Life’s Mysteries

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Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.

That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.

More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).

One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.

While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.

Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.

“Stop the car!” I pleaded.

“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.

“You did that on purpose!”

“What?”

“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.

“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”

“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.

At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.

“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.

It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.

I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.

I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.

Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.

Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.

Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.

For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.

To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.

Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.

These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.

I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.

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Roger and Raffa posing in my bedroom May 2017

A Year in Review

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Note: Today is Leah’s birthday. It is funny how Dan, Gary and Leah all have their birthdays on the same day of the week – this year it falls on a Monday – blog day! So, as has been my custom with Daniel and Gary, I dedicate this post to Leah. It is particularly appropriate because though the rest of my family has been supportive of this endeavor, Leah has been my biggest cheerleader and frequent editor. Her comments are always incisive and helpful. More than any of that, though, she is an inspiration to me. I admire her willingness to put herself out there by sharing her songs and expressing her creativity. It only took me until I was in my fifties, but she was a trailblazer for me J.  So, Leah, happy birthday! I love you hugely! I wish you love, health, peace and wonderful adventures – and everything you want for yourself, too.

Today’s blog post is my 52nd! A year goes by fast! Well, technically I skipped one week, but still, I think it is a good time to take stock.

First, some numbers. The blog has had over 6000 views and it has had 2,250 visitors. Believe it or not, there have been 50 views from Germany, 10 from Italy, even 3 from China (and some other countries, too)! WordPress provides these stats. I have no idea how to interpret them. Clearly my Mom has visited the blog many times, but not from Germany! I’m not sure how the system tallies these things. I’ve also had well over 100 comments on the blog itself, not counting what has appeared on Facebook, or what was conveyed to me personally.

Despite not knowing how to make sense of the numbers, or how to compare them to any standard or expectation, I am just pleased to have readers! I started this blog to share memories and start some conversations and I think it has been successful. Without you, dear readers, it would not have been possible.

The blog has also had some unintended consequences. One of the reasons I entitled it “Stories I Tell Myself,” was that I believed each of us has a narrative that we use to describe the events of our lives. I think we have experiences and we interpret them so that they fit into the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. For example, to simplify the idea, if a person thinks of themselves as a victim, then they might look for how a set of circumstances reinforces that belief. I think we can trap ourselves in our own narrative.

In my case, I thought of myself as an unhappy child who felt insecure. I felt like I never got the love and attention I wanted. That perception shaped my life in important ways. It has been an effort to move beyond that – an effort that fortunately became more successful the older I got.

Writing these stories, and then editing and rereading them, and receiving comments has been a revelation. In digging through my past, I found so much love and warmth. I think while I was living through it, I didn’t absorb it – I didn’t feel it. I can’t explain that. I think I was more focused on the painful or disappointing parts. But, as I wrote and as I uncovered more memories, I couldn’t help but notice the love that was the foundation.

As is often the case for me, a song lyric comes to mind. Jackson Browne (once again) wrote, in Fountain of Sorrow, “And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” While I haven’t changed the past, and I wouldn’t describe the blogging process as easy, I think I have changed how I feel about the past.

I think the idea of ‘stories we tell ourselves’ is valid, even if, upon closer scrutiny, mine was a little off. Maybe that is the whole point. To discover whether the story is true! Not everyone would choose to examine their own stories in a public blog, but I think it has been helpful to get feedback. When people comment, for example, that the stories about my Nana and Zada make them feel warm and safe, it helps me process and amplify my own feelings.

Writing the stories was also useful. Describing the images in my head helped to clarify them. Having to choose adjectives to express an emotion, or paint a picture of Nana’s kitchen forced me to think more deeply about the memory and its meaning.

I don’t think I am done yet. I think there is more to uncover about growing up in Brooklyn in that time with my family. I think, too, there is more to explore about the beginning of my relationship with Gary, our early marriage and starting a family. I hope you will continue to share my journey and, perhaps, share some of yours. I have very much appreciated when Gary and Leah offered their own stories (and judging by the comments, readers have enjoyed their posts, too). Others are welcome to do that in the comments or in a guest blog piece.

I think it is helpful to examine our stories, our memories; expose them to the light of day. You may be surprised at what you find. I hope I continue to surprise myself.

Family Ties

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From left to right: Uncle Jackie, Uncle Morris, me, the top of my brother Mark’s head, Dad, Nana and Aunt Elsie. Jack, Morris and Nana were siblings. Aunt Sadie, their oldest sister, is not pictured. Aunt Elsie was Uncle Jack’s wife.

As a child your family is your world. At least it was for me. I didn’t question how we did things or how our family functioned. While I knew we weren’t perfect, I thought we were pretty darn close.

As the years went by, I came to understand that the people around me were in fact flawed. Even my beloved Nana. Nana was a mythic figure in our family. Her legendary status only grew after her death.

