Category Archives: Family history

Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.

I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.

No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.

This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.

That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it?  And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”

But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.

Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.

I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”

These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?

Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.

Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

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Born in America

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

As a boy I learned Hebrew while sitting in
a cramped, stifling second-floor classroom
on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday
mornings, chalk dust in the air and cigarette
smoke mixed with sweat and the stale smell
of ink and old paper, reading Bible stories
from ancient books with dusty yellow pages
and the smell of an exotic, sun-drenched land
rising from between the lines.

The land was called Israel—Eretz Yisrael
in Hebrew—and I was told to call it home,
even though home for me was a split-level
house in northern New Jersey within sight
of the tall spires of Manhattan where my
father worked, and all I knew about Israel
was that it was hot and dusty, a dry land
covered in sand, a place where refugees with
numbers tattooed on their arms came from
Europe’s death camps to build new lives.

I remember how the Hebrew letters felt so
strange on the tip of my tongue and made
the back of my throat swell so that I nearly
choked on the words, and I remember how
I turned the pages hoping my teacher wouldn’t
call on me to read, afraid I’d stumble and trip
in front of my friends over the unfamiliar words.

In the end I learned what I had to learn for
my bar mitzvah, no more, no less, and memorized
all the Hebrew words and how they were supposed
to sound by listening to a record the rabbi had
made, and I repeated the words over and over again
until they sounded like words that came from my
heart, words that I had absorbed in my mother’s
milk as an infant nursing at her breast.

Only I could never convince myself that Hebrew
was really my language. I always felt like an
imposter reading the words, as if the odd-shaped
letters and words belonged to someone else. I was
an American Jew, after all, and, like most Americans,
I spoke English, not Hebrew. And when I walked down
the streets of my suburban town in northern New Jersey,
I foolishly thought that my friends and I were safe
forever from the horrors of the past, and that Israel
served as a haven for others, not for Jews like us
who had been born in America.

How my friends and I had laughed at the idea that
we needed to learn Hebrew. Instead, we dreamed of
playing basketball and throwing a football in a high
spiral on a perfect autumn afternoon and sneaked
peeks across the aisle at the girls, their heads bent
over their books, pretending that we weren’t there,
intent on learning the Hebrew words that all of us
might need one day to strengthen our bonds as Jews.

Bruce Black is is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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Sunday Morning Ritual

by Diana Rosen (Los Angeles, CA)

I am five,
standing eagerly at his side,
my face at my dad’s elbow,
a ready audience for this most
amazing experience: The Shave.

He pulls his nose first right, then left,
his razor whispers scritch-scratch,
edging over his upper lip; then he strokes
down through the shaving cream
leaving even rectangles on his cheeks,
a lawn mower plowing through snow.

Stroke by stroke, vanishing strips of
white foam expose his deeply tanned face.
“Damn,” he swears, as a ribbon of vermilion
winds its way down his deeply-brown chin.

Automatically, I hand him
some toilet paper to sop up
the spoils of the Gillette.
Then comes the part I like best.

He pours into his hands some crackling
cologne from the white crockery bottle
with its tiny neck and the blue sailboat
on the ballooning bottom of the bottle.

The room explodes with the scent
as he slaps it on his face:

Plop!
Plop!
Platt!

And together we say,
“Now that’s a mechayeh.”

[Mechayeh—Yiddish for “a pleasure.”]

Diana Rosen’s flash fiction and poetry have been published in anthologies and journals including, among others, Kiss Me Gooodnight and Altadena Poetry Review, Rattle, Tiferet Journal, Silver Birch Press, Ariel Chart, and Poetic Diversity. She has published thirteen non-fiction books. and teaches freewrite classes at senior citizen centers.

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Unexpected Chesed

by Michael J. Weinstein (Syosset, NY)

“On three things the world depends: Torah study, the service of G-d, and bestowing kindness.”— from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers

I was not brought up very observant, but after a family trip to Israel in 2011, I started to return to Judaism. I have worked as an Investment Advisor for over 20 years and after the financial crisis, I became a survivor of sorts. I found a refuge in learning Torah, particularly the works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, who taught “Never Give Up” and to always look for the good in others and in ourselves. I was told that if Rabbi Akiva could learn after age 40, it was not too late for me.

