"My life has been shaped by the stories I have been told. And so it is with Tibor. Let me tell you about Tibor…” I wrote the above a week ago, before discovering the fate of Tibor Rubin. Now the story needs to be retold, I hope I do it justice.
When I was 10 or 11 years-old, my mother, Valeria Norisova, showed me her class picture from the elementary school for girls in her town of Malacky in Slovakia. Being a storyteller, she moved her finger from one girl to the next and told part of their story. It was a very large class, but she knew them all by name, where they lived, and a description of the character of those she knew well. (My mother is in the front row, above the "x" mark.)
The town girls' school was staffed by Catholic priests and sisters. Most girls were Catholic, but many were Jewish, and a few were Gypsies. As my mother's fingers passed over the Jews and Gypsies, she would end each girl's story with a soft and sorrow-filled "…and she died in the concentration camps." It became a litany as she described her neighbors, her schoolmates, her friends. And the phrase, filling her voice with both sadness and resignation, echoed in my mind: "…and she died in the concentration camps."
As my mother finished and was about to put that photo aside and move on to other pictures, I asked, "Mommy, what are concentration camps?" And she put all the photos aside, and carefully and tenderly told me about Jews, and Gypsies, and the Holocaust. I will never forget that day at my mother's side.
First Movement - Butcher
Almost 50 years later, before my mother died, I asked her "Whatever became of Tibor, who worked in Dad's store?" Now, my memory of Tibor goes even further back. My father and grandfather owned a butcher shop in New York City, "Wilhelm's Pork Store," somewhere on Third Avenue in the heart of the German and Hungarian communities of Manhattan. For a time, they hired a young man to apprentice. His name was Tibor, and I was five years-old.
When my mother joined my father to work, I was left on my own to linger in the butcher shop. But Tibor kept an eye on me. And more than that, he sang songs, carried me in his arms, and danced as he sang. He always embraced me when I came into the store, and I remember his dimpled smile, his dark curly hair, and the strength of his arms.
Most of all I remember a pop song from that era that he sang: "Lucky, lucky, lucky me, I'm a lucky son of a gun. I work eight hours, I sleep eight hours, I have eight hours of fun." And over the years, at moments of contentment and joy in my life, I would cheerfully mumble "Lucky, lucky, lucky me…"
That song was released on a 45 rpm record in 1950 when Tibor was already in Korea. But it was a popular Neapolitan melody that would have been making the rounds in New York City in the 1940s. Many of those Italian tunes would become hits in the 1950s through the music of Italian singers like Como, Sinatra, Tony Bennett and others. With simple heartfelt lyrics, it would have appealed to new immigrants who spoke limited English -- like my mother and like Tibor.
The 50 years passed, and one day I asked Valeria Norisova whatever happened to Tibor. My mother replied, "Tibor? Oh, Tibor. He was always a happy and smiling Jewish boy. Even though the Nazis put him in a concentration camp and killed most of his family…"
I was stunned. Tibor, a Jew? And working for my father in a pork store? But my mother had more to say.
"And then he went into the army because he said he owed it to America. Went to Korea and was captured by the communists. I think he died in the prison camp. Do you remember how he was always singing and smiling? Singing 'Lucky, lucky, lucky me'?"
I remembered too well.
Second Movement - Rabbi
My next encounter with Hungarian Judaism was in collecting and writing folktales for my collection of 156 stories titled Parables Today. Some of those tales were Hasidic Jewish tales from Eastern Europe, mostly from Poland and Russia. But then I stumbled across a beautiful tale about a Hungarian Rabbi, and later learned this song he adapted from Hungarian folk music into a song and a prayer widely know among Hasidic Jews. I wrote of this earlier in a previous blog, and reproduce it here:
Nagykallo was an important center for Hasidic Judaism in Hungary. Here, the great Rabbi Itzhak Isaac Taub of Kalev (another name for Nagykallo), took the melody he heard from a young Hungarian girl tending her flock of geese. He then gave them new words, creating the prayer "Already the Rooster Crows…" - Szól a kakas már - about the yearning for deliverance from exile and a return to Jerusalem. (scroll down for a translation of the song.)
Bea Palya - Palya Bea in the Hungarian word order of family name first - sings this at a Budapest synagogue. She is one of my favorite Hungarian singers.
