A few weeks after the first Yohr Tzeit of אבי מורי ז’ל R’ Shaul Zelig HaCohen Balbin, two of our daughters were married ב’’ה.
It is a custom in Melbourne, probably emanating from the מצווה of הכרת הטוב that both Mechutonim say a few words between meals or dance sets. I spoke after my Mechutan, Rabbi Yossy Goldman of Sydenham Shule in Johannesburg. I was most conscious of the fact that my father had descended this world to be at the Simcha. Accordingly, I decided to begin my speech with the Niggun he taught the family and which he often sang at the Shabbos table. My daughters and sisters are visible at stages in various stages of emotion on the video.
I haven’t heard it sung anywhere.
After I finished my speech many people said I should record it “properly” and put it up on iTunes or similar. I admit I hadn’t even thought of that. When I mentioned this to my friend HaRav HaGaon R’ Shraga Feitel HaLevi Levin, he suggested I do not do so. His view was to leave it כמות שהוא as it was. He felt I was in a state of “communion” with my father ע’’ה and that this should not be altered and presented as is. It’s a year later now, and I agree with Feitel, and below is the niggun, as it was sung on the night by me. If anyone has heard it before or knows its origins, I would be very much indebted. Rawa is in Congress Poland.
My memories of this man are larger than life. I attended his Levaya on Erev Shabbos. To us, the Balbin family, he was known as ‘Uncle Pinye’. We were brought up never to call more senior people by their first names. It wasn’t appropriate to call him Mr, in the same way that it wasn’t appropriate to use the Yiddish “Ir” instead of the closer version “Dir”. He, as usual, disliked Mr just as much, and always said he was “Peter Kay.”
Uncle Pinye was another long-time member of Elwood Shule after his family moved from Adelaide to Melbourne. He sat at the back-most row of the Shule in the last seat of the middle section on the left, leading into the Beis Medrash named after R’ Chaim Yoffe, where daily services are still conducted. Uncle Pinye didn’t sit there because the seats were cheaper. He sat there because he was enigmatic. On the one hand, he wasn’t short of a dollar, and was munificent when it came to Tzedoko for causes that were dear to him. He revelled in the happy social murmur pervading a brunch or event that he loved to host. On the other hand, he wasn’t a person who felt comfortable “standing out” in a Shule environment. The most comforting, perhaps compromising position for him was in the back row. If anything, I felt that he was always struggling when sitting in Shule, conjoined to a seat.
To be sure, there were other members of our family who also sat in that back row over the years, and this would also have contributed to feelings of relative comfort. I use the term ‘relative comfort’ because he was constantly in a state of inner and vocal philosophical turmoil.
All Holocaust survivors struggle to find meaning or justification (if I can use such a word) to describe what they experienced, but he was an Auschwitz survivor whose tattooed number one didn’t need to see. ‘Holocaust survivor and State of Israel lover‘ were evident in a virtual tattoo that was visible constantly on his forehead and literally manifested itself in every second line of conversation I and others had with him for almost 50 years.
A close friend of my father ע’’ה for seventy years, he and his wife Resi ע’’ה loved my mother equally.
He always told me that if I needed to study the definition of Yiddishe Mamme, I should simply look at my mother. I remember my band ‘Schnapps’ flying up to Sydney to play at his grandson’s wedding. I secretly wept at select moments when nobody was watching. I played Yiddishe Mamma at his request on my violin. For him, this was a surreal occasion. I feel he was riddled with the understandable guilt of enjoyment and Nachas. What do I mean by that? Although he merited seeing two daughters build families and played joyfully with great grandchildren, he was in a state of questioning at all times. His question was
“Why me? Why did I deserve to survive? What inherent quality did I possess that was not possessed by the millions who were butchered around me?
That was not his most powerful question or indeed his constant question. He traumatised me somewhat from a very young age whenever, and I mean whenever, he saw me. He would ask:
Hey youngster! Yitzchik, I know you are an intelligent boy, a religious boy, and a good son to your parents, but one day I’d like you to explain to me why 1,000,000 children deserved to die.
As I got older, and wiser, I subconsciously, and no doubt intentionally, tried to gently steer the conversation away from that and to the Nachas he was enjoying. He wasn’t simple, of course. He knew exactly what I was doing, and sometimes managed to reverse my strategy.
