With Yom ha-Shoah almost upon us, I want to share a story that I often tell as a tribute to my Holocaust survivor father and all those who were murdered in the kingdom of death.
Bocki is a small Polish town nestled along the Bug River, some 53 kilometres south of Bialystok. Before the war, Bocki had a population of 1,500, almost half of whom were Jewish. By the time Hitler’s hordes finished their devil’s work, only one Jewish survivor remained: my father, Max Farber.
Having escaped a cattle car on its way to the Treblinka extermination camp, it was only after the war that he discovered the fate of his two young boys, Sholom and Yitzchak, and his wife, Zisela Farber: all were murdered.
Fighting with the Russian partisans till the war’s end, he eventually started a new life in Canada. When we were children, he was careful to feed his story to my brother Stan and I in small doses. Eventually, we learned the entire tragedy.
My father spoke of many things from before the Shoah, but mostly he told us about the home where he and his family lived. He recalled the family’s Shabbat meals and how they would huddle by the stove, as it was the only source of warmth in the home.
On a cool, crisp, sunny day in 1992, my wife Karyn and I found ourselves staring at that very home in Bocki.
The townsfolk, wary of these Canadian visitors, eventually told us that the home was taken over by Polish families after the war. Eerily, tragedies befell three different families who lived there over the course of almost 50 years.
The local priest ordered the home shuttered. Evil spirits, he claimed, had settled there. The home was to be demolished in a few weeks, to make room for a new hotel.
Entering the home, I knew the place: the bedrooms where my half-brothers slept and the kitchen where the family gathered to light the stove after Shabbat. And so, before leaving Bocki and my father’s home, I wrested the oven door from the stove.
Placing the cast iron piece into a burlap bag, I brought this small piece of my family history back to my Canadian home.
And there it remained for more than a decade, in various pieces, tarnished and bruised. Then, a colleague told me about a framer at a local mall. So I lugged the pieces to the store in the original burlap bag. An elderly man behind the counter opened the bag and his eyes immediately went wide with amazement.
“Tell me,” he said, “where did you get this pripetchik (Yiddish for cooking stove)?” I told him the story. He, too, was a Shoah survivor from Poland, so he understood. “Leave this with me,” he said. He also asked me for a picture of my father and his family.
He fully restored the door and attached it to an easel, where the picture of my father’s family is now mounted inside.
The oven door and the picture within have become our family’s link to our past. It stands as a testament to loss, but also to victory. Nazism wanted to erase Jews from this world. This one small picture, embraced by the warmth of the pripetchik, is a triumph of memory over evil.
Today, a time when hatred has once again ascended from its malignant pit, let us remember this oven door. When the so-called leader of the free world speaks of white supremacists as being “good people,” when even the prime minister of Israel makes common cause with xenophobic Jews and foreign leaders, we are duty bound to remember the oven door.
At a time when neo-Nazis are entering synagogues and mosques and murdering Jews and Muslims, trying to continue the work of the evil seed that preceded them, we must remember.
Silence for Jews, especially in the face of those who embrace malevolence, can never again be an option.