One recent summer evening, I strolled with my children toward an outdoor concert in our local park. The path was forested, and I found myself doing what I’d been doing for almost a year: imagining myself in a different set of woods on a pitch-black night. I imagined clutching my sons’ hands, running, fearful of letting go and losing them. In my mind I summoned the cold, the hunger, and the terror of Nazis.
In the real world, I prepared healthy meals for my kids and volunteered in their schools. I kept their clothes clean, their teeth brushed, their minds open and expecting. But I was writing a book about a boy whose childhood was shattered by Hitler, and I was living a dual life. I spent hours on the phone with Sal (pronounced Sol; formerly Szulim), a close family friend who’d hired me to write his memoir. For months, I probed Sal’s memory, shook the dust off his painful recollections, and wakened the dead. And I found myself constantly comparing and contrasting the sheer normalcy of my life — buying chicken, running a bath — with the details of a time that was anything but.
My children became the perfect frame of reference as I delved into the world of another little boy. I’d stare at my youngest, Zane, aged three, and think, “That’s how old Szulim was when German warplanes first darkened the sky above his house.” I tried to picture my six-year-old, Asher, stumbling over cobblestones — like Szulim, at six, fleeing a Gestapo roundup. I trembled at the thought of kissing my own 10-year-old, Jacob, goodbye before sending him on an orphan train across Europe. Szulim’s mother didn’t know if she’d ever see her son again, but she knew it was the only way to keep him alive. I cried as I typed Szulim’s father’s parting words: “Remember who you are, remember who brought you into this world. Remember that you’re Jewish and will always be Jewish.”
Sometimes I used my kids as literary fodder, and that, too, was disorienting. I closely watched how Zane sucked his fingers; I wrote my kids’ sensory quirks and self-soothing habits into Szulim’s story. When I sought to capture the dismantling of Szulim’s world through the eyes of a child, I stared into the faces of my boys. On the playground, at the dentist, everywhere I turned, a frum little Yiddish boy with side locks and short pants became Zane’s or Asher’s or Jacob’s doppelganger. Even worse, I got angry — quickly, and all too often — at the three boys seated around my own kitchen table.
“Ingrates!” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you know kids are starving?” I was thinking not of bloated bellies in Africa, but of Szulim hiding in a cellar for almost two years, eating nothing but a single bowl of soup each day. My middle child won’t eat pasta with red on it, yet Szulim hungrily lapped up a bowl of broth despite the dead rat floating in the pot.
My sons’ incessant requests, their refusal to eat a home-cooked meal, their inability to sit still for two minutes — it was driving me mad. Dzietzy i ribi glosi nie mayem! “Children and fish do not have a voice,” I wanted to yell, an old Polish trope about childrearing. But wait a minute. We’re not living in a mid-century shtetl. Besides, what kind of mother doesn’t want to hear her son’s voice?
As it turns out, a scared one. Every day, I sat at the computer and immersed myself in a world where bullies did more than exclude a child from a coveted seat in the cafeteria, where threats weren’t online, but on the street where Szulim, hungry, wearing his yellow star, rolled his hoop in the ghetto’s dirt. If my children can’t sit still during dinner, how will they survive when they have to cower in an attic without moving, while Nazi soldiers patrol the sidewalks on the other side of the rusting tin roof? For 18 days, Szulim and his little brother sat trembling in silence, waiting. There were no iPhones. No snacks. Nothing but fear that each moment might be their last. Could my sons survive this? I knew the answer and it terrified me.
Yet Szulim was just a regular boy, too, a lobus, always getting into trouble. “How did you temper your natural impulses?” I asked Sal, not just for the sake of his story, but for the safety of my sons.
“What can I tell you?” Sal said. “We don’t know that we have survival instincts until we need them.”
I tell my sons to look both ways before crossing the street; Szulim was instructed to never ever take off his yellow star, to hide from any man wearing shiny boots. Perhaps if my children see a German take his knife to their rebbe’s long beard, they’ll be able to hold still, too. If they, like Szulim decades before, stand frozen on the sidewalk as a Nazi soldier lifts the butt of his rifle and smacks a woman across her face, then tears the infant from her arms and throws it against a wall, my sons may understand the consequence of making noise. I shake myself. My God, I’m going crazy.
As I delved deeper into the horror of Szulim’s experience, I felt confused about my boys’ good life. What kind of survival instincts could they develop in suburban New Jersey? And what kind of a mother was I, meeting their every need, diminishing their ability to remain alive if, God forbid, the world turned upside down?
But was there an alternative? So I continued to dab sunscreen on their faces, all the while thinking of eight-year-old Szulim hiding in fields of rye, his skin burnt by the sun. For seven weeks he wandered barefoot through the stalks of grain, completely exposed to the elements. For seven weeks his skin blistered and purpled as he prayed compulsively to be liberated by Russians before being killed by Germans.
I love my boys; I pray for their health and happiness on every loosened eyelash, but their wishes started to feel so petty. When my oldest, Jacob, whined about going to Hebrew School, I felt a stab in the heart. My sons knew I was writing a book, but they didn’t know what it was about. Perhaps it was time to tell my 10-year-old.
I got Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. “This is similar to the book I’m writing,” I told him. Jacob took one look and shook his head.
“I’m not ready for this,” he said softly. I was impressed by his instincts, but couldn’t help think that Szulim, at an even younger age, had had no choice. His whole childhood was stolen.
Parenting is a walk on a tightrope. We must shield our kids from danger, yet prepare them to navigate on their own; instill them with a fear of strangers and social skills both. Teach resilience and preserve their innocence. I had begun to resent my sons’ naïveté andprivilege, and my own as well. Oh, could it be?…survivors’ guilt.
So I asked Sal a question, different from the others I had been too scared to ask. (What did her face look like when she died? Are you able to experience happiness today?) I asked him if he looked upon our frivolity with disdain. Did he feel we should understand that most people live a life of suffering? I braced for his answer.
“No,” he said simply. “Your life is the way life should be.” His reply was a blessing, granting me permission to live a blessed life.
The book is nearly finished, but I now find myself almost incessantly in the company of Szulim’s mother. I imagine her fleeing the Gestapo in 1942. I close my eyes with the need to sense her desperation as she hoists a five-year-old onto her hip and clutches Szulim’s small hand, the three of them stealing into a night with nothing but empty bellies and hope, searching, desperately stumbling towards safe haven. I need to feel the pounding of her heart, the weakening of her legs, the tears that can’t afford to be released. I need to know if I have the strength to fake courage like she did and whisper reassurances to my children.
I need to ingest her strength so that I, too, can protect my boys. I need to absorb the physicality of her journey, but I can’t. The enormity is just that. Too enormous.
All I can do is thank God that my kids and I were born into a different time and place. And thank God for this task of telling.
Deb Levy, a writer, lives in Montclair, NJ, with her husband and sons. She grew up in Miami where her family and Sal Wainberg’s were very close. Wainberg died this past February; Bury the Hot, Levy’s story of Wainberg’s life, will be published in 2013.