I knew my great-grandparents were from Pinsk, part of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, and like so many they left to escape the pogroms, the persecutions, the poverty, and the laws separating the Jews from religious freedom. It was my great-grandfather, Meir, who came alone in 1896 and later sent for his wife, Nachama, and their three children in 1900. Meir “Americanized” his name to Morris, and Nechama became Anna. I later learned that Meir had a pushcart, a beard, and a kippah, and davened with the Stoliner shul on the Lower East Side. A few years later, my great-grandparents moved to Brooklyn. It was there that my Grandmother Belle and her sister Dorothy were born. Years later the family was able to afford a two bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway, and the family stayed in Brooklyn until 1976, just after my bar mitzvah, when they left for the Sunshine State of Florida.

It was the memories of my family living in Brooklyn, particularly the Passover seders at 101 Ocean Parkway, that never left my mind. And so after the trip to Israel, I started to learn Torah, to reconnect with the ways of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and the generations before them. I wanted to do something positive but did not know what to do, but prayed to Hashem: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, help me help others.”

Somehow, I turned to Google and typed two words, “Mitzvah” and “Brooklyn,” and pressed the enter key. That’s how I found the Brooklyn “Mitzvah Man,” Michael Cohen, who had produced a video about the importance of mitzvah and helping others. “Providing Chesed to those in need” was his motto, and I volunteered to help.

I didn’t know how a guy like me with a full time job as an investment advisor, living and working about an hour away on Long Island, could help anyone in Brooklyn, but Michael suggested I start by visiting one Holocaust survivor, Ludwig Katzenstein. Michael’s suggestion turned out to be a real blessing, and one mitzvah led to another mitzvah as I volunteered at Friendly Visiting For Holocaust Survivors, a program of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island.  Also, on Thursday nights for almost six months, I volunteered at Aishel Shabbat by delivering boxes of food for Shabbat to needy families, but it became too difficult for me to drive from Long Island during the winter months.

Instead, I decided to step up my visits to the Holocaust Survivors, later meeting over 23 Holocaust survivors, mostly on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. At some point, I visited not only the Holocaust Survivors but nearby Orthodox synagogues all over Brooklyn, in neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Flatbush, and Midwood, and I started taking photos, first with my Samsung Galaxy phone and later with a Nikon camera, intending to someday make a book of 100 Orthodox synagogues of Brooklyn.

I thought about it and realized that my great-grandparents started on the Lower East Side, and later moved to Brooklyn. My grandfather was born in a tenement on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, lost his mother when he was 7, and was sent to live with his older Sister in the Bronx and became a lifetime New York Yankees fan.  My father married and moved from Brooklyn to Briarwood, Queens, where I was born and lived until age 3. I later learned that my great-grandparents are at rest at the United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island. So I actually have roots in all 5 boroughs and decided, with Hashem’s help, to make a book, “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” a coffee table style photo book with 613 color photos of existing Orthodox synagogues.

At some point, I decided to talk to congregations about my visits with the Holocaust Survivors, my journeys into over 60 neighborhoods in the 5 boroughs, and discuss some of the architectural beauty and history of many of these synagogues. Nothing led me to believe that my book would change anything until a few months ago.

I was contacting various synagogues and synagogue presidents and rabbis to see if there was any interest in having me do a free book talk. Upon contacting the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens, I contacted the synagogue president, Avram Blumenthal, and I was told “we’ll get back to you” more than once. I started to question myself. Who was I? Why was I trying to share my story? Why couldn’t I just thank Hashem for the book, etc? After about two months, I called Avram and was told, “Before you say anything, let me tell you what happened.”

I was told that Avram and members of the synagogue were planning a 30th anniversary event to honor the original founders of the congregation and those who designed the sanctuary in 1987. Avram was too busy to buy the book and went on a trip to Israel, where he saw my book on a friend’s coffee table in Jerusalem. When he returned to New York, Avram learned that one of the synagogue’s founders, Lucille Rosenberg (Liebeh Tziviyeh bat Shmuel) who served as the chairperson of the Interior Design Committee and who was battling cancer, was now in a hospice. Lucille was an artist, had a Masters degree in art, and had taught art at Solomon Schechter schools. Avram bought a copy of the book, personally inscribed it to Lucille, and gave it to Lucille’s husband, Abe Rosenberg, who brought it to Lucille.

