Iowa Writes

JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN
The Two Little Boys (Part 1)


        When I was just twelve, I remembered all the framed photographs of our relatives in a haphazard row cluttering his mantel top.  "Zaydie" ("Grandfather") Mendel lived in a musty apartment in a four-story building housing other elderly Jews like him right off Highway 100 in "St Jewish Park," as everyone there nicknames St Louis Park.  Mom insisted that we kids -- my brother Bradley and I -- accompany her on the "One-Sunday-a-Month" visit.  My Pop refused to come along whenever he could.  He was tired of the same old stories, the same old sorrows.
        This time Pop particularly had to go and see his father. Mendel Bennesavitz was dying; soon there would be no more "One-Sunday-a-Month" visits.  No more Shoah stories about the family, or himself.  You see, Zaydie Mendel was a Holocaust Survivor.  Some of his memories of those times and places were imprinted on faded sepia, or black and white paper, for listeners to look at when he whispers about Piatowka and Sobibor in Poland.
        These old faded photographs from Piatowka were all that was left of his immediate family before the Holocaust.  They came in all sizes and frame styles.  Zaydie knew why each image was exactly in its place on his mantel.  To Mom and Pop and us kids, they looked like old photographs he arranged in some order, which only he understands.  His originals were long ago lost.  Wanting replacements once his life was more settled in America, he asked our relatives in Minneapolis to make a new set from their set of originals for him.  They did more than that, apparently.  They presented their personal set of old ones from Piatowka to Zaydie as a way to honor him, and his deceased parents.  When he explained how he came by them on some Sunday visit awhile back, Mom smiled, and Pop looked dutifully "appreciative"-- even though to him photographs were photographs.
        No big deal.
        At the time, I thought nothing much either about their lineup.
        Now I know better.

