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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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The Siddur’s Healing Power

By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)

It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.

When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.

Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.

But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.

Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.  

As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.

I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.

I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.  If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit  https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path

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Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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Tzedekah: The Gift of Giving

By Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

Two strong memories of giving are still vivid in my mind’s eye. The first is my father sitting at the dining room table at the end of the year and making out $1.00 checks to each of his favorite charities. This was the 1950s when $1.00 meant something. And since he was a hard-working owner of a gas station and garage, supporting five children and a wife, $1.00 per charity was all he could afford. The other memory is my mother working as a volunteer for our synagogue and packing our one-car garage with other people’s stuff, much to my father’s chagrin, to be saved for the annual rummage sale, the money collected going for needy causes. The garage was always stuffed with stuff!

Both my parents’ actions could be labeled under the Hebrew word tzedakah, an obligation to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. Some also define this word as charity, but the meaning of tzedakah goes beyond charity, and for me, is linked with another Jewish tradition, tikkun olam, which means repair of the world. Helping others is also considered a “mitzvah,” a good deed, all of which dovetails into the whole concept of compassion for others through giving.

I grew up with the idea of tzedakah, and as an adult, continued to emulate my parents, who were following Judaic traditions. (This idea of giving can be found in other religions and belief systems. Jews don’t have a monopoly on this concept.) Then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. Maimonides was a well-known and revered 18th century Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician whose influence Jews still feel today. This ladder was a revelation to me, and the brief description below may give you, as it has me, new thoughts about giving in the future. (I have used several sources, each of which had some variances in language or interpretation.)

  • The lowest rung on this hypothetical ladder is when one gives help or money unwillingly, or gives a small donation grudgingly after being asked.
  • The next-to-the last rung on the ladder is a direct donation, but smaller than s/he is able to give, but given with a smile, after being asked.
  • The next rung up the ladder is a direct donation of sufficient size after being asked or only when asked by the poor.
  • The rung fourth from the bottom (now halfway) is giving a direct donation to the needy, with one another’s knowledge of the giver and the receiver, and without being asked.
  • The fifth rung from the bottom (or third one down) is charity in which the giver knows not the receiver, but the person receiving help does know the giver and may feel indebted.
  • The next rung, directly under the top rung, is when a donation is made anonymously to a charity fund that benefits the poor and the person receiving the help does not know to whom s/he is indebted.
  • The top rung of Maimonides’ ladder is the highest rung of tzedakah. This is when money is donated to prevent a person from becoming poor and helps this person (or persons) to become self-sufficient. This could be in the form of a loan or a job. It is the highest form of charity because it prevents poverty.

With this new information, I am much more aware of how and why I am giving. The next time I am ready to contribute, I want to keep in mind these eight levels of tzedakah and give anonymously, without expecting recognition. In fact, if I can afford to give, then I feel it is a privilege as much as an obligation to help another more needy than myself. I believe that this top rung of the ladder is probably the greatest gift you can give to another, as well as a gift to yourself.

How you give is as important as what you give. If you make wise choices from your heart, I can think of no better gift to yourself and to those in need at this time of year and throughout the next year. Give anonymously with joy and reap its benefits all year long!

(Note: Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity is from Mishneh Torah: Hilcot Matnot Aniyim 10:7-12.)

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission. It appeared originally in Women’s Voices for Change (www.womensvoicesforchange.org).

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The Poet Receives A Tool Box

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his book, My Rebbe, about a holy person, “…we see the connection with the beyond or hear it more in the spaces between sentences…. As they speak we understand that there is more above the line and below the line or between the lines.”

Poetry and holiness are intertwined. Poetry lives in those spaces between the lines: in the layout on the page, the white spaces, whether it is formal or free verse, what the poet says, hints at or doesn’t say, the grammar and punctuation, the connotation(s) of each word and so much more. It’s what makes me come alive when I write and edit. There’s that initial impulse, a word or line pops into my head or something startles me and lurks or most times haunts me until I write about it. Like the time I was sitting on the M104 bus going down Broadway in Manhattan. I saw a man with one leg shorter than the other, wearing a black leather shoe with a tall heel to make up the difference. I started writing about the man and the wife who loves him, makes his breakfast and kisses him goodbye each morning as he goes to work. I missed my stop.

It’s only in the last months that I feel poetry lurking. My father died three years ago, and I wrote four new poems during the first year. Then I stopped. I couldn’t and didn’t want to write anymore; I just wanted to be quiet. I didn’t want to talk most of the time, never mind try to write.  Then I stopped thinking about it. And then I stopped caring about it. I kept in mind something my poetry teacher, Mary Stewart Hammond, told me, “Sometimes you need to live your life, not write about it.”

