Oil on Canvas 28x30. painted 2017
Original photograph taken: 1968
The defining moment of my great Uncle Usher’s life happened when he took the ‘hit’ for his brother Jankel (my grandfather). It was 1942 and the Nazis were confiscating all the property belonging to the Jews in their small Ukrainian village. My grandfather Jankel could not stand the humiliation any longer and lost his temper. He made the foolish mistake of beating up a young Ukrainian police officer (who was carrying out the orders). Jankel knew that the consequence of beating up a police officer would be deadly for him so he ran away.
Later that day the police came to their house looking for Jankel and instead took Usher to the police station. They wanted to know where Jankel was hiding but Usher would not cooperate. They tried to coerce Usher by beating him with a bicycle chain to force the information out of him. Usher was loyal and would not betray his brother. Eventually the police gave up. Hours after the beating, Usher, along with my grandfather, my dad, my aunt Sylvia and great grandmother fled to the forest outside their village and ended up hiding there for 19 months until the war was over. Out of nine Jewish families, theirs was the only one from that village to survive the Holocaust.
Poor Usher – that beating was the biggest moment of his entire life. He never married or had children. All he had was his brother and his niece and nephew. After immigrating to Canada he had no real success either professionally or personally. His greatest pleasures in life were cigarettes and Jankel’s grandchildren. Usher showed up to all of our family gatherings and birthday parties. I was only 3 when he died of lung cancer. In broken English my grandfather used to ask me “do you remember Uncle Usher?” I’d lie and say that I did. I understood that my grandfather needed to know that his brother’s life mattered.