My parents tied the knot in a post-Holocaust matrimony.
I am often asked, how did your Holocaust-surviving parents meet?
In 2014, as part of my incomplete stories series ‘From the Primus Stove to the Microwave Oven: firsthand look at Israel’s 63 years rapid progress.’ I told the story of my parents meeting and coupling as I knew it to be since my father passed away at an early age leaving very little information to base my story on.
I since did some ‘roots’ work and some of the details have changed.
My father, Yisrael [Gringer], and the entire Gringer clan from the city of Łódź, Poland, grew up in a Zionist home in Poland’s capital Warsaw. From his early age my father was a member of a neighborhood bike riding “gang” who made it their central cause to protect Jews from any discrimination and attacks in their nearby and somewhat farther neighborhoods. And my father, unquestionably was a Zionist.
My mother, Rachel [Katz], was born in the shtetl Ivenitz, some 80 kilometers form the city of Vilna (Vilnius), then White Russia, today Lithuania.
A shtetl, or a shtetel, was a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shtetls were mainly found in the areas that constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire as well as in Congress Poland, Austrian Galicia, Romania and Hungary.
Rachel was a member of the youth movement Ha’shomer Hatzair, a Socialist-Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913 in Galicia, Austria-Hungary. It was also the name of the group’s political party in the Yishuv in the pre-1948 British Mandate of Palestine.
Typically, in the shtetl Ivenitz Jews toiled hard but barely earned a decent living. Their wealth was their education, spiritualism and their yearning and zest for Jerusalem and the land of Israel. The several hundred Jewish families who lived in Ivenitz had strong Jewish-national awareness. My mother’s Jewish cohesion became stronger as a member of Ha’shomer Hatzair.
Both my parents are now resting in the heavens.
During WWII my father and my mother were each on a different life track.
In 1940, as a 17-year-old teenager, my father managed to escape Ghetto Warsaw, where his entire family, parents, sister and two other brothers were forced to move to from the comfort of their home in the city. Young “Mr. Brave” Yisrael joined the Polish Army, under the command of General Wadysaw Anders. In 1942, when the Anders’ Army reached British mandatory Palestine/the Land of Israel, some 4,000 Jewish soldiers – some deserted, others, obtained permission from General Anders to depart their formations – found refuge in Mandatory Palestine. Most of the veterans joined Jewish settlements in Mandate-Israel Palestine. My father was among those who deserted his post. For the time being, his local Haganah connections obtained for him a new identity – Mr. Broshi – under which name he hid for two years while the British authorities were looking to arrest him.
When the British government called the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine to join the British Army and help to fight Nazi Germany my father answered the call; he joined the Jewish Brigade in the British Army and was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit, shipped to Europe and was eventually stationed on the Belgium Coast, busy shooting down Nazi airplanes.
In parallel time, my mother, at that time eighteen years old (1940) and high school graduate, was rounded up with her parents and only sister, and were forced to move to Ghetto Vilna (Vilnius) confined area. When the Nazis decided to take care of the “Jewish problem” in the Vilna Ghetto, during the “selection-Selektzia,” my grandparents were separated from their daughters. It is believed, but not for certain, that along with 100,000 other Jews they were shot and then thrown into pits by the Nazis at the Ponary massacre or Paneriai massacre.
The Ponary massacre or Paneriai massacre was the mass murder of up to 100,000 people, mostly Jews, Poles, and Russians by German SD and SS and their Lithuanian collaborators, including Ypatingasis būrys killing squads, during World War II and the Holocaust in Reichskommissariat Ostland, the civilian occupation regime in the Baltic states and the western part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Katz family two daughters managed to be inseparable. They spent the next five years in several Nazi forced labor camps, and concentration camps, where the two sisters performed all kinds of work. They were liberated by the Soviet forces on May 9, 1945.
As the war officially ended, upon regaining some of her body strength, my mother headed back to Poland hoping to find surviving family members. She found none.
Speaking several languages- Yiddish, Polish, Russian and some English – my mother was recruited to work in one of the displaced people’s information centers, set up by Jewish organizations to assist survivors to find surviving loved ones and help them, in any way possible, to return to normalcy of life.