By the time the book was brought to the hospice, Lucille was non-communicative. Lucille’s loving husband Abe gave the book to Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg and Rebbetzin Karen Hochberg of Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, who were trying to comfort Lucille, talking about Lucille’s accomplishments and showing her the photos of her work. With help from Hashem, Lucille opened her eyes for about a minute and smiled in appreciation. All those present told Lucille that her work was a vital part of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates more than 30 years after its founding. Lucille was also told that her designs are now part of a book that is seen by people in Israel and throughout the world. Abe later told me that Lucille’s smile showed that “she knew the good that she had accomplished.” Lucille was aware of the tremendous chesed, the kindness of others, and Abe expressed his gratitude to all involved.

I am thankful to Hashem that there are good people like Avram Blumenthal, Rabbi & Rebbetzin Hochberg, and of course Abe Rosenberg, Lucille’s loving husband, their friends and family, as well as the staff at the hospice who cared for Lucille in her last days of life. Everyone’s kindness confirmed how important it is, as Pirkei Avot reminds us, to bestow chesed for the world to become whole.

Michael J. Weinstein, grew up in Jericho, Long Island, New York, attending a Conservative Synagogue, the Jericho Jewish Center, and had his Bar Mitzvah in 1976, with his blue velvet leisure suit.  He graduated from Cornell University in 1985 and has had a career as a financial advisor, starting with Merrill Lynch and currently serving as a Director – Investments with Oppenheimer & Co. He continues visiting Holocaust Survivors as a Volunteer.

For more information about Michael Cohen’s project, The Mitzvah Man, in Brooklyn, visit: http://www.themitzvahman.org/

For more information about Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors, visit:  http://www.connect2ny.org/

For more information about Michael J. Weinstein’s book of photographs, Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City, visit:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1612549268/ref=cm_sw_r_em_apa_HhsyBbCEEB794

And to read more of his work, visit: https://www.jewishlinknj.com/features/21952-ten-times-chai-takes-readers-on-a-pictorial-tour-of-the-shuls-of-nyc

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My Return

by Genie Milgrom (Miami, FL)

I clearly remember the day I became a part of the Jewish people. How could I forget? It was the culmination of the four plus years of study for an Orthodox conversion that had once loomed before me with no end in sight. Throughout the period of conversion, I had many fears and frustrations.

I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami so the foods I was used to as staples became forbidden. It took me a long time to slowly let go of the ham and pork, then the milk and meat mixtures (cheeseburgers and lasagna) and finally, because the process took so long, I was able to let go of one shellfish every six months. Shrimp, scallops, lobster and finally crab. Crab was the hardest. I had to change completely what I considered to be my childhood comfort foods yet the drive to be Jewish was stronger than anything I could buy at the grocery store.

The change of identity was overwhelming as I would go from being a Cuban Catholic woman to an Orthodox Jewish one. I had doubts that I could make the leap but I knew that if I was to cause such an upheaval in my life, I needed to convert in a way that would cause no doubts about my Jewishness anywhere in the world . The only choice was the Orthodox Beit Din or Jewish Court.

The period of study was frustrating as well even though I knew that the Rabbis had to reject me again and again as part of the conversion curriculum. Even knowing that and still trying not to take it personally, was extremely difficult. I had to learn to read and write Hebrew, the laws of the Sabbath (several volumes), the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law), the laws of Kashrut, and the laws of family purity. I had to learn all this as one studies for a graduate level class. I learned the laws and I knew them by heart but it was overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to remember them or keep them fully yet all this build up led to one of the most important days of my life. Their mission was to daunt me. My mission was to not be daunted. I won.

It was a rainy and dreary day as I walked into the mikveh building practically squeezing the life out of the hand of my best friend, Bonnie.

The interior was one large square room with several worn-out couches strewn about. I sat on the edge of one of them shaking like a leaf and unsure of what was to come next. I was so scared. It had taken a long time to get to this point, and I had alienated so many people; my family, friends I had grown up with, people who went through thirteen years of Catholic school with me and just about every one else in my life. At that moment, sitting on the edge of that couch, I was literally hanging in mid-air between my Catholic past and my unknown Jewish future. The Catholic past had detached from me through those long conversion years and no one was throwing out a life jacket from the Jewish side. It was a lonely and difficult time and as scared as I was, I was still not daunted.

