But what set my mother apart most of all was the life she had led. Growing up in the middle of the twentieth century, in the biggest city of them all--New York--I lived in a world of TV, cars, skyscrapers, and subways. My mother, on the other hand, grew up on a little village of no more than a dozen families in central Poland, where people eked out small livings and raised their own food. This was no simply rural life, but rural life in another century, before cars and machines, where all labor was done by hand or animal.
My mother also saw things that no one else I knew had seen. When she was twelve years old, in 1939, she saw Nazi soldiers arrive in her village, drag her grandfather from his doorstep, and cut off his beard. She saw her cousins imprisoned in Nazi labor camps, from which they never returned. And when she was fifteen years old, she saw her mother and father and brother and sisters for the last time, watching them head to their probable deaths, as she struggled to survive.
All my life, I heard her stories--all of them. The stories of her mother's delicious cooking, the heavenly challahs and sponge cakes and matzos for the holidays. Of how sickly she was as a child, sneaking into the kitchen late at night to relieve the pain of the boils in her fingertips by dipping them into her mother's yeast-starter dough. Of how she nearly drowned in the river in her eagerness to follow her big brother, and never fully recovered her hearing in her left ear. Of the beautiful costume she sewed for herself for the May Day celebration when she was eight, with its brilliant red and green ribbons and lace trim. Of the trips she and her mother would make into the oak forests where the best mushrooms grew. Of the geese she raised and how she loved all the little goslings.
And then, of course, there were the stories of how she survived on her own. Of how she made up identities for herself and her sister Mania so that they could go to another village, someplace where no one knew them, and find work with people who were willing to accept them as Polish Catholic girls who had been separated from their family. Of how she would hide in the attic of the barn during Nazi raids. Of how she joined the Polish army, once the Germans had retreated from her village as the war drew to a close, and was part of the first army to reach Britain.
I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't know these stories. Sitting at the kitchen table, I would listen, transfixed, as my mother made our lunch or cooked our dinner, or did her weekly baking, rolling out the strudel dough or the dough for the cinnamon rolls. These stories fed us, too.
As a child, I knew a girl whose parents had been in a concentration camp. I saw the tattooed numbers on their arms once, and asked her what had happened to her parents. She didn't know. They never talked to her about their experiences. My mother explained it to me like this: "Some people were broken by the war."
Still--how could they not tell? My mother couldn't keep from telling. It seemed to be the only way she could make sense of the extreme horror that had consumed her family and left only her and her sister.
She told us her stories, but she also wanted to write them down for us. In little notebooks, she wrote in Yiddish and English. But her English wasn't very good, and she wasn't really confident about her writing. She always told me that I would write her story for her, and when I was ten, I actually tried. I didn't get very far, though, before I realized that only my mother could tell her story. I told her so.
And so, years later, she went back to it. Over the years, she continued to write intermittently in a set of notebooks, filling up pages with stories that told of her courage and longing.
Her stories served so many purposes. They helped her to explain herself to herself, allowing her to examine in retrospect actions that she had taken instinctively on the spot. They helped her to relieve the intense pressure of memories by putting them into words, saying out loud what was running through her mind. Most important, her stories kept her connected to the people she had loved, kept alive her love for the family she had lost, and as well, their love for her.
In 1977, when Esther was fifty, she decided that she wanted her daughters to see what her childhood had been like, by creating a picture of it. She had no artistic training, but she was extremely skilled in sewing and embroidery, which she had started doing as a little girl. She knew she could stitch the picture she wanted to create, but she wasn't confident that she could draw it, so she asked my sister, Helene, to draw for her the picture she wanted to make: of her house, the neighbors' home, and her family. "But, Mom," Helene said, "I don't know what your house looked like! You'll have to do this yourself!"
Once again, on her own, my mother created the first of what eventually became a series of thirty-six embroidered pictures, illustrating the stories of her childhood and survival during the war. She used the skills she had--her powerful memory and eye, and her remarkable sewing technique--to tell her own story, in her own way.
Esther died in March 2001, at the age of seventy-four. She wasn't finished telling her story when she died.
But, finished or not, this is the story she left to share with us--all of us.
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