Thursday, May 18, 2006

A holocaust story about roots- with a happy ending

A Happier Holocaust Story
A story about roots-about art- about tolerance

After 50 years- Jason Alster finally meets his artist grandfather- Joseph Alster with his daughter's help, and learns about tolerance along the way.

When I was a young boy- a beautiful painting of a ruined castle once hung above my father's bed. The castle was really mystical and perched above a very high mountain. Easily- a backdrop to some dungeons and dragon's game. My father, Felix Alster, was a holocaust survivor, and the painting was one that his father- Joseph Alster- had painted. It was even signed - J Alster and I also
J. Mark Alster was even named after him. So- but- who am I named after exactly? Well some questions use to enter my mind when I was looking at the painting. Like - where IS this Joseph Alster hiding- the artist/grand father who painted this beautiful and mystical castle? Right out of a Robin Hood movie too! Or was it Ivanhoe? Was he hiding out somewhere? How come I don't see him or meet him? And if he ain't around - so be it- but how did the painting get here? Above my own father's bed. And - if my grand father painted that, then how come I can't paint?- I can't even draw a straight line properly. Why doesn't he come and teach me to draw and paint? All these questions were quite intriguing for a young lad just running out to play.
Well dad- where are you from? "The city of Wadavitza in Poland -where the Pope was born". Wow, you mean that you came from the same town as the Pope? You met him as a boy?- Yes, was the answer. OK- then the castle must be in Poland - somewhere. Hey, let's visit my Aunt in New York my dad said, - OK- maybe grandad is there too. We visited our Aunt Sara in Crown Heights and sure enough there were paintings from my grandfather on the wall. But no grandfather. How did she get the paintings? Well, I was then told that before "THE WAR" Joseph Alster gave her the paintings - but he perished in the Holocaust, and she gave a few paintings " saved " to my father- who also came from that deep dark place- Germany. Wait - wasn't that Poland?? Well this is really confusing now. An Aunt from Germany - a father from Poland and a Grandfather from Germany and Poland. Yep- the Jews moved to Germany to have a better life and then were forced back to Poland when the Reich gained power. My Aunt's family came to the USA before the war and were able to " save " the paintings. Wow, this is really complicated - so the paintings are from Germany or Poland?? Don't know. Dad survived the war and came to the states. Joseph Alster- passed away a few weeks after the war ended.

I am the son of a holocaust survivor. Nice painting too. I received it as an inheritance and I have no one to teach me to paint either. I had bad handwriting too. My English composition teacher told me that " Jason- your handwriting looks like you spilled some ink on the page- and a chicken walked on over it." No problem- in a few years there will be word processors-. Then one day - when I was 22 years old- I was in an art appreciation class I had to take at university. Showing some photos of ancient Egyptian art and then comparing them to Renaissance art, the professor said-a line that changed my life-"art progressed with time, anyone can be taught to paint". WOW! I almost fell off the chair. The next thing I did was sign up to a beginners art class (because this was before the book "Painting for Dummies" came out). Walla- my first painting was completed in 1977, and my father helped me. What -he knows how to paint too. It's genetic- how come he knows and I don't. OK - cutting to the chase- 20 years of painting - visiting museums - going to workshops- I put out some nice paintings too- and I was even ready to write a book to teach others- that's because I ended up in the field of special education and you guessed it- teaching dygraphics ,dyslexics to write well and paint -in my books- BEING IN CONTROL and Creative Painting for the Young Artist. To write the book Creative painting.., an important part of the book for being an artist - is to have a mentor and to know how to critique your art. You get a feel of where I am leading to here? Let's critique Joseph Alster's painting for the book. Yes, the castle painting is really nice- to me but was my grandfather a "real" artist or just someone painting as a hobby. Using a photo of the castle I critiqued the painting in the book and sure enough it was a shining example of composition, color, 2 point perspective, focal point, vanishing point, creation of visual movement, area of interest - all the rules a "real" artist uses. Let's bring back Joseph Alster to life !!! Coooool, let's use his painting to teach others how to paint. And he did.
So the mysterious painting is now alive- but where is it from???? I guess I will never ever know.

