Category Archives: Family & Relationships

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

Below are excerpts from my Austrian father-in-law’s written account of what he and his family endured during World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust.  Not only did he and my mother-in-law survive the ravages of the Holocaust, but when he got to Ellis Island, he was drafted into the U.S. Army (Signal Corps Intelligence), stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and liberated concentration camps. Additionally, because he was German-speaking, he interrogated the captured Nazis. His harrowing story, which I have read untold times, still haunts me and serves as a reminder that history indeed repeats itself. Over and over again.  (My mother-in-law was a hero in her own right. But that’s a whole other story.)

And even though it’s over 4,000 words, I hope you read it. I’m not sure what you’ll get out of it,  but what it taught me is that decision-making should not always be left to those in charge.

If you’re not up for a 4,000 word read, please at least scroll down to the last few sentences at the end of this post beginning with my father-in-law’s question: “Now finally, what should all this mean for you children?” 

Where to begin?

I was born in Vienna—on the 16th day of January 1913—which was still within the times of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy.

My parents were both born in Kolomea (in Galicia). Galicia was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which was huge. It consisted of about 45 million people. There were Hungarians, Slovaks, Bosnians, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Slovenians, Czechs, Croatians, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Kolomea was somewhere between Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary (they all meet there, near the Carpathian Mountains). 

My grandparents had eight children—seven boys and one girl and owned a big farm where they grew wheat, barley, and corn, and had a lot of horses and cattle.

In July 1914, the Germans and Austrians started a war against the Allies, i.e., the French, Belgians, English, Italians, and the Russians.

When World War I came, my father became a sergeant with the medical corps and was sent to the Russian front. My mother was left alone with me in Vienna. My father sent her support whenever he could. He used to send us flour and some other provisions from the army, but it wasn’t enough, and we didn’t have much to eat.

The Germans were allied with Austria and Turkey and they were a very strong military power. They won a lot of battles between 1914 and 1918 and they would have won the war, but America finally came to the rescue of the Allies and helped them to win the war in 1918.

Austria was then dismembered into many different independent states; parts of Austria became Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania.

The small remainder of Austria proper became the Republic of Austria—a democracy with free elections and all the other freedoms of a parliamentary constitution.

My father returned after a long, long time, and when he came back, he was very sick with tuberculosis. He started to regain his health when he returned from a sanitorium.

All of my father’s brothers became soldiers except for the two youngest who stayed at the farm in Galicia.  They were murdered along with his father and sister by the anti-semitic Cossacks under General Petljura. When these Petljura bands were unsuccessful when looking for Communists, simply broke into Jewish homes, like the farmhouse where my relatives lived.

They first asked for liquor and food, and then they wanted to rape my aunt. When my two uncles tried to resist, the band called them communists and just butchered them—I mean, they cut them apart and then took everything of value and fled.

There was a newspaper article in a Polish newspaper from which my father learned about this tragedy. He took a train there and gave them a Jewish burial. When he came back to us, he was absolutely out of his mind and heartbroken.

My father once showed me a letter which he had received from his brother David, from Soviet Russia. Uncle David, too, was in the Austrian army, and he also went to Russia like my father, but he was captured by the Russians, and he became a military prisoner. After the revolution in 1917, he joined the Bolsheviks. He became functionary in the Russian Communist Party, and the letter was written from Tashkent near Crimea. At that time, correspondence between Soviet Russia and Austria was allowed; I don’t know whether it was censored or not.

My uncle warned my father not to let me become a businessman and not even a lawyer or doctor—I should start learning a trade like a carpenter, tailor, shoemaker because the Communist Revolution which had started in Russia would spread all over the world and there was no hope for success for humanity unless the proletarians took over the economy, to avoid wars and so forth. No more chauvinism, race hatred, and suppression of the proletariat.

Well, I didn’t want to listen to this propaganda; I felt that I wanted to be a businessman.

My father worked very hard, like seven days a week, and had several retail stores in Vienna. He didn’t want to let me start in his place so he suggested that I become a volunteer in a very big silk farm in Vienna. I was there for about one and a half years learning how to buy and sell silks.

I became quite educated in the theories of Socialism or Communism, which was for us the same thing.

