|Resources for Children of Holocaust Survivors|
|COS Web Publish Page|
editor's note: For your already-published work to be published here, you must make sure that there exist no copyright restrictions limiting its publication elsewhere. Thank you. Is your work missing from this list? please email me with the information! Thanks! -J
Miriam Israel Moses
"Excerpts from Survivors and pieces of glass"
Miriam Jaskierowicz Arman
"Surviving the Survivors"
"A Daughter's Legacy"
"Breaking with Tradition"
"Blue Velvet Dress"
"Excerpts from Survivors and pieces of glass" First appearing in Bridges and Norton 1996 - Miriam Israel Moses
It may certainly be assumed that much of this never really happened, but then it may just as certainly be assumed that much of it really did happen, for I no longer know about realities. Realities are for me the reflected memories found in shattered pieces of glass that hold illusions of what is real and imagined. This story is mine whether it is real or imagined, and so some of this story is my life even though it may certainly be assumed that at least some of it is only imagined, but then at least some of it is real.
It must have been during the second World War of the twentieth century but I never looked up the date. It was the day before Passover, sometime during the second World War and everyone was out shopping for special things. The Passover Sedar Plate is filled with six significant special things. Then there are separate plates to hold more of the special things because the significant things are ceremonial and the separate plates are for passing around so that everyone can eat the six special things at six special times during the Sedar.
And so everyone was out and about buying special things in Salonika. Somehow in my mind it must have been a perfect sunny day in Salonika, Greece, where a Mediterranean springtime must be sunny. It was a sunny warm day where the coming twilight draped itself in perfect picturesque highlights over the houses of the peaceful thriving seaport village, the prosperous ghetto city of the once and almost forever Sephardic Jews. It must have been a joyful time and as people passed each other on the streets and in the squares they raised their hands in greeting saying "Buenas entradas de fiestas!(i)" The women were shopping and laughing I think, they were wearing scarves around their heads and gossiping and laughing as they passed each other. It was almost sundown and it was time for minchah/maariv (ii) and these Jews were religious Jews and the men prayed three times each day and the women prayed in affirmations through all the days of their lives. So it may certainly be assumed that it was a sunny warm day in Salonika, Greece on the Mediterranean the day before Passover in this twentieth century of World War II.
It must have been a perfect sunny day when the danger was all in the past. There could not have been any rumblings or thunder or signs of wrath. No. There could not have been any indication of malice in the air. Well, not to hear it told. Not to hear that part of it that I was told. Not the way that I remember it being told by my mother, without the sunny day and without the conversations, just the shopping for special things for Passover in the middle of World War II, just the shopping for the special things used in the ceremony that celebrates our release from slavery and our return to the promised land, just the celebration that raises us to trust in the will of G-d who will deliver us from our suffering.
I can see then my mother, sitting in her shop where they called her the woman with "manos de oro (iii)." Her adept fingers placed finishing touches on the beautiful dress she was making for her younger sister with the sun golden hair that I have never seen and whose name I never knew, who was my aunt before I was born and I cannot go on. The horror is only so bad as the beauty that was described in the lost looks of my mother's eyes so many years later when she told me only small parts of the story and I filled in the rest because I do not know if she was at the shop and I do not know if she was finishing a dress for her golden sister who was like a wisp of cloud in sunny sky on that day and every other day. But I know my mother's hands and I know the way she sang while she sewed and I know how she broke thread in her mouth without once losing a note of her melodies of sailors lost on the sea and golden sisters waiting for love.
Her mother came to her. Her mother was younger to her than mine was to me. My grandmother is what she would have been had she not stopped before I started and I know her name because it was given to me and she must be dead because we cannot name after the living and her name was Miriam. She was only fifteen years old when she was married to my mother's father whose name was Israel and his name was not told to me until long after my mother died. Israel was given to me as my middle name and I thought it was as an affirmation of the promised land. I never knew of its real purpose until its derivation was explained to me by my mother's brother, my Uncle Eli, on the first night of Shivah (iv) for my father which was almost nine years after the death of my mother. I never asked about it because I didn't want to know any more of it and I didn't know all of it and what I did know was and too hard to know and that is more than enough to know.
The German soldiers came. It may certainly be assumed that this is an insurmountable reality. My mother's mother who would have been my grandmother but wasn't because she was before me and I was not there went to my mother at her shop and said that there were some truths that needed to be told. One of the truths that needed to be told was that my mother was a born American Citizen and so was her brother my Uncle Eli. One of the truths that needed to be told was that my mother's family had once lived in the golden land of America and my mother and my uncle were born during that time. One of the truths that needed to be told was that, like so many fathers and brothers in that time and from that place my mother's father had once escaped to America with my mother's mother because the men refused to be drafted my mother's father, like so many fathers and brothers in that time and from that place had once escaped with my mother's mother to America because the men refused to be drafted into the armies of Greece and of the other countries that refused to make them citizens of the worlds they were expected to die for. It is not the same to die for being a Jew.
