A Library for Kraków
I belong to a Holocaust Survivors e-mail list that travels around the globe online helping Survivors find other Survivors. More than six years ago I received an email about a young man who wanted to start a library in Kraków Poland and needed help filling the shelves with Jewish books. Seems he was raised Christian to save his life. Finding out as an adult that his biological parents were Jewish, he was determined to make this happen.
As much as I love my books, I’ve learned to share over the years and this seemed extremely important. I boxed up a huge box of books that included my college freshman Children’s Literature anthology (that was 30 years old) and my Bat Mitzvah prayer-book (which was even older). Books are one of my great loves, so there were many books that had been on my shelves for many years.
It was important I told myself and left for the Post Office, almost leaving when they asked me to fill out a huge amount of paperwork for Custom’s reasons. Never heard anything, assumed my good deed was in a black hole somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic.
While casually searching Google the other night for the three blogs I’ve created, to see what I am sending out to the universe, I came upon this website in Poland which had my name attached. Being unbelievably curious and not knowing Polish, I used Google translator.
Copy, paste, click, read. Copy, paste, click, read. I had no idea what happened to my book box until now. On Google.com it says “darczyncy” and my name. The Rabbi Remuh Jewish Library was established in June 2005 and it is the only Jewish Library in Krakow open to everyone.
I am listed as a donor. Oh my God was all I could pray through all the tears. What makes this so special is my Dad Berek Nathan was born in Warsaw. His entire family – brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles died in the Holocaust. He was the only living survivor. Saving himself by running to the forest while the Nazis were kicking his brother to death on the streets of Poland. He was 15. Berek Nathan died August 2005 at age 87. He was my Hero. At least some of his books are back in Poland at a Jewish Library where they always belonged.
A Rock Slice
On my desk is a plastic baby doll dressed in pink (another story) and a large glass jar with a lid. In its former life on my desk at work, the jar held trail mix of raisins, walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts, and sunflower seeds for visitors, now it holds treasures of shells, sand, notes, and rocks. It also holds two prized possessions – an orange rind rose and a rock slice.
When you are veterans of a Holocaust, have been homeless for most of your teenage years and twenties stuff and money matter most. They matter more than shelter or food, because stuff can be traded for food and money buys food. My childhood home was one where money, material items (stuff), and food mattered. Often we believed they mattered more than we did. They argued about everything; even the plastic covered couch and who had the right to sit on it.
I spent most of my childhood learning how to become a “success.” I have a very different idea of what that means to me now than what it did then. From my teens on, I spent most of my time trying to succeed at becoming financially and materially successful according to the values of my parents, which meant education, nice car, good job, great house, money in the bank. The American Dream personified.
In 1992, there was a recession that hit Southern California harder than any earthquake I have lived through. I lost everything of material value – my job, my house, and all my stuff. Everything I had worked for my entire life, with very few options (or so I thought then), and very little money left. California became a bad dream as I moved near my family in Phoenix, Arizona. Probably should mention here that I married in 1967 to escape Phoenix and the family, so having to come back divorced and broke was a fate worse than prison or death (one and the same in my book).
One day, contemplating my financial failures with daily reminders from the family, I wandered into Van’s Rock Shop on 7th Street in Phoenix for lack of a job or anything better to do with my time than write or listen to them. I must have looked like death walking, wandering up and down the aisles of this block long store.
A young female clerk came over and tapped me on the shoulder. I thought she was going to ask me if I needed help. When I turned she handed me a polished rock slice – pale tan with colored concentric rings of dark rust and orange (like a slice of an old cut tree). I told her I didn’t have the money to pay for it (it was $1.98).
This beautiful young woman with a sandy blond pony tail whispered, “It’s a present. Remember it took millions of years of stress and pain to create something this beautiful. It’s yours.” I clamped my jaw shut, my eyes filled with tears ready to drop, and I nodded “thank you” to keep from sobbing.
I have a clear glass cookie jar on my desk filled with treasures. My rock slice and orange rind rose are inside. Remember it takes millions of years of stress and pain to create something this beautiful. It’s free, it’s yours. May I share them with you?
