The lucky lives of Judy and Alex Resofsky

Throughout her life Judy Resofsky considered herself lucky.  No doubt, her husband Alex did too.

Judy and Alex arrived in Australia in 1949 when they were in their early twenties, having both survived the horrors of Hungarian ghetto life and the notorious Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland, to which many Hungarian Jews were deported in 1944.

At her funeral last month in Melbourne, Judy and Alex’s daughter Kathy Janovic told mourners the incredible story of how her mother had escaped the gas chambers.

On the day, she and others were to be murdered, the gas chambers had miraculously malfunctioned and she was spared.

Later, when the concentration camps were being evacuated and demolished, as the Russians advanced across Europe, Judy was one of thousands of emaciated Jews sent on a death march from Praust (Pruszcz Gdański) in North Western Poland.

At one stage during this horrendous ordeal, she and other women were resting in a barn when Russian soldiers entered and started to rape the women. Judy jumped out of a window and landed close to a Jewish Russian soldier, who saved her.

This was just another example of her mother’s good luck, her daughter Kathy said in a loving tribute to her warm, kind and generous parents.

One of eight children, born in Nyirbartor, in Eastern Hungary on July 5, 1926 to Adolph and Berta Winkler, and their first born, Judy was the only of her family to survive the mass extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.

Her husband Alex Resofsky, who also recently passed away, was born in the same Hungarian town of Nyirbator two years before Judy in 1924.

The second child of Mor and Berta Resofksy, Alex and his eldest sister Margaret were the only ones in their family to survive the holocaust.

After the family had been rounded up in the Sirna Pusata Ghetto, they were deported to Auschwitz. Alex’s mother and siblings did not survive the selection process and were murdered by the Nazis.

Alex passed through three more concentration camps – including the notorious Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald camp networks – before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

He was part of the Bricha underground movement that helped smuggle Jewish holocaust survivors out of Eastern Europe into what is today Israel.

In 1949 he sailed to Australia with his sister and future wife, Judy.

Here they lived for the next 69 years, making a life for themselves in Melbourne’s flourishing Jewish immigrant garment trade (supplying David jones with mens knitwear) and where they had three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By all accounts – I sadly never met them – Alex and Judy were much-loved and treasured members of Melbourne’s close-knit Jewish community,and were actively involved in the important work of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

A report from the JHC in September 2017 includes a picture of Judy and Alex along with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are 24 people in the photo.

resofsky family

Alex and Judy with their family, taken in September 2017 (Credit: Jewish Holocaust Centre)

 

The JHC report notes that through the generosity of the Resofsky’s, the centre was able to put its vast and important collection online, and that they did so in loving memory of their parents, Mor and Lenke Resofsky; Jeno and Berta Frisch; Adolf and Berta Winkler and all their siblings.

I only recently came across the incredible survival of the Resofskys while researching a story I was writing for The Australian Financial Review. It was about a shopping mall they owned near Geelong, and which their children recently sold.

It would have been a great privilege to have met Alex and Judy and heard their story of survival against the odds, and about their successful and happy lives in Melbourne.

Deepest sympathies to their family and friends.

 

There is no place in Judaism for intolerance

As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep  kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.

But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.

Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.

For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.

Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published  recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.

Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:

With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers  coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.

But it does not surprise me at all.

So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.

Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”

A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman.  Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.

Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.

When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.

Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.

Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.

In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs  and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown,  who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.

But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.

Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.

The many layers of my Jewish skin

Certain things remind me of my Jewish roots. Some bring me closer, other repel me. Make me want to run a mile.

Like watching Manny Wax talk about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of David Cyprus, a security guard at the Yeshiva College Melbourne, the subsequent community cover up and shameful treatment of Manny’s family by their supposed friends. These things repel. They push me away.

Then I see a man like Zephaniah Wax, Manny’s father, an orthodox Jew with a modern-day understanding of the world, who is kind, thoughtful and funny, whom I instantly admire and like, a man I would love to discuss the philosophies of life with over a meal.

He is nothing like the orthodox woman who tought me at cheder (Jewish studies I attended in the afternoon while I was at primary school) who told me I should try not associate with non-Jewish people. Or the awful history teacher at high school, who tried to make us learn to draw the map of Israel by heart. She repelled me as did the forced morning prayer, the constant yelling at kids who didn’t pray and the shovelling of religion and zionism down our throats.

The truth is being Jewish is complicated. It’s probably why Woody Allen depicts his characters – primarily New York jews – as guilt-ridden, questioning, uncomfortable people. Never quite at home in their own skins. I love those characters and identify with them.

My own admission is that I have willingly and easily slipped the yolk of my religion. I’ve married out the faith, I eat what I like, I never attend synagogue and don’t observe the sabbath or any of the festivals. I am very much a secular Jew.