And so one of the truths that did not need to be told was that the German soldiers had come once before in the first World War of the twentieth century, and my mother's family, like so many other families from that time and from that place were Sephardic Jews and they were not Ashkenazi Jews. They spoke Spanish and they did not speak Yiddish and they did not eat gefilte fish and bagels and their Sabbath dinner was beans and rice with meat and marrow bones and it was not chicken and potatoes and matzah ball soup. And so when they came to America where all Jews are the same Jews, they were placed with the other Jews who were Ashkenazi Jews and not Sephardic Jews. And some of the Ashkenazi Jews did not believe that the Sephardic Jews were real Jews because they did not speak Yiddish and all real Jews that they believed were real Jews spoke Yiddish. So some of the Ashkenazi Jews accused the Sephardic Jews of being imposter Jews, for it may certainly be assumed that many people aspire to successfully impersonate Jews.
So it was that in America my mother's family like so many other families from those times and from those places could not speak to the other Jews in their Jewish language, or find their foods or their books or their songs or their lives and so they returned willingly to their non-citizen status in their beloved Salonika when the first World War which was supposed to be the last World War of the twentieth century ended. And one of the final truths that needed to be told when the insurmountable reality of the second coming of the German soldiers became an inescapable truth was that my mother and her brother had to report to separate doors from the doors through which the rest of their family walked with yellow stars sewn onto the outsides of their jackets and jewelry sewed into the inside linings of their clothes. But there is more of this story and I don't know it except for strands of fragments and broken pieces of glass strung together in the mind of a child which still the adult struggles to wear with dignity and grace instead of anger.
Happily they went to the freight trains to the relocation ditches and lamp shades and jewelry of gold fillings and wedding bands to be together as families in places where real death is preferable to life with the memory of it. We cannot say that. We cannot say that and we cannot answer that. We cannot say that and we cannot answer that and we cannot know that. But the alive ones who I loved were never alive here and this I know, or they disguised themselves very well and prepared for their deaths in sacred fashions. Only they prepared me to survive. The child must survive. They taught me every skill necessary to survival and none of the skills of life.
So there was a year somewhere during the twentieth century of World War II when there was a wooden boxcar and there were three women it in and I am certain that this was real though I do not know when or where in the World War this took place. And I have met the three women. One was my mother and there was Dora and also Violetta. It was a cold place and it was splintered dry wood and as the train traveled and stopped each day the three women went out into the empty cold not knowing where they were or who they were or why they were at all except to collect what food they could and to hear once a gypsy seer tell my mother that she would walk soon down a red carpet to a rich place and, in a manner of speaking, she did.
After three months in the wooden boxcar death express that picked up and delivered the condemned and already dead to the extermination camps, and I do not know how long this really was or what the route of the train really was, the three women were taken to what was before the war a resort in France called Vitelle Vogue that was transformed as all things are transformed in war into a prison holding camp with food that was occasional with a stolen rotten potato as the standard daily fare. So after the moving nowhere of the death-crate boxcar, there was no place but a holding place. And this place was of brick and barracks with blanketless beds of boards and barbed wire fences and many gestapo guards with trained dogs and rifles trained.
And there was the time of three women in a boxcar who were placed in the holding camp after three months, sometime during the second World War of this century when they had no clothes but the clothes they wore and so Violetta developed pneumonia and emphysema because they were good girls and washed their underwear each day and dressed again in the wet clothes. But Violetta did not die completely. The holding camp in France was for a year and I do not know how long it really was or whether it was wood or brick or barracks but there were these three women and my mother was one and Dora and Violetta were the other two and my living torment could not have been felt there as life itself was not felt because reality was not really known until later and then later reality changed again and again and again like this fragmented story of made-up pictures that I have painted from the hollow reflections of my mother's eyes and the longing in the sound of her voice as it remembered itself still echoing soprano through the Greek choir. Only in my life it intoned the Kaddish (v) and the Kaddish was sung to me as a child to help me fall asleep until my mother could sing no more and pray no more when she decided that real death was better than the praise of it.
And it was a year from the perfect sunny day before Sedar in Salonika or maybe it was longer since the war was longer, that the diplomats successfully negotiated a one for three trade of the valuable foreign-raised, born American and British citizens for the not so valuable Nazi prisoners of war. So Violetta was sent to England and my mother and Dora were shipped to the promise of happiness and luxury at last in America, where they really did walk down a red carpet to streets that are paved with gold and that must be true because my mother told me that the streets were paved with gold. I cannot still see the glittering concrete of New York City without knowing that the glass chips that scrape and cut the skin of every child who plays there are diamonds set in gold for emperors and queens.
And Dora came to the United States with my mother and Violetta was sent to England where she was put in a hospital and there she met a Dutch soldier named Freddie whom she married and they went to live in Holland and they had a son and a daughter the same ages as my older brother and sister. My mother and my father often wrote to Violetta and Freddie telling them about all of the important occasions in our lives and Freddie and Violetta wrote back telling of the same occasions in their lives, but my father and mother never wrote to Violetta and Freddie to tell them that my mother was dying.
From sunny Salonika to filthy nowhere to a camp on the French Mediterranean to a transatlantic cruise to Ellis Island and red carpets and gold and diamond rough streets, my mother began her journey as a survivor when she was born in America, in a building on the corner of Broome and Allen near Delancey Street in an apartment that had its own bathroom in 1920 which is the year that my mother was born with all the rights and privileges of a born American citizen. But they weren't happy in the great America, my mother's parents, they were Sephardic Jews and they were not Ashkenazi Jews and they were accused of being imposter Jews and they wanted to go home where they would at least be treated like real Jews and so they did and so they were.
