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Memories of my Father

There's a Midrash, in Midrash Rabba on the Torah portion of Toldoth, which asks why Yitzhak decided to bless his son, Esau, at the time he did so. As part of the question, we learn that at the time of this blessing, Yitzhak was only 122 years old -- I say only because he lived to the grand old age of 180. So there should have been plenty of time for blessings. One usually passes his living testament to his children closer to his day of passing. We are told that Moshe blessed the Children of Israel on the last day of his life, because then they could no longer hold any grudge against him for what sometimes are difficult words.

Yitzhak tells Esau, "Behold now, I am old, I do not know the day of my death." The Midrash adds that there are "seven things which are concealed from human beings: the day of one's death . . . as it says in Ecclesiastes, 'for man does not know his time'."

Yitzhak's mother, Sarah, died at the age of 127. From this five year age difference, the Midrash draws the lesson that one should be concerned of his own demise when he is "five years less and five years more than the age of his parents [death]". As Yitzhak says to Esau, when he asks him to prepare a pre-blessing meal, "that my soul bless you before I die".

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Today marks forty-three years since my father's passing; and we still sorely miss him, even today. Forty-three years -- an eternity. And we were not privileged to receive our father's blessing as were Jacob and Esau. Our father's passing was too sudden. We saw him in the morning, and when we saw him again that afternoon, he was dead, the warmth of a father gone from his body. He couldn't bless us, nor was he even able to just say farewell.

Nor could we. Like the Biblical Hanoch, he was here one moment and "he was not, because God took him". Like Hanoch, our father was taken from us early in his life, at the age of fifty.

What do I remember of our father. You think when you are thirteen years old, you are an adult. You have your barmitzva (just six weeks earlier) and everyone tells you that you are "now a man, a fully fledged member of your community". But it's not completely true -- in fact it's not true at all. Sure, they count you in a prayer quorum, a minyan, you are suddenly fully obliged to keep the mitzvoth, the commandments of the Torah, but you are not really a "man", not at all an adult.

When I think back, do I really remember my father? Did I get to actually know him? to understand him? Sure, I recall his full head of straight, jet black hair, always neatly combed back, revealing his high forehead. I remember his height -- he was six feet tall, a head above most men I knew, and handsome too -- you had to feel his presence when he entered the room. He had lots of friends -- if he had enemies, I don't know about them; he was well-liked, he was active within his community. He loved to go shule. The synagogue was his second home -- maybe his even first. Sometimes he would come home just to drop off his things and he would, literally, run up the hill to shule. He was never late; he had to be amongst the first to arrive.

I recollect his joy when our small community finally managed to purchase a small old house up the road; how he and his friends knocked out the internal walls to provide a large prayer area; forming a chain to pass the old bricks out of the building. It was sure superior to garage we prayed in before that.

He spent as much time with us as he could. It wasn't easy for his post holocaust generation. They lived by the sweat of their brow. No-one, no family, on which to fall back. They worked hard, life wasn't easy. But he wanted to give us everything he could, to have every possible opportunity. He had big dreams for my brother and me. He wanted to give us the breaks that had been stolen from his generation.

He was fun to be with. He wasn't too strict. He was an optimist. He played a mean soccer -- he had a powerful kick. We used to go to the park every Sunday, and kick around a football. He taught me the rudiments of the game. In the summer, if he came home from work "early", we could go for a swim at the Coogee Beach rock pool. He only swam breaststroke, but encouraged me to swim competitively. He learnt to swim in a river -- I swam in the ocean.

He didn't drink, not even wine for kiddush. He was in hospital three or four years before he died, having suffered a heart attack. We thought he recovered well. I remember visiting him at Sydney Hospital, his room looking out over the park. As a child, do you really understand adults' medical problems.

But how well did I know him, how well did I really know him? How deep a conversation could a man in his late forties have with a ten year old child. What things did he want to tell me, but was waiting until I was older, more mature, able to understand his history, the ways of the world? I didn't even know he was married in the early part of the war, that he had a daughter -- my sister -- and that his family were viciously murdered, along with most of his townspeople. I knew he was a partisan, even one or two little stories, that a child could understand. But I did not know that he was captured by a German patrol and lined up for a firing squad. Nor that he was saved by the last minute intervention of the Russian army! I knew he spent time with Russian troops, and that he was their barber; he would place a soup bowl on their heads and cut around it. They thought he was the best hairdresser they'd ever had.

I knew he loved the Land of Israel -- he spoke about it often -- but I don't know why he never came here. I know he loved the Torah, and even got the boy downstairs to come and learn with us on Sunday mornings, before we went to the park.

He never even managed to tell me much about his immediate family. He told me his mother was a very saintly woman, the daughter of one the "big" rabbis of their town. Any local women with a problem would come to her for advice, and also to learn Torah with her. Thirty years after her sage father passed away, on a Wednesday night, she dreamed that she was having Melave Malka, the special meal pious Jews eat on Saturday nights to farewell and cling to the last vestiges of the Shabbat, with her pious father. She returned her soul to her Maker, three days later, just as the Shabbat ended . . . and as the fate of the Jewish people in Europe was sealed.

But I know almost nothing from him about his father. He told me that his father was "left behind" because he was "too old to bother with" when the last remaining Jews of Topolcany were finally transported or murdered. His "neighbours" buried him in the yard. He never told me though, that on his return home, he exhumed his father's corpse and re-interred in the Jewish cemetery, next to his mother. Nor that he reburied, with a few returning friends, the last sixty-six Jews of Topolcany who were murdered in the nearby town of Nemcice and dumped there into a ditch.

I am now just over five years older than my father on the day he "left us". Perhaps I can relax, a little, at least in terms of the Midrash I quoted above, re the day of my own demise. But I often think of my father. All the "stories", no his history, that he took with him to the grave, that he intended to share with us. How would he have reacted in difficult situations in which I sometimes find myself? What advice would he have given, had I been able to consult with him? What would he tell my children, his grandchildren, whom he never met.

I remember him with much fondness . . . and with certainty that he watches over us.

Menachem Kuchar, 26th March, 2009    

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