But it wasn’t always this way.

It was my mother who instilled in me my Jewish identity. She got it from her father, my grandfather Harry, who died – on of all days – on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement.

My grandfather Harry, far left - not quite how I remember him

My grandfather Harry, far left – not quite how I remember him

It shook me when he died on that very day. Having been told endlessly that Yom Kippur was the day when you were inscribed either in the book of life or the book of death, his passing felt huge and momentous. In my mind, I always pictured Yom Kippur as the hand of God writing names in one of two enormous, leather-bound books somewhere up above clouds. On the cover of one was written “LIFE” on the other “DEATH”.

Harry, who we called ‘Zayda’  (Yiddish for ‘Grandfather’) and his son, my Uncle Sydney, who we all called ‘Uncle Yoel’ were the religious centre of our extended family when we grew up in South Africa in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Zayda was a distant, but kind man with big watery eyes made huge behind thick glasses, a bald head always covered with a kippah and a bow-legged walk. He was an old man from my earliest memories. Zayda was the impetus for us observing the rituals of the Sabbath and the festivals. Before Passover, he would hide ‘chametz’ (pieces of bread) around the house and then we would walk behind him in the dark as he tried to remember where he hid them. Zaydah would hold a candle and a little shovel he’d made from cardboard and using a feather, sweep up the “unleavened bread” in ritual cleansing of the house of bread before it was filled with boxes of Matzoh. My sister, brother and I could hardly keep a straight face as we marched around the house searching for bread. My grandfather was never amused by our snorting. Many months later, we’d find stale pieces of bread on bookshelves or somewhere else Zaydah had forgotten about.

Like many Jews of his era, a favourite pastime was reading the obituaries in The Star newspaper in the afternoon to see who had died. This he did with a magnifying glass, hunched over the paper. Having come to South Africa from Russia where he ran a concession store on the mines, I think he had endured a tough life. He had a sad face and suffered the loss of wife Lily, my ‘bobba’ when she passed away suddenly many years before I was born.

I was very close to my Uncle Yoel  – a slim man with a neatly trimmed black beard, always full of ideas, patient, kind  and well liked by all who knew him. I used to go to his flat in Hillbrow (and inner city Johannesburg suburb that has since fallen on hard times), where we studied the portion of the Torah I was to read for my Bar Mitzvah. I’d come to his flat on Sunday mornings to study, but we also talked about cricket and other things.I am not quite sure what my Uncle did for a living, but for a long time he sold a course of motivational tapes from the ‘Success Motivation International‘  – SMI as I called it – that created a program for setting and achieving goals. He gave me a set of tapes and we would also sit in his flat planning my goals and how I would achieve them. One of them was to be a good Bar Mitzvah boy, which I achieved.

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

After my Uncle Yoel married his wife Esher – a native of Chicago with a big beaming smile who seemed to find everything I said funny – and started to have children they moved to a big house in Yeoville,  an predominantly orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of square brick houses and shady trees reminiscent back then of the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava with its kosher cafes, Jewish institutions and synagogues.

Here our family and my Uncle’s family would gather on Friday nights for the Shabbot (Sabbath) meal. We would sing songs in hebrew and say the prayers and then feast in the traditional Jewish way: by overeating. First would come the chopped liver piled high on challah (platted loaves of bread topped with sesame seeds) on to which I heaped horse-radish or mustard. This was followed by chicken soup, a broth that contained soft pieces of chicken, necks and stomachs and sometimes chicken feet followed by a main course of chicken or meat or both, roast vegetables, kugel (potato pudding) and salads. Dessert was non-dairy chocolate mousse which my mother made with something called Orley Whip, a staple of every Jewish household in Johannesburg.

A couple of years later my Uncle Yoel emigrated with his family to an othordox neighbourhood of Chicago. Over the years, as I have drifted further and further away from Judaism, we have sadly lost touch and lost that close bond we had when I was a young boy and teenager. The last time I saw him was at my brother’s wedding in Miami in 2010 and before that it had been many, many years since we had seen each other.

Over the years, I have shaken off layer upon layer of my Jewish skin.  But there are many layers.

I have remained – at heart – a proud, non-observant Jew.

My core Jewishness remains and deeper than traditional foods, the jokes, anxiety and guilt.

Sometimes I feel a longing to sit in  synagogue and sing some of the familiar Friday night songs. On the  odd occasion I get invited for a Friday night meal or to celebrate one of the festivals, it’s a special treat. Sometimes I find myself humming the tunes I used to sing in synagogue.

It was a sad, but also defiant moment on the ABC’s Compass show that aired the story of Manny Wax when Manny’s father Zephaniah and his wife are seen sitting alone at their vast dinner table, because their own family and community have cast them out.

