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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

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.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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Manna in the Morning

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

Cook fires,
clothing scraps,
animal dung
have long disappeared
from the desert.
But the story remains:
how the Israelites
fled Pharaoh
under a spiral
of swirling white clouds
as angels swept
stones and snakes
from their path.
For forty years,
Jews followed Moses
with manna-filled bellies,
thirst quenched by
a wondrous wandering well—
the same fountain I sipped
this candle-lit evening
with honeyed challah
and roasted chicken.
Carrying dishes to the sink,
my sandaled feet skip
on a freshly swept  floor,
free of snakes and stones.
Tonight, Pharaoh lies drowned
behind me
and I am traveling to Canaan
under a sheltering white cloud,
certain of manna in the morning.

Jacqueline Jules is a poet and the author of many Jewish children’s books including Never Say a Mean Word Again, The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, and Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva. Visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Manna in the Morning” appears in A Poet’s Siddur: Liturgy Through the Eyes of Poets, edited by Rick Lupert.  It is reprinted here with permission of the author. For more about A Poet’s Siddur, visit: http://poetrysuperhighway.com/agnp/a-poets-siddur-shabbat-evening/

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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At the Butcher’s

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Take a number please,
the dispenser reads
at the butcher’s.
I take one and wait in line.
It’s before Shabbos, everyone is rushed,
people pushing or being pushed,
trying to get to the counter, to get their food,
someone mutters, “I was ahead of you.”

“Who’s next?” says the butcher,
and panic falls from me like a puzzle
dropped on the floor and I can’t
find all the pieces and the ones I can
pick up don’t fit together anymore and

I want to tell them about my father’s
sister and how her visa number was too
high and there were too many people in
line ahead of her waiting to get out and how
she was deported to
Auschwitz and she didn’t get
a number there and if she had, she
might have survived and

I want to tell them about my friend’s mother, how
she got a number on her forearm in
Auschwitz, and how she got a
visa number after the war and about the
dreams she has every night and

the butcher calls my number, and I
cannot make a sound.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

Reprinted from Lilith Magazine, where this poem first appeared, with kind permission of the author.

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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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