I started writing fiction in second grade and my mother encouraged everything I wrote from that point on, no matter the genre. But it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder if she harbored dreams of being a writer herself—dreams she kept entirely to herself.
There was a clue to this possibility that I missed when I was growing up.
After being liberated by American troops from a Nazi slave labor camp in Germany, my mother wound up in Brussels as a teacher of Yiddish language and literature. Her students were all boys and girls who had been hidden during the war, many of them in monasteries and nunneries, and she was in effect doing some deprogramming, though the word wouldn’t have been used then.
“They forgot what it was to be Jewish, some of them,” she told me, “or didn’t like Jews.”
A few years after she died in 1999, I met a few of those students while researching the book that would eventually become my memoir/travelogue My Germany. One of her favorite students remembered that my auburn-haired, husky-voiced mother was sometimes so delighted with the material she was presenting to her class that she hugged herself.
I knew exactly what that felt like because my mother loved helping me with all my homework but was especially interested in writing assignments. It was an eerie and wonderful connection to meet this student, Floris Kalman, who now lived in Australia but came back to visit Brussels regularly. She and I did research in the stately Musée Juif de Belgique about the Jewish community of Holocaust survivors right after WWII. She, of course, recognized one face after another in group photos and identified them for the museum. Me, I just basked in the link to a piece of my mother’s past and treasured being told by Floris that I had my mother’s smile. And hearing my mother’s wry admonition whenever a student wanted to rush across a street, risking an accident: “Better later in this life than sooner in the next one.” This was a Yiddish expression I didn’t know.
Floris starred in a play my mother had written about the wind and lost birds, a play she remembered with only partial fondness because she couldn’t sway as gracefully as my mother demonstrated for her. Floris marveled that among all the other women survivors she knew, “Elle avait du chien.” In other words, my mother was chic, something I could appreciate in a prewar street photo of her taken in Vilna.
But where was this play? I had never seen it, my mother had never read it to me or even showed me a manuscript or described its contents. So even when Floris talked about performing in it, nothing connected.
Then Floris told me that a survivor in Australia had asked her if I had seen the account my mother wrote about the Vilna ghetto. He had the name of the Yiddish publication wrong, but I eventually tracked it down via the internet at an archive in Paris and it was brutally honest and shocking. Written less than a year after the end of WWII and published in the December 1945 issue of Unzer Shtimme in Paris, it included a description of the selection as the ghetto was “liquidated” and the panic of everyone who by 1943 knew what going to the left versus going to the right meant: certain death. Those sent to the left were old, sick, or women with children.
Her memoir started very personally:
To be honest, I don’t have the strength to return to the past; the wounds are too fresh. You can’t think calmly about everything that happened, and writing about it doesn’t really help.
But I’m a great patriot of my city, like everyone from Vilna, and because you’ve heard reports from other Polish cities, I didn’t want Vilna, The Jerusalem of Lithuania, to be left out.
I’m not writing for publicity. I’m just fulfilling my duty to those who will never speak again.
When I let my father know about discovering this memoir, he said that this moment in 1943 was when my mother and her mother (who was 49) were separated. My mother actually tried to stay with her, kept her own head down to pretend to be older, he said, but both of them were clubbed by Nazi guards and separated.
My mother’s account was stark, elegiac, and defiant, because she reported how she and others in the ghetto and camps found strength in their commitment to the socialist Bund. Back then, in 2001, I assumed my mother had never mentioned this memoir to me because it was written in the immediate aftermath of the war and even discussing it was too painful.
But, as I would later discover, it wasn’t the only thing she wrote—and published—about the ghetto.
This past spring, thanks to a genealogist who was in touch with my brother, I received information about where my mother and her family were living in Vilna when they fled the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg. Did this street still exist? I wrote to the Vilna Gaon Museum in Vilnius and found out that it did, with a new Lithuanian name.
The archivist asked me, out of the blue, if I had a copy of the 1950 article my mother wrote for YIVO Bletter about the ghetto.
History was repeating itself.
I didn’t know if she had already immigrated to the U.S. by 1950, but I did know that she was married to my father, whom she had met at a temporary DP camp in eastern Germany.
I was excited and a little scared to read the story. Even now, reading my mother’s first account of being in the ghetto and her subsequent incarceration in camps at Riga and then in Magdeburg, my heart starts beating faster. This happened. This happened to my mother. This horror was real.
Even having taught courses in the Holocaust hasn’t changed what’s almost a feeling of vertigo when I contemplate the surreal reality of her Holocaust years.
When I got the piece via email, I was able to make out one word immediately, even though I hadn’t read any Yiddish in years: “liquidation.”
I stopped reading and searched online for a translator and within a few weeks had something very different from my mother’s first piece. In under 2,500 words, this was my mother writing as a historian more than a memoirist, coolly laying out the organization of the second, smaller Vilna ghetto, which lasted for less than two whole months.
There’s a great deal of geography: which Jews from which streets went where, and for the most part it’s mostly reportorial and unemotional, as in these excerpts—which were translated from the Yiddish by Ruth Murphy, and then edited for clarity:
Though the Germans created two ghettos in Vilna, the second ghetto existed for only a total of 55 days and for that entire time, everyone lived in constant fear of liquidation. No type of order or systematic work was possible, and no one lived to see the relative stability of the first ghetto. The Germans didn’t bother themselves in the slightest with the Judenrat or the Jewish police, and their attitude was much more reckless there than with the first ghetto.
… At one point, German soldiers from the Eastern Front were stationed on Little Shnipishok Street where there had once been a Polish military barracks. Two hundred to two hundred fifty Jews were gathered there for work. The soldiers were all young hooligans, completely indoctrinated in the Nazi bible, and under the pretext that Jews don’t want to work, began to systematically torture them. They would beat them and stab them with bayonets. Every day there would be dozens of men who had been stabbed. Jews didn’t want to go work there anymore. The soldiers would come with the list of their workers and with blows lead them off again to work. This lasted a considerable amount of time. People intervened several times at the German employment office, but it didn’t help much. The ghetto doctors were afraid to give out illness certificates for those who had been stabbed, and they had to once again go to the work.
So what else did my mother write and publish about the war—or was the report that has never appeared in English her last word? That’s something I’ve been pondering since this latest discovery. And did she keep silent about these writings to protect herself from reexperiencing the nightmares? Was she perhaps trying not to burden me with these memories of the Holocaust and also avoid making it clear that she had wanted to write but for whatever reason felt stifled or blocked?
My mother did share bits and pieces of what happened to her during the war when I was growing up, but these were always unexpected—lightning flashes of memory—and I was too young to know the right questions that could elicit more detail. I once suggested she should write about the war because she owed it to the memory of everyone who had been murdered.
She exploded: “I don’t owe the world anything!”
I didn’t argue. How could I?
But she actually did write about the war. At least twice. And kept those publications secret.
Her silence strikes me today as an unexpected gift. She reveled in my creativity for years without making me ever feel that I had to fulfill a dream she couldn’t live out herself. My mother may have been vicariously living out a writing career she had longed for herself—but I was spared the burden of disappointed expectations. I only experienced her joy, because when teachers praised my creative writing, she was thrilled. She didn’t live long enough to see me become a much-published author, but without her belief in me, I don’t think I would have built the writing life I have.