My father was rescued as a ten-year-old child, taken on a train from his small town in Germany to Holland, then on a boat to England. He wrote his parents through the Red Cross until July 6, 1943, when all the Jews from his village were picked up and shipped to Sobibor, the extermination camp in Poland. There were no survivors.
His separation from his parents at a young age left him a broken, forever-grieving man. Sometimes I felt his body was physically there, but his soul had long left.
Late one evening, when I was seven, I was supposed to be asleep, but I was at the top of the stairs pressing my head against the balusters, listening to strange voices.
It was my father’s Holocaust survivor’s group. They were talking in various accents about camps—and about escaping.
“Do you remember?” One man said in a thick accent, somewhat similar to my father’s, “that the cars smelled like piss?”
The men nodded slowly.
“Did your car have that pot in the middle for everyone to go in?” He asked, and some men nodded.
The men acknowledged that some ingenious survivors had dunked their shirts in the piss pots to harden them so that they could use the shirts to loosen the bars on the cattle car window and escape. But most of the men in this group had not been so lucky.
One man talked about his hatred for potatoes since he hid in the potato farmers’ fields for so long, existing only by eating rotten potatoes. They described the camps, executions, separations, cattle cars, starvation, horrors upon horrors, only some of which I understood. Grown men were crying. Crying.
Then it was my father’s turn. With a tremulous voice that seemed unfamiliar to me, he described the Nazis storming into his village.
“They took our Torah scrolls. Our Torah scrolls!” My father stopped to take a breath.
“And dumped them in cow shit. In manure.”
The men were all looking down. I knew his parents and brother died, but I had never heard this story. His words, like the odor he described, were slow and penetrating. My father squinched his face, like he could still smell the excrement smeared on the holy words of God. And I winced, smelling it too.
My house grew quiet and the air still. Then, for the first (and last) time in my life, I saw my father cry. From gentle tears to convulsing sobs, this larger-than-life old man looked so small and vulnerable. He continued to talk about Kristallnacht—his birthday. Remembering how he and his mother hid in a neighbor’s attic as they rounded up the Jewish men in the village. When they came back, they never talked about what happened. And the neighbor’s father looked unrecognizable from beatings he had experienced. I had wished my father and his friends would be silent too but I was strangely fascinated. I fell asleep to the sounds of his brokenness and had nightmares. For years.
A few months after that first survivors’ group meeting, my parents proposed that I go to camp for the summer. They didn’t think I knew about camps, but I had clearly heard about them at the top of the stairs. Camp? Camp?!? I refused and shivered at the mere thought.
My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Brown, was blonde, svelte, and beautiful. In all of her gentile, white-bread quality, she talked earnestly about English, social studies and science. So straightforward and clear.
My family talked about heavy things—the Holocaust, mortgage rates, and my father’s joblessness and mounting depression. These subjects fluctuated and had no clear answers. They yelled. Yelled a lot. My mother was plump and unhappy. My father was old, bald, and had a thick accent. Jill Brown, though, was young, had flawless skin and perfect diction. I looked at her in awe every school day. Through her, the future of world history, and really life itself, was knowable. I thought Mrs. Brown could actually control world history.
Mrs. Brown was predictable, and she showed super excitement about plate tectonics. She was the blonde, shiksa, educational mother of my dreams. And she could get away with wearing a pink leather dress to school because she was Just.That.Cool.
So when Ms. Brown gave us a list of things to buy and bring into school in the next few weeks, I knew I had to get it done. I put my finger down the list and read it slowly, over and over until I memorized it—Protractor, three-hole-punched atlas for the binder, three-hole punched dictionary, box of number 2 pencils, and a ruler.
I thought I’d bring it up the list at dinner that night, but then the inevitable money topic came up.
“You know without your income things are just tight,” My mother hurled at my father.
“Did you even look for a job today?” My mother asked.
“I’m trying. Not much market for a sociologist out there. You know this is difficult for me.” His old face drooped in sadness and read the story we all knew. If his parents had money, they’d be alive today. His neighbors bribed their way out of Germany. His was the story for so many of the six million Jews that perished. I told myself right then that protractors and atlases weren’t so important. I wouldn’t show the list to them. I could handle Mrs. Brown’s disappointment more than my parents’.
