My earliest recollection of my first year at school in Jerusalem, age 7, is one of struggle and frustration. Looking back, it is impossible for me to point to a specific cause for my enormous difficulties in integrating into the classroom. I do, however, recall that the class was big, the teacher was young, and I was terribly lost. My behavior was erratic, my learning was slow and my frustrations were ineffable. Things got quite serious when I was not achieving the milestones in writing and reading at the end of the school year.
The following year, a training teacher was allocated to our class. Her name was Aliza Landau, but I knew her as Aliza-the-‘seminaristit’ (the Hebrew term for ‘teacher trainer’.) She immediately zeroed in on me, recognizing a problem and took me under her wing. Aliza became my helper, my teacher, my friend and, in many ways, my savior. She helped me in so many ways beyond literacy, that I dare not list them here. I became a regular visitor to her home and knew her family well. She gave me a sense of belonging, hope, and worth. To this day I am incredibly indebted to her because, without wanting to wax lyrical, she truly transformed my life.
When my family moved away, Aliza gave me a notebook, to write my ‘feelings and thoughts whenever you need’ and this became my very first diary in which I attempted to give expression to a world – my world – of a young, troubled child. It is still in my possession. The handwriting is hardly legible; the sentences are disjointed; the spelling is woeful and the overall mood gloomy.
My life moved on. It took me in different directions, to different places. I became a person. I acquired an education; I went on to university and I built a life. I studied mathematics, linguistics, international relations and French literature. I turned my hand to training dogs, then to journalism and, finally, to teaching. I have lived on different continents, acquired a number of languages and have seen a bit of the world.
Life pursued its own script. I now live in Australia.
Last year, in April, an acquaintance sent me a video clip in time for Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Initially, I had no intention of watching it. I was on my way to Anna Bay in Port Stephens and was intent on having a relaxing holiday in a cabin – far from the madding crowds.
The thing about secluded cabins with very limited Wi-Fi access is that it gives you lots of time for reflection, reading, sleeping and some more. In the evening, I decided I had done enough of these. I decided to play the video clip.
The video is titled “If Only Night Would Not Come” and is the story of a Holocaust survivor by the name of Gizela Dorota Goldman who was born in Lodz, Poland. The horror of her story is barely describable. In the course of her testimony she recounts how, having escaped the Lodz ghetto, she, her younger brother and her parents hid deep inside the forest.
Her brother died in the forest from starvation. Her mother left the forest in search of sustenance and did not return. Finally, both she and her father were captured by the Germans and taken to a common pit where Jews were being rounded up. The scene of her father being shot into the pit while she was still hanging on to him, will likely remain seared in my mind forever. At night, from among the corpses, Gizela climbed out of the pit. The story then goes into an incredible spin of chance encounters and unexpected acts of kindness. She found a home with peasants and survived. After the war, by an incredible – and improbable – twist of fate, she was reunited with her mother.
The testimony was hard to take in but beautifully woven and narrated by the survivor whose Hebrew is impeccable, accent free and extremely eloquent. I was about to switch off the clip but decided to read the credits.
And then my blood froze and my skin crawled.
The Holocaust survivor, whose birth name was Gizela Goldman now lives in Israel and is known as Aliza Landau. The same Aliza Landau who, over four decades ago, took me under her wings.
I immediately set about trying to locate her. An hour later I sent her a text message. Almost immediately, I received a text from her. “Ori…..Ori, dear child. I have so many times wondered whatever happened to that child. You cannot begin to understand how much this means to me.”
The telephone call that followed was equally moving.
This post is dedicated to all the wonderful teachers around the world and the amazing impact they have on their students, particularly the young ones. It is also a tribute to Aliza Landau, may she continue to live a happy, fulfilled and healthy life.