What I have learned in my life and how I have learned it are directly related to my self-concept. One essential facet of my self-concept is my association with the significant others in my formative years. “Significant others” includes family and groups to which I have belonged throughout my shifting life.
For instance, it is interesting for me to realize that, by the age of two years, I was already the product of two cultures. I was born in Vienna, Austria in January of 1938, six weeks before Hitler marched in the city and annexed Austria to Nazi Germany. I was one and a half years old when we fled the persecution and emigrated to Montevideo, Uruguay. In our home, we lived as Europeans, continuing to communicate exclusively in German. In school and in our neighborhood, I tried to fit into the culture of Uruguay and speak only Spanish.
I wish I could go back in my mind and take a look at my environment in those early years. Someday, I plan to do so and get a better understanding of the events and surroundings that shaped me. I think about the first year of my life. I wonder what kinds of feelings are transmitted to a baby by people who fear for their lives? What about people who are leaving behind everything and everyone they have known and loved and are going to a land they know nothing about, people who fear that the next sound of footsteps in the hall will seal their doom? What do people in such a situation transmit to a their young children? They must have been going through great turmoil, and I was surely absorbing it in some way.
There were seven of us who escaped together: My mother and father, my older brother, my mother’s sister, her husband, and their daughter, who was ten years older than I. After waiting a few weeks for our ship, we spent one month sailing to South America. Since the adults had time on their hands, and future accommodations were uncertain, they decided it would be a good idea to get me out of diapers. Consequently, as preparation for meeting my new home, I spent that month of my life being toilet trained on the Atlantic Ocean. An interesting distinction indeed.
It is probably not a coincidence that I have always loved the water and my favorite colors are blues, greens and purples. The feel, sound, and appearance of water have always been happy, comforting and restful for me. The only things I dream of owning someday are a sailboat, a house on the waterfront, and a waterbed. I don’t remember a time when I could not swim. I suspect that the time on the ship must have been pleasant for me. We arrived in Montevideo, where we knew no one and did not speak the language. My parents had to find a place to live and a way to make a living, and they had to do so very quickly. Our first apartment was on the oceanfront, where all our belongings molded from the humidity, which was also a totally unfamiliar occurrence for my family.
My father had the audacity to rent an empty storefront on the main street of the city in a fashionable neighborhood. He chose the first floor locale of a corner, high-rise apartment building and started a grocery store. Since that venture required all the money they were able to smuggle out of Austria, there was no money left for a place to live.
The seven of us lived in the basement of the store. They hung sheets on clotheslines as partitions and lived out of suitcases for two years until the business could be established and they could afford to rent a house. I have a vague recollection of the basement: cement floor, sheets, mice, bugs in our beds and darkness . . . always darkness.
As I grew older and went to school, my world expanded a little, and I met other children. I was the only Jewish child in my neighborhood. There was one other Jewish girl in my school. She was fat and ugly, and I hated her for being the only other Jewish child my age that I had ever seen. I wanted no connection with her.
On the street we were occasionally called ugly names because we were Jewish. I knew that my grandparents, along with other family and friends, were put to death in terrible ways because they were Jews. I don’t, however, remember feeling unworthy because I was Jewish. I just knew that evil people were persecuting us and we were escapees.
My mother somehow managed to get through World War II with any bitterness, even though she knew that her family and friends were dying in concentration camps. I will never understand how she did that. Her parents burned in the ovens at Auschwitz. She was extremely sad, but she was not vengeful or hateful. At least, she transmitted none of those feelings to me. The bitterness I have about the Holocaust I have accumulated as an adult. The older I get, and the more I learn about what took place, the more I realize the horror and inhumanity of that period in our history.
In 1946, after the war had ended, we were able to leave South America to come to the Promised Land . . . America. My mother’s brothers had been fortunate to be freed from the concentration camp in 1939, thanks to a letter written to the Nazis by Justice Louis Brandeis. Brandeis was my mother’s maiden name, and a letter miraculously reached Justice Brandeis. The letter stated that he may be a relative, and it touched him enough to arrange for their release and passage to the United States. They had a delicatessen in Richmond, Virginia, and they sponsored the seven of us to come to the USA.
I was eight and a half years old. It took us three and a half days of flying to reach the Miami. We arrived at one o’clock in the morning and waited till eight a.m. for our train to Richmond. It was July—wintertime in Uruguay—and we were steaming in our winter clothes and feeling very lost. The twenty-four hour train ride was grueling, since this was pre-air-conditioned-trains era, and it took twenty-four hours to get to Richmond from Miami. Due to a mistake in our telegram wording, there was no one meeting us at the train station in Richmond. It was bewildering. I was hot and scared and, the United States did not seem like a very hospitable country to me.
