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The Life and Times of Scientist, Soldier, Zionist Sol Bloom

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I love proving the enduring truth that everyone has a story, especially when it comes to older individuals. It’s all too easy to dismiss an old man like Sol Bloom if you only choose to look at his wrinkled features and his stooped posture and don’t take the time or interest to learn something about the life he’s lived. Sol’s lived an unusually full blooded life that, among other things, saw him work as a scientist, soldier, and Zionist in the independence of Palestine. He’s a wonderful racanteur and writer who related his story to me in a series of interviews he gave me at his home and through several written reminiscences he shared. My profile of Sol, who was still going strong when I wrote the piece about three years ago, appeared in the Jewish Press.

 

 

 

 

The Life and Times of Scientist, Soldier, Zionist Sol Bloom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

 

Sol Bloom, center, celebrates as Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, left, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, awards Rabbi Jack Bloom his doctorate.

Sol Bloom doesn’t believe in accidents. It’s why he’s sure he was destined to make his way to Palestine as a young, idealistic Zionist 62 years ago. Inflamed with passion to help secure a Jewish state, he left America for service in the Haganah militia.

The Omaha resident is equally sure a higher power saved him from almost certain death on at least three occasions; once, when scratched from an armed patrol whose entire ranks were decimated by an Arab ambush in the Judean Valley.

He’s convinced something beyond mere circumstance has guided his five-decade career as a dairy nutritionist, leading him to work with fellow Jews in a field where Jews are a rarity. He’ll tell you his parents’ brave immigrant journey from Romania and a cousin’s pioneer efforts settling Palestine inspired him to beat his own adventurous path — to Israel, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Zambia and the Philippines.

For Bloom, rhyme and reason attend everything.

The scientist in him methodically studies things to identify patterns and processes. The believer in him finds the hand of fate or God behind incidents he can’t ascribe to mere chance. He’s always been curious about the grand design at work. An ever inquisitive hunger drives his lifelong search for order, meaning and variation. He appreciates life’s richness. It’s no coincidence then he’s sought out foreign posts and immersed himself in indigenous cultures.

At age 84 he still savors life’s simple wonders, whether a Brahms symphony, a good book, a bountiful crop, a cow producing milk from rough silage, his family, his daily prayers, his research, his travels, his memories. A good batch of fu-fu.

Far from an unexamined life, Bloom’s charted his times in voluminous journals. Both the good and bad. He writes-talks with pride about his parents making a comfortable life for the family in America. He grew up in West New York and Palisade, N.J., a pair of bedroom communities outside New York City.

His reminiscences refer to a “dominant” and “disciplinarian” father pushing him and his two brothers. Despite little formal education Sam Bloom kept a complete set of Harvard classics and a Webster’s unabridged dictionary at home. On Sundays Papa Bloom held court in bed, where he regaled the boys with the florid prose of advertisements. He instilled a love of learning in Sol, Norman and Jack.

The patriarch also made sure his sons were exposed to, as Sol puts it, “the finer things.” He made them take music lessons — Sol plays the fiddle — and attend Jewish school. He took the family to Central Park for band concerts, Second Avenue for vaudeville shows and Yiddish theater productions, Coney Island for the amusement park rides and the Catskills for Borscht Belt retreats.

It was at Esther Manor near Monticello, N.Y., where the family vacationed summers, that Sol, the city boy, got his first exposure to farming. The hotel owner kept dairy cows out back to supply guests with fresh milk and Bloom made it a habit to help bring the herd in from pasture. He didn’t know it then but fattening calves and boosting milk cows’ production would take up a large part of his adult life.

Sol sees divine intervention in the Bloom boys coming from such humble roots to achieve professional heights. Besides his own exploits as an animal nutritionist, Norman became a biochemist and Jack a rabbi and psychologist.

Sol and Helen Bloom are married at Kibbutz G’vat in 1947 as his cousin, Epharim Katz, next to the rabbi, acts as a witness.

The stories of old times roll off Bloom’s tongue. The words precise and poetic. The recall uncanny. He expresses disappointment, not regret, about his failed first marriage, ended when his oldest children were already grown. He acknowledges a weakness for the flesh led him to take a mistress in Nigeria and that the romantic in him led to a love affair in Manila with a woman who became his second wife, Erlinda. He and Elinda share a home together in Millard with their son Jesse.

He candidly describes a history of mental illness in his family. His late older brother Norman descended into schizophrenia, believing he was the second coming of Christ. Bloom said his younger brother Jack sought psychiatric help for a time. Their mother received electric shock treatments. Bloom himself has had problems. Jesse now struggles with his own brainstorms.

