Monday, February 4, 2013

In Memory of John Balan

Longtime friend of the Museum, John Balan, who was a member of our Speakers Bureau, passed away last week. We thought it was only fitting to share his story with you, which was first printed in our Museum newsletter in 2006. May his memory be a blessing.

(Jan Braun) was born in 1934, the only child of Alexander and Cornelia Braun in Bratislava, then  the capital of the province of Slovakia. John lived with his Orthodox grandmother from 1934 to 38. It wasn’t until recent decades, however, that John  learned of his Jewish roots.

Baptized just before his fourth birthday by a man his father befriended, the family immediately began their efforts to lead their lives as Christians. “I went to Sunday school, and we went to church, we did all of these things, pretty much for the rest of my life.” Added John, “My grandmother ran a very Jewish household. She was very much against this. She was angry at my father.” Yet, the family’s hope was that their efforts would provide protection otherwise unavailable to Jews at the time.

His family moved to the Jewish area of Bratislava in 1942. John does not consciously remember whether or not his parents explained the real reason for moving, whether it was because they were Jewish or because they wanted to be closer to the river. In hindsight, John acknowledges, knowing why their lives had to be disrupted—why they had to separate—would have been easier to understand. The decision to go into hiding was made in 1944. The Nazis occupied Slovakia and the situation became more and more dangerous for John and his family. John said, “It became clear that we were days or weeks away from major, major deportations. The only alternative available since you couldn’t go East, South,West, or North, was to find a hiding place—especially during the night.” Nazi roundups took place in the very early morning hours.

John’s elementary school homeroom teacher, Nora Palethys, and her husband, Karel, became friends with John’s parents over time. John characterizes Karel as “fighting for the underdog … being morally motivated.” Knowing who they were up against, Karel and Nora offered to hide the family. Every night, or whenever it was appropriate, John and his family would leave the ghetto and sleep over with the Palethys and their child. After nearly two months of these nocturnal sojourns, a loud, close rumbling could be heard. “It was the noise of the roundup from within the apartment. We were on the very top floor. The searchers stopped on the floor just below. ‘Let’s go,’ they called out, ‘there are no more Jews left here.’”

It was increasingly difficult to maintain a safe haven for the household of six. The time came for the Brauns to separate from their friends and from each other. John’s mother bribed her way into a Catholic-run tuberculosis sanitarium. John’s father left for the farm of a woman who had been close to the family when John was a baby. John went to live with a family that was paid to hide him. John’s father visited him nightly with the help of Karel, who would use a small flashlight to signal whether or not it was safe to continue down the road. (This flashlight is on display in the Museum’s Children’s Gallery on the second floor). Living apart lasted two months, but eventually the family was reunited after being liberated after the Soviet army passed through Slovakia. Jan and his parents became the Balans and immigrated to the United States in 1948.

The family maintained their Christian identities after the war. “When we came to the US the first thing my parents did was join a church. I didn’t find it unpleasant because I would have rather gone to a Jewish service; I found it unpleasant because it was boring to sit there,” John recounted dryly.

Hints of a Jewish life presented themselves in subtle ways. “My cousins in Israel had made Aliya, so my father sent them some clothing. My father asked them to send the mail to the office, rather than to the house because he didn’t want the postman to see that letters were coming from Israel.”

As an adult John would visit these cousins frequently and they would share their childhood experiences, but John maintained his non-Jewish persona. “I was raised this way, and I saw no great overpowering reason to change. Unlike some little kids who were hidden in a monastery and were actually raised Catholic, and don’t remember their Jewishness because they went into the convent at age two or three, I was nine or ten, so I knew that I was Jewish, but for practical purposes, I wasn’t. I went through high school that way … I went through college that way. I joined a Christian fraternity, not a Jewish fraternity.”

John’s partner of 36 years, Annie, was Jewish, and made him aware of the Jewish world. This awareness, combined with dozens of trips to Israel, has helped to erode what John refers to as “the charade.” What sealed his fate, however, was a professional experience that took place in the 1990s.Working at a phone company in Pennsylvania that employed more than a thousand employees, John was given advice that he considers the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” His attorney told him not to reveal his true identity. She told him, “John, you know, you would be well advised, from a career point of view, not to reveal your Jewishness to this company.”

Following a diagnosis of cancer in 1997, John sought help through meditation led by a rabbi he liked very much. He attended services and gained a sense of community unknown to him before He became more involved and became a founder of the Shul of New York on the Lower East Side, where he would take on the role of treasurer for many years and watch with joy as the congregation grew.  John admitted that it took some time to truly reveal who he was, even in this safe environment. “Whenever I say ‘I am Jewish’ I am very aware I am saying it.”

You can read more of John’s history in the book To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope. He worried that after survivors are gone, and the children of survivors are gone, that after two or three generations no one will remember what happened to Jews during the Holocaust. His role, he felt, was to tell the story. John said, “I can contribute, I will do that.”

Image: Photo of Jan Braun at 9 and a half years old. April 1944, Slovakia.

Gift of John Balan


FiveSevenFive said...
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FiveSevenFive said...

I had the privilege of attending John Balan's wonderful bar mitzvah a few years ago at the Quaker meeting house in Stuyvesant square. It was a joyful event. That is how I will remember him.