This may well be one of my last posts on Rocky and Gawenda. The writing has taken me in a new and unexpected direction, where memory and imagination meet. I am not sure where this will go, this mixture of memory and imagination, where `facts’ and fictions are intertwined. The `house of facts’ as a friend described them, will remain, but within the house, my imagination will be let loose. Can this stay a development of Rocky and Gawenda? I fear not. Mind you, Rocky has played a big role in taking me where I think I am now heading. And he has said — on the back of the book– that in his view, I can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. If those of you who have followed the adventures of Rocky and Gawenda have a view about its life span, I’d love to have it.
Meanwhile, Rocky and Gawenda the book will be launched by Tim Costello on Saturday October 3 at Veg Out at the Peanut Reserve in St Kilda at 10.15 am. Humans and their dogs–on leashes please– most welcome. There are other events coming up for the book and I will post details in the next week or so.
Chaskiel Gawenda was disdainful of small dogs, though he himself was a small man, wiry and thin-legged, round bellied too, but somehow sturdy looking, with tightly curled greying black hair that stood up a good three or four inches from his scalp, his hairline set back as if to emphasise the curve of his large forehead, large foreheads and hair standing up being fashionable and desirable at the time. At the time, in 1946, certainly amongst the Jews in the displaced persons camp -where I was born in February 1947– Albert Einstein was considered to be the world’s smartest Jew.
The DP camp was in Veksheit which the Austrians called Bindermichel, a suburb of Linz. Not far away, perhaps a half a kilometre away, was the double storey red brick house with a flat slate roof and small wooden windows painted dark brown, in which Adolf Hitler had grown up. It seems likely, though not certain, for no record exists of it at the Linz Hospital where I was born, that Hitler too was born there a few years earlier. I have often wondered whether the fact that Hitler and I were born in the same city and perhaps even in the same hospital, not all that much time apart, had any meaning or whether it was just coincidence. It is not hard to consider it meaningful: the largest Displaced Persons camp in Austria for the Jews of Poland and Russia who had survived Hitler’s plans for them, was located in the city of his birth, indeed a stone’s throw from where he grew up. Which made Hitler and me Landsman — there is no direct translation of this Yiddish word which describes people born in the same city, but resonates with spiritual and volk connections. Come to think of it, perhaps we weren’t Landsman.
In April 1946. my entry into the life of Chaskiel Gawenda was still 10 months away. I am not sure when I first became aware of Chaskiel Gawenda, my father, but I do know that by the time I was conscious of him, he was well into late middle-age and therefore not the man he had been. It is that man in whom I am currently interested. Back then, he had three daughters. Rita, the youngest, was born in Siberia in December 1940, more than a year after Chaskiel and his wife Chaja and daughters Hinda and Cesia left Lodz not long after the arrival of the German Army. Rita was a miracle baby, they said. I am not sure just what sort of miracle she was, but I always assumed it was because she was so beautiful–everyone said so– and not necessarily because she was born in the back of a horse- drawn cart in the middle of a Siberian winter. Chaja was 40 when Rita was born, a wholly unexpected miracle and one that Chaskiel had not welcomed.
Chaskiel and Chaja had been married for 16 years when they fled Lodz with Hinda and Cesia. It was an unlikely marriage, though this judgement is made from the perspective of someone who was exposed to Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca at a very early age. Hinda and Cesia, by then both in their late 20s and Hollywood- ruined as far as love was concerned, took me along to the local picture theatre on Chapel Street on Saturday night when their husbands and my father were at Festival Hall for the boxing.
Chaskiel was 22 and Chaja 21 when they were married in the small grey-stone synagogue on Stanislav Street, a narrow cobbled street lined with two and three storey brown rendered apartment buildings, each with a wooden gated entrance which led to a communal courtyard criss-crossed with string on which the women hung the family washing every Thursday afternoon so that it could dry well before the Sabbath. On December 16, 1923, when Chaskiel and Chaja were married, around 5000 Jews lived in these apartment buildings, about a third of the population of Loyvich, or Lowich as the non-Jewish residents of this small town 50 kilometres east of Lodz, called it.