Then there’s Bloom’s once sturdy body, now severely stooped, wracked by various maladies. It doesn’t stop the former competitive swimmer from taking daily laps in the Jewish Community Center pool.

No hint of judgment or bitterness in Bloom. He accepts what life gives, both the sweet and the sour. He awakes each morning eager to meet the day, ready to make some new connection or association or insight. Whether it’s a laboratory with four walls or the larger lab of living, he approaches life as a much anticipated experiment. Discovery always just around the corner.

His brother Norman would get in manic, obsessive moods trying to prove God’s existence in numerical coincidences. He caught the attention of the late astronomer and popular science writer, Carl Sagan, whose book Broca’s Brain devotes an entire section to Norman’s belief that he was a messenger of God.

Sol isn’t his brother but when considering certain matters, such as the proposition Jews are God’s chosen people, he assumes a slightly messianic manner himself.

Speaking as a scientist, he told a guest at his home: “I don’t know if God actually exists.” However, Bloom suggests Jews’ disproportionate impact on everything from world religion to art to politics to moral tenets is a testament to some divine plan.

“So when I go back to the fact that a good part of the western world goes by Isaac’s basis” for righteous living, “and what the Jews presented to humanity, maybe even though I’m a scientist there’s something in there that is not just completely random,” he said. “The eternal thread of Jewish survival over 3,000 years is a strong thread. That thread’s metaphorically wrapped itself around historical periods and around the throats of Egyptian, Persian, Asyrian, Greek and Roman empires and left them all lifeless — as the Jews moved on small but strong to the present day. It’s a very thin fiber, but it’s so.

“If little people like we have been able to maintain these basic moral foundations to the whole world and still exist when all these empires have gone down, then even though I’m a scientist and I have to go by hypotheses, I don’t think it’s just random. I’ll leave it at that.”

Sol Bloom just leave it at that?  Impossible. Invariably, one theory begets another.

“When I lived in the Philippines (1970-’81) Manilla already was a city of 7-8 million. In Israel maybe you had at that time 2 1/2 million. And how many times did you read about that big city of Manilla in the newspaper? Maybe when there’s a typhoon or maybe when they found all those shoes in Imelda’s closet. But how many times was there something to do with that tiny fragment of humanity in Israel?

“Today, you have 6 to 7 billion people on the face of the earth while the whole population of Jews in the world is about 16 million. It works out to be about .018 percent of the total population. And yet there’s always something going on about them. Mexico City alone has 16 million. How often do you hear about Mexico City? But you will hear about the Jews being in this, doing that — out of all proportion to their numbers. That tiny fleck of humanity in six billion.

“Why for such a long time are we always hearing something about them? Isn’t that interesting?”

He’s confident the weight of evidence demonstrates Jews hold a special, even anointed place in the scheme of things. “That’s one of the things that sort of helps me maintain my faith,” he said.

All this musing leads Bloom to his own variation on the law of attraction.

Helen Bloom, right, is among the crowd of British soldiers in Palestine as partition is announced on Nov. 29, 1947.

“The first (formal) agricultural experience in my life was with a Jew. I started at 21 with my father’s cousin, Ephraim Katz, in Palestine. And now at this point, 60 years later, I’m working with a fellow by the name of Steven Silver, who owns International Nutrition in Omaha. He’s from the same tribe as I am. Now, imagine this, OK? How many Jews are in American agriculture? Not many. How many are in the professional feed milling business? Even fewer. How many Jews do you find in the feed business in the north central area — Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri? One. Do you follow me?”

For Sol, it’s more than coincidence he and Silver found each other. “Random, or as we say in my Yiddish, betokhn (faith)? Isn’t that interesting?”

Like Bloom’s parents, Katz, the pioneer in the family, was a Romanian emigre. Unlike them Katz felt the call to Palestine strongly enough that he became a settler there, raising a family and farming. Katz, an academic by training but a man of the soil by inclination, appealed to Bloom’s sense of wanderlust and earthiness. Tales of Katz’s contributions to the aspiring nation state fed Bloom’s imagination.

“My cousin in Palestine is growing wheat and has oranges and pears and apples. He’s growing oil seed crops for the factories in Haifa,” is what Bloom recalls thinking about this man he admired. “I mean, at that time Ephraim Katz was the leading light of our entire family. He was the one doing it.

“When he was in Bucharest, Romania he was a professor of English. Because he was a Jew he was still considered an alien and he couldn’t have citizenship, so he left and farmed in Israel, in the northern part of Haifa, near the port. He planted crops. He had wheat, sorghum, citrus.”

There were hardships and tragedies, too.

“In 1929 there were bad riots by the Arabs and they burnt his wheat and cut down all his citrus. His first wife, Sabena, died from typhus. He went into depression.”