Recently, I watched an interview with Sarah McLachlan where she talked about losing her father in 2010 and releasing her new album in 2014. “I don’t think anybody gets to this point in their life unscathed,” McLachlan said. “I’m 46 years old and this is the time when parents die, when big changes happen.”

“When you were dealing with all that, where were you musically?” asked [the interviewer]. “Nowhere …. I would play music, but I didn’t have it in me to write anything,” she said. “My father passed away almost four years ago, and it kind of took that long for me to recognize what I’d lost and what that meant to me moving forward, but also what he’d given me.” I know exactly what she was feeling. After my father’s death, it was not a time for writing; it was a time for grieving, for mourning, for reflecting. I was observing the traditional year of mourning, saying Kaddish, not going to movies, not listening to live music or buying new clothes. Like Sarah McLachlan, I didn’t have it in me to write.

At first, I didn’t care if my poetry came back. But after two years, I thought it might actually be gone. I tried to write a few times, but had no inspiration. I began to realize that I needed to wait for it to come back.  About six months ago while visiting my mother, I went to the basement and into my father’s tool room. After he died, we couldn’t clean it out. There were too many memories. He was a tool and die maker. I looked at jars filled with nails, screws, washers. On his workbench were micrometers, screwdrivers, levels, hole punches, two blue cotton aprons and other tools I couldn’t identify. I opened my father’s wooden tool box, and right there in the top drawer was a beige tin with “Revelation, the perfect pipe tobacco” written in red on the cover. When I opened it, I saw several short, round pieces of metal with sharpened ends. They looked like silver crayon tops. The tin had been in there for over thirty years but I never really noticed it. Until now. Poetry was swirling so fast in my head that I could barely keep up. I ran upstairs and started writing; a few minutes later, I had filled up two sheets of paper.

My father always encouraged me in my writing, was so happy when my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published and was always interested in my teaching and readings. There was my father, in his tool room, helping me to move forward. Encouraging me to write again.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Best American Poetry Blog (http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/), where this essay first appeared.  

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I Changed My Mind

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

I hated you.

I didn’t hate you at the beginning.

When I was a little girl … I guess you were pretty. I didn’t notice. I took you for granted.

Every Friday night, from the time I was old enough to sit with my family at the dinner table, which looked the same each week—white linen, matching china, glistening silverware and sparkling glasses—there you were in all your splendor, the two and a half foot silver candelabra in the center of the table. With your graceful four ornate sculptured arms and the eagle at your center reaching to the heavens, you looked ready to soar. That was you. I was too young to appreciate you or your age.

You were conceived, hand crafted, circa 1860, in Austria-Hungry. My father, the youngest of five children, inherited you. He brought you into his marriage and treasured you, his only family memento. You were old the first time I saw you but what did I know?

Before sunset each Friday, my Papa came home with a bouquet of flowers. My older brother and I washed our hands and sat at the Shabbat table. Mutti lit the candles, said a prayer; Papa followed, cutting the chalah and chanting the appropriate blessing. After the amen, we ate the customary meal: gefilte fish, chicken noodle soup and of course … the roasted chicken. The vegetables varied from week to week and so did the dessert; usually it was stewed fruit compote, apple cake, cookies and tea. Cold seltzer in a spritzer bottle (it was fun to pump) and wine for the adults was always on the table.

I didn’t hate you when I was little. You were just there … like a piece of furniture or a painting on our dining room wall. I had no personal relationship with you then. That changed when I became a teenager.

The chore my mother gave me, from the time I was thirteen, was to polish you every Thursday afternoon so that you would shine on Friday night when the four candles on your winged arms were lit. By then I was old enough to see how grand you were. But polishing you was another story.

It was not fun. Did you realize that the candles dripped on you and hardened? Your body had over a dozen pieces that fit into each other. Polishing you took over an hour. I wanted to do other things … even homework. But my job was not negotiable. I had to keep you shining for the Shabbat. And I did; until I got married, left my childhood home and you. One of my wedding presents was a beautiful, contemporary candelabra.

Of course I saw you whenever I visited my parents. By then I was an adult and admired your beauty. You were and still are stunning. Who polished you after I left? It was no longer my concern. I was free.

But nothing is forever. Many years later, after my mother died and my father remarried, he presented me with his family heirloom. Papa wanted you to remain in our family. I was overcome by the gift. At that time I was in my fifties and lived in an apartment in Miami, facing Biscayne Bay. The view was breathtaking. I displayed you in my living room on a beautiful oak cabinet that my son, Jeffrey, had built for me. You stood out like a prized possession, which you still are. People took notice of you the moment they stepped into my home. You were gorgeous.