At 22, Chaskiel was handsome and vain, olive skinned, with dark deep set eyes and thick curly black hair that he liked to brush up and back from his broad forehead. Already then, he had his clothes tailored. He liked wide pleated woollen pants, sports jackets that were gathered at the waist, shirts of the best thick-woven cotton that he bought on his regular trips to Lodz and black and dark brown loafers. Chaskiel, at 22, was a master weaver, having completed his apprenticeship in Lodz where he had lived with an uncle from the time his parents died, months apart, from tuberculosis, when he was five years old.
Lodz was Poland’s great textile industry centre–with Loyvich as one of Lodz’s satelite towns where the weavers, mostly Jews who worked out of their apartment buildings, the master weavers, like Chaskiel Gawenda in particular, employing at least one apprentice and a qualified trademan or two, produced the finest carpet in all of Eastern Europe. By his wedding day on December 14, 1923, Chaskiel Gawenda had leased his own apartment on one of the wider, more salubrious streets of the Jewish area of Loyvich.
In one of the three rooms of the apartment, Chaskiel set up three carpet weaving machines which he had leased from the German supplier in Lodz. Most of the large weaving factories in Lodz were owned and run by Germans. The Germans had set up their factories in Lodz in the 1880s and had brought with them Jewish master weavers from Germany who in turn, apprenticed the Polish Jewish boys coming out of the cheders of Lodz- as Chaskiel did– at 13, Torah-filled and Talmud savvy, and ready to learn a trade which in Lodz almost invariably meant in textiles.
In Loyvich, at the age of 22, Chaskiel had rejected the Torah ways of his childhood. The uncle who raised him in Lodz was a pious man and when Chaskiel refused to cover his head except at the Friday night Shabbes meal, his uncle suggested that it would be best if Chaskiel found somewhere else to live. Thus it was that Chaskiel moved from Lodz to Loyvich and by the time he was 22, was full of utopian socialist bravado, handsome and successful in business, for not many young men his age had three weaving machines and employed two weavers and an apprentice, Chaja’s younger brother Shia who Chaskiel considered rather too much of a dreamer to ever become a master weaver.
On Saturdays, before he was married, Chaskiel went to the local Jewsh cinema where he particularly liked the cowboy films, especially the early talkies which were dubbed into Yiddish, the dubbing done by some of the best actors and actresses of the Lodz and Warsaw Yiddish theatres. More often than not, he went to the movies with Zissman Mazrokevich and Zissman’s younger brother Moishe, whose parents had taken Chaskiel in when he had arrived in Loyvich, aged 15, after his uncle had ordered him to leave his house.
The Mazrokevich family had been friends with Chaskiel’s parents, not close friends but friends enough to take Chaskiel in. Zissman Mazkrokevich was Chaskiel’s age, Moishe three years younger, a tall and athletic boy, with long blond hair and an Aryan looking face that Hitler and Goebbels would have envied, wild at heart and street smart and tough, wilder at heart and tougher than Zissman who was wild enough and tough enough himself. Both brothers looked up to Chaskiel, though they thought him rather too bookish and too much of a dandy for their liking. The Mazrokevich’s had a dog, a German Shepherd called Woolf that had about him something of Zissman’s and Moishe’s fearlessness.
Only semi-secular, Torah questioning Jews owned dogs. Chaskiel and Woolf were inseparable and it was from this time that Chaskiel came to disdain small dogs. The German textile magnates had brought with them German Shepherds in the main. They were used as guard dogs at the textile mills in Lodz and it was said later, amongst inmates of the Lodz Ghetto, that the German Shepherds used by the SS soldiers to help with rounding up the Jews bound for the Chelmno death camp, that these were not the German Shepherds the Jews of Lodz had known and in some cases, loved, dogs that had been Lodz born and bred and raised.
The Mazrokevich family lived in the same apartment building as Motl Laznowski, his wife Hinda, and their three sons and three daughters. Chaja Laznowski was the youngest of the daughters and when Chaskiel first got to know her, when he was 15 and newly arrived from Lodz, and she 14, Chaja was a slight fair-haired girl with blue eyes, a long thin but not unattractive face and though modest in her demeanor and devoted to her family as were most Jewish girls her age, devoted to the point where they hardly had a life outside their apartment and the communal courtyard, their lives full of washing clothes and cooking and preparing for the Sabbath and for the religious festivals around which their lives revolved, Chaja’s steely resolve, reflected in her eyes–resolve to do what Chaskiel sometimes wondered–eventually gave Chaja a certain allure in Chaskiel’s mind.
