The story of a lost uncle, on the anniversary of his death, 67 years ago.
Sixty-seven years later. Sixty-seven years. The opening of the Nazi archives of Auschwitz has finally afforded our family the opportunity to mark the anniversary date of the passing of my great-uncle, Joseph Hamada.
Actually, I had never even heard of this uncle at all until my late 20s. My mother’s mother, Bella Brenes nee Hamada, had six brothers and sisters who were all alive circa 1985, between the ages of 66 and 86. Then Uncle Jack, the youngest, died from a botched amnioplasty, and suddenly all the siblings were reminded of their mortality. At that time, Grandma said to me, “We should do something to preserve the memories of my two brothers, Joseph and Herschel, who were killed by the Nazis.” This is news to me, Grandma.
So she told me the whole story.
“We lived in the Galicia section of Poland, in a small town named Freistag, not far from New Sanz. My father, Solomon, was a stockbroker in the Bourse of Cracow. Every Sunday morning he got on the train to the big city and rejoined the world of international commerce. On Friday he returned home to spend the Sabbath with the family and we greeted him like a king. He always had some kind of trinket as a gift to each of the little kids.
“When the Nazis began building up power in Germany about 1929, my father decided we needed to get out of Eastern Europe. He traveled ahead to New York City and went straight to work despite the Depression. Before very long he was doing well enough to send visas for all of us. My mother asked the rabbi of Kolczysz if we should go, and he said the Nazis were becoming very strong, ‘a grosser macht.’ We were fortunate to have the chance, we should go.
“‘But they say America is a very decadent environment. Will my children leave the religion?’
“‘Do not worry. They will be fine.’
“We were all anxious to leave, but my oldest two brothers decided to stay. They were both married and one of them had a baby child. Sadly, none of them survived. I was still young enough to enroll in high school in the Bronx, and I graduated. After high school I married your grandfather, who had grown up in the same small town and was a friend of one of my brothers. We traveled back to Europe by boat to celebrate the wedding in our home town, then we came back and settled in New York.”
That was it. Two great-uncles had made the same mistake as Lot’s sons-in-law in Genesis, reluctant to leave Sodom and eventually trapped in the carnage. We know their names but we had no information about how and when they died. They were swallowed by the German killing machine and left no earthly trace.
Now, 67 years forward, this grisly archive of slaughter has been unfurled and the names of our silenced heroes have been read. Joseph Hamada met his fate on February 16, 1942, corresponding to the Hebrew date of 11 Adar 5702. Herschel must have been gunned down in a ghetto, or murdered at random on the bitter road to perdition, so he is not featured in the Auschwitz log. At least we have reclaimed Joseph from limbo, reestablished him in time and place.
This year, after three score and seven years, his last surviving brother Carl along with many nephews and nieces, your humble correspondent included, will light a candle and say a prayer on the Hebrew anniversary of his passing, falling this year on March 7. The effort to abort his humanity has failed. We will honor him by standing for truth without fear, knowing well that they can occasionally destroy our bodies but they can never defeat our spirits.
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