This is the third installment in Mindy’s memoir. Read the other installments here:
What about your other brother, the one who died in bed?
The one you watched die in your bed.
I don’t remember it.
Ma, you don’t remember telling me last time about the brother who was poisoned and the other one who died in bed after he was beaten up?
I remember a little bit the one who was poisoned, but not the other one. To be honest, I don’t even remember him so well either.
But he definitely existed?
Yes, yes, yes. He definitely existed. Nischt du gedacht. (you shouldn’t know from it) You can ask my sister, Roza.
Okay, we’ll figure out the other story later. Why don’t you tell me about this one. What was his name?
I don’t remember.
How could you not remember your own brother’s name?
Stop hocking me. I was very little. Besides, you know I had the nervous breakdown when I came out from the army. I forgot a lot, things came back in pieces, and my parents didn’t want me to remember anyway, and they didn’t talk about it. I know he went to work for a restaurant, and they found out he was a Jew, and they poisoned him with fish. They gave him a poisoned fish, poor thing.
Did you ever ask about him?
Nu, of course, but my parents wouldn’t tell me – die daftnischt viss’n (you don’t need to know). Maybe I also didn’t want to know so much.
You know what? Why don’t you just start wherever you want? You just tell me what you remember, and I’ll ask questions when I need clarification, okay?
I don’t know why my life should be so interesting for a book, anyway. You’re the one who’s educated. The book is about you, no?
Ma, your story is very interesting. The book is about both of us. What I learned from my early life, and also what you learned from yours.
I prefer to forget it, but I’ll help you the best I can.
If you don’t want to talk about it, we can stop.
I’ll tell you, mamaleh. But I can remember only pieces. In between the pieces, you can put the common sense. You ask me the questions, okay?
Don’t worry, Ma. I’ve had a lot of practice.
In my mother’s story, all roads lead back to the war. Every event of the previous six years of her life were overshadowed by it. Partially, that’s just because of the nature of memory itself – it takes the first six years for memories to consolidate in our brains. Much of what’s remembered before then is necessarily fragmented. Partially it’s because of the nature of the war, and all that it destroyed. The first thing to go was her national identity. She was born in Bucharest, Romania. But she would never step foot there again.
The second thing it would destroy would be her family. It isn’t clear how many brothers and sisters Clara had. In most of her memories, she’s the youngest of five children; the oldest was her sister Roza, who was a decade older, and there were three boys between them – Srul, Reuven and Aron. But there was also the poisoned brother whose name she forgets, who was a teenager when she was six. The brother she’d remembered dying in her bed would turn out to be a cousin. There might also have been twins who died in infancy, but that was sketchy too. Clara was the youngest, and her father’s favorite, a fact that didn’t escape her mother Malca’s notice.
Malca kept a tight rein on her children, and wasn’t above a good beating to keep them in line. She didn’t talk, she smacked. She didn’t ask questions. Bop, and then she asked questions.
The one exception was Roza, the beautiful and willful one. As a child, I’d known her only from her pictures. The one I remember most is a large black-and-white photo from early adulthood. She had long thick dark hair pulled back, and was holding a microphone as if it was something she did often. Standing near her was a dark haired man holding a violin to his chin, ready to strike it with his bow. I thought I remembered something about her singing in a nightclub or a contest, maybe that’s where the picture was taken. She was smiling a confident and knowing smile to the camera, like a young Gene Tierney.
Roza did what she wanted. She let my mother talk and she said, ’yes, yes,’ and then she just did what she wanted. She used to call me a stupid square.
But Roza would be no match for the Legionnaires, the Romanian fascists. A spirited teenager, she ignored the rules against Jews’ working, and went looking with a friend for a job in the city. They were spotted by a green-shirted group of Legionnaires, who demanded to see their papers. The two girls either didn’t have them, or else hid them because they would clearly give them away. That night, Roza came home bruised and beaten, and with her head shaved. She didn’t venture out again.
It was downhill from there. Clara was thrown out of school in the first grade. Around the time other children were learning to read and write, she was living in the forest with her mother and brothers. Roza was hidden somewhere else by the Jewish Underground, and separated from the rest of the family. Clara didn’t know where she was. Or whether she’d ever see her pretty sister again.
