I begin, and end, in the same place: decimation. The title of the appendix of this autobiography, Between My Father and the Old Fool, reads, “The Decimation of the Cahan Family.” Between the beginning and the ending, however, is an odd dialogue, a conversation between Maier Cahan (the book’s author) and the Old Fool.
The “Old Fool” is a Talmudic term for the “evil inclination,” the yetzer hara. If I suffer and witness immense suffering, and an urge tells me to curse God, that is the Old Fool speaking. When my inner voice tells me steal, blaspheme, hurt or fall to despair, that is the Old Fool speaking.
Clearly, during the Holocaust, the Old Fool had a field day. This book is a memoir of the Holocaust on two levels: a personal story of suffering, and a personal struggle with God.
Maier Cahan struggles from within faith. In his struggles, he is brutally honest. He suffers too much not to be.
There is something ajar in the book title. If the struggle is “Between My Father and the Old Fool,” who is telling the story? Shouldn’t the title read, “Between Me and the Old Fool?” In the book, a child of Maier Cahan presents his father’s story; the struggle continues through the generations. The Holocaust wasn’t simply an event back then, a piece of history, a bracket enclosing the years 1939 to 1945, something to “remember,” limited, possible to bury. The ramifications of the Holocaust live through the survivors and their children, down through the generations. If Cahan had a dialogue with the Old Fool, then, of necessity, so did those who came after him, who escaped the decimation.
The list of the decimated of the Cahan family is long, as you might imagine. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that Maier Cahan is not on the list. As in many Holocaust memoirs, Cahan, at countless turning points, should have been dead. Friends, family, acquaintances—all were killed. Time and again, somehow, he survived. Cahan never quite says so directly, but this is his ultimate weapon in his arguments with the Old Fool, who, one might also imagine, did not lay down and die after the war was over.
More than forty years after the Holocaust, Cahan dedicated a Torah scroll in memory of his family. Dancing. Banqueting. Inspirational speeches. It was quite an event. The hour grew late, and Cahan felt as if he would float away.
Suddenly, a familiar voice said to him, “Maier, think about it for a minute.” It was the Old Fool. “All these beloved people to whom you’ve dedicated this Torah scroll, why did they deserve to die? Wouldn’t it have been better if they were all alive to share this celebration with you today? Better for them and better for you. For whom is it better that they are dead? For whom is it better that they suffered so horribly?”
The Old Fool had dogged Cahan even in 1988, forty-three years after liberation. What was Cahan’s counterargument?
“For a moment, my anger flared, but then I leaned back and listened to the strains of the music. In my mind, I was once again dancing in the street, holding on tightly to the Torah and crying like a child, and I no longer heard the Old Fool. Life, I decided, was a choice between anger and joy. I chose joy.”
Happy ending. But I cheated. I gave no evidence of how agonizingly difficult it was for Cahan to reach that moment of joy. His memoir is no storybook. The brutality he survived is impossible to grasp. One evening he was beaten so badly that one cannot understand how he went on. At one point, he makes three friends. All of them suffered unspeakably, but at least they had each other. An infinity later, dragging himself across a field of bodies, Cahan trips over his three dead friends. Not only was his family decimated, but so were the people whom he met in various camps and other places of torture who helped him survive. By the time the war ended, Cahan was not only bereft of the support system he had had before the war, but he was also bereft of whatever slim support he had had during the war.
Subtly interwoven in this narrative is a totemic reminder of all that Cahan once was, and still hoped to be; at once a symbol and a concrete weapon against the Old Fool. This was tefillin.
A death train passed. It carried the Jewish faces of Vishiva, of Sighet, of Strimtua, of Satmar, of Dragomiresti, of Bayna, of Grossverdan. As the train came slowly into the bend, there were outstretched hands. And voices, moans, groans, wails. And the choking smells of unwashed bodies, of stagnating feces and puddled urine. Suddenly, a black object came flying through the air. It was one tefillin; the wheel of the train had crushed one side of it. Cahan picked it up gently, kissed it, caressed it.