So it was apparently in the same year as my mother's birth in America that my father who was born in Salonika almost ten years before the birth of my mother began studying in Alexandria, Egypt, where the wealthier Salonika sons did that and his specializations were higher mathematics and languages. At these he excelled. Though to hear them tell about the sunny day before Passover it would seem that there was not even a rumble, when it was the time of the second coming of the German soldiers my father knew that he should not return to Salonika and so, as an interpreter who spoke seven languages, he joined the American Air Force under an American name and became an American Citizen and he was sent to England where he learned to speak English and after the second World War of this century he moved to New York City and became first a dishwasher and then an ILGWU (vi) piece-rate presser in a variety of garment district sportswear factories. He was a non-combatant then and remained so until he died.
So it was also in New York that my mother was living in the home of Rabbi Alberto Matarasso who was a great Sephardic Rabbi, a renown and dedicated scholar, so famous and so loved and so respected and so completely an atheist as a result of all the killing and the dying and the already dead, and he introduced my mother to my father because she was almost over twenty-five years old which meant certain spinsterhood and my father was a good and pious man from the same town of Salonika and they would know how to be married to each other so they were and love grew between them to what extent it could.
There are three of us, their children, and I am the youngest. I knew the names of my father's parents who would have been my grandparents if they had not stopped before I started or if I had been there which I was not. Jacob and Dulce, my older brother and sister, acknowledge by their names the certain but uncertain fact of the death of my father's family. When I was growing up my father sent checks to his old address in Salonika to help his unmarried sister to have a dowry and the checks were never returned and I don't know if they were ever cashed or by whom if they were, but that is real because my mother told me about it one day to try to make me understand that my father was really a very loving man and it was just that he could not give himself to me. Then and even now it made me angry because there was so little for the living that I hated living with all the dead in every face and every shoulder and every kiss.
During the first night of the Shivah for my father after the evening minyan left our house in New York, my mother's brother, my Uncle Eli, his second wife my Aunt Marilyn, my mother's friend from the boxcar Dora, and her husband Jack, and my sister and I, sat around the dining room table and Dora and my Uncle Eli told us some of the story of the death train and some of the story of the holding camp in Vitelle Vogue and I wrote some of it down.
Although they were separated, my Uncle Eli was eventually sent to the same holding camp at Vitelle Vogue as my mother and Dora and Violetta. My Uncle had a stolen uniform that allowed him to sneak in and out of the camp and his mission was to go to Paris where he changed from his uniform into civilian clothes with an American Flag where his yellow star should have been to signify that he was an American Citizen. And he was conducting negotiations at the Swiss Embassy to establish Swiss Citizenship for 100 Polish Jews who were being held in a different section of the same camp because everyone knew that Polish Jews did not have the same trade value as American Jews and British Jews, and everyone knew that the Polish Jews would be killed.
My mother knew that my Uncle was going to Paris and she and Dora kept hearing rumors that they were going to be sent to soon America, so somehow, through some unexplained network, she sent word to my Uncle that she wanted him to buy her a pair of red shoes in Paris so that she could have them when she got to America. My Uncle received my mother's message and although it was within the World War and it was never really explained how, he was able to buy the red shoes and smuggle them back to my mother in the camp and she did have them when she came to America.
But my uncle was captured in Paris before his mission was completed and when the hundred Polish Jews learned that their only hope had been captured, they all jumped from the windows of their barracks to their certain deaths. It was two days before D-Day when my uncle was captured and he survived and so it may certainly be assumed that the 100 Polish Jews would have survived too. And now I have been to Paris and on my first day in Paris I walked along the Champs Elysees and I purchased a new pair of blood red shoes so that I would have them to wear in America and although I wore them on the Champs Elysees, I have never been able to bring myself to wear them in America.
And there are so many more people and so many more stories. All of the members of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America carrying all those Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, French, Arabic and Hebrew surnames held proudly from before the Inquisition that make them always and unmistakably intertwined in these feelings. Thirty-two men with hollow eyes and surnames like Alhadeff, Davidas, Barocas, Benaroya, Mizrahi, Soury, Benardete, Angel, Matarasso, de Sola Pool, Gadol, Levy, Ezrati, Calvo, Cardozo, Nessim, Besso, Farhi, Behar, Shaloum, Maimon, Perahia, Mendes, Benezra, Nahoum, Rousso, Sustiel, Moché, Almelech, Toledano, Eskanazi, DeLeon, meeting on the morning of the third Sunday of each month to continue an organization that once helped Sephardim like my father and like so many other survivors adjust and assimilate to life in the United States, but now has lost almost all of its original purposes except to give a bit of tzedakah (vii), a few scholarships, and mainly to engage in the purchase of large blocks of cemetery plots so that the survivors from the same places may be buried in the same places within the old traditions and within the old ways.
The Brotherhood was home to Lily Assael who we called Miss Lily, and whose great achievement was surviving the war and teaching music to young Sephardim like me and also like Murray Perahia (viii) when we were children. She had small hands and tattooed arms and she survived Aushwitz because she could crochet fine socks and hats for the German soldiers and officers and more important, she could play concert piano for the soldiers and officers and, most useful of all, she could play the accordion which enabled her to lead the marching band that accompanied the already dead Jews on their final march to the showers. And so Miss Lily always tried to teach her female students how to crochet and to convince all of her piano students to learn how to play the accordion. And although most of us declined to learn to play the accordion my sister who no longer remembers how to play the piano did learn to crochet very well and I have never stopped learning how to play the piano and I have never stopped entertaining the German soldiers and officers.