It takes me back to those big Friday night dinners in Berea, that I remember now so clearly, but yhat are also so distant.

There’s the enormous meal before us. I’m calling on someone to pass me the ‘chrain’ (horse-radish) to spread on my chopped liver. There is herring and kichel (sweet Israeli crackers). The two families are gathered together. My Zayda is there eating slowly. He is very old and struggling to hear what everyone is talking about. My Uncle Yoel is discussing cricket or asking me about my week at school and the food keeps coming. The house is suffused with the smell of chicken and potato pudding. Wax drips down the shabbat candles, which flicker and burn on a silver tray. Later we ‘bench’ – sing prayers of thanks for our meal –  and make our way home by car through quiet Friday night streets of Yeoville and Observatory.

These were things that bound us together back then and are a layer that I keep beneath my skin.

The jew at the table: reflections on racism and growing up Jewish in South Africa

“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition…our chief weapon is…surprise.”

So begins the famous Monty Python sketch heralded by the arrival of evil clergy in red robes.

nobodyexpects

Well I wasn’t wearing a red robe or any identifying markings at a recent business lunch when as discussion turned to who would pay the bill, someone remarked:

“I’ll be the Jew and leave” – or words to that effect, before they got up to go.

A general snickering followed. Someone remarked flippantly that you should be careful what you say – you never know who may be around – and it was quickly forgotten.

No one knew there was a Jew at the table.

Me.

I never said anything, nor did I regard the person who said it with any particular malice. But I was a bit taken aback. It made me feel uncomfortable; I felt inclined to say something but also reluctant to make a fuss.

Others I know would have had no indecision. They would be proclaiming their Jewishness loudly and demanding an apology accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Did the person who made this remark hold some deeply felt hatred towards the jewish race or religion, or was it just like the time I remarked, flippantly, to an ex-girlfriend of mine who was half Asian that the kitchen of the digs I shared with friends in London “resembled a Chinese laundry”.

(I also recall that she distinctly did not like the South African colloquialism “china” used in the same way Australians say “mate”).

Anyway, as the words came out my mouth, I realised what I’d said, but it was too late. An uncomfortable moment followed as I apologised profusely.

And wouldn’t this person sitting across from me at lunch, who suggested “he be the Jew” have acted similarly had he known I was Jewish.

My gut feel, is yes.

And does he harbour some ill-will towards Jews. Probably…

Would he suddenly dislike me if he found out I was Jewish – probably not.

The truth is everyone has made a remark like this at some point in their lives -and it’s hard to think of anyone I know who does not hold some kind of prejudice or quasi-prejudice against some other race, religion, sexual orientation or political belief system.

At the same time, it strikes me that my Jewish brethren appear the most sensitive of all races, colours and creeds to offensive remarks, no matter how harmless or slip of the tongue they may be.

Years of persecution – the pogroms, the holocaust, indeed the Spanish Inquisition – will often be the explanation for such an acute sensitivity.

My own experience growing up in South Africa is of a deeply racist Jewish community, with the racism passed down through the generations as it is every where else.

Words learnt and bandied around Jewish social gatherings (white people only apart from the black domestics serving food or minding the children) included the horrible sounding “schvarzte” and “shoch” meaning a “black” person and “chatis” for an Afrikaner.

These words were used regularly at dinners, family gatherings, teas and barbeques – often in earshot of the African domestic clearing away plates or bringing food to the table.

Sadly they were often spoken by those who had fled pogroms or persecution or were the children of those who had. We as kids would play cricket in the garden, while the adults (BMW or Mercedes parked down the driveway) would chat away about their privileged lives: trips overseas, new restaurants opening, community gossip. As you got older, you’d join the adults and hear the conversations, where “shochs, schvartzes and chatises” were mentioned all too frequently.

Paradoxically, these same people would often stick their heads into the kitchen to say hi to the African domestic washing the dishes, to ask about their children or their health.

But it was always in the realm of the ‘master and servant relationship’:

“How are you today Sophie?”

“I am well thank-you master.”

“How are your children?”

“They are well thank you master.”

So what’s happened to these people who I remember with their expensive cars, who would sit around discussing the cricket or rugby with the odd racist remark thrown in from time to time?

Many of them have packed up and moved to Australia. They’re living on the best streets of Bondi, Vaucluse, St Ives, Toorak, Caufield, Bentleigh and Dianella. Some – would you believe it – have even brought their domestics along to do the dishes.

Few have dropped their prejudices and most will happily tell you South Africa has “gone to the dogs since the blacks took over”.

It reminds me of something someone very dear to me (but with horribly dated ideas) once said to me a long time ago:

“I don’t believe in apartheid. But really, you can’t put the blacks in charge.”