I have wanted to write about Nana for as long as I could remember. I started this blog as a way of exploring my memories of her, though I have strayed from that at times. I think I wanted to understand her better, to have a better sense of her life, from an adult perspective. I was 11 when she died, but she played such a central role in my life – from the time I was four until she died, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother. With that in mind, I wrote to her youngest brother, my Great-Uncle Jackie (Jacob, but we called him Jackie or Jack), in December of 2001, asking him to share stories about her. This was the first letter I received in response.

                                                                                                                        January 2002
Dear Linda,

Life on Rochester Ave was a most unique experience. Unlike anything else, it was a lesson in humanities, and your Nana was the ultimate professor.

The one block on Rochester Ave was a community in itself, it was a shtetl, an almost self contained mini state, which thrived for many, many years.

Nana was the leader of the pack. She could have been mayor of the block.

Her warmth and friendship was infectious.

It was not a put on. It was real. She exuded this very unusual human quality automatically – without effort, without exertion.

The block could have had a fence around it. The business establishments and owners were like a family in every sense of the word. It was a “mutual admiration society,” knowing each other, respecting each other, liking and supporting each other.

Quoting, with humility, Tevya proclaims that Anatevka (Rochester Ave) has its variety of ‘colorful characters.’

There was Max, the fruit and produce man next door to the bakery – there was Al the barber – there was Sam the butcher across the street – there was Julius the appetizing maven, Datz the pharmacist, Singer the hardware man – and two names that elude me, the luncheonette guy and the pastrami (king) on the corner.

Your Nana loved this kaleidoscope of rainbow hued people – and they loved her. This was most important!!!

It was a violation of every concept of law not to support each other, purchase from each other, or maintain a warm relationship with each other.

Bakery business is a complex business. A wholesale/retail operation is a 24 hour business.

Zada Chas., of course, was responsible for the production end.

Nana Ray was totally involved in the retail aspect of this very difficult business. Coming in contact with the immediate neighborhood customers required the patience of a saint – the wisdom of a scholar – the compassion of a person of the cloth – the wit of a comic.

Well, Linda, your Nana was all of those things and more.

She constantly transmitted a warmth and friendship to all.

Please be assured Nana was no saint – she was just a very special human being.

It was very obvious through the years that your Nana loved the business and loved the intimacy of her station behind the counter.

She was on call every minute the store was open, at a moment’s call, always in her uniform, ready to report for duty.

But – she seemed to love the thought of the sweets on display. If memory serves, she was ‘almost’ obsessed with eclairs, whip cream cake, brownies, Napoleons, etc., etc. That was bad – very bad. Your Nana was a diabetic – an out of control diabetic. She was in and out of the hospital more times than I can remember. I could almost swear that she liked the occasional stay in Unity Hospital, where she developed friendships with the medical personnel.

She was a star, a favorite Unity visitor.

Nana did not accept the fact that she could be a diabetic. She did not care for herself and, at the end, it may have contributed somewhat to her demise at such a young age.

Nana Ray was a joy to love, live with and is constantly missed.

Love,
Uncle Jack

Fifteen years ago, when I received that letter, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping for more detail, more specific information about her life. The letter reinforced the mythology of Nana. In our family Nana was the matriarch, the center from which love flowed, even 30 years after her death. Uncle Jack noted that Nana wasn’t a saint, but he chose not to illuminate her flaws. He did address her self-destructive eating habits, and unwillingness to take care of herself. Even about that he was as gentle as possible in his wording. At the time I was hoping Uncle Jack could offer some stories that would provide more dimension, or a fuller perspective on Nana.

Today I read the letter and I see the insight in it. I appreciate the description of the community around the bakery, the community that encompassed Nana’s life. I better understand how difficult the bakery bankruptcy must have been and the defeat inherent in moving to the apartment above ours in Canarsie. It explains a lot about the sometimes testy relationship that I observed between Nana and Zada.

My mother used to tell me that she thought Nana used her hospitalizations as a kind of vacation, to take a break from her responsibilities. Uncle Jack’s letter seems to support that, though clearly it was a self-destructive way to go about it.

In some ways, the letter says more about Uncle Jack’s relationship with his older sister than it does about Nana’s life. He so loved and admired her. He was 11 years her junior. Jack had a very painful growing up. Their mother died when he was very young and his father was unable to care for him. Jack was shuttled to different relatives to live. When Nana (Ray) was married and settled, she took him in. The 1940 census, when Nana and Zada lived in Jersey City, lists their household on Essex Street as including the following: Charles – age 35, Ray – age 26, Feige – age 7, Simma – age 3 and Jack Woltz – age 15. My mother grew up with Uncle Jack as an older brother, much the way I grew up with Uncle Mike and Uncle Terry. It is strange how that pattern repeated itself.