I was sort of a radical then. I took part in actions and demonstrations against the Conservative-Fascist government we had in Austria. One time, during a big street riot, the police arrested my friends and me and put us in jail for a couple of days.

My father, the patriotic war veteran, was very upset about this and told me that I couldn’t do this anymore because the Jews, as a powerless minority, couldn’t and shouldn’t oppose the authorities.

I later changed my mind about politics. I remained a liberal, however, and I always disliked the reactionary viewpoint. I began to get more interested in Jewish causes.  

Adolph Hitler, who was a rather uneducated veteran of the Austrian army, settled in Munich. In 1923 he was arrested, however, to his terrorist followers, he became a martyr, and also, with the trend for most German people to unite, he became quite powerful.

 It was about 1929, and the economic disaster—the stock market crash in America spread its waves to Europe. The economically weaker nations, like Germany and Austria, were most affected by this crash, especially Austria, which was still very weak from its inception on.

There was more and more unemployment. The dissatisfaction of the proletarians made them become more radical both to the left and the right.

At this time, we still had democracy with two major parties—the Social-Democratic Party (proletarians, intellectuals, liberals, and Jews), and then there was the Christian Social Party. They were under the influence of the church and the rightist circles, like bankers, industrialists, and big landowners.

As time went on, however, the Social-Democratic party in Austria was outlawed. With Mussolini’s support, the Catholic Church and the rightist reactionaries became more powerful by suppressing the left opposition

The socialists were well organized and had their own powerful military organization, the Schutzbund, with weapons and guns. We thought we would be able to defend democracy in Austria.

The rightists outlawed many freedoms that Austrians had gained since their revolution from the Monarchists in 1918 and influenced and cajoled their followers to stamp out the free expression of art, theater, and literature.

One can see that ten years before the Nazis took over Austria, the Austrians were well indoctrinated with much of the Nazi philosophy.

In 1933, with all different kinds of manipulations, Hitler took over the government in Germany. Anybody who would then read his book, Mein Kampf, should have been aware that there would be a persecution of all minorities and all oppositions and mainly the Jews because it was very easy to strangulate a weak minority like the Jews, who had been hated in Europe for most of their history.  

The Austrian army was organized to destroy the opposition, and, in addition, a fascist political organization called Heimwehr was formed. They, with guns, tanks, and artillery, bombed the workers’ apartments and homes and the Social-Democratic offices in 1934.

All of a sudden, there was no more opposition and no more democracy in Austria.

Until then, we had five or six daily newspapers, freely expressing opinions from the left to the right. But now there remained only two. Every other was closed down as a danger to the government.

Chancellor Dolfuss, a Catholic World War I veteran, a little stinker who was no taller than five feet was quite suppressive with more censorship, internment camps for leftists and liberals, and with persecution, there was no more opposition.

The trend from Germany was such that the Nazis, although they were not legal in Austria (they were outlawed), got more and more influence in Austria. You must remember that the National Socialist idea in Germany started way back in 1919, when the militaries, the generals, and the rightist politicians in Germany wanted to revenge themselves for the losses they had from the first World War.

It was now 1935-1936, and somehow, I had the feeling that there was impending danger. We saw our comparative freedom as Jews in Austria and Central Europe shrinking and threatening to collapse. It was a very dismal future for a young Jew.

In 1937 there was a phone call from a man who spoke with a strange accent. He said, “I am here with my wife on the way to Kolomea. We are Americans now and live in New York City. I am going to Kolomea for Kever Ovis (to visit the graves of our parents). I usually make it a habit to look up in the telephone book to see if I have any family here, and I came across your last name in the phone book.”

We found out that Max was a distant relative. During Max’s short visit to Vienna, we did discuss my possible emigration to America. Max said that he, if necessary, would cooperate with us and help us, especially me, to come to America, and he also warned us of the impending danger of the Nazis who were going to take over Austria. My father hesitated, and so did I because we wanted to stay together.

In addition, the stories that we had heard about the tough life in New York and Chicago scared me. We had seen all those gangster films, and we didn’t think that America was safe and civilized enough, and I was afraid to leave. Max and his wife, Sylvia, went back to America.    