My freedom didn’t last. I was back to polishing you. However, the feeling was different; I was older, smarter and loved you. But … there is a big “but.” After two years, the salt air from Biscayne Bay damaged your silver. It pitted you like a skin rash. You looked sad. I wasn’t going to ignore your condition. I was your caretaker. Through research and recommendation I found an expert who came to my aid. In 1975, I paid $400 to have you re-silvered and treated. The maven promised that I would never have to polish you again. That sounded like beautiful music.

Decades passed. I became irreligious and didn’t light your candles weekly. But you retained the place of honor in my home. I always loved Jewish traditions and on each holiday you glowed. My favorite simcha is the Passover Seder when I invite eighteen people to dinner. (The number signifies life in Hebrew.)

When my daughter, Susie, realized your monetary worth, she recommended that I store you in the attic in case of theft. I wouldn’t hear of it. What is the point of having something so beautiful and not being able to enjoy it?

This week I polished you. On Saturday I will again have eighteen people at my Seder table. All the food and desserts are homemade … with love.

I took a serious look at you while I was sprucing you up. I, almost half your age, am of advanced age. You’re an antique and I, an octogenarian. We have a common bond … we’ve aged. Your arms are shaky and my legs wobbly. You, newly polished and shiny, and I, with makeup and extra mascara, are still good looking.

I love you.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938. She attended Brooklyn College and graduated from Pratt Institute and worked as fashion designer for forty years.

A writer as well as an artist and designer, Helga 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. She has also contributed stories to anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways and various magazines. The most recent collection, We Were There, 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 (offered at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota campus).

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Remembering The Shoah Through Words and Action

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Germany, I grew up with stories of the Shoah. I was recently asked if I recalled the exact moment I learned about what happened to my family. I answered no, there was no exact moment. It was always there. The knowledge seemed to have come through my mother’s milk.

I was that curious kid who asked about the kinds of foods my parents ate in Germany, what school was like, what clothing they wore, what life was like before Hitler came to power. I also began to ask questions about what happened to our family. As I got older, the questions became more serious. I asked my father to tell me about how he and his family hid in the basement of their home during the rioting of Kristallnacht in 1938, of what it felt like to be sixteen years old and be ordered to report to Town Hall the next morning and to be arrested and sent to Dachau.

There was the night my mother and I sat at the kitchen table and she told me about the kids in her kindergarten class who backed her up against a wall at school and threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” She told me how her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage, The Israelitisch Meijesweishaus, in Amsterdam. We talked about her father’s nine brothers and sisters, of how only he and one brother and sister survived. My father and I spoke about his family, those who survived and those who did not. His mother, father, older sister who was twenty-two and his younger brother who was eleven. They got out of Germany to Maastricht, Holland and in August 1942 were deported to Westerbork and in November 1942 to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival.

I had so many stories inside of me and poetry became the way to tell them. After writing and writing for almost fifteen years, in 2007 my book “How to Spot One of Us” was published.

Since publication, I have been speaking in public and private schools and for various organizations. I have told my family’s stories of life before the Holocaust, of trying to escape, of failing, of succeeding, of coming to America and learning a new language, becoming American citizens and of beginning, again. In my poetry, it is my goal to give voice to the dead. In my teaching, my goal is to encourage students to remember and study about the Holocaust and our world today, a world that is still rife with genocide.

Over the last two years I have become involved in other ways to remember the Shoah. I’m working with Emmy Award-winning director Richard Kroehling on BE•HOLD, a cinematic documentary that explores poetry, written by Jews and non-Jews, about the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism to the present. Poems are showcased by poets, survivors and their descendents. I am also part of a multi-media exhibit about children of survivors with photographer Aliza Augustine showing at The Kean University Human Rights Institute Gallery, consisting of my poetry and film and her portraits and photography.

I believe that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future. Seventy years ago, WWII ended. The last survivors of the Holocaust are aging and passing away. I feel it is my responsibility to remember and continue to tell the stories of my family before, during and after the Shoah in the hopes it will never happen again to anyone.

Jewish wisdom teaches that remembrance must include action. As a child, I was taught by my parents that every human being is created in God’s image and that is the way I should treat each person I meet. Our actions, small or large can help change the world. Whether it is treating the stranger with dignity or being active in causes to stop genocide, we each can remember the Shoah in our own way thus honoring the murdered and the survivors.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

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