The tomb of Rabbi Isaac -- Izsak Eisik in Hungarian - is a pilgrimage destination for many Jews. Someday, when I visit Nagykallo, I will tell the story of how Rabbi Isaac "redeemed" the melody for the Jewish people.
Imre Amos - Ámos Imre in Hungarian - a Jewish artist from this community of Nagykallo painted the primary images of the story.
Imre Amos was inspired by the art of Marc Chagall.
Amos died in Germany, a victim of the Holocaust.
Lyrics to the Song:
ENGLISH / HUNGARIAN
Already the rooster crows. Szól a kakas már
Already the sun rises. majd megvirrad már
In forests green, in open fields, Zöld erdőben, sik mezőben
Walks a little bird. Sétál egy madár
What bird is that? Micsoda madár ?!
What bird is that? Micsoda madár ?!
Yellow-footed, blue-winged, Sárga lába, kék a szárnya
Waiting for me there. Engem odavár
Wait, bird, wait! Várj madár, várj!
You must always wait! Te csak mindig várj
If G-d only gave me to you, Ha az Isten néked rendelt
Yours then I would be. Tiéd leszek már
When will that happen? Mikor lesz az már?
When will that happen? Mikor lesz az már?
RABBI ISAAC'S PRAYER:
When the Temple stands again, Jibbone hamikdos ir Cijon
And Zion is rebult again- Jibbone hamikdos ir Cijon
Then it will happen. Akkor lesz az már
In the past few months I have been singing this song a lot. Not so much singing it as praying it. Jew and Gentile, are we not all in exile, yearning for deliverance?
A few weeks ago, in visiting Eger, Hungary, to prepare for the Storyfest Journey in September, I discovered that this famous wine-region was the center for Jewish wine-making in the 19th-century. Protected from severe weather by the Carpathian Mountains, Eger produced wine for the large Jewish communities north of the Carpathians in Poland and Russia.
Eger was home to a large and prosperous Jewish community. (A picture of the Orthodox synagogue is on the left.)
And I now think to myself: "Was my grandfather's pork store in Eger likely just down the street from a kosher butcher shop?" (This postcard of Saint Janos Street is from the early 1900s when my grandfather had his shop there, on the right side of the street.)
After the First World War, my gentile Grandfather went into exile. But what happened to the Jewish butcher in the next war? Was he lucky enough to go into exile, or did he instead go to Auschwitz as did most of the Jews of Eger? And then I think of Tibor's song, "Lucky, lucky, lucky me, I'm a lucky son of a gun."
(A note to the reader. As I finish writing this, I receive an email from someone I don't know, giving me Tibor's address in California and his phone number. I call but he is not available. Now I wonder, what can I possibly say? Still, I hope to reach him today, Memorial Day. And I can start by thanking him for what he did for America…)
Third Movement - Goose Girl
To return to Rabbi Eisik who created the song you heard just a moment ago. Here is his story, according to Hasidic tradition. (My spoken telling differs a bit from this written text.)
Reb Leib was a hasidic rabbi who lived in Russia many years ago. He was a wondering holy man always in search of souls: Souls that were lost, souls that were exiled.
One night Rabbi Leib dreamed that he should travel across the mountains to the plains of Hungary where he would meet a great teacher. He crossed over the Carpathian mountains and began wandering across Hungary in search of this Soul. Arriving in a Hungarian town, he went to the synagogue and prayed for guidance.
He was led to the countryside where he saw a young boy tending a flock of sheep. The rabbi heard the shepherd singing, and approached him unnoticed. The lad sang and prayed,
“Master of the Universe
Give me a flock of souls
and I will tend them for you.
O Master of the Universe,
how I would love to serve you!”
But was this boy a Gentile or a Jew? He asked the lad who said,
“My father died when I was three, and my mother raised me. Every Friday night she lit the Sabbath candle and we prayed.”
“And what is your name?” gently asked the Rabbi.
“My name is Eisik” said the boy.
Eisik, Isaac... Reb Leib, the wandering rabbi, was filled with joy. He knew he had found a boy who would someday be a great rabbi, and so he made arrangements with the boy’s mother to take him to Russia to study. He promised that Eisik would someday return to Hungary.
Eisik was quick to learn, and seemed filled with wisdom. When the lad became a man, he was quickly recognized as a gifted rabbi.