My school lunches were gross. I am not sure whose bright idea it was to have my father pack my lunch. But there it was. He typically packed some version of an “immigrant special.”
In Germany, having rendered chicken fat (schmaltz) smeared on a slice of dense black pumpernickel bread (think doorstop) with a slice of tomato on top was a treat. The slathered fat was like Crisco’s ugly cousin, slimy and grainy, and the sandwich stayed in a heap in my stomach for the rest of the day.
“Ewwwwwww, what is that?” the kids in my Baltimore City school cafeteria asked as I ate. I was teased relentlessly. I didn’t have the heart to tell my father that this was no treat for me.
My mom, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, did let us pick out anything we wanted to eat for our birthday dinner. For several years, I had the same request: the “Gentile Sandwich” that I had so longingly seen around me every day in the school cafeteria.
A Gentile Sandwich consisted of the lightest airiest whitest pieces of Wonder Bread with bologna and American cheese, and slathered mayo, with the crusts cut off. The sandwich was cut up into four perfect squares. It was a beautiful tasty example of the lightness in the world that occurred outside our home. It was what I imagined Ms. Jill Brown ate everyday for lunch.
One day at home I looked for a book to do a book report on for school. Our house was filled with books. I found an old tattered book written in a foreign language. The pages looked like poems, but I couldn’t read them. There was a long inscription in the back jacket. My mother explained that my grandmother sent that book to my grandfather after they had fallen in love. That it was a banned book of German love poems that she was sending to him during the Holocaust. She had it bound in a “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” Jacket so he could receive it in the mail. My mother translated the words handwritten in the back jacket—I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember that they were ones of desperate love.
“She thought she might never see him again.”
“Did she ever see him again?” I asked, in clueless childhood wonder. I had just been to my grandparent’s home and seen them. I guess it felt like a far-off love story of young people, Not a story belonging to the white-haired grandparents I had recently seen.
“Yes, and then your grandmother made it to America, and got eight people to each give 1/8 of a sponsorship for your grandfather to come here,” she added.
“And nine months to the day after your grandfather made it to Chicago, I was born.”
I looked at my mother in awe. She was the product of her parent’s love story. But where was her love? Where was her warmth? She looked tired and hollow, and I wondered if her parents, like mine, became too sad to parent well.
I wanted full, warm, I’m-in-this-moment-with-just-you hugs, but my parents were unable to give those. Second best would a dolly. There were many toys I longed for, but most-of-all was a blonde, beautiful, buxom Barbie. Mom said all the accessories just promoted materialism in young girls. I knew the real implicit reason though—so many of the six million Jews that perished were children, and they couldn’t play now because they are dead, so why should I be allowed to play. We compromised on one simple floppy baby doll I called “Aviva.” Aviva means Spring in Hebrew, and it is what I would eventually name my first-born daughter, now 12. Aviva was the only toy I remember having in childhood.
My older sister’s sole toy was a family of mice. Ms. Mousy was the beautiful rodent head of household; there was Mr. Mousy, and two little mouselet children. The only frivolity, the only lightness, the only “playing” I remember in my house was the playing of the Mousy family. I think it gave my sister, who was seven years older than me, an excuse to still play if she was playing with me. My mother recently reminded me how most “Ms. Mousy” family games started:
“Let’s pretend both parents are dead!” We shouted and tossed Mr. and Mrs. Mousy aside. Did we pretend they were dead because our parents were dead inside? Or because of the lingering legacy of my father’s childhood with dead parents? I don’t know. All I know is that when my sister moved to college at age 18, and I was stuck with my hollow parents alone, I put Ms. Mousy family in the corner of her room for her, didn’t touch them, and left the window open for my sister to come back to rescue me from my bleak home, as she’d promised, But she never did.
I cried a lot in those days. Deep belly cries. I looked out the window again and again, waiting for my sister.
Today, as the landscape for immigrants gets worse and worse here, I wonder if the children of those in detention, and their children’s children, will cry out in loneliness because these children were taken from their parents as my father was from his.
And the tinfoil blankets will not provide them with the warmth they need or equip them with the love that they need to effectively parent one day. So by creating these detention centers, I fear there will come generations of empty, loveless children to come.
We may never know the true toll of separating children from their parents.
Liat Katz is a clinical social worker and writer living in Rockville, Maryland.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.