There was no doubt, for my sister and me, that we were children from a Jewish home. Not overly religious, mind you, just oozing Jewish. My parents spoke Yiddish, keeping secrets at first, not quite aware that we were learning the language like sponges soak up water. After all, kids like to know what their parents talk about. They also learned and spoke English, along with about seven other languages. Eda, my mom, and Jack, my dad, were educated and cultured people. In Lithuania, their original home, each was a child of large families. My mom was the youngest in hers, my father among the older in his. Pictures that survived with them through the unimaginable struggles of the Holocaust show them as typical European children of the early 1900s.
My mom, as the youngest, was close to her parents. Many of her siblings immigrated to America before the Second World War. Her father died before Hitler began his escapades. Her mother died in Lithuania, concurrent with the war. Mom, a striking brunette, was married and had a daughter while in Gargzdai, her hometown. When the ghetto system emerged, she and her family were moved to Kovno. When the exterminations began, she was separated from her husband and her daughter. I could never know that sister; she was taken and killed. Mom kept track of her husband via the prisoner grapevine, knowing him to be alive for quite some time. Then he was not. Mom survived work camps and was spared the number on the wrist. A question I could not ask her until recently was whether she and other women were violated by the Nazis. She said she was not; the Nazis considered the Jewish women as vermin and would never touch them.
Mom was more open than my dad with stories of the past. She talked about surviving with humor and stamina. She sang. She did not succumb to hopelessness. She spoke of times on a march when orders were given not to talk, not to turn around, and not to stop walking. Shots were heard often from ahead and behind; never did all those who departed reach their destination. Yet, she persevered. When liberated, typhus was her next enemy. She recuperated in Italy through the kindness of a stranger. She traveled on, eventually to America. She did not come through Ellis Island. Instead, she arrived by boat to New York with class and with white gloves on. Her siblings thought they would meet a disheveled and desperate sister. Were they surprised!
My dad had a different story. Growing up in Palanga, on the Baltic coast, he, his brothers and father were in the amber business before the war. They journeyed through Europe finding and buying valuable amber to make into jewelry. He was gifted with his hands, with business, and with travel. He was also tough as nails. Not to his kids, just on the inside. He resented Hitler, Nazism and the war. They took his family, his friends, his culture, his people and almost his own life away from him. He, too, went to Kovno. Then to concentration camps, including Dachau. His whole family perished. He was not married. He knew of my mother, ten years his junior, from their home region. They did not meet again until they were both in the U.S.
Dad survived with courage, compassion and attitude. One story, a famous one at that, is his devotion to rescuing children from the ghetto. He was allowed to take the garbage out of the ghetto, as well as to deliver other goods to the rest of the city. He smuggled children out in the garbage, in bureaus, in whatever he could. He saved a nephew, turned him over to a non-Jewish family, and later Shraga immigrated to Israel. He's now in the U.S. and we stay in touch. My dad also tried to smuggle a baby out in the garbage cart, while asleep in a dresser drawer. Just at the gate, the baby woke up. Hearing it cry, the guard held a gun to my father's head and told him to shut the baby up or he would have to kill him. You see, dad bribed the guards to let him do this, but they were not about to lose their own lives because of him. My dad quieted the baby and continued on. In all, I do not know how many children he saved. I am told that one of them later became a justice on the Israeli Supreme Court. I haven't confirmed that; dad didn't care; just that he could save Jewish children to continue to tell the story of our people.
When my father was liberated, he knew that he had neither home to return to nor family to find. He remained in Europe to help with displaced persons. He said once, rather embarrassingly, that if he had been corrupt, he could have stayed in Europe and have made a lot of money. He was not corrupt. He was the most righteous human being I have ever known. Dad befriended an American Army chaplain, a rabbi, named Abe. They worked together to help as many liberated Jews find families as they could. They remained friends until the day my father died at age ninety. Abe, you see, is important to me, too. He performed my bris (circumcision), offered his temple in Yonkers for my Bar Mitzvah, and agreed to marry me to JoAnne, my Catholic wife. Abe is alive, quite frail now, and he will live in my heart forever.
