Tag Archives: memories

The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

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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Touched

by Bracha Mirsky (Jerusalem, Israel)

In Memory of Itka Rochel bas Shmuel z”l (1930-1974)

I’m a proud third-generation Canadian. I grew up in Ottawa the capital of Canada; the winters were long and cold. I remember the snow banks were higher than I was. Although my father was born and raised in Ottawa, by the time I was growing up most of my dad’s family had left the city. My mother was from Montreal where she had a large close-knit family she left to raise a family in Ottawa. We would visit and embrace the warmth of our family in Montreal as often as possible, but in Ottawa my mother was as isolated and lonely as if every day was winter.

I remember my grandparents’ towering gray stone house in Montreal. Even now, I can see through the eyes of a child and feel the warm wonder of the sights, smells and sounds of Pesach:  sweet gefilte fish, chicken soup, matzoh, grape juice, spilling the drops from our cup …to lessen our joy at the memory of the suffering of our enemies. I have fond memories of my grandfather, uncles, father and brothers at the head of the table singing. I looked forward to examining the drama of Pesach in pictures in a small, brightly colored Haggadah. My mother was a quiet woman; her attention was always focused on her children, ready with a kind word and a hug. She would help my grandmother prepare and serve the meal.

I’m nine-years-old.  I shyly ask my bubby, “Can I help too?”

“Of course,” my bubby replies. “What a big girl you are now. A shayna maideleh!”  I would help serve the gefilte fish and collect and wash the cutlery. I would bask in the glow of my mother’s pride in me.

My mother loved us so much! She was the emotional core of our family, yet we had no idea that in her quiet way she was instilling so much in us. She was a stay-at-home mom, with six children — that was no easy task! Dad worked hard but it was always difficult to make ends meet. There was no money for Hebrew school and so I went to the local public school.

As a child the world was puzzling to me. I could not connect the dots that others seemed to have no problem with; the world did not make sense.

“Dad, no one likes me, they won’t play with me, they’re mean and always try to get me in trouble.”  His only reply was, “Make yourself a small target.”

“Mom why do they call me a ‘Christ-killer’?”

“Just ignore them; they don’t know what they’re talking about.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was hard to ignore them while the boys were beating me up after school as the girls watched. Canada, 1968, I was 11-years-old.

“Where are you going Mom?”

“There is a protest to free the Soviet Jews.” My mother never missed a rally or any event to try and win the freedom of a fellow Jew. This woman who loved children and her people so much, who would not hurt a fly, always put a heavy wrench in her purse before each rally. Just in case the KGB tried to break it up, she intended to take a good swing at one!

I can still see Mom lighting Shabbos candles and the whole world seemed to glow in that soft light. With my mother at my side, the world was at peace.

Shul — a place to sing! Awesome! Reading the stories of the Bible, imagining what it would be like to have such faith. I already knew that God was everywhere and I could talk to him whenever I wanted. Talking to God was easy, understanding God was the hard part.

“Mom, are you not feeling well again?”

“No dear, don’t worry I’m OK.”  But she wasn’t. Visiting the hospital, not understanding, “When will Mom get better?”

“Soon dear, soon.”

It seemed so gradual, I didn’t even notice it. Mom could do less and less and I did more and more. I’m 16, my two older brothers are away at university leaving me, now the eldest at home, to look after and cook for my father and three younger siblings. My youngest brother is only six- years-old.

I visit Mom in the hospital every evening with my dad but she looks worse and worse, no one says anything. A wall of silence, we didn’t know…how could we not know? She kept the truth from us, it was cancer.

Waking up erev Rosh Hashanah, I can hear my dad talking on the phone “…last night…” I stiffen in my bed, my body rigid, waiting, but no one comes. I get up and go down to breakfast; Dad acts normally and sends us off to school.

It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.

