Simple Story

I remember it so clearly: walking on the cobblestones behind the casket, the casket of my mother. The sound of the iron rim wheels on the stones still reverberates in my memory. Everyone was so kind. I was three. I had now become an orphan, even though I had a father.

I was born in Utyan, a small shtetl in Lithuania, in 1926. Economic and political conditions were not good, especially so for a young, ambitious Jew like my father. He had felt that emigrating to America was the only answer, and he had done so when I was only six months old.

My father, of course, expected to send for his wife and infant daughter almost immediately, but it was not to be. Without having given it much thought, my father had met up with a single man, and had bought his visa. He thereafter had to “impersonate” this man. The immigration authorities would not countenance his bringing over newly discovered dependents.

And so the months and years passed, my father trying desperately and constantly to get his family to America. Then my mother became ill with typhoid, dying soon after. I had lost my mother, and didn’t know my faraway father.

I moved in with my mother’s younger unmarried sister, and then commenced a delightful two years. Aunt Mina lived a very cosmopolitan existence in Kovna—quite different from tiny Utyan. She felt so guilty about “letting” my mother die that she spoiled me thoroughly. I even had fruit in the winter.

But this idyllic existence was not to last. My father, overcome with guilt, felt that he could not let my young aunt sacrifice her future for me. He sent orders that I be packed off to Poland to live with his parents.

Going from Lithuania to Poland was not so simple, though—the two countries were not on speaking terms: the border was closed. It turned out that once a year, however (on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple), Jews of the shtetlach on both sides of the border were allowed to pray together at the cemetery, which had, so to speak, been split down the middle. It was comparatively easy for a young child to arrive at the cemetery with one family, and to leave with another. And so one summer day in 1933,1 arrived in my grandparents’ small house in Poland.

It was quite a shock going from being the spoiled favorite of Aunt Mina to being just another grandchild. I knew they loved me, but I was on guard. Did I have to be always on my best behavior? Otherwise would I be sent away? And to where? The years passed.

Finally, when I was 10, my father secured a visa for me to enter the U.S.—but as a Lithuanian. In other words, I had to cross the Polish- Lithuanian border again. The Tisha B’Av ruse had long ago been discovered and squelched. “Smuggling” was now the accepted operation.

It turned out that the Polish- Lithuanian border cut across many farms, leaving some families in the unusual position of having their farmhouse in one country and their fields in another. These people soon realized that more money could be made by helping others cross the border than by raising vegetables.

So one June day, a frightened girl was deposited with a strange farmer who then warned, “We must wait for a moonless night.” Three evenings later, covered with hay, I was placed in a farm wagon and told to wait, not to utter a sound. Not until sunrise did the farmer return. He hitched his horses to the wagon, and transported me across the border. To this day I am not sure whether the sounds I heard were my heart pounding or a border guard getting ready to jab his bayonet into a suspicious pile of hay.

Several days later, my aunt retrieved me at a local fair. What a reunion! I hadn’t seen her in years. She was now married and pregnant. It was as if I had never left. I stayed with her for six months, and when she went to the hospital to give birth, I managed to develop appendicitis and be hospitalized beside her. [She survived the war, but led a traumatized life; her husband and baby did not survive.]

Soon I was on a train through Nazi Germany (it was 1938) to the port of Cherberg in France, and thence across the ocean to a man I had no recollection of, my father.

I was so eager to meet him. I’d heard so many stories! I knew he was all alone in America and I wanted to take care of him. I knew he would be terribly affectionate, hugging and kissing me. On the boat I danced and sang all day and night with young Zionist pioneers who were on their way to Palestine via America. They had their exciting journey ahead of them, and I had mine.

The ship docked. I looked over the sea of faces and wondered which one was my father. Finally, I was introduced to him. He was so good-looking, so handsome with jet black hair. He smiled, and gave me a gentle kiss. He didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know what to say. No hugs came, none of the warmth I had dreamt about.

The years passed, and it turned out that my father and I never did grow close. I am sure that both of us had such distortedly high expectations of one another that disappointment was inevitable. We’d both waited years, and sacrificed much, anticipating our reunion. My father had deliberately not married again, so as to be able to devote all his attention to trying to rescue me from Europe, and to be fully available to me when I finally did make it to America.

Still, though, I remember how my father walked away from the dock with me on that day nearly 50 years ago. He was telling me how wonderful America was the tall buildings, the tunnel we would soon be going through. The “spell,” however, that I had cultivated for my whole young life—the dream of what it would be like to be reunited with my prince-father—was already shattered. I replied icily, “We had tall buildings in Lithuania, too. But they were horizontal instead of vertical.” I was trying to tell him that the places I had lived for 12 years were significant, too—it was his country that was disappointing.

And so 1 tried for many years to believe that it was America—and not my father— that broke my heart.

Sherry Gold, mother of four children, is a social worker for Jewish Family Service in New Jersey. Previously, she taught nursery school.

 Leah Strigler: When a young educator teaches the Holocaust

Leah Strigler, 26, attended the Yad Vashem Teachers’ Institute in Jerusalem. Currently a Wexner Fellow, she has an M.A. in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and is finishing up a second M.A. in Museum Education at Bank Street College. Here is how Strigler would teach Sherry Gold’s “Simple Story”:

I’d use this story as part of a culmination of a serious historical study of the Holocaust—a way to put a personal, humane face on facts and figures. By the time my students were to read this, I’d expect them to know a lot:

What was happening in Eastern Europe during these pre-War years? During the era of Gold’s childhood (when she mentions that Lithuanian and Polish borders were closed) what was going on politically between these two countries? Gold meets Zionists on the boat to America—what were the forces that were bringing Jews to Palestine? In America, what were the tensions between groups of immigrants? What Jewish identity issues pertained to nationality, religion, economics?

In other words, this story could be part of a bridge between our scholarship, and the students’ own creative relationships to the material.

It would be fun to generate questions to fill out Gold’s story. Like, “Pretend you’re interviewing Sherry Gold. What do you want to know more about? Pretend you ate Sherry Gold. On the boat to America, what are your thoughts and fears? Keep a 10-day diary.”

Younger kids would worry about Sherry’s separations from people she loved. I’d ask, “What do you think this felt like? What was it like, in those days, taking trips alone? Why would a father leave his family behind; how is that different from the abandonment we might read into a father’s actions today?” We’d talk about planes and foxes versus wagons and trains and boats. I would point out that this is a child’s story—Sherry’s mother’s death is the little girl’s most pressing dilemma, blocking out the larger reality of war. Sherry’s real question is: Who will take care of me?

If I was teaching at a Jewish summer camp, say, I’d read this story on Tisha B’Av. I’d ask: On this day when so many bad things happened to Jews historically, what’s happening symbolically to the Jews standing with this 5 year old at a cemetery, smuggling her from one scary country to the next?