The neighborhood where Katz’s place was located was named for Sabena. But Katz and his farm and the settlement that grew up around it survived. He remarried and raised a second family there.

Letters from Katz to Bloom’s father “about all of these adventures in Palestine” were much anticipated. When his father read the letters aloud it sparked in the “impressionable” Sol a burning desire to emulate Cousin Katz and thereby break from the prescribed roles many Jews filled then. Sol’s aptitude for science already had him thinking about medicine. Katz’s example gave him a new motivation.

“Since I was already a socialist — I was going to a Jewish socialist school — I thought, I’m going to break this Jewish commitment to being a merchant. I am going into agriculture. I am going to bring right out from the earth. So that was my raison detre.”

The promise of helping forge a new nation enthralled Bloom. “I was struck by the idealism of these people in Palestine struggling building a new frontier.”

However, at the urging of his parents, who feared for his safety in conflict-strewn Palestine, Bloom enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He was still a premed major. America was at war by then and in ‘43 his draft number came up. He wound up in the 99th Infantry Division but when the unit began preparations to join the fight in Europe his poor eyesight and flat feet got him transferred to guard duty at a stateside disciplinary barracks. As it turned out, the 99th’s ranks were decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.

Providential? Sol believes so. “Perhaps something else was meant for me,” he said.

After the war he worked as a counselor at a summer camp, where he met Helen, a nice Jewish girl from the East Bronx. He once again set his sights on Palestine when he learned he could study agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the GI Bill of Rights. He went first in 1946 and Helen followed six months later.

Cousin Katz greeted Bloom in Haifa. For Sol, it meant finally meeting the hero whose spirited example led him to make the long voyage. Katz took Sol to the rural compound of houses he’d built and to the fields he’d planted.

“He brought in new ways, new machinery, new breeds from America and he built this pioneer-type house of rough-hewn blocks and iron bars on the windows,” said Bloom, “and that’s where Helen and I were married in 1947.”

The kibbutz Sol and Helen were assigned, Gvat, “was a completely communal settlement. You never saw any money,” he said. “It had begun in 1925 with Jews from Poland and Russia. There were about 400 members and about 300 ‘illegals’ from displaced persons camps (in war-ravaged Europe). Bloom began training at the kibbutz ahead of Helen’s arrival. He worked the corn and wheat fields and the vegetable gardens. He helped harvest the fruit crops. Mucking out the poultry house and cattle pens convinced him cows were preferable to hens.

“The first silage I made was on the kibbutz — a combination of cow pee and citrus rinds-peels. It was a pit silo, layered with silage we packed down with a tractor. If you want it to ferment properly you have to extrude all the oxygen,” he said. “I fed it out (to cattle) and I’m telling you it was nice stuff, but the flies…” Oi vay!

The fertile country impressed Bloom.

“I remember the secretariat showing me the place. They were in a valley with the richest soil in all of Israel,” akin to Iowa’s rich black earth, Bloom said. “When they got there in ‘25 there were some swamps, a few cows. The settlers erected tents. If you ever want to know what Palestine looked like before the Jews started coming back in, get Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and you’ll understand the transformation that came about. It’s completely described there. Dismal, desolate.

 

 

 

 

“By the time I got there they’d built concrete barracks with manicured lawns. It was a mixed farm of dairy, poultry, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, a vineyard, forage crops for cattle and sheep, eucalyptus and field crops — sorghum, wheat, corn. They’d done all that in 20 years. It was a lovely place.”

Even then, he said, the region “produced beautiful oranges exported to Europe.”

Bloom reveled in the daily routine of kibbutz life.

“You got up about 5:30. You got your coffee and milk. I would go to work in the vegetable garden. Then about 8 o’clock you’d come into the communal dining hall, with its big bowls of porridge, and there’d be sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, vegetables, thick baked bread. You had a choice of a hard egg or a soft egg.

“After breakfast I’d go back and work. I was called in Hebrew a bakbok — cork. In other words, you’re used wherever you’re needed. I’d come back for lunch — a cold fruit soup made from harvested plums, apples, grapes. It’s hot in the summertime, so we would rest until about 1:30. When the heat would break we’d go back and finish our work. About 4:30 you’d shower and change your clothes. You had a set of khakis to work in and a set of khakis for the evening.

“We stopped working about noon on Friday for the Sabbath, whose observance lasted till Sunday morning. You had two weeks vacation.”

The enterprise of reclaiming an ancestral homeland moved Sol, who witnessed the settlement’s first high school graduation ceremony. He liked being part of a glorious historic tide. He couldn’t help but get caught up in what he called “that sense of purpose of destiny — of recreating something that had been hibernating for 1,800 years.”

