Frontlines

Survival: a family affair

Claire Gerus August 6 1979
Frontlines

Survival: a family affair

Claire Gerus August 6 1979

Survival: a family affair

Frontlines

"Everything is possible,” vowed Jankel Kuperblum 35 years ago when, as a 13-year-old Polish Jew, he had just beaten the odds and survived the Nazi invasion of his homeland. It was this faith in the possible that drove him over the subsequent decades—while building a successful career in Toronto, as a film-maker and author—to track down his father, hidden behind curtains of Soviet red tape. Under his adopted name of Jack Kuper, he wrote in his autobiography, Child of the Holocaust, in 1968, of the nightmare of his childhood. All the while he kept alive the hope of a reunion with the one surviving member of his family (his mother and brother had died in a concentration camp). Since the book’s publication, hundreds of readers have written him to ask: “Did you ever find your father?” Now he can answer, “Yes.”

Last month, Kuper’s long battle against official Soviet silence about his father’s whereabouts, and bureaucratic obfuscation, was won. He flew to New York to embrace his father, Zelik, who after nearly 40 years in the Soviet Union—eight of them in a Siberian prison—was finally released for good.

Zelik Kuperblum has changed a lot since his young son bade him farewell in 1939. As a Jew and an avowed Communist, Zelik knew he would be one of the first victims of the Nazi invasion and so, disguised as a Polish soldier, he escaped to Russia where he joined the home army. While he was digging trenches, his nine-year-old son was learning a bitter lesson about survival in war-torn Europe. His mother and brother disappeared—“marched away like cattle,” according to a witness—and the boy took shelter with a neighbor, tending cows in exchange for room and board.

His temporary security was destroyed when a German edict commanded every farmer employing a Jew to bring him to Gestapo headquarters or be shot, along with the farmer’s family and 10 of his neighbors. Kuperblum fled—his odyssey had begun.

As the Nazis moved closer, the boy fled from town to town, family to family. He disguised his identity with false names and used his emerging talent as an artist to win bread and board. Plagued by lice and sores and obsessed by fear that his circumcision would be discovered (and with it, his Jewish identity), he survived hunger, hostility and the constant threat of death. In the end, his survival nearly killed him, because of the frantic guilt it engendered. When

the war was over, 12-year-old Jankel put a belt around his neck and tried to hang himself. He was saved by his employer who, unaware of Jankel’s personal history, asked, “Why did you do it?” It would be many years before he found the words with which to explain.

After the war, 13-year-old Jankel wrote to the Polish embassy in Russia and to the Russian Red Cross in Moscow. Did anyone know if his father was still alive? The long silence was finally broken in 1951 when Kuper, then an art student in Toronto, received a letter from a stranger in Israel saying: “If your name is Jankel Kuperblum, your mother is still alive.” Kuper, knowing his mother was dead, wrote back demanding an explanation. Another letter arrived from the unknown correspondent correcting the original information—it was his father who had survived.

The full story unfolded over the next eight years: Zelik had been arrested as a Jew during the Stalin purges and was

thrown into a Siberian prison. His release came during the Khrushchev years, but it wasn’t until 1967 that he was allowed to leave Russia to visit his son. Kuper rushed to Montreal to meet him at the airport. “I turned around and there facing me was a little man bearing two bags wrapped in newspaper. One held a samovar; the other, a mandolin. He dropped everything and we fell into each other’s arms.”

After six months, Kuper’s father went back to Russia where his second wife had guaranteed his return. It was his wife, Jack’s stepmother, who had written the mysterious message, years before. During his first stay in Canada, Zelik Kuperblum began to learn English. Some time later, Kuper received a letter from him saying, “I’ve finally learned enough English to read your book. I never realized what you had gone through.”

Jack Kuper’s long struggle to arrange his father’s permanent release from Russia continued. He wrote repeatedly and in detail to the Russian embassy in Canada but received nothing more than terse replies. He even consulted a group dedicated to helping free Russian Jews, but they were unable to help, admitting they didn’t know how decisions for release were actually made. Finally, last spring, when all else had failed, Kuper’s lawyer, Muni Basman, asked Senator Keith Davey and the external affairs department of former minister Don Jamieson for help.

The Canadian government Telexed a message to Moscow, and within two weeks the amazed Kuper heard that his father and stepmother had been released and were on their way to the United States. Coincidence? As Kuper says, “We’ll never know.”

Now that he’s a free man, what will Zelik Kuperblum do? “I want to go to work,” he says simply. Stronger today at 73 than he was 10 years ago, he eats only one vegetarian meal daily and exercises regularly. “You should see his leg muscles,” marvels his son. “If I had to find one word for him, it would be ‘survivor’.” The elder Kuperblum lived through his incarceration in Siberia by becoming a jack of all trades through reading, while other prisoners turned to drink or homosexuality. “If someone needed a cobbler, there he was. If they needed a cook, he knew how,” Kuper says. His father’s greatest worry? “That I’d be in the middle of a good book, and they’d move me.”

Jack Kuper is particularly pleased with the timing of Zelik’s return—just in time for his granddaughter’s August wedding. The Kuperblum family is whole again. Claire Gerus