A Virgin and A Pauper
In 1991, my newly discovered writing talent scared the hell out of me. I kept it a secret from everyone I knew. I was a contract administrator. I handled important government documents. I had a DOD secret clearance for God’s sake. I sold F-16 seats for a living! I worked for the military-industrial complex. I did NOT (are you listening God) write poetry. As much as I loved Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, James Kavanaugh, who did I think I was? A poet? A writer? Me? Surely you jest and I have magically appeared in an alternate universe.
What if they found out that late at night at home on my Mac, I was writing love poems of loss and longing, hunger and sex. In free verse that didn’t rhyme, no less. Oh my God, the humiliation, the embarrassment, the giggles. High school all over again. I might even get fired. Contract administrators, 46 year old mothers do not suddenly awake one day espousing free verse about feelings, wanting to do nothing else except write. Whom was I kidding? If I didn’t stop this falderal immediately, the poetry police would show up and lock down my Mac. I definitely needed therapy or at least to leave Los Angeles. And quickly. Where was a Bekins truck when you need one?
Uncle Aron said Los Angeles was a terrible place to live. There had to be a PA (Poets Anonymous) meeting somewhere in Los Angeles? There were meetings for every addiction known to mankind with acronyms to match. Where were the yellow pages when you needed them?
Josh was in his junior year of college with every belief he would write the next great screenplay. He wouldn’t leave home. Why should he? I paid for his lifestyle and let him borrow the RX-7 when he had a date or totaled the car he was driving that month. All his friends had a place to hang out during earthquakes. And should a tsunami follow, the fridge was always full of food so all his buddies could camp at our house. We lived five miles east of the Pacific Ocean, food was free, I did all the cooking, paid all the bills, and knocked on the door before entering his room. If God hadn’t intervened I’d still be working eighteen hour days, living with him and whatever girlfriend wanted to come over and play during daylight hours when Mom was at work. As usual I digress, sorry. So many stories, so little time.
I would sit down after work, pull out my tiny spiral chamois notebook (that Mead went everywhere with me), along with my Uniball blue 10 pt fine pens I purchased by the box. I’d be typing oblivious to time or hour, when I would feel him behind me reading over my right shoulder. He would want me to read the poem aloud. Then came his first question, “How long did that take you?” For him it was always pragmatic, about mathematics not feelings. His mathematical brain working the next angle. One day instead of the math comment out comes, “Mom, you do realize that Emily Dickinson died a virgin and a pauper?”
I swung that office chair on wheels around and retorted, “Well I have her beat on one count. I’ve had sex once in my life.” He left the room. His dream of inheriting a trust fund wasn’t coming to fruition quickly enough. And my writing poetry instead of working overtime didn’t help.
After writing from March to August 1991, I needed a large three-ring binder with alphabetic tabs. One Sunday in August, Josh knowing my fear of speaking in front of crowds, drags me to Portofino’s – a college hang out near California State University, Long Beach. Sunday nights they had the latest rock group perform with poetry readings during intermission. Terrified does not properly convey my state of fear. My son, the soon to be Academy Award winning playwright, who was majoring in “writing screenplays” at Steven Spielberg’s stomping ground, wanted me (his mother) to come read my poems to his friends. Now I get his sneaky brain at work, I will be dead by Monday morning. And he will inherit the house, the jazz CDs, and the RX7. Not to worry. Now he can have women over any time he wants, not just while I’m at work.
Off we go, me hugging the three-ring binder so tight there are nail marks in the vinyl, sitting in back listening to the band though only hearing my heartbeat. There are roughly 99 people in attendance, 77 college females, a few males, band members, and staff. I’m shaking. Intermission arrives I’m the last poet to read and the only one over 20. I read poem one, not bad a little clapping, didn’t throw up. I read poem two, a little more noise from the girls (guess angst is appreciated among female intellectuals), I SNAP. Guess the applause went to my head. I turn the alphabet dividers to “O.” I read Orgasms and Other Feelings.* The room explodes and 77 college girls are on there feet cheering at the top of their lungs. Noise that could be heard at the Marriott on Ocean Boulevard a couple of miles away.