I sit at the back of the school assembly hall right up against a wall. In that big darkened room with only the stage lit up I’m in a tiny corner all alone, feeling with every part of my being that my whole world has come crashing down and no one else notices it, their world hasn’t changed at all. Yet I still try to deny it, I repeat to myself, “I must have been mistaken, Dad would have told me if anything happened, therefore nothing happened,” I say this to myself over and over again. Surrounded by a sea of people, I’m all alone in the dark.

That afternoon I begin my slow walk home from school with a heavy heart, thinking to myself, “It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.”

I’m about half-way home, alone as usual, when something softly brushes my cheek. I stop and stand still. My hair is tied back in a ponytail, there is nothing near me. Again, something softly brushes my cheek. My heart leaps out — NO! It can’t be! It’s not you, you’re not dead! It must be the wind!  I turn to face the opposite direction. The same soft touch brushes the same cheek. Then I knew…she was gone.

Stunned, I sit on a nearby rock, I don’t know for how long. Now numb and beyond pain, I accepted the truth. Then I began to wonder at the strength of my mother, to come to me and give me this gift. To reach out and touch me to say goodbye.

It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.

My mother taught me many things. She taught me about family, to be a proud Jew and to never stop caring. In her last moments on earth she taught me that God is real and that nothing can stop love, not even death.

* * *

I look after my father and siblings for three years until I’m 19 and then it’s my turn to go away to college. I become a nurse and meet my husband. We are married in a lovely ceremony in an Orthodox shul. I miss my mom, but I believe she is happy for me. I could not have anticipated the surprises that were in store for me.

I married at 23, and two years later I give birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Oh! How my mom would have loved this! Never have I missed her so much as then. For the first time since her passing, I can see her in my mind’s eye, holding her grandchildren, and the joy from her face is blinding!

Public health services provide a really sweet woman to help out for the first few months, but after that initial period I am on my own. I am told by the supervisor, “No one can manage on their own with triplets; you’ll have to hire some help.”

“Really?” I say, “We’ll see…”

God, fill our hands with your blessings. In this, I am truly my mother’s daughter. Five years later I give birth to twin boys. Life is busier and happier than ever!

They grow, the years pass and they develop as proud Jews who know their God, and they are very proud of their people and love every one of them. I know exactly who they got that from. All the Bible stories are real to them, they love going to shul, singing and giving me joy.

And their mother tells them stories of a special soul, the bubby they never knew.

Mom, pray for them.

Bracha Mirsky is a mother of triplets and twins, Registered Nurse, Labour Coach, Certified Parent and Infant Consultant and Diabetes Educator. She has worked as a member of the St. Elizabeth Nurses Maternal and Infant Care Team as a specialist and with her local Family and Child services, assisting families with parenting issues. Bracha is a guide to parents through classes, as an advice columnist and as an author. Her book, What Makes Kids Tick? Giving parents the tools to shape child behaviour, is based on the counseling she has given parents and her own parenting journey, filled with stories of the challenges and rewards of raising multiple children and the insights the adventure has given her. Bracha can be reached at www.whatmakeskidstick.com. She has recently made aliya.

This story was reprinted with permission from Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume III, edited by Liz Pearl. For more information about the book, visit:  http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll3.htm

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Crumbs

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

Crumbs are rarely, if ever, a topic for discussion. And rightly so for these annoying particles serve no obvious purpose and even tend to complicate our lives by finding their way into some of the most obscure and difficult to clean places. Crumbs, by their very nature, deserve to be thrown out with the rest of the trash. My mother, however, had an entirely different outlook when it came to crumbs. A Holocaust survivor, she would never permit food, no matter what the size, to be discarded in so demeaning a fashion. In her kitchen, crumbs were afforded a layer of respectability and were never included with the refuse that was thrown into the trashcan. At our home, crumbs were properly collected and set aside so as to ensure a more fitting and sensible method of disposal.