Slowly, three black clad Rabbis I had never seen before walked in from a back room, sat down and asked me many questions about my beliefs, my intentions, my conviction and my understanding of what I was getting myself into. They asked me if I knew that I would be joining the most hated people on the planet, a people that had been hated for centuries. They asked me if I was aware that infractions of some Jewish laws included stoning during the Temple times and a few others that were just as difficult and thought provoking. I had been unprepared for the questions but I did not find them difficult to answer with full honesty. You don’t crawl through a process that takes longer than four years with your eyes closed. I thought the questions had gone on for over a half hour before they let up but in reality, Bonnie told me that only seven or eight minutes had passed.

I was led into a room and helped into the water of the mikveh by a kindly attendant and once inside the water, the questions started again. The same ones as before but asked with greater intensity. This time, it felt like an hour. I had a recurring fear throughout the conversion that when this moment came, I would have serious doubts but that never happened. I felt stronger than ever in my conviction to join the Jewish people. Finally, I submerged in the water and it was over.

When I stepped into the large hall with my hair still wet, I was met by a long line of Rabbis waiting to get a blessing from my newborn Jewish soul. The line was as endless as the blessings they requested.

All in all, I gave many blessings that day which in turn, blessed me abundantly. My new life as a proud member of the Jewish people had begun yet my soul knew it had finally returned home.

Genie Milgrom has served as past President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, and President of Tarbut Sefarad Fermoselle in Spain. She is the author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, Mis 15 Abuelas, and De la Pirra al Fuego. The books have won the Latin Author Book Awards in 2015 and 2018.

An international speaker, she has spoken at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the return of the Crypto Jews, has been featured in The Miami Herald, Jerusalem Post and many other newspapers, and has been hooded by Netanya Academic College for work on the return of the Crypto Jews. Currently, she is the Director of the International Converso Genealogy Program to digitize Inquisition files world-wide.

A postscript from the author: Due to the research of my family from Spain years after my conversion, I found an unbroken maternal lineage going back to 1405 Pre-Inquisition Spain, and, via a Beit Din in Israel, was declared “Jewish all along.”  I do not regret my conversion period, however, because I always knew I was Jewish. And though the conversion process was difficult, I have come to see with time that it was a necessary period of detox that helped make me who I am today.

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If It’s Friday, It Must Be…

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

If it’s Friday, it must be chicken.  Our family’s Shabbat dinner in South Philadelphia was as ritualistic as Torah law.  The menu was chicken soup, vegetables (cooked in the soup), stewed chicken, challah, and dessert.  The day started with the purchase of the chicken.

The chicken store was one of the many storefronts, often mom and pop shops, that lined several blocks of Seventh Street, the shopping “mall” for South Philadelphia.  The shops on Seventh Street supplied all the necessities of daily living, from hammers to lingerie.  But on Friday morning the chicken store was the busiest, opening at 7 a.m., with some women, early risers, waiting in line for the indoor key to turn.

The chickens were also waiting, clucking nervously and pacing back and forth in their cages, as if they knew their final day had come.  The object of the buyers was to find the chicken with the fullest breasts, meaty thighs, and no visible flaws.  The women went to the cages and pushed their hands into the openings to find the chicken that met these requirements. I wondered how they could find what they were looking for through the flurry of feathers and bouncing chickens.  I was sure these fowls were insulted by this invasion of their privacy.

When the ladies found the chicken they wanted, they held onto its feet so it wouldn’t disappear into the crowd of identical looking poultry.   My mother was not among the early risers, so she had a harder time finding the appropriate bird. I started to accompany her for the chicken-choosing expedition when I was about ten, during school holidays and summers.  I worried that I might have to repeat this ritual when I was a grown-up with a family to feed.

The owner approached the cage, removed the chosen chicken, and handed it to the schochet (ritual slaughterer) for kosher decapitation.  This was done in a back room out of sight of the customers.  I thought about what my school friends said—headless chickens could still walk around—but I left that for myth and never tested it.

The headless chicken was then handed to a woman whose job was to remove the feathers and pinfeathers.  My cousin and I called her “the chicken flicker.”  The now decapitated, feather-free chicken found its way into a brown paper bag and was on its last journey.  The destination, our kitchen sink, then became a hub of activity.   My mother, who always found the flicking inadequate, used a tweezers to remove stubborn pinfeathers.  Although she asked me to help, I usually found an excuse to do something else.