And so even my great love of music has always been a great love of death and survival and I learned it well until it almost destroyed me. But when the Nazis come again, as they always do, I know that I have learned it all very well and I will be ready. I know all of the fatal fanfares and I will play them for the Nazis and again for the Jews, and again I will survive my death. Yet, how can I survive what has not happened to me? Because for me what really is already happened before me and somehow I just missed being there on that perfect sunny day before Sedar in Salonika during the second World War of this century.
But finally in these tellings some of the horror is gone. I no longer dream of all those dead ribcages and thighbones held together by crusted brown dead flesh that I watched with my family after dinner on public television when I was a child. And I wondered which of the baked burnt bony bodies belonged to my family and I wanted to jump into the heaps of carcasses and be with them in their deaths because to hear it told, on that sunny day before Sedar in Salonika during the second World War of this century, their lives were happier than mine had ever been and I would rather have been dead with their memories than alive with my own.
And so it was after twenty five years of my life that Violetta and Freddie came to the United States to visit so that Violetta could be reunited with my mother and with Dora. Violetta telephoned from her hotel and my grieving orthodox father who knew that they were coming answered the phone during the second night of Shivah for my mother, which the orthodox are not allowed to do, and I heard his side of the conversation.
"Ah, Violetta, ¿como esta?
¿Lena? Ayer mos enterramos a Lena.(ix) "
There was a silence and I found myself smiling with my father as if we'd played a practical joke on someone. My mother did not want Violetta to know about her five year cancerous comatose respirator driven deathlife. Perhaps she thought Violetta would come too soon and she thought she would recover and perhaps she thought Violetta would not come at all if she knew. And my father said no more to Violetta and he held the phone out to me as he suppressed the almost embarrassed smile that was escaping through his eyes in answer to my more overt conspiratorial expression.
And so I spoke to Violetta for the first time as if I had always known her and as if we had shared so many memories because we did share them and my gladness in hearing her real voice as I had always imagined it to be was a part of the happiness and excitement that was within the smile of my words. Speaking in English the words that she already understood but could not fathom or absorb in Ladino I gave her again the certain knowledge of my mother's final ending and of our shared grief and peace in this real truth.
And Violetta hesitated in the face of my mother's real death and thought perhaps that she would not come to our home and observe the Shivah with my family and with Dora and with Dora's husband Jack, but it was our destiny to be together in this time of real death and so she and Freddie came to our home that night for the real reunion in life that had always been the real dream of these three women, and my mother was one and Dora and Violetta were the other two.
And Dora and Violetta were together in life, and the spirit of my mother was with them too as I was with them in my sharing of this joy. And I explained to Violetta with Dora's affirming eyes nodding her knowing and complete support, that my mother did not want Violetta to know that she was sick and dying. Perhaps my mother was afraid that Violetta would come only to see her finally dying after surviving a hate greater than cancer, and perhaps my mother was afraid that Violetta would not come if she knew that she would see my mother really dying for the utter certainty of mortality can defy the will to survive. And Violetta understood my mother's futile hope and the survivors' dilemma and she understood this death and she understood our need to celebrate my mother's liberation with her.
"You know what I cannot get in Holland?" Violetta announced while we violated the Shivah and sat on chairs at the dining room table after both the Sephardic and Hasidic minyans left for the evening eating the dessert that she and Freddie brought (x), "I cannot get a good dish of bamyah (xi) "
So I told her about a terrific restaurant in Brooklyn that served plates of bamyah more delicious than even my mother's and we drove in a car from my parents home in Forest Hills Queens to Park Slope in Brooklyn and ate bamyah in an unkosher restaurant during the Shivah and then we drove to Dora's home in Bayside Queens so that Violetta could see Dora's American home and meet her oldest American daughter Vivian. (xii)
And so in this gathering and in this laughter and in this reunion of all of us who seemed to have always known each other in life and in death, my mother could not have been better honoured. So Violetta did not mourn my mother in any of the traditional ways and Dora, who sat with my mother's comatose body for all the days of the death-life they knew so well, Dora celebrated on that night too, and so did I. And now there must be a way of ending. It is time for a way of ending. It was just over twenty years ago that the magical night of the Shivah reunion between Dora and Violetta and the spirit of my mother through me took place. I took several photographs during that evening of mourning and put them away in a box. After hearing of the certain death of Dora's oldest daughter Vivian in 1995, I sent copies of the pictures to her and to her husband Jack with a Chanukah card, and Dora wrote back to me saying that these pictures of our coming together, which was only three weeks after the death of Dora's youngest child my friend Yale, brought back many wonderful memories of happier times.
