In spite of her hopes and longing, the thing she took for granted never happened. My mother’s second pregnancy ended in great disappointment. She gave birth to a girl again. She, like the whole family, had hoped for a son. They never imagined otherwise, certain that after Aliska five years earlier, the boy’s turn had arrived. But even then, in her womb, I did not live up to her expectations. I pounced into the world ugly and dark as mud, a repulsive creature and – on top of everything – a female. The disappointment was so bitter that my mother as well as her relatives wept in despair. My mother’s tears and helplessness continued for a long time. My father, on the other hand, was consoled by the fact that I was born unblemished and stated, “The main thing is that the baby is healthy.” Since we were not religiously observant, they were not bothered by the concept that one had to have a son to recite the mourners’ Kaddish for them.
Mother never overcame the failure I represented and my sister clearly became the favored child, while I was the superfluous latecomer. I have no doubt that my mother didn’t deliberately discriminate against me, but as we grew up my sister resembled her, whereas I was the exact replica of my father. As a result, my father was always on my side and pampered me, while my mother did the same for my sister. Mother was fair to us; my sister and I both received new clothes for holidays, but for the rest of the time she was the one who received a new wardrobe while I wore what she had outgrown.
My mother came from an intellectual family. Her father was a professor of philology and she had attended good schools. My father was not a learned man, but he was charming and, presumably, love bridged the gap. Over the years, the marriage became a matter of habit. My mother came to regard me as the image of my father. I was the butt of sarcastic comments meant for my father, which she did not dare to direct at him. My sister, mother’s girl, was given jewelry that I was always too young to wear. These circumstances distanced me from my mother for most of her life.
To this day I am unable to explain why, with the best intentions, she offered to give me, not my sister, to her sister-in-law. Was it by chance, or did it stem from something deep in her subconscious? The incident is engraved on my heart. It was the end of 1944, in Slovakia. A few thousand of us were assembled in the square where the ‘Selection’ was taking place. Families clung to each other, to be together. It was there that my mother made her offer. But the Camp Commander ordered the men to move to one side, childless women up to the age of forty to another side and we children with our mothers and the old people to remain where we were. My mother made her beautiful gesture in a fraction of a second, saying, “Take Vera as your daughter so that you can be with us.” My aunt, who had the same family name as ours, said loud enough for me to hear, “Why should I take your Vera and die in Auschwitz when I am young and able to work!” She was sent to Ravensbruck where she perished, while we were sent to Auschwitz. However, the gas chambers had stopped functioning by then and our transport went on to Therezienstadt.
I was eight when we arrived at the Terezin ghetto. I was put in the children’s house and, for the first time in my life, became independent. After the war, the four of us lived together for two years, but mother was a broken woman. I never saw a smile on her face, she was inconsolable over the loss of her parents and beloved sister who perished in the holocaust. I remember my mother wearing the same unwashed housecoat, sitting in front of the radio and listening to the Seeking Relatives program, in the hope that her loved ones were still alive somewhere. She functioned automatically, running the house under a sort of remote control, giving instructions to the maid of all work who was with us day and night doing what was required. It was a sad house and I was happy when I was placed with a foster family in the city because there was no high school in our town. This meant that I was again distant from my mother, a situation that continued when I was sent to Israel on my own, through the Youth Immigration organization.
It now seems strange to me when I remember that all four of us came to the country separately. This happened under the influence of the emissaries who persuaded my parents that our place was in Israel. Nevertheless, it still seems odd that my parents didn’t see to it that we all went together. My sister left first and was sent to Kibbutz Maanit, I followed two months later and went to Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, followed by my mother, who came on her own about a year later. My father stayed behind to settle his affairs. When my mother arrived, I discovered her ability to adapt to her difficult situation. Although she did not complain, I am sure she was suffering. Alone in a new country, she succeeded in being accepted as a guest for a few months on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, where her cousin was a member. However, this temporary situation lasted much longer owing to the fact that my father was arrested and arrived months later, with no possessions. The same cousin made it possible for me to be accepted as a member of the youth sector of the kibbutz. But here, too, my mother and I did not become close. Maybe it was because I was in my adolescence, or maybe it was because we were both exhausted and busy with our own concerns.
When my father finally arrived, my parents moved to Nahariya. My mother was accustomed to having a maid and a standard of living different from the one in the prefabricated hut that was allocated to them, with an icebox and a primus stove and no electricity. Nevertheless, she girded her loins and began to help to earn a living. My father took whatever work came his way and my mother began to make plastic aprons and bicycle covers on a treadle Singer sewing machine she inherited from my grandmother. Despite the emotional distance between us, I admired her for mustering what strength she had left after the illnesses that beset her. My parents succeeded to the extent that my father was eventually able to open a bicycle shop and workshop and build a fairly big house that could accommodate my sister and her husband, who left the kibbutz and came to live with them.