The first task to cleaning the chicken, I knew, was to get out the insides.  I visualized this process on our walk home with distaste and averted my eyes at this surgery.  I marveled that my mother didn’t mind doing it.  I suppose she had no choice, but I never liked taking part in that process. The liver was turned into chopped liver which my father enjoyed the next day for lunch.  The chicken was then submerged in a pot of boiling water, accompanied by companions of carrots and celery, which hours later was transformed into our dinner soup.  Sometimes I watched the soup as it cooked, peering into the steaming pot.  The bright pieces of orange carrots seemed to dance toward each other like goldfish in a fountain.

When there was a non-fertilized egg inside the chicken, it was awarded to me at dinner as the older child. The tiny yellow ball was fuzzy like a miniature baseball. I had no idea of its abbreviated destiny.  The chicken parts were apportioned to the family according to seniority.  My father got the breast, my mother the thighs, my brother the wings and drumsticks, and I shared the thighs with my mother.   At the dinner table, the chicken had the company of the very soft carrots and celery and a boiled potato.  If my mother were ambitious that day, sometimes a kugel substituted for the potato.

Dessert was predictable: one week applesauce, the next week Jello.  Sometimes leftover chicken was transformed into chicken salad for a sandwich lunch the next day. But that wasn’t as absolute as chicken for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

 

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Unexpected Departure, 1938

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

Perhaps due to my age, I was the only member of my family of four who had not been upset about unexpectedly leaving Berlin in April 1938. My parents kept their plans to emigrate a secret from me, fearing that I, a talkative child, might speak out and be heard by a Nazi. My brother, Eric, five years my senior, and I had opposite personalities. He was an introvert. For weeks he had known of the family’s plans and was treated as an adult. … and I …  as an afterthought.

I saw the horrors in the streets of Berlin, especially toward old, religious-looking Jewish men. Some were beaten, punched in the face, pulled by their long curly side-locks, flowing black robes, dragged by their legs through the streets or by the tzitzit of their prayer shawls. It made me shudder and wonder what the future held for Jews in Germany.

When walking in the street it was common to hear thunderous sounds from blocks away of soldiers marching in high brown shiny leather boots, displaying the swastika armband on their brown shirts, and waving flags while marching on the cobblestone pavements. Besides the noise of goose-stepping soldiers, the storm troopers sang their patriotic songs in high decibel. Knowing the Nazis would be within our sight in a few moments, Mutti always quickly pulled me into a building’s doorway in order not to be seen. It was mandatory to salute the flag or be instantly arrested.

“Mutti, when will this stop?” I asked innocently.

She looked at me sadly and said, “I don’t know.” Mutti always seemed to know everything. With that realization, my perception of where I lived changed. To this day I cringe when hearing marching music, and I am wary of the display of flags. Nationalism frightens me. In my geography class in Berlin, I became intrigued about that fascinating land, America, “The land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold.” I was a cynic, even at such an early age. I didn’t believe the gold part, but dreamed of living in “The Land of Opportunity” and freedom.

I was not made aware of my parents’ plans to leave Berlin and travel to America until a week before our departure. Suddenly, large wooden crates appeared in our living room. It was then that my parents finally explained their agenda. I was happy and excited to escape Hitlerland, but the timing was too abrupt. I questioned myself. How will we live there? I don’t know English. How will people understand me? I’ll feel stupid in school.

My main misgiving was how I would tell my best friend, Ruthchen, that I’m moving to America. We’d been close, like sisters, since kindergarten: half of our lives. How will I say goodbye to her? The most serious question in my mind was: Will I ever see her again?

The difficult job was to convince my parents that I must say Auf Wiedersehen to Ruthchen. In 1938, Jews in Germany were always on alert when outside the safety of their home. (A year later, after Kristallnacht, there were no secure places.) Both families discussed the request and finally agreed for Ruthchen and me to meet; possibly for the last time of our young lives.

After all these years, I can still conjure the image of my dearest friend standing with her mother on the platform of the Berlin train station for the last goodbye. Our mothers had lectured each of us to control our emotions. For young girls, not yet eleven-years-old, that was difficult. We were also instructed not to bring the usual farewell gifts of flowers and chocolates.

It was a cool and sunny day that April in Berlin when we met at the railroad terminal. I remember Ruthchen dressed in a wool pleated navy skirt and hand-knit light blue jacket (to match her big, sparkling eyes), her blond curls escaping from her beanie hat that framed her round, sweet face. I probably wore something similar.

