I wouldn't be safe. How much was paranoia? How does one know with the Holocaust? I didn't go. But a generation later there are whole groups of Jewish teenagers visiting the Jewish teens of Eastern Europe, to forge connections and teach them about the heritage that they lost during the Holocaust. Two of my nieces went to Poland, my father's homeland, and to Hungary, my mother's. For my neices, the Holocaust is far enough away to feel like no danger to any of us. That was not true when I was a teen.

My father's now-deceased brother, Isha, revealed in the intervening years, gradually, not all at once, the truth. They were all gone. Their brother and his wife and the two golden blonde babies. All the relatives, the mills, and everything else they owned. But for my father, it was the loss of his poems that killed his soul, his memories, his ability to speak Polish, the language of the friends who betrayed him, the lost shards of his heart that are embedded in my own, in my need to write words.


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