He wore a small Tallis, and usually that grey hat. I suspect that the late and great R’ Chaim Gutnick ז’’ל was someone whose expressed the pain of the holocaust and a genuine love of the State of Israel as manifested in his renowned drashos, affected Uncle Pinye in a manner that captivated his attention. Rabbi Gutnick didn’t have answers either. He never pretended to. Who does? He spoke about the dry bones, and how those dry bones came to life. I am sure that message resonated somewhat with Uncle Pinye, and it was probably for that reason, and the cajoling of my father and late Uncle Yaakov, that allowed him to feel semi-comfortable enough to attend Elwood in those days.
Last week, when his state of health state was undulating precariously like a yo-yo, between recovery and imminent end of life, I visited him. As a Cohen, it was a calculated decision. We donned gowns and gloves. He was lying listlessly in the bed, and when he realised that I had come with my mother, an enormous strength overcame him as reflected in his eyes and hands. Suddenly, he was the typical Uncle Pinye. I knew it, because he said , in his last words to me
Listen to me youngster (he was 93 and I have grandchildren!) I do not intend to leave this world until I get an answer to why 1,000,000 children were allowed to be murdered.
I was frozen, as always when confronted with this style of questioning. I find it difficult to read books about the holocaust, let alone watch a movie. The latter stems from my experience as a boy, watching the Diary of Anne Frank and running out of the TV room when the Nazis ימ’’ש found her. I recall running to my room in Rockbrook Road, lying down on the bed, trembling and weeping. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that moment. But, this isn’t about me.
When we were young, his family lived in Adelaide. It was there that he built his livelihood. They would come (and it wasn’t cheap) for visits to Melbourne, and there was no question that his daughters were tantalised by the richer Jewish and social life in Melbourne, as well as the sense of family experienced through the wider Balbin family. Whenever they came, we were in their surrounds, enjoying many moments together. They were a permanent fixture though they lived in Adelaide. Eventually, daughters Dora and Belinda won. The family moved to Melbourne, but he used to commute because he couldn’t just leave his business interests to dissipate in wanton abandon.
He had used the name Peter Kay, because in a non-Jewish world it was easier. I recall his love of table tennis, gymnastics, hand-stands and sport, as well as the gregarious nature he oozed without tiring. He had no qualms dressing up, and his house just had to have a formal bar. The refrain
Can I offer you a drink?
still rings in my ear. It wasn’t an offer. It was essentially a command. He had it all behind that bar, and once a drink or two were quaffed, our discussion inevitably led to the Holocaust and how much he admired my parents and family.
He would enthuse that he didn’t have words for the honesty and integrity of my father and Uncle Yaakov who slaved upstairs in their factory cutting clothes and assembling them for production.
For her part, my mother knew that Uncle Pinye loved Choolent. Almost each Shabbos, especially when my father retired, we set aside the remainder to be delivered personally by my father (sometimes together with me) to his house on Sunday. If my father was ill, he and my mother would ask me to perform the delivery. I did so, willingly, of course, even if it meant a drink and talk session that lasted at least an hour. There was no such thing as a quick visit.
I remember a number of times he said to me, “Yitzchik, I have so many paintings, please choose a few and take them home for your lovely wife”. I have always felt uncomforable accepting gifts, and I kept replying that I had no art appreciation and he’d need to talk to my wife. His response was, of course, “so bring her, with pleasure”. My wife also visited on a number of occasions and he loved her too like family.
The root of this connection goes back many years. Although he was born in Lodz, he had relatives in my father’s home town of Rawa Mazowiecka. Immediately after the war,
when he imagined that nobody had survived, he found two of his sisters in my Booba and Zeyda’s house in Rawa. He never forgot that. I recall when the sisters (Zosia and Itka), who lived overseas, would come to Melbourne, the special bond that they too shared with my father. The kinsmanship and love were palpable. It was no problem for me to like them as well. It was a veritable hand in glove.
Like my parents, his family was his love and purpose and that kept a tortured soul focussed and grounded somewhat. The State of Israel was a miracle he was so very proud of and he never failed to be part of it, even when he wasn’t physically standing in the streets therein.
