The first time I spoke with Teo Erlich I had trouble following him the thread of what he said because He was so anxious that he didn’t mind being clear or choosing the words. “I want you to talk to Mira, my mom, and write what I tell you because I want to know my story. In truth, she is not my mother, she is my aunt, but she is my mother and at the same time the sister of my biological mother, who died murdered by the Nazis. ”
During the first talks I had with Mira Ostromogilska, that mother who was not a mother but who was much more than a mother, Teo was present. Anxious, I interrupted the conversation to ask questions that diverted me from the questionnaire I had asked. In those first talks I dedicated myself to looking at that 70-year-old man who opened his eyes with the enthusiasm of a baby who wanted to know everything. It was the Little Prince asking, repeating, claiming: “Draw me a lamb.” I always related it to The little Prince. Of course the lamb was its own story, a story that only knew scraps because, to avoid the pain, no one had told it in its entirety.
So once, twice, three times, until I had to ask him not to come anymore, that he promised him that he would discover all his history and that of his biological parents and that he would write it so that he knew all the details.
And Mira told me the whole story. How his older sister, Edwarda, had met Boris, how they had fallen in love and married on the eve of the German invasion. How she herself had fallen in love with Boris’ best friend, Edek, with whom she had shared her entire life. Boris and Edwarda were married in 1938 and Teo was born on February 4, 1939: it was the joy of the whole family.
Shortly after, the Germans arrived and all were condemned to the Warsaw ghetto. Teo was two when he got diphtheria. The fever did not lower him, it was difficult to breathe. Everyone was scared. It took months to recover, and when he did Boris and Edwarda decided that they should save him at any cost. They put together the savings they had hidden and paid Pietruszka, a Polish of extreme confidence, to take it out of the ghetto and hide it in Mrs. Stempke’s house, in the countryside, away from diseases, the Nazis and the death that It swept the streets. Mira told me that they cried all day when Pietruszka took Teo in her arms through the sewers of Warsaw. Boris and Edwarda hoped to meet him again when the war ended, something less than improbable. But they didn’t care: all they wanted was for Teo to survive that madness.
For four years, Teo lived in Mrs. Stempke’s house, surrounded by the woman’s children, who soon became more than her friends. They were like brothers. Once, with that pride and anxiety with which he talked about the subject, Teo told me that Mrs. Stempke’s lover was a tram driver. Sometimes, I took him with him on the route he was doing in the streets of Warsaw. “Will you take me to see my mom?” Asked Teo. But no. It would take two years to see her again.
In 1944, after Boris, Edwarda, Edek and Mira managed to escape from the flames of the ghetto, they hid in the countryside. Edwarda, desperate, insisted on seeing Teo. He was afraid they would have handed it over to the Nazis. Mrs. Stempke agreed to take Teo but only with one condition: Edwarda should not talk to him, he could only see him from afar, so as not to attract the attention of the neighbors and prevent the true identity of that Jewish child from being discovered.
Between Teo and Mira, especially Mira, crying, excited, they told me how was that meeting that, without a doubt, is the best part of the book / lamb where we tell their story:
“They arrived one morning. Three blond children accompanied by an old woman. Through the windows we tried to recognize Teo, but the three were much larger than the boy Pietruszka had taken. “It’s that one,” Edwarda said suddenly, pointing to the shortest, a beautiful boy with golden hair. Soon, Jarosz’s children left the house and joined the games of Teo and his two stepbrothers. The rumor of their voices encouraged us to leave. Edwarda cried and smiled at the same time. “It’s beautiful,” he said. Anxiety was pushing her beyond the garage and soon reached the last tree in the garden. From the gate Jarosz made us a reassuring sign, so we also followed Edwarda.
