October 21, 2016 by Eleanor J. Bader
When writer Mary Dingee Fillmore arrived in Amsterdam for a six month stay in 2001, a photograph she happened upon in the city’s Jewish Historical Museum startled her. The picture showed a favorite landmark (De Waag) near the apartment where she and her partner, astronomer Joanna Rankin, were staying, cordoned off by barbed wire.
“I realized that we were living in the Jewish Quarter,” she explains. “My neighbors had been rounded up just a little over 60 years before. Suddenly, the question of what I would have done during the war became very real to me. Would I have helped them and resisted, or joined the colluders and collaborators?”
October 19, 2016 by Barbara Krasner
Branka stepped across the threshold of Apartment 4 once more on Vinohradská Street in the Prague district of Žižkov. The same enameled brick hallway. The same double wooden doors. The documentary team had told her to meet them here. They wanted to hear her whole story. Terezín. Auschwitz. Prague Survivors Group. She bore a new moniker since last May when Amalia Grossberg passed away at 109. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum dubbed Branka the Last Survivor. They sent out a press release, and this filmmaker contacted her. The documentary people flew her from Silver Spring to Prague for the filming and would fly her back. Her ninth documentary. His was the only offer she accepted. She wanted to return to Prague. She needed to return to Prague.
In her purse she carried the emails her son had printed out for her. The invitations to speak from the Israeli Prime Minister, the American president, and every college and university Holocaust center the world over. They all could wait.
She had become a pro at public speaking, starting with a Shoah event at her local synagogue, which eventually evolved into to her first recorded session with the Steven Spielberg Shoah people. She had never really bothered to count how many times she’d spoken about her experiences. She said nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that other survivors didn’t talk about.
But now as the sole survivor, she wondered whether it was time to finally let go of the past. Why had G-d chosen her, Branka, to be the Last Survivor? She knew exactly.
She fingered the periwinkle cloisonné Ten Commandments necklace her granddaughter Zoe had given her. Branka pretended not to like G-d. She told everyone that her concentration camp experiences taught her that G-d didn’t exist. Still, every night she silently recited the Sh’ma. She prayed for the dead. She asked G-d to watch over her family. Because that nut in Russia sounded a lot like that other nut Hitler.
She patted her sleeve where she’d placed a few tissues she’d grabbed from her hotel room. The documentary people put her up at the Marriott in New Town. She wore a turquoise silk blouse and a long purple skirt with a slit to her hoo-hah. She was old, she could wear what she liked and do what she liked.
Naturally, she had added one more important accessory: the silver-filigree butterfly pin, fastened to the throat of her blouse. There had been no butterflies at Terezín. Everyone knew that now, but she wore it just the same.
Taking the taxi over to Žižkov, she’d spoken in Czech to the driver, who treated her with the respect Czechs knew to give to old people. It felt good to speak the language again, especially the sounds like “ř” that foreigners had so much trouble pronouncing. Her ease with it made her a true Czech, and she wanted everyone should know this.
She leaned against the wall and noticed her shoulders were up to her ears. She had to relax. She hadn’t been to this apartment since she left Czechoslovakia. What ghosts would she find or ignore inside, she didn’t know.
The door from the street opened and she strode to the top of the stairs. The film people with all their noisy equipment trudged up the stairs, the tripod banging against each step.
It was show time, once again. Maybe she should have worn her white, black, and gray crepe blouse that said “Hollywood.”
“Ahoy,” she said.
“Don’t you look fetching today,” Roman, the director, said.
“Don’t you know it,” Branka said, slapping her thigh. She liked him ever since their first phone conversation back in America. “I ask only one thing.”
“For you, doll face, anything.”
“Shoot from above. I don’t like this turkey neck of mine. I’m short, so this shouldn’t be a problem.”
The crew stifled a laugh.
“You got it,” Roman said. He pointed to Tony, the cameraman. “You got it?”
“I got it.”
The current resident of the apartment had cleared out for the day and the crew piled in from the hallway. How many times had Branka climbed the stairs after a full day of working at the dentist’s office? So tired, her legs felt disconnected from the rest of her, they trembled in spasmodic movements she couldn’t control.