With her hand properly cupped, my mother would deftly sweep every visible crumb into a waiting bag that had recently been selected as a repository for our collected crumbs. “How can I throw this food away? These crumbs could have been a source of nourishment and hope in the camps and ghettos where there was little or nothing to eat,” she would solemnly recount. When it came to food, nothing would ever go to waste; it was simply out of the question to do so.

During the war, Jews, like my mother, quickly became masters of improvisation, cleverly turning less than desirable edibles and scraps into presentable, life-sustaining meals. Crumbs were part of the process and had taken on a new found importance in the camps and ghettos. Leftover bits of bread were always eagerly sought out and occasionally fought over by those driven by all consuming hunger. Oftentimes hidden on one’s person, crumbs became the currency of survival when food rations were not forthcoming or when a sick loved one was in dire need of nutrition. While growing up, if we children happened to be present during the collection of crumbs, mother’s stories relating to food, or lack thereof, would always accompany the gathering process. “We scavenged for crumbs,” mother related tearfully. “Crumbs meant survival.  Crumbs could have given a ghetto resident another day of life.”

Each meal and snack produced a new crop of crumbs and the bag would slowly fill. Once it was decided that the right amount was present, my mother would dutifully make her way to a pre-determined site in the back yard and begin sprinkling crumbs upon the ground. In no time at all, birds, accompanied by an occasional squirrel, would appear and descend upon this feast of tantalizing crumbs. The symphonic rhythm of the birds’ frantic pecking interspersed with the sporadic sounds of flapping wings had become an unforgettable melody that would bring a knowing smile to her beaming face. She was overjoyed knowing that nothing, not even the smallest crumb, had gone to waste and that some hungry creature had been given a proper meal.

Our custom of collecting crumbs quickly ended with my mother’s passing. Crumbs had suddenly become a nuisance of sorts and there were more important things to do with our precious time.  Yet every year when the winter months arrive, I find myself hypnotically drawn to the window that overlooks my own backyard. The ground, now bare and frozen, provides very little nourishment to the few winged residents that have elected to remain behind. Every once in a while, a number of birds land unexpectedly beneath the window and begin pecking aimlessly at the lifeless ground below. With nothing to show for their efforts, I can sense their frustration and disappointment as they raise their eyes in my direction and give me a look that nearly always conveys the same simple, yet urgent, request: remember… please remember us. 

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust. For more information about his work, visit:  http://tinyurl.com/86u3ous

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Miracle Flowing Into Miracle

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

The vegetable stock for the soup is simmering on the stove. Onions, turnips, carrots, garlic, sweet potatoes, and leeks. Last night we searched for crumbs, but it’s only now that the house is beginning to smell like Passover.

It’s early, not yet 7 a.m., and I’m sitting on my yoga mat before beginning my practice, grateful for the start of the day, thinking about Passover and the way time unravels from year to year, each year flowing into the next like another asana pose… one pose, then another… each different, each the same.

Each year Passover arrives and reminds us that we are alive, still walking through miracles (like the parting of the Red Sea) every day, not just once a year–if only we open our eyes to see.

Each breath, another miracle. Each step, another miracle. Each life, another miracle. Our people’s story, another miracle.

Miracle flowing into miracle.

Pose flowing into pose: gathering crumbs, hiding the matzah, reciting the Four Questions, opening the door for Elijah, again and again, year after year.

Tonight we’ll savor the taste of freedom as we bite into the matzah.

Surrounded by those we love, we’ll raise our goblets of wine and recite the ancient words of the Hagaddah.

Now the soup is simmering on the stove, filling the house with the smell of Passover and so many memories, so many miracles.

Bruce Black, the founder of The Jewish Writing Project, is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Jewish publications such as The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, Reform Judaism Magazine, and The Reconstructionist, and in secular publications such as The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. Online Education News ranked his blog on writing, Wordswimmer (http://wordswimmer.blogspot.com) , among the top 100 creative writing blogs of 2009. You can read more about Bruce and his new book, Writing Yoga, here: http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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