Thursday, January 04, 2007

Miriam Weiss: Holocaust Survivor and Kibbutz Mother

Miriam Weiss: June 29, 1915 - January 4, 1997

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Miriam Weiss and David Ben-Ariel,
Passover at Ramat Yohanan, 1990
(Click on image to enlarge it)

On that precious list of "Righteous Gentiles" (rare individuals who assisted Jews during the Holocaust) is the great name of Jan Bulski who risked his life and family in Poland to save my "kibbutz mother" -- Miriam Weiss -- who I met and was "adopted" by at Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan near Haifa in Northern Israel while a volunteer there from October 1982 to February 1983.

This is an excerpt from Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, Restal Hotel, Tiberias, Israel -- a letter I wrote an American friend (without touching it up for spelling), July 27, 1989 from Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, Israel:

"Miriam & I cried yesterday when she received a letter stating the man in Poland who hid her & saved her from the Gestapo & Holocaust, died. She opened up last week & told me what I hadn't known & how wealthy she was raised, how wealthy she married w/jewellery & furs & extensive rich contacts & travel in Europe & how happy she was, and had a cook for her & her husband & a maid also, & how after Hitler invaded Poland her husband immediately joined the underground buying weapons & insisting she move in w/friends for safety sake & how he was later captured by the Gestapo & murdered in Matthausen, Austria concentration camp & how sick w/grief & pain she was, she so loved him. And how one of the women who risked their lives to help save her later was caught attempting to save others & was murdered herself after being shipped to Ravensbruck concentration camp & how her mother was in the Warsaw Ghetto & sent to the gas chambers in Treblinka concentration camp. She cried when she spoke of how much pain can one take after her husband's death. Miriam just turned 74 about a month ago. I don't know how they handle such hell... She's been ill for the last 2 months & I feel helpless to help her..."

While writing this article to honor Miriam's memory and share history, I've practically gone mad looking for the fuchshia-colored paper I knew I had with her maiden name and the name of her Catholic Polish husband, a Gentile, one of four brothers who each owned the largest industrial banks in Poland, a paper I typed up in her home the day after she gave me detailed information about her life. I can't find it and wonder if I threw it out figuring Yad Vashem already has the information or what, but I can't imagine doing that as I would want to add my personal touch and memories to it. Perhaps it's all symbolic of the fears and frustrations of looking for lost family members, Holocaust survivors, and it's out of your control and so overwhelming.

Miriam said when Heydrich (Himmler?) thought things were going too slowly in Poland, he decided to round up a lot of people on "Black Saturday." That's when they took her husband away since he was involved in the Polish Underground. Miriam said she was in the Warsaw Ghetto with her mother (Miriam's parents were Zwi and Hana Hampel) but got out and was hid by a woman who was later sent to Ravensbruck herself for helping to rescue Jews. One night some drunk Poles came and banged on the door and told the woman they knew she was hiding "schwein, Jewish schwein," pretending to be Gestapo, and only left when they got a fur out of it. That's when the lady told Miriam she would have to go back into the Warsaw Ghetto until some other place could be found for her.

Miriam said that she had dyed her hair blond to look as Aryan as could be and wore a widow's veil and that the Nazi guards at the Warsaw Ghetto made a comment about how young she was to already be a widow. Later when another place was found for Miriam, she said her mother was so happy for her to get out but it was the last time she saw her and Miriam attributes her survival to her mother's prayers. Miriam said her mother was sent to Treblinka where she died, but a letter from Henia Seidman [Miriam's best Israeli-Polish friend] to me says she died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Miriam also said, if I remember correctly, that she was hid in a hole in the ground at Jan Bulski's place, and that the only thing to comfort her was a small vial of perfume she kept. I always gave her a gift of perfume for Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). Henia wrote Miriam was hidden in their kitchen. One thing for sure is Miriam said after the war everybody talked about where they were during the war and how hardly anybody could believe where she was hidden, as Jews weren't welcome there before the war! Miriam felt the Poles were more anti-Semitic than the Germans.