“I crumpled to the ground as the tears gushed from my eyes and great heaving sobs wracked my body,” writes Cahan. “I cried for the poor, miserable passengers of the train, innocent victims of the unspeakable evil that had broken loose from the nethermost bowels of Hell and was running rampant among my people. I cried for my father, my stepmother, my beloved brothers and sisters, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, for all the people that had populated my life and were now stuffed into these cattle cars on their way to an unthinkable destination.”
Still, he hugged the crushed tefillin. It was unusable, and he buried it with dignity. He felt strangely comforted.
At the time, Cahan was still in possession of his father’s pair of tefillin. They were all that remained of his father, but, perhaps precisely because of that tragic account, they meant more to Cahan than even the inherent sacredness of the tefillin themselves. One, or maybe a second, infinity after the train had passed, Cahan found himself a prisoner, with guards beating him and everyone around him. “Toss all your personal belongings into the pit!” the SS officer shouted. Cahan resisted. No luck. His backpack, containing his father’s tefillin, his last link to his father, was tossed in.
“So look what you’ve come to, Maier.” He heard a familiar voice. It was the Old Fool. “Apparently, your God has no further need for you….He didn’t even let you keep your tefillin. Why are you still so loyal to Him if He doesn’t care about you?”
“I wanted to respond with a sharp retort,” writes Cahan. “I wanted to devastate the Old Fool with ridicule and sarcasm, but he was gone. He had cleverly faded away after delivering his seditious little speech.”
Later, in a concentration camp, where there was neither soup nor vegetable nor flour, Cahan and his friends figured out a way to exchange their puny rations for a pair of tefillin. They did so at the cost of not only their rations but also of their health and their bodies. They were whipped and punched when they were discovered with the tefillin, which a Nazi trampled until they were nothing more than a shapeless black mass.
“So what do you have to say now, Maier?” It was the Old Fool again.
And again, in another camp, still later, there was a man lying on the ground, a wasted shadow of a man. His eyes “held a look of resignation and such profound peace that I knew he was halfway to the next world,” writes Cahan. The man pulled from his pocket, with great effort, an object wrapped in rags. It was a pair of tefillin. In secret, Cahan and a friend donned the tefillin in the forest, at pain of death. Then his friend fell sick and Cahan helped him put on tefillin. When Cahan returned from work, his friend’s bed was empty. “I felt as if part of me had died,” thought Cahan. “Somehow, I had considered the discovery of the tefillin a portent of good things.” Meanwhile, where were the tefillin? They were gone.
At the last moment, just before the war was over, Cahan astonishingly met his Uncle Shloime. The relief and joy were mixed with a choice, dictated by the Germans: Stay in the camp or go on the road, and whoever will go on the road will be given two loaves of bread, margarine and even some fruit jam. Those who stay behind will receive nothing. Shloime took the rations and went. Cahan stayed.
“Uncle Shloime, I’ve had too many brushes with the Angel of Death on the road. I’m staying here. Whatever happens, happens.”
Uncle Shloime went, after tearful farewells.
Shloime did not.
Somehow, after liberation, Cahan learned the fate of his relatives, his friends, his collaborators, and it was all the same. Somehow, he located his sister’s old apartment, thoroughly vandalized. Somehow, amid the debris, he found a crumpled photograph, and removed the caked mud and dirt. It showed his sister hugging her baby, smiling from ear to ear. Now dead.
“I kissed the photograph and burst into tears. I had cried often during the previous year. I had cried in pain, in agony, in frustration, and in sorrow. But now I cried with an emotion I could not identify. Perhaps I could say it was a sense that I myself had died a little through all my suffering and the loss of my most beloved, and that for the rest of my life I would only be a shadow of what I should have been.
“I slipped the photograph into my pocket, squared my shoulders and left.”
Rabbi Goldberg, PhD, is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver. He serves on the editorial board of Jewish Action.
Cahan passed away in 1996. He left behind three sons: a rabbi, a businessman and a Yiddishist, all of whom are frum. He has many frum grandchildren and great-grandchildren living in the US and in Israel.