Kubush Horowitz survived World War II by making the enemy laugh.
A clown in the famous Staniewski Brothers circus in Poland, his ability to bring humour to dark times eventually became his family’s ticket to freedom.
Decades later in Melbourne, his grandchildren heard bedtime stories about the wonderful clown and his wife Mindla.
“While the Nazis laughed, they lived,” says journalist Sue Smethurst, the couple’s granddaughter-in-law.
“But they heard these as fairy tales in a sense as children.”
In 1936 as the threat of war loomed, Jews were already being persecuted in the streets of Warsaw.
“There was a dark culture forming and a sense of fear in the community,” Sue says.
It was on these streets that Kubush met his future wife in a chance encounter; picking her up and helping her home after she fell over.
Their children and grandchildren knew the basics of their wartime love story: romance blossomed, a baby arrived and they spent years separated by enemy lines.
But Sue wanted to know more.
A symbolic sock and a ‘deal with the devil’
As war broke out in 1939, Kubush was touring with the Staniewski Brothers Circus in Bialystok, about 190 kilometres away from Warsaw, where Mindla lived with their baby son Gad.
Mindla would later tell Sue that after Hitler’s planes began bombing Warsaw, the city was unrecognisable and food became scarce.
She made her way to Bialystok with her son, to search for her husband.
But at the same time, he and the circus were on the back roads heading to Warsaw.
The couple would spend two-and-half years apart.
“They had to cross borders and territories to find one another,” Sue says.
“It really is a series of lucky breaks, miracles, that they were actually even able to be reunited.”
In Bialystok Mindla was caught by soldiers in the Russian occupied zone, who thought she was a German spy.
“Her family had no idea that she was captured and placed in prison,” Sue says.
She would spend nine months jammed with dozens of other women in a windowless cell.
Her son, Gad, was sent to an orphanage.
In Warsaw, Kubush and other Jewish performers were hiding in plain sight, entertaining German soldiers with the cirus.
Eventually they received some news of Mindla — a mysterious parcel arrived from Bialystok containing a red sock.
The sock was a symbol of hope for Kubush. Mindla had knitted red socks before the war.
Dressed as a railway conductor, he fled with other circus performers on a train out of Warsaw…
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