But it never crossed his mind, even when it crossed his mind that Chaja might be his wife–by then Zissman had married Chaja’s older sister Fayge– to take Chaja with him to the cinema on Saturday night, nor did it cross his mind to take her to the meetings of the Loyvich chapter of the Weaver’s Union or to the Lodz Yiddish Theatre performances where he went once a month, dressed in his finest tailored trousers and waisted sports coat. He went alone to the theatre and to union meetings. Neither Zissman nor Moishe was interested in these things, though one of Caja’s brothers sometimes came with him to the theatre. Leibl was a flamboyant young man and his fl;amboyance sometimes annoyed Chaskiel, but in the main, they liked each other. Later, Leibl became an actor. He escaped Lodz after the Germans came, but was killed, along with his wife and two children, in Minsk after he refused to leave, despite Chaja’s pleas, because he said, he was tired of running and he had finally found a Yiddish theatre group that appreciated his talent.
On their wedding day on December 14, 1923, Zissman was Chaskiel’s best man. Chaskiel’s sister Cesia, his only sibling, who lived with her husband in Warsaw, was matron of honor. There were 100 people in the Shul that Sunday afternoon, a bitterly cold and windy day, threatening snow, but instead, the afternoon was punctuated by freezing rain showers. Rabbi Boruch Weizman, who often ate his shabbes meal at the Laznowski home, for he was a bachelor, conducted the wedding ceremony. Chaskiel wore a black hand tailored suit, a white wing collared shirt and patent leather shoes. Chaja’s dress, Chaskiel had insisted–and he had agreed to pay for it– had to be specially made and in the style that he had seen Molly Picon wear in a movie. Molly Picon was a the Yiddish actress who had made it, small-time, in Hollywood.
Zissman was there with Fayge. Moishe came too, dressed in a black shirt and black trousers, his shirt unbuttoned at the top, his black overcoat glistening with raindrops, the black cap he wore everywhere covering his longish blond hair, though not entirely, for he wore his cap slightly to the left side of his head. The whole Mazrokevich family was there and so too of course were the Laznowskis and their sons and daughters, even Makhcha, the oldest of the daughters, who Chaskiel could not abide because he found her stupid and demanding and unlikely ever to marry and he feared that Chaja would be burdened with looking after Makhcha long after her parents were dead, which meant that Makhcha would be his burden too.
As it turned out, he was right. What he couldn’t know was that Makhcha, after my mother died, would one day be his lover and that she would make my life miserable and that the hatred between us would be mutual, as powerful, if not more so, than the hatred between Makhcha and Chaskiel on that December day in 1923. I was 14 when I discovered that Makhcha and Chaskiel were lovers. I despised him that night and for many nights afterwards. After days of stony silence between us, I told him I intended to move out of home as soon as I could.
“You’re a fool,” he said. “But if that’s what you want to do, do it. Hinda will take you in.”
“Makhcha?” I cried. “Makhcha?”
“What do you know!” he answered. “Go, go live with Hinda.”
Chaskiel and Chaja’s wedding night was spent in the apartment, in the room beside the room in which the three weaving machines were housed. The workers had been given the day off and Chaja’s brother Shia too had not worked that morning. He slept in the machine room usually, though on this night, he went home to the Laznowskis. The rain was still falling intermittently and the wind had strengthened and though there was a fireplace in the room, there had been no time to light a fire. It was cold, as cold as a room could be without a fire on a December day in Loyvich.
It was a much milder day, on April 14 1946, when Chaskiel Gawenda and Chaja, together with their daughters Hinda and Cesia and Rita arrived at the displacd person’s camp in Veksheit,the suburb of Linz, where Adolf Hitler might have been born and where I was to be born in Feburay 1947. They were greeted by Zissman and Fayge who by then, as well as their two daughters, had a son who was six years old, Rita’s age. The two families had not seen each other for six years.