During World War II Uncle Jack enlisted in the Marines before he was even 17, or he tried to. I believe Nana had to give permission for him to serve. In later years he spoke with great respect and pride about his time in the service, despite the fact that he was shot down in the Pacific, a harrowing experience. He had a tattoo to commemorate his time in the Marines on his bicep, quite an unusual thing for a Jewish man at the time.

While at war he wrote letters to his nieces (my mom and her sister) that included cartoons. He was a talented artist. Those letters were shared at Mom’s elementary school and posted on a bulletin board for all to see. Uncle Jack came home, after recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed, a decorated hero, a bit shell shocked, but happy to return home.

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Mom and Dad’s wedding in 1954 – the cake was made by Uncle Jackie. Nana and Zada sent Uncle Jack to school for cake decorating and he was a master. This cake was just one example of his artistry.

I think it is fair to say that Nana functioned as a mother to him. Something he confirmed in a subsequent letter. As he wrote, referring to his place in Nana and Zada’s home, “As for me personally, it meant for the first time in my life I felt that I had a family, that I was a valued member of a family, a stability with shared love and responsibility. This responsibility came to pass only by the goodness of Nana Ray and Zada Chas, who were more than sister or brother-in-law – more like an interim Mother and Father, with the children more like brothers and sisters.”

I continued my correspondence with Uncle Jackie and in subsequent letters, at my prodding, he offered a fuller picture of Nana. Here is most of the next letter:

                                                                                                April 2002
Dear Linda,

…..Nana Ray had this thing for hosting parties. She invented the term for Webster, and they called it——obsession.

The family was always the center, the core of any party that was planned to her agenda. I’m emphatically stating that at times, it did annoy the Spilken/Woltz clans – but our rebellion was unacceptable and hopeless. Any previous plans made by the helpless had to be cancelled and rescheduled.

There were small parties, large parties, grand elaborate parties, significant and memorable parties never to be forgotten……

Listing Nana’s obsession with parties, and listing occasions would require one volume of an encyclopedia.

But briefly: birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, B’nai Mitzvot, weddings, uf rufs, going into service, coming home from service (a reunion that made Aunt Elsie your aunt), Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, and the list goes on and on and on and on….

This was your Nana. She was a class act, her most important cast members were her family. There didn’t exist an occasion too minor or too important for it to escape the opportunity for Ray to honor.

Before going further, I must inject a couple of relationship points.
Ray’s relationship to her (our) sister Sadie was, at times, confrontational and argumentative. But, make no mistake, the love was strong, unbreakable and absolutely devoted. That was Nana Ray, 100% pure love. They spoke almost daily by phone. If Sadie could not come to the party, we took the party to Jersey. Restrictions on time of day or day of week never existed. Zada’s car was loaded and we did travel.

The fun was wonderful……

Aunt Say always disagreed with Ray’s way of life. Aunt Say always felt that Ray enjoyed going out too much (and as such), neglected her business. She argued that Ray’s spending on her antiques was excessive and wasteful. Say felt that vacationing was excessive, and most of all, Ray did not take care of herself (reckless food eating). Sadie was even more angry at Ray for too frequent hospital excursions.

They were both business women. Ray always felt that Sadie was more like the country bumpkin, catalogue ordering farm girl. Sadie was more home oriented, financially frugal, never concerned with fancy clothing, jewelry or home furnishings.

In spite of the silly differences, they were both hard working in their businesses, while caring for their children.

But again, our journeys to Jersey were precious and priceless. We were a family, happy to be together, enjoying the time.

Another relationship worthy of mention is the closeness shared by Nana and Aunt Elsie. This was very unusual, far beyond a sister-in-law relationship, they shared a love, respect and closeness that was out of the ordinary. They shared ideas, thoughts, and were closer than sisters.

Zada Chas and Elsie’s parents shared that same feeling of warmth, love and affection.

                                                                     My love to you ——-Uncle Jack

The differences between the sisters that the letter describes and what those differences revealed about each of them, was news to me. I was not aware of any issues between the siblings. While it may be true that a child may not be privy to those particulars, my experience with my family was a bit different. I was often the proverbial fly on the wall. I liked the company of adults and I liked listening. In any event, while it is certainly possible, I don’t think the tensions were spoken about.

Therein lies a problem. In our effort to preserve a reputation, especially that of a beloved person, we may sweep a lot under the rug. I don’t think it serves us well. While I don’t think it is helpful to tear down heroes, or speak ill of the dead, I think if we ignore or whitewash their failings, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity to better understand the person, to learn about ourselves, to acknowledge human frailty and, perhaps, to be more forgiving of each other and ourselves.

These letters, more than anything, though, remind me of the lessons I took from Nana’s life: To celebrate when you can. The priority and value of family relationships, even when the people are flawed. To live in the world with kindness, generosity and love. Whatever flaws Nana had, and they may well have shortened her life, they pale in comparison to her legacy.

