Warsaw, 1942: A 4-year-old Jewish boy is hiding under a table in a factory where his mother sews uniforms for the Nazi army. Soon, this arrangement becomes unsafe. The mother dyes her hair blonde, obtains the papers of a deceased Polish woman and changes her name. She smuggles her son out of the ghetto into the countryside, where she pays a Polish family to keep him safe in their home.
The boy’s mother tells him that his name will now be Jerzy Kochanowski. It’s the first of several Polish names he’ll have during the war as he passes from one hiding place to another. For his protection, he will be raised as a Catholic, unaware that he is a Jew. His mother will visit when she can, sometimes not for a month at a time.
San Francisco, 2010: The boy is now a 72-year-old man. Long ago, he moved to the United States and reclaimed his original Jewish name, George Elbaum. He has made a successful life for himself in business, been married 36 years, is a father and a grandfather. For six decades, he kept memories of his wartime childhood at a “safe emotional distance.”
But last year something happened that led Elbaum to finally close that chasm of time and memory.
While he and his wife were watching “Paper Clips,” a movie about schoolchildren in Tennessee who created a Holocaust remembrance project, he had “an epiphany.”
“The scenes where the children and the teachers were crying as they listened to the stories of survivors really hit me,” Elbaum said.
His wife sensed it and asked him, as she had in the past, if he’d write down his own memories. “I was surprised to hear myself say, ‘I’ll do it,’ ” he said.
The result is his new memoir, “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows: Vignettes of a Holocaust Childhood.” Published in March, the book recounts his experiences growing up in the shadow of war.
Early in the book, Elbaum writes about a day when his mother visited him while he was living with a Polish family. There was a woman there who was also paying to be hidden. She tried to bribe Elbaum’s mother and threatened to report them to the Germans.
“That night, my mom came back and whisked me out of there,” Elbaum recalled in an interview. “She told me I was going to another place with new people, and that my name would again be changed. I was cold and crying and refused to go.”
It was near curfew, and Elbaum’s mother was frantic. “It happened that an old beggar was passing and saw this young woman with a petulant, stubborn child refusing to move,” Elbaum said. “He bent down and said to me: ‘If you don’t listen to your mother I’ll put you in my burlap bag and take you away.’ I shut up and went with her to the next place she had found for me.”
Elbaum said the beggar was a godsend. “If we had been caught out past curfew, that would’ve been the end of us.”
In “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows,” Elbaum tells of about how his father was conscripted into the Polish army and went off to fight when Elbaum was only 1, and how he never saw him again. He also writes about the Nazis taking his grandparents and other relatives, and how he and his mother were the only peope in his extended family of about 12 that survived.
In December 1944, Elbaum, then 7, was finally reunited with his mother in Warsaw. It was then he found out he was Jewish. Five years later, they moved to France, where his mother remarried, then to the United States.
Through the years, Elbaum rarely spoke about his childhood, purposely keeping it separate from his new life. “My mom was successful in America, but never happy. I thought that part of her unhappiness was because of her focus on the Holocaust and her loss and what she went through,” Elbaum said. “So I put a guard around myself.”
Writing the book not only tapped into a deep well of memories for Elbaum, it also led to a new project — teaching young people about the Holocaust. He contacted Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that sends speakers to schools to teach children about tolerance. He also plans to speak at schools through the Holocaust Education Resource Center in Seattle, where his son lives.
“The main thing is to carry my little story to a young audience,” said Elbaum. “I want to convey the idea of what it’s like to be discriminated against, to be in hiding and fearing for your life. If it’s conveyed to kids who are old enough to understand it and yet young enough to absorb it into their psyches, perhaps part of it will be retained.”
And if the younger generation retains it, Elbaum said, there may be hope for the future.
“I really do feel that this slogan of ‘Never Again’ is a wishful fantasy unless people who have been through it somehow impart their feelings and experiences to the next generation, so that it remains active in their minds,” he said. “Speaking in schools gives me a chance of conveying that hope.”
“Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows: Vignettes of a Holocaust Childhood” by George Elbaum (84 pages, CreateSpace, $11.95). Information: www.neitheryesterdays.com.