Unlike my father, my mother avoided speaking about the Holocaust years. Unlike him, she was neither the athlete nor possessed the outgoing personality. She was content to let Father be the spokesman and leader. Yet, after Father literally forced her to escape from the Tarnów 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.
For Mother, it was very painful to remember those war years. Just as Father could not free himself from those events, Mother dreaded remembering them. After my 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 Ghetto. She locked herself in a room and recorded a forty-five minute monologue.
On the other hand, 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.
She was brought up in a strictly Orthodox-Jewish household, and she rebelled early against the many restrictions and strove to stand on her own two feet, not wishing 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 seventies and eighties, she would often recall the dirty, strenuous work with love and nostalgia. She would also describe her friends, her teachers, the summer heat, the dreams she had had for her future.
But then, a short year later, the telegram came. Her mother was gravely ill, and her days were numbered. So 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 and she never did return. Her mother died a few weeks after her arrival in Poland, and her sister followed 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 another secretarial job and remained in Poland.
On 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. New restrictions were imposed daily on the Jewish population.
It was after the second deportation, the deportation of some Jews and all children from the Ghetto in September 1942, that my father forced Mother to escape to the Aryan side to live on forged documents. 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 my mother managed to blend into Polish society, to teach me the necessary prayers and train me how to behave in church. She had to invent and remember her new family name, Âlusarczyk, 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) in the one-room apartment and, again, make sure that I, the three- and four-year-old, did not divulge his presence.
I 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.”
[August 2011; revised June 2014]
This piece is adapted from my book, Amazing Journey: Metamorphosis of a Hidden Child (Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert). St Louis: Felicia Graber, 2010.