Note:  Members of the Woltz family, please feel free to comment, correct or add to this post. If any of you would like to write a longer piece, I’d be happy to post it. That offer extends to all family members who may have something that they would like to share. 

Two for the Price of One: Two Views

[Note: Another foray into prose/poetry]

Boundaries and Expectations

 

September 12, 1986

Partly cloudy skies.

Driving home alone, I could barely concentrate on the road.

My eyes welled up.

 

Will I be a good mother? Can I do this?

Minutes before,

what I suspected was confirmed.

This was planned, yet I was overwhelmed.

I took a deep breath,

focused on the road and the sky, made my way home.

 

Into our little brick house.

I rush to the phone to call Gary.

He is still on rounds at the VA.

I have him paged.

It takes many minutes, seemingly forever.

 

Hello, Lin?

I’m pregnant!

Wow! This is such great news!

When do you think you’ll be home?

The usual time.

You can’t get out early?

Linda, you know I can’t.

 

I sighed and exhaled, resigned to this reality.

Okay, we’ll talk later.

I was left to my thoughts.

 

Eight months crawl by.

I was not glowing with new life.

Queasy, tired, morning, noon and night.

Ear infection, bronchitis, heartburn

I didn’t enjoy sharing my body.

 

So many rules:

No caffeine, no alcohol, drink milk

I don’t like milk.

Vitamins the size of Pluto.

Alcohol was no loss, caffeine another story.

I’m responsible for this new life!

I don’t want to screw it up!

 

The due date kept changing.

First May 2, then May 11, finally May 16

That day comes and goes.

The longest gestation in history.

I am ready! Nature has its way, though.

 

May 20 Gary travels to Long Island to take part 4 of his medical boards.

My parents come up from Brooklyn to keep me company.

At 5 pm they leave me with friends and

head back home, Gary is on his way.

I feel some contractions: Braxton-Hicks or the real thing?

 

Gary gets home by 9pm.

My water sort of breaks after midnight.

We call the doctor.

He tells us to come to the hospital.

It is before dawn on Thursday morning.

We put the garbage cans by the curb before going to Albany Med.

 

27 hours, the last 7 hard labor,

an apt description.

First, no progress, then Pitocin – a brutal treatment.

Finally, I push!

Such a relief! My body is almost my own again.

 

4:39 am, Friday, May 22, I look at my baby.

Labor was hard on me, but she is perfectly formed.

She is part of me and yet, she might well be an alien.

We are one and we are separate.

I understand her; I feel her joy, her hunger, her frustration.

But I am clueless, she is a mystery.

 

I fall in love over those first few weeks.

Her wondrous eyes, sparking with light.

Her pink, smooth skin.

She emerges into herself.

Curious, demanding, loving.

 

30 years later and

it is all still true.

 

[Note: Gary’s remembrance of that same time]

September 12, 1986.  I was on rounds when I heard my name over the VA hospital intercom for the first (and only) time in my life.  The operator put me through. Linda tells me that we are going to be parents. You could have knocked me down with a feather.  I was elated and scared and excited.  She asked me if I could get home early that day.  But the patients cannot wait.  I work as fast and furiously as I can to get out early but 10PM is the best I can do.  I remember not being able to concentrate during rounds that day which is the one and only time that ever happened.

That VA rotation was in many ways horrible.  Perhaps it was also an experience in growing up.  The VA is an underfunded, second rate health care system and, in my mind, a poor excuse to offer people who fought for our country and now are down on their luck.  And, to be sure, if you are a veteran and have other health care available to you, you are not going to the VA.  So these are the guys who things have not gone well for after they came back home.

I was an intern along with two others on that rotation.  Claude Scialdone was another intern with me and he was amazing. I can’t remember who the third intern was but it was not someone who did all that much.  Worse than that, our resident who was supposed to guide and support us was an empty suit (perhaps an empty white coat is the better medical term?).  And the attending physician came by in the morning to round, as he was supposed to do, but did nothing else.  So Claude and I were basically two guys just out of med school trying to keep 40 very sick veterans alive with basically no help.

It was frightening and it was exhausting.  On a normal day, when I was not on call, I would get there before 7AM and get home anywhere from 8PM to midnight.  When I was on call I wouldn’t get home at all.

One particular patient still sticks in my mind.  He had been there since well before I started my 6 week rotation and he was often times confused, weak and kept running fevers.  I worked him up for sources of infection again and again.  I ordered chest x-rays to look for pneumonia, urine cultures and blood cultures but they repeatedly came back negative.  I asked my resident about the guy – I told him I was certain we were missing something.  There was something going on and we were failing to identify it.  The patient was treading water at best and sooner or later we were going to lose him.