Her doting father Avram was soon taken away by the authorities. The family was told he was going to Transnistria, a part of the Soviet Union that the Romanians occupied as the Axis powers expanded. The word alone was enough to instill terror in anyone’s heart. Even the areas of Transnistria that were outside of the concentration camps were known as killing fields. Few Jews ever returned from there.
Clara and her mother and brothers went into hiding in the woods of Chernowitz, in what is now part of the Ukraine, with scores of other refugees. When they were lucky, the terrified refugees could hide in warehouses. They had to sleep on the floor, but at least they were indoors. When they were really lucky, there were non-Jews who would come secretly to bring food, and, with it, the hope that came from knowing that kind and courageous people still existed. When they were unlucky, they had to sleep outside in the forest. During the day, Clara and her mother would forage for leaves big enough to cover themselves with at night.
At first, the Jewish Underground helped Avram escape before he got to Transnistria, but he was recaptured within days. The Romanians weren’t as organized as the Germans, and they held their prisoners in the basement of a house while their captors decided what to do with them. Avram was tortured. I heard from various members of my mother’s family about a broken back, and teeth that were pulled out. He’s bent over in every picture I’ve ever seen of him.
But he was lucky once again. His childhood friend Misu, a gentile, was now a police chief in Bucharest. Misu drove to where Avram was being held and demanded immediate custody of the prisoner. He made a show of roughly throwing my grandfather into the back of a wagon, and rode away with him.
Wait, what do you mean, wagon? Why weren’t they driving cars? Are you sure?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe they drove in cars. What I know is Misu brought him in the wagon to us in the forest. I remember he was blue, nebb’ech, very sick. The other men had to carry him in the forest until he could go by himself. Then they took us to a different part of the forest, in another wagon. It was broken down and the horse was wild, oy it was so wild. A woman was crying from the bumps, she screamed, ‘I didn’t die by the Nazis, so now I can die from the horse!’ and I laughed. My father was so thrilled that I could laugh.
No matter how hard I try, Clara’s remaining memories of the war come in fragmented flashes. Walking across the border — with what country, she doesn’t remember; crawling under a fence with her father crawling over her, so he would take the bullet first in case the sentry shot them. Her father’s soft voice, saying, “Clarahleh, stay close to daddy, stay under me.” Falling down the side of a mountain into the snow, and being rescued by one of her brothers.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to piece together the truth from what I’ve heard from my mother. It’s what drove me to become a clinical psychologist. I don’t necessarily trust all the parts as my mother tells them now either. She’s lied before. She once even made up a friend named Sarah as a cover for her compulsive gambling jaunts. When I surprised her by showing up at one of her alleged rendezvous with Sarah – to prove the jig was up – Clara didn’t miss a beat. She feigned surprise that Sarah hadn’t shown up. Later, she would call with the reason why – the poor woman had suffered a stroke. Clara killed her off within a few days, saying she had to pay Sarah’s family a shiva call. This was the final nail, so to speak – Clara never went on shiva calls in those days; they gave her panic attacks. Her best friend Masha stopped speaking to her when she didn’t visit during the shiva for Masha’s husband. When I asked my father if he’d be joining her on the visit, he didn’t know what I was talking about.
But my mother’s lies had a purpose – to deflect criticism. And yet, it strikes me as I hear these fragments that I’ve never heard them before. All those times she could have used them against me, the times I yelled at her, the times I interrogated her to prove she’d been at the Off-Track-Betting parlor instead of wherever she claimed she’d been, she never once mentioned them, never used them to say, “How dare you put me through this after all I’ve suffered.” She would say how easy I had it compared to her, yes, but so did everyone’s parents, even the kids with good old American moms and pops. But she would have gotten a lot more mileage out of these stories than she did with the ghost of Sarah.
Even now, they’re nothing more than jagged pieces until she gets older and the war is behind her. Clara never tries to make a coherent story out of them. She leaves that to me. As she will remind me many times, “You’re the educated one.”
When I was younger I devised rules for what could be called clara-fication. Less rules, really, than heuristics to help me decide if any given thing she was telling me was a lie or the truth. When I’d ask her to pick up something for me at Waldbaum’s, for instance, say bananas. I’d ask for them when she got home and I could tell from the way she said, “They didn’t have them,” that she was lying. How could I tell? I’d ask myself, so that in the future, I wouldn’t have to rely on intuition alone. The first rule was – look for the motivation to lie. In this case, she didn’t want to admit she’d forgotten. This was a good sign that she was lying because her lies were almost always meant to forestall getting into trouble (even if getting into trouble meant nothing more than displeasing her prickly daughter) or to justify her actions.