In the year 2003, I wanted to get my books selling, and was advised to go to a book fair- in Frankfurt Germany. Germany, the country of the Reich, the place where my family was killed- the place where they hate Jews. Wow! Scary a bit. But I knew that my Mom's brother Uncle Irving was a JAG lawyer stationed in Frankfurt after the war. I also knew Germany and Israel were having better relations. OK, I will take a chance - and you know I might take a trip and see the castle. Well, Germany was quite nice- I took a trip- no castle, and the German's did not bite- from afar that is. That's because they don't know I am Jewish or from Israel now. But something really remember able happened in a taxi. I met my first German. The taxi driver. He said in English- where are you from? OK- some hesitation here, Intifada and all- Israel doesn't always look good in the news to Europeans. - what do I say- USA, Israel???? I went with Israel- it's just me and him now. "Israel"! He answered- "Oh! from Israel- do you know that when the Jews lived here - in Frankfurt- before the war- we had a great city. The Jews ran the charities. Now we have 20 % Moslem's living in Frankfurt. I wish the Jews came back". In a million years- I did not expect that this would be my first sentance with a young German. If only my dad and his dad could have heard that. ( What- he is now replacing tolerating Jews with tolerating Moslem's? Same story different people.)

So I was in Germany, but no closer to finding my grandad or my castle for that. OK- I have a nephew who once did a " roots " search. Let's look up "Alster" on the internet. My dad once said all Alster's are related and maybe there are some Alster paintings for sale or in a museum- why not, Maybe? Hum, Alster-is a river in Hamburg. I always liked the color blue. But wasn't my father born in Poland???? Another mystery- we will have to tackle that one later. Hey -a book by Joseph Alster on Same name, Joseph is a popular Jewish name - but Alster??? Maybe we are related. Well a "Jospeh Alster" wrote a book-The Alster Files- about the holocaust and more recently:

The Burning Flame of Eternal Hope
by Joseph Alster

I mention this because his book so closely resembles our family's story that even if he is not That Joseph Alster - the story is the same as ours. Excerpt from the editor's review.

"He was born and raised in a land that championed the worst evil ever seen on this planet. He was fortunate to flee to a land of the free and to serve proudly in its army, and then to the land of his ancestors - the land that G-d had promised to His people as an eternal inheritance. His duty would be to fight for the rest of his life for its continued existence as a sovereign state." Joe Alster's personal memoirs record idyllic beginnings in Cologne, Germany to his escape to Holland following Kristallnacht, life in America including service in the U.S. Army to daring escapades with Rabbi Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense league, the search for Mengele, and his move to Israel where he continues his activism against injustice. Since the quiet and unobserved life has never been enough for Alster, he unfolds his exciting story in a highly emotional and, at times, deeply philosophical stream of consciousness."
Well, my dad came to the states, joined the USA army, I heard Meir Kahane give a lecture at my synagouge in NY. I went to Israel.

I could have written parts of that book too. Back to the internet search. "Alster Tower" - is this it???? "Alster Tower, the Boldt's playhouse, was the first structure Boldt erected on Heart Island. Its design suggests a defense tower similar to those on the Alster River in Germany. But this curious mini-castle probably was not pre-designed, since it would have been nearly impossible to describe its eccentric and irregular forms on paper. It was likely improvised by Boldt himself in a highly personal manner, and evolving as it rose. This building was intended for the entertainment of guests and the Boldt children."

Was my grand dad painting a tower after his name Alster from the towers on the Alster river- or better yet, coming from Poland - did he take the German name "Alster" when living in Germany after painting the castle and to avoid expulsion from Germany as a Polish Jewish immigrant?????
Hey, the year is 2005 - time to take a vacation- my friend wanted to see snow- so did I. I was already in Switzerland twice- let's go to Bavaria. It's beautiful. That's also where there are castles in Germany like the Neuschwanstein are. I mean, I was already in Germany once- the German's are OK- the war is over. Maybe- just maybe I will see the castle- and if not- I will see a German castle anyways. Bavaria was just beautiful- the snowed hills and lot's of lakes and rivers full of fish and geese were just like in Connecticut- where my dad settled and I was born. My dad always liked fishing, and water, and snow, and mountains. Then it happened- it snowed-all night - and we had to leave - but our rented German Mercedes car could not drive in the snow without snow tires, and the snow tires we received at the car rental at the airport in Munich were not the right size. What a time to find that out. Boom!- We are stuck in Bavaria. At least till the snow stops and melts. When? Only mother nature knows. That's when I met my second German - Hans. Hans that is such a German name. What, they are still using it today? Hans was a good looking young man whose parents owned the motel I was staying in at the foot of Neuschwanstein castle. Blond hair , blue eyes, great smile. A poster boy for the Hitler youth, and he knew I was from Israel. He had to, his motel had our passports at registration. This guy Han's tried for an hour to put on the snow chains on the car's tires till he realised that they were not the right size. Then he just took us 5 miles into town, got the right chains, came back and spent another half hour in the snow storm putting on the chain and shoveling us out. I wanted to give him a special thanks. I gave him a copy of my art book and just told him- Alster is a German name- the castle in the book- my grandfather painted it- it is a German castle. I know that he knew the significance of what I was telling him- that it's OK to visit Germany from Israel- hopefully at his wonderful motel, that the war for some of us, is over. That, I have German roots too.

2006: Zichron Yacov, Israel. It's remembrance day and my youngest daughter Limor-has vacation from school. "Dad, what's the story again of the painting that survived the holocaust". "How did it get to Israel"? Well Limor, it's from a castle in Germany, my grandfather was on vacation somewhere in Germany when he painted it. I know from a topographical search that it's in the Rhine area. Let's make another search with GOOGLE. "Castles / Germany/ Rhine" - the first URL is Drachensfels castle. BINGO - Kunta Kinte- that's it. Look at the ruined walls, look at the castle on the cliff like in the painting, look at the color, look at the window in the tower, look at the adjacent hill- it's it- a perfect match. Limor- you did it. Wait, there are only two walls in the castle photo but three walls in the painting. Who cares, that's OK - it's still a perfect match and anyways it could have been ruined during the war. But that made no sense. If one wall was knocked off by a powerful blast so probably the other walls too. How come this ruined castle is "ruined" some more- but the other castles in Germany were still standing intact? So the allies saved the castles from destruction during the war. Then if so- what happened to the 3rd wall?

Hum, Drachenfels? " Fallen Dragon". More questions now are running through my mind. Why this castle out of all the castles in Germany? What is Drachenfels? Where is it. Where was the exact position my grandfather was standing when he painted the painting. How realistically did he paint the painting. I mean like Jurassic park story of bringing dinosaurs back to life through their DNA, can I re-incarnate my grand dad's mind by the way he painted the painting. Can I really see where he once stood - after 50 years of knowing him, but not knowing him.

Drachenfels Castle-

On the wild, jagged Drachenfels towering up so mightily above the river, there once stood a proud castle, of which today only the high tower is still to be seen. The hill and the castle enjoy tremendous popularity and are visited yearly by countless numbers of people. The view from the 1050-ft.-high summit is considered one of the most famous on the Rhine. The former masters of the castle, the Counts of Drachenfels, had a winged, fire-spitting dragon in their coat of arms. This ties up with the saga of Siegfried, who is reputed to have slain the dragon, which lived in a cave on the hillside, and then bathed in the blood. Lord Byron and many other poets glorified the Drachenfels. In the last century the hilltop and the tower were jeopardized by the stone quarries, which had been continually extended, untill the Government stepped in, taking over the peak and safeguarding the ruins from any further danger of subsidence.
These ruins are open to the public all year round." The caption on the photo says.
Well- does that mean my grandfather's painting is proof of the damage the quarry did to the castle. There use to be a third wall. Out of all the things for a caption to say "in the last century the hilltop and the tower were jeopardized by the stone quarries" . I mean when is the last time you read something like that? Yet, here, it fits in like another piece to the puzzle.
By the way- did you know that one of the first movies I saw with my father was The Brother's Grim- where Buddy Hacket slays the dragon. Was this the Drachenfels castle? Drachefels- by Jack Yeovil- proves himself not just a skilled writer, but a man capable of seducing you into loving his work- a great fantasy novel, suspense novel, with trolls and Orcs of the Warhammer stories & Games.
So now I know why my Grandfather painted THIS castle. It's popular in Germany. He might have thought he could sell it to the tourists.

Back to that other castle- from the book Ivanhoe- I always loved castle stories as that young lad and read Ivanhoe as a kid, inspired by that castle on the wall. In doing the research for this story, I came across Ivanhoe again. This is what the editorial about the book says. "The emotions... are not those of human beings pitted against other human beings, but of man pitted against Nature, of man in relation to fate. His romance is the romance of hunted men hiding in woods at night; of brigs standing out to sea; of waves breaking in the moonlight; of solitary sands and distant horsemen; of violence and suspense...The treatment of Jews is an interesting development throughout Ivanhoe. Despite all the characters treating people of the Jewish faith as sub-human 'Ivanhoe's' the last three pages show that prejudices can be overcome and people of different faiths should learn tolerance. This is surprising stuff for the period in which Sir Walter Scott penned it!"
I read Ivanhoe then,- one of my all time favorite stories, a good movie too- yet it's message somehow fits the message of the characters in this stories search for roots.
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