My resident responded by asking me if any of the cultures had grown anything and the answer was no.  He then explained that this means he’s fine.  He wasn’t fine.  He wasn’t close to fine and I knew that in my marrow, but I was out of ideas and had no help.

At that time, the VA closely controlled the use of the newer, broad spectrum antibiotics.  If you ordered any of them, you automatically got an infectious disease consult.  Normally that might not seem like a problem, but in the Albany VA at that time, it meant you got Dr. Aldonna Baltsch on your floor. Dr. Baltsch was as feared as any doctor I have ever known.  She was a phenomenal, dedicated, passionate physician but she was also a perfectionist with a temper.  She would come in and yell at you for all the errors she determined you were making.  I think she just wanted to make us better doctors but perhaps didn’t exactly know how to go about doing it.  In any case, nobody ever wanted to see Dr. Baltsch around.

For that reason, nobody ever called for an infectious disease consult.  And the interns and residents became experts at using combinations of older antibiotics to avoid the newer ones that came with a dreaded visit from Dr. Baltsch.  But in this moment, I realized I feared the prospect of failing and losing this patient more than I feared Dr. Baltsch.

So I ordered a new wave, broad spectrum, expensive antibiotic when my resident wasn’t looking.  I did so because I knew that, while it would bring the holy wrath of Dr. Baltsch, it would also bring her expertise.  She came up and was really, really angry.  It was as if Mount Vesuvius was going to erupt and the lava would scorch us all.  However, as it turned out, her anger was entirely directed at my resident.  She never even spoke to me – which was fine with me.

And she ordered exactly the same tests I had ordered.  But this time, after they yet again came back negative, she ordered an LP (spinal tap).  That came back negative too but she told the lab to hold onto the spinal fluid sample longer for viral cultures and they eventually came back positive for Varicella (the virus that causes Chicken Pox).  Turned out he had Varicella encephalitis, an infection of his brain caused by that virus.  This is still the only case of Varicella encephalitis I have ever seen.

He was placed on antiviral antibiotics.  His fevers ceased after a few days and he finally started to get better.  Dr. Baltsch called for a special meeting of everyone in the entire department of medicine basically to humiliate my resident.  It looked like vultures picking at a carcass as the entire faculty went after the guy.  I almost felt sorry for him.

That rotation eventually gave way to others, some nearly as hard and some not quite as tough.

But fall turned to winter and winter to spring and then I took my boards exam on Long Island.  Knowing Linda was past her due date and could go into labor at any minute, I rushed through the exam.  It was the only time in my life that I was the first person out of the room on such an exam.  That night, Linda had spontaneous rupture of membranes (her water broke).  We took out the garbage and drove reasonably calmly to Albany Medical Center where she gave birth after 27 long hours of labor.

She was an amazing trooper.  No anesthesia.  One single dose of one pain killer.  Hour after hour.  I spent much of the time with her but also left to do rounds and see patients during parts of the process.  At the end, on May 22nd, Leah emerged, perfect, beautiful, alert and brilliant.  A miracle in our lives who has been such a great joy ever since.

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Just a few hours after birth – Leah looking directly at the camera, alert and bright. Gary, on the other hand, exhausted.

Leah was a force of nature.  It is hard to explain how even in those earliest days she had a spirit and a liveliness and a curiosity.  I felt like she saw and understood the world around her in ways that most babies could not and her smile melted my heart.  Life had taken on new meaning and I fell in love with her.

Still I was torn.  I could not devote less time to my patients than what I felt I needed to.  And yet I wanted to be home; to be with Leah; to help Linda who was in some ways almost a single parent. She was exhausted and I was exhausted.  And I could not do all I wished I could do.  I could not do all Linda needed me to do.

Having already completed all of the hardest rotations in May of 1987, my last rotation of internship was scheduled to be an easy one in a community hospital very near our house.  It was going to be perfect.  I would be working a short walk from our house, the hours would be reasonable.  A long, hard winter was about to give way to a beautiful spring and hours with Leah and Linda.  It didn’t work out that way.  On the day Leah was born, an intern quit the program and the department of medicine met to determine who should cover that intern’s rotation. They decided I should cover it.  I was back in the VA hospital.

More Questions

Note:  Since I have been traveling over the last several weeks, I have not been able to devote as much time to this blog post as I would like. Please consider it a work in progress. (the whole blog is actually a work in progress!) I want to continue exploring Brody family history and its implications but my life gets in the way. Bear with me as I continue the journey.

After reading the letter from the priest, I felt a need to see if the events described had been recorded; to see if history had taken note of the massacre. I did some research, mostly on the Internet. I also looked at a couple of books, including Jewish Roots in Poland by Miriam Weiner.

I also wanted to find the towns listed in the letter. In addition to looking at maps online, I poured over a world atlas.

