Last Sunday we buried Yair Roth. Six days before, he had been a guest at our Passover Seder. We all knew these were his final days but he sat among the children and grandchildren, as usual in his funny suspenders, able to smile and sing, still able to raise a glass of red wine or two. My partner, may she live a long life, kept taking photos and everyone hinted that she should photograph him for posterity. But the next day, we discovered that something quite rare in digital photography quite rare in digital photography had happened to all the photos: everyone appears in focus and smiling. Only Yair looks blurry and kind of transparent.
Like many of those who survived the Holocaust, he kept his story to himself for years. What has caused them to keep silent? Is it guilt? Is it embarrassment that they lived? Is it the understanding that the Holocaust is the story of the dead, not the living and those who escaped are only bit players?
The time to tellOnly when he understood that he and the cancer were never to part did Roth sit down and tell his story for the first time. He spoke quickly, the words spilling out as if they had piled up inside of him and he wanted to vomit them out together with the nausea caused by the chemotherapy.
Roth grew up in a wild, wonderful Paris oblivious to the war. His parents lived near the San Michelle Boulevard on the Left Bank, among the cafes and card playing clubs his father adored. When the Nazis occupied the city, they ordered his father to report to police headquarters once a week and to sign in. One day he went and did not return.
On July 16, 1942, Yair left home early. “It was a beautiful summer,” he recalled. He had a copy of Don Quixote which he carried as he walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the boats and entertainment in the park. Towards evening, he returned home, ringing the doorbell of his apartment building. The doorman came out and pulled him suddenly into his apartment, hiding him in a closet. “The police are in your flat,” he informed him. “They are waiting for you.”
When the closet door opened again, it was close to midnight. His mother was gone for good. “Do you have where to go?” asked the doorman. Yair said he did. His grandparents live in the village of San Beanies, not far from Poitiers. “But I have no money for the trip,” he said.
Righteous people come in many shapes and forms, sometimes they have wings, and sometimes they are wearing the dirty apron of a bearded Parisian concierge. The doorman gave him an old jacket without the yellow armband and some money. “Don’t take the Metro,” he warned him. “They are looking for Jews.”
One good man
He was all of 11 years old.
My middle child Lior is 11 years old. If he goes to play with his friend who lives on the next street we call to make sure he got there. We accompany his scout outings as parent chaperones.
Yair did not take the Metro. He walked to the Orleans station and waited for the train to Poitiers. At two in the morning he got on the train with his copy of Don Quixote, the only thing he owned. People on the train asked him what he was doing on the train alone. He smiled and said he was going to his grandfather for a holiday. His childhood had ended only six hours earlier and he had already learned to lie.
He got off the train at Poitiers and decided to walk to the village, several kilometers across muddy, unfamiliar roads. When he reached his grandfather’s home, the family was surprised. They did not know anything. Nothing about the roundups, the trains, and certainly nothing about the extermination camps. “They arrested mother,” Yair told them, “they have arrested all the Jews. We need to get out of here.”
They believed him. They believed this childsize grown up who never cried. They believed him so much that it took only a couple of days and some bribes to flee to the other side of the border, to Free France.
Most of the rest of the war Yair spent in the village of Soutrenon, hiding with a family of farmers. He rarely speaks of what he experienced as an orphan, the loneliness, the slim hope his parents might return and the knowledge that they never would.
“In August of 1942,” he suddenly said. “the French women in Auschwitz rebelled. I have no idea if my mother took part but if she was there, I certainly hope she did.”
Then he turned silent because people of his generation don’t know how to psychoanalyze themselves.
“There is no God!"Only once during all those lost years he broke down. It was when he took the cows out to pasture. Without any warning he began to scream to the heavens. “There is no God!” he yelled. “God does not exist! He does not exist! He does not exist!
Who are we to know if there is a God or not? Who are we to argue? Who among us can understand?
In 1951 Yair came to Israel with a Zionist youth group. They were sent to the south, to establish Kibbutz Gvulot (Boundaries). “It was a total wasteland,” he said. “in the middle of the desert. We got there just as a sandstorm was blowing, the skies and the land were completely yellow, everything looked dismal. It was clear to us that this is was the place.”
56 years later Gvulot is an established kibbutz with a paved road and small houses, red shingled roofs. The modest cemetery is shaded; an ancient acacia tree with heavy boughs stands at the entrance. We did not bring a rabbi or a cantor but we brought ourselves – a large loving family with many branches.
Yair knew his whole life that he had survived because of one good man. Sometimes that is all it takes, all that is needed to make the difference, one good man who decides to do the right thing. I don’t know if he noticed it but with the years that is what he became: one good man.