I Promise You| August 31, 2016
I’m following in my grandmother’s footsteps, I’m experiencing her journey. I’m living it, breathing it, and I’m totally in awe of her
February 4, 2015:
My Aunt Leora just approached me about writing up my Safta’s life story. Leora’s daughter, Tamar, my first cousin — well, her school puts on a Holocaust play every year, and she wants my Safta’s story to be featured. Apparently I’ve been elected the family writer. Seriously. Do I have time for this?
Besides, Safta lives in America while I’m here in Israel. How could it even work? And it’s not like her story is a pretty one. Safta’s a Holocaust survivor. Why would I want to tear open all of her wounds? Sounds pretty cruel to me. I think I’ll pass.
It’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep. Safta’s parents, Yitzchak and Chana Zisel Adler, were my great-grandparents. I never met them. How could I have? They were murdered by the Nazis. Who’s going to remember them, if not my family? How will my family remember them, if it isn’t written down? The Jews are the people of the book. Safta’s story needs a book. Who else will write it but me?
10 a.m. But I’m way too busy with other projects, deadlines, commitments. How am I supposed to budget my time? How am I supposed to rank the items in my life from most important to least important? Is there some objective system that I can use? Because I don’t know how to find the answers within myself.
The idea of this book is seriously a mosquito that won’t stop buzzing in my ear. It’s going to burrow inside my brain soon enough if I don’t do something about it.
Copy of the e-mail my Aunt Leora sent to the principal of my cousin Tamar’s school:
Hi Rabbi B.,
Hope you are well.
It brings us such joy that Tamar is (finally) in your class!
Tamar has brought up on more than one occasion that she would love to have her Safta’s (my mother) story during the Holocaust, used as the basis for your annual Holocaust play.
I remember briefly discussing it with you.
You mentioned that you only take on stories that have a manuscript.
I have a niece who is an author.
She has published both adult and children’s books, as well as many articles.
I would ask her to write up this story.
Is there any way to make it happen for next year?
If she can get a manuscript together would that be acceptable?
Maybe if my niece could focus on one part of my mother’s story, it would be more helpful?
Any suggestions you could make would be appreciated.
My mother is very willing to take this on.
I’m sure they have many manuscripts to choose from in any event. They’ll surely take a pass on my unwritten one. People have all sorts of dreams, that doesn’t mean that any of them come true, right? Well, at least I can say I tried!
Rabbi B. wants to see sample chapters of my manuscript. Writing sample chapters means setting up interviews with Safta and starting to get her story down on paper, I mean, on the computer. Leora said that she can set Safta up on Skype when she’s at her house. That way I can interview Safta almost in person. Everyone seems to be finding ways to make this work. I suppose that means I’m going to have to make it work too. I still don’t think that it’s going to happen. I’m not a pessimist, but how often do these big projects actually work out in anyone’s life?
By the way, I’m so scared.
I suppose I should have expected that the beginning stages of interviewing Safta would be the easiest part. Her life before the war was actually pretty awesome. It was funny interviewing her because she’s fairly short, and with the way the computer was positioned, I could only see the top of her head. It was like having a conversation with a set of bangs. But Leora fixed it and then I was able to see Safta. There. Ready to share her life with me. It gave me the chills.
Safta’s words burrowed into a place inside of me and came out of me looking like this:
37 Warszawska Street.
If you are to know me,
I must tell you about the inside of my apartment.
My feet pad on
My fingers leave prints behind to tell my stories,
Our furniture is heavy as a tram,
Made by Koz’uch — “Who doesn’t know their furniture?”
That’s what Mama says.
I have a room of my own,
And across the hall sleeps our governess,
If I want to summon her,
I ring the bell in my room,
Which connects to a central board,
In the kitchen.
Water gurgles under the floor,
And an indoor lavatory! That doesn’t leave you
Defrosting your toes near the hearth,
During the frigid winters.
Not that we would need a fire to keep warm
Since we have central heating.
My home is a castle compared to that of my friends.
Ruta lives with three siblings in one room.
If my body were a house,
That room is a tight fist.
With a kitchen, but no water
And a toilet shack downstairs,
With its back to the wind.
Bala and her family live in three rooms
like railroad cars,
You walk through one to get to another.
And Henya lives in a room behind the fish store.
You pinch your nose before you walk in.
It is no wonder that all of my friends
Come to play by me.
But I am not left to my own devices! Oh, no.
Tata is a very important man, but,
Even though his factory runs him like a clock,
And he spends his empty hours studying the holy Torah,
There is always room for:
And because of
Panna Zussia the governess.