And this is the real truth of my story for within these tellings are the memories of happier times, when each moment is remembered for its own sake and not held captive to the moments before and after. And it may certainly be assumed that what is remembered is real, and what is remembered may not be the same as what is known or what really happened, but what is remembered is held always within moments of time, like fragments of light on pieces of glass that reflect their truths on all of us whose memories are linked forever to the memories of those who survived, those who died, those who live, and to the memories of those who will follow us. And so we shall never forget ourselves in this life and in this death for each of us even as broken and shattered pieces of glass still reflects the whole prism of light, the whole of what is possible in life.
i.Ladino "Happy entry into the [Passover] festival!"
ii.Afternoon and evening prayers.
iii.Ladino: Hands of gold.
iv.Hebrew: The formal Jewish mourning period beginning on the day of the funeral and lasting, traditionally, for seven days.
v.Prayer said for the dead that extolls G-d and praises life.
vi.International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
vii.Loosely translated to mean charity, the term actually expresses a variety of ways to give to others and to the world.
viii.Murray Perahia is a world renown concert pianist, recording artist and musical scholar.
ix.Oh, Violetta, how are you? Lena? Yesterday we buried Lena.
x.During a Shivah, the grieving family sits on hard surfaces, usually crates, as part of the pain of their grief. Sitting in comfort on regular chairs is prohibited. During my mother's Shivah, in her honour, and because my father was highly regarded by both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations he attended, evening services were held at our home so that my father could participate in them.
xi.A Greek dish made of Okra, spices and fresh tomato sauce. The word is also generically used to mean okra.
xii.Dora had three children roughly the same ages as my brother, sister and I. Yale, the youngest, died of stomach cancer at the age of twenty-one, three weeks before my mother died. Vivian, the oldest, died in 1995, at forty-nine, of a heart ailment. Linda survives.
"Surviving the Survivors" November 16/17, 2003 - Miriam Jaskierowicz Arman
Surrounded by the overwhelming power of death, the one who lives, senses the repugnant draw into the world below. Torment on earth…living in hell…
Where am I ? I wonder, how man, whom G-d has created with such great love in perfection, can dehumanize himself, his flesh, his senses to such a degree, allowing atrocities beyond measure to occur..
Where were YOU?
YOU did not KNOW??
Evil is not a word sufficient, for what men have done to their fellow…there is no language that can express or describe the masks of death, strewn in mass graves. Bodies not recognizable, burned, severed from all human vision, degraded in life and defiled in death. . Children’s innocence, devoured by human animals, feasting on game..
What minds can conceive such fiendish, monstrous cruelty, such destruction of flesh, worse than genocide can fathom…from where arise the capabilities of such brutality and viciousness?? Words fail to describe these horrendous acts, and elicit unspeakable grief from those trying to comprehend, to make sense of something that reaches beyond the tolerance of the human psyche.
Screaming walls surround me, faceless skeletons, wailing infants ripped from their mother’s bottoms. The pictures I see, carve craters of anguish into my sensibilities, crushing my soul . . An immense lifelessness envelops me and I experience a sadness, which fills my essence with the understanding, that G-d has turned away from his children, from his chosen..
Tears sting my face; anger burns inside, …my G-d, my G-d why? When you annihilated Sodom and Gomorra, you saved the one who was righteous…What about the millions, what was their crime against you, against the world, to be deserving of the tortures of their souls, their bodies, their very beings??…Why why???
My faith cries out…Injustice. . Dare I doubt? Where are you Hashem when your folk burned, when thrown into the graves of thousands, their bones broken, their spirits shamed by the heinous crimes of their captors? …How many deaths can one see, how much depravation can one human being absorb, without completely being destroyed? The Living Dead. .
How does one silence the angst inside, the knowledge that in a moment life collapses, ceases, How can one live??? ..
And who are those who survive? And Do they really???
What can life be, after you have seen atrocities beyond human grasp. . Where is honor, where is love? Where is feeling? How can you on believe, trusting, How???
Can you ever heal the mind of the memories, the images, and the torment? Can happiness and joy ever blot out the agonies experienced?
For the first time, I understand my life - these deep needs to be loved, held, comforted, made to feel safe. .
My heart bleeds for all who survived, it mourns the dead, but bleeds for the SURVIVOR! Survival fathered me. I too am a survivor …I am surviving my own life, without real warmth and caring, feeling a guilt that defies explanation, always thinking, that I can never make up for all that vanished in their lives without a trace. . lost in my own world - yet not belonging to theirs.
Has hell opened its gates to swallow the evil of man? Is there a reward for souls who flew on angels wings to do your bidding???.
Why was I born of the flesh that so brutally pained? Of the sin of sins committed against all humanity…who am I to atone for such sinister deeds and where are the answers to endless questions plaguing my soul?
I carry the burden of that blood in my veins, and there is no where to hide. I must forgive those who have hurt me so greatly …they did not mean to! I must understand their ever present nightmares, how deeply the rancor burns inside every cell of their bodies…I must forgive their not knowing how to cope in a world, that forgot their existence and closed their eyes, negated their suffering…How could they know?? …There was no one to teach them how to be parents…they did their best. . their very best!
The mind does not forget horror…it does not forget revulsion, nausea, disgust. . Forever are the images imprinted, never to be expelled, never to be erased, vivid today as then. .
Every day, I see the movie of my life before my eyes…every day of my life, she said. . I looked at her and saw my mother. . her tears, her hysteria, her fears and screams, her intolerance, her selfishness, her insecurity, her memories, her internal devastation, her conflicts. . Her coldness, her inability to truly give of herself and love, and for the first time, I understood it.
