Eulogy For My Father

 

By Harold Boll  27.2.2006

 

 

Raymond Boll of Blessed memory, beloved father and grandfather
admired long-time President of the Young Men Gombin Society in New Jersey
His heritage will exist after him - may he rests in peace ת.נ.צ.ב.ה


 

At some level its hard to believe my father is really gone.  He had such an indelible presence in life that even in death his after-image is still palpable to me.  When he came into a room, people knew he was there even if he spoke not at all.  His aura could not be ignored.  And when he spoke, he could be heard all around the room, not because of the decibel level, but because even his voice carried this essence which demanded to be heard even at a whisper.  And in his day he was deceptively strong; as a Butcher he could lift a hind of beef off a hook as though it were a mere hamburger.  My family had a macho tradition of Arm Wrestling at any family gathering back then; my brother Benny beat all comers.  But no one even dared challenge my father;  it would have been no contest.  And his words carried a ring of authority and certainty – ambiguity was not part of his Weltanschauung.  But this confidence and self-assuredness usually had a sound basis, especially in his younger days.  I remember beginning to talk to him about politics when I entered high school during the tumultuous ‘60s.  I was struck by the cogency of his reasoning and the nimbleness of this thought processes as we verbally sparred against one another with often opposing views.  It soon dawned on me that my father the Butcher would have been a star on my High School debating team.  I believe it was at this point in my life that the egalitarian principle of not to judging people by their job in life or by the size of their pay check was brought home to me.  Had he been born into some middle class Jewish family in New York rather than from a farming family in small Yiddish Shtetl in Poland; had he gone to college and beyond in his early 1920s rather than running for his life from the Nazis; had he had the advantages of peace and not the numbing experiences of war in his formative years – who knows what station he could have attained.  But it really didn’t matter to me because I saw the same energy and intellect in him as a Butcher as he would have shown in any other profession – and I was proud of him.

 

My father came to this country from a small farm in Poland and settled our family into urban Newark. He worked hard and was a good provider for us.  His first job was in the steel Mill of Carpenter Steel somewhere in Newark along with my mother’s brother, Uncle Sam.  But he soon took a job at cousin Willy’s small little supermarket in Bloomfield, right around the corner from my mother’s other brother Uncle Nathan "the Shneider" (Yiddish for “tailor”). He worked hard there and learned the business up and down – including how to be a butcher.  And though he worked hard, he made sure we had a sense of being connected to family and to our roots as Polish Jews from the town of Gombin.  We were always visiting cousins, or going to the Orange Mountains for picnics with other Gombiners.  For the past many years, he was the last president of the Young Men Gombiners Society of  New Jersey.

 

My father and mother came of age during a time in history and a place in the world where to be a Jew was tantamount to a death sentence – 19 of 20 of their family, friends and acquaintances – in short, Polish Jews – perished during the holocaust.  And yet he survived along with my mother, my older brother Benny and Uncle Sam who fled with him from the Nazi onslaught.  More than that even, he helped others survive as well.  He saved lives during a time when it was far easier to perish than to survive.  During the first year of the war, they survived a brutal winter in the northern reaches of the Russian tundra where as many people died from depression and hopelessness as died from the harsh conditions.  When the spring came he organized a group to leave this harsh region and undertake a train sojourn into the belly of the sub-Asian Russia where they waited out the war.  My older brother still has glimmering memories of those days.  There were many times when only my father’s wit and verve helped get them through situations which would have ensnared the less daring and nimble minded.  As my father got on in years, he would often talk about those war years.  I regret tuning out on occasionally; I wish I had been a more attentive listener.

 

My father’s actual decline really began with my mother’s death more than 6 yrs ago. He loved her dearly and never really recovered from her passing.  A part of him died with her.  He let himself go physically, became a shut-in, stopped walking and seeing people.  It was really sad because at heart he was a very social person who drew the shy and lonely to him.  I think his happiest moments were in the mid-80’s after he and my mother retired to Florida, where their apartment became the social center for many of the Jewish elderly living there.  Whenever I visited, I would see a bunch of people, couples and widows, come by every evening to sit around the dinner table, kibitzing, noshing and occasionally playing Kalooki -  a kind of Jewish gin rummy.  He was in his element, surrounded by friends who respected his graciousness and hospitality.  I don’t think I was ever more proud of him than for the mitzvah he did down there. 

 

The proximal cause of his precipitous decline in health started this past fall when a procedure to clear a blocked carotid artery went terribly bad. There were complications; an emergency operation ensued; a mini stroke which left him disoriented occurred a few days later.  Soon he lost the ability to swallow and was fed via a tube inserted into his stomach. And so it went on an on; small apparent improvements followed by downward spirals.  Special recognition must go to my younger brother Ronny who had become his principal caretaker these past years.  Without his vigilant help and Florence Nightingale-like attentiveness in the hospitals, I think we would have lost him some time ago. 

 

The last time I saw my father was about 10 days ago, when, after spending 3 weeks intubated in the ICU, the doctor said his recovery from death’s doorstep had been miraculous.  And indeed it seemed to be at the time – he was interactive, alert, talkative and even joked around with us – something we hadn’t seen for many, many months.  Though my father passed away 8 days later, I treasure the memories of that last encounter.  I wiped the salt from his eyes, clipped his finger nails and joked around with him.  My niece Dana says he summoned the energy deep within himself to give us those bright memories of him as a last gift.  I do believe this to be true.

