By Benedict Tembo
Chipolopolo coach Avram Grant commemorated this year’s United Nations Day of the Holocaust in Zambia. The holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was the genocide of European Jews during World War II.
Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews across German-occupied Europe; around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
Grant, whose father, Meir, is a survivor of the holocaust, bemoaned the heinous crimes committed by the German Nazis who killed 7.5 million Israelis during the second World War, a global conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945
Grant says never should humanity go through what the Israelites went through at the hands of the Nazis. He likened the holocaust to apartheid in South Africa and the repression Zambians went through at the hands of the colonial masters as both faced discrimination.
In commemorating the UN Day which falls on January 27 every year, Grant shares the letter he wrote to his daughter, Romi, seven years ago. “I am writing you after visiting a museum in Phnom Penh, which chronicles the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime between the years 1975 -1979 in Cambodia. During this time, about two million innocent people were tortured and murdered, including all educated people, artists and intellectuals,” Grant wrote.
He said:” It is nothing but symbolic that by the time you read this letter, you will be in a place where people were murdered in cold blood and without blinking, tortured, and starved by others called the Nazis. The only sin of those innocent people was to be born Jewish; a sin sending them to die various horrible deaths invented by sick minds.”
Grant went on:”On the land where you are walking right now, my family was born, raised, lived, yet did not die there: your beloved and noble grandfather, my father, my grandfather whom I never met but I am named after, his wife Rhoda and their ten children.”
He said Poland where Romi was visiting at the time, is where “your roots are, this is where all the members of the Grant family were born, and your grandfather Meir who was born on February 21st 1927. I sent to you his original birth certificate which we found a month ago (he thought he was born in 1928).”
His father was named Meir (the one that shines).
“How symbolic the name, for he had shined upon my path and made it brighter. He was a lighthouse and a compass that I used to create my path. That is why there is an illustration of a lighthouse on his grave which you have visited numerous times,” the Israeli gaffer said.
He said there is not a day that goes by without him thinking of him, and no hour without him missing his wondrous father, Romi’s special grandfather.
“The story of our family could start on the day you interviewed your grandfather years ago. You told me he cried, and I asked you when, you replied that he shed tears when you asked him about his siblings,” Grant told his daughter.
He said he had never seen his father cry.
“I have seen him laugh, being positive even during difficult moments – while on the other hand screaming with horror during his sleep. I will try telling you the Grant family story from the perspective of that cry which I came to know over one night when I was 15 years old; the cry from which light came out,” Grant said
He said the last time everyone was together was sometime during 1937 in Mlawa, where the Grant family lived.
“Back then there was no internet or fast communication, and the only sources of information were newspapers, radio, and people speaking by words of mouth. That was when rumours about the Nazis and their intents begun. Most people didn’t believe the rumors, but within the few that did, was grandfather Abraham,” he said
Grant said his father decided to transfer his mother, his grandmother, and their 10 children to a place where they could live.
“Remember, my beloved daughter, that he had no idea what it was that he was running away from (what everyone knows today),” he said
Grant’s father’s brother, Bainum, decided to stay in Mlawa, and later he, his wife and their five children were murdered in Auschwitz – as they recently found out.
“For an unknown reason, perhaps logic, perhaps certain senses, my grandfather left with his wife and children to a journey of wandering that lasted several years. And imagine your mother when she moved, how difficult it was for her and others despite all the help she got, as opposed to grandfather Abraham beginning his wanderings with his wagon. It is due to his decision that I am able to write to you this letter,” Grant narrated in his letter to Romi.
He said when the journey began, their oldest brother, Israel, was drafted in to the Polish army, and he was the one that later notified the family that the Germans were invading Poland.
“The news followed a decision to escape with some of the family. Israel was later wounded during one of the battles and died. The journey that included a six months stay at a place called Beijum where my father, your grandfather, lived in the wagon near the main square; a place I visited as well as the rest of the places I denote here. From there he moved to Choroszcs (CHOROSH), where at the age of 12, he worked as a shepherd,” Grant states.
From there, Grant’s father made his way to Legionowo (LIGOYONOVO), in the suburbs of Warsaw ghetto.
Later, in 1940, when the family scattered around, his grandfather Abraham, his grandmother Rhoda, 14-years-old Sarah, three-years-old Rachel, and his father, Meir who was 13-years-old at the time, boarded a train from Bialystok to Russia.
“While traveling, they left Herzl, the youngest brother, with a priest at a Christian orphanage. When he was found after the war (by grandfather Meir and his sister Bella), Herzl thought he was a Christian. Several weeks into traveling by train, they arrived at Komi, a God-forsaken place where no humans had set foot. It is possible that the Germans allowed them to escape, knowing that they will starve and freeze to death. And indeed, more than 95 percent of the Jews who made it to Komi died, including my grandfather, my grandmother and his sisters,” he said
They arrived in September 1940, and in October his sister Sarah ate a poisoned mushroom and died. My father later said that her body kept them warm.