*Note to college boys/men – never ever give your Mother a hard time about anything. Not if she can write or speak. The time will come when she remembers.
Auf Dem Pripichock*
Munich was always cold, especially in 1946. We lived in a “lager” – an American Displaced Person’s Camp. A four-story building with large rooms that housed multiple individuals and families – 60 or 70 people to a room; each group divided by hanging dark khaki green Army blankets. Our lack of privacy, with Army folding cots for beds, is where I spent my formative years. The Jews’ Holocaust was over. America had won WWII. Mine was just beginning.
On top of the mountain near the building, the train ran by every night. Even with my eyes closed covered by the dark olive blanket; I could always hear the whistle. Every time I heard the sound, I was afraid – afraid that it would come and take my Papa away. I’d hear them whispering in Yiddish at night when they thought I was sleeping. My American Army cot was only inches away.
By current standards, Papa was small in stature, standing only 5’2” tall. Telly Savalas’ twin brother and only half his height. Though he had all the strength and charm of Kojak. The highest safest place I’ve ever known were his shoulders when I was three and Simchat Torah was taking place autumn of 1948. Outside we walked to a makeshift synagogue down rolling green hills. He held my little legs tight just above my shoes and socks. I felt so warm, loved, and very tall. In my right hand was a white Israeli flag with blue stripes, a blue Star of David, and a little red apple on top of the wooden pole. My left hand clung to his ear and held on to his baldhead for dear life. All together we were over seven feet tall my papa, the flag, and me.
By then the Allies had won the War and Jewish children could walk the icy blood drenched soil of Germany without being carted off in trucks like strays picked up by dog catchers.
By the time I was four, I had my own rabbinical tutor, an old white-haired bearded Orthodox rabbi who taught me Hebrew. The Women’s Liberation Movement wouldn’t come into existence for another twenty years, though it mattered not to my Papa that I was only a girl. He cared only that I love the process of learning, of reading the ancient text. He wanted to make sure that I learned the alphabet of my dead grandparents (who disappeared with a heartbeat when a German bomb exploded their building in the Warsaw Ghetto). He made sure he gave me the gift of going to school; something he dreamed of but never had the chance.
Papa was an expert in the “black market” and came down the hill of our camp in a pale tan Mercedes Benz sedan with sunroof and matching leather seats. We never did find out how he “bought it.” He pulled up along side the building with the sunroof open and me in the back seat, while my other threw wrapped candy from the window above. I can close my eyes and still hear the laughter.
With all the horrors he experienced, I remember him smiling and joyous, always full of stories and singing. Always singing to me: “Avf daem pripichok brent a firerl. In de shteeb is heiz. Un de Rebbe layrent kliene kinderleck daem aleph baze…” – “On the hearth there burns a little fire. In the house it’s warm. And the Rabbi teaches little children their ABCs…”
He told wondrous stories of Sholem Aleichem, the Kabbalah, ghosts and goblins, never about the horrors he had seen in the war. Those he kept inside. And they tormented him always. Some of the happiest memories I have are a devastated, freezing landscape, horrible brushes with illness and death, and a Papa singing away the pain. He saved my life over and over again.
Memories of being put on a train, then on trucks, having socks put in my mouth so the soldiers wouldn’t hear a baby’s cries as we crossed the border crossings, knowing my baby brother would never make it home from the Munich hospital, hearing muffled cries all night, and sleeping next to men and women having sex in the next cot so they could prove they existed. All of that he washed away with his lullabies, all of that and the black numbers etched on the arms of his friends.
Of all the things I’ve been able to achieve since landing in New Orleans in 1951, the one thing I can’t seem to do is return to him the gifts he gave me. He’s closing in on eighty and lives in a tiny two-room apartment with newspapers in stacks three feet high from the floor and a loaded gun under his mattress. He hoards his food, his “stuff” and won’t go to doctors (whom he thinks are still trying to kill him). He hangs up the phone every time one of us calls. And he refuses to open the door when any of his four children come to see him.
