Annette Libeskind Berkovits thought her attempt to have her father record his life's story failed. But in 2004, three years after her father's death, she was going through his things and found a box of tapes-several years' worth-with his spectacular life, triumphs, and tragedies told one last time in his baritone voice. Nachman Libeskind's remarkable story is an odyssey through crucial events of the twentieth century. With an unshakable will and a few drops of luck, he survives a pre-war Polish prison; witnesses the 1939 Nazi invasion of Lodz and narrowly escapes; is imprisoned in a brutal Soviet gulag where he helps his fellow inmates survive, and upon regaining his freedom treks to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he finds and nearly loses the love of his life. Later, the crushing communist regime and a lingering postwar anti-Semitism in Poland drive Nachman and his young family to Israel, where he faces a new form of discrimination. Then, defiantly, Nachman turns a pocketful of change into a new life in New York City, where a heartbreaking promise leads to his unlikely success as a modernist painter that inspires others to pursue their dreams. With just a box of tapes, Annette Libeskind Berkovits tells more than her father's story: she builds an uncommon family saga and reimagines a turbulent past. In the process she uncovers a stubborn optimism that flourished in the unlikeliest of places.
Annette Libeskind Berkovits was born in Kyrgyzstan and grew up in postwar Poland and the fledgling state of Israel before coming to America at age sixteen. In her three-decade career with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, she spearheaded the institution's nationwide and worldwide science education programs. Her achievements include the first-ever agreement to bring environmental education to China's schools. The National Science Foundation has recognized her outstanding leadership in the field.
My father's visits gave me a chance to pick his brain and work at unearthing its tightly held secrets. I grabbed my briefcase and rushed out of my office heading to Gale Place in the Bronx to meet him. It was only a twelve-minute drive, but in the Friday-evening rush hour I wove in and out of traffic, glancing at the dashboard to check the time. I didn't want him to wait outside because already the air held the sting of winter.
It was getting dark and large droplets of rain rolled down the windshield as I pulled up in front of his apartment building, the Amalgamated Co-op adjacent to Van Cortlandt Park. He emerged smiling and holding a large stainless-steel pot wrapped in checkered kitchen towels, his overnight bag slung over the shoulder of his weatherproof parka, navy cap festooned with Chinese buttons from our trip to China. He looked youthful and fit, though he was nearly seventy-five.
Dad got in the car and we hugged over the centre console. "How are you, Tinku?" I asked.
"Zeyer gut." Very well, he replied in Yiddish, then added, "Der vinter kumt shoyn." Winter is almost here.
I pulled out of the cul-de-sac and noticed the wind twisting the branches of the trees in the park. I better hurry before the weather worsens, I thought. It worried me, but I knew that a storm meant nothing to my father. The gulag experience prepared him to survive hardships, and weather was the least of it. The rain turned heavy as I merged onto the Major Deegan Expressway, the mad rush hour by now well underway and the road surface slick. Cars whizzed past us. I needed to speed up. The car was infused with the smell of my father's cooking. My stomach growled and I realized I was starving. I inhaled the pungent ginger aroma. It was pleasant and surprising.
"Dad, what did you make today?"
"Did I give you that recipe?"
"No, your mama's friend gave it to me. It's very easy to make."
"You had ginger in the house?" I asked, surprised for this is not a common ingredient in Polish Jewish cooking.
A huge truck passed, making the road momentarily invisible. I pressed the gas.
Dad was oblivious. "No, I used ginger ale."
My husband, David, and I had been begging my father to move into our Larchmont home since Mama passed away nine years before. But Dad refused resolutely, saying only, "I need my Bronx headquarters." We settled for the weekend visits. It didn't matter how frustrating our workweeks may have been, what arguments we had with or about the children, the minute my father crossed our threshold something magical happened. Everyone was calmer. Problems that seemed impossible on Thursday would be solved by Monday.
After Friday dinners we often lingered in the dining area, the adults sipping tea, the kids moving their chairs closer to Zayda, all of us huddled around the proverbial fire, though the only glow came from the scarlet glass lamps that hung over the table.
Our daughter, about to graduate high school, usually got dibs on conversation first: "Zayda, tell me again about your marriage to Bubby under Stalin's portrait."
"Ach, vedding, shmedding," he'd say. "It's the love that counts."
Our son, two years younger than his sister, would pipe up next: "Zayda, can you tell us the story about when they threw you into that Polish prison?"
"But I have told it a hundred times," my father would say, waving his hands in frustration, while his smile invited more questions.