I did find most of the towns, though it was challenging. The translation of town names, and my total ignorance of Polish, made finding these locations difficult. Several still exist and can be seen on a current map of Poland (Jaslo, Dukla, Nowy Zmigrod), all in the southeast corner of the country. By the way, Stary in a town’s name means ‘old,’ while Nowy in a town’s name means ‘new.’ Oddly, to me anyway, Zmigrod (without Nowy or Stary attached) appears to be miles away to the west and slightly north of the towns mentioned in the letter.

In looking for mention of the massacre in Halbow, I found another massacre exactly one month earlier, June 7, 1942, in the same area. At first I wondered if it was the same incident, perhaps the month was mistakenly recorded. After further exploration, it appears that there were actually two separate incidents (or “actions” in the language of the war) exactly a month apart. On one level it is hard to believe that there could be two (intellectually I know there were many “actions”), but the scope and horror of the Holocaust is still hard to comprehend, even all these years later.

I did find the July 7th genocide noted in several places and it appears that there is a monument erected to memorialize the lives lost in Halbow.

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Monument to the victims of the atrocity in the forest in Halbow.

In the 1990s many children of Holocaust survivors visited Eastern Europe searching for their parent’s hometowns and gravesites of family members. Some of those travelers documented their findings. As a result, I was able to find a picture of the monument (see above). The monument was funded by Zmigrod survivors’ families in America. I was relieved to find that at least there is a monument, but another issue emerged from my research.

The priest’s letter indicates that 1434 people were buried in the mass grave in Halbow. The sources I found on the Internet reported 1250 .(archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/Galicia/2009-07/123905001; www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/nowy.zmigrod1/now065.html; kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/zmigrod/zmigrodholo.htm).

I am disturbed by the discrepancy and wonder what it represents. As mentioned above, in doing the research I found two separate incidents, each with 1250 victims recorded. But it seems odd that the number would be exactly 1250 in both cases. Were they estimates? How were the numbers documented?  Could the 1250 represent only the Jewish victims? Or, could the priest’s information be incorrect? It raises so many questions about how history is documented.

Which led me to another question: Does the number matter? My gut reaction was, of course it does – we are talking about 184 souls not ‘officially’ counted.

But, then, I don’t want to obsess about the actual number. The number, whether it is 1250 or 1434, is too many to accept. Either way it is roughly the size of the suburban high school in my community. It is almost half the population of the town I live in. The number is important, but it isn’t the central point – the central point is that humanity was lost in every sense; in the lives cut short and in those who perpetrated the crime. Those who were responsible for the crime discarded their humanity.

We struggle today to identify and agree to facts. Sometimes when the numbers are in dispute people take the opportunity to dismiss the larger issue. Especially for those with an agenda. That these atrocities were committed is a fact that cannot be denied. My family bore the weight of it, in the loss of life, in the loss of faith and the silence that followed.

I wish I had an answer, though, for reconciling discrepancies in records (data) that sometimes lead us to lose the forest for the trees.

 

 

 

 

A Very Different Experience

The legacy of the letter from the priest is many layered. Of course, there was the profound impact of the loss on Leo Brody, my grandfather, and thus on his immediate family. I had not considered the ripple effects of the atrocity and the silence surrounding it through the generations until now. My family stands in stark contrast to Gary’s family experience – where the impact was more obvious.

As I got to know the Bakst family, when Gary and I started dating in 1979, I was aware that Gary’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Our shared Jewish identity, and the differences in our experiences, was a subject we talked about quite a bit as we got to know each other. My parents were American born and college educated. As I described in prior blog entries, we were culturally and ethnically Jewish, but God was conspicuously absent. No one in my family attended synagogue regularly and when we did it was obligatory, certainly not heartfelt. The Holocaust was discussed, but in a more scholarly way, despite my grandfather’s tragic loss. It was at a remove from our day-to-day experience.

Gary’s parents, while not Orthodox Jews, were far more observant – religion was part of their practice, they kept a Kosher home, didn’t drive on the high holidays and went to synagogue on Shabbat. Gary’s Dad believed in God despite his harrowing experiences – or maybe because of them.

While I would not say that their Holocaust experiences were spoken about often, they were not shrouded in silence either. They attended the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C in 1993, were involved in the organization (Holocaust Survivors and Friends) that was instrumental in establishing the museum and attended the annual meeting of the Iwie Society (a group of lansleit from David’s hometown in Poland). Their status as survivors was an essential part of their identity and of Gary’s (and his siblings).