But he could not remain in Russia, for a promise had been made to his mother. And so Rabbi Eisik journeyed southwards, crossed the great mountains, and arrived at a Hungarian village near his birthplace.
The young rabbi sat under a great shade tree during the noonday sun, and relaxed listening to the babble of the little stream that flowed by.
Soon Rabbi Eisik heard the cackling of geese, and he saw a young girl — a Goose Girl — leading her flock of geese to the water.
The gentile girl was singing in her own native Hungarian, a language that Rabbi Eisik had not heard for twenty years.
The Goose Girl was singing,
How far away you are.
Forest and Woods! How big you are.
If the path in the Woods weren’t so dark,
I would be able to find my way
to the Beautiful Rose”
Rabbi Eisik cried with joy, and called the Goose Girl over to him. He gave her a silver coin. “Sing it for me again, young woman.”
Then he gave her a second coin. “Do not sing it this time, but only play the melody on your reed flute.”
As the Goose Girl played, the rabbi begin to sing in his native Hungarian. But the words came out differently:
Wisdom of God!
How far away you are.
How big you are.
If the Cares of the World
didn’t darken my sight,
I would be able to see my Way,
and find my God”
The Goose Girl was astonished, for it seemed to her that the Rabbi had found the truest words for her song.
A third time Rabbi Eisik pressed a coin into her hand. But now the Goose Girl forgot both the words and the melody, for the song had passed to a new owner and was no longer hers to sing.
But Rabbi Eisik did not believe he was the new owner of the song. Instead, he knew this very Song itself was lost, was in exile.
He knew that this Song was once on the lips of his people when they were exiled in Babylon a long time ago.
Rabbi Eisik wandered away, singing the song again and again. While Rabbi Leib had found Lost Souls in exile, so Rabbi Eisik had found their Songs that had been exiled as well.
Rabbi Eisik journeyed far from the sunny plains of Hungary, across the high mountains, and into the cold winter of Russia. There he became a famous wandering rabbi, a shepherd for his exiled people.
Whenever Rabbi Eisik would teach, he ended his teaching with a song. At first he sang it in Hungarian, until the people learned the melody. (But they did not understand a single word.)
Then he sang in Russian, the language of the Gentiles who lived in their midst. (And now they began to understand a few words, but they had already mastered the melody.)
And the third time, Rabbi Eisik sang in Yiddish. (And now the all the people fully understood the words themselves... and their hearts understood.)
Many wept with sadness for they could not see their way through the dark woods of worldly care. But many more wept with joy because the Rabbi’s song showed them the way to find the Beautiful Rose, the Wisdom of God.
The story is done, and it always reminds me of my story. For in the little town in Slovakia where my mother lived in poverty and the dark woods of worldy care in the 1920s, she was a real goose girl, stick in hand, leading a gaggle of geese down to the water.
Fourth Movement - Soldier
While I was visiting my family in Eger for two weeks this Spring, I explored many places looking for the right stories, and the right places to tell them. My Hungarian heritage is rich and complex. It is, like Hungarian music, bittersweet. Sorting out the right balance between myth, history, legend, and folklore is a tricky business.
One day in Hungary, I was crossing the Matra Moun-tains on my way to the historic folkloric village of Hollokő ("Raven's Rock). I drove in and out of a town called Pásztó, not giving it a second thought. And now, I have discovered that this town housed the shtetl where Tibor was born and lived -- until he was 13 and deported by the Nazis.
Here is Tibor in 1953, freed from a Chinese prison camp.
And in 2009 being welcomed to an event in Chicago with other Medal of Honor recipients.
And here is a very honest interview with Tibor Rubin. A humble man with wisdom and humor, he reflects on the bittersweet of his life. He speaks for himself, and there is no need for commentary. Listen!
Today -- the day after Memorial day -- I telephoned Tibor's home and spoke with his wife, Yvonne. Tibor has been hospitalized for three months, following a fall. He is in my prayers. I hope to talk with him someday soon.
Both songs, "Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me" and "Szól a Kakas Már" play alternately in my musical imagination. Together they are bittersweet: Like a Hungarian violinist who moves so quickly with a folk tune from the depths to the heights, from the heights to the depths. From laughter to tears and back again.
Thank you for taking time to meet Tibor Rubin.
Please share your thoughts with me…