Miriam told me that she later arranged, after the Russians came, to make it to Berlin but you could never know for sure if the one you paid to help you get there would show up or come through and her help did, but she ended up in the Russian section of Berlin on Christmas Eve and was in a small room with no windows and mattresses on the floor with about 50 other people crammed in there. She said everybody hoped to get into the American quarter. She also said after the war there was so much food, almost too much food.

Miriam married someone I think she met that Christmas night in Berlin or knew him in Poland, Hanoch Eisenberg, and wandered with him in Europe and as Henia wrote, "the Joint brought her and her husband...to Italy. From Italy they went by ships to Israel, but in the time of English Mandate their ship was kidnapped and brought to Cyprus camps. In Cyprus they were perhaps a year and in 1949 they came to Ramat Jochanan."

Actually, Miriam had some friend or relative visiting Ramat Yohanan from Kibbutz Yagur who was reading a letter from her, as Miriam told me, and she started crying and Henia Seidman, being the soft-hearted woman she's known to be, asked her why and she told her how Miriam was so depressed in Cyprus and Henia said for her to tell her to plan to come to Ramat Yohanan. When Miriam first came to the kibbutz from Cyprus after Israeli independence, they called for Henia who was working in what was then the kitchen (not the big beautiful cheder ochel -- dining room -- they have today, she pointed out), practically a wooden shack, and although she had soot or something on her face her beautiful blue eyes shone through (and Henia had such beautiful blue eyes) and Henia and her mother hugged and welcomed Miriam as family. Henia's family left Poland before the Holocaust.

Miriam divorced Eisenberg who didn't want to stay on the kibbutz and moved to Tel Aviv. She later married - for one day - David Weiss from the kibbutz. I used to say hello to him and often saw him working at the kibbutz factory, Palram. A very short man, older, with white hair. I once ate with David and mentioned the Queen of England continued King David's dynasty, and was surprised he was familiar with the belief but appeared to dismiss it as "a nice story."

Miriam and Henia were both short Polish Jews. We would always sit together in the dining room and eat and they would carry on in Polish and some Hebrew and English. If you didn't know them you would think they were always arguing, but that's just how they talked, as I chuckle remembering them. The mail boxes were in the dining room too, and since it was easier for me to walk with my "long legs" and get Miriam's mail, I would. That's how I brought the letter to her that day when we found out Jan Bulski had died. I had only written him about once and sent him maybe $20 or more through some grateful Polish organization in Toledo, Ohio that would make sure he received it. They said it would be exchanged on the black market for more zlotys. He was a diabetic and did receive something monthly from Yad Vashem after Miriam and Henia saw to it. A tree was also planted in his honor on the "Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles" at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Miriam cried and said he didn't have to risk his life and the life of his family to save her but that he did and that he was such a good man. Henia and I just kept quiet and wept with her.

Miriam told me her family had their money from the tea industry. They bought and sold the famous Lyon tea from England and then repackaged it or whatever they did to make a profit. She loved the European concerts and later travelled with her husband all over Europe and North Africa. She said her love of music came from her mother.

Miriam had another kibbutz "son" like me, also an American, whose name is Joe from New Hampshire. She was going to leave him her photo-album. Joe travelled with her to Switzerland to visit a mutual friend whom Miriam tried to play matchmaker between him and her, but they remained friends and nothing more. Miriam used to ask why Moses couldn't have led the Children of Israel to Switzerland! People would speak of Miriam's sons as "Joe and Hoover." (I was born with the family name of Hoover but legally changed my name to David Ben-Ariel for religious reasons). Miriam used to exclaim, "Do you know how many people would love to have your passport? To be an American?" I would tell her that although I dearly love the United States I want to live in Israel and she would mellow and say something like, "Well, if that makes you happy, if that's what you want." She also worried that I would get killed like Meir Kahane for being so outspoken.

One of my many fond and funny memories is Miriam and I arriving somewhat late to a Sukkot celebration around the swimming pool at Ramat Yohanan, and there were plenty of people standing around and we looked for a place to stand and then she found a bale of straw to sit on near the front and then there appeared to be some confusion as the lady who was to lead the children's singing was frantically looking about and then discovered that Miriam was sitting on the folded banner that had the words to their song!

