1940 to 1942
My only connection to those two years are my father’s and mother’s stories.
My mother did not have a happy life. Brought up in a strictly traditional Jewish household in Tarnów, Poland, she rebelled early against the obligatory Orthodox restrictions of her family. Her dream was to go to Palestine, to learn farming and join a kibbutz. She had a brief taste of her dream in 1933 when she joined a group of young men and women and enrolled in an agricultural school in the land of her ancestors. I think that year was probably the happiest in her life. Even in her eighties, she would talk of it often, describing the dirty, strenuous work with nostalgia. She was going to spend the rest of her life rebuilding this ancient land, working side by side with other young pioneers.
But then, in early 1934, the telegram came: her mother, whom she adored, was gravely ill. So my mother packed a few necessary things and made the long trip back home to Tarnów. She fully intended to return to Palestine, but her mother died soon after she returned. And when her sister, Adele, and Adele’s baby died during childbirth a few months later, my mother and her brother, Ignaz, felt the double blow intensely. She couldn’t leave Ignaz all alone, so she remained in Poland and got a job as a secretary. I believe she never gave up hope of returning to the Land of Israel.
In March of 1939, she married my father, and her future seemed promising. But again, fate intervened; a few months after her wedding, on September 1, Hitler invaded Poland. By the time I was born the following March, daily life had become a struggle.
Every day, the German occupiers imposed new restrictions on the Jewish inhabitants. My parents were forced to leave their beautiful apartment, the new linens, the barely-two-year-old furniture. They could take only whatever they could carry. This was the beginning of a long and dangerous journey that would propel them both into a perilous world where a wrong word or gesture could mean the end of life.
I want to paint a portrait of my parents as I remember them. Whenever I look at my face in the mirror, I see my father’s face: round, light-skinned, and covered with freckles the moment the sun touches it. My eyes – small, oval, and set close together – are the same shape as his.
The older I get, however, the more I realize that the stubborn streak, of which he used to accuse me, also came from him. He always went his own way, followed his own logic. Once he decided on a course of action, he was set. He usually did not waver, nor was he easily persuaded to change his mind.
He also trusted people to a fault; he could never believe someone might act in any way other than honorable. That was his way. He had a very strong sense of justice, honesty, fairness and love for his fellow humans. He was frequently moved to tears when talking about topics that touched him.
He appreciated physical beauty, be it that of a woman, a gem or a piece of jewelry. Goldsmith was his profession, his hobby and his passion. As soon as I was old enough, he would surprise me with gifts of jewelry and it gave him great pleasure to see me wear them.
In a way, the war years were the noblest of his life. He became a hero, helping anyone he could, sometimes taking chances that threatened his life as well as my mother’s and mine. In later years, he would reminisce constantly about his feats. No matter where a conversation started, it always ended with something he had done during the Holocaust.
As a child and a teenager, I dreaded those talks. I often wanted to leave the room. Nevertheless, there was no stopping him; the war years lived with him until his death in 1991.
Whenever I open my jewelry drawer, I see my mother’s pearl earrings and recall them framing her small, finely chiseled face, highlighting her olive complexion and adding to her refined air. Her black eyes and hair and her simple hairstyle completed an almost Hispanic appearance. Those beautiful eyes never seemed to smile, however, and the slightly drooping corners of her lips added sadness to her face. I seldom heard her laugh or saw the corner of her lips turn up in a genuine smile, but the few times she did so her eyes glowed with brilliant light.
My personal memories from the war years are limited to fragmented scenes that appear in my mind, often without rhyme or reason. I have always claimed that, unlike many of my peers, I was — and still am — a very lucky woman. Even my name, “Felicia,” comes from the Latin word for “luck.” I was never separated from my mother, both my parents survived, and — as I was told over and over again growing up — I was lucky to have been such a young child during those war years… lucky because I do not remember hunger or fear.
Sometimes, though, I wish I did remember. When I talk to older child survivors who remember their grandparents and happy scenes from their early childhoods, I wish I, too, could envision scenes from “life before.” I wish I could see my mother as a young woman and a wife. I wish I could remember my father as a young man whose only worries involved running his father’s prosperous jewelry business. I wish I could recall my hometown, Tarnów, as it was then: a small town where Jewish life was strong and vibrant.
What I have are only fragments and glimpses. Why do I remember only these little tidbits from my early years? They have haunted me throughout my life: mobs… noise… shouts… trains whistling… engines hissing… screams… dusk… fumes… people jostling to get on a train… a woman stretching her hands out of the train window, calling, “Give me the child,” and another answering, “No, I’ll not let go of my child,” … a third woman, standing on the tracks, only her upper body showing, arms raised, crying out to someone: “Please, take my baby!”
A garden… trees… a white rabbit in a cage… bullets flying through the window… bombs exploding… a soldier standing outside the door of our house, a rifle in his hand; I am just tall enough to see his black riding boots.
For years, I dream of a little girl riding alone on a train, of soldiers marching in goose steps. I have panic attacks in crowds and in train and subway stations. I freeze at the sight of riding boots and uniforms. I get frightened when I feel too happy because I worry that I do not deserve this joy and that, as a result, something terrible will happen. I worry that the lack of nutrients and vitamins in my early years, as well as some unknown consequence of the typhus I contracted after liberation, will come to haunt me in my senior years.
Fear is something I have lived with even to this day, and I know that, unintentionally, I have passed many of my anxieties to my children, who will probably pass them on to their children. I once read that the mouse and the snake are natural enemies. When a mouse comes face to face with a snake, she freezes up, unable to run to safety, and that her paralysis is what gives the snake the chance to swallow her. This has stuck with me over the years. In the late 1990s, when I first became involved in Holocaust-related activities, I often felt like that little mouse, fearing that these historical events would engulf me, that I would be devoured.