When the first grandson was born my mother was proud and happy. His birth compensated for her unfulfilled expectations at the time of my birth and the boy was named Gershon as well as Yair, after her father. Later, when she died, Gershon was erased, leaving Yair. My sister, her husband and the baby soon moved to a new neighborhood and my parents carried on as usual.
My father died suddenly, of heart failure. My mother then rallied, filled with energy and a renewed love of life in order to continue my fathers business. My sister, her husband and their two children moved into my mother’s big single story house, so that she would not have to live alone. I was living in Tel Aviv.
About a month before she died, my mother surprised me by announcing that she wished to spend Rosh Hashanah in Tel Aviv. She reserved rooms for herself, my husband and me. as well as places for the festive dinner. I was very happy that we would spend the holiday together.
As she and I were sitting in the hotel cafeteria, a heart to heart talk developed between us for the first time in my life. My mother found me, or in me, a daughter in whom she could confide her distress. She was elegantly dressed, as befitted a businesswoman and in contrast to the sloppy clothes she wore before she became a widow. All the customers of the business my father left so suddenly received assurances that she regarded his commitments as sacred and would stand by them. I believe she did so because she wanted to be his helpmeet even after his death.
When the waiter arrived with the cake trolley, I was pleased that my mother remembered exactly what cake I liked. I was suddenly all hers. As we relaxed in the hotel armchairs, sipping coffee, she began a monologue:
“You know, Verka (Verka was my father’s pet name for me) they are not prepared to listen to me. I want to erect a black marble double tombstone for your father and me. They say that I’m exaggerating and that your father wasn’t Theodor Herzl or some other outstanding personality. They think an ordinary tombstone of the same kind of marble you can find in a working class kitchen is enough for us. After all, Verka, it’s money your father worked so hard to earn and save. But I’m in the minority, I haven’t the strength to argue with them. I know there’s no point in getting you involved on my side, in any case they won’t listen to you.”
My words in support of the fine idea were of no use. My mother did not calm down and obviously wanted to share all her troubles, so I listened with uncharacteristic patience as she continued her monologue:
“And as if it isn’t enough that my quiet house has turned into a mess, now they have started to modernize everything, throwing out furniture and the solid table we brought from Czechoslovakia. I was used to it, you see, I’ve loved it for twenty-five years! That big table is where I played patience and solved crossword puzzles. They’ve replaced it with a low salon table I can’t bend far enough to reach.”
The words stuck in my throat. I identified with her and felt helpless. It was clear to me that the subject of the tombstone was important not because of the impression it would make, but because of the deep appreciation she felt for my father and maybe because of her love for him. Reading between the lines and from the way she spoke about him, I understood that I had not correctly interpreted the relationship they shared.
To my sorrow, my mother did not manage to see any tombstone. She also died of heart failure a few weeks after the holiday. Perhaps, before her death, she had some sort of hope that her wishes would be respected. They were not.
Thus, at the end of her days, I got to know my mother from a different angle than the one I had imagined all my life. For the first time, I was favored with warm hugs and kisses. Both of us shed tears, on my part from the emotions aroused by the meeting and on my mother’s part, from sadness and disappointment.
I hope my mother felt my profound sympathy for all the troubles that befell her.
THE UNOPENED LETTER ( from my mother )
If not for the letter you sent me
then, half a century ago
in my rebellious years,
I’d never have known
AND I DIDN’T OPEN IT.
Didn’t read it, thinking you strange, odd,
sunk in yourself and holes dug
for your loved ones. You raised me unsmiling,
with neither hug nor caress. Your lips arched
by no kiss. There, but absent.
If not for that letter, whose folds
stayed closed, I’d never have known
what strengths you choked in yourself.
AND I DIDN’T FEEL IT.
As if after that devastating rupture
all you might caress was the never erected
tombstone on the ashes of your family
and to smile was to betray, to love was to deceive
and no kiss might be released from your tight lips.
AND I DIDN’T KNOW.
Now, having opened the folds of your letter,
I haven’t got you to console and be consoled.
The letter reveals you
as you were in your aching heart
where I the rebel only added anxiety.
On the page in front of me, in clear, beautiful
writing in a language my children don’t know,
just as they will never know you,
you support, encourage, strengthen and counsel me.
AND I DIDN’T READ.
Now, mature at last, I understand
you could not do otherwise, afraid
I’d inherit the same curse.