Thursday, January 5, 2012

Marking a Birthday

The yahrzeit memorial candle commemorating the 13th Jewish calendar anniversary of my father’s death burned longer than 24 hours. It flickered Wednesday night, the eve, by coincidence, of my father’s secular calendar birthday, January 5. He would have been 101 today. Or maybe 100. My brother, sister and I simply don’t know.

Several Polish documents—a “morality testimony” and a “certificate of belonging”— list his birthday in 1911. But he often said records were not very exact in Ottynia, the little town, a shtetl, in Galicia where he was born. He would say he was born in 1912. So that’s what we put on his tombstone.

Now part of Ukraine, Ottynia passed through many hands over the centuries. When my dad was born, Ottynia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After World War I it reverted to Poland. During World War II, Ottynia fell under Soviet Union control as part of the partition of Poland pact Stalin forged with Hitler. Nazi Germany overwhelmed Ottynia after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. At the end of the war, Ottynia became a military-restricted area in Ukraine.

My father left Ottynia when he was 16, venturing first to the Free City of Danzig (now known as Gdansk) on the Baltic Sea before coming to America via England in January 1939, months before the second world war broke out. All of his immediate family, except his younger brother, Willy, were killed. Though he would tell his children folklore stories, really parables, about life in the Old Country while we were growing up in Brooklyn, he rarely talked about conditions in Ottynia or Danzig.

Perhaps they were too painful to relate. Trying to raise funds to bring other members of his family here, he was powerless to relieve the pressure on their lives. Among his possessions when he died were three postcards from his parents we’d never previously seen. In painstakingly small Yiddish handwriting, they convey the sorrow of parents who haven’t seen their eldest child in two years, the agony of life in a weakened state. The first two were postmarked by Russian authorities. Stamped on the front of the third and final postcard, just under his name, is a symbol of the Nazi flying eagle holding a swastika.