I am removed from the actuality of having SEEN with my own eyes, not having witnessed by being there, but all the pain and sorrow, the wails of the dying and the mutilated, ring in my ears and storm through my veins. It came into me, all of it, through the feeding placenta in my evolution.
Never before today, did I understand so totally, the terrible truth buried inside my psyche. My minds eye has seen the pictures, listened to the stories, compiled and completed thoughts and feelings a thousand times over again. . for years.
I thought I had conquered.
I MUST SURVIVE THE SURVIVORS!!…
I must create and work toward an understanding of never forgetting my awesome heritage. . “Branded crests of my fathers burned upon my breast”, I wrote once.
My life belongs with the fallen, with the battered, with the believers. . I am their flesh, their soul, I am their voice, I am their future…I am their revenge, I am their blessing, I am their mother, their father, sister, brother, I am their child, I am each and every one of them…the lost ones, the forgotten, the beaten, the battered, I am the raped, the broken, I am the daughter of my people.
I accept myself as a part of them and I live to tell their stories, to those who will hear and to those who will not. G-d gave me the voice; the words…I will survive them and they will forever live!!!
"A Daughter's Legacy" - first appearing in The Jewish Press, 1995 - Sandra Hurtes
This year, 1995, is the golden Anniversary of my parents' liberation from concentration camps. Out of all the family stories my mother has told me, the day of her liberation from Auschwitz is one I've never forgotten.
My mother and her fellow prisoners woke up one morning in an eerily quiet bunk and knew by the silence that something had changed. They searched the building, looking for SS Guards, but instead they saw Russian soldiers running toward their camp, laughing and dancing wildly. The soldiers charged into the bunk and cried out joyfully, "Te Svebodna," (You're free.) A handsome soldier lifted my mother off her feet, and although she was just skin and bones, he kissed her cheeks and told her she was beautiful.
My mother was a beauty. When I was a toddler, we'd make our way up and down Utica Avenue, stopping that butcher, the baker, the corner grocer, and in each store keeper we "finagled" with my mother found an avid audience. The effects of the war had left their mark on her, and while her internal scars were not to be taken lightly, she was a fascinating mix of radiance and sorrow. To the outside world her charm was an emblem. She was a heroic survivor who almost always wore a smile. But my youthful sensitivity and our close knit relationship made me privy to the sadness that was hidden in her heart.
Soon after she met and married my father, she came to America, leaving behind her brothers and sisters, who had all emigrated to Israel. Through out my childhood I learned all there was to know of my Israel I cousins through the endless stream of letters and Pictures that traveled back and for the between our apartment in Brooklyn and their homes in Haifa. Whenever I saw the light blue envelopes edged with zig zag stripes in the mailbox, I knew I would lose my mother for a while, as she sat at the kitchen table, reading her letters through watery eyes and heavy sighs.
When she was through with her letters she'd beckon me to her lap, and we would sit together on her favorite chair where she would weave a tapestry of stories to me - stories which took me back to her childhood home in Sasfala, a shtetl in Czechoslovakia, up to her teen years when her mother died, and then to a place called Auschwitz and a man called Hitler. As I listened to the stories I grappled with the mystery of how one Person named Hitler could have killed so many Jews. My parents' one concession to modern life - the television - provided the answer.
Late Saturday afternoons my brother and I would sit in front of the Magnavox watching Chiller Theater on Channel 11. One particular episode was called The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. As the giant woman stalked the city, crushing apartment buildings cars, and throngs of People with one footstep, I then understood how Hitler could have done it. He was a fifty foot giant.
When I was about seven, my Parents took me to see a movie that actual footage of the war. It was called Mein Kampf The Pictures then became indelibly engraved in my mind so that I would never forget the sight of bodies, skinnier than nails, heaped one on top of the other. Among them even children. I loyally mourned for them and for all the lives that were no more. I would lie in my bed at night and think about death and how it felt to walk into an oven big enough to hold people and how it felt to be baked alive.
In 1961 when Adolph Eichmann was captured, he became the victim of my silent rage. I plotted my revenge by picturing all the Jews in the world walking past him as he sat strapped in an electric chair. Each person would pass an electric current through him, but with not enough power to kill him. That was the torture - he would sit their not knowing when his moment of death would come. I wanted him to suffer as my Parents had, and my grandparents, and my father's four brothers whose sweet, wet kisses I would never know.
This year as the world pays homage to the survivors of the holocaust and commemorates the memory of those who died, I'm acknowledging that the legacy I carry as the daughter of survivors has been a formidable one.
When I was growing up I desperately wanted to restore the happiness that was so bitterly stolen from my parents' lives. I was a good daughter and almost never made waves. I didn't want to cause them any more pain, nor did I want to stir the guilty waters I tread whenever I did. My parents wanted a life for me that held no sadness, but as they placed all their hopes and dreams for the future in my hands, unknowingly, they created a horrible dilemma for me - how would I ever separate from people for whom separation feels like grave loss and abandonment? I couldn't, and for many years my Parents' needs remained at the forefront of my life.
When I was in my mid 20's, I went through my first major life crisis, a divorce. The painful situation forced me to look closely at myself for the first time. I realized that my bond with my parents was so tight, it allowed no room for anyone else. My marriage hadn't stood a chance. I began then the very painful process of separation. Perhaps because I got started so late, or because of years of unspoken feelings being stored up, I did it with such a vengeance, that all parties concerned are still hoping I'll simmer down.
