Feeling the poverty as a child of survivors
I’d like to share a story that happened to me, a child of Holocaust survivors, right before my seventh birthday.
But first, a bit of an introduction: When the Germans invaded Poland in September, 1939, the younger men of Lodz fled. It was thought that the Nazis were only after them, that they would leave Jewish women, children, and the old alone. My father was the last of the men to return home after the Germans “normalized” life in the city. He was covered in filth and appeared completely traumatized. His eyes were glazed over, and no one could get him to talk about what he had seen. He held onto a small package, wrapped in newspaper. He would not let it go, no matter how much people encouraged him to do so. Finally, after several hours, he let my mother take it from him. What was in the precious package he had held onto so tightly? A piece of moldy bread.
Eventually, my father was able to be calmed and reassured enough to return to a relatively normal life. But he never revealed to anyone all that he had seen when he was hiding. The Nazis gave work to tradespeople, and my father, whose family business had been sign painting, continued to do so for them. One day, an older German guard who had befriended him told my father to flee because there would be a roundup of all the Jews the next day. My father tried to warn the rest of the family, screaming at them that they had to leave immediately, but no one would listen. Who knew what he had seen when he was hiding? Only he and my mother, who was pregnant with my older brother, fled.
They made their way across the Bug River to the Russian side of a partitioned Poland, where thousands of others had fled. My brother Mayer was born in a carriage barn in Bialystok. As an infant he survived Siberia, where Stalin had sent my parents. When Hitler invaded Russia, Stalin allowed refugees to travel wherever they wanted, except to the cities of the Soviet Union. My brother Yankl and I were born in Kazakhstan, where my family was barely able to survive by dint of my young mother’s hard work. Day in, day out, she carried fifty-kilo sacks of wheat from the barges on the Ili River to trains that were destined for inland Russia. My father was inducted into a work battalion, from which he escaped. He contracted typhus, from which many were dying, but he survived. My father was a well-known Yiddish poet and journalist, so he laid low when some other Yiddish writers were being arrested and sent for ‘rehabilitation’ in the Gulags.
My parents, my two older brothers and I were repatriated to Poland in 1946. We were able to return to my parents’ old apartment in Lodz, which had been occupied during the war, but my father was fortunate to be able to reclaim it. Still, the devastation was great. Of my mother’s parents, her eight brothers and sisters, only one had survived in England and another had survived in hiding. At least a hundred members of her family — aunts, uncles, cousins — were no more. While she would have times of joy in her later life, her sadness would never leave her. Only one of my father’s three sisters survived the war because she lived in Switzerland. He had lost his two sisters who had lived in Poland, and their families, as well as his large extended family, save for two young nephews and a brother-in-law who survived Auschwitz and other death camps and death marches. My father threw himself into his work of writing, and that was his salvation.
When we came to the United States in September, 1953, although the war was long over, the Holocaust continued to live in our family. We had lived in poverty and sometimes in squalor, reliant on handouts from the Joint and other Jewish relief organizations as well as individuals, who sent us packages of food and clothing.
The following anecdote, which I included in my recent memoir, “Becoming Ordinary: A Youth Born of the Holocaust, What I Kept, What I Let Go”, occurred when I was a child in Paris. My brothers had returned for good from Vladeck Heim, the children’s home they had lived in for so long. But they were off again, this time living in Chateau Rose, the children’s sanatorium in Les Andlys. I was six then, and I awaited their return, yet again. In the meantime, we had visitors from London.
When I Was Seven
In the spring before my seventh birthday, we had visitors from England. My mother’s cousins Sissy and Hilda were older than she was. The two sisters lived together in London and were properly called spinsters. They wore sensible, well-tailored woolen suits and sturdy laced shoes and smiled strangely. Cocking their chins into their throats, they either pursed their lips into curlicues that matched their hair or opened them thinly so that their teeth showed a little. But their eyes always remained slightly sad. They had come to Paris on holiday, partly to see their refugee relative from the Poland their parents had abandoned well before the war.
They stayed in a hotel, because we lived in two rooms. One room held a large work-a-day table and some mismatched chairs. There was also a small, spartan dresser in one corner that held the dishes. These furnishings stood uncertainly on the uneven and worn-out terra cotta floor. In the corner near the large window stood a little pot-bellied stove, covered in green porcelain tiles. It had a little grating through which the fire stuck out its tongues at me when my mother lit it. The stove was the only heat for the apartment. A calendar, with a picture of Chaim Weitzman, was hung on a nail on the wall and completed the air of transiency. This was our public room, where we ate and where my parents greeted visitors.
