Did you ever wonder about the childhood of your parents or grandparents? What was their home like? What kind of schooling did they have? Who were their friends? What kind of games did they play?
My siblings and I also wondered what the lives of our parents and grandparents were like. My mother was born and raised in America, just as I was. Even though she grew up in a different time and a different city than I did, she still spoke the same language, was influenced by a similar culture, and thrived in a similar kind of environment. I also was able to see the house in which she had lived, and to spend time with her parents and extended family. Therefore, it was relatively easy to imagine my mother’s life.
But my father, Srulek Starck, grew up in a very different land, and in a very different way. My father is from the city of Munkács (pronounced MUN-katch), which was controlled by Czechoslovakia in his youth (today it is called Mukachevo and is within the borders of the Ukraine). He didn’t sleep on a spring mattress like me, or enjoy central heating or even real bathrooms. He spoke a different language than I did and played different kinds of games. And then, when he was merely ten years old, his life was traumatically and tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. My father is a Holocaust survivor.
One day, my father announced quite unexpectedly, “I want to write a book about my life in Europe.” I jumped at the opportunity,
“Daddy, please give me a chance! Let me help you write your story!”
The story that resulted, which you hold in your hand, is the true-life account of Yisroel/Israel/Srulek Starck from the years 1934 to 1948, in war-torn Europe and then as an immigrant to the United States. The stories are all factual, and related to the best of my father’s memory. Where names could be recalled, they were recorded factually. Where names were forgotten or unknown, they were filled in with appropriate replacements. Almost all of the events portrayed are as reported by my father or by other eyewitnesses. However, a few vignettes are composites of several events combined into one story, as is the case of Srulek’s postwar train ride to Budapest. For the sake of readability, I took poetic license to fill in dialogues, or missing pieces of events, trying to be true to the personalities and circumstances of the individuals being portrayed.
The only exception to the above is the one fictional element of Taibele. Although Srulek really did love animals and nature, he did not have a pet bird. The character of Taibele was created as a device to help Srulek tell his story. Taibele takes the perspective of the reader; what questions might you, the reader, have asked had you observed Srulek and those around him as he experienced the events of this story? Taibele will ask some of those questions for you, and hopefully help you, the reader, get a fuller understanding of the circumstances of the time. Taibele can go where others cannot. He can observe and enter even beyond Srulek’s scope.
Srulek Starck’s journey through these formative years of his life were years that held many silences. There were silences of doubt, silences of fear, silences of the unknown, and silences of oppression. Taibele helps us penetrate some of the silence. He helps us hear the voice of a young boy who’s trying to understand the thoughts of the adults around him. He helps us hear the sounds of suffering emanating from cattle cars and the Appells, see the carnage of the war across the European landscape, and understand the loneliness, torment, doubts and worries of the victims. At no time does the fictional character of Taibele interfere with the real facts of the story. His presence simply helps clarify the narration of those facts.
This recounting of Srulek’s experience is not just a memoir; it is also the message of how adversity and evil of the most sinister kind needn’t compromise the lofty spirit that resides in each and every one of us. It is the story of how against intense pain and hardship, man can transcend heroically, maintaining his own human dignity and self-respect. And when all seems lost, and man is submerged in the depressing aftermath of destruction, he can take a deep breath, get his bearings, and gradually follow the road signs that lead to recovery.
Srulek’s story is the specific story of one individual, and at the same time, it is the collective story of our nation. It is the story of our exile in hostile lands, where we continuously attempted to preserve ourselves in body, spirit, and soul. We set down roots and created a community that was relatively peaceful and prosperous. Invariably, we became shunned by our host nation, and suffered all manner of rejection and hardship and even outright persecution at their hands. We were thrown off course, reeling, suffering losses, trying to regain our equilibrium. With G-d’s help we survived, albeit wounded, and we wandered until we set down new roots and rebuilt.
With G-d’s help, we the remaining survivors and our children – we the Jewish nation – continue our journey, seeking peace with the countries wherein we dwell, awaiting the final redemption. This is my father’s story, and it is your story too.
Miriam (Starck) Miller