My ever-new and unknowable mother

May 9, 2010 at 5:18 PM 5 comments


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My mother had to see a psychiatrist. Luther Ulrich* was a doctor in his mid-sixties who worked for the German government agency overseeing wiedergutmachung reparations for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. To get an increase in her monthly stipend, my mother had to convince the psychiatrist that sixty-eight years after the Nazis shot her father and two sisters in the back of the neck, she still suffered “psychological distress” from having lost them in this way.

Dr. Ulrich asked my mother where she lived after her family was murdered.

“In a forest,” she said. “In Poland.”

“What did you eat?” he asked her.

She said she stole tomatoes from a garden. Sometimes kind people would give her bread.

“Where did you sleep?” he asked.

She slept in the forest.

The psychiatrist asked, “Did you have a bed?”

My mother has learned not to show flabbergastation in the face of naive, even blockheaded questions about life under the Nazi occupation of Poland. She believes that every person who wasn’t alive in 1942 deserves a thoughtful reply.

My mother told the psychiatrist, “Doctor, there were no beds in the forest.”

Dr. Ulrich seemed dubious about my mother’s experience during World War Two and her assertion that she was the sole survivor of Korytnice, or Kritnetse, as the Jews called their shtetl. “If you didn’t have a bed, how could you sleep?” he asked.

She pantomimed her sleeping accommodations. “I would look for a smooth rock or a rise in the ground,” she said. “That was my pillow.”

The psychiatrist recommended that the German wiedergutmachung authority increase my mother’s reparations payment based on work she was forced to do in the Jewish ghetto — before and after the murder of her family.

The story that consumes her

The psychiatrist would have been less incredulous about my mother’s sleeping arrangements in the forest if he had ever spent a day with her. If he had, he would have understood something about:

* The guilt she has carried with her for sixty-eight years for not having taken her little sister with her on the day she escaped from the shtetl.

* Her unrequited love for the brother who hid with her in barns and forests. After the war, he got married instead of making a life with her.

* The stupidity of another brother, a devoted Marxist-Leninist and Hero of the Soviet Union, who knew that his sister and brother survived the war, but who did not make his survival in Kazakhstan known to her until 1964.

* Her amazement that she survived in Volyn when thousands of other Jews in the same province were betrayed and killed.

Dr. Ulrich also would have heard my mother talk about the five years she and my father spent in Bindermichl, a displaced persons camp in Linz, Austria.

* A German doctor in the DP camp told my mother that one of her breasts was infected and he had to remove it. “That’ll be forty shillings,” he said. My mother gave him fifty shillings. He pocketed the money without giving her the change. For reasons medical or prurient, he wanted a second look. “Ich hab das niemals gesehen!” he said. I’ve never seen such a thing before! My mother says, “I never went back to him and, as you can see, I have both breasts.”

* Her brother and his wicked wife remained in Poland until they and other Jews were forced out in 1956 by the Gomulka regime. They blamed my mother for not bringing them to America. “For five years we begged them to come with us!” my mother says.

Und so weiter.

In short, my mother has almost no other subject but the war and its aftereffects.

I do not know what is more painful to me: Thinking about my mother as a fourteen-year-old orphan running for her life or listening to her stories, nearly all of them repeated verbatim, sometimes more than once a day. The repetition is not a sign of age, mental breakdown or senility. My parents have talked about their war-time experiences for as long as I can remember.

My mother and father reprise their stories because they know they are among the last Holocaust survivors alive today and they feel an obligation to keep their memories in circulation. I think too that as the killings recede in time, the constant repetition is anodyne: It makes the trauma manageable.

I can’t always take it

Sometimes — no, often — I find a way to change the subject. I cannot take hearing what sounds like a cross between a classroom recitation and the keening of a creature in pain.

Yet I telephone my mother every day. On most weekends I drive two hours south on the New Jersey Turnpike to visit with her and my father. For all her repeated stories about the murders and her faithless brothers and the normal life that the Nazis took from her, she remains new and unknowable to me.

My mother is eighty-one years old. Osteoporosis has shrunk her to about four feet ten inches. When she was young, she was prettier than a Hollywood movie star.

Some mornings she says she wakes up and she is a fourteen-year-old girl hiding in a pile of straw with her brother. Then, when she gets her bearings, she is up and about. She helps my father take his insulin shot. She makes sure he doesn’t fall on his way to morning prayers. She prepares the big meal of the day that they eat at nine-thirty in the morning. She bakes her own bread and pastry. She makes her own dresses. Over the years she has helped Russian immigrants find work and offered them her friendship. She does the wash and hangs it on a clothesline between two maples trees in the backyard because she likes the smell of air-dried laundry better than the clothes dryer. She offers her marriage counseling services free of charge to the Polish woman who weeds the flower garden that my mother plants every spring.

All of this my mother does in spite of her auditory hallucinations, an ongoing medley of Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian music that rushed in on her when she lost almost a hundred percent of her hearing in both ears.

When it’s time for me to leave, my mother sends me off with a ten-pack of paper towels or toilet paper that she got on sale. She gives me leftovers so that I don’t have to cook for two days. She insulates jars with the arts and entertainment pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer and foil-wraps chicken with the transparent plastic bag from The Wall Street Journal.

In the afternoon, she reads Youth by Dostoyevsky in Russian or Downright Funny (Latishe Gelekhter) by a comic Yiddish writer named Moshe Nudelman. She has asked me to find books for her in Polish and Ukrainian. Recently she picked up Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. She chuckled to herself as she read it. “I know these people!” she said.

How can I become like her?

My mother’s comprehension of everything from totalitarian and fascist political structures to world literature exceeds that of most of the people I know. She feels inferior to the doctors and lawyers she invites over for lunch, but I sense too that in her heart of hearts, she sees how little we well-educated people really know about life.

And that’s why she keeps repeating her war-time stories. She wants to warn us that the world turns upside down when we least expect it to. She sees that we are thick-headed and distracted, so she tells the stories over again.

I study my mother’s eyes and old flesh. How can this woman, who lost so much by the time she was fourteen years old, get up every morning and bring her lovingkindness out into the world?

Women with little children frequently worry that they are turning into their own mothers. I will have to live to old, old age before I am lucky enough to turn into mine.

* All names in this blog post have been fictionalized.

Wordle

Note: The photo of the Bindermichl displaced persons camp is courtesy of Google Images. The man and woman in it are not my parents.

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Entry filed under: Emotions, Family, Holocaust, Love, Memory, Non-fiction, War. Tags: , , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Urban Renaissance  |  May 10, 2010 at 1:29 AM

    What a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman.

    Please write more about her. Share her stories. I would love to hear them.

    Reply
  • 2. Toby Winter  |  May 10, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    Thank you for sharing this. And yes, please write more about your parents. You are an amazing writer and you enrich me with every story.

    Reply
  • 3. JC  |  May 10, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    It’s easy to lose perspective on the huge variation in the human condition. Your mom’s story should never be forgotten. Thanks for sharing it here.

    Reply
  • 4. Sara Bennett  |  May 10, 2010 at 8:21 PM

    I’d love to hear more stories about your parents and I’m sure so would the rest of the world. And, by the way, I read A Short History of Tractors. I don’t know anyone else who has read it. Does your mother like it?

    Reply
    • 5. modestine  |  May 10, 2010 at 10:31 PM

      Sara, I’ve got my mother leaned over me right now, and she wants you to know that, “Of course I liked it! I am familiar with this type of people!” She publicly thanks my sister for lending the book to her.

      Reply

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