We can get all pompous, or mealy-mouthed, or vague, or windy, about the mysteries of the human condition, but in the end they remain mysterious.
In the face of pain, trauma, grief, fear, unimaginable evil, how do people go on? How do they keep going? How do their hearts keep beating? How do some of them eventually love, laugh, not forgive, not forget, but regain some measure of joy?
Yes, faith is an answer, but that just kicks the question back one step. If it’s faith, where does that come from?
If there is any one answer, it’s that there is no one answer. Just as each story of trauma is different, so is each response to it.
When it comes to the Holocaust — and yes, of course, that’s where we were going — the fact that anyone was able to go on and live is astonishing. How did they do it? This area has been home to many such survivors, each with a terrible story, a miraculous escape (because everyone who survived had a miraculous escape), and a new life. Of course it’s unlikely that anyone was able to shed the past fully — all that pain, all that loss, all those figurative nightmares that for so many people became literal nightmares, every single terrible night. But so many survivors still managed to rebuild.
One of those survivors was Hirsch Dorbian, who settled in Fair Lawn with his wife and children, and lived there until he died in 2010. His daughter, Iris, an actress-turned-journalist, who grew up in Fair Lawn and returned to live there recently, has turned his story into a lightly fictionalized young adult novel, “An Epiphany In Lilacs.”
As its title suggests, the book is a story of hope.
Hirsch Dorbian’s story began in Liepaja, Latvia; he was born in 1930, arrested on erev Yom Kippur in 1943, sent first to Kaiserwald, then to work camps, including Stolpe, and liberated from Stutthof in 1945. “He wasn’t yet 12 when he was arrested, and he was 14 when he was liberated,” Iris said. His father already had died of natural causes by the time the Nazis got the rest of his family; his mother and two sisters were arrested with him but they were separated. All of them survived, although Hirsch didn’t learn that until later. “My father didn’t like to talk about that part of his life very much,” Iris said. “He didn’t like to talk about the camps — but he loved to talk about the aftermath. The survivors were all broken and adrift — but they were all alive. They didn’t know why they survived — my father did have a little bit of survivor’s guilt — but they were alive.”
Hirsch had been in the camps with an older cousin, who worked hard to protect him. The cousin made it to liberation but died a week later. But Hirsch — and later the fictional Daniel in his daughter’s book — was liberated by British soldiers, who “brought this almost dead boy back to life,” Iris said. Daniel, like Hirsch, was befriended by a non-Jew who also was being nursed back to functionality by the Brits; this man, older, mysterious, not completely honest, and kind, was central to Hirsch’s story and even more to Daniel’s (because fiction works that way).
In real life, it was ORT that shaped the rest of Hirsch’s life. When he was in a DP — that’s where he went from the hospital — ORT workers taught him the rudiments of tool and die fabrication.
Hirsch had a cousin in Paterson, so he landed there when he was 18; one of his sisters, her husband, and their mother went there as well. His other sister was in Brazil.
Of course, in 1948 there was a draft, and the Korean War was brewing. Hirsch took an Americanization program at East Side High in Paterson, joining a crowd of Holocaust survivors. He couldn’t exactly be drafted, because he wasn’t yet an American citizen, “but he was told that he didn’t have to be drafted, but that doesn’t mean we won’t start the deportation process against you,” Iris quoted her father as saying. So he went to the recruitment center in Times Square, and “literally, someone from the Marines comes and says, ‘I need a few good men.’” Hirsch Dorbian was one of them.
He had another stroke of ironic luck. “He was on weekend leave, and he was at home when his unit shipped out,” Iris said. “His captain said ‘You’ll go with the next group.’” But the war ended, and there was no next group — and many of his friends in his original unit never made it back home.
After he was honorably discharged, Hirsch went back to the tool and die business. “He had had enough of being regimented,” Iris said.
Hirsch Dorbian — who adopted the first name Harry but always really was Hirsch — threw himself into the business of becoming American. He worked very hard — and successfully — to lose his accent. “He adored Edward R. Murrow,” and modeled his accent after the broadcaster’s, Iris said. “An accent was a stigma, and he wanted to assimilate.”
He saw anti-Semitism in his adopted country, although of course it was muted. “He would see ads for boarders in the local Paterson paper, saying things like ‘Christian couple is looking for same,’” Iris said. “And he was a Marine the year that Truman integrated the Marine Corps, but it was still the Jim Crow south. Dad saw it, and he was appalled. It brought back very bad memories.”
Hirsch was in his mid 20s, not married but settled in Paterson, when he took a trip to Israel. That’s where he met his wife, the formidable and charming Esther Yoselevich Dorbian, although certainly he had not been looking for her.
Esther was born in Palestine; her father, Eliyahu, a committed Zionist, left Latvia in the late 1920s. Her mother, Mina, was born in Latvia to a mother who died in childbirth and a father, a rabbi, who died a few months later. Mina had “a Dickensian childhood,” Iris said, shuttled from one abusive relative to another. “There was nothing for her in Latvia,” Iris added, so her grandmother, who had joined a Zionist youth group not out of conviction but because they were nice to her, went to Palestine safely before the Holocaust, joined a kibbutz, met Eliyahu, and eventually had Esther.
So now it’s 1956. Hirsch was in Israel, visiting his cousin, Reuven, heading off together to a memorial for Latvian Jews. On the bus, they started talking to a woman sitting nearby— it was a long ride — and eventually they learned that she, too, was going to the memorial. They established that all of them were Latvian. They got off the bus together, started walking together, and when they were about to say goodbye “she asked my father if he knew this woman. She asked what became of Hannah Dorbian? ‘Is she still alive?’
