A Polish Holocaust survivor, my mother carried herself with the steely grace of a 40’s movie star, the kind who always had men waiting to light her cigarette, buy her a drink, and try to seduce her with clichéd lines that would make her laugh with narrowed, sarcastic eyes. She had masses of Katharine Hepburn hair, an admirable figure, and an unwavering sense of her own dignity.
Years after she died, I was doing research at an archival center in Germany that held records from the concentration camps and I saw the actual form she’d had to sign when being transported into Buchenwald. The Nazis and their records….
Her signature was big, bold, defiant. She may have been a slave laborer, degraded, always a potential victim of any Nazi guard who wanted to beat her or shoot her on a whim, but she was fiercely herself, each letter in that signature defying the vast machine of murder doing its best to grind her to dust.
I can’t remember the class in junior high school where abortion emerged as a social issue to discuss but when I mentioned it back home she said that it was every woman’s right. “I had one before I had your brother.”
This would have been after 1945 when she was liberated from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg, eastern Germany where she and several hundred other women were forced to make munitions in 1944 and 1945 for a doomed German army. She met my father at a displaced persons camp not far off and they moved in together the first night they crossed paths.
I wanted to ask why, not because I thought she was wrong, but because I knew so little of her war years. She shared her experiences in flashes like telegrams and if I probed too deeply she would choke up and wave me away.
But that day she didn’t hesitate. “I wasn’t ready. I lost everything, my family, my home, my whole world. Having a child seemed too dangerous.”
She and my father were starting their lives anew in Belgium, which had let them in along with other Holocaust survivors, but there were clearly limits to what they felt able to embark on.
We sat in the tiny Washington Heights Depression-era kitchen at the gray Formica-topped table drinking coffee (mine with three sugars, hers with skim milk).
“What changed, mom?” was the question I managed to bring out, since my brother had been born in 1950, and me a few years later.
“Our friends were all camp survivors and they said we had to replenish the Jewish people.” She shrugged. “I didn’t believe them. At first. And then I did, and I was ready.” She shrugged again and my love and pity were so overwhelming I was silent. Something I regret all these years later.
Now she was smiling. “I was ready for your brother. I was ready for you. Because it was my decision, not anybody else’s. Mine. That’s how it should always be.”
I watched her make dinner that night with a tenderness I was too awkward to express, but I hugged her goodnight later, my brother and father were clearly surprised as we weren’t a very physical family. And I went to bed buoyed by her resolve, her courage, her strength. Every woman deserved the freedom she had claimed for herself.
About the Author
Lev Raphael is the queer author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and owes his career to a multilingual mother who encouraged his writing as far back as second grade. His work has appeared in 15 languages and he’s done many hundreds of invited readings, talks, and keynotes in nine different countries, and in more than one language.
Websites – http://www.levraphael.com, http://writewithoutborders.com
Blog – http://www.levraphael.com/blog/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/LevRaphael
Instagram – levraphael22
Facebook Profile – https://www.facebook.com/levraphael
Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/writewithoutborders/
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