My mother, blessed be her memory, lived for more than nine decades. She lived and was personally effected by WWI, the First Woman Revolution, WWII and the Holocaust, displacement and post war German reconstruction, immigrating to the United States and learning how to speak and write in English, both which she accomplished well, to the point where in her late sixties she was starting to write poems. She and my father also started a real estate business, which has grown and prospers. Most important of all loved and raised two sons, who in turn begot five grandchildren, and had she lived a few more days, she would have received the news that a great-great grandchild is on the way.
To live, to survive, to succeed through such tumultuous and traumatic events you have to be remarkable. My mother was a very remarkable woman. She was very intelligent, courageous to the point of being heroic, determined, and hard working. Measured in terms of her accomplishments you also would call her a feminist, although she never used that word in herself. She was also a beautiful looking woman. She had sparkling blue-gray eyes, creamy smooth white skin, full auburn hair, a good figure, and sensuous full lips. She was very photogenic and used her womanly wiles whenever she thought it would help her cause. Although never afraid to seek out advice, she was skeptical and realistic, and always made up her own mind.
I don’t know the exact year my mother was born. On the ten-day ocean voyage from Bremen, Germany to New York a few years were lost. This is better than plastic surgery and certainly far less expensive. Of course you have to wait a few years longer for the social security checks to arrive, but by then she didn’t need that money. Upon her arrival in the States, in November of 1951, her official age was listed as 37 and she was the mother of a two year old boy called Chaim, now Harry, and a 14 year old called Bernhard, now Bernard. Based on these facts this would mean that I was born when she was twenty-two years old. We all know she was older than that.
When she married, say at the age of 27, she was a mature worldly person, with a strong faith in God and a small self-made fortune, which she contributed to her marriage as her dowry.
The fact that she was wealthy after having been orphaned twice in the early years of her life is a testament to her willingness to work hard, to her good business sense and to her honesty and loyalty to her customers and suppliers.
She gave up her business when she married and devoted herself to being a wife, mother and a caregiver to my father who had become ill. I was a difficult child. I was frequently sick and an extremely poor eater. Even before WWII started I was a handful, and you can imagine how difficult it was to keep me alive during the Holocaust. While most mothers love their children, her love and dedication to me was extreme. I’m tempted to say – unprecedented. If it would save my life she would voluntarily have walked into the gas chamber. But the Nazis wanted to kill us both and also my father after they had extracted from him every ounce of his strength. That was the dilemma, that was the struggle. In order to save me she had to save herself and my father.
I would now like to recount an abridged version of one of the many escapes in which my mother planned. I will end with reading of a poem which describes our situation after that event.
“Mother and son are walking past sun drenched fields of wheat, barley, and oats in amber hues. Polish soil certified cleansed of Jews. Fuel is scarce and wheat is harvested, as it was a hundred years ago. Men swing scythes, women and youngsters gather stalks which are tied into bundles with rough ropes. These bundles leaned against each other, in a circle, form tents. These golden tents will stand against an open sky until the sheaths are dry and then thrashed to make the kernels fly.
Mother and son want to survive another day. Their plan is simple. From village to village on dirt roads they walk. To the farmers, in good Polish dialect they explain that Germans had forced them and other Poles, off a train. Could they stay the night and rest? For this plan to work at twilight they would have to beg. "We are hungry and tired," they would say, "the next farm is far away." This evening things do not go well. Surly and suspicious, the farmer's wife says, “Go away.” Some Poles take pride in saying they can smell a Jew a mile away. Later, Mother says, "Tonight we must sleep outside. Go ahead, sit in a tent you like. I will be in one on the other side. Don't worry, dogs will not trouble us tonight. Be sure to pray the Shema."
Mother, I promise you I will always say the Shema.