Hela the governess’s helper.
Bronia the cook.
And Nadja the cleaner.
There is enough of Mama to go around too.
Because few in Poland can even dream of all that we have,
Mama says we should count our blessings.
Show gratitude to the One above.
But how can you be grateful
for something you tumble into
The moment you enter the world?
Like being thankful for your nose
Or the ten fingers wagging on your hands,
I don’t know if it’s any good. I don’t know if Rabbi B. will like it. I don’t know if Safta will like it. Doesn’t it say somewhere that the yetzer hara likes to act up when you really want something to work out? I guess that’s what’s going on here with all of this self-doubt.
My days are beginning to be colored by my Safta’s experiences. She’s still talking about the time period before the war. I thought I knew what my Safta had been through during the war, but I never thought of her as a regular child, before the war. I’m beginning to look forward to the hours we spend together, twice weekly, sifting through her life. I feel like I’m getting to know her all over again. It feels like a treat.
The sample chapters have been sent out. Now I wait for a response. If they say no, this project is over before I’ve even gotten to the painful stuff. Maybe that will be a blessing in disguise.
No, I don’t really think that!
Here’s a copy of the e-mail that Rabbi B. sent to me:
Our director, D. and I have read the pages you kindly sent. Speaking personally, I greatly enjoyed the vivid and moving imagery your writing so artfully conjures up for the reader. I found myself wanting to read more, and to share those pages with my own thirteen-year-old daughter. (May I?)
Did you hear that? He said “artfully”! I read that e-mail like a thousand times.
The director of the Holocaust play, D. e-mailed me today informing me that she wanted to speak with me. I was so excited I nearly jumped out the window. I live on the ground floor, so this isn’t a dangerous proposition. I didn’t call Safta. Why should I get her hopes up? I’ve become so invested in this project by now that I know how disappointed we’ll be if Tamar’s school isn’t interested in using her story as a basis for their play. I feel like we’ve opened up the box on Safta’s story and it’s poked its head out. I need the rest of it to come out, flailing its arms and legs and opening its mouth wide to scream out to the world. Anything less will feel like I’ve been cheated.
D. called me at 10 p.m. Israel time and she told me in no uncertain terms that they will be using Safta’s story as the basis for their play!!! My heart nearly skittered out of my mouth and across the room. I hung up and I called Safta immediately.
“They’re using your story!” I told her.
“No! That can’t be!” Her thick European accent was heavy with emotion on the other side of the phone. I suddenly longed for the relative intimacy of the Skype connection we’d been having until now. Telephones are so impersonal and we weren’t even texting! J
She couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I suppose the voices of self-doubt don’t automatically quiet when you get older. We all have to work on turning the volume down, whether we’re 18 or 80.
“But what’s unique in my story? Why would anyone want to read it?” she asked me.
“Because it’s you,” I told her. “You are special. That’s why.”
Now the real work has started for both me and Safta. We’ve scheduled two meetings each week for interviewing and talking about her memories. I know this isn’t going to be easy.
June 26: 2 a.m.
I can’t sleep. Would you be able to sleep after hearing your dear Safta telling you horrific stories about her childhood? She was only eleven years old. Then twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. What was I doing when I was that age? Going out for pizza? Fighting with my sisters? Studying for exams and thinking that it was the biggest pressure ever?
I wrote some of it down. Writing her story down makes it feel like it mattered for something. Like her suffering made a ripple in the world.
Not Far Enough
Tata sings softly.
Sarah’s ankles began to sag inward.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
She nods, her mouth twisted in pain.
I feel the blisters blooming on my feet.
Fishel Dan wraps his hands around Tata’s eyes, playing peek-a-boo.
There is an odor in the air of
Rank bodies, sweat, tears, and something else I can’t place.
Mama who’s been feeling so unwell lately,
Look how she walks so straight!
And Tata is here with his shoulders broad enough for
The world to perch upon.
I don’t know who decides it is time to rest,
But as our steps began to wobble,
The entire sea of people sit,
Like a wheat field bent by a sudden gust of wind.
I rub the soles of Sarah’s feet,
Not minding the stink of her toes,
Just wanting to take some of her ache away.
I hear the planes before Mama and Tata do.
I look up into a bright ball of sun.
Everyone around me looks up too,
A million hands shielding a million pairs of eyes,
The planes dip low, buzzing like oversized bees,
Lower, lower, lower,
Till I can nearly make out the faces of the pilots.
