LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The song that brought the crowd to tears begins with a mother’s frantic command.
“Look at me, child.”
Rachel Black almost always writes in a plaintive minor key, but the Lawrence singer knew that this personal piece — the true tale of the moment her great-grandmother forced her daughter to leap from a moving cattle car on the way to the gas chambers of the Holocaust — cried out to be written in a major key. To Black, 33, that’s the sound of bravery, hope and a mother’s sacrificial love.
“This song is very much about the strength of mothers,” Black told The Kansas City Star . She sat in the living room of the Americana Music Academy, where she is executive director. Her voice is clear, her long, straight hair the color of her name. “I’m here because of their strength.”
When Black sang the piece for the first time in Topeka on April 9 as part of the Kansas Holocaust Commemoration Service, audience members wept. In Overland Park, on April 29 at a concert at Congregation Beth Torah, they wiped away tears and then rose in ovation.
“Look at me, child. It’s you. It’s you. Don’t try to say goodbye.”
The piece is titled “Edyka” (pronounced “Edgy-kuh”), the nickname of her grandmother, Edjya Katz. But it’s written in the voice of Black’s great-grandmother, Fanya Katz, who in August 1943 watched Nazis torture and murder her husband, a rabbi, in the Polish city of Bialystok.
Soon after, she and 17-year-old Edyka were jammed into a cattle car with hundreds of other Jews rumbling toward their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp. Between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed at Treblinka, more than at any other extermination camp besides Auschwitz.
Bodies pressed one against the other inside the cattle car. The August heat was suffocating. Fanya Katz joined in on an idea. A small vent at the top supplied a meager stream of air. Edyka was a slight, thin teenager.
In 2005, her son, Edwin Black, would retell some of Edyka’s story in an article for the Jewish Telegraph Agency announcing his mother’s death at age 79. A historian and author with numerous books about the Holocaust, Edwin Black worked for years to get his mother and father to tell him their survivors’ stories.
“Like many people in my generation,” he said in a recent phone interview from Rockville, Maryland, “my parents only spoke about this in whispers.”
He wrote the tale as it was described to him and as he would later tell it to his only child, Rachel.
“Her mother nudged her and whispered, ‘You’re the skinny one, Edjya, always a skinny one,’ as she eyed the tiny vent at the top of the boxcar.
“‘Quickly, up there,’ she said. ‘Edjya, go through. Quickly, I said. We’ll let you down slowly. Hold onto the towel.’
“Hanging onto the towel against the wind, with one foot resting on an exterior bolt, Edyja cried out. ‘Take me back up! I can’t do it!'”
But her mother insisted. Rachel Black’s lyrics capture the moment.
“Run away, child. You’re free, you’re free. Run. Tell the world our story.”
It leads to the song’s chorus.
“Run, Edyka. Don’t look back. We’re counting on you, Edyka! Don’t Look back.”
Rachel Black has known the details of the story since she was a girl. “My entire life,” she said. It was passed on to her by father and mother. Her grandparents, she thinks, found the story simply too difficult to share.
“She was a child,” Rachel Black’s mother, Elizabeth Black, a writer and Kansas native who also lives in Lawrence, said in a recent interview. “They did not want to burden her.”
Rachel Black, however, said she has long reflected on the wrenching pain that her great-grandmother must have felt, as well as the courage, resolve and sacrifice it took to send her daughter out of a moving train alone, parting forever and never knowing what would become of her. Would she live or die? Would she suffer or go on to grow and marry and become a mother herself?
Nor would Edyka ever know how long her mother lived before dying at Treblinka.
“There’s no time now. This train pushes on and on. It’s gonna take us away to our graves. It won’t be easy. It’s all so fast when your feet hit the ground. I’ll be gone, but forever in your memory. Run Edyka. Don’t look back. We’re counting on you, Edyka! Don’t look back.”
Edyka jumped from the train. Nazi guards fired at her as she ran into nearby woods.
She survived there. Summer turned to fall. Then, on a winter night in 1944, while Edyka was huddled in a barn with other Jews, Polish militia working with the Nazis burst through the door and ravaged them with machine-gun fire.
In a June 2005 issue of Moment magazine, Elizabeth Black recounts in “Great Love Stories From the Holocaust” how the bodies, including Edyka’s, were piled and dumped uncovered in a snowy mass grave. Hearing of the massacre, a brigade of Jewish partisans sent a number of their resistance fighters to give the dead a proper burial.
Among them was a teenager, Herschel Lipa, who, now 94 and living in Florida, was 81 when he spoke to Elizabeth Black for her story.
“I will never forget that night,” he told her. “I was very cold and there was a full moon.”
In the mass grave, he saw a leg moving among the dead. He pulled the frightened Edyka from beneath the snow and bodies. Her leg, pierced by a bullet, was mangled and infected with gangrene. The teen carried the young girl to a farmhouse, where a Polish woman used a sharp knife to slice the infection from Edyka’s leg.
For nearly two years, the two survived together in the woods, inside caves, eating roots, berries and what food the boy was able to steal. When Russian soldiers liberated Poland, they emerged. They married. Following the war, the two immigrated to the United States, sailing into Boston Harbor, where Herschel Lipa saw a sign — an advertisement for Black & White Scotch whiskey.
Unable to write English, he copied the letters. In America, Herschel and Edjya Lipa became Harry and Ethel Black.
Rachel Black said her next song will tell the couple’s story.
Jean Zeldin, executive director of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park, has interviewed dozens of Holocaust survivors, many of whom went on to live happy and fruitful lives. She attended the Topeka event and heard Black’s song.
“My experience has been that they’re always living in the shadow of the Holocaust,” she said. “Most of them aren’t mired in it, but it is ever-present. Often, you hear that a day doesn’t go by when they’re not reminded of it. Most all of them have told me that even when it’s a happy time for them, it’s sad for them. There is a whole generation that is not there.”
In her mind’s eye, Black said, she will picture her grandmother as she knew her — an elegant woman, graceful, gracious, her makeup always applied just so.
“A pillar of strength,” Black said. “Full of life and love. She had one of the best smiles in the world.”
But Black said she also sensed a faint sadness there.
“Oh, my baby. Are those tears behind your smile? Never let the world take away your smile.”
Ethel and Harry Black would eventually move to Chicago and prosper there. He began a construction company. They had a family, two sons and a daughter.
“Look at us now. You’re grown, you’re all grown. With children and grandchildren of your own.”
It was only this year that Black, a 2006 graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, felt compelled to write the song. It came to her around midnight in a rush, taking little more than an hour.
“This is a song I’ve wanted to write for 20 years and thank God I was finally able to get it out,” she said. “It poured out of me.”
Black said she had recently been inspired by the documentary “Big Sonia,” about Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski of Prairie Village.
Just as Warshawski’s story was captured on video by her granddaughter, movie producer Leah Warshawski, Black felt it was time for her, too, to step forward as “a third-generation survivor” to make sure the sacrifice of her grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as the stories of all those who perished in the Holocaust, is never forgotten.
“I exist because of her,” Black said.
“Go to sleep, now. Let my memory be your lullaby. You’re warm. You’re safe, Edyka.”
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com