Sunday, February 22, 2015

Chana Zuber Sharfstein - Photo Private ©


by Chana Sharfstein

In 1932 a young rabbi, a graduate of the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Russia was sent, in the accepted Lubavitcher tradition, to serve the needs of the Jewish community of Stockholm, Sweden by the Rebbe Rayatz. 

For almost two decades my father Rabbi Y.Y Zuber obm, faithfully served as rabbi, shochet, mohel, and inspiring leader for the congregation till he left for the United States. 

After three decades, his youngest daughter visited the country where I had spent my childhood and youth. Many of us especially those who are Lubavitcher emissaries can identify and empathize with my story.

Fortunately, indeed, were we that the Rebbe Rayatz send my thaghter to Stockholm as a shaliach where we lived unharmed while the Holocaust was all around us, destroying six million. The experience of returning to one’s childhood home after more than three decades was an incredible experience. 

The theme of going home is ageless and timeless. One can find numerous examples of this motif in world literature and the creative arts, particularly so in Jewish history. During our long period of Exile, the Jew has expressed his longing for home in music, poetry, stories and artist creations. 

The Holocaust period with its aftermath of devastation and having rekindled interest in this topic, gave it renewed emphasis. Personally, I had never given this theme much thought until one day in the spring of 1980. 

I had noticed the ad in the news paper in previous years, but never paid much attention to it. Having recently graduated from bungalow colony years to sending the children to summer camp, I was now able to make my own plans for the summer. 

The idea of going on a luxurious Scandinavian Jewish Experience Tour seemed however like an impossibility until I conceived a brilliant plan: With my perfect knowledge of Swedish and personal intimate understanding of Jewish life in that part of the world, I could be a tour guide. And thus, in that role I found myself in August on the journey back. 

As the departure date approached, I grew steadily more excited. I dreamed of my father’s shul and awakened to find my pillow drenched with tears. I recalled people, incidents and places from my childhood. Memories that had been deeply buried for many years began to surface. 

Everywhere I went, I spoke of my forthcoming trip. Among my acquaintance those that had suffered in concentration camps during the war years confided that they never wanted to go back. The experience had been too painful. Well-meaning friends attempted to protect me, explaining that the dream of going back is always far more beautiful than the reality.

I became keenly away of the age old question – can one go back home? What is it like, I wondered, to go back to the city of one’s childhood after three decades? It could be a devastatingly disappointing experience, but my enthusiasm was so strong nothing could deter me or lessen my excitement. 

On the first stop of our journey in Copenhagen, I met a man who had spent part of these teenage years in our home in Stockholm during the German occupation of Denmark. The Danish underground, encouraged by King Christian X, smuggled nearly the complete Jewish population of 8,000 across the water in fishing boats to safety in Sweden. 

In an unprecedented display of humanity, the Danes saved their Jews from destruction. It was a warm wonderful welcome as we met and reminisced in the courtyards of the magnificent shul of Krystalgade on Shabbos after davening.

Except for this meeting, however, I felt like an outsider. Very few remembered my father and his long period as a rabbi in Stockholm. In Helsinki, our second stop, the scene was similar. I met the relatives of the young boy who had joined our household for several years during that same time period of WWII. 

He was one the many Finnish Jewish children smuggled across the border during that turbulent era. The Jewish population in all the Scandinavian countries is small and thus a special brotherhood exists among the Jews here. The bond of kinship was greatly increased during the war years, with neutral Sweden as the focal point, lending a helping hand to the far less fortunate neighbors. 

Once again, except for a few people, it seemed as if our family had been forgotten. I became somewhat uneasy at this point but I was certain that Sweden, my childhood home would be different.

As soon as we entered the six years old ultra modern Sheraton Stockholm, I approached the front desk to ask for messages. I expected a royal welcome in response to the letters I had sent about my arrival, but all I received was an envelope with a note that a business trip in Western Europe would present a reunion. Was this the harsh reality of coming home?

I went to the phone booth, loaded with Swedish kronor to contact old family friends. With each call I grew more disappointed. This one was going away on vacation, that one was on a business trip and the next one was too busy to come to the phone. Finally I reached one dear friend and we planned meeting for that evening. 