Everyone now stood in the apartment foyer. In an instant, Branka was brought back to the first time she saw the apartment. A white and gray fox terrier raced from the living room and practically jumped into her arms. She encased the terrier into the folds of her shawl. She nearly gagged on the smell of vepřoknedlozelo, a combination of pork, dumplings, and cabbage that someone was cooking.
“I will take you on a tour,” Branka told the documentary crew. “We’ll start here, in the kitchen.”
A crew member clipped the lavaliere to her lapel. She’d grown accustomed to microphones. Handheld, lavalieres, it didn’t matter. Truth be told, though, it was far easier to talk with a lavaliere. Then she could use hand gestures, a necessity when she talked of her past.
Roman gestured to Tony to run the camera. Branka took a deep breath and opened one of the cabinet doors above the sink. “When I first moved in, you see, there was a can of plums. I wanted to eat those plums so badly. To me they were a delicacy. But the superintendent’s dog had taken over the apartment and he looked so hungry, I opened the tin and gave it to him.”
“Did you ever have a dog yourself? I mean in Prague?” Roman asked.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s when I knew the Jews were in trouble. When we had to give up our dogs.” Branka pointed now to a wall that separated the kitchen from the living room. “There—there is where I slept,” Branka said.
“Should we be rolling film?” Tony asked. Roman gestured yes.
“So, you had a cot in the kitchen?” Roman asked.
“You had a cot in the living room?”
Roman shrugged. What did these people know? What could they possibly know?
“I had a bedroom, sure. David slept on the sofa. But I couldn’t sleep in my bed. The only place I could sleep was standing up, against the wall. I wasn’t a sleepwalker. I was a sleep-stander.”
No one laughed.
“I was afraid to sleep. I did the same thing in the dentist’s office where I worked. Until he, or a therapist, I don’t remember, told me I had to talk. I had to talk about the horror.”
“What happened when you slept?” Roman asked.
The voices in her head spoke quietly at first; their hushed whispers of the camps hobbled out of cracked lips and fevered tongues. This time, though, she didn’t shush them away. Instead, she beckoned them the way her mother called her to dinner before the war, the way her mother’s soul cried out to her that day in front of the latrine at Auschwitz. Branka, then fifteen, ignored her mother when she was motioned to the left. Later, she learned that that woman outside the latrine hadn’t been her mother at all. Her mother—and father—had been immediately gassed.
The air still reeked to her.
In all the interviews she’d given, this she never spoke of.
“What happened when you slept, Branka?” Roman said again.
“Ghosts of the past would visit me.” She knew no one would probe further. They never did. For effect, sometimes she recited their transport numbers, even David’s. She still knew them. Or she’d say as she did now, “You know, I spent three years at Terezín. It was a spa compared to Auschwitz.”
“You are the last survivor of the Holocaust,” Roman declared. “How does that make you feel?”
She shrugged and then fiddled with her butterfly pin.
“How I feel?” Like there is no such thing as a Holocaust survivor She slid into her standard responses. “It is a burden. As if everyone else’s stories are all bound to me, filling my memory so I can’t even distinguish my personal recollections. What does it matter whose exact story I am telling? It happened to someone, somewhere.”
Roman nodded. Tony adjusted the lens. A close-up was coming. Branka licked her lips and adjusted the position of her chin to catch the light.
“Do you think anyone will ever forget?” Roman asked.
“Only if we allow it. Will history forget? Is that what you’re asking?”
“Yes, I guess I am.”
Branka looked around for a chair. She couldn’t stand so long anymore since the last hip surgery. One of the crew brought her a wooden, straight-back chair from the kitchen. The upholstered seat had a little puppy design. Branka smiled and sat.
“Will history ever forget?” she repeated. “Who can say? I gave my testimony to Steven Spielberg’s people—I was much younger then—that was in the mid-’90s—and to many others, of course. In print, on film. I and so many others. When we started to talk, we couldn’t stop.”
She folded her hands in her lap. “It’s lonely now. Today’s generation, they don’t want to hear about the Holocaust—old people, old news.”
“But we should never forget,” Roman said.
“Who can say whether the film you’re using,” Branka pointed at the camera, “will be used years from now?”