My anger remains and frequently spills over, especially when I feel my own needs being submerged by the neediness I sense in my parents. For many years, I ran from my fear of being swallowed up by cutting all ties to them and by keeping everyone else a safe distance away. It didn't work. I couldn't live without the closeness of others, and my need to have a relationship with my parents was extraordinary. I had to find another way.
One thing I had to do was let myself off the guilty hook by acknowledging that no matter how much love passes from myself to them, it could never be enough to heal their wounds. The only ones I could make a dent in are my own, and healing them involves creating a life that knows more joys than sorrow. This is my great challenge, especially as I make choices that re in the best interest of only myself, choices which move me further way from being the good daughter I was supposed to be.
As I struggle to come to terms with the anger, guilt and love that I feel for my parents, the worldwide attention that they and al the survivors are receiving this year has presented me with a wonderful opportunity to do this. The compassionate yet detached viewpoint of others has enabled me to see another side of my parents and to acknowledge the heroism inherent not only in their survival but in their capacity to go on with their lives.
When they were liberated they reached for life with a tenaciousness I've yet to see in others and accepted the most unacceptable of circumstances in order to moved beyond them. The resolution of my own conflicted feelings may not lie in getting rid of them, but in living with them, and moving forward in spite of them.
Like it or note, the Holocaust has been the binoculars through which I've viewed my life. Perhaps the greatest paradox of my legacy is that while I am never without the foreboding knowledge that a life can be destroyed in a moment's notice, I'm never without the hope of how magnificently that life can be reclaimed. - END -
"Breaking With Tradition" - first appearing in New Age Magazine, 2000 - Sandra Hurtes
The quiet envelops me like a hug in my ninth floor apartment where the sounds of traffic and crying babies don't reach. Yet it will soon be broken by a cacophony of stomps and claps and song. Simchas Torah celebrations will send men, women and children swaying and singing in front of the synagogue at my corner. Billowy skirts will flare out, and dark suited arms will stretch to reach about the shoulders of those who dance a circle around a Torah, the core sacred Jewish text.
Each autumn, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur welcome in the Jewish New Year with a Period of quiet reflection. Two weeks later Simchas Torah celebrations break through the air like a thunderbolt. Jews worldwide pay homage to the Torah as they begin its yearlong ceremonial reading.
As a Jew who has spent my life shunning my roots, I'm shocked at the primal surge shooting from my belly down into my limbs in my desire to belong to this holiday's festivities and become one with its displays of ritual, custom and noise.
Unraveling the layers of my memory, I see Judaism as I learned it as a child. Seated at the dinner table in our apartment in Brooklyn, my father and brother wore their yarmulkes, my brother's a tiny, crocheted circle of rayon fibers, my father's wide and satin. If the doorbell rang while we were having dinner, if it was a neighbor or friends, or sometimes a Jehovah's Witness, my father's and brother's hands would fly to their heads, removing the round caps from their hair in one movement so swift, so synchronous, like shadows of each other. A stranger to earth, an alien, would have thought that was the way men said hello on this planet, the custom. Reach atop the head and curl into a ball a cap then hide it within the palm, removing all trace.
In the privacy of our home we displayed our symbols. But outside, in our Crown Heights neighborhood, which was like a crazy quilt of religions, we tried to assimilate, blending in with the Protestants and Catholics and Lutherans, and especially the American Jews.
My parents, Holocaust survivors, had immigrated to America from Czechoslovakia after their liberation from concentration camps. Memorials and blockbuster movies about the Holocaust didn't exist when I was growing up. We hid our Jewishness, blending in with the Protestants and Catholics and even the American Jews, who spoke unaccented English, and did not bear numbers on their wrists.
My father's parents and four brothers had been gassed by Hitler. My mother's family had survived the camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. To the outside world she smiled. But when we were alone, while my father and brother were in synagogue, she filled me with stories of molestations, and the showers which pounded the women's heads like needles. Sometimes she'd bend her head down before me, spreading her ringlets apart with her fingers. I saw the patches of bald spots, where, as a girl, she'd been hit with rocks on her way to school and called Jew, like it was a curse.
My father's pain was deep, although he didn't speak of it. I sensed it in the way he smiled so that his lips spread ever so slightly, but never fully across his face, and in his self-effacing apologies. He found his voice in his prayers each morning when he stood before the windows, leaning into his prayer books and kissing the fringes of his talis. Swaying back and forth as if in a trance, he communed in a language that seemed to reach beyond the dimensions of time. Images I'd seen in Mein Kampf, a film with actual footage of the war, swam before my eyes - hands reaching toward outstretched fingers as a train disappeared into a cloud of smoke; dead, naked bodies, heaped in piles, their bones pressing through their skin; tanks roaring through villages spitting mud in people's faces. The movement of my father's body swirled in me like a top, and I imagined his parents and four brothers rising through the mountain of skeletons like lava from a volcano.
When my father and brother were out at night, my mother and I sneaked out for Chinese, although we were kosher. We sat in a corner of a darkened restaurant like spies, ordering one from Column A, one from Column B, and sharing one bowl of wonton soup between us. We saved the slivers of pork for last, chewing them slowly, embedding their taste in our memory. On the way home my mother would remind me, it was our secret.