"Yes, but each time you tell us a different wrinkle. The part about the tattoo was new last time! I don't want to miss any part of it."
One weekend, when we were helping my father prepare for his annual migration to Florida, we gave him a new tape recorder to bring with him. I had had so many questions for my mother that I never thought to ask. I believed that she would always be there, that I could ask later, or the moment wasn't right and then . she was gone. I wouldn't make that mistake again.
On Saturday morning, David struggled to open the impossible plastic packaging. He called to my father who was in his room busy practising a new tune on his electric keyboard. "Nachman, can you join us in the den? We want to show you something."
We heard the strains of the melody repeating. I knew he'd come in only once he had the tune exactly right. Finally, Dad appeared, triumphant. His eyes shone and his cheeks looked rosy as if he were suddenly younger. "I got it!" he said.
David presented the tape recorder,
Perplexed, my father asked, "What's this, when I want to play my music?"
"Dad, I hope you'll record stories from your life on this machine when you go to Florida."
"You know them already," he said.
"But I want them for the children, for the future ." I didn't want to say for when you are gone. He seemed to understand. His face turned serious for a moment and all he said was, "Ach." I didn't know what to make of it.
And we showed him how the tape recorder worked.
"Why do they need all those buttons and why are they so small?" he asked. "Ania, have you seen my glasses?"
"Look, Nachman," David instructed. "This is the pause button, if you want to stop your narration for a moment and think."
I handed Dad his glasses. The lenses magnified his eyes into two blue pools.
"What should I think about? It's all in there." He tapped his head.
"Look Dad, this is the button to press if you want to rewind and hear what you have recorded," I chimed in.
"What are those double arrows?" he asked.
"Oh, I forgot to say, these are fast forward?" I told him.
"Who is in a hurry? I won't need these," he said.
Then David showed him the mini tape cassettes.
"This small thing will hold my whole story?"
"No, Dad, you will have to put in a new one when this one ends," I said.
He held his head with both hands. "Oy, is this necessary? I have told you enough stories already," he said.
My father pushed up the glasses slipping off his small nose and stared at the buttons. He pressed one tentatively, took a deep breath and began: "I was born in 1909 in Lodz, but my passport says Przedborz ." He stopped suddenly and searched for a button.
I said, "What's wrong, Dad?"
"I . I what do you call it? I want to cancel, to go back."
"Ach, I forgot to explain this," he said utterly frustrated, then pushed the wrong button and erased what he had just recorded. "Shayze!" An uncharacteristic curse escaped his lips. He took off his glasses and said, "I think it's time to prepare lunch. Today I will make the broccoli with eggs. Good?"
Dad died in 2001. My grief abated slowly. Every time I stepped into his room, the funeral rushed at me as if it were only days before so I put off tackling his closet for three years. Now I stood in his room staring at the geometric rug he himself selected, the slippers still lined up like soldiers where he'd left them under the bed, everything still held his persona and seemed to scream, "Are you going to keep this bedroom like a museum?"
Not that my father's closet had much in it. He was very frugal and hadn't bought anything new for years. I was wracked by guilt because I knew what he would have said. "Take my coats and sweaters and give them to a charity, there are so many homeless people who could use them."
"But Dad, I need them here for a bit longer," I would have pleaded.
And surely he would have replied, "It has been three years! Ach, Ania it's such a shande. Take them to Goodwill now. Do me a favour."
But it was spring and the coats wouldn't help anyone now. I made a mental note to take them to the donation centre in the fall and started rummaging through the closet. I hugged his coats and sweaters and inhaled deeply hoping for his scent, but by then there was nothing of it left; just the slightest hint of mothballs. I took out his favourite blue shirt and noticed a tiny smear of paint on the sleeve. He wore it while he painted. It made me smile because he was so fastidious that he wouldn't have worn it had he noticed the yellow paint smudge. I went to hang it in my closet. This way every time I open it, I thought, just for a split second, I would have the illusion that he was still here.
I had sorted the clothes I would donate, some twill trousers, old flannel shirts, his blue terry bathrobe, a few sweaters he rarely wore. "Who is cold? I'm never cold," he'd say, and some ties that he'd only use to attend graduations and his show openings. It was unfortunate that David was too tall to use any of my father's things. My father's five-foot-four stature, perfectly normal in pre-war Europe, was decidedly below average in America. I was almost finished with the emotionally exhausting job when I noticed a shoebox, way at the back of the closet.
I opened the box and stared. It was...