With Mother’s Day and Holocaust Commemorations converging this year, I thought back to my mother Zelda’s courage and ingenuity in rescuing me from German-occupied Warsaw just before the ghetto walls went up.
Our building had been bombed several times. Whatever food reserves we had were almost gone. My father Mordechai (Matvey) Bernstein—along with fellow Yiddish Folkstzeitung newspaper colleagues had left Warsaw in the early days of the bombardment. Following the occupation, hunger, Nazi atrocities she witnessed, my mother decided to leave while we still could for her hometown Byten (Belarus) then under Soviet occupation and part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact). Were we to survive, she hoped my father might find us there.
Dressing me in peasant garb, passing herself—dark haired and dark eyed— off as my Italian nanny, she warned me not to call her “Mama” nor speak Yiddish. The tale she told was that she was taking her blonde, blue-eyed Polish charge to her family in the provinces. We set out with a suitcase and rucksack packed with needles, thread, salt, matches, and a bottle of cod liver oil (“You are going to survive this war with straight bones and teeth”). Perilous journey though forests and swamps, betrayal, firing squad, near death episodes— long story. What resonates to this day are her oft-repeated injunctions of how one lives one’s life.
Before, during and after the war—-in the best and worst of times—she imprinted me with a series of Zeldaisms—philosophical guides that come in handy. Her injunctions included:
Men darf zayin a mentsch for zikh un far der velt: One must act like a human not only for oneself but for the world. Men darf zikh nit untergebn. One must never give up/surrender. Men darf zayn shtoltz and drayst: One must be proud and courageous/daring. Az men darf—ken men. If one must—one can. Men darf zikh gut dernern; One must be well nourished (in contrast to eating well). And on a humorous note: Ruf mir knaknisl; “Call me a nutcracker”—i.e. it’s laughable, so what’s the big deal, I’m doing it my way. Tough.
Zelda lived to schep nakhas at living to enjoy a great-grandchild.