As I got to know Gary’s family I came to recognize some of the scars from their Holocaust experience. Paula, Gary’s mom, who was about nine when her life in the shtetl of Sarnik was upended, was anxious and fiercely protective of her children. The first time Gary and I went on a date when we were home from college, Gary drove to my house using Paula’s car. This was long before cellphones. When Gary arrived in Canarsie (20 minutes away), he asked to use our phone to call home and let Paula know that he had arrived safely. Years later, when I was pregnant with Leah, my doorbell rang one evening in Albany. I went to the door to find my brother. He had come to deliver a message, “Call your mother-in-law. She hasn’t been able to reach you and she is worried.” Apparently our phone was off the hook and I didn’t realize it. Paula, ever resourceful, long before the Internet, found my brother’s phone number, called him and dispatched him to check on me. Needless to say, I called her immediately.

To say Paula didn’t trust easily would be an understatement. Years before he met and married Shari, Gary’s older brother, Steven, was dating a woman, Jenna, who wasn’t Jewish. I sat at Paula’s kitchen table in Rosedale while she shared her fear that if Steven was to marry Jenna, she might kill him in his sleep. I was at a loss as to how to respond. I asked her why Jenna would do that. She shrugged and said, “Because she is Christian and he is Jewish.” I began to understand the depth of the damage done by her traumatic childhood.

Gary and I were together for four years before we married and had children (at least another 5 years later) before I felt I had earned her trust.

When Steven Spielberg, as a companion to Schlindler’s List, undertook the Shoah Project (the effort to record the testimony of all living survivors before their numbers dwindled), the Bakst family participated. We went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills and waited in the lobby while Paula and David were interviewed separately. Then all ten of us – Rochelle and Doreen (Gary’s sisters), Steven, Shari, Laura and Jordan (Gary’s brother, wife and two young children) and our family (Gary, me, Leah and Daniel) – went in to be filmed as a coda to their testimony.

Over the years I had heard the stories of their survival. David fought in the Russian army and with the partisans in the woods in Poland. Death was all around him. Paula survived by the guile of her mother and, for several years, with the assistance of a gentile Polish farmer. They told how they met in a displaced persons camp and of Paula’s resettlement in Cuba where she had family and David’s in New York. Ultimately David went to Cuba to propose marriage and a year later, on September 3, 1949, they were married in Havana. David brought Paula back to New York and they settled in Queens and started their family. Paula’s mother, brother and sister survived, her father was murdered as they fled their town. David’s father and sister survived the war, though his father, having navigated the war itself, tragically died from complications from hernia surgery in Germany just before they were to immigrate to America. There is so much more to their story than can be told here in a blog entry.

Despite his travail, David’s experiences reinforced his belief in God. He felt he was spared by God’s hand on several dramatic occasions. Over the years I attended synagogue many times with David and Paula and it was impossible not to be moved by his faith, in particular. He chanted the prayers from his heart. Paula also took comfort in the rituals. They felt part of a community that shared beliefs and customs. It was very different than the synagogue experience, limited as it was, that I had growing up.

The process of integrating our two families and creating our own is still a work in progress.

A Tragic Turning Point

My last blog post (No Easy Answers) told of my grandfather, Leo, and his time staying with us in Canarsie. Comments from my brothers and mother prompted a deeper examination of his life.

The Brody family story is not unique among American Jews, but it is still important to give voice to it. Grandpa may not have shared his story; at least to the best of my knowledge he didn’t. I believe it merits telling. There are important gaps that I don’t know if I will be able to fill. Many of the people who could offer insight are no longer alive, and some, who are elderly, are particularly subject to the vagaries of memory (as I’ve noted before, memory is a funny thing under the best of circumstances).

This is what I know: Leo Bruder (he changed his name to Brody, perhaps to fit in with other family that had come before) came to this country from Poland. Specifically, he came from Galicia, an area of southeast Poland that changed hands many times throughout history, in the Carpathian Mountains. He came to America with an entrepreneurial spirit. He made the journey alone, not in steerage like most immigrants. He had enough means to buy a ticket that allowed him to arrive in New York City without going through Ellis Island. He was 18 years old and the year was 1921 when he arrived. He left his parents and sister in Europe.

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Page 1 of a copy of the translation of the letter Grandpa received

In November of 1945, about six months after World War II ended, Grandpa received a letter (picture above), in response to his inquiry by cable, from a priest from his town about the fate of his parents and sister. The original letter was in Polish. My brother Steven has a copy of the translation of the letter. In order to read it more easily, Steven transcribed it into a Word document that I have posted below.

When I was growing up the letter and the tragedy it describes was not spoken of directly. I knew that Grandpa’s parents and sister had been killed by the Nazis. I also knew that, from that point on, Grandpa didn’t go to synagogue unless there was a specific celebration like a bar mitzvah or wedding. He lost his faith in God. The events described in the letter and Grandpa’s life in Europe were not spoken of otherwise and it was understood that questions weren’t to be asked. Late in his life, after Grandma died, he seemed to be more willing to talk, but the legacy of silence was still strong.

