The Legend of The Cousin Who Survived the Holocaust in a Cave

“Okay so the story of—for me anyway, goes back to a time when I had to move out of my studio on sixteenth street and… uh… I was moving a lot of books and two letters fell out of one of the books I was moving. I’d received them a long time before that from my mother, or really not from my mother, my sister had written the letters because my mother didn’t write english, and so my sister would always write these letters for her. The first letter was about her nephew, the only survivor actually of her entire family in Poland; the rest of them had been murdered. And he had managed to survive by escaping into the forest before the Germans were able to get him. And, uh, miraculously he, in the next year, he managed to work his away across all of europe to northern Italy. And he’d met a young woman on the way who already had a child, whose husband had been murdered. But this woman and her child and he found a cave in northern Italy where they lived for over two years. They had a child in the cave, and I saw this child, actually, because, when they were going to Toronto—my mother had sort of uh brought them to Canada from Europe, to live in Toronto—and they were passing through New York on their way, and I met them one night at an uncle’s house. And they had this child who had been born in the cave, who looked to be about—still about—two years old, even though he was about five at the time. That first letter was my mother saying—after he got to Toronto, she got to know him—saying how awful it was out of all her relatives this one cousin, this one nephew, was the one who had survived, because he was lazy, he didn’t want to work, he… nothing made him happy, complaining all the time. My mother found him an apartment to live in and all of that, and a job—not a very good one—working in a factory pressing men’s clothes. And he hated that. That’s not what he came to Canada for. That’s what my mother was telling me in the first letter, what sort of man he was.
“The second letter was something that my sister had written about five years later and in it, my sister talks about the same nephew coming from Vancouver, with his wife and his two children and they were going to stay wit my mother, and she seemed to be overjoyed that he was going to stay for more than a week. What turned out was that—my sister explained this to me over the phone years before—whenever he came to Toronto he would visit and he would bring my mother a present, sometimes a jewel, and my mother really liked this. So I thought these two letters were kind of interesting. The story behind it was that, after being in Toronto for a short time, he and his wife and children just picked themselves up without a word, and they just went off and didn’t say anything, They disappeared. And about a month later, my mother got a letter from him saying that they’d decided to go out to Vancouver to try their luck out West. And what he did when he got out to Vancouver—he had heard somehow through the survivor grapevine I guess—that this very wealthy Jew in Vancouver was getting set to auction some land that he owned on the outskirts of the city. And he was a builder and he was very wealthy, okay. So my cousin went to this auction in Vancouver and, not having any money, he bid and won the bid on this land. He had no money, you know, he had no money. Of course, he was confronted by this wealthy man, and the first the he did was of course, to start telling him his life story—how he had escaped the Germans, and lived in a cave, and had a child in the cave—and at the end of the story, this man agreed to let him have the land, and he would help in in any way he could. So by the time this second letter reached me, this nephew of my mother’s had become a rather prosperous builder in Vancouver. He owned a couple of apartment houses and was sending both of his boys through college—one of them became a doctor and one of them became a lawyer. So there’s a great story about the Survivors. They had the guts and the chutzpah to do something, you know? He was a remarkable person to have been able to do something like that… End of story.”

I asked my informant for any stories he knew. Most were rather contemporary and even the ones from his childhood seemed much more personal than folk. However, a couple of factors, I believe, help this one qualify as a legend. First, there are the number of steps of removal. Although my informant uses two letters to frame his story, it is unclear whether the bulk of the narrative was actually communicated through those. More likely, it seems to have come through a chain of communication, from the cousin, through his mother, and sister, to him. The uncertainty of its facts qualify it as a legend. Did this cousin actually escape the Holocaust, immigrate to Canada with two sons, and become wealthy in Vancouver? Almost certainly. Did he really live in a cave during his escape? Likely. Was it for two whole years? Maybe. Was he actually given a fortune in property for free just by telling his story? It’s possible. And did he really have a child in the cave? That becomes a little more ambiguous. My informant even casts doubt on that claim through his description of the child looking three years younger that it should have been, had it actually been born in the cave. More important than the facts, however, is that this makes a good story to tell, that supports a pride among the Jewish-American community. My informant’s casting this tale as ‘miraculous’ even pushes towards the category of myth. And the number of times I have heard it repeated—normally in snippets—would support the argument that it has become a formative part of his family’s identity.