Tag Archives: Jewish identity

Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

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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Sabbath Candles

By Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

I tell myself these are candles of joy.
Of peacefulness, quiet and repose.
Of blessings, rejoicing
and song.

Usually I light yahrzeit candles,
memorial candles, Yom HaShoah candles.
And they rekindle memories
of those I have lost.

But tonight I light
the wicks of Sabbath candles.
The scent of their smoke lingers—
the smoke itself, too.

I recall my mother,
lighting candles years ago—
closing her eyes to usher in
the angels of peace,

the living and the dead.
Indeed, how many years is it?
The Sabbath candles alit
and their glow.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and book artist. To read a few poems from his award-winning collection, “Star of David,” please visit http://www.turtlelightpress.com/products/star-of-david/  Currently, he is at work on a limited edition artist book of Yehuda Amichai poems entitled, “The Amichai Windows.” You can learn more about it at his blog, www.amichaiwindows.com.

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The Matter of The Errant Sun                        

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Try as she may, mother could not escape her past. As a survivor of the Holocaust, she was left with an abundance of painful memories that would surface throughout her lifetime. As far back as I can recall, she shied away from discussing her experiences out of fear of opening painful wounds and, perhaps most important of all, not exposing her innocent children to the unspeakable horrors that she felt best be kept hidden. She remained highly sensitized to certain distinctive sounds and visual displays that, if present, could easily result in anxious moments or outright panic. I recall how she was terrified by the sound of a passing siren and remained frozen in fear until the siren’s harsh shrill disappeared far off in the distance.

And then there was the matter of the errant sun. She rather enjoyed the sun’s presence, but at times it brought about disturbing recollections that mother would rather forget. On many a sunny day she would quietly make her way to the living room and place herself directly in front of the large picture window. She happened to favor this one particular window for it seemed to best capture the sun’s majestic brilliance. Once seated in her upholstered chair she would lean slightly forward placing the palms of both hands against the window’s glowing surface. Then, as if on cue, her eyes would slowly close as the sun’s rays entered our home extending a much-appreciated warm embrace.

The sun often brought a smile to her face, but many a time her demeanor could change in dramatic fashion. A smile signaling joy and contentment would suddenly vanish, having been replaced by a sorrowful, clearly pained expression. And as would so often be the case, her initial tears of joy were suddenly pushed aside by the bitter tears of sadness and despair. For even within the dazzling sunlight, shadowy companions, nightmarish figures, were always by her side.

Mother kept much of her past life to herself but there were instances when she relented and agreed to share some of her thoughts and recollections. On one such occasion, she felt the need to speak of the sun’s past betrayal and how it had once meekly surrendered to an unspeakable evil. An inexcusable act that contributed to the misery and despair of those confined to the ghetto in Lodz, her hometown in Poland. As was usually the case, a trickle of glistening bitter tears began to appear on her pallid cheeks in anticipation of the story she would soon relate, a story about her long running squabble with the sun.

“You see during the war the sun left us,” she began. “It was a time when the sun, like so many others, left us to suffer and die. When I looked through the dirty windows, past the walls of the ghetto, I could see the sun shining. I could see people smiling. You see, my children, without the sun, there is no light and no warmth. The sun wanted no part of our world and forced us to live in darkness.”

She related how things appeared beyond the ghetto walls. Flowers bloomed, birds tweeted, and children played. But within the forbidding walls, all was dark; all had begun to decay. Wasted infants would whimper in unison while the sick and elderly lay with eyes nearly closed knowing the end was fast approaching. Most would soon succumb in this world of darkness. Mother was tormented by the sun’s presence beyond the ghetto walls. It was so close yet so distant. In its own peculiar way, the sun had joined the many forces of evil that subjected the Jews of Europe to unimaginable hardship and suffering. “It’s better not to ask,” she ended, “better never to know. Some things should remain hidden.”

Years passed and the sun returned to her life. Mother spent her remaining days sitting by the glowing window enjoying the sun’s life-giving energy and warm embrace. But I sensed early on that she could never forget, nor entirely forgive, the sun for its past indifference. And rightfully so. She had been witness to the errant sun’s darker side—the time it fled, refusing to provide light and joy to a people in desperate need.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

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Finding My Jewishness

by Anna Banasiak (Lodz, Poland)

I’m wandering in life
searching for my promised land
I see their faces
emerging from my dreams
hear the trains
in the forest of thoughts
my eyes are full of light
hands are dancing in the enchanted circle
like the Tzadikim
I hear the melody of the Hebrew alphabet
there is something strange in me
when I’m with people
I tremble
like a frightened bird
trapped in the past

Anna Banasiak, a poet and literary critic, lives in Lodz,Poland. She studied Polish philology and culture studies at the University of Warsaw, and served as the editor in chief of Kamena in Lodz. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals around the world.

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Yahrzeit: Remembering the Love

by Joel Rudinger (Huron, OH)

“May the memory of our dear one be for a blessing.”

On the evening of the anniversary of my mother’s death,
I light a match and touch it to the wick
and the Yahrzeit candle catches fire.
My wife and I recite a blessing while its flame burns brightly in
its tiny glass.
For twenty-four hours, her light will kindle memories.

