Roman Halter died this week. I saw him so many times recently, working on the stained glass windows for our synagogue, fixing plaques, hanging pictures. He was tall and strong; I can’t, don’t want to, believe he’s gone.
I often heard him talk about his home town of Chodecz, with its eight hundred Jews and its beautiful Jewish life – until the Shoah. He spoke of how the women made lovely fabrics for the new synagogue. ‘The wisdom, the laughter, the love, the knowledge that was lost’, he said as we looked at a map of eastern Europe. He was coming back to Chodecz on an errand in the spring of 1940 when a sixth sense told him to hide. The SS were murdering his friends.
It was to Chodecz that he returned after it was over, after the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, Stutthof, slave labourer in Dresden. His grandfather had spoken to him in a dream: ‘Go back to Chodecz’, that grandfather who’d instructed him that when he survived (‘when’, not ‘if’ Roman would say, recalling those words) he should tell clearly, openly, what had happened.
He waited in Chodecz for his family, his mother, his brothers. He knew his father was dead; he’d buried him himself on a freezing day in Lodz. No one came back. Years later when on the Maccabiah team in Israel, he heard that his grandmother was alive and visited her in Haifa in an old age home. Blind, she stroked Roman’s face and asked, was her daughter, his mother, still alive?
‘No…She was murdered’.
‘And your sister Zeesa, Zosia, alive?’ ‘No’, I replied. ‘Murdered.’
‘What about Sabina, Ignac and little Meshulam, Misio?’
‘They were shot, shot at Babi-Yar.’
‘Peccio? ‘No.’ ‘Iccio?’ ‘No’ ‘Sala?’ ‘No’.
Her head dropped and tears fell onto the black lap of her dressing gown.
Yet I think of Roman as a warm, loving, vigorous, inspiring, open man, full of life, humour and affection. ‘I was passing by the RAF barracks’, he said, describing the beginning of his new life in England, ‘and I overhead this officer saying, “When I lead the squadron over Dresden”. I couldn’t help but go in and tell him in my terrible English, ‘I was there that day, on the ground!’ “So how the hell did I miss you?” the man reposted. But when he heard my story he took a personal interest and supported my education.’
Architect, artist, creator of stained glass windows, writer, Roman had the gifts to transform his thoughts and feelings into the enduring testament of works of art. He also had the compelling personality to draw others into partnership with him, at Yad Vashem, Kibbutz Lochamei Hagettaot, the Imperial War Museum, the Tate Britain, and among the ‘Boys’ the young survivors who made their way together and stuck together here in England.
As I write, I hear Roman’s gentle, accented voice speaking quietly to me, ‘You know, Jonathan…’ Once he asked me for the source of a verse:
‘Tell me the words’.
‘Beyadecha afkid ruchi…Into your hand I commend my spirit’.
Roman explained, ‘There was a man walking next to me, very calm, in Auschwitz. He was reciting some words, so I asked him, “What are you saying?” Those are the words he told me.’ They continue, ‘Redeem me, God of truth’. (Psalm 31)
Roman was a man of truth; he wrote, spoke out, painted. He was also a man of love and goodness. He didn’t hate. I remember him talking about the German couple who hid him when he escaped from the death marches. Local Nazis shot the husband days after the war; he remained close to the lady until her death. He never judged without tempering his views with fairness and with faith in human life.
The stained glass windows in our synagogue may be Roman’s last creation. I see those tiny birds in the tree of life, right at the top of the work, delicate, gentle, beautiful. Then I think of the suffering through which the artist who designed them passed. What a testament to life!
Our thoughts are with Roman’s wife Susie, their children Arden, Aloma and Aviva, the grandchildren, family and countless friends.
I fear Roman’s passing represents a change in the nature of the epoch. The survivors are no longer young. The responsibility for remembering, the life-work of upholding values, are now ours.