Roman smiled. “It’s a digital camera. There is no film.”
“You see? I made my point.”
“Going back to the last survivor, what legacy do you want to leave behind?”
Branka bit her lips now. “This hatred of one another can happen at any place, any time. No one is protected. ” This one may be difficult to answer, so bear with me.” Roman paused a few moments. “When you are laid to rest, what do you want to be remembered for?”
Laid to rest. What a comical expression. As if she’d ever been able to rest. Even when she’d been able to actually fall asleep, she’d still wake up nearly hour upon hour. And what did she want to be remembered for? She’d been no hero. She’d been no partisan in the forest, no gun-toting resistance fighter. But she had been a Scout, the youngest scout in all of Prague. That must have meant something, some foretelling of her survival skills.
“You know, there’s a big hubbub about me now,” Branka said. “But I’m lonely and tired. Anyone who wants to talk to me had better do it fast. Each day I wake up, I’m completely surprised.” The crew didn’t budge. The camera still focused on her, waiting for the answer it needed. The room was silent except for the drip of the kitchen faucet. She shook her head so hard her earrings dangled against her neck.
She looked directly into the camera. “I want to be remembered as a good wife, a good mother—and a survivor. Even if all survival means is a tin of plums in an empty apartment. Someone who braved up to tell the story, again and again and again, until someone finally listened. I am still alive. That is the biggest thing. I have survived it all.”
The voices crowded her thoughts again. She paused. She heard her name, Maminka’s call to come join her. Soon enough, Branka thought, she would join her mother. But she still had things to do.
There’d be more filming during the next few days. An event for the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic. The presentation of the key to Prague. A trip to Terezín. She vowed to attend these events in true Czech style. Everyone knew how Czechs felt about their dogs. She would bring along her new fox terrier.
October 14, 2016 by Elana Sztokman
I recently investigated the following question: Does the Bible pass the Bechdel test? You know, this is the test about how pro-women a dramatic production is. The test is simple, and sets an admittedly low bar. In order to pass, the film, show, or play has to have at least two named women as characters, and the two have to talk to one another about something other than a man for more than 30 seconds. I was curious how the Bible fares.
The answer? Out of the 24 books of the Bible, only one book passes: The Book of Ruth.
October 13, 2016 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
These 17 luminous narratives reveal the secrets of a mismatched cast of politicos, filmmakers, housewives, real estate brokers and consultants, all tied to one suburban neighborhood. Linked through bloodlines and grocery lines, they respond to life’s bruises by grabbing power, sex, or the family silver. As they atone and forgive, they unmask the love and truth that hop white picket fences. One of the stories, “Sylvia’s Spoon,” was a Lilith fiction contest winner in 2006, and it’s still stunning.
Author Michelle Brafman e-chats with Lilith’s Fiction Editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about the stories that inform the stories.
October 11, 2016 by Elana Sztokman
Many women struggling with traumas around food and body shaming have stopped fasting on Yom Kippur. Cognitive behavioral psychologist Aliza Levitt, a specialist in eating disorders, says that for many women food is like a drug. “Like with any other drug, you can’t just take food away. It is a matter of life and death. Eating disorders have a high mortality rate, and you have to take that into account.”
But it’s more than that. The trauma of food triggered by Yom Kippur reflects a deeper problem in Jewish culture when it comes to food. The overemphasis on food in excess in Jewish life—so often served by women—combined with family surroundings in which body commentary is the norm, can launch different painful relationships with food and body.
October 11, 2016 by Elana Sztokman
Last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Naomi Malka was busy. The High Holiday Coordinator and Mikveh Director at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, she was preparing for a 6PM service for five thousand people and had no time to eat. For most people who observe this holiday – which, according to the Guttman Center, is the majority of Jews – the 25 hour fast is hard enough. But to start the fast already on an empty stomach and to be running around organizing and working, that is bordering on painful. But for Naomi, the challenge was even more extreme: she is also a recovering bulimic.