Each time I pass the flame, I say, “Hi, Mom,”
and when I switch off all the lights to go to bed,
the fire of her candle flickers like a happy angel in the darkened room.
“Good night, Mom,” I say and climb the stairs.
Her silence comforts me and I know
when I come down for coffee in the morning
her silent light will still be burning.

I remember
when I was four she stared at me in panic
when a neighbor carried me home draped in his arms,
blood dripping from my forehead
after I had fallen on the upturned barbs of a chain-link fence,
how she softly took me from him,
my bleeding face dazed and whimpering on her shoulder,
her housedress turning liquid red.

I remember
when she took me trick-or-treating on Halloween evenings,
shivering on the sidewalk as her little ghost collected candy door-to-door
and the dark December nights when she held my hand
and walked with me in silence down the street
to wonder wide-eyed at the colored lights of other peoples’ Christmas trees.

I remember
her fragrant juicy apple pies with the lattice crust that
perfumed the house,
the tapioca pudding we made together for dessert,
her Sunday chicken soup that brought our family together
at the dinner table,
when she gave the blessing over the Sabbath candles on Friday nights,
closing, covering, her eyes in prayer.

I remember
her leaving afternoons to give her program “Dolls for Democracy”
in churches, synagogues, libraries and schools, holding high her little dolls,
talking about people of different faiths and cultures down through history,
what they stood for, what they believed, how they worshipped differently,
how everyone could live together in a post-war world.

I remember
when she talked my father into buying a piano we couldn’t afford
and gave me lessons.
She took me to symphonies and concerts at the Toledo Museum of Art,
to the Nutcracker ballet every year at Christmas time,
and on summer Saturdays we’d walk the marble halls of the museum
looking at old masters: Picasso, DaVinci, Brancusi, Moore.

One day at the zoo, she tossed a shiny apple to a young gorilla
who leaped to the top of his cage and whipped it down at her.
It hit her in the head and crushed and stained her new white hat.
“I’ll never do that again,” she said, as I ran off laughing.

I remember
being sunburned to blisters on the beach at Cedar Point,
how she soothed my body with Vaseline to stop the pain.
When I was in high school, she tried to teach me how to drive
as I steered my father’s car into an iron cemetery gate.
She glowed when we shared our first beer together when I was in college.
“You are now a man,” she said. “How about another?”

I remember
how she embraced my decision to leave home to go to school,
to leave home after college to try a new life in wild Alaska.
She always let me find my own way, accepted my failures without judgment,
accepted my judgments without failure.
She embraced my wife and called her a sister and a friend;
she helped me care for my daughters when they were ill.

I remember
her weekly games of mahjong and bridge with friends,
how she collected ivory Chinese figurines and displayed them
on a little shelf,
her anger when my father died,
her battles with cancer and loneliness,
then the sudden stroke that left her without voice
and frozen in her tired body till she willed herself to die.

“Good morning, Mom,” I say when I’ve come downstairs.
Her candle’s burning low but still gives out some heat.
I go into the kitchen to make the coffee.

Each year I never see her light go out
as if she wants to leave in privacy.
I visualize a sudden poof and stream of smoke and then
the candle’s glass is empty of its wax.

Next year, we will repeat the ritual.
The Yahrzeit candle will be lit.
For twenty-four hours,
her flame will bring her back to us with memories.

Joel Rudinger, currently a Bowling Green State University Professor emeritus and Poet Laureate of Huron, OH, is a graduate of the University of Alaska, the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, and Bowling Green State University. He has published numerous poems and stories in magazines such as the New York Quarterly, Colorado Review, Cornfield Review, The Heartlands Today, The Plough: North Coast Review, and New Waves.

This poem is reprinted from Symphonia Judaica (Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing) with permission of the author and publisher. For more information about Joel Rudinger’s work, visit Bottom Dog Press at http://smithdocs.net

 

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My Yiddish Name

By Leah Klahr (Lawrence, NY)

My middle name is Bryna, a Yiddish name that probably stems from the word broyn, which means brown. For many years, I carried the name with resentment. To me, the obviously Yiddish name reeked of an outdated and simplistic culture, a culture I viewed as distant from my perception of life. Though I rarely disclosed the existence of my middle name, I felt as if everyone who met me could immediately sense its strong scent and trace it back to me. Yet despite my disdain, I somehow sensed a deep connection to my Yiddish name, the name which had been my great grandmother’s before it was mine. It had quietly slipped into the core of my being, and while I continued to resent its sound and meaning, Bryna began to symbolize a secret and essential part of my identity.

This past summer, I chose to learn more about the Yiddish in me and my people. My interest led me to a Jewish literature program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Together with other high school students, I entered the realm of Yiddish literature, and discovered that the Yiddish culture is far from simplistic. Yiddish embodies the continuing story of the Jewish People. Spoken for nearly one thousand years of Jewish history, it carries unwavering faith and adherence to tradition; it carries separateness; it carries words, sounds, and influences that managed to creep into crevices of the Jewish heart. Yiddish carries the large, frightening questions that knocked on shtetel doors, questions which scratched upon ancient, unbroken promises of faith; it carries the exhilaration of the new and uncharted; it carries the poetry of secularized writers who refused to forget the mother tongue; it carries survival, and the unending question of what it means to live as a Jew.

