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Perpetuating the legacy of her grandpa

  • WhatsApp Image 2017-04-26 at 16.03.02
Nine-year-old Israel Gurwicz was one of many children sardined into the cattle truck of a train bound for death, but somehow managed to squeeze through a tiny opening and jump out of the moving vehicle. He survived to tell his story 65 years later to his granddaughter, Courtneigh Cloud Bernstein, who turned it into a theatrical docu-drama.
by OWN CORRESPONDENT | Apr 28, 2017

In a true story of unconditional love between granddaughter and her grandfather, Cloud Bernstein helped him offload his experience, turning it into something that would be a constant reminder of the pain, loss and anguish. It was the journey that one little Jewish boy experienced during the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

Cloud Bernstein recounted her and her grandfather’s story at the Yom Hashoah Holocaust and Heroism Day Memorial Service in Cape Town last weekend.  It all started, she said, while studying film and she had to direct a play that she could either find or write herself. Overnight she realised this was her opportunity to record her grandfather’s story.

“It’s now or never. This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for,” she said to herself at the time. “I approached my grandpa the very next day and said it’s time, let’s do it, let’s tell your story. There was an unspoken truth that we both knew this was going to be our chance to finally open up the wounds that had been covered for 65 years.”

In trying to get the full picture, she asked him to remember sense and colours. He recalled the detail in his baby sister Deborah’s pink jersey. This made his discovery of the jersey among the pile of clothes of the victims of mass shooting in Ponary Forest, horrifying.

“I will never forget the night we wrote this part of the play, the moment he shared with me when he realised his baby sister and mother had been murdered.”

At the memorial, she recited an extract from her play “The Boys from the Ashes”, in which young Isaac is on the train heading in the direction of Ponary. “My mind is going crazy,” said the character playing Isaac. “There is a tunnel coming up shortly. I do not know when, but I keep looking out.

“I climb up the sides of the cattle truck on the panel strips and bend the wire mesh covering the small window upwards. The boys beneath me push me higher and I keep my cool and wait for the moment.

“The moment takes long and eventually we enter the tunnel, there is no time to back out. The fear is gone; my mind is saying “go go go” and I jumped. I hit my head against the tunnel rocks and fell to the ground unconscious. When I woke up, I walked toward the distant light but noticed a German guard at the exit and assumed there was one at the entrance.

“I was trapped in the tunnel as other trains passed through. I was in the tunnel for hours. While I was in the dark I prayed; Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. I then heard the knocking of a hammer. It was the rail repairman who was holding an oil lamp.

“I said to myself I must go talk to him and tell him what happened. We both said a prayer in Polish. He said: ‘My G-d you are lucky, come I will help you.’ I smeared my face with dirt and took the lamp and made believe I was his assistant. I believe G-d sent an angel to save me. In my mind I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to the children in the train. I later found out they all perished in the forest of Ponary…”

Cloud Bernstein said that her grandfather - who died four years ago - attended every single performance of her play wherever it was performed in the country.

“The audience’s favourite moment was when I asked him to stand at the end so they could meet the real Israel Gurwicz from the story they had just witnessed. Everyone jumped up in applause and awe for this tall, courageous man who exuded warmth and love.”

Cloud Bernstein went on to further her studies in film acting in New York, where she worked with the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, whose goal it is to teach the Holocaust through histories of resistance and partisan fighters, passing on the narrative that Jews did fight back. 

They recognised her at a gala dinner in New York for the work she had done with the play she had written as a third generation survivor. She described the moment: “I was surrounded by other third generations who are active in perpetuating the legacy of their grandparents in so many different ways, be it as being a school teacher, a rabbi, a doctor, a female cantor, a volunteer at a Holocaust museum, a philanthropist, a filmmaker...

“The greatest part about it is that we are all so different. There is not just one way to continue the legacy of our loved ones. And so this continues to inspire and show my generation that whatever you do and whoever you are, you can perpetuate the legacy in your own way.”

Cloud Bernstein says out of the magic of the historical testimony she wrote, was born a desire to inspire others, to tell the stories of the Holocaust and perpetuate the legacy of their loved ones; to tell their love stories.

“Today I stand before you as a witness - Israel Gurwicz’ s witness. Little three- year-old Deborah’s witness. His mother Bluma, and father Moshe Hirsch’s witness,” she said.

To other survivors, she said: “Your stories are safe in our hands. We will continue your legacy and tell your stories. We do not take the responsibility lightly.”

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