When my father ע’’ה passed away recently, he turned his attention to the isolation and melancholy that my mother understandably descended into. After her serious fall, he redoubled his efforts, even though he was physically frail. Almost a day wouldn’t go by without him incessantly ringing my mother, and then me and my sisters when he couldn’t elicit an answer from her phone. He wanted to take out the entire family for dinner. I tried to explain that we’d need to wait until the year was over, and he accepted that, but even after the year was over, my mother was and remains rather isolationist, rejecting invitations from her friends for the most simple of activities, such as sharing a cup of coffee. This will change, undoubtedly, in time, but alas, Uncle Pinye departed before she was able to bring herself to accept invitations with comfort.
He is now, no doubt, at peace. I use the term קדושי ניצולי השואה which whilst not common, cannot be seen as objectionable. For me, every survivor was and is holy. They were holy, because they had been “set aside” as a Korbon, literally a sacrifice on the altar. For reasons we do not comprehend, the Korbon survived, not because it was a בעל מום, חס ושלום, rather because
הנסתרות להשם אלוקינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם
The hidden mysteries are the domain of Hashem, but the revealed, is for us, our children and offspring, forever.
This is my only response, although it is not one that I ever used in discussion with Uncle Pinye. There could never be a response that would assuage his troubled, quixotic character.
He is now hovering above his grave on the journey to the Garden of Eden, at the end of the 12 months of mourning. His legacy, kindness, love, and gregarious nature, though, is set in stone in my psyche, and in that of my mother, siblings, children and the wider Balbin family.
יהי זכרו ברוך
Postscript: at great expense and with much paper shuffling under the devoted hand of Ezra May, he decided to formally change his name back to Koplowicz. He had needed to function as “Kay” but he had never lost the Koplowicz, and that describes his essence in a single act. It isn’t surprising that Yom Yerushalayim will fall during his week of Shiva. That is also Hashgocho—the conundrum of issuing praise for the miracles Hashem wrought after the Holocaust, davka at a time of extreme mourning for an individual of this ilk.
The march of the living program has brought into focus the practice of visiting Poland for a commemorative experiential post holocaust event. Several years ago, I presented a research paper in Kraków. My father and his immediate family survived the Holocaust through חסדי השם and his שלוחים Felka (Feliksa nee) Gallach and her father, Jozef Gallach.
The Balbin family of six sat, quite literally, in a box submerged under straw.
at the back of a ramshackle hut, in the rear of a remote farm in Závady, for a period of 2+ years. When they emerged, they had great difficulty standing. For a period of a dangerous six months they “lived” hidden in the corn fields adjoining the hut.
Felka and her father Jozef were inducted at Yad Vashem in 1998 and 1996 respectively, as righteous gentiles—חסידי אומות העולם—together with 6,339 Righteous Poles.
Felka on left, with my father
They assuredly deserved this honour, and I am here today because of their heroic efforts. A young 16-year-old Felka used to emerge in the dead of night, at great risk to herself, throwing potatoes, bread and other food scraps into the hole. Family Gallach never disclosed that they were hiding Jews at the back of their farm. They had a choice. By not supplying food scraps, starvation would have been inevitable.
My father eventually relented, and after a period of over 50 years, he became the first Balbin to personally visit Rawa and thank Felka face to face. Felka was quite ill, and we brought expensive and hard to obtain medicine to aid in her suffering from Parkinsons disease.
It didn’t start there. Immediately after the war the family sent and continues to send clothing, money and medicines. We don’t throw out our excesses. Even grandchildren know that “it goes to Poland”. I was most fortunate to be present when my father met the elderly Felka (who has since passed away).
It was a difficult trip for my father; he was most apprehensive. Reluctant to speak Polish and reveal his identity, his demeanour was accurately captured by this photo. With his head down, often pacing, he appeared afraid to peer, explore or relate to the surrounds.
Our next stop was my father’s home town, Rawa. We visited his childhood home. He was transfixed and emotional. Was it something that he should have done? Was it worth me being there with him and experiencing the roller coast of emotions? Was this as much if not more for me than it was for him? Were the wounds worth re-aggravating? This picture reveals some of the emotion etched in his face better than my words.
Our next two stops were confronting and highly offensive. Wanting to visit קבר אבות we proceeded to the בית עולם. I was excited. Even though we are Cohanim and unable to enter a holy cemetery, I so much wanted to “connect” with my namesake, my father’s beloved Zeyda, R’ Yitzchak Amzel ז’ל. The scene at the cemetery was shocking.