The second rule was, if I started interrogating her, she’d have a quick answer for everything, to make sure there were no holes in her story. Unfortunately for her, as the saying goes, – a ligner darf hoben a guten zickorin – a liar must have a good memory – which is why, for all her practice, and seeming shamelessness, she had no great talent for it either, and her answers would contradict each other easily. But she would be shameless about this too, leaving her invulnerable to attack. Though I certainly kept trying. Even now, I try to use the rules sometimes. And I look up Chernowitz and Transnistria, to make sure the information about them matches what little she says about them. It does.
The first thing I notice now as she tells me these stories, is that she is quick to answer, “I don’t know,” when I ask her questions, never tries to put the pieces together, and never uses them as excuses. The only justifications I hear are for her mother, my grandmother Malca – who, my Israeli cousin Sima once told me, had mistreated my mother. Ra was the adjective Sima used to describe her treatment. Bad, very bad. My mother says it was the war that did that to her, ever since Avram was first taken away.
Malca didn’t look ra in her pictures, but she did look formidable. My grandmother is short like me – neither of us made it to five feet tall – with tightly pursed lips stained with dark lipstick – staring straight into the camera. I suspect I inherited from her my penchant for interrogation – focused on tiny details meant to trip up my defendant, who was usually Clara. But, instead of a beating, the only punishment I doled out was a heavy dose of contempt. Everything about Malca was all tight lines. And neat, not a wrinkle on her clothes, not a thing out of place in her small sparse living room. Not like the messy Clara, or like me.
I did everything my mother said because if not, I would get a beating. Like Ezer Weitzman said, you know who he is?
I know, Ma. He was your commanding officer when you were in the Israeli Air Force later.
He was the President of Israel too, you know, but later. Then, he was my M’faked. He once told me, ‘You know, Chaya– he knew me by my Hebrew name — you’re the most obedient soldier I ever saw. You obey the p’kudot (regulations) to the letter.’
I said, ‘M’faked, I had a sergeant in my home, my mother! You had to do, you know. You had to obey wherever you are.’
He smiled, ‘ Zeh m’od chamud.’ (Hebrew, for that’s very charming)
My mother, when she said a word, she was like god. You have to remember. My mother wasn’t a bad mother, she had a lot of ‘tsurris’ (trouble) — having children, and not having what to give them to eat, she didn’t have a picnic, she had hardship. And she lost children. She lost twins before I was born. They were sick and she didn’t have what to feed them.
How old were they when they died?
I don’t know, it was before I was born. I used to know, but after my nervous breakdown, I don’t remember anything. But no matter what happened, my mother was so clean, she was – how you say – meculous?
Do you mean “immaculate?”
Yes, meculous clean, I used to wear schmattes, and everyone said those schmattes shined, that’s how meculous she kept me.
And when we were in the camp after the war, you should see what she did. They had to disinfect us because some of us had TB. They disinfected all the rooms that we were in.
In Italy, we were in the camp, after the war.
You mean, a displaced persons camp.
Yeh, like I said. I think we were in Cremona then. Anyway, all the refugees were in a big warehouse, and they gave you a portion. They hang up a rope and put a sheet in between, and this is your portion, like where your family lives, in the warehouse. They took us all out and they disinfected the whole place. And then they sprayed us with some kind of powder all over us. We had to take off the clothes and everything. We were naked, one by one, they put a sheet like in a hospital when they put a sheet between the beds. One by one you had to take the clothes off, and they sprayed the powder. Women sprayed women and men sprayed men. We couldn’t go in our room for hours and hours. And they took away all our clothes and they gave us a robe, like when you go to visit a doctor they give you a robe to put on. And then we went home and we had to put on whatever we had. We didn’t have much. My mother put on me Roza’s things, a skirt from Roza and a blouse.
I was ten years old. Roza was twenty, and big. I was little. So her clothes were big, big on me. So my mother tied up the blouse in front, and the slip she folded it over and over. She tied a rope around the waist of the skirt. You should see how nice she did it. She was very imaginative, she loved clothes, probably from when she was young, she was a dressmaker for men. She was very talented, my mother.
Was your father a sergeant too?