The daily rhythms of our lives were a hush. But on holidays, when all religions celebrated in full view, we felt free to do the same. Menorah candles burned in front of our windows on Chanukah so that all the neighborhood could find us. Before Passover my mother went to the market and loaded the shopping cart with so much Matzo, the boxes almost toppled into the aisles. Our Jewishness was so big others could trip over it. At our Seder when my Israeli cousins joined us, we drank sweet wine and sang at the top our lungs, our voices drunk on life and family, echoing through the courtyard.
During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur my parents' jewelry store had a large sign on the door, "Closed for Religious Observance." My mother and I walked to synagogue, my gold, charm bracelet clattering against my wrist. The hairs of her wool suit brushed against my arm. I felt a confusing mixture of loyalty and shame as she pressed me close, and we passed my friends, Jews among them, playing ringolevio on a day when God was watching.
In synagogue I gave thanks for my life and for my family's. Still, sadness was often closer to me than my best friend. I grew into a young woman who hid from life, so that joy had a hard time finding me. When I left my parents' home I traced the roots of my sorrow to the stories my mother had told me and my father's silent prayers. I pulled away from my parents and from Judaism, which I saw as a language of suffering. I closed the door, too, on the celebrations which had once given me joy, not understanding why on holidays when the air was thick with tradition, I'd ache to sip sweet wine from a fluted glass, and toast the night with song.
Every year at this time, I watch from my window as a crowd dances around a Torah. I imagine myself flying down the stairs to kiss the scroll with my fingertips, and thread my fingers through those of others, announcing that I am a Jew. But instead I Pull my head in from the window, telling myself, "That's silly." Now, remembering the feel of my body straining against my will, I wonder if when Simchas Torah arrives this year, I'll break free from the confines of my ninth floor apartment, to join the crowd as it kicks up its heels and stamps the earth with blessings. - END -
Blue Velvet Dress - 1996 - Judy Meschel
She sobbed under the pup-tent on the edge of the border between Hungary and Austria. She had not cried when the Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Budapest. She had not cried as she stuffed the family photos in her back pocket, nor when she was suffocating with her family in a truck full of rotten cabbage. But the truck would only take them so far, and the only guide willing to smuggle them across the border to the west demanded her blue velvet dress in payment.
The dress had been made for her for graduation by her boyfriend's mother. Her boyfriend's mother had been a seamstress before the war, but even she had not seen material so fine. The seamstress had kept the dress by her bed while it was still in pieces so she could stroke it in the night and remember life before the war.
The fabric had been part of a whole bolt brought back from Italy in 1931. It was a gift from a husband to a new bride, and he intended that his wife make an opera gown out of it. The style was slim and fitted that year, and almost half of the whole bolt remained even after the gown and its matching wrap made their debut at the opening night of The Merry Widow. The remainder was saved for the little girl he hoped to have.
The little girl came, and so did the war. The fabric was buried with the family silver under the chicken coup to hide it from the Germans. After the war, the little girl wrapped and unwrapped the butcher paper protecting the material, waiting for her father's return. He never came.
The Soviets came instead, with their gray wool uniforms and their blood-red flags. She had held those flags at the May Day parade; she was always in front, for she was the shortest. One year, she handed the flag to a fellow marcher, promising to be right back after going to the bathroom. She never returned.
And now she sat under a tarp, in refitted men's trousers, with nine others in a mine-ridden forest, missing her dress. Her boyfriend's mother sat down next to her.
"I will make you another one," she said, patting the girl's shoulder. "It was too short to be fashionable."
"It was perfect as it was." They had argued about the hem-line since the moment graduation was imminent. The girl had wanted to use as much material as possible, which had made the dress almost ankle-length. Long or short, the seamstress had been proud to send her son to her graduation party with blue velvet on his arm.
Her boyfriend waited watched and waited.
He watched the guide build a fire when darkness fell. His wards cowered in the darkness as he drank and spilled his vodka. He sang as a sausage smoked and sputtered in a pan.
The boyfriend snickered to himself at the guide's country accent. He held muted conversations with himself in dialect, which reminded him of the gypsy musicians he had played with in the army band. He wondered where they were now. He sat up when the guide yelped in his sleep.
He looked at his mother and girlfriend, dozing in a huddle. He crawled toward the guide, focusing on the guide's pillow. The burning embers popped, and he held his breath. The guide remained asleep. He eased his hands beneath the guide's head and replaced the blue velvet pillow with cabbage. He stared at the pockmarks on the guide's face. The rain began to fall.
He stuffed the dress in his shirt and crawled toward the tent, where two wide, sparkling eyes watched. As his eyes met hers, he saw her as she had looked on the night of graduation. She had posed for a photo in front of the piano. She had twirled in the living-room, higher and lower to make patterns with the swirling skirt. She had cried when he asked her if she would be willing to flee to the west. She had cried then as she cried now.
All at once, the guide's voice rang out.
"No time for making love, time to walk further."
He stomped on the fire as they all struggled to their feet.
They walked for hours in the cold, clear night. Occasionally, the guide sniffed for land mines. He stopped when he saw the lights through the trees, flickering white and red.
It was a billboard. It was lit by the sun as well as by neon bulbs.
It said "Drink Coca Cola."