“There was something completely mystical about it,” he said. “The land I was working on, the plums I was harvesting, they were planted by Jews, tended by Jews, plucked by Jews. The Jews had been persecuted, separated, driven from place to place for 1,900 years and here they’d gone back to the same place from which they were driven. Here they were graduating their first set of kids back on the lands where ancient Israelis had plowed and enjoyed the fruits of that land. Back in the land of Joshua and the prophets and all the greats of Israel,

“These pilgrims’ kids were training to begin life there again. You have to have a pretty strong memory in order to do that. To have lived a year in that type of community among these people who had settled, built the place, who knew why they were there, what they were doing and where they were going” was everything Bloom had hoped for and more.

He left before Israel’s formation in mid-‘48 but was there when the United Nations declared Palestine would be partitioned to allow a Jewish state amid Arab neighbors. “This was the first time in history a group made the decision that Jews, after being dispersed all over the world in ghettos, would have a place of their own,” he said. Photos he snapped then picture jubilant crowds in Jerusalem. He and Helen joined the celebration. “We danced, we sang, we drank. It was something very uplifting, something quite marvelous.”

Israel’s independence was not won without a fight and Bloom volunteered to do his share there, too. He and other Americans studying abroad joined the Haganah. Unlike most of the green recruits, who lacked any military experience, Bloom was a U.S. Army veteran familiar with weapons. But he’d never seen combat. Outside Jerusalem he went through training with fellow enlisters under the command of Haganah officers. They made simulated night patrols in the hilly terrain.

 

 

 

 

His training complete, he went on recon missions to gauge the location-strength of guerrilla Arab units. Assigned to a unit guarding the perimeter of a Jewish enclave, he wrote, “we kept guard during cold nights and moved weapons secretly by taxi cab.” He and his mates quartered in residents’ homes, staying out of sight of British peacekeepers and hostile Arab forces by day and manning rooftops at night.

He was selected for a strike force of 35 soldiers tasked with engaging the Arab Legion laying siege to the Jewish settlement of Ramat Rachel. At the last minute, he said, an officer scratched him from the operation due to his marital status. A bachelor friend and fellow American, Moshe Pearlstein, replaced him. Moshe and his comrades were cut down in an ambush. There were no survivors. Bloom’s journal commented:

“I will always remember how formidable — yes, how heroic — the ‘35’ appeared in all their battle gear as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best…” Their loss, he wrote, “was a terrible blow to the Haganah…The sweet soul Moshe became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long and eventful life.”

His life was spared another time there when a bus he and Helen were on took sniper fire. Only the vehicle’s side armor plating shielded him from the rounds.

With the couple’s parents pressing for their return they came back to the U.S. While studying at Iowa State University Bloom met Israeli emissaries who were visiting American ag colleges “to talk enthusiastic ideas to young Jewish fellows like me” he said. It was a recruitment tour designed to attract Zionists in serving the newly formed Jewish nation. Bloom was ripe for the picking. “I knew one thing — I wanted to study a profession that I could go back to use in Israel.”

He asked the visitors, “What should l study to help the State? Should I become a veterinarian?” “We need nutritionists,” he was told. That’s all he needed to hear. Besides, he said, “I liked very much working with cattle when I was on the kibbutz.” From ‘50 to ‘55 he earned his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State, his master’s from Penn State and his Ph.D. from ISU. All in dairy applications.

His scientific inquiries in that period proved fruitful. At PSU, he said, “the first feed grade antibiotics were in use. I worked with oromycin — I got beautiful gains. I got the sense of how powerful biological (compounds) are.” Of how 20 grams “of this yellow powder in a ton of feed” could increase milk production. Magic dust. He went back to ISU, he said, “where this line of study was more advanced. I worked with very good people. The work I did gave off papers in three different fields. I was elected to Sigma Xi, a scientific honorary society. I won the Borden Award.”

Longing to apply his expertise in Israel he was frustrated when no position was immediately available. Thus, in ‘56 he followed his nose for adventure to Puerto Rico, where he worked on dairy cattle feeding trials and introduced high molasses rations for swine. When a post finally opened in Israel the next year to conduct a Ford Foundation study at a research station, the Suez Canal crisis erupted. The U.S. government issued stiff warnings to Americans to avoid travel there but a little war wasn’t going to stop Bloom  “I went anyway,” he said. “They (the American consulate) called me in and slapped my wrists.”

These were heady times for Bloom.

“It was exciting. In the Suez campaign all the agronomists had gone into the Sinai Peninsula and had just come back, so the first seminars I heard were all about their findings in that area. When I did my research the agronomists there wanted us to use more pasture. We didn’t have that much. Security was a problem.”