What is that noise?
I feel Tata pushing me.
“Manyusia, lie here,” he yells.
We lay on the floor in a row
Mama and Chaim like one bundle
Then me holding Sarah
And Danek in his carrier.
Tata stands over us all.
I lay there, nestled in his shadow.
They run this way and that way
Like scattered marbles,
The screaming grows louder.
“Mama! What’s happening?”
“They’re shooting at us! They’re shooting at us!
Gut in Himmel, they’re shooting at us!”
Tata’s shadow moves and I can see the planes.
I close my eyes.
I look at Tata and that’s when I see—
His eyes closed,
Lips moving in prayer.
Arms spread as far as they can reach,
His body trying to protect his family.
But they can’t reach far enough
To cover us all.
I think I needed to get that out. I feel better now. I don’t need to live with the nightmares the way she does. I am so. Incredibly. Blessed.
I’m sorry I haven’t written in so long. I’ve been so busy, writing, interviewing, writing. In my spare time I read books on the Lodz ghetto. I’m following in my grandmother’s footsteps, I’m experiencing her journey. I’m living it, breathing it, and I’m totally in awe of her. Her faith. Her desire to do the right thing, regardless. The measure of a man really comes through in the Lodz ghetto. She’s an inspiration. I never would have really known my own Safta if I hadn’t taken the time to know her like this.
Last night’s interview was cruel. Safta spoke about her darling baby brother and — oh, I can’t even say it. But there she was, on the other side of the screen, with tears coming down her face and I couldn’t reach through the screen to hug her. What I wouldn’t have given for the opportunity to stroke her cheek.
You know, you grow up, always knowing that you love your grandparents. You say the words so easily: “Love you!” “Can’t wait to see you.” But we don’t even know what we’re missing. We don’t even know how full those words could really be if we take the time to really get to know our grandparents’ stories. Their lives. Their loves. Their everything. It can change the relationship from a beautiful white rose into one saturated with color, one that you simply can’t take your eyes off of for its beauty is simply too much for the eyes to hold. Grandparents are a gift too often taken for granted.
The interview process isn’t easy for her. She could have given up a long time ago. But if she didn’t give up when — Ghetto Lodz, Auschwitz, everything — then of course she isn’t going to give up now!
My Safta made a promise to her father. It’s a promise so vast… would I have ever been able to make such a promise, to carry a burden like that with me for the rest of my life? From where did she gather the strength? She was only 16 years old!
“Promise me, Manyusia!”
I look at Tata.
At his face waiting for promises,
Because he has,
Nothing else to wait for.
I think of these words,
The most important ones,
He has ever said.
There’s a place inside of you,
Underneath all of the
Places inside of you that you already know.
In this place,
There are things hiding,
Treasures you don’t even know,
You’re carrying around with you,
That’s the place I reach into,
And pull out these two words.
“I— promise you.”
I’ve been so busy with Yom Tov that I haven’t written in a while. Guess what? My Safta flew to Israel for Succos! She managed the flight here all by herself. Everyone was amazed, but I wasn’t! She’s an amazing woman! I had just put the finishing touches on her book, her story, her legacy and her memorial to her parents and her siblings Hy”d. I drove to see her and we sat together for eight hours, in person, going through every single word of the manuscript. Her memory is impeccable. She helped me to shape every word into the absolute version of the truth. Every tiny detail was scrutinized. I saw how hard it was for her, but this time I could touch her hand, her cheek. This time we were able to take a break and walk around the block together. Still, she persevered. I didn’t leave until we were nearly done. The rest we finished later over the phone. That’s it. The story of my Safta’s life is here. It’s been born. It was a joint labor of love, me and my Safta, together. Dreams really do come true if you decide that they will. I think Safta and I both believe that now.
February 7, 2016:
Tonight, my Safta’s life and the lives of her entire family that perished in the Holocaust were honored. Safta spoke at the podium. Flanked by her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, she told the audience that she had survived. As she walked back to her seat, the audience stood up, at least 500 strong and they gave her a standing ovation. They clapped and they clapped until Safta sat down. And then they continued clapping, the sound reverberating in the air. They clapped for this astounding human being, her frame so small and thin, her spirit so very big.
In her speech, she thanked me for the journey that we’d taken together.
All I can say to that is, thank you, Safta. Thank you.
Note: I Promise You, the story of the author’s safta’s experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust, told through the eyes of a teenager, is now available for purchase online and in bookstores.
(Originally featured in Teen Page, Issue 31)
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