October 10, 2016 by Michelle Brafman
Each Yom Kippur our rabbi invites a few congregants to write a prayer leading up to the Yizkor Memorial service. Their words are always resonant and humbling. Two years ago, my short story “Sylvia’s Spoon,” winner of the 2007 Lilith Magazine Fiction prize, had been republished, and I mentioned to my rabbi that I was once again overwhelmed by the response to this tale of early pregnancy loss.
I told my rabbi that as a writer, if I get extremely lucky, a story that I send out into the world will come back to me in the form of more stories, a call and response of sorts. I described some of the moving and raw notes that I received about about miscarriages and abortions and babies never acknowledged or mourned.
It was only after my rabbi asked me to write a Yizkor prayer for these babies that I began to think of my own story. Almost twenty years ago, I’d lost a pregnancy a few months before Yom Kippur, and I remember sitting in shul, wondering if I had the right to recite Yizkor for my baby. I felt that there were no prayers for this life or for my husband or me. No way to heal.
On the eve of this Yom Kippur, I offer this prayer for anyone who has ever lost a pregnancy.
“A Prayer for the Nameless.”
On behalf of those who have endured the private grief of early pregnancy loss, I pray.
I pray extra hard for the men and women who are still trying to conceive. I wish for them a respite from the loneliest of lonely griefs. I hope they find comfort and promise somewhere, in prayer or the stories of the Biblical Sarah, Rivka, and Hannah or others who have shared this specific pain.
I pray for these men and women to have patience with well-meaning loved ones who fumble for the right words of comfort. There are no right words. I hope that they find the ear of a friend or a stranger and unburden themselves. Please God, allow them to let go of their shame and their timelines. Bless them with the courage to trust.
I pray the loudest for the nameless. The babies who never made it to the bimah, never received the rabbi’s hands upon their crowns or the blessings—Y’vorech’cho adonoy v’yishm’recho. Y’ayr adonoy ponov aylecho vichuneko—neither for a baby naming nor a bar or bat mitzvah.
I pray for the parents who named their babies and allowed themselves to wonder whether their children would inherit their grandmother’s perfect pitch or father’s love of board games. I pray for the parents who went on to make families, but who honor a due date and ponder a life that wasn’t, a broken memory that inhabits a crevice of their souls.
I call out to God, to give strength to those suffering from this hidden grief. Let us respond by remembering. Let us pray for them. And let us pray—for the nameless.
Michelle Brafman is the author of Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court, two works of fiction. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, The Nervous Breakdown, Tablet, Lilith, and elsewhere. She teaches at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children. www.michellebrafman.com
October 7, 2016 by Eleanor J. Bader
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that a Tennessee resident earning minimum wage—$7.25 an hour—would have to work 67 hours a week in order to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment in The Volunteer State.
It’s even worse in the capital city of Nashville. There, the NLIHC notes, today’s average market rents require earnings of $12.14 an hour for a one-bedroom flat, or $17.99 an hour for a two-bedroom.
October 7, 2016 by Hanna R. Neier
“Treyf… imperfect, intolerable… forbidden… A person can eat treyf; a person can be treyf.” The second memoir by award-winning author Elissa Altman (of Poor Man’s Feast fame), Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw (NAL/Penguin,) is a story of the struggle to find happiness, meaning and a sense of belonging in a world where traditions can both define and isolate us. In her latest work, Altman recalls in vivid detail her tumultuous coming of age and the ways in which food can express the most profound love while also being the catalyst for furious rebellion. From fried Spam [the “luncheon meat”] to her grandmother’s goulash, food marks the key moments of the author’s life in frank yet eloquent narrative.
Here, Altman discusses with Hanna R. Neier the dual power of food and the need to connect to one’s past while still belonging to the present.
September 29, 2016 by admin
Shana tova! As 5777 approaches, Lilith has assembled for you a batch of feminist opportunities to spend the Days of Awe from the Bay Area to the mountains of Georgia. No matter what your High Holiday plans, look over this fascinatingly diverse list. From text studies, to chanting, to services free of charge and open to walk-ins, we hope you’ll feel inspired and renewed by seeing how you—or others—might celebrate the new year. Rosh Hashanah begins Sunday evening, October 2; Yom Kippur starts Tuesday evening, October 11.
(And if you know of an event you think should be added to the list, email us—fast!—to firstname.lastname@example.org)