Grandfather Visit – Dance Testimony

by 2021 LABA Fellow Doron Perk

When I started to work on a dance piece to honor the memory of my grandfather, Prof. Kalman Perk, I knew I would use Mendelssohn. He loved classical music, mostly opera. He knew all the names of composers and singers. Mezzo, a channel for mainly operas and ballet, would always be on in his house. And he could name the opera house and conductor seconds after turning on the tv. 

Still, the choice of Mendelssohn comes from a different story. 

In 1941, my grandfather was 11 years old and the Germans took over Lithuania. Soon he, the family, and all the Jewish people of Kovno were put in the Ghetto. There are many stories about those years. The one that came to mind as I was starting to create was a story about a friend named Noah. 

Noah came to Kovno with his mother and brother from Palestine to visit his grandmother who was ill. After a week of their visit, the war broke out and they were trapped.  He found himself in the Ghetto, where he befriended my grandfather since they were the same age. The family lived in a little room and on the wall was his violin. Almost every day after the hard work, Noah would run to the violin and play concertos of Mendelssohn. 

I imagine my young grandfather listening to his friend playing. I imagine the rest of the families joining in to listen. I can see them sometimes staying longer, other times having something else they have to take care of.  I imagine the repetition of it providing comfort and release. Every day, after all the horror, murder, and hard work, they had Mendelssohn. 

In July 1944, as the Russian army was approaching from the East, the Germans announced the liquidation of the Ghetto. The remaining Jewish people were put on cattle wagons and were told they were being transported to work in Germany. At this point, nobody believed them. They knew that these trains were headed to death camps. 

Noah and his family hid and were eventually murdered when the Germans burnt down the Ghetto.  My grandfather and the family that was left at this time hid at first but eventually were put on one of the trains. In the wagon, there were only two small windows close to the roof. They had wires around them, closed. 

When the train started to move, something unbelievable happened. One of the men in the wagon jumped on the windows and with a lot of strength somehow pulled out and crushed the wire, opening one little window.  But he was too big and couldn’t go out. One of the cousins jumped out of the train. His name was Arke and he was two years older than my grandfather. He went head first and probably died from the fall. 

Then my grandfather’s mother said to him: “Kalminch’ke, you look like a Lithuanian you don’t have an accent, you speak like a Lithuanian, so you will be able to blend with the gentiles”. And added: “ You are a bad boy so you will be able to run and you have to go out to tell the world what the Germans did to us”. 

But he hesitated. Other people in the family looked at him and so he tried to jump. But his father caught him and took him back. He then said calmly: “No Kalman. Not with the head, with the feet first”. So he raised him and before throwing him out, no kiss, no nothing, just said, “Kalman, du zolst zein a mentsch” (be a good person/an honest man in Yiddish). And the train continued to go as he fell down. When he woke up next to the train tracks, he was completely alone at 14 years old. 

He started walking eastward to the Russian front, managing to survive by pretending to be a Lithuanian. He kept advancing with the front and eventually got to Italy. In the first 1000 immigration certificates that the British gave to children and pregnant women, he received his with the help of an uncle living in Jerusalem and arrived in Palestine in 1945. He served in the Lehi and the IDF; studied medicine in Switzerland and founded the first Veterinary school in Israel. He became a virologist and worked in cancer research. He had a family. And lived to see his first great-grandchild, my niece Kesem.

My name is Doron and I am so honored and thankful to be a LABA fellow for 2021 with the theme of CHOSE-N. In our last study session, we looked at the story of Moses, the first reluctant chosen one. He was also saved from murder by being thrown out, this time into a river rather than out a moving train. He also miraculously survived and found his way through strange lands. My grandfather was also reluctant to be chosen. He didn’t want to leave the family until the very last moment. But he did make it to the promised land and as far as I know, never spoke directly to God or led a nation. There are so many differences in the stories, of course. Still, I found the similarities relatable and intriguing. 

Each year we sing in the Passover Seder that in every generation someone comes and tries to destroy us. My grandfather’s generation experienced this horror in the worst way imaginable, yet some performed the miracle of surviving through it and choosing to live on. It is a story we must keep telling and I aim to do that with this dance piece.

It started as an artistic expression of my many visits to him. Inspired by the stories he told, the things we talked about, and the way we sat and had tea. But now, it feels like it is becoming less about remembering how I visited him, and more about opening up for him to visit me. Reminding me to go slow and steady and always be happy, as he used to say at the end of each visit.

I hope to perform “Grandfather Visit” to a live audience in the fall or winter of this year in the black box theater of the 14th Street Y. 

Come join my LABA Presents….Grandfather Visit, showing on Friday, April 9 at 5pm and see my work in progress.