Adapted from my book, Amazing Journey: Metamorphosis of a Hidden Child, 2010
Unlike our father, our mother avoided speaking about the Holocaust. It was very painful for her to remember those war years. Just as Father could not free himself from those events, Mother dreaded remembering them. After our father’s death in 1991, I encouraged her to record her story. I did so very warily because, once she started, she could not stop.
“It is like a film that runs inside my head,” she would say, “and I cannot turn it off.” Nightmares always haunted her for nights on end following such recollections. One day, however, she did agree to record a brief summary of the years she spent after leaving the Tarnów Ghetto. She locked herself in a room and recorded a 45-minute monologue.
Again, unlike our father, she was neither the athlete nor possessed his outgoing personality. She was content to let Father be the spokesman and leader. Yet, after Father literally forced her to escape from the Ghetto, together with me, the two-year-old, she rose up to the challenge and succeeded in maneuvering herself and me for two and a half years in a foreign and very dangerous environment.
However, she did love to talk about her youth in Tarnów, about her mother, her brother Ignaz and her sister Adele. She recalled with nostalgia her school years, her involvement in the Shomer Hazair Organization (a Socialist-Zionist youth movement), and most of all, to recall the year she spent in Palestine.
Mother was brought up in a strictly Orthodox household, but she rebelled against the many restrictions. She also strove to stand on her own two feet, not to be dependent on anyone. Thus, in her late teens, she enrolled in a secretarial school, a step which meant mandatory attendance at classes on the Sabbath, bringing constant reprimand and scorn from her father.
After graduating, she worked as a bookkeeper for a large company, but her dream was to go to Palestine to learn farming and to join a kibbutz (a collective community in Israel). In 1933, she joined a group of young men and women making Aliyah (Hebrew word meaning “ascent”; the immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel, a basic tenet of Zionist ideology) and enrolled in an agricultural school in the land of her ancestors. I think that that year was one of the happiest in her life. Even in her 70s and 80s, she often recalled the dirty, strenuous work and the summer heat with love and nostalgia. She also conveyed the dreams she had had for her future.
But a short year after her arrival, the telegram came. Her mother was gravely ill; her days were numbered. Mother packed a few necessary belongings and made the long trip back home. She absolutely intended to return to Palestine; she knew that pioneer existence was her destiny.
However, life had other plans for her. She never did return. My grandmother died a few weeks after Mother’s arrival in Poland, and her beloved sister passed away during childbirth a few months later. She and her brother were shaken by these severe double-blows. How could she leave him now when he needed her support and help? So, she found a secretarial job and remained in Tarnów.
March 6, 1939, she married my father. He came from a relatively well-to-do family, and her future seemed to look up. But again, fate intervened. A few months after the wedding, on September 1 of that year, Hitler invaded Poland, and life would never again be the same. By the time I was born the following March, living had become a struggle with new restrictions imposed daily on the Jewish population.
It was after the second deportation, in September 1942, when some Jews and children from the Ghetto were deported, that my father forced Mother to escape to the Aryan side to live on forged documents together with me. This was just the beginning of a long and dangerous journey that would propel her into a new, perilous and treacherous world where a wrong word or a wrong gesture could mean the end of both our lives.
I am not sure how Mother managed to blend into Polish society, to teach me the necessary Catholic prayers and train me how to behave in church. She had to invent and remember her new family name, Ślusarczyk, and her new identity as the wife of a Polish soldier missing in action. She also had to drill into me these new family “facts.” Later, she would hide her husband/my father (who escaped from the Ghetto) in the one-room apartment and, again, make sure that I, the three- and four-year-old, would not divulge his presence.
I want to conclude my tribute to Mother with a few selected lines from a prayer said every Friday evening by Jewish husbands in praise of their wives:
Aishes Chail – A Woman of Valor:
“A woman of valor, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband’s heart relies on her and he shall lack no fortune.
She does him good and not evil, all the days of her life.
She girds her loins in strength, and makes her arms strong.
She extends her hands to the poor, and reaches out her hand to the needy.
Strength and honor are her clothing, she smiles at the future.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and partakes not the bread of laziness.
Her children arise and praise her, her husband, and he lauds her:
‘Many daughters have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all.’
False is grace and vain is beauty; a God-fearing woman– she should be praised.”
Read more by Felicia Graber.