Fifty years have passed since Helane Linzer unpacked her duffle bags, and though the contents are now weathered, worn or lost, her memories of summer camp remain as fresh as the grassy slopes of the Catskill Mountains where she summered long ago.
“I think relative to American Jewish camps it was just a more intense experience and more intellectual,” recalled Linzer, while seated in her Pittsburgh home.
In June 1965, Linzer, daughter of Leona and Michael Fruchter, two Polish Holocaust survivors, left Brooklyn to accompany her older sister, Marlene, to Camp Hemshekh in Hunter, N.Y. The camp moved to Mountaindale, N.Y., in 1969.
“The first summer I went, other than the nurse’s daughter who was 5 and housed in our bunk, I think I was the youngest person in the camp,” she said.
Apart from sharing space with slightly older children, bearing such youthful designation bestowed a certain aloofness on the then 8-year-old.
“Being young, there was a lot that went over my head,” Linzer said. “I think that it took a long time till I realized that the camp had a mission that was probably different than most sleep-away camps that American Jewish kids went to. It was a camp that was designed for children of survivors, headed by survivors and many of them with very interesting backgrounds.”
In 1959, the camp was founded by a group of Holocaust survivors. Hemshekh, which means “continuation” in Yiddish, served as both the enterprise’s name and charge. For the founders who had earlier been partisans and members of the Bund (the Jewish Socialist Party) in Eastern Europe, Hemshekh would instill the next generation with a “love of Yiddish” and a “socialist-rooted view of social justice,” noted the Yiddish Book Center.
Throughout the summer, various ventures facilitated the task, recalled Linzer.
During the day, campers would sometimes encircle patches of grass, sit and discuss Yiddish philosophy with older counselors. At night, one activity “that we used to have was a debate with three groups on the panel debating socialism, communism and capitalism.”
Whether the sun had risen or set, music was a constant presence, she added. At the camp, “there was this one broken piano, but the music counselor was amazing — Zalmen Mlotek, and he came from a family of very to the left-of-center intellectuals.”
“Zalmen brought a tremendous amount of energy to the singing in this camp that had not existed before,” recalled Moishe Rosenfeld in an interview with the Yiddish Book Center. “He just created, at breakfast, at Friday night kultur nacht and at all of the festivals and visiting-day performances; it was a summer of eight weeks packed with Yiddish gezang.”
Mlotek, who now serves as the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, “was incredibly talented in music and he was the one always playing piano, and we were taught all of these beautiful songs,” said Linzer.
Bound by a red paperback cover, a songbook from the 1999 Camp Hemshekh reunion includes the lyrics for more than 120 pieces. Most are in Yiddish.
In many ways, the camp was “a product of its time,” with ballads and tunes about peace, said Linzer. But there were also anachronistic numbers, both in English and Russian, “making fun of the Russian regime.”
Given its politicized songs and directed activities, Hemshekh was a particularized experience.
“They were absolutely trying to teach us something,” Linzer said. “It wasn’t just about having a good time, it was about instilling in the children an understanding of the history and a belief in the causes that the founders of the camp believed in.”
Accordingly, concerted efforts were made that “Yiddish wouldn’t die out” and also that “our history wouldn’t die and particularly our most recent history.”
In that vein, Hemshekh adopted a practice each summer referred to as “Ghetto Day” and “Ghetto Night.” Characterized by solemnity, the two were signified through performance, silence and reaction.
Throughout the day, campers both “individually and in groups” would pass by a mosaic designed by Daniel Libeskind (a camper who later became a renowned architect), said Rosenfeld. Referred to as the denkmol, the installation depicted a “young man dressed in military-style garb, triumphantly stepping out of flames, one arm thrusting a rifle, the other with fist clenched. The face was an oval devoid of features,” wrote Margie Newman, a fellow camper in a 2009 story in Jewish Currents. The mosaic was located near the baseball field, recalled Linzer.
“On Ghetto Day, we would have an ehrenwache, honor guard, of two teenagers standing in their blue shirts, blue shorts and red cravats — that was the old socialist youth uniform — in silence at both sides of the denkmol,” said Rosenfeld.
Those standing guard, a charge given to all of the oldest campers, would change shifts “every hour so that the wall was never unguarded,” noted Newman.
As the day waned, Ghetto Night began with announcements and a quiet procession into a room where “there was a very beautiful program of ghetto songs and poems and narrations and drama that told the story of the resistance when we felt important to emphasize [but also] the story of the tragedy of the Holocaust,” said Rosenfeld.
Ghetto Night was “very serious” and “very intense,” and “I remember everybody filing back to their bunks in the dark with tears running down their cheeks,” said Linzer.
“It was kind of the embodiment of what the founders of the camp wanted to happen, to have a connection between their generation and the next generation,” explained Rosenfeld.
The intensity of the experience ultimately proved too much, and in 1970, Linzer stopped attending Hemshekh. Although subsequent summers were spent elsewhere, the camp remains an integral piece of identity, she said.
Those years were “formative,” and “it was enriching,” Linzer added. “It’s very intense growing up with survivors who were so traumatized, and it’s nice to be able to spend your summer, even if it’s with other children of survivors, in a camp with a mission that has to do with remembering that.”
Given that summers are often remembered cheerfully, Linzer pondered whether she was happy to have attended Hemshekh.
“I think sometimes if you give kids choices, they don’t necessarily pick the ones they’ll grow the most from,” she said. “In this case it wasn’t necessarily something that I chose other than saying that I want to go to camp with my sister because I would miss her. But in general, I would say I am.”
“I think we all like what is distinctive in our backgrounds,” she added. “It’s an interesting part of Jewish history that most people don’t know about.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.