How much can you pack into 17 years of your life? Is the first 17 years of your life more important than your last 17 years….if you are…for example…96?
This September I met Harry, whose who also calls himself Zvi. In my native Slovak tongue, the word ‘zvi’ relates to ‘invite’, but in Hebrew, it means ‘gazelle’ (according to Google).
Harry and I were born 52 years apart in the same Slovak town called Svaty Jur. I am 44 and he is 96. I live Birmingham UK, he lives in Tel Aviv. We have never met before, however, the chances are that every year in September, both of our minds wonder to the leafy vineyards of Svaty Jur, her gentle slopes riddled with bunches of golden grapes. Lingering scents of honey and damsons are carried through our brains by imaginary breeze and we see fruit insects hovering above every barrel of ripe harvest….I could go on and on but will spare you the detail!
There are other things we have in common with Zvi. All my childhood, I lived beside a disused synagogue my grandfather used to refer to as the Jewish Temple in the town where, as far as I was aware, there had been no Jews. I wrote about this place on my site previously. Zvi, too, lived not far from this site as a child but in his days – mid 1920s – the building was used as a place of worship, one of many – catholic, protestant evangelic and so on within the same quarter of a mile.
But today, this place that once filled us both with piety is crumbling in front of our eyes – ITS ROOF IS FALLING and a group of local enthusiasts, led by my lovely sister Anna is desperately seeking to mobilise support for its conservation. It’s a complicated process involving a private land owner, the state national heritage regulator, several donors and international charities – with no tangible result at present – but ‘hope is the last thing that dies in men (and women) ‘ as they say!
It is true to say that Harry is the only known living survivor of the worshipers of this late synagogue, he is also the only survivor of the Svaty Jur Jewish community as far as we can tell. As an honorary citizen of the town, he visits every year to mark the beginning of the Hebrew New Year Rosh Hashana and commemorate lives of those from Jewish community who died in concentration camps or were otherwise never found again after the Second World War. Harry has been a driving force behind this important Holocaust Memorial event for 27 years – ever since the borders between the European East and West relaxed, following ‘the fall of Communism’ as it’s known in modern history.
But this year felt somehow different – or at least that’s what his lovely grandson Eyal and Harry’s full time carer Sonia, who both accompanied him, tell me.
After his flight to Budapest, followed by a ride to Svaty Jur via Bratislava, he was greeted by the Pressburg Klezmer band, performing a concert in his honour at the medieval catholic church he would have seen up on the hill as a child.
Harry said he could never imagine hearing the well known Jewish tunes, including the songs of Hebrew worship, inside a Christian establishment. He has been able to talk to younger generation, some of them descendants of his former classmates, who were genuinely interested to hear his life story. Meetings were set up for him to discuss synagogue’s future with local representatives, plans were made for a civic association to be set up in his name to continue promoting education about the Holocaust.
But most importantly, Harry was able to reminisce about running up and down the middle street near the synagogue (and it is still called that – the Middle Street), picking up odd jobs for wealthier familes, nicking fruits and eggs from the backyards (as did most kids those days), remember pretty girls with raven curly hair and eat lots of blue damsons, from those old damson trees that you can only find in the backyards (just like my kids do today)!
And so this is my little way to say thank Harry for finding the time to visit our little town again, for giving us a chance to connect the dots, make up for the past and perhaps continue the family connections for many years to come!