Once Upon a Time, My Mother’s Life

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. Both of my parents were concentration camp survivors, and their experiences were the backdrop of my life. I was particularly aware of my mother’s three little girls—Sorah, Aliza and Shoshana. At the ages of three, five and seven, they were taken from my mother by the S.S. and sent to Auschwitz, where they perished. I wasn’t born yet.

A few precious photographs of the two older girls were always displayed in our living room, and through the pieces of stories my mother sometimes told, I came to know them. Their faces, of course, were etched in my heart. As the years passed, I watched as my mother would attempt to tell someone about her life before the Nazis, and about her beautiful children. These occasions were rare and it was difficult to determine to whom my mother would open herself up. Sometimes it would be a mere stranger with sympathetic eyes.

She would tread carefully onto this unspeakable terrain, checking the nuances of reaction for some shred of understanding. If none came, she stepped back—danger lurked. I no longer recall the spoken details of those encounters, but I shall never forget the sense of fear in my mother’s eyes and the unspoken conversation that passed between us at such moments. I felt helpless to save her.

These episodes brought a particular kind of tightness to my throat. On the one hand, I wanted to keep the past a secret. I despised the sense of feeling different and didn’t want to be “discovered.” But on the other, I cherished—with some arrogance—the fact that I bore soulful knowledge of events that outsiders would never understand. Most of all, I wanted to shield my mother from pain.

The last time we found ourselves in this situation together was shortly before her death. I had accompanied her to a doctor’s office, and the secretary called us in and began taking my mother’s history. Full name, address, marital status. She then asked how many children she had, living or deceased. My mother instantly looked to me for help, her eyes pleading, “I don’t know what to do here. Why does this secretary need to know, what will she understand? Please give me permission to omit the past. I’ll tell her about you and your brother. That will be enough.”

I struggled to breathe, feeling, with a sudden crystal clarity, the full force of the inhumanity that perpetually pressed upon my mother. There was nothing speakable, I thought, that should cause one to deny one’s children. Though no longer in the camps, my mother was compelled to murder the memory of her daughters and bury them again and again.

I nodded calmly to let her know that it would be all right, that I would take charge, though beneath the surface I raged at the Nazis and at a world so able to lose its capacity for compassion and understanding. I determined that this one individual—this secretary—would know what was done to my mother. Surely the starkness of the facts would elicit a redemptive human response from her. I listed my mother’s three daughters—Sorah, Aliza, Shoshana—their birth dates, and the fact that they were killed at Auschwitz. Then I waited. The secretary looked up, said nothing, asked the next question.

I too said nothing, though the absence of our voices was deafening. What was done to my mother had blackened the world, and I should have shouted this. But as my mother knew, and I did not, there was no place to shout, no place to even whisper. There was no place for us.

I wanted to hold my mother, to tell her that I understood about the richness of the life she lost, the joys, the dreams, and yes, the children. Fighting tears, I silently indicted the secretary and the world for its irreparable lack of humanity.

Shortly after this incident my mother died. The following morning my brother and I went to the funeral home. We had buried our father years before and knew what to expect. Among the other arrangements, we would be asked what we wanted in the obituary. When the funeral director asked for the full names of my mother’s children, I clearly and quietly listed them—Sorah Levy, Aliza Shulamis Levy, Shoshana Rochel Levy—before my brother’s and mine. In my heart I felt that this was the place, the final place where my mother would not be denied and the world would know that at one time, once upon a time, her life had been different.

Anna Kolodner, Ph.D., lives in Brookline, MA, with her husband and three children.