So we all stopped calling and coming by to see the Papa who seems to have abandoned his children. Because we wanted to spare him, but mostly ourselves the pain of rejection. We send the traditional cards and often a present. The silence is devastating and the moat keeps getting wider. He makes up stories about who did what to whom and when. We hear about them from acquaintances who run into him at the grocery store. He keeps the hurts close, wrapping the stories around him like a warm blanket to keep him safe from the children who love him.
As if feelings were bullets, he needs to wear a bulletproof vest to keep him safe from the children who remind him of the ones he buried half a world away in Uzbekistan and Germany. Safe from the little girl who wanted desperately to sing away the pain. Who now writes away his pain instead.
For those people who question whether the Holocaust ever happened, I am proof that there is not one, but two Holocausts that always take place. The one that slaughters human beings like cattle and with less compassion; and a second Holocaust each person who survives carries with them every day of their lives. Victims of wars they do not create. Nevertheless, they wake up every day reliving those horrors, then shutting the door on love and kindness, because to risk caring is too great a pain.
Now and then, though I rarely hear a train whistle at night these days, whenever I do the three-year-old inside me still says a little prayer, “ Please dear God, don’t let them come and take my Papa away.”
*I wrote this in 1994 after hearing an evening newscast about the Holocaust deniers. It was published in a local newspaper in Albuquerque, NM in 1995. My Papa died alone a few days before his 88th birthday in 2005. I read this at his funeral. Little did I know in 1994, that I was writing his eulogy.
All rights reserved. ©2009 by Sara Fryd
Yiddish “F” Words
Yiddish doesn’t have cuss words so Danny Thomas informed us when I was nine. It was my first language along with German spoken in the refugee camp. My father spoke Polish and Yiddish, my mother spoke Romania and Yiddish (and five other languages). I remember sitting in front of the large blond wood cabinet housing the television on Sunday nights. Ed Sullivan did his “and now Danny Thomas” who came on stage telling jokes. Really funny Jewish jokes even though he was Lebanese. He understood what it meant being an immigrant in a new land. My kind of guy.
He said if you wanted to cuss somebody out in Yiddish to say the following – “dee zolst vaksin vee a tzsibaleh mit dem kop in drayerd and di fees aroff.” Loosely translated – “you should grow like an onion with your head in the ground and your feet in the air.” I would get so excited I couldn’t sleep on Sunday night. A world-renowned man spoke Yiddish. I wasn’t strange, I could grow up and be someone important.
Many years later Jason walked into my office in Cleveland and said one of our sub-contractors had called him “mashuganeh.” He wanted to know what it meant. This was written for Jason after I told him mashuganeh meant crazy or nuts, depending.
The Yiddish “F” Words
Famished – (confused) when the vice president CFO (your boss) calls you into his office during lunch hour, shuts the door, shows you his new black camisole/with garter belt he has on under his clothes by unbuttoning his dress shirt and pulling up one of his pant legs revealing fishnet stockings.
Fashimilled – (covered with fungus) or how your head feels in the morning, after you’ve been drinking all night, i.e. you fell asleep in the forest without a compass (see fablongit).
Fadreit – (turned around) or your face is facing forward and your brain is facing backward. You know when you’re three and your older brother starts spinning you around while all the other siblings clap and cheer; you are so cute till you fall over.
Fakacked – (covered in dung) how you feel after you’ve been cleaning up dog poop in your backyard from six chows because you couldn’t bring yourself to sell the puppies – Rachel, Rebecca, and Benjamin. No one could take as good care of them as you – or maybe that’s just foolish in English.
Famacht – (closed) you drive forever with the map light on (of course there’s enough gas to go another 10 miles) and when you finally arrive at the Texaco (where you have a credit card you can use), the light is on but the station closed at 11 pm and it’s 11:09.
Fablongit – (lost) lost in the forest without a compass. Need I say more?
Faklemped – (full of pride) when you spend five hours trying to teach your new puppy how to pee outside in the yard, you have pieces of cut up hotdogs in your wet pocket, the puppy finally gets it, and you can go inside and change your pants.
All rights reserved. ©1998 by Sara Fryd
PS. If you come across some more F words send them to me and I’ll add them.