Aunt Rosa

     Aunt Rosa and my mother Berta were born one year apart.  The two sisters lived together nearly all their lives. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, their native city, they were the ones who had children to worry about. Berta told her husband, who was planning their escape, “I’m not leaving without Rosa and her family.”  And so my father did what was necessary to get papers for three more refugees.      In Vienna, Rosa and her husband Sigi had a shop where they sold creams and perfumes to the ladies.  They bought from Rosa because they wanted to have the same lovely skin and hair that Rosa always had.  She never used the creams at all.  Rosa loved the business and her city, but, to save her daughter, she left it all.      We fled to Uruguay, South America, where she stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and took care of the three children: her daughter Edith, 11, her niece Lise, 2, and her nephew Peter, 3.  She rarely left the house, never learned to speak Spanish, and had little contact with anyone outside the family.  She never got along with Berta’s husband, William, and that made for a stressful household.  William had an explosive temper, and Rosa always wanted to protect my mother.      Rosa was shy with strangers, but she was very strict with the children.  She made wonderful strudels, which she walked around the corner to the baker’s brick oven, and they would bake her delicious concoctions.  The bakers called her “the snake lady” because her strudels were long tubes and were snaked around the baking pan.  I loved watching her make them.  She used a floral-printed tablecloth on which she stretched out the floured dough till you could see the flowers showing through.  Such a delicate process!  She would then sprinkle the apples and raisins and nuts on one end of the sheet of dough, and last came the shower of sugar and cinnamon.  Then she would lift the edge of the tablecloth and use it to gently roll the mixture over and over to make the layers of dough to cover it all. The ends were pinched together to hold in the filling.  The last part of the process was to carefully coil it on to the pan without tearing any of the tissue-thin dough.  I was mesmerized by the process and often walked with her to the bakery to watch them slide it into the huge brick oven.  Even better was going with her to pick up her masterpiece after it was baked, knowing that, when we got home, I would get a hot piece of her wonder strudel.      When we migrated to the United States, she was once again on alien territory and kept to herself.  Her passion was the movie magazines.  She did not go to the movies much, but she loved the movie stars.  I don’t know if she could actually read English, but she loved the pictures. All those beautiful people and their exciting lives captured her imagination somehow.      In Richmond, Virginia, Berta worked in her brothers’ business, the New York Delicatessen. Rosa stayed home and cooked and baked and looked after the children, since we all lived in a duplex as one extended family.  She began to bake for...

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Approaching the Eve of At-one-ment – Yom Kippur, 1997

Yesterday I went to a Sabbath service. It wasn’t just an ordinary Sabbath service. It was the first Sabbath of the Jewish New Year. It was the first Sabbath service I have attended with Moisey, my Jewish partner. It was the first Sabbath service I have participated in for twenty years. It was the first Sabbath service I have seen where the Rabbi is pregnant.      So much came up for me during the two and a half hours I sat in my seat. There were only a handful of people in the large sanctuary, and most of them were quite elderly. The Rabbi is a young woman with a two-year-old son and another child coming within the month. I wondered how it felt for her, a young mother, to be leading a congregation where young people do not attend Sabbath services.      I thought back to my own childhood Jewish experience. I was born in Vienna, Austria in January 1938. Six weeks after my birth, Hitler marched into Vienna, and the Nazis took over the city, cheered on by the majority of the Viennese population.      My Jewish experience began with my knowing that, because I was Jewish, I was a victim, and I had to flee the land of my birth. We left in 1939, and, although I was too young to understand in words what was happening, I’m sure I perceived it at a cellular level. What else could have been the subject of almost every conversation around me, except how terrible things had become, and how we had to leave, and the possible fate of loved ones we were leaving behind.      In Montevideo, Uruguay, where we migrated, I was always aware that I was an alien, and not a particularly desirable one, at that. There was no synagogue, and the only Jewish Holiday celebrations I witnessed were at home, with only our small family present. There was no sense of belonging or community associated with our being Jewish. Only fear, alienation, and persecution. How many times I heard my mother say how lucky we were to be alive.      After the war, we were able to come to the United States and be reunited with some of my mother’s family who had also been fortunate enough to escape the Nazis. One of my first memories of my first weeks in Richmond, Virginia was attending a gathering of young people in a Jewish temple where we watched a movie in which Frank Sinatra sang a song about America, the land of the free. I was touched by the lyrics and astounded to learn that everyone in the auditorium was Jewish! I didn’t think there were that many Jews left in the world!      I was sent to Hebrew school and Sunday school and went every week to Sabbath services. Although I was still very much an outsider, even in the Jewish community, I felt somewhat more at home because I felt safe in the synagogue and the Jewish Community Center. In the year after I came to Richmond, the Jewish Center burned to the ground, and there were rumors of arson, which brought back some of the fear.      Still I took advantage of every opportunity to go to Jewish events. My mother, who had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home,...