Until 1938, I had a very carefree and good life. Economics in Vienna were not so good, but I had the advantage of having a pretty good financial life—I had everything that a young man my age would want.

During the period of 1933-1938, the Germans kept conniving the West.

First, they terrorized and then promised peace—while advancing bit by bit. Europe was scared of Hitler and wanted to maintain peace under the illusion that Hitler would go only so far and then he would stop.

In January 1938, I went to a Zionist dance in the Hotel Metropole. There were quite a lot of unattached girls, and then I saw her—standing in a blue satin evening gown, blonde, gorgeous, great figure, beautiful smile, charming, except there was one problem.

I just couldn’t get near her. There were so many young men always surrounding her. She was flirting with them. One would engage her to dance and then another while my eyes were peering out for her. As I wandered around on the dance floor, I asked another young lady to dance. As I danced with her, my eyes were always looking for that blonde girl that I had in my mind. The girl I danced with noticed this and said, “Hey, you don’t really want to dance with me, do you?”

I asked her why she had asked that, and she said that she couldn’t help but notice that I kept looking at that blonde girl. I said, “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind dancing with her.” She said this was no problem, and she took my hand and reached into those young men and said, “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,” pushed through and introduced me to the blonde.

She said to her, “This young man has been looking at you for quite a while and would like to dance with you but just can’t get to you. Why don’t you give him a break?”

And that blonde was mommy—that was Fritzi.

 She smiled at me and said, “Why not?”

As we danced, mommy told me that the other girl was her sister, Rita. Then I understood why Rita was so interested in introducing me to mommy.  After the dance, I walked her home together with Rita.

She came from an Orthodox family. My mother made some inquiries about them and found out they were a very big family which had immigrated to Vienna during World War I from a town in Poland called Sienava.

When I first met Fritzi’s father I was quite shocked because usually, I didn’t go around in Orthodox circles like they came from. He wore a beard and peyes. Then we found out that mommy had, besides Rita, five more sisters and one brother. This was rather unusual for me because I was an only child.

Despite her background, Fritzi was quite worldly. She was very progressive and absolutely glamorous. When I went out with her, everybody admired her and envied me. My friends congratulated me on my wonderful choice, and I was really showing off with her.

Now we were in February 1938, and the political situation in Vienna and in Austria became quite threatening. We understood that the Nazis in Germany made all different kinds of diplomatic pressures to convince Austria to become part of Germany. They blackmailed our politicians and provoked all different kinds of riots and demonstrations. The Nazi party was still illegal by then, but they got fresher and fresher. They bombed Jewish stores and beat up Jewish students at the Viennese University. The police ignored this and looked away. Later on, we found that most of the police were Nazi also.

It became quite unbearable. However, I hardly realized how bad it was already. We were still naively optimistic for a miracle.

But all of a sudden, our world crashed in. Adolph Hitler and his Nazis kept all their promises.

He summoned our Chancellor Kurt Von Schuschnigg and terrorized him and forced him to make all different kinds of concessions and compromises.  Schuschnigg believed in Austria and independence. He wanted to rely on the support of the western nations like France and England—that they would help him out—and he also still trusted that Mussolini in Italy would support Austrian independence. His Catholic regime organized demonstrations against the Nazis and planned to have elections, but under further pressure, elections had to be called off.

Then, on March 10, 1938, Vienna woke up to a big fever of Austrian patriotism—thousands had been painting Austrian signs for Austrian independence. The next day, the 11th of March, we saw more and more Nazis coming out of the closet, showing openly their swastikas, which were supposed to be illegal.

We were listening to the radio, all of us were very anxious because we didn’t know what would happen to us. But we had always the hope that somehow, we would get out of this. Finally, Chancellor Schuschnigg made an announcement on the radio that he could no longer resist the brute force anymore. He didn’t want to fight the Germans because, after all, we were all Germans, and he signed off with the wish, “God save Austria.” Then the radio played military marches and hymns and the Austrian national anthem.

That night, we hid in our apartment and then heard a lot of noise outside.

About midnight, we saw Nazi bands marching around in the streets, yelling “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer.” They yelled, “Deutschland erwache—Judah verrecke!” meaning “Awake Germany, Perish Judah.”