A review of “The Finkler Question” or how I contemplated a return to the synagogue

I cannot recall a book I have read that has moved me more to contemplate a return visit to the synagogue (I have not been back for many years), but I have an urge to do just that after reading “The Finkler Question”.

And not for religious reasons, though that may sound odd. But for nostalgia’s sake, to hear the old tunes and sing along.

“The Finkler Question” is a tragic-comedic novel written by English writer Howard Jacobson that won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2010.

“Finkler” refers to one of the characters – a popular jewish philosopher, writer and television personality called Sam Finkler – and also is the word used by Julian Treslove, the main protaganist of the novel, to describe all jews – he calls them “finklers”.

Julian Treslove, 49, is educated, intelligent and middle class, living in the part of Hampstead (a wealthy, predominantly Jewish suburb of North London) “that is not in Hampstead” – an often-repeated joke in the novel.

He regards himself, with a degree of complacency, as a failure of a man, as someone who never achieved much. He has two sons by different women, who left him before they gave birth (all women leave Treslove once they get to know him) and he has played no part in raising his children, and even dislikes them.

Once a radio producer of late-night music shows no one listened to on the BBC, he now earns his living impersonating celebrities like Brad Pitt, not because he looks so much like them, but because he does bear some passing resemblance to a lot of famous people, though no one in particular. An older American women who picks him up at a party, confuses him for Colin Firth.

The other principle character is Libor Sevcik, an 80-year-old Czech-born jew, former biographer of Hollywood stars who managed to resist the charms of Marilyn Monroe (she would ring him at odd hours because she could never figure out timezones), Jane Russell and other glamourous icons who confided and tempted him, and yet he remained faithful to his beloved, but very needy wife Malkie.

Both Sam Finkler and  Libor Sevcik are recently widowed. Finkler misses his wife Tyler, though not desperately (he regards having an affairs as an acceptable male compulsion) while Libor is deeply sad at the loss of his wife and companion.

The friendship between the three men is the central plot of the novel  as indeed is the notion of friendship, loss, guilt and loyalty.

But, at it’s heart ‘The Finkler Question’ is about Julian Treslove’s obssession with all things Jewish and his desire to penetrate, understand and become accepted into the mysterious but always scrutinised Jewish race.

He suffers the ignomy of being mugged by a woman in central London who he believes utters the words: ‘You Ju?” and comes to the conclusion that she mistook him for a jew or for his friend Finkler. But he can’t be sure.

The book really is about the “jewish question”. There are a number of anti-semitic incidents, which bring the idea of Jewish identity into sharp focus.

Jacobsen through his characters, is questioning what it means to be a jew in the modern age and all those things that bind one jew to another – the “jew-dar” as Treslove asks of his Jewish girlfriend Hephzibah.

And there’s all the other contemporary Jewish themes – Zionism, family, tradition and history explored in the stories of the three men.

And there is the food of course, which brings them all together, whether it’s the seder meal or the lunch prepared by Hephzhibah:

“‘What’s good,’ said Finkler “is this…” He reached for more of everything. Herring in red wine. Herring in white wine, herring in cream, sour cream, vinegar, herring curled around an olive with toothpics through them, herring chopped in what was said to be a new way and of course chopped still in the old…and then the pickled meat, the pastrami, the smoked salmon, the egg and onion, the chopped liver, the cheese that had no taste, the blintses, the tsimmes, the cholent.”

Treslove wants to be a part of this community.  But always feels excluded. No matter how many words of yiddish he learns.

He is forever the non-Jewish outsider – the goy, the gentile – trying to get in, marvelling at it all, such as when he falls in love with Libor’s grand-niece Hephzibabh:

“He thought his heart would break with love for her. She was so Jewish…For his part he was ready to jump right in. Then and There. Marry me. I’ll do whatever has to be done. I’ll study. I’ll be circumcised. Just marry me and make Finkler jokes.”

Alongside the humour, there’s the anxiety, the worry, and the guilt all beautfiully written by Howard Jacobsen in his wonderful prose.

And it is all these elements that make me think about being a jew, though I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue or even fast on Yom Kippur, I feel part of the community, like all Finklers.

The Finkler Question poses so many questions, it is about the mystery of being a jew and it’s that mystery that makes people want to be jews and to be rid of them in equal measure.

If there is one telling paragraph that sums up the book and what Jacobsen is trying to convey it’s this, as pondered by Julian Treslove:

“You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.”

And sometimes, you want to feel connected again by singing the Shabbat songs in synagogue on a Saturday morning, or attend the Passover seder and swap stories of the exodus from Egypt and ask the Four Questions – whether you believe in God or not.