Feeling quite forsaken I decided to take a physical journey back to places of my childhood. The feeling of being a stranger grew with each step I tool. The subway system, T-banan was elaborate, as was the area around the Sheraton. I had to ask directions and walk in unknown places – all that was familiar was the language. 

Sad and despondent, I journeyed to Slussen and then . .I couldn't believe my eyes. Everything here was totally unchanged. And it was exactly as I remembered it. I walked down to Kornhamstorg where the marketplace was busy, just like it had always been when I went there with my mother to buy fruit and freshly caught fish for Shabbos. I felt myself grow younger. I felt like a child and the memory of walking here holding on rightly to my mother’s hand so I shouldn't get lost brought tears to my eyes. Where had the years gone? How had they flown by so fast?

I went to Katarinahissen, the elevator suspended in midair in the open area of Slussen to ascend to the heights of Södermalm, my neighborhood, but the elevator was being repaired. Broken, unusable – was this symbolic somehow of my experiences in reconnecting friends? I looked around for the wooden staircase on the side of the mountain that was the odl.alternate approach to the heights. 

And once again, I was startled to see it, totally familiar totally unchanged. I ascended the numerous flights of stairs to the top, Misebacke Torg, and then I was transported to the days of my childhood. As if in a dream, I knew exactly where I was. Each street, each building – I was home. Like a sleepwalker, totally enveloped in this long forgotten dream, trance like, I moved down the streets to the house of my childhood, Katarina Västra Kyrkogata 6.

I attempted to open the heavy beautifully carved oak door to the apartment house, but the door wouldn't budge and I fleetingly recalled the many times I had experience difficulty with this door as a little girl. Now, however it was locked, and one need to know the correct number combination on the special phone to be able to get in.

I walked across the street and sorrowfully gazed up at the windows. Was this how far I could get? Just to a certain point, to the outside but not the inner core? Again, was this symbolic of this journey – one can go back but only to some degree – not fully and completely?

Suddenly I saw a man carrying groceries approaching the door. “Stop,” I called in Swedish, “please let me in.” Within moments I was ringing the bell to the apartment where I had lived all the years of my childhood. A tall, gaunt old Swede opened the door. Slowly, carefully, he looked me up and down and then asked what I wanted.

I was choking back tears as I asked him to please let me in. He shook his head. “The apartment ins not for rent, “ he said. “Who are you? Why do you want to come in? I tried to ignore the tears as I explained that his had been my home and I just wanted to see it all again.

Reluctantly he let me in and followed close behind as I walked through the dear, familiar rooms. Memories were now flooding over me and the tears began to grow heavy, rolling down my cheeks in a steady stream, and from deep within great sobs escaped. Home was there unchanged and yes at the same time forever gone.

All the furnishing were different but of course first and foremost my parents were gone More keenly than at the cemetery in Boston did I feel the loss of my parents here. I looked at my father’s reception room and I could clearly recall his big shiny glass covered mahogany desk in front of the windows, the brown velvet curtains in the brown upholstered furniture the piano where I practice endless hours.

The focal point of our home was the dining room. I could recall Yud Tes Kislev farbrengens where my brother’s wedding with the chupah at the side of the room, the bar mitzvahs of my brothers and the endless streams of guests who joined us here for meals or came to seek help on their way to the United States, Israel or Shanghai. 

Rabbi Zuber’s home had been a refuge for European Jewry during the Holocaust years. If walls could talk, what stories one would hear here. When most of the Lubavitcher Chassidim journeyed to American, it must have been with the foresight of a tzaddik that the previous Rebbe sent my father here from Riga where he could be of untold assistance to unfortunate brethren during our darkest period of history. 

Separated from his Lubavitch community my father faced loneliness in this faraway community in Sweden, but the role he played during these years was of immeasurable importance.

I went into my brother’s room, the boys’ room as it was called, and remembered the countless Jewish boys and girls who had gathered here every Shabbos and Yom Tov. There was no community center, no Hebrew Day School, only Rabbi Zuber’s house.