They had left Lodz together for Russia in October 1939. They had left Loyvich together, both families, in 1931, for Lodz, where Chaskiel set up a four machine weaving operation in an apartment in Lodz’s textile centre. By the time the Germans arrived in 1939, Chaskiel Gawenda, while still a utopian socialist, was a successful carpet manufacturer. Hinda and Cesia went to private Yiddish folk schools. The family lived in a spacious apartment on one of the better streets in the Jewish district of the city. They even had a maid, a Polish girl whose family took over the apartment when Chaskiel and Chaja and Hinda and Cesia left Lodz and headed for Russia.
They had gone from Lodz together in a horse drawn cart that Zissman had stolen from the blacksmith’s workshop near their apartment building. It was Zissman who forced them to pack a few belongings and get into the cart. It was Zissman who had taken Chaskiel by the scruff of the neck and had threatened to kill him on the spot if he didn’t gather his family together and get in the cart, They were all leaving. All except for Moishe who had been killed by a German soldier on the day the German army units arrived in Lodz. Moishe had got drunk and had run through the streets of the Jewish district shouting “Down with Hitler!” He had confronted a group of German soldiers, drunk and brave and fearless, and had told them he was more of an Aryan than they were and he had taken off his black cap and shown them his blond hair and he had spat at their feet and as a consequence, had been shot dead. Woolf was with him and the soldiers had taken the dog with them and had left Moishe in the street where he had fallen.
The two families travelled across Poland in the horse drawn cart, but were separated in Bialystock where thousands of Jews were clamoring to pay smugglers to get them across the border into the Soviet union. So chaotic were things in Bialystock that it was not possible for the two families to stay together. When a smuggler offered to take Avreml and his wife Fayge and their two daughters across the border into Russia, but would not wait, not even for an hour, Zissman decided they had to go, then and there. Fayge was hysterical, crying and wailing for her sister but to no avail.
The DP camp in Veksheit was run by the American military and at the beginning, when it was first set up in December 1945, most of the refugees were concentration camp survivors, but by the time Chaskiel and his family arrived, an increasing number of Jews who had fled to Russia from Poland at the start of the war made up the 4000 inhabitants of the camp.
Zissman had arrived in January 1946, with Fayge and their children. He immediately joined a group of young men who hunted down Nazis in Linz. They also hunted down collaborators–concentration camp kapos, Jewish ghetto police– in the DP camp.In some instances, the collaborators were executed by Avreml and his group without a hearing, though the majority were not killed, but rather sentenced, after informal `trials’, to being banished from all involvement with communal life. In Linz proper, however, Avreml killed people, mostly young men who, under duress, admitted they had served in German SS units.
Chaskiel Gawenda knew nothing of this when he arrived in Veksheit in April 1946 with Chaja and Hinda and Cesia and Rita. By then Chaja knew that her brothers, Leibl and Shia and their wives and children were dead. She was worried about Makhcha, who had escaped to Russia with her husband–she had married after all! –and she was sick, Chaja was, sick and weary and old and frightened and in that displaced persons’ camp in Veksheit, not more than a half a kilometre from where Hitler spent his childhood, there in the barracks where hundreds of people, men, women and children, slept on iron cots, there in the middle of the night, some time not long after they had arrived, though it might seem inconceivable, I was conceived.
Chaskiel Gawenda did not join Zissman’s group of avengers. His only sister and his five year old niece–at least she had been five when he last saw her in June 1939, when his sister and her husband and Chavele had come to Lodz for a visit–had been killed, as far as he could discover when he returned to Lodz in August 1945, at Chelmno some time after the Nazis started their round-ups from the Lodz Ghetto in the winter of 1941. But Chaskiel Gawenda was in many ways, still full of life. He might have been by then in late middle-age, but he was considered to be still handsome and there was an energy about him, a sort of life force that Chaja, for all her stubborn resolve, had lost–or perhaps had never had.
There was something about him, small in stature though he was, that made him feel large and powerful. Even in the camp in Veksheit, Chaskiel Gawenda, when he earnt some money selling groceries and confectionery he bought from the American KP store and which he sold at a stall he ran at the camp, sought out a tailor in Linz to make him a pair of pleated trousers and a waisted sports coat. And he remained, even in Veksheit, a man who loved large dogs.