 

 

 My Family’s Holocaust Story

By Harold Boll

Yom HaShoah 28 Nisan 5764 April 19th, 2004

         

 

The reason I’m alive and can stand before you tonight is because long before I was born my mother had a dream that galvanized her into action.  Pregnant with my older brother Benny, she left with her husband (my father) and her younger brother (my uncle), and fled the Shtetl of Gombin in western Poland where they had lived all their lives.  Their flight took place just scant weeks before the murderous Nazi onslaught came thundering in from the West to stamp out Jewish life in Gombin forever

 

On the day that the Wehrmacht occupied Gombin, September 7, 1939, 2300 Jews lived there amongst a population of about 6,000.  Upon their arrival, the Nazis began to press Jews into forced labour digging defence trenches. While working they were abused by Nazi officers, and some were murdered on the spot. On Yom Kippur 5700 (September 23, 1939) Nazi soldiers set the famous wooden synagogue of Gombin on fire. The Nazis blamed the Jews and imposed a collective fine. The abuses increased from day to day.  Early in October 1939, the Jews of Gombin were ordered to wear a yellow star on their outer clothing.  At the beginning of 1940 the Gombin Jews were evicted from their homes and concentrated in a separate section of the town – a ghetto.  Men and women were forced to provide a variety of services and work for the Nazi authorities and the German companies that were being established in the area.  During the first half of 1941 about 200 Jews began to be rounded up and sent to Forecd Labour camps like Czarkow near Konin and  Auschwitz..

 

On April 17, 1942 the Nazis liquidated the Gombin ghetto, deporting the remaining Jews to the extermination camp at Chelmno. The Jews who resisted were shot on the spot. Of the 2300 hundred Jews who were alive in September of 1939, only 212 Jews from Gombin survived the war. Of these, 180 escaped at the time of the German invasion and managed to cross the border into the area of Poland that had been occupied by the Soviet Union. Of the other 32, many spent the war in hiding on the Aryan side, while a few survived the concentration camps.  After the war, the majority of those who remained alive went to the United States or Israel.

 

My parents and uncle fled to the East, making a harrowing journey into the far northern reaches of Russia where they spent the first year of the war.  Living conditions there were unbelievably harsh and the weather even more so.  Wind, snow, cold and depression took a steep toll of the refugees who had sheltered there.  It is a testament to the strength, will and spirit of my parents that they survived that Siberian winter.  Come Spring, my father decided to leave this forsaken place and organized a group to seek out more hospital climes.  With a newborn infant in her arms my mother and the others spent months walking on roads and in fields; hopping trains when they could or begging rides from passing transport.  It was a journey fraught with danger as war licked at their heels in a time and place where it was easier to die than to live.  But my father’s ingenuity, strength and fluency in Russian & Polish helped extricate them from many perilous situations.  Eventually their journey ended in Uzbekistan near the city of Sammarkhan where they waited out the rest of the war away.  My older brother has glimmering memories of playing with little Cossacks as he called them when he was around 3 or 4 yrs old. 

 

After the war, they made their way back to Europe and were placed in a Displaced Persons Camp to be reunited with their surviving relatives.  My mother came from a family of 5 children – only she and her 2 brothers survived.  My father was the only boy and youngest in a family of 7 children.  None of his sisters or parents survived.

 

As a people, we Jews cannot help but to have been affected to some degree by the Holocaust.  It was arguably the single most horrific act Humankind has ever inflicted upon itself.  I believe that to some extent it has fuelled the tendency of Jews to involve themselves in progressive political causes – the civil rights movement; the Vietnam anti-war protests; gay rights - in short those causes which seek to limit the power of the state and uphold human dignity.  And lets not forget that Israel was formed out of the ashes of Auschwitz.

 

For children of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust is not some distant historical event whose memories only come alive once a year on Yom HaShoah.  Our parents miraculously survived the Tsunami that engulfed their lives and we, their sons and daughters, still feel its ripples.  Indeed, for some of us they are a rip tide.  Some live with demons that have driven them to despair, living lives of potential unfulfilled, hearing sirens who give them no rest.  Others have driven themselves to heights of accomplishment and achievement, to lose themselves in the moment and still the weight of the past.  Still others have tamed the demons, understand the demons, accommodated with them  - and go on with their lives.

 

No doubt you’re all wondering what was it about my mother’s dream that caused her to pick up and leave a place she had known all her life.  When she was  a little girl, she had a favourite uncle, Simcha Beenim, who was very close to her and loved her very much as she did him. He died when she was in her early teens. It was he who came to her that night very vividly and told her that a darkening storm was gathering and that she should go.  To paint a complete picture I should say that Gombin was not Anatekva – Jews there were aware of world events, the growth of fascism and anti-Semitism in Germany and the threat that it posed.  Yet worldly knowledge alone would not have been sufficient to dislodge my parents from their home.  It was the dream – it was Simcha Beenim who continued to take care of her - even from beyond the grave.

 

 

 

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