Miriam used to rest in bed after we ate in the afternoon and listen to her classical music (I gave her Grandma Vivian Hoover's classical albums) and read The Jerusalem Post and then sigh how she hated politics, comment that she was weary of world news, but she would continue to read the newspapers and listen every hour on the hour to the news on the radio as I read a book or wrote in her living room (where she displayed the Austrian crystal glass castle I once gave her for a gift, which I called "the Kingdom of Messiah" -- because of its brilliance -- and Joe's paintings adorned her walls...Miriam had an artist and an author for her sons).

Every time I visited Israel, I would head straight for Miriam's. The last time I saw her was in 1995 when her friends told me she had Alzheimer's. She had been moved from her apartment to the nursing home. They told me if she would remember anybody, it would be me. I went in and she was strapped in a wheelchair, wanting out, and wanting me to get her out and speaking German to me. (Miriam knew German, English, Polish and Hebrew). She held on to my arm so tightly, looking frightened, and I said, "Miriam, it's David. I'm American. Speak Hebrew or English. I don't know German." She was crying and I was crying. Another Miriam, originally from Berlin, was very angry about Miriam's deteriorating situation and said the Germans who doubted the Holocaust should hear Miriam reliving it and crying out for her mother, as if once wasn't enough! Henia wrote me that Miriam was born in Poland June 29, 1915 and died January 4, 1997 at Ramat Yohanan and was buried there and "got a very fine monument at our cemetery."

For greater insight into my beloved Miriam, I'll close with portions of a March 18, 1988 letter of commendation she wrote on my behalf to Joseph Tkach, Jr. of the Worldwide Church of God:

...my kibbutz son David Hoover...first came to our kibbutz seven years ago...he posted [actually somebody else did in the communal dining room] an article he had written about his struggle to free himself from drugs for all the members to read. A very brave thing to do since drug addiction is here considered a terrible social and personal crime. I invited him to visit me and we subsequently got to know each other well. David stayed on our kibbutz six months the first time. He worked hard and thus earned the respect of many members here. There was never any trouble. Quite the contrary. And David shared with us his Christian beliefs that had given him such strength to overcome his addiction...When I say he shared his beliefs I mean that he offered but did not force them upon us. As might be well known to you we are sensitive to any aggressive presentations of Christianity that denigrate our Jewish heritage. But David has a deep and affectionate respect for it. I myself am not religious and must admit that I am sometimes bewildered by his impressive knowledge of the Bible and Jewish customs but if it give his life fulfillment I am very happy for him...Over the past seven years David has come to Ramat Yohanan to celebrate Sukkot. He has stayed with me and is a very well behaved guest. He also corresponds with me regularly and started my subscription to Plain Truth which I do read with interest. Recently I continued the subscription. I might add that several other members of our kibbutz now read it too...I think confidence can be placed in him to represent your church here in the Middle East...

Sincerely,
Shalom,
Miriam Weiss


I yearn to return to Zion and visit Miriam's gravesite, but Ramat Yohanan just wouldn't be the same without her. And the dining room without Miriam or Henia...

Other articles that mention Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan:

Israel Work History (Worldwide Church of God)

Herbert W Armstrong and Worldwide Church of God Mentioned in Israeli Newspaper

Joseph Isn't Jewish!

1 comment:

TiMarie said...

Dear David,

I was doing a search on Miriam Weiss, a woman who strangely, but strongly impacted my life when I was but a young girl of 18 back in 1974. My first job was a position at the Jewish Welfare Federation (as it was called in those days) in San Francisco, CA. She was my direct supervisor and I came to love her greatly even though my tenure there was very short.

The photo you post looks similar to her as far as my memory allows, and I have some wonderful and funny memories of her if your Kibbutz Mother was indeed the same as my respected protector and teacher. If you think that our "Miriams might be one and the same" I would love to share some memories I have of her. Remember, this was 33 years ago, but I still remember her with greatest of affection.

Best,
Theresa
timarie@pacbell.net