At dinner that evening, I meet two dear family friends and the reunion was wonderful and at the same time very, very difficult. It had been a long exhausting day and now the culmination of it, an emotion-packed meeting. Channele, they call me. And I, once again beginning to feel like that young child of yesteryear, protected and beloved. 

The meeting was unbelievably warm and through my tear-filled eyes I saw a mistiness mirrored in their eyes. Once again I was painfully aware of the loss of childhood, the sweet years of innocence and the loss of my parents. They comforted me, reminded me of wonderful moments shared of joyous summers on nearby island of happy gatherings on Shabbos and Yom Tov in our home, and through the tears now came smiles as I recall a beautiful happy childhood. And gradually came to a new realization – time passes, things change, by the wondrous moments shared, remain forever. 

The news of my arrival spread quickly and the messages began to pour in. Did I want to go to my father’s shul at seven o’clock in the morning? How about supper? Evening visits? Luncheon invitations? It was a feeling of sheer joy and excitement. My answer to every invitation was yes, yes, yes.

Hesitantly, I entered my father ‘s shul, Adas Israel on St. Paulsgatan and ascended the stairs to the women’s section. I took out my siddur and my Tehillim. But they remained closed in my lap. I was overcome with emotion, the tears fell down steadily in a constant steam. To my amazement the inside looked absolutely beautiful, exactly as I saw it in my dreams, untouched by time. 

On the walls were the familiar rectangular painted blue flowers and over the Aron Kodesh was the half-circular blue canopy held up by four white pillars. With great joy I learned that there was a daily minyan here. 

I sat in the right-hand corner of the balcony where I used to sit as a child. I could hear my mother telling me to be careful not to knock things down so it would not hit the men’s shul. I visualized the big, brown bag filled with homemade lekach cakes and fruits so I shouldn't be hungry during the long Yom Tov davening. 

I looked at the bima and could see my father adjusting his tallis as an awed silence descended upon the congregation in preparation for his drashos, delivered in a strong, articulate voice. 

I couldn’t daven or say Tehillim I just cried. It was as if I had opened the gates to a long-closed reservoir and floods of memory tears were now unashamedly gushing forth. I had a sentimental reunion with old members of the shul who couldn't believe their eyes that Rabbi Zuber’s daughter had come home.

Everywhere I went at each reunion, events of the past were discussed. It was hard to believe, but my deep feelings and emotions were matched by everyone I met. Our lives were intertwined and the past belonged to us all. 

The memory of my father lived strongly here. Over and over again people said that he was the guiding force of Jewish life and the impact he made could be felt. The Rebbe, the teacher, lives on through his student, his community.

In an attempt to explain to my tour members what it meant to be a Jew in Sweden, I used the following illustration: As a child in my home and among family friends I was always called Channele, but in the outside world I had another name.

In the girls’ preparatory school we attended where my sister two other girls and I were the only Jews in a student body of a thousand girls I would have literally died of embarrassment if anyone had called me by my Jewish name.

It took many years of living in the US before I found the strength to use my Hebrew name on all my legal and official documents. My return home made me realize this growth in Jewish self-pride and understanding so vital to inner health and peace.

In my autograph book I have wonderful reminders of my journey home. Sharing moments of he past, reliving dear childhood memories this what my journey brought forth. It was most beautifully stated thus:

Channele, it was with sorrow and happiness that I met you again after so many years. Happiness in meeting and hearing good news about your sister brothers and you. Sorrow to think back about the time when life had no greater problem than what game to play next.

Sorrow also when I think of the untimely death of your father who taught so much to Jewish Orthodox life here and to me personally that he had accomplished so much here and then had his life end so abruptly in the States. But one can ask no questions. Everything that happens has its reason.

Going back was an unforgettable fantastic never-to-be-forgotten event. No matter how many times I subsequently returned, the impact never equaled that first going home. I underwent a catharsis of sorts. It was emotionally draining and exhausting, but eventually I felt stronger and more put together more whole and complete.

To return after three decades and find that memories still linger on that warm wonderful friendship still is there, unharmed by times, that was the joy of homecoming.

Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum