Updated: May 4, 2021
The reason why this picture stuck in my mind is that my grandfather, who looks about fifteen or sixteen at the time, has a bandage wrapped around his head.
Among the photos that I took away from my father’s flat was one of my grandfather, posing with a group of other young people; twelve men and one woman. The photographer has arranged them in three lines, five standing at the back, four seated in front of them and two crouching in the foreground. The man in the prime seat, in the center of the middle row, is older than the others. He is holding a pennant. It’s black and white in the photo, but of course it couldn’t be anything else. It’s a black and white photo.
There is something written, or printed, on the pennant. It’s not easy to read because it is written in a white script, even on the white half of the pennant, but the top line is clear enough, it says S.K. Makkabea, Bratislava. The people in the photo are members of the Bratislavan branch of the Maccabi federation of Jewish youth clubs, an association that encourages young people around the world to participate and compete in sporting activities. But that is not what caught my eye about the photo.
The reason why this picture stuck in my mind is that my grandfather, who looks about fifteen or sixteen at the time, has a bandage wrapped around his head. It is tied in such a way as to completely cover his right eye. Behind him is a young man holding a walking stick. Of course their injuries could have meant nothing, they were all members of a sports club and I knew that my grandfather had been a wrestler. Even so, it looked a bit odd, I thought.
I could see Zalman’s brother David seated next to him in the photo. And I recognized one of the two crouching figures at the front; it was David’s good friend Imi Lichtenfeld; I’d seen them together in other pictures. I knew about David and Imi because they both became famous; David was a well-known wrestling champion and Imi was a fighter who invented the popular, self-defense martial art Krav Maga. To make my research even easier, they each had Wikipedia pages!
The photo I was looking at was interesting but it didn’t seem to tell me much about my grandfather’s early life. At best, it told me that he had belonged to a sports club and had injured his head and eye at the age of fifteen or so. I added the picture to the small pile of photos of Zalman’s early life in Bratislava and got on with sorting out my father’s boxes.
Looking at photos is easy and enjoyable. Far more daunting were the yellowing, crumpled newspaper cuttings mixed up with all the other memorabilia in my father’s disorganized stash. Some of the newspaper cuttings were in Hebrew, others in Slovakian; unlike the photographs, none of them screamed ‘look at me’.
But one can only sort through photos for so long. The time came when I couldn’t avoid the newspaper cuttings any longer. The Hebrew ones weren’t quite so daunting, I knew the language a little and these days it’s easy to translate documents using Google, even if occasionally instead of a clear, accurate translation all one gets is complete gobbledygook.
Among the newspaper cuttings was the front page of an Israeli daily with a title that translates as Sports News. Dated Tuesday 8th December 1959, the entire page is devoted to my grandfather. “The European Champion Who Rescued Holy Objects” proclaimed the headline, “Zalman Unreich: The Outstanding Wrestler, Fighting all his Life for the Protection and Rescue of Jews.” The headline doesn’t surprise me now, though it did at the time.
The 1959 headline...
“Zalman Unreich: The Outstanding Wrestler, Fighting all his Life for the Protection and Rescue of Jews.”
The headline and photo made me feel both proud and curious. But the real eyeopener was what the article told about Zalman’s early life; a story that, in just a few paragraphs opened a window onto his teenage years; hinting at why his head was bandaged in the Maccabi photo and why he was wearing an eye patch. I did a little more research, reading up about David Unreich and Imi Lichtenfeld on various websites. I came across a book called Odyssey, written in the 1980s by John Bierman about the escape of Jews from Nazi occupied Europe, in which he mentions Imi Lichtenfeld. Eventually, I managed to put the whole story together. It goes like this:
It was on the eve of Yom Kippur, the night before Zalman’s birthday, that a riot broke out which substantially shaped the future direction of his life. The year was either 1928 or 1929, he was about to be 15 or 16; the newspaper article is vague and so far I have not found any other source to help me fix the year precisely. But the article’s insistence that the riot took place on the eve of Yom Kippur is almost certainly correct.
The article clipping...
Zalman's passport reads: rodisko a datum (date of birth) on IX/21/1912 in narodenia (birthplace) Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. The roman numeral for “IX” is 9. Looking at the Hebrew calendar for the “erev” in Hebrew, meaning “eve” of Yom Kippur, the date was Sunday, September 23, 1928 or in the Hebrew calendar 9th of Tishrei, 5689. Which help support the theory about his age in the photo and when it was possibly taken.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when nearly all Jews fast and pray all night and day, is an ideal time to start an anti-Semitic riot. It is the one day in the year when the entire Jewish community is guaranteed to be at home or in the synagogue, their workshops and stores abandoned and empty, just waiting for someone to set fire to them. The riot in Bratislava was not the first anti-Semitic event to take place on Yom Kippur, nor would it be the last. It was even the day chosen by the armies of the Arab nations to launch their attack on Israel in 1973.
Zalman’s eye remained bandaged for nine months while he underwent a series of operations. The photo showing him with a bandage around his head and eye must have been taken towards the end of this time because there is no other visible bruising to his face. Bratislava’s Yom Kippur riot in 1928 or 1929, on the eve of my grandfather’s birthday, was the moment Zalman was first forced to acknowledge that, just like everybody else, he too was vulnerable.
It was not an experience he wished to repeat. Until now he had boxed and wrestled for fun. He would continue to enjoy it. But his near miss with blindness changed something in him. Zalman was determined not to be beaten again. From now on, he was going to fight to win. And fight to win he did. I have a photo of him wearing his wrestling medals from Bratislava Maccabi where he was club champion.