(Mendl ben Moshe)
13th February 1925 - 1st November 2004
|This is a tribute
to my father, Michael Wajsman, who died in Copenhagen on 1st November
2004, at the age of 79. As the rabbi said at my father's funeral, his
life was a microcosm of Jewish life in the 20th century, marked by
tragedy but also eventual rebirth and triumph.
My father was born in Lublin, Poland, in 1925, the son of a tailor. Lublin was a major center of Jewish life in Poland, even if the vast majority of its Jews lived in poverty. My grandfather Moshe was a leader in the Jewish Socialist party "Bund". Like many of his generation, he believed that rather than emigration to Palestine, the solution to the problems facing Eastern Europe's Jews--poverty, discrimination, pogroms--lie in socialism which would liberate mankind and do away with crass nationalism. Today we know that this was a naive hope, but viewed from the perspective of the time it seemed entirely reasonable. And so my father was brought up in a secular Jewish home. He attended a Jewish school and spoke Yiddish at home, as did all of Lublin's Jews.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, my father was 14 years old. He had two younger brothers--Natan who was then 12 and Zev who was 2. They were part of a large, extended family, with numerous uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives.
Lublin is near the Russian border, and my grandfather, his second wife, my father and his youngest brother Zev eventually escaped into the Soviet Union. The escape was dramatic, involving a perilous river crossing and a 17 km walk with my father carrying his baby brother Zev in his arms. But they survived and were well received by the Russian people in the town where they went to live--far enough to the east that when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union two years later, they never reached my father and his family.
The rest of the large family in Lublin all perished during the Holocaust. Some were murdered by the Germans in Lublin (including Natan, whose name I carry), others died in concentration camps. But the net result was the only four members of the family survived.
In the Russian forest town, two more siblings were born: a girl named Rachel and a boy named Zvi. My father attended Russian school. In 1943, at the age of 17, he joined first the Red Army and subsequently a Polish army-in-exile that was formed in the Soviet Union, and spent the remainder of the war as a soldier and then officer, fighting his way through Poland and finally Germany. All things considered, this was not a bad fate for a young Jewish man in those years. When the war ended, there were six members of the Wajsman family alive, and only five were able to return to Poland--my grandfather Moshe had been arrested by Stalin's secret police in 1944 and sentenced to ten years' prison camp in Siberia. His crime was to have been a socialist before the war--people like that were not convenient for Stalin, whose regime eliminated thousands of such people from newly "liberated" Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe that were to fall on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. My grandfather died in the camp in 1953, just a few months before he was to be released.
Despite this, my father continued to believe that the creation of a socialist Poland would once and for all end the endemic anti-Semitism that had been a scourge of Polish life for centuries and create a just society for all. Following the end of the war he was sent to Lower Silesia, a former part of Germany which had been given to Poland. He worked there as a police officer while attending law school. However, during the 1950s it became clear that "socialism" as was being created in Poland had little to do with the idealistic version that Bund and other social democratic parties espoused before the war. Polish anti-Semitism, rather than disappearing under socialism/communism, instead became yet another tool for the regime, to be deployed when convenient. And so, in the mid-1950s, my father's police career came to an end when he refused to change his name to something more Polish-sounding and was dismissed from the force. He worked in a publishing house in Wroclaw (Breslau) the rest of his time in Poland.
In 1956 a momentous event occurred in my father's life: he met Lidia, a young, beautiful Russian woman who was living in Legnica, a town about 70 km from Wroclaw. They were to share the rest of their lives in a relationship that went well beyond the term "marriage". They were each other's best friends, intellectual sparring partners, lovers, mutual sources of strength. In 1960 they had a son, born in Wroclaw. I am that son.
Up through the 1960s life for Polish Jews became more and more difficult. In 1968 Poland was hit by the same type of student unrest as had occurred elsewhere in Europe and North America. The Polish government of the day, trying to put a lid on the student protests and to separate the students from the broader population, blamed "Zionist infiltrators" for stirring up the unrest and arranged carefully staged mass rallies which "demanded" the expulsion of Jews from Polish public life. During the subsequent four years the vast majority of the remaining Polish Jews emigrated--some to Israel, some to the USA, others to various Western European countries. And so on 4th May 1972, my father, my mother and I arrived in Copenhagen. My parents had chosen to go to Denmark, and it was the best decision they could have made. It made it possible for me to grow up in a free country, in an environment of freedom, tolerance and kindness.
In Denmark, my parents quickly settled in the country's second city, Århus, where they both worked with books--my father in the university library and my mother in the university bookstore. They lived a quiet life, battling the usual challenges of being parents of a rebelious teenager. They adjusted very well to their new country. In the meantime, the Wajsman family had grown from the original six survivors. We were now living in several countries on three continents, and visits always involved struggling with foreign languages. But we were and continue to be a real family.
My parents spent the last years of their lives in Copenhagen, where they moved after retiring. Denmark's capital has an active Jewish community in which my father participated. This was the first time in his life since leaving Lublin at the beginning of the war that he had such an opportunity. Otherwise, my parents' life in retirement was centered on their mutual love and on the family. I had left Denmark in 1983 but continued to visit as often as I could, and to get my parents to visit me.
My mother passed away in April 2001. The years since her death were not easy for my father. The relationship he had with my mother was extremely deep, and her passing affected him profoundly. At times he did not see a reason to live. I saw it as my task during those years to show him that he was needed and loved, not least by my children. He was deeply attached to his grandchildren, and if there was one thing that did show him that life was worth living, even without my mother, it was those two wonderful children. We lived in another country, but I tried to make sure that he saw them as often as possible.
In early October 2004 my father and I went to Spain together. He had never visited that country, and so we spent three days driving around Andalucía and walking around Seville. This was to be his last trip. On 29th October he suffered a stroke and died three days later.
From the original six survivors of the war, our family has grown and mostly prospered. The baby brother my father carried to Russia is now a successful surgeon in Florida. The two younger siblings born in the Russian forest live in Israel with their children and now grandchildren. There are also Wajsman family members in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. At our last family reunion, held in Israel, we were dozens of people of all ages, speaking at least six different languages among ourselves. My father was the oldest member of the family and the last one with direct memories of our common origins in Lublin. He is now gone, but for us his legacy will live forever. And we will honor it by transmitting the family bonds to our children, even if we are separated by great distances.