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A Birthday Gift from my Mother

     I have just spent the last year living through two difficult health issues. One was a car accident, when my own car ran over me and came to rest on my left leg, just above my knee. I went through three hospitalizations, a week in a nursing home, a surgery, and many months of wound care until I was in a state of safety from serious infection from my injury.      Just as I was about to do what was necessary to regain full use of my leg, I went for a mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two more surgeries and eight chemotherapy treatments later, I am recovering from the nerve damage the chemotherapy inflicted on my legs, and I am still healing from the accident wound.      This week, I celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday and had an amazing experience on the morning of my birthday. It was about three or four in the morning, and my mother, who died thirty-five years ago, visited me in my sleep. I don’t usually remember my dreams, but this one was visually and kinesthetically vivid and memorable. My mother came to my bed and climbed in with me. We did not have a conversation, but she held me and stroked me for a long time, and I could see her clearly.      It was the most delightful dream I can ever remember, and, when I awoke, I felt so wonderfully loved and fulfilled. My whole body was still experiencing the warmth of her contact with me, and it felt like such a delicious birthday gift.      The most interesting part of this event is that my mother died when she was sixty-nine years old. Could such a thing possibly be a...

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1988 – Fifty Years Later

     I was born in Vienna, Austria in the month of January in the fateful year of 1938. In March of 1938, Hitler and the Nazi army marched into the city, changing our lives forever. By the summer of 1939, my father had succeeded in bribing enough Nazi officials to procure visas and passports for us. My parents, my brother and I managed to escape the Holocaust by going to Uruguay, spending the seven war years there until we were able to come to the United States in 1946. We lived in Richmond, Virginia with the members of my mother’s family, who had somehow survived by escaping.      In the month of January, 1988, when I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, I was living in Springfield, Illinois. I had been married, raised six wonderful children, some of them were already married, and three of them had children of their own. I recently been through a divorce after twenty-two years of marriage and was making a life for myself by myself. I had a good job, a nice home, great friends, good health and a comfortable life. I considered myself very fortunate.      Suddenly, my past came up to strike me in the face—the past my family and I had overcome and almost put behind us. It was the fiftieth anniversary, not only of my birth, but also of the Anschluss. That word has little meaning for most people in the world, but, to Viennese Jews, it is a word that is highly charged. The Anschluss happened when I was five weeks old. I had always thought that Anschluss meant that Adolph Hitler had invaded Austria, conquered the city of my birth and forced a Nazi regime on the whole country.      Kurt Waldheim was elected chancellor of Austria in the mid-eighties, and, even though it was discovered that he was a part of the Nazi government, he still remained in office. This seemed like a strange aberration to me. Although this matter made international news, in Springfield, only a few Jews spoke of it at all.      In 1938, 10% of the Viennese population was Jewish, and my family thought they were an accepted part of the Austrian population. I was about to find out the truth. The truth was that the citizens of Vienna welcomed Hitler into the city with cheers and parades celebrating Austria’s annexation to Germany.      On Public Radio one Sunday morning in March, 1988, I heard a rebroadcast of Hitler’s march into Vienna in March 1938. In the background, I heard the music and the cheering of the Viennese people. It sounded like a joyous celebration, and it was a shocking and devastating thing for me to hear.      It never even occurred to me that the people of my birthplace could have done such a thing. Hitler’s antisemitism and the suffering he had already caused to German Jews were well known already. How could our neighbors be happy that he was extending these horrors into Austria?      My parents were already dead in 1988, so all the questions that arose in me went unanswered. The only person of my family in my parents’ generation who was still alive was my Aunt Hedy, who lived in Florida. She was the youngest of seven children and had been a sickly child and an emotionally...

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