“‘She’s still alive,’ my father said. ‘That’s wonderful!’ she said ‘How do you know?’
“‘Because she’s my mother,” Dad said.”
So Mina invited Hirsch and Reuven to her house, “but my mother, who was worried that her mother was trying to make a match, fled the premises.” Her own father, Eliyahu, had just died, and she was still mourning.
But she was young, and it was springtime, and happiness broke in. “My father and his cousin rented a car — Reuven wanted to show Dad Israel — and my mother’s mother encouraged my mother to go with him. And that’s when sparks flew.”
Months later, they got married and moved back to Paterson. Elliot was born, and a few years later, in 1961, Iris followed. When the children were young, the family moved to Fair Lawn.
Esther Dorbian, who has a huge personality and a great sense of style, owned a clothing store in town for 45 years; Esther’s closed only last year. “Before that, she sold from the house,” Iris said. “When I was a kid, she’d take me to the Lower East Side, where she would get these clothes for cheap. She’d be clutching me and haggling with the vendors.”
Joan Hefler Goldstein, who also grew up in Fair Lawn and lives there as an adult, remembers Esther’s with great fondness; in fact, she remembers it with love. “She had great stuff, but it was also the kind of place where you’d go just to talk,” Joan said. “You could spend an entire afternoon there, just talking with Esther and the other ladies.” Esther has charisma, she said, and a great nose for stories.
Iris grew up with these larger-than-life parents, went to local public schools and to the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, and then to college at NYU. There, “I discovered the downtown New York City club scene,” she said. “It was the 1980s, and I have no regrets. My best friend and I would study, and then at night we’d go to dance, at Danceteria or the Ritz, where I later worked as a cocktail waitress, or the Pyramid, or the Peppermint Lounge. We would be out all night, until it closed, at 3 or 4 in the morning, and then I would have a Shakespeare class at 9.
“You can only do this when you’re young.”
Iris wanted to be either an actress or a journalist; for reasons she cannot explain now she thought journalism would be more intimidating, so — after a solo vacation in England that took her to just about every club and other music venue in Great Britain but afforded her the time to see nothing else, including any standard tourists sites — she followed that dream. She was mildly successful — she got some acting fellowships, was accepted into a theater company at Vassar College, and another in the Barter Theatre in Virginia, and earned an Equity card. “I knew that in the theater there was a premium on youth,” she said, and she was young. (And also very attractive, but that she didn’t say.) She also wrote lyrics for musicians, but “there are a lot of sleazebags in the music industry,” she said.
But journalism always beckoned, so eventually Iris applied and was accepted to journalism school at Columbia — partly on the basis of pieces she’d written in the Forward — and then became the editor of Stage Directions, a journal aimed at theater professionals. She was using the expertise she’d gained in theater — but her parents’ background was lying fallow.
In 2008, Iris wrote a book called “Great Producers.” It’s a combination of interviews with successful Broadway producers, including Cameron Mackintosh and Michael David, and descriptions of the work of either recently dead ones, like Joe Papp and David Merrick, or longer-dead ones, like Florenz Ziegfeld. (For the Ziegfeld piece, Iris was able to interview the 100-year-old Doris Eaton Travis, a onetime Ziegfeld girl, who was spry then, Iris said, and lived for another five years.)
But the publishing world is not terribly secure, and the journals Iris used to work for were sold and resold, and her positions would vanish, reappear, and vanish again. It’s a hard life. Iris had to reinvent herself — and she did. She now is a business journalist, working for Buyouts Insider PE Hub, writing about private equity and venture capital, living in Fair Lawn after 30 years in Manhattan.
Hirsch’s story has always been with Iris. Her relationship with her father was unusually strong, and his story was vivid. And as a creative person — the acting, the writing, the journalist came from the desire to create — she increasingly felt the need to tell it.
When her father died, she began to write personal essays. “It was therapeutic for me,” Iris said. Her first one, called “A Prayer in Times Square,” told about an experience she’d had when her father was deathly ill. “There was a Christian caravan there, and they said that they’d offer up prayers for you,” she said. “A young guy walked over to me, and said, ‘Do you want a prayer?’ and I said yes, and he offered a prayer.
“He said, ‘Lord, please let Hirsch Dorbian go quickly, but please let the family have some time.’”
She wrote about that experience while it was still raw; a week later, she sent it to online Jewish literary journals, including Blue Lyra Review, which accepted it. She also remembered a story she’d written years before, from a teenaged Holocaust survivor’s point of view, telling what basically was her father’s story.
Out of those fragments of experience and art “An Epiphany In Lilacs” emerged.
“So much is written about the Holocaust, but so little is written about the aftermath,” she said. “About the DP camps. About coming to America. I think that this fills a necessary gap in knowledge.
“It is not about the horror,” she added. “It is about how you move on after most of your family has been destroyed, and you don’t know if anybody is alive. You are trying to move on.” You have to try to move on.
What about the book’s title?
“My father loved flowers,” Iris — who is named after a flower, after all — said. “He loved lilacs. He used to tell me about how when he was in the hospital, healing, he had to walk outside. He just had to get outside, to be in the air, in the sun, with the flowers.
“The British medics would tell him to be careful when he went outside.” They were always watching him, she said.
And why? Where they being abusive? Domineering? Oh no, she said. “They did it out of love. They told him to be careful out of love.”
She remembers something her father had said. “We knew that once we get into New York Harbor, we’re home.”