In January 1941, Abraham died as a result of freezing temperatures, starvation and infection, and in May of that year, Grant’s grandmother Rhoda died from similar circumstances and 13-year-old Meir had to bury both of them. Grant visited the site in 2009.
He said he will never be able to describe how I felt as I made my way to that forest in the middle of nowhere.
“I was so over-whelmed that I couldn’t speak. I then delivered a eulogy in memory of my grandparents. I began saying: I knew so well despite never actually meeting you”.
Among other words, I said: “Dear grandfather and grandmother, unfortunately and due to circumstances we never met, even though it is because of you that I can stand here today.”
He continued:”I am 54-years-old, the age when you passed away grandfather Abraham. My children are 12-years-old Romi, and 14-years-old Daniel – the age when your son Meir was left alone for four years in a forever-green forest with freezing temperatures, without any clothing or food. I just want to tell you that you can be proud of your son Meir, just as I am proud of him. Your son, my father, was a beloved and a unique individual. Ye’hi zichrechem baruch (May your souls rest in peace).”
Grant said he scattered sand that he brought from the Cave of the Fathers, the Western Wall, and from our house in Israel, and the house where he was born in Poland.
“I lit memorial candles; prayed and read the Kaddish together with a Rabbi who came with me. All this time I couldn’t help but thinking how my father, 68 years earlier, survived daily life in that miserable place all alone after burying his beloveds, including his three-years-old sister Rachel,” Grant said
He said he will never understand how he survived day by day, what he must have thought of, or what drove him to survive while not knowing how, when or if-at-all the situation will end.
“When the war ended, he became a refugee wandering around Europe for two years, joining the Dror (freedom) movement and searching for his family. Recently, we became known to the fact that Koppel and Hannah, his siblings, were murdered in Auschwitz. Esther, your grandfather’s sister, mother of Avi Schwartz from Be’er Sheva whom we found in 1990, died in 1988 in a hospital where she was hospitalized after the war due to a trauma. I found the hospital room where she spent the last 15 years of her life,” Grant said.
In 2000 he found her grave, after finding the house where my father grew up, and brought pictures and documents of her. His father’s brother, Mendel, survived the war and died of old age in Toronto; he was survived by two sons: Abraham and Michael. He was 88 years old when he died. Grant’s father’s sister, Bella, who lived in Israel, died at the age ofb90 in New York where she lived her last few years.
She was survived by her children Benny, Abraham and Ruth who is named after Rhoda, just his my sister Ruti.
“And of course, our sweet and beloved Herzl, the youngest of the siblings which we know so well and love so much, lives today in Ramat Gan, the last of the survivors. And not only the siblings, but his 15 uncles, aunts and their children who lived in Poland and died in terrible deaths. Only two aunts survived: Chaya, Rhoda’s sister of the Crystal family, and Rachel, Abraham’s sister who married Rabbi Betzal’el Zalmans, at the time the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. His student, Rabbi Israel Lau, is a friend of your wonderful mother. The rabbi and his wife died when I was 12-years-old,” he said
While praying on the graves of Tzakidim in northern Israel, and while the tallit was laid on the rabbi’s shoulders, the house where they lived collapsed and buried them both. Several years earlier, their only son, Israel, was killed in the Israel War of Independence. Indeed, the rabbi and his wife – where Grant studied Torah on its moral side every Motsa’ai Shabbat (Saturday night) – had their share of agony. He said they were a wonderful couple.
When Grant’s father was notified of the tragedy, it was the first time he saw him furious and upset as never before. It happened on a Friday night in 1967.
“My beloved Romi, let’s return to the story. After being a refugee in Europe, Meir came from Nürnberg in Germany to Marseille in France, and boarded the “Theodor Herzl” Jewish immigration ship that sailed to Palestine when immigration was illegal. The ship was caught by the Brits, and in 1947 my father was deported to Cyprus for a year, a time which he called “resting time.”
When Grant’s father immigrated to Israel in 1948, he arrived straight into the War of Independence.
“At first he lived in Kibbutz Ein-Gev, and in 1954 he married grandmother Aliza, my mother, an incredible and talented woman, who always aspired to perfectionism and excellence – exactly why she had to escape Iraq. But the story of my mother, for whom the term “winner” was invented, we will keep for another time. Her family tale is indeed exceptional,” he says
Grant pointed out that during that time it was rare for a Polish immigrant to meet and marry a girl from Iraq, a testimony of his parents’ character.
“I was very fortunate to be their son, and enjoy their guidance.”