I think it is important to share this letter because it provides documentation of the atrocity. I want to give fair warning, though, that it is graphic and disturbing and I understand if you choose not to read it. I did want it posted, though, as it is an essential part of my family’s history. It made its mark on us in a myriad of ways.

I’m not sure why I didn’t ask more questions about this letter when my father was alive. I knew of its existence from sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. I don’t believe I ever saw it with my own eyes until this past week when Steven scanned it and sent it to me. I have so many questions now. I am hoping that I can find some answers. If I am successful in finding insights that add to our family story, I will share them.

[A note about the letter: Steve and I did our best to transcribe the translation, but as you can see from the picture above, it is not a clear copy. In addition, the original translator was not able to decipher some of the Polish. Fortunately, these difficulties do not impact the meaning of the text.]

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Translation from Polish of a letter dated 11/21/1945

Zmigrod Stary 11/21/1945

Dear Mr Leon,

Your cable was delivered to me only today, though it was received in Zmigrod on November 12th. The post office delivered it to Wohlmuth, who turned it over to me only today. I am answering at once. I am sorry but I cannot write you something good. Your parents and sister were killed by the Germans on July 7th 1942 in Halbow, near –Rempno. On the same day and in the same woods all Jews from our town and the neighborhood with the young rabbi Halboratwa. Your family was killed, family Weinstein and family –estreic from Lysa-Gora.

But before it came to this terrible tragedy, your family suffered a lot. Your mother used to say always why did they not go to USA with their son, why they have to suffer?

To start with all their belongings were taken away from their house and farm. Then they were deported to the town where they lived at Lembik’s house. In the beginning they left with me some of their personal belongings asking to hide them, but before the deportation they took everything with them. They had very bad time there, as they had nothing to eat. I used to send them bread and milk and flour. I saw them a few times and tried to console them and reassure them that nothing will happen to them, that they will be sent to a camp, because nobody could think of such a tragedy. On July 6th I saw them, and they asked me to write you about everything. They gave me your address, but I lost it during the evacuation and the fire of the village. Still in the last day of their life my house-keeper Salka went to see them and to comfort them, but alas it was too late, as they knew already that death is near. The Gestapo patrols were already in the streets. With moans and tears they prepared themselves to the saying of last prayers. On July 7th 8 o’clock in the morning all Jews were gathered on the meadows across the bridge. There they were ordered to surrender all their money and valuables, after this they were by trucks brought to Halbow. There, before dug out trenches, they were ordered to undress and stand up in rows. They were killed by shooting from behind. The children were killed by smashing their heads with rifle butts. Altogether 1,434 persons were killed in this day and buried in the trenches. It is possible that Americans will not believe in such a horrible murder, but it is true.

It is quite impossible to describe what we went through during the war. All villages, Zmigrod Stary, Lysa-Gora, Glojsce, Iwla, Siedliska, Makarowaka, Nienaszow were destroyed and burned down. . Only chimneys and rubble remained. Zmigrod Nowy, Dukla and Jaslo were in ruins. 153 bombs and grenades exploded over my church and in the parsonage and barns. We were hidden for a month in the cellars, later we were removed to some other place. When we after 6 months came back, we found only ruins, without roof and doors, and, what was still worse, nothing to eat.

The house of your parents and of Weinstein are not damaged and at present homeless families live in these houses. The farmland is not tilled. You have to apply to the court to be recognized as heirs after your family. Same apply also to Weinstein, or send me power of attorney legalized at the Polish consul authorizing me to do it on your behalf, as well as giving me right to manage your property, as I presume you do not intend to return. Tell Wallach to do the same.

I have to add that you sister (name illegible) and your mother used to come often to the parsonage. Many times before an imminent danger they used to come to me in order to find shelter and protection. But from death I could not save them. Only Sommer, house painter, son-in-law of Wrobel from Lysa Gora saved his life.

I cannot write more today, though I have many more things to write that would be of interest to you. I am not sure even that this letter will reach you, as the conditions are still not normal (illegible) conditions are better and better, and we hope soon will everything will be in order.

I would ask you do me a favor. I have a brother in USA by the name Maoiej in Carteret, NJ Hudson Street, 18. I do not know if he is alive. He does not write to me. Maybe you would go there and find out what is with him, and would let me know.

I finish this letter with my deepest sympathy on the death of your parents and sister. Let God comfort you.

Best regards,

Priest Juljan Beigert

Zmigrod Stary

District Jaslo, Rz.

Regards to Weinstein, Wallach, also family, and especially Hashek Wallach and Mortek. Please answer this letter immediately

_________________________________________________________________

I hereby certify that I am thoroughly familiar with the Polish language; that I have read the attached document in said language; and that the above English translation was made by me and is a true and accurate translation.

Samuel Birger

 920 Riverside Drive

  New York 32, NY