The study compared cows feeding in pastures to those feeding off silage in enclosures. The herds “were then hit by foot and mouth disease,” he said, “which cut off some of the work I did over there.”

He was just happy to be back in a flourishing, independent Israel. He was, in many ways, home again.

“There’s a deep Jewish cultural connection,” he said. Not to mention “the beauty of living as part of the majority. There’s a certain sweetness, a certain pleasure in that that even today with our liberal (tolerant) attitudes you don’t quite have here (in the U.S.).”

He and Erlinda traveled to Israel in 2003. He hadn’t been there since 1962 and he marveled at how a once dreary stretch of road outside Tel Aviv “was green all the way to Jerusalem. That is my road. It’s built by Jews.” The whole country’s transformation from dusty outpost to verdant oasis satisfied him. “Israel’s a beautiful place, and it means so much,” he said. “There’s a personal connection.”

Sol Bloom and his daughter Ruthie play a duet while living in Manila, the Phillipines, in 1979.

His much-traveled life-career has taken intriguing turns outside Israel. For example, in 1964 he was hired by the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. He said it marked “the only time in my life I worked in the medical profession. I worked with many oncologists and cardiologists in helping them design their studies. In the building there were about 30 prima donna medical and biological researchers and I learned how to get things done” in terms of landing research grants.

He did well but was frustrated. “My marriage was on the brink of breaking down,” he said, “and I was looking to get back into my field. The only opportunity I had to get back was in Nigeria as a swine nutritionist” with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1967. He introduced adaptive feeding-breeding techniques for the swine industry, advised the government and Peace Corps, lectured, conducted feeding trials and penned extension bulletins for livestock producers. Helen did not accompany him.

Nigeria was in the throes of a civil war, making difficult living conditions even harder. Bloom was largely untouched by the conflict. “The only way USAID people felt this war was in the many checkpoints on the roads, the frequent searches of our vehicles and the presence of troops in training,” he wrote.

A memorable experience was leading a convoy of trucks loaded with 15 tons of seed corn across Nigeria to impoverished Biafran farmers. Despite bad roads, devastated villages, chaotic assundry delays, the delivery was made.

Bloom spent four conflicted years there. The affair he carried on with his housekeeper, Rose, came in the wake of “the powerful loneliness” he felt so many miles from home. “Combined with my own mental anxieties,” he wrote, “it endangered my ability to function, and so it was to the journal I turned to record daily activities to maintain sanity and stability.” To numb the pain there was plenty of Star Beer and dancing under the starlight to the sound of talking drums.

Between marriages to Helen and Linda, there was Rose, in Africa in 1967.

He took an extended R & R in Spain, where the bull fights both intrigued and repulsed him. Like most in the crowd he rooted for “the majestic creature.”

In 1970 the USAID sent him to Zambia to advise/study the local swine industry. He wrote, “Mind you, you find Jews almost anywhere in the world, but I didn’t expect to find any in Zambia.” But he did in the Shapiro family, who adopted him. “I have found Jews in the most exotic places,” he wrote in his African memoirs.

That same year he began his longest overseas idyll, in the Philippines, where he stayed through 1981. He went in the employ of the USAID but eventually became a free agent. He was a nutrition consultant for swine operations and feed mills, he created and marketed his own Rose-N-Bloom brand livestock feeds with another American expatriate and worked for the American Soybean Association and corporate giants Cynamid and Monsanto.

He became close with an American ranch family, the Murrays. Bloom loved riding out on their high grass tropical range. Pastures gave way to jungle. The ranch was accessible only by boat or plane. Getting the steers to market was a big operation.

The Philippines is also where Bloom met and married Erlinda, “my Oriental package.” They started a family together there.

“I came back from the Philippines in ‘81 — to Richmond, Ind. Erlinda had a cousin living-working there. God took me to a place, the Midwest, with corn, soy, cattle, pigs, where I could begin my work again,” he said,

Erlinda Bloom, Sol’s second wife, lights the menorah with their children Jesse and Ruth, in the Philipines in 1977. Jesse lives with Sol and Linda today.

Over the next dozen years his work necessitated more moves. Vigortone Ag Products in Marion, Ohio. Dawes Laboratories in Chicago. At Dawes he developed vitamin-mineral fortifiers for animal industry species. Omaha-based I.M.S. Inc. brought him to Omaha in 1989 as its senior nutritionist.

He stayed here after hooking up with Steve Silver’s Omaha-based International Nutrition in 1990. Meeting up with another Jew in the goy ag field only confirmed Bloom’s belief that far from “purely chance” it was “supposed to happen.” At least he chooses to believe so. The very thought, he said, “is a comfort to me.”

