Our Good Fortune, the Flip Side of Separation


By Sarah Wildman

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On a recent glorious Sunday — the type of beautiful fall day where the light is golden; the weather warm, but not overly so; a time for sweaters, but not jackets — I went to a flea market with my daughter, Orli; my partner, Ian, and my friend Stephanie. We spent a few hours picking through tchotchkes, drinking coffee and buying a toy car for Orli from a wood-carver. (“Caaaaar,” she’d said reverentially, gazing at its red painted body; we caved.)

Imparting History: The idea of separation from a child, Wildman writes, is abhorrent — in a camp, or outside one. Above, a German Jewish girl is met at Harwich, England, by a representative involved in the Kindertransport in 1938.
Imparting History: The idea of separation from a child, Wildman writes, is abhorrent — in a camp, or outside one. Above, a German Jewish girl is met at Harwich, England, by a representative involved in the Kindertransport in 1938.

The three of us traded off Orli responsibility; at 22 months, she’s prone to run without notice. Toward the end of the morning, as we were considering packing up for her afternoon nap, it was my turn with her. She walked between the stroller and me, refusing, typically, to sit, when I was momentarily distracted. It couldn’t have been for more than half a second: I’d seen an abacus on a hawker’s table, the kind with multicolored beads, like I’d had as a child. “Hmmm. An abacus, do you think you’d want an abacus?” I mused aloud, not expecting an answer. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stephanie dash past me, into the thick crowd of antiques hunters. I realized, a beat too late, why: Orli had taken off.

It was a moment of sheer terror, a feeling that clung to me long after the event; her actual disappearance lasted only seconds. I remembered an advertisement a travel company had sent me recently: temporary tattoos created with parents’ phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses. I mentioned it to Ian. “Jews don’t put numbers on their arms,” he said. “Maybe we could get her a tag,” I suggested, “like Paddington Bear.”

The last weekend of October I went to London for a three-day conference, and upon my return, I experienced a feeling corollary to that flea market day, an intense need to hold Orli. I arrived after her bedtime and was hugely disappointed. It’s an almost primary urge for physical immediacy, rivaled in intensity by only the moments immediately following birth, or by the fear of loss. Watching her in the bath the night after I returned (she’s a big girl now, and likes to sit and play for a long time after washing), I felt an overwhelming swell of affection. I’m sure she found it annoying. It was Halloween, and we’d spent the early evening at a local community kids’ event where I’d tried to help a child who was lost and couldn’t tell me her mother’s name or phone number. She was hysterical. Her mother quickly ran up and, in Spanish, explained that she’d been there all along, just behind a man on a Segway scooter, dressed as a ghost. The kid was inconsolable.

So often, in parenting, we get bogged down in logistics. In a two-parent working household, the pas de deux of caring for Orli is often boiled down to who is taking her to which class at what time, who can relieve the baby sitter, who can make dinner, who can put her to bed. These are the frustrating bits, in other words, which peculiarly, despite how stressful they can be, make it all too easy to forget how fortunate we are.

I’m struck by this, as I often write about the Holocaust in addition to my regular, political journalism. A granddaughter of a Holocaust refugee, I spent my childhood imagining how I might have survived, placing myself in each category of person as I grew, although the likelihood of survival was far lower than that of death. Even so, I still could picture my chances. That is, until I became a mother. For young pregnant women, or women with small children, the chance of survival was dismal. Deported together, mothers of small children shared a nearly zero chance of joint survival. Hiding together was next to impossible. But the idea of being able to let a child go into hiding with a Christian family seems impossibly heroic to me. The idea of separation is abhorrent — in a camp, or outside one.

We grew up with a group of kids whose grandmother had been a Kindertransport child, one of those 10,000 babies-to-teens sent from Vienna, Prague and Berlin, parts of Poland and Holland in acts of unimaginable selflessness on the part of their parents. She never saw her mother again. I remember vividly her telling us the story one night. It was Friday night, and the meal was finished — just sliced fruit on plates, and mostly empty wine glasses. She began to cry. Her mother had had a chance to save herself but didn’t take it, because she couldn’t take her daughter. Then, a Kindertransport spot opened, and she sent her daughter. The mother’s own window to emigrate had closed.

We will have a great task, Ian and I, to impart this history to Orli. Named for my grandfather, she will learn his story from us, but she will not have the benefit we had of growing up with those accents, of knowing that generation, of seeing those numbers tattooed on loosened skin, of learning of their bravery and of their loss. She will not have the tactile reminders of the period — only the name we’ve given her, as a reminder of how fortunate we are.

Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and for Politics Daily.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.