Together with other students, I discovered that Yiddish is not just a bridge through which we can connect to our past. It is the animated train of Sholom Aleichem’s Railroad Stories, merging the past and the future, transporting us  to new places, and connecting us to a world of old.

Bryna. Brown like earth. Like the ground that stood as witness to pogroms and ghettoes and death camps. Like the nature that is silent when we most want it to speak. Like the soil where broken life is transformed into creation. Like the synthesis of diverse creatures and life. Brown, the color of the earth that sustains us.

I had always perceived my Yiddish name as a remnant of a dying culture, as an unfortunate- sounding relic of the sturdy Jewishness of my ancestors. And while there is truth in such a perception, it is only a part of what my name symbolizes. Bryna represents my own struggles between the worlds of tradition and change. It represents the questions and identity that knocks heads with  Leah, the mother of Jewish faith, the name by which I am known. It represents the shtetel inside of me, and it also represents my struggle to escape its sometimes constricting walls. Bryna is the continuous reminder that you can take a Jew out of the shtetel, but you cannot take the shtetel out of a Jew. And though the truth of this adage had once invoked a sense of resistance within me, it is now a truth that I embrace like an old friend.

Bryna is still the name that I hide from the world. However, it is only seemingly hidden. My middle name is tied to my every thought and action; its presence in my life is indispensable. And yet, I refuse to be publicly called by it. Perhaps this paradox embodies the nature of the name, and the language and culture it implies. I am a searching Jew, still grappling with the multiple narratives and tensions of my identity. Bryna ensures that I will never stop searching. I am Leah; I am Bryna.

Leah Klahr is a current senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls. She lives in Lawrence, New York, with her parents, four sisters, and one brother. She loves literature, and is especially passionate about fairy-tales. Leah has worked as the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, The Looking Glass, and her work has been published in Teenink Magazine, and Fresh Ink for Teens.

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Reclaiming My German Citizenship

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

It was last June that my husband Brian and I completed our applications for German citizenship before moving from Bozeman, Montana to Berlin, Germany.  By reclaiming our German citizenship we hoped to come “full circle” as the descendants of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.  We are still waiting for the magical moment when we learn that our citizenship has been restored, but we both believe it will be worth the wait.

It was not a magical moment when we told my mother that we were moving to Germany.  The opportunity to connect with my past, become fluent in a language I fell in love with as a child, and to once again be Jewish in Germany meant nothing to her.  How could we bring her grandchildren to the place of horror and persecution from which she and my father had fled?  No answer would suffice.  She did not speak to us for six weeks.

I don’t know what it felt like for my parents and grandparents to be stripped of their German citizenship, to be stateless from 1938 until 1944, and to finally become American citizens.  My maternal grandmother seemed to remain stateless, eventually leaving America for Israel, then Switzerland, and finally going back to her beloved  Germany.  My paternal grandparents were more typical immigrants, creating their own oasis of German culture in the middle of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood (complete with apfel strudel, kartoffel salat, and lots of wurstchen).

No form of Holocaust reparation is enough, but reclaimed citizenship has more significance for me than any financial restitution our family may receive.  My children and their descendants will have opportunities that my grandparents could never have imagined.  We will have access to Germany’s universal health care system and free system of higher education.  We will automatically become citizens of the European Union which means we can live, work, and study at a university in any EU country under the same conditions as nationals.  We will not have to give up our American citizenship, nor do we want to.

I will take full ownership of my identity when I regain the citizenship that was stripped from both my parents’ families.  As a German American Jew I can embrace each of these three elements of my identity to whatever degree I wish.  Just as I have always struggled with what it means to be Jewish, I will always struggle with what it means to be German.  But I am entitled to my German citizenship, and I may soon have it.

After months of fruitless attempts to track down my citizenship application, I learned in March that the all-efficient German bureaucracy had lost it.  The application contained many documents that I had painstakingly put together to establish my German Jewish identity.  These were my personal historical building blocks that had suddenly vanished.  The official who delivered this disturbing news politely apologized and suggested I file a new application and begin the process all over again.  His cold words hit me like a stamp that says “no one cares.”

Now it is June again, our first school year in Germany is coming to an end, and my oldest son is preparing for his bar mitzvah in Berlin this fall.  Avery’s bar mitzvah will take place on the anniversary of my father’s bar mitzvah in New York City in 1942.  My son and my father will have both taken this step as immigrants, and as German American Jews who belong to a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.

I also have high hopes that the stress and frustration of trying to move my  citizenship application forward are finally behind me.  My application was eventually found and is being processed in Rathaus Schoeneberg, the place where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.  Kennedy not only said that he was a Berliner, but that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” As we embark on our second year of living in Germany, I feel optimistic that Kennedy’s vision will become a reality for me.

Donna Swarthout came to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle: www.dswartho.wordpress.com

And you can hear her reading a version of this story on NPR’s Berlin Stories: http://berlinstories.org/2012/06/27/donna-swarthout-on-coming-full-circle/

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