I recall clearly how our mothers were attired. Both wore well-tailored dark wool suits. Each had a fox (the entire animal, from head to tail) draped nonchalantly over their shoulders. The mouth of the animal was fashioned into a clothespin, to which the tail was secured. That look both fascinated and abhorred me. When I was very young, I hoped that the animal with its soulful eyes would loosen the clip somehow and spring from Mutti’s shoulder to freedom. To complete the outfit, they wore Marlene Dietrich type felt fedoras, leather gloves, purses, and clunky, dark oxford shoes. The young matrons did not look out of place: it was the style of affluent women of the 1930s.

For our exodus, my parents decided to separate the family for security reasons. My father and brother were to follow my mother and me by train a week after our departure from Berlin. That was a frightening thought. I wanted us to be together. My imagination went wild with terror. What if Mutti and I got lost? I’d want to be with my father … he could always make me smile. My mother was serious with no sense of humor. Or, what if something happened to Papa and Eric? What would my mother and I do to help? A month ago we heard that Hitler had marched into Austria and occupied that country “peacefully.” What’s next?

The plan was to travel to Belgium and stay with relatives in Antwerp and Brussels for six weeks while waiting for our visas to the U.S. Two sisters–my mother’s first cousins; one family living in Antwerp with her husband and son, the other with her spouse and daughter in Brussels–had moved to Belgium to escape Hitler two years earlier. The sisters, like my mother, were born in the same shtetl and moved to Berlin after WWI. My cousins and I, all the same age, had been very close in Berlin.

Although both cities are in Belgium, the spoken language in Antwerp is Flemish and in Brussels, French. My ten-year-old cousin, Vera, in Brussels, felt superior to Ziggy, in Antwerp. She tormented him for not speaking French and emphasized that Flemish is a non-language. I didn’t like being the third wheel. “Why are you so mean to Ziggy? It’s not his fault that he lives in Antwerp.” “I don’t care. Flemish is a stupid language and he’s stupid, too.” I later learned that in 1941 there was a knock on the door, and Vera’s father was forced out of their house, arrested, and shipped to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, never to be heard from again. The rest of the family somehow survived the war and got to New York five years later. Vera and her mother were never the same free-spirited people again.

My six weeks in Belgium were a wonderful experience of new things and foods that we all had been craving due to years of rationing for Jews in Germany. After leaving Belgium, my parents, Eric, and I, were scheduled to travel to Paris. The land journey would end in Le Havre. There we’d set sail on the magnificent SS Normandie and be on our way to New York. In order for it to appear as if we were on holiday, my father bought round-trip tickets. My brother had studied English for the past three years and offered to teach me rudimentary phrases. I was thrilled.

Brussels and Antwerp were interesting cities, but nothing compared to the splendor of Paris. I loved watching people while sitting in cafes, eating al fresco, and smelling the perfume from the flowers in window boxes that seemed to be everywhere.

I was impressed by French women, who all tended to be slim and wore simple, elegant clothes. They were masters at draping scarves and making every outfit, no matter the price, look unique. It instilled a style I adopted and empowered me to become a dress designer, which I’d been dreaming about. By comparison, I found German and Belgium females were rounder, had no sense of style, and wore too much makeup and jewelry. I learned a lesson from the French: be classic, understated, and you will look like “a million dollars.” I liked that American expression.

Never will I forget the abundance of food of every kind, especially the meats. (Kosher meat had not been available for several years for us in Germany.) I must have had a grin on my face when I finally bit into the juicy hotdog that snapped with every bite and as the liquid ran down my arm. Mutti permitted me to have as many as I wished, knowing that eventually I’d have my fill. Even the mustard was luscious. Eating freshly baked butter-dripping croissants and crunchy warm baguettes every day was unforgettable.

My one regret: I wish I had been older to experience and understand more of the uniqueness of the trip. Even as a young child, I recognized that Paris was more vibrant, artsy, and sophisticated than Brussels, Antwerp, and even cosmopolitan Berlin. More important than the food I craved was the freedom of speaking in public … not worrying about being overheard by the Nazis. Unfortunately that changed after the war started.

I would not have objected to living in Paris, but America was waiting for me. I was ready,

A writer, artist, and fashion designer, Helga Harris has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune. and The Tampa Tribune. Her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways, and, most recently, We Were There, which was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever. She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy in Sarasota.

“Unexpected Departure, 1938” is an excerpt from her most recent memoir, There’s A Witch In My Room.

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