        When I was just twelve, I remembered all the framed photographs of our relatives in a haphazard row cluttering his mantel top.  "Zaydie" ("Grandfather") Mendel lived in a musty apartment in a four-story building housing other elderly Jews like him right off Highway 100 in "St Jewish Park," as everyone there nicknames St Louis Park.  Mom insisted that we kids -- my brother Bradley and I -- accompany her on the "One-Sunday-a-Month" visit.  My Pop refused to come along whenever he could.  He was tired of the same old stories, the same old sorrows.
        This time Pop particularly had to go and see his father. Mendel Bennesavitz was dying; soon there would be no more "One-Sunday-a-Month" visits.  No more Shoah stories about the family, or himself.  You see, Zaydie Mendel was a Holocaust Survivor.  Some of his memories of those times and places were imprinted on faded sepia, or black and white paper, for listeners to look at when he whispers about Piatowka and Sobibor in Poland.
        These old faded photographs from Piatowka were all that was left of his immediate family before the Holocaust.  They came in all sizes and frame styles.  Zaydie knew why each image was exactly in its place on his mantel.  To Mom and Pop and us kids, they looked like old photographs he arranged in some order, which only he understands.  His originals were long ago lost.  Wanting replacements once his life was more settled in America, he asked our relatives in Minneapolis to make a new set from their set of originals for him.  They did more than that, apparently.  They presented their personal set of old ones from Piatowka to Zaydie as a way to honor him, and his deceased parents.  When he explained how he came by them on some Sunday visit awhile back, Mom smiled, and Pop looked dutifully "appreciative"-- even though to him photographs were photographs.
        No big deal.
        At the time, I thought nothing much either about their lineup.
        Now I know better.
        Zaydie Mendel had one more story to tell.  His twin brothers would bear witness from their perch on the mantel of Zaydie's still deep love for them to this day.
        Zaydie was the oldest of the siblings in those days.  Great-grandfather Baruch and great-grandmother Esther Bennesavitz had six children.  Zaydie Mendel was born the year when Poland became a country once again at the end of World War I.  Three sisters promptly followed every other year during the mid to late-1920s, as Baruch's textile mill prospered from making wool cloth for Polish military uniforms.  "Groisser Zaydie" ("Great Grandfather") Baruch's household was already crowded when "Groisse Bubbe" ("Great Grandmother") Esther came home one day in early 1934 from a doctor appointment with some astonishing news.
        About sixteen years after Zaydie was born, his twin brothers Elihu and Zachariah came into the world.  They were genuine "surprises," according to our family legend.  I guess Groisser Zaydie and Groisse Bubbe took advantage of the Torah commandment about "resting" on Shabbos very literally.  When the doctor confirmed that Groisse Bubbe Esther was indeed "with child," he laughed when giving his prognosis to her that she would deliver twins if she was careful.  Oy!  Was Groisser Zaydie dumbfounded! "Twins," he must have thought to himself.  "How come Hashem wouldn't let me make one child at a time like the last four?"  What Groisse Bubbe Esther thought about this situation, I don't know, since Zaydie Mendel told this story at the time when she was no longer alive to dispute his version.
        Then he said, "I will tell you something about Elihu and Zachariah.  They were twins, yes.  But as different as two kids can be, and still have shared the same 'matka,' or womb, like Esau and Jacob did.  I don't think Zachariah held on to Elihu's heel when being born, but both boys always seemed stuck together through thick and thin -- no matter what!
        "They were born when I was almost grown up.  Boy, they were a marvel -- the two of them.  Elihu had reddish hair, and Zachariah black as a raven's.  Elihu's eyes were hazel, and Zachariah's blue.  My sisters babied them something fierce, I remember.  They played with them so much, as if the twins were their own infants and toddlers.  When the two little boys grew older, they got tired of so many 'mothers' bossing them around.  Eventually, my sisters stopped being their 'parents,' and found for themselves other pursuits to engage themselves -- like flirting with the older neighborhood boys.
        "Being the oldest, it was my responsibility to help keep order and take care of them, while Mama was busy with the household, and Papa with his mill down the road.  When Elihu and Zachariah were about five, they followed me everywhere like goslings.  Always laughing about something, and making mischief whenever an opportunity came along.  They loved us so much in their own ways.  Elihu would show his affection with great shows of exaggerated politeness, like he was a Polish 'Pan,' or some nobleman of distinction, and then do some act of special kindness for someone.  On the other hand, Zachariah always made little things and drew pictures to give to everybody as his way of saying, "see, I made this just for you!"  All of us were crazy about them, believe me.  Then there came a time when the laughter and the mischief disappeared in their lives, and ours.
        "One summer, polio struck Piatowka.  Elihu came down with it, and he almost died.  All of us were devastated.  Gradually, he recovered, but with a twisted right leg, and a limp forever.  He never lost his sense of humor, though.  Mama and Papa were grateful to Hashem that the boy lived, of course.  They also begged Him for an answer why their lovely son was crippled.  I still remember the time our Rebbe listening to the lamentation by my parents when Elihu was between life and death.  Rebbe Mankowitz told them Hashem is the 'Author of All Things Good' already written in His Book of Life for all of us.  He had His reasons for why Elihu was stricken.  With that prognostication handed down from 'On High' by this messenger, the Rebbe promised that Hashem would see to it the leg would bring about a Blessing, too.
        "After Elihu made as much recovery as he ever would, one day while still in bed, he heard someone play the violin on our radio that Mama put into his room for entertainment.  Elihu asked Mama if he could have a violin of his own.  She discussed it with papa, and quickly agreed.  Then they met with 'aiyn Yiddisher klezmer spieler' -- 'a Jewish band player' -- who told them where to get a good one for a few zlotys.  I think the klezmer's name was Mattayehu Bronshteyn; a fine saxophonist who played in a band at weddings and other celebrations.  A little while later, when Elihu could sit up by himself and start to get out of bed, a brown-wrapped box arrived with papa when he came home for lunch.
        It was the violin.
        "All of us gathered around the big chair in the living room where Elihu sat so excited.  Lunch was about to be served by Magda our household maid.  Because of so much excitement and fuss by everybody to make Elihu feel 'special' on his birthday, she knew better to wait.  Elihu, with Zachariah at his side, tore into the box, and gently lifted the violin; then the bow.  I never forgot his tears of joy, and the way he wiggled in excitement to hold his wish in both hands.
        "Mattayehu came over one day with a boy about my age who played the violin in their band.  Papa paid the boy to teach Elihu how to play the violin like 'aiyn Yiddisher zhokspieler' -- 'a Jewish violin player'!  Of course, Zachariah wanted to play an instrument, too.  Elihu asked his brother what he would like, and Zachariah spoke up: 'a clarinet, just like my friend Shmuel plays!'  So a clarinet was acquired, along with the services of Mattayehu to teach him how to be 'euchert aiyn Yiddisher klarnetspieler' -- 'also a Jewish clarinet player' -- which was what they were called in the Old Country.
        "Oy!  How they could make music together.  Mozart, Brahms, Bach and Tchaikovsky would be so proud!  The boys played in services at our small shul during the High Holidays; our cantor couldn't ask for better players.  They even appeared on occasion at weddings, and bar mitzvah banquets.  In the Jewish community of Piatowka, none could compare to these two little boys playing their wonderful instruments!
        "Now they are gone.  And so is the wonderful music they made together."
        You might wonder how all these old framed photographs survived the Holocaust in the first place.
        Good question.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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JOSEPH RICHARD GOLDMAN

Joseph Richard Goldman has taught modern European history at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas.  He is now writing two novels.  He has participated in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival since 2014.




The Two Little Boys will appear on the Daily Palette in four parts.  Be sure to check back for Parts 2, 3, and 4.

This page was first displayed
on March 07, 2016

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