In parallel, my father, still a soldier in the Jewish Brigade in the British Army, took leave from his unit and made his way to Poland in search of family surviving members. Like my mother, he found none. In his heartbreaking search Yisrael stopped to get assistance at the displaced people’s information center where Rachel Katz was working. For Mr. Gringer and Miss Katz, now both, almost 24-years-old, it was love at first sight. My father’s piercing blue eyes sunk with admiration into my mother’s sad and hazy blue eyes. They became an item at once. Sad souls looking for revivification.
The couple departed from Poland to Paris, where Mr. Gringer bought his girlfriend a dress, the first dress she had since leaving all her possessions behind in the Ghetto Vilna. I recall my mother telling me, more than once, that wearing the new dress made her feel a human being again, a worthy person, a woman.
Yisrael and Rachel were instantly madly in love, and that made Yisrael forget his military pass expiration time. Ironically, upon him finally returning to base to officially end his military service, for showing up past his permitted vacation pass he was punished and detained, while Rachel remained in Paris waiting for him. Since Yisrael could not make it back to Paris as planned, he sent his closest friend instead, to accompany and see to his fiancé’s wellbeing.
Before his departure from Europe back to Palestine-Israel, Yisrael arranged for Rachel a passage-pass on the ship Biria, loaded with war surviving Jews, headed for British Mandate Palestine-Israel.
Biria was the last vessel loaded with Ma’apilim, i.e. Jewish ‘illegal’ immigrants. They arrived and debarked while breaking the British White Paper decree restricting Jewish immigration. Upon arrival in Palestine the passengers Rachel was taken off the ship and was detained in the British internment camp, Atlit, south of the city of Haifa, where, just as during the five years in Nazi forced labor and concentrations camps, her hair was shaved off again and her short lived freedom was taken away. Yisrael managed to get Rachel released from Atli, thus cutting her detention stay short.
The next lot of Jews who arrived on British Mandate Palestine-Israel’s shores illegally were denied entry. They were sent to British internment camps set up in Cyprus and other locations.
Yisrael was already a member of a core group due to build a kibbutz named L’havot Ha’Bashan, located near the pre 1948 Syrian border. Today, the kibbutz is located in Israel’s Upper Galilee. While the men, my father amongst them, were working to prepare the mountainous rocky ground, in order for buildings to be erected and fields to be cultivated, the women stayed behind, living in a tent camp near the town Haderah by the Mediterranean shore.
Upon her release from the Atlit British internment camp, Rachel joined Yisrael’s kibbutz core group.
Yisrael Gringer and Rachel Katz were a couple ripe for marriage based on losses and the need to belong.
My mother left behind her Shoah-Holocaust sorrows caused by the abrupt forced end to her planned university education and her parents and boyfriend who were all murdered. She saw in my father a pillar of strength, a partner to a more promising all around future.
My father found solace in Rachel, somewhat a new family member after he lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He also simply fell in love with this young lady who he chose to be his wife.
My parents wanted to get married right away but they had to wait. The Kibbutz did not as much as have the money to give them a proper wedding, not even as much as few Liras – at that time the name of the money bank note – to buy the glass, as Jewish transition goes, the groom breaks under the Chuppah – a canopy under which a Jewish couple stands for the duration of their matrimonial ceremony, traditionally joined by both sets of parents and the officiating rabbi.
There were other couples anxiously waiting to get married. With six couples waiting to get married, with some of the women, including my mother, already pregnant, the Kibbutz finally stepped up to the task and arranged a six-couple wedding ceremony.
Seven months after Rachel and Yisrael were finally married, I was born. It was August 1947, eight months before David Ben Gurion declared Israel a sovereign state.
The World War II Battle of Normandy, also knowns as D-Day, from June 1944 to August 1944, resulted in the Allied Forces liberating Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control. The Allied Forces landing on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region has been called the beginning of the end of WW II in Europe.
D-Day started on Tuesday 6 June 1944. This year 2021 it will be 77 years to the beginning of the end of a ghastly blood-bath war during which my grandparents, my uncles, my possible many more cousins whom I could have had but did not, all who were murdered. The end of WWII brought about a special union of two very special people, Rachel Katz and Yisrael Gringer, my adored, loved and missed parents.
Some 7 decades later, the Gringer and the Katz Zionistic flame is deeply embedded in me, the writer. I carry their flame, I carry their memory, I carry the renewed future of the Jewish Nation they began paving for future generations in the independent Jewish State, Israel.