Silver said Bloom brought “a wealth of experience. He worked in helping develop products for use in our overseas markets.” Though mostly retired now, Bloom said,  “I’m still working a little bit. “I’m doing something on the co-product or residue from ethanol production and how to make it more amenable for pigs and poultry and so forth and so on. It’s interesting”

Away from work Bloom enjoys “the little pleasures of the day.” Listening to his beloved Brahms. Praying/socializing at the synagogue. Doing mind exercises.

When reviewing his life, he said, “Sometimes I think, Did I do all these things? It’s hard to imagine.”


At Work in the Fields of the Righteous

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Jewish Holocaust survivors awaiting transporta...

Jewish Holocaust survivors awaiting transportation to the British Mandate of Palestine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben. Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

NOTE: The following story is not about Ben, per se, but about one of the educational events he arranged to promote greater understanding and knowledge about the Holocaust.  The story reports on a gathering that Ben and his wife hosted at their place for a discussion about the trauma of the hidden child.

 

At Work in the Fields of the Righteous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

A gathering unlike any other took place the evening of September 24 at the home of Omaha Holocaust researcher Ben Nachman. Over the course of several hours a diverse group of guests heard three men discuss a shared legacy of survival — one that saw them persevere through the Shoah as hidden children in their native Belgium. Two of the men, Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, are well known Omaha physicians. The third, Marcel Frydman, is professor emeritus at the University of Mons in Mons, Belgium, where he is a psychologist and the author of a book exploring the long-term traumatic effects of the hidden child experience.

Kader and Jaeger, who already knew each other, were eager to meet Frydman and hear his findings since they shared a common past and homeland. According to Kader, a pediatric neurologist, the hidden experience is one that unites men and women, even of different ages and nationalities, in a special fraternity. “Because of the nature of our experiences, whether in Holland or France or Belgium, you do form this kind of a bond with another hidden child. It’s a thing where we both survived, we both were hidden. The feelings we have just resonate back and forth. It’s a common understanding. It’s communication at a different level.”

Until recently, hidden children rarely spoke about their wartime experiences. For many, the events were simply too painful or too suppressed to tackle. But since a 1991 international hidden children’s conference attended by all three men, more and more long silent survivors have been seeking each other out to talk about their shared heritage in hiding.

Frydman, who came to Omaha at the invitation of Nachman and through the auspices of the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, hopes to have his French-language book published in English. Jaeger, a pediatric psychiatrist, has read the book and feels it offers valuable insights into the whole host of circumstances that determines how individuals cope with the emotional baggage of childhood trauma well into adulthood. He said the book provides a therapeutic framework for treating not only former hidden children but anyone suffering from post traumatic stress, which he added is a timely addition to research on the subject in light of the emotional toll the events of September 11 and after have taken on the damaged American psyche.

On hand that evening at Nachman’s were educators, lawyers and journalists, all of whom came to learn something about the ordeal the three men underwent. As the night unwound, it became clear from what was said that the hidden experience is one marked by profound separation anxiety, where youths taken from homes and families go into hiding among total strangers and try to conceal their Jewish identity in order to save their lives. As each survivor described the story of his survival, he revealed something of the psychological scars borne from these searing events so far outside the normal stream of human conduct. They explained how, even after escaping extermination and building successful adult lives now a half-century removed from their ordeal, they remain haunted by the specter of their hidden odyssey, an odyssey that has both driven them and frustrated them.

 

 

 

 

There was something nearly sacred in this solemn exchange between the survivors and their rapt audience. The men and women huddled around the Nachman living room listened intently to every word uttered and asked questions that begged for more detail. The evening was also meaningful for the survivors. For Kader and Jaeger, meeting Frydman and learning of his work helped further validate their own hidden histories, which remained shrouded and inarticulated until they began piecing together their own backgrounds at that 1991 conference in New York.

Kader said a book like Frydman’s “gives more credence to the feelings that survivors have. When hidden children get together they end up talking about the same kinds of things and what they talk about has often been well-repressed.” Kader said the more hidden children he gets to know, the more he realizes “all of us, in our own way, have the same sort of common thread of experiences and we all go through the same kind of process of finding a way out of it (the trauma) to make something of ourselves.” He said Frydman’s work helps demonstrate survivors “can cope and manage. Even though you may have these recollections of traumatic experiences in the back of your mind you can get past that point and go on with your life. His research shows all sorts of common denominators. You realize what you’re going through is a natural evolution other survivors go through. It’s reassuring to know we’re all not crazy.”