Teo ran through the trees and occasionally looked at us as he passed, saying nothing. I thought that Edwarda would soon betray his promise and run to hug the child, shouting that he was his mother. But it was not like that. My sister was ecstatic just by seeing him. At one point, Teo separated from the rest of the children and looked for a secluded place, behind a tree, to urinate without being seen by the Poles. Edwarda went after him. He knelt before his son and helped him down his pants without saying a word. Teo did not speak either. When he finished urinating, the two looked into each other’s eyes in silence. Then, unexpectedly, briefly, sweetly, Teo kissed his mother on the forehead and walked away in the direction of the other children. ”
That was the last time Teo saw his mother and father. The war turned them into martyrs, like so many others. When it was all over, Mira and Edek decided to go find him. Mrs. Stempke had become so fond of Teo that it was hard for her to return it to her biological family and Teo only agreed to go if one of her stepbrothers accompanied her.
Mira told me that those early days were difficult. Teo did not get used to them, his uncles, and they were not prepared to be parents. In addition, Mira and Edek feared that someone would take away Teo, because they did not have their documents and the family relationship was not so direct as to justify tenure. Thus, one day they asked him for his safety to stop telling them uncles, and to call them mom and dad: they should remove any suspicion.
The following years turned them into parents and son. The affection, the shared pain was so great that the three were convinced that Teo was really their biological son. Then Alice was born, who for years did not know the true story of her brother and who, when he met her, did nothing but redouble the love she felt for him.
Already in Argentina, from his youth, Teo showed immense determination and strength. He went to study Textile Engineering in Canada, and like when he was a child, he also pretended to be a Catholic because of that innate distrust that had made him a survivor. Laughing, he once told me that when his friends at the university, 30 years later, learned that he was Jewish, they could not believe it and they were angry because he had not told them the truth.
Back in Buenos Aires, one night Teo met Myriam, the woman of his life. A beautiful Catholic girl, the princess who deserved the Little Prince. At first, Mira and Edek opposed that relationship. Teo didn’t care. I was in love. “You didn’t teach me that we are all the same? What does it matter if I am not Jewish? ”He faced them, and, as always, he got away with it. Mira once told me: “And it ended up being better than a thousand beans.”
Over time the children arrived. Andrea, Oliver and Ary, my friend Ary. Teo became the leader of that factory that Edek had assembled upon arriving in Argentina, and soon his sons joined to work with him. That made him proud. He kept repeating it.
Time made him a grandfather. A happy grandfather, a caring father and a fellow husband. A guy who enjoyed life like no other person. He traveled, laughed, had a good time. I always admired that of the Erlich, because Teos gene is in many of them: his ability to move forward and not stop in regrets. That idea that life is to live and enjoy.
After a year, I managed to draw / write the lamb / book: The eight door ghetto. We present it together in the Holocaust Museum. I will never forget her tears, her emotion. Mira had passed away very recently, but he was proud of his four parents, of what they had faced, of the strength they had had so that he could be there.
A couple of years ago he learned that a group of students from San Juan had read his story and that for them he was something like a superhero. He was already sick with his lungs, it was hard for him to walk. But that mattered little and nothing. “I’m going to San Juan, I want to meet those boys and girls. I take the oxygen tube and go, ”he told me, and there we went. They received him with shouts and applause, students, teachers and professors, a nun, the Minister of Education. I was so excited that, something weird in me, I cried in public. In a moment, broken, I turned to look at him and check that he was fine. And I discovered that he was smiling, almost tempted to laugh at such happiness. “I cry and you laugh, you’re making me look bad,” I said and he laughed.
That was Teo Erlich, who died yesterday, March 4, 2020. An immense guy, a fighter, stubborn, generous, who always enjoyed life and his family. The little Prince. I know that Myriam, Andrea, Oliver, Ary and each of their grandchildren, nephews and friends today are crying for the sadness of their departure. But stay calm, Teo: tomorrow when they remember you they will laugh like you because you made us all a better person.
Somewhere, Edwarda and Boris, Mira and Edek are waiting for you.
And here, those of us who were lucky enough to meet you, we will never be able to forget you.
* Kaddish is a Jewish prayer that is prayed in public and one of whose variants is the prayer for the dead.