Gradually, each of us managed to adjust in our own way. This brings to mind some thoughts about growing and adjusting. We could learn a lot from watching trees grow. If a tree, in any stage of its growth, comes to an obstacle, it does not stop growing. It grows around the obstacle. Sometimes a tree is planted too close to a building, and it cannot grow freely on that side, but the other side will still flourish. It can still grow tall and may grow in height above the building and spill out over its roof. It usually creates an interesting appearance, and it may even provide shelter for the building, even as the building may have sheltered the young tree. Just because we meet an obstacle does not mean that we must stop growing. We can grow around it and above it. We can expand in the directions that are open to us.
It is also interesting to note how quickly we are able to make adjustments and adapt to situations. I recently had a back molar that gave me a whopping toothache. I experienced a great deal of pain each time something hot or cold touched the tooth. After a few days, I noticed that I had not felt any pain in that tooth for a while. I had been eating hot and cold food without any discomfort. I noticed that I had altered how I was chewing in order to avoid that tooth, and I thought it had healed. I decided to test my recovery. I put some cold water in my mouth and slowly, deliberately, let it flow to the affected molar. It hurt! That tooth was as sensitive as ever, but I had so deftly maneuvered air, liquids, and food around it that I had not set off the pain. I had learned to adjust so well that I did not even know the sensitivity was still there.
We all have our sensitive places, and we protect them. The best remedy would be to remove the reason for the sensitivity, but that is not always possible, so there are times when we need to learn to avoid the pain till we are able to deal with the source of the problem. Till then, we adapt to avoid the pain.
The group of people I carried with me into all my new situations as I was growing up are the ones I mentioned in the beginning of this writing. I was the youngest member of the group, and my desires and needs were at the bottom of their list of considerations. At least, that was the way I always experienced it. They were older and bigger, and they had just been here first. I developed into a very unassuming person who didn’t make any demands on others and was grateful for everything I received. After all, as my mother often told me, I was lucky to be alive! It was up to me to adapt. I didn’t have any problems with people, and they liked me. That was my pay-off for being totally defined by others. For a long time, it was enough for me. It made me happy and served me well as I was growing up.
As a young person, one of the things I did to entertain others was to be a mimic. I would do teachers, political personalities, movie stars, friends, and so on. When people marveled at my talent, it was hard for me to understand. It was so easy for me to do, I thought everyone could do it. As I was growing up, I paid close attention to body language and inflection, trying to discover the signals I may have missed due to my limited understanding of the language. I would copy what I thought would help me fit in wherever I found myself to be. I wanted acceptance.
I am now coming to a point in my life when I am ready to define myself for myself. That brings me back to the significant others in my life. Whom do I belong to now? What people do I feel a part of? Who is influencing me at this moment in my life?
I think about the people I have met at Sangamon State University. I enjoy them all, but—as I think of myself, sitting with each group of students and professors, younger, older, black, white, men, women, American, and foreign students—I wonder. Since I am among them, I always feel somehow apart from them. I accept them fully, and I think they accept me, but I feel somehow different from them.
If I go to a PTA function, art gallery opening, a religious service at the synagogue, or a King Harvest Coop gathering, it is always the same. I have the feeling that these people have something that unites them that I lack. It isn’t particularly a negative feeling, and sometimes it is almost an ego trip . . . saying to myself . . . I’m not quite like these people; I’m unique. At other times, I feel left out.
I don’t even feel like a part of my family or my husband’s family any more. They are relatives, and I care about them, but I do not see myself as a part of that system either. I wonder . . .what do I belong to?
I feel definitely that I belong to my children and they belong to me. I have now the ability to detach at times and look at them objectively, but there is no doubt that we belong to each other in a very important way.
I am not able to identify myself with most of the members of my synagogue congregation. I don’t feel that any of them are very much like me, but I do feel close to them. I do feel a part of them and I feel that they are a part of me because we are all Jews. I feel a strong sense of identity with every Jew I meet, whether I like them or not. Being always set apart and identified as Jewish must be the reason I have such a strong sense of belonging to Judaism, but not too much else.
Maybe there is a connection between my ability to adjust and my avoidance to identify with a group. I have learned the value of being flexible, and I may be afraid that attaching myself to something will rob me of that flexibility.
I am old enough to stop being defined by others, and I am working hard to know myself and become centered within myself. In that regard, my classes and experiences have netted me valuable insights into my abilities and motivations. I realize how early in my life and under what unusual conditions I have been formed. That does not mean that I have to remain in that form for the rest of my life, but it is necessary for me to understand it before I can make changes in it. I intend to work on it further!
This was written when I was thirty-eight years old. I had six young children and was just beginning to embark on a college degree. It was the first time in my life when I was encouraged to focus on myself instead of my husband and children and community.
In the years that followed, I completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree, embarked on a career in social work and public education, went through a divorce, and became the mother of six married children and about a dozen grandchildren.
It appears that, at the time of this writing, I was preparing for many more adjustments!