Last night, Walter and I watched my Mom’s testimony now archived in Spielberg’s Survivors of the Holocaust Visual History Foundation. How difficult it was for her to speak. My mom answered questions, visibly trying to maintain her composure. She rarely volunteered information. She was sad. If this testimony were all you were ever to see of my Eemah, you wouldn’t see her wonderful sense of humor, her moxie, the upbeatness that she took pride in, indeed. That’s what talking about the Holocaust did to her. It drained her. She got into “managing” mode…..managing emotions, managing the situations in which she was rendered powerless….
There are stories, for which I am grateful, that Walter and I know that never made it into the tape. She is too modest and humble to share. She was careful. Yet, she was very honest about her life with my Abba. How difficult life was for them when enduring my Dad’s depressions. How unbelievably she filled in the empty spaces for me and my brother.
Still, I learned things from the testimony that I was ready to hear.
September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. By Friday, September 3, the Nazis overtook Czestochowa. By Monday, “Bloody Monday”, the Nazis had rounded up all the men, my grandfather, Avraham, and Uncle Daniel, my Eemah’s brother, included. My grandmother, Bluma, my Dodah (Aunt) Mania, and my Eemah were frantic with worry.
They went together searching for husband/father and son/brother. The men were kept captive all over Czestochova. They were captive in churches and public buildings. They went from church to church. They didn’t find them. The next day, I think, they decided to search separately so that they could cover more ground. My Mom embarrassedly remembered being “naive” and “stupid” to be carrying a picture of her brother. She went to a “young, good looking” German and, showing him the picture, asked him if he had seen her brother. He took her to a field of dead people and horses and made her lift up the leg of a dead horse to start looking for her brother. Still reeling with shock and disbelief as she tells (told) this story, we reel with her.
I must remark that I continue to shift between the present and the past tense as I recall my Eemah talking as if in the moment. How the past lives in the present. When coupled with consciousness, this immediacy of history is a good thing.
My Eemah didn’t find her brother. Nor did her mother or sister find him or Avraham. However, some time after, the two men, father and son, returned. They were happy. That is what “happiness” became, just being alive and together. How often I’ve heard and read in the memoirs of survivors that between shocks and tragic losses, life “normalized.” They “managed.” No more said.
There was a life before the war.
My Eemah was one of three siblings. Her Eemah had seven siblings and her Abba had nine siblings….I only know two of my grandmother’s (Savta’s) siblings by name. Yitzchak Szhacher and Rochma Szhacher. My mom mentioned an aunt and cousin in Warsaw to whom they sent food and money with a Polish policemen who went to Warsaw for a while when things got bad in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know three of my grandfather’s brothers. They made it to the States before the war broke out. My Uncle Henry Grun (umlau) made it to San Francisco after World War I. My Uncle Jack made it with my Aunt Sophie and son, Luther, in 1936 or ’37. They couldn’t get my Grandfather and family out of Poland on time. How many people in our family I will never know.
My Eemah’s family was not Orthodox Jewish, but very observant and traditional. My Mom went to the equivalent of a Jewish Day School and started Gimnazium (high school) before the war broke out. The family had a grocery store with emphasis, it sounded like, on coffees and teas. They worked hard and were well off.
There was a Jewish nanny in the house to care for the cooking and cleaning for the family because both parents worked.
They had non Jewish customers and neighbors. However, the people closest to them were Jewish.
Because of Kashrut, they didn’t eat at non Jewish friends’ houses, but these friends were invited to eat with them on occasion.
There were cordial relationships between my Eemah’s family and the Polish people.