Markus Jakubovic in 1946
It was in September 1997, during a trip he'd always insisted he wouldn't take. He never wanted to go back to his native Czechoslovakia, he'd said; never wanted to revisit Auschwitz, where his parents, his brothers, and his two younger sisters were murdered by the Germans in 1944.
But in recent years my father's hard line had softened. He began to talk about showing us the world he had come from. And so here he was, back at Auschwitz, arriving not in a sealed boxcar but in a rented van with a driver, accompanied not by his father and mother and hundreds of dazed and famished Jews but by his wife, three of his children, and a guide.
We entered the main administration building, where we hoped to find some documentation of my father's entry into Auschwitz. But Krysztof Antonczyk, head of the computer unit, had bad news -- his staff hadn't been able to locate any records for Markus Jakubovic, as my father was called in 1944. Disappointing. Suddenly we remembered something. Immediately after the "selection" at the train platform in Auschwitz, those who were not sent to the gas chambers -- the lucky ones, the ones who were merely going to be starved and enslaved -- were registered and tattooed with a number. On an impulse, my father at that moment gave a last name that wasn't his own.
"Try looking up his number," we said to Antonczyk. "A-10502."
Whereupon my father, to make sure we'd gotten it right, rolled up his sleeve, put on his glasses, and peered at the number in his familiar farsighted way. "Mmm -- yeah -- A-1-0-5-0-2."
As if he needed to look.
A staff member went to chase down A-10502. We were ushered into a little room to wait. There was a table and some chairs, a colorful tablecloth, framed pictures of kittens and puppies on the wall. A woman poked her head in and asked if we we'd like some tea or coffee. Sure, my father said, he'd have some coffee, and she returned with it a few minutes later. And as he sat there, sipping his coffee in the cheery room with kittens and puppies on the wall, I got up restlessly, walked over to the window, and looked out. Below me was the main entrance, and the words over the gate said: ARBEIT MACHT FREI.
In the end Antonczyk wasn't able to find documentation of my father's arrival at Auschwitz. But he did turn up evidence of his departure: a page from one of the long lists of Jews who were herded out of Auschwitz on death marches in January 1945. Page 630, Line 21: "Jakubovic, Markus -- Slovak Jude." And something more: a copy of the card recording my father's entry into Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria.
Written evidence. Markus Jakubovic of Legina, Czechoslovakia, had been in Auschwitz; on a death march; at Mauthausen. There it was, in black and white.
After so many years, we had a piece of paper. What we never had, my siblings and I, was a grandfather and a grandmother. What we never had were two uncles and two more aunts. What we never had was a family tree with living branches instead of withered stumps. What we never had were the cousins who would have been born, the stories that would have been told, the memories that would have been preserved.
What we never even had was graves to visit.
Between 1938 and 1945, while the world looked the other way, the Germans and their collaborators murdered one-third of all the Jews on earth. Six million of them. And my father's family -- David and Leah Jakubovic and their children Franceska, Zoltan, Yrvin, and Alice -- accounted for 1 one-millionth -- 0.000001 -- of the total.
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Once I asked my father what had been uppermost in his mind when he was in the camps. Had there been something he always concentrated on, a mantra he clung to, a goal he never lost sight of?
I was hoping, I suppose, for something lapidary. Something like the exhortation of Simon Dubnov, the renowned Jewish historian, who was murdered by a Latvian guard in the Riga ghetto in 1941. Dubnov's last words were, Yiddin, schreibt un farschreibt -- "Jews, write it all down." Perhaps my father would say that he had never stopped thinking about one day bearing witness to what he had seen. Or that he was always looking for ways to sabotage the Nazis. Or that he dreamed of revenge. Or that every morning and evening he whispered the Sh'ma, the timeless Jewish credo -- "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."
This is what my father told me: "I was always careful to watch my shoes. I slept with my shoes under my head, because if you lost your shoes you wouldn't survive for long."
It was hardly the answer I had imagined. Shoes? He's in the middle of the Holocaust, and he's thinking about his shoes?
But I have come to understand that my father was right. If shoes were utterly essential -- and when you are force-marched from Poland to Austria in the middle of winter and you will be shot dead if you fall or stumble, they are -- then shoes were precisely what he had to think about. The Jakubovic family, awash in blood, was nearly extinct. My father had to survive. The Jews had to survive. Somehow, despite everything, they had to go on, and if shoes could keep this Jew alive, then nothing was more important than shoes.
My father, God willing, will turn 74 this year. He has five children and -- so far -- 13 grandchildren. He keeps the Sabbath and fasts on Yom Kippur and eats matza on Passover. Every morning and every evening, he says the Sh'ma. He is a Jew who survived, and who survived as a Jew. May the memory of those who perished be a blessing.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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