The other room was connected to the first by just a doorway. The walls of both rooms were covered with the same peeling yellow wallpaper. The inner room contained my parents’ lumpy mattress and box spring hard against one corner. Next to it was the large rattan trunk Mayer had slept on in Poland and on which he had been laid out after he was shot. Then there was a pretty but non-working mantle and, hugging that, a rickety armoire adjacent to the window. On the other full wall were a tiny closet and the crib I still slept in for want of a bed. Spread out on the splintery wood floor, the old Oriental rug with its geometric designs added the only color to the room. I loved its patterns, and, as one of my few forms of entertainment, I used discontinued coins that I found in the gutter to scoot around its border. There was also a closet of a kitchen by the entrance of the apartment. It held a cold-water sink, a two-burner gas hot plate, and a shelf to store pots and dishes. The toilet was halfway down the stairs. Consisting of a hole in the floor flanked by two foot-pads, a water closet with a pull-chain, and a supply of old newspaper hung on a hook, it was shared by the occupants of two floors.
My mother took her cousins to meet her friends at their homes, or to sidewalk cafés, where they sipped aperitifs and listened to a chanteuse in the warm afternoons. I often accompanied the three of them, holding my mother’s hand. On one outing we went to an elegant department store. I had never seen anything like it. My mother seemed a little uncomfortable. Maybe we didn’t belong in such a fancy place, I thought. The profusion of merchandise and the self-assured crowds were intimidating. Hilda and Sissy were buying souvenir gifts for their return home. We stopped in the book section, where they perused the art books. Sissy showed me the children’s books and, in English and gestures, she invited me to select a book for them to buy me as a present. I looked at my mother, who nodded her permission.
There were so many inviting books, all with pretty and colorful covers and decorations. My mother hovered over me making seemingly casual comments, trying to guide my choice. I suddenly stopped. I saw a book I really wanted. It was my favorite story, “Les Trois Petits Cochons,” The Three Little Pigs. The cartoons that illustrated its pages were so vivid, and when I pulled its paper tabs, some of them moved. I looked at my mother, as I held the book. She surreptitiously shook her head no and moved her head to point to another, more serious-looking and weighty tome on the counter. I was about to put my book down when Hilda, who had intercepted the interchange, took it from me, smiled at my mother and said in Yiddish, “This is the one he wants. We’d like to buy him this one.” My mother looked at me chagrined, as her cousins paid for my choice. I felt a strong pang of guilt, but I was also secretly glad and excited. It was the first book I actually owned.
Later, at home, when Sissy and Hilda were back in their hotel, my mother looked at me as I held my book. “Farfaln. Too bad,” she said as she sat sunken in her chair.
I tried to shrink into the corner, not knowing what I had done wrong. Should I have picked the book she had selected because it was more expensive? Should I have gotten that more mature volume because it would last me longer, like the shoes whose toes we stuffed with cotton that had room to grow into?
“If you had told them that you wanted the book I picked, I would have had something to give to Madame Adela’s son, Yeszik,” she lectured. “He’s your age, but he’s advanced in school. He has older interests. Adela’s my childhood friend, but she’s also our benefactor. When I don’t have a groschen, she’s the only one I can turn to. Not only do you get Yeszik’s hand-me-downs, but she always gives me money for new clothing for you. And you like the sweaters that you get from her husband’s factory. It’s hard for me to find ways to thank her, and that book would have been perfect.”
Now I understood. My mother was right. We had to think about important supplies we needed to go on living before luxuries for ourselves. “A mentch miz koydem trachtn vegn parnoseh, un noch deym vegn epes hecher!” she would yell at my father during their many arguments about money. “A person first thinks about providing for his family before he can think about loftier things,” she yelled at my father, who had finally published a book, but whose work was mainly writing occasional poems or literary articles for newspapers or journals.
I went into the other room and sat down on the floor, leaning against my parents’ bed. I thought about the last present my mother had given Yeszik on his birthday in gratitude to his mother. It was a huge metal toy crane. It had wheels and gears that worked. It had a bucket on the end of a cable that you could move up and down. And you could pull a lever and lights would go on. I played with it when Yeszik got it, but despite its dazzling appearance, I was not envious. It did not fire my imagination, and it became boring to me after a short while. I had no toys of my own, and I had not learned how to play with them.
I looked at my book with little joy. I wanted to feel the full thrill of having it, but I had disappointed my mother with it. Yet, when I opened the cover, I soon got lost in it. I was intrigued by the cleverness of the moving pictures. I liked becoming part of the book by pulling and pushing the flaps and tabs. More important, this book had not been a frivolous choice for me. As I read about the three little pigs, they became my two brothers and me. I will be the one who succeeds, I thought. I will value work and protect against an uncertain future. I studied the placement of the brick and mortar as the third little pig worked with a trowel in hand. This is how you build a house. I will build a house where we will all be together and safe, Mother.