For Frydman, whose work in this area was sparked by a group of survivors at the who asked him to lead their counseling sessions, the evening was a chance to share his findings with fellow countrymen who endured a similar fate during and after the war. In writing his 1999 book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions, Frydman found an outlet for his own survivor issues and a forum for examining the consequences of the hidden experience, many of which he found overlap from one survivor to another.

For his book he returned to the very site where he was sheltered after the war — a home for hidden and abandoned children of both Jewish and non-Jewish descent — and to the same group of individuals with whom he shared his early adolescence. To his astonishment he discovered that in spite of their war deprivation many of these individuals have achieved great professional success, with an unusually high percentage ending up in the healing arts, as evidenced by himself, Kader and Jaeger. As he studied this population he identified elements and conditions that explained the apparent anomaly of survivors reaching such heights from such depths.

“In my opinion, two factors were important,” Frydman said. “First, the quality of family life before the war. These children knew there was a possibility of recovering the family unit. They felt forsaken but they knew their parents didn’t abandon them. This was very important when they were confronted with the conditions of an institution where the affective life was very low. The second factor was the quality of the environment in which the child was placed during and after the war. If this environment was good and supportive, he could find again a normal life, mobilize his potentialities and perform very high. It’s no accident that hidden children have chosen social or therapeutic professions. If you have experienced something as hard as we did you may be more skilled to help others.”

Frydman finds survivors exhibit a remarkable resilience as a result of having endured what they did. Jaeger believes he and his peers managed compensating for the trials and deficits of their interrupted childhood because attaining success, coming as it did against all odds, became an act of defiance. “Resiliency is an act of defiance in some ways,” Jaeger said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You were wrong,’ to those people who said, You can’t do this, or, You won’t ever reach a certain point. As Marcel (Frydman) points out, the thing that contributed to this resilience was the love and nurturance we were inculcated with despite everything going on around us.”

Recently, Jaeger found poignant evidence of the love he was endowed with via two formal family photographs his mother, who escaped the Shoah, commissioned at the time of the roundups and deportations. “I was struck by the fact that she felt it was important to have a memory to sustain our family even in the midst of what was going on. It reinforced what Marcel said about how important the home environment was. It probably provided a buffer that sustained us when we left home and went via this underground railroad into hiding.”

Another impetus for survivors to strive so hard, Jaeger said, was their strong desire “to get on with things and to accomplish anything and everything we could. Most of us wanted to find acceptance — to be included in the mainstream.”

Frydman, Kader and Jaeger were hidden at several sites but their protective custody mainly came in institutions run by various good Samaritans, including Catholic nuns. They are glad to have ended up in such good, caring hands. Frydman said there long was an assumption children placed with foster families were more fortunate than those placed in institutions, “but now I can say that wasn’t true because the child placed in a family was alone in his stress — the family sheltered him but couldn’t share his loneliness and sense of forsakeness — whereas the child in an institution eventually discovered he was not alone and any stress experience is made more bearable when the stress is shared.”

In addition to drawing on his own experiences for the book, Frydman drew on his past work counseling “forsaken children” — orphaned or otherwise abandoned youths — which provided a field of reference from which to extrapolate. What Frydman found in comparing and contrasting hidden children with abandoned children is that “the trauma of the hidden group is more complex and is provoked not by one factor but by a succession of factors,” he said. For example, he points to the roundups of Jews that Nazi authorities began staging in the early part of the war that invariably sent detainees to death camps. The fear engendered by these roundups signaled to children that they, their families, their friends and their neighbors were in peril. He said, “Even if you were not deported you heard about what was happening from other Jews who witnessed these events and the anxiety of the adults was communicated to the children.”

 

 

 

 

As it became evident the only way to save children was to hide them, an underground network formed to shield them. Because it was easier and less conspicuous to hide a child alone as opposed to a family, children were usually separated from their parents.

“Little children couldn’t understand why they had to be hidden and without their parents,” Frydman said. “It was a safe thing to separate them, but for the children it wasn’t a healthy thing. They were lacking the presence of their parents. They were missing all the affective, emotional ties. And children understood there was a danger of being denounced. We were told not to reveal our real name and not to reveal our Jewish identity. The child understood this, but it increased his anxiety. He understood too that the parents were also in danger. Sometimes he knew one or both of the parents had been arrested and deported, and sometimes he hadn’t any news of there whereabouts. You don’t find these conditions when you study forsaken children.”

Prolonged exposure to such danger and distress left many former hidden children with deep-seated feelings of apprehension and insecurity, said Frydman. “Because they lived for years in an environment perceived as menacing they have some problems associated with anxiety. This has been fixed, at least on the unconscious level, and so they develop some defenses in order to adapt themselves. There’s often a lack of trust and a sense of guardedness toward others. Some of them think they must control every aspect of a relationship because during the war they had no control. For example, some of my subjects told me they resist forming new relationships because it means risking being forsaken another time.”