Dad and Mom met in New York City. Dad made it there eventually with the help of an uncle. They married and settled in Parkchester, in the Bronx. My younger sister and I went to public schools, synagogue, and lived a comfortable though hardly extravagant life. My extended family was comprised of the friends of my parents who survived the war with them. Their children are my soul mates. Dad had virtually no relatives, Mom had many, and they, too, remain important and close to me.
My parents, who grew up near the Baltic Sea, had a deep affinity for the water. Early on, they bought a small cottage in Long Beach, New York. We spent every summer there from the time I was five until Mom had to sell it a year or so after Dad died. She couldn't be there without him. My parents' apartment in the Bronx and the cottage in Long Beach were filled with their friends, with laughter, with stories, with Yiddish, with unbridled joy. These were, for the most part, not sad and bitter survivors. They were, in their day, “party animals.” They, and my own parents, hosted Hanukkah parties, large seders for Passover, and used any reason possible to get together. My parents took us to the theater, to museums, and thankfully to Long Beach. I, too, have the ocean in my veins.
What then, were they to think when I started to date? Both outwardly and inwardly they and I knew that there was a mandate, etched in stone, as if a commandment on the tablets of Moses. Marry a Jew. Continue the traditions, the culture, and the faith of our people. Let my parents' survival of Hitler mean that their legacy will continue.
Not by design, but by circumstance, I met and married JoAnne. I dated while an adolescent, looking for the right girl, and hopefully that girl would be Jewish. I wanted it, too. I also wanted to please my parents. I did not rebel. I just fell in love. JoAnne embodied the sensitivity, the beauty, the intelligence and the devotion to helping others that I was looking for. That she was blonde, blue eyed, from upstate New York, and fully Italian Catholic was certainly a complication. We were at first colleagues during our professional training, then friends, then love evolved. It was right, and it was wrong. How were these two worlds going to merge into a marriage?
After many months of keeping the relationship away from our parents, we met mine. JoAnne came to the Bronx, to the apartment, to a home with parents and children. She never knew families lived in apartments, only college students did. I met her parents in Maybrook, New York. I used to joke that more people lived in my building than lived in her hometown. We didn't know then that we would marry, only that we cared deeply for each other. JoAnne's dad, for quite some time, called me Bob. I guess he was in denial. My father erupted by asking why did he survive the Holocaust only for me to marry outside of my faith? Not an easy evening. There were tears, some yelling, and lots of doubt. Where did I come from? Did I have a clue where I was going? Was I being selfish, naïve, disobedient, what?
Days became weeks became months. I was in Ohio; JoAnne remained in Boston. We didn't see each other often. We did speak on the phone. Continued the relationship. Asked if it had a future. Tested it out. I was in love; head over heels. I suppose she was, too. We were pretty smart, but not prepared for this challenge. Eventually, I moved back to Newton, Massachusetts, to JoAnne, and spent the next two years planning to marry. I knew I had to have a Jewish home, and raise Jewish children. Not for my parents. For me, and for my soul. JoAnne, to her credit, was well versed in both the Old and New Testament. She knew where she came from. She could embrace Judaism as the roots of her religion. She could not abandon her faith; that, too, defined her and was part of her family life. She could agree to honor a Jewish home, and raise children as Jews. I could honor her and her family by celebrating their holidays in their homes. We had a chuppah (canopy), at our wedding. That canopy was actually a gazebo, on a tiny island at the wedding site, populated by us, the maid and man of honor, the guitar player, Rabbi Abe, and Father Jack. Abe married us. Jack, JoAnne's friend from college, gave the homily. The guests, across the small stream, heard and saw everything. They cried, too, knowing, I suppose, that it was right. My dad, by then, fell in love with JoAnne. JoAnne's dad got my name right, eventually. I miss him; his laugh could light up a neighborhood. The moms are alive, in their eighties now, my mom two years older than JoAnne's. We love them both and see them often. I'm glad to say they are friends, too; we were all together in New York in December for dinner.
JoAnne and I have two children. They never question who they are. They know they are Jews. They know they are loved. They know where they came from. I'm a psychologist, specializing with children and families. JoAnne is in the field too. Destiny? Legacy? Can't decide. I do, though, know where I am going, and where I came from.