When were the tombstones removed? It was not during the Nazi persecution. It wasn’t even immediately after the war, when the tombstones remained intact. No, it was in the ensuing years, when almost no Jew was to ever visit this town of Rawa. The residents of Rawa clearly decided that a Jewish cemetery was just an opportunity to gather expensive stone and use it for paving and other mundanely servile needs. What type of person could do this? How were they educated? What milk did they drink? It’s hard to fathom. Unlike the Germans who have educated their youth and are intolerant to racism and anti-Semitism, this forsaken piece of earth was overtaken by brazen savagery. Is there another more diplomatic way to describe it?
To add insult to injury, as we walked to our car and passed through a park, three Polish men sitting on a park bench, who would have been some 60 meters away, raised their legs, placing their hands on their genitalia, gesticulating with mannerless intent. We were wearing hats and not Yarmulkas. My father would not allow me to wear my Yarmulka. I had wanted someone to attack my Jewishness so that I could “fight back” in an emancipated manner not available to my forbears. Those males would have been under 10 during the war and yet they not only recognised Jews from the distance, but sought fit to poison the atmosphere with their anti-Semitic display. It’s worth noting that the population of Rawa Mazowiecka was roughly 50% Jewish and there was harmonious coöperation for many hundreds of years.
With a sour taste in our mouths we left Rawa. On our return to Melbourne, Dad was proud that he had visited Felka, but the extreme negative experiences left him ambivalent at best.
It has been part of my mission to try to reclaim and cordon off the Cemetery. I’ve been working with Australian politicians unsuccessfully, and sadly, Michael Danby MP has been unable to help over many years despite his efforts. I am now working with Rabbi Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi, and others. It’s at a delicate stage.
Several years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner caused a storm when he stated
In a conversation with Ynet, [Rav] Aviner explained: “As is well known, leaving Israel is permitted only for the sake of mitzvah, while visiting the death camps is not defined as a mitzvah by the Halacha. There are important figures and great rabbis who have not visited there.
“Clearly what happened in the Holocaust must be remembered, but this can be done using films, books, the Yad Vashem museum and there are even the testimonies of survivors who are still alive,” he stated.
And what about the emotional experience?
“I once told educators that in any case the impression vanishes after six months, like any other emotional experience with a short shelf life. They smiled and said that it actually fades away after three weeks.”
[Rav] Aviner also said that the trips have not been proven to have an “educational value.” “For some this experience is very difficult and they come back utterly distraught,” he added.
‘Why should Nazi collaborators benefit?’
Another argument against visiting the camps, according to the rabbi, was the fact that the Polish people “collaborated with the Nazis” and were now making a living off of these visits. “I’m not busy holding a grudge against the Poles, but we shouldn’t provide livelihood to people who allowed death camps to be built on their land and who are now making a profit out of it.
“They are not my friends and I don’t want to support them.”
Rabbi Aviner’s view is shared by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a renowned Talmid Chacham and others.
A few weeks ago, my cousins visited Rawa. Their experience was even worse than ours. When knocking on the door of my father’s home, they politely asked if they could just come inside and take a look for sentimental reasons. They were rebutted with the words:
“No Jew will cross this door again”
Why? What had any Jew done to them? Most were living in houses that were not their own or that they had purchased for peanuts immediately after the war. Was that the answer?
They were also affronted by the graffiti at soccer stadiums. Apparently, the biggest insult to the opposing team is to paint a Magen David, and accuse the other team of being “Jews”. During games, they hatefully spifflicate “Jew, Jew, Jew” at each other. Coincidentally, I had also read that:
It describes a derby match from November 2008 in Krakow between the city’s teams, Cracovia and Wisla, whose rivalry is such that it is described here as a “holy war”.
Some Wisla fans sang an anti-Semitic song about the supposed Jewish origins of their rivals and when a Cracovia player left the pitch, fans shouted: “To the gas chambers.”
When the match ended Wisla players went over to their fans to thank them, some of them making obscene chants about Jews.
Beforehand, some Cracovia fans made monkey noises at Wisla’s Brazilian player, Cleber, when he was sent off.
But this is not the whole picture. Wisla now have two Israeli players in their first team, and one of them, David Biton, is the club’s top scorer this season.
Our youngest daughter will be visiting Poland with her Seminary in a few months time.