Even when in the same institution Frydman said hidden children demonstrated fewer issues of desertion than abandoned children because prior to being harbored hidden children presumably enjoyed a stable home life. “They had the chance to be in a normal family before,” he said, “so they were better prepared to confront the separation. They knew there might be a family to try and find after the war whereas the forsaken children knew there was no family to be found.” A striking difference he found in abandoned children versus hidden children is the slowed mental development of the former group compared with the latter group.

The author conducted his research for the book with the aid of one of his students. Interviews were completed with more than 50 adults who found sanctuary in Belgium or surrounding countries during the war. Frydman and his assistant used a non-invasive technique to draw subjects out, some of whom had never before verbalized their hidden past. “The interview was a non-directive one,” he said. “We didn’t ask questions. We just gave the subject the opportunity to evoke his experience and helped him to express what he had to say. For some of the subjects, recalling the past was an ordeal. Some cried. They couldn’t stop. The trauma came back. And, yes, for some it was the first time they’d spoken about it.”

 

 

 

 

The fact that so many hidden children remained resolutely silent about their past for so long is a phenomenon that Frydman has tried to explain in his book. He said it was a case of hidden children growing up in an atmosphere where the subject was viewed as too painful to revisit or misunderstood as something that could be easily dismissed.

“Just after the war hidden children didn’t feel they had the right to speak because speaking about the trauma implied reliving it,” he said. “They would have spoken if they could have found some help, but in post-war Europe we hadn’t any psychologists. And adults didn’t understand what to say, so if they spoke about the war at all, they said, ‘You were lucky.’ Of course, it’s true, we were lucky not to be deported, but we suffered. If every adult says to you, ‘You were lucky,’ you haven’t even the possibility to express your suffering.” Or, as Jaeger explains, “People were getting on with their lives and moving away from that ordeal and, in effect, really nobody was there who psychologically gave you permission to speak. That listening ear and that permission just weren’t there.”

As the trauma is denied or ignored, Jaeger said, it festers like an untreated wound, only buried out of view, yet never too far away to be reopened. “In psychology there’s a phenomenon where you either dissociate or you compartmentalize things that have been extremely bad. Children exposed to bad events can lose memory of those things. That’s a protective mechanism to enable you to go on, but those feelings are always there at the surface. Certain sounds can evoke fear and anxiety in former hidden children. The sound of a truck is one of the most feared sounds because trucks were used in the roundups. It was the sound of your future. Of being rounded up, deported to camps and confronting almost certain death. Vulnerability is always just below the surface for some of us.”

Jaeger said it was only recently, upon reading Frydman’s book, he recalled suffering panic attacks as a boy after the war. He remembers the episodes occured while riding in cars and presumes his anxiety was triggered by dim memories of deportations. Because Kader and Jaeger were quite young when they went into hiding, their memories are somewhat tenuous. Those who were older when hidden, like Frydman, retain clearer memories of the events and the trauma.

Symbols can also summon the horror of a perilous childhood. For example, Jaeger said some survivors have “a problem trusting authority or trusting the system” because they associate those things with the uniformed soldiers or officials who menaced them and their families.

Jaeger admires Frydman’s book for its clear, thorough assessment of the hidden experience. “It is an exquisite explanation of the dynamics of the experience and of its long term effects. It really has a kind of global description that applies to you no matter what your own hidden experiences were. He helps us understand how we arrived at where we are. Also, it’s really one of the best explanations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its long term ramifications. There’s been lots written about PTSD, but this sampling of a population from a psychological point of view is somewhat unique in that here we have a group of people still living 50-plus years after the fact. It often takes that long for hidden children or camp survivors or other trauma victims to share their experiences because they evoke an emotional vulnerability that is not that easy to deal with. Everybody has to do it in their own way. There are people who to this day still don’t say anything. They haven’t reached that point. This is so applicable to what happened at the World Trade Center because that trauma will be imprinted over generations in some cases.”

Ultimately, only fellow survivors can truly understand what their brothers or sisters of the Holocaust have gone through. Still, every time they share their story with others it gives added meaning to their witness bearing — allowing their testimony to live on in others. The need to testify grows more urgent as the number of survivors dwindles. “Time is of the essence in that we’re the last generation of witnesses left,” Jaeger said, referring to hidden children like himself, Kader and Frydman. In an era when the nation’s moral fortitude is being tested by the threat of terrorism at home, he said, it is more vital than ever to stand up and speak out against evil.

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