Oh, my father was very soft-speaking. We weren’t afraid of him. He talked quietly, and we would always do what he said, but from respect. I had an aunt, Mimmeh Liebe. Mimmeh is like Auntie in English. She was my father’s aunt. Mimmeh Liebe didn’t have children. So she begged me, ‘make sure when I die, someone will say kaddish after me.’ You know, it has to be a man. And I used to push my brothers to say kaddish for her. But they didn’t feel like to do it. So, I would say to my father, ‘it looks like they don’t want to go say kaddish, but I promised Mimmeh Liebe’ We weren’t orthodox but one thing they could do was to say kaddish. My father – oh, they listened to my father – but he talked quietly to them. He said, ‘Sruli, Sruli, please go say Kaddish, it takes only two minutes. Do it for daddy, please.’ And he would go. Me, they wouldn’t do it for, but for my father, they would go. He already suffered enough.
You know how much I love the movies. Well that was starting from Cremona, and then later in Israel too. I used to run away from my life. You know, when you see movies, you don’t think about your life. It’s a different life, you don’t stay and mope on yours.
The first movie I saw was ‘Gilda,’ you remember ‘Gilda?’
Yeah, with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.
Oy, that was some movie. I was 10. Oy, I got a beating for it.
My Uncle Marcu, my cousin Dinah’s father, gave me money to go with Dinah. We stayed and watched it again, and again, and again. By the time we got back, it was very late. My mother was waiting with Dinah’s mother Mintze by the gate, by the refugee camp. She waited so long, they were worried to death. Mintze was happy to see us, that we were okay. But my mother start to pull me by the hair, and smacked me back and forth, back and forth.
She was screaming, ‘Never again will you do this to me. Never again will you do this.’ And I was crying, ‘No, no, mommy. No.’
We come back to our place in the camp, and I went right away to my father. He never raised his voice, but this time, he yelled at her. “A meshuggena, die hargetz mein baby.” (You crazy person, you’re killing my baby.) She went away, and I stayed with him. So, I told him the story from the movie, and I could see my mother had come back. She was hiding in a corner listening while I talked. (The adult Clara is laughing as she says this now.) She didn’t move until I finished the story from the whole movie. My father, you know, he was very sick now all the time, but he loved the story, my mother loved the story. It was a gorgeous movie.
I didn’t have enough money to go to the movies, though, even later, when we were in Israel. My mother gave more money to my brothers. They were her favorites. And she said boys needed more money than girls. I had nothing. So I would ask my brothers for money so I could see movies. I would ask them and they would say ‘No,’ the stinkers.
So how did you get to see so many movies?
Sruli was always doing something bad. So, I snitched on him and he got a beating. After that, he gave me money for movies.
Ma, on the phone, you said to remind you to tell me a story. Was that the story you wanted to tell me?
No, now, I’ll tell you about Sruli and Elena when we were in Israel already. They were supposed to get married one day in 1949. I forget which day exactly. They didn’t have any money – he was always a vagabond.
What do you mean, vagabond?
You know, he didn’t like to work, he wasn’t responsible. He played dice instead. Like that. So, it would just be a small affair with a rabbi in my parents’ house. Just a few people. Her father was killed in the war and her mother was far away. Sruli was twenty-three, I was about fifteen. The date came, Elena came to the house wearing her nicest dress. The rabbi came soon after her. My parents were there, and me. But no Sruli.
My mother told me to go find Sruli and give him a message for her.
‘Tell him that if he doesn’t come right now, I’m going to break every bone in his body. Go.’
So I went. I looked in all the places where the vagabonds hung out. There he was, in an empty store, playing dice with the other vagabonds. I told him my mommy’s message. He didn’t budge. Then, I had an idea.
“Sruli, look, Mommy’s coming down the street! She’ll be here any minute.” Just like that, Sruli ran out from the back of the store, and he ran all the way home, to get away from my ‘mother.’ When he got there, he saw she was there the whole time, and he knew I lied. He waved his arm at me, like to say he would give me a beating. My mother said, ‘If you touch her, Vagabond, I’ll kill you.” And that’s how they got married.
How long did their marriage last?
About fifty years. Until he died a few years ago.
You were very clever.
But not like you. I’m not educated like you.
Believe me, Ma, your education is a lot more impressive than mine. Should we continue next time?
Sure, Mamale. Whatever you want.