During this night, practically all the Austrian goyim became Nazis. Most of our goyishe friends turned around their coat labels under which they had hidden the Nazi swastika all the time. They were called members of the “Bluts Orden” (members of the Blood Order)—they had been illegal Nazis for years already.

My wish to leave Vienna immediately became more intensive, and I discussed this with my parents and with Fritzi. We were not married yet, and we agreed to wait a little while until the whole thing possibly would calm down.

But it never calmed down.

The situation became more ominous and more dangerous for all of us. The Nazis used to round up people on the streets and send them to the police first for interrogation and then to concentration camps, of which we had some already in Austria.  

I was hiding out in our apartment, and my father went to the business to save whatever was possible.  One day, the Nazi S.A. came into our main store in Vienna, and they were looking for the Jude.  My father came out smiling politely, as he usually was, and said, “Gentlemen, what can I do for you?”

They told him to take some paint and go out and paint on the windows “Jude” because the Aryans were to boycott all the Jewish establishments. My father was looking for one of our apprentices to take a paintbrush. He didn’t want to fight these young Nazis.

“Dirty Jew,” they said, “you are going to paint with your fingers.” My father really broke down and invited them into his office. They went with him, and he showed them a large framed picture on the wall of him as an officer in the Austrian army with all his insignias and medals. “I am an Austrian veteran, and I fought in the war for the fatherland together with your fathers, and I wish you would have a little respect for that.” They beat him up and said, “Never mind, Jew, you go out and paint.” He was forced to do it. When he came home in the evening, he broke down in tears in front of us. He had never imagined that this could happen to him.

I was still hiding out most of the time, and I was joining all different kinds of groups to be able to emigrate. Then the Nazi police arrested my father and took him to the Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Metropole—the same place where Fritzi and I had first met two months before.

At that time, we had a gentile lawyer. I went up to his office and told him that my father had been arrested. The lawyer confessed (bragged?) to me that he had been a member of the Nazi party all along for many years and had quite a few influential friends there, with the police, and with the Gestapo too.

He made a few calls and then came out and reported to me that my father was in a concentration camp. If I gave him 5,000 shillings (about 5,000 dollars), he would be able to get my father released. I went home to my mother and we took out the money that we were hiding for our escape.

When father returned to our home, he was pale and terrorized. He told us that they had beaten him up and forced him to all different kinds of confessions. We sat crying together, and my parents said to me, “Well, this is it. You have to leave.”

My Uncle Solomon in France promised to help me come to France. I went to the French Consulate every few days, but there was no visa to go to France. In the meantime, I was very attached to Fritzi already. I said to her, “If I can’t go the legal way, then I have to cross the borders illegally, but first we have to get married.” We got married on July 31st, 1938. We had to do it then because there were certain marriage laws that were going to be changed under the Nazis and that was the last day Jews could marry.

I kept hiding out in my apartment, being afraid of the Nazis, until we finalized our plans. In August, I was going to leave with mommy, but she said she would wait a while—I should prepare first and try to cross the border into France. Then she would follow and meanwhile take care of my parents and her parents.

Mommy found and introduced me to three youngsters, one girl and two young men who were also trying to escape from Vienna to the West.

There were not too many Jews who had the guts to leave that way. I embraced mommy tearfully for the last time, and we rolled on toward the German border. That was at the beginning of September 1938.

The border between France and Germany was mobilized. There were a lot of troops on both sides. I figured it would not be such a good idea to cross this border. Further north, there was another way to go to France via Luxembourg. Its eastern border is Germany, its northern border is Belgium, and the rest is surrounded by France. We would be able to get to France via Luxembourg.

I had enough courage to walk up with my three other young companions to the German border police there. We introduced ourselves with our Nazi German passports. This German passport was issued to me by the Nazi Government in exchange for my previous Austrian passport.

Across the passport on the first page was stamped a big “J” so that everybody would know that I was Jewish. That passport is still in my possession. Mommy also had this type of passport. It was not very easy to get such a passport in Vienna; one had to submit to the authorities that all taxes were paid. Only then would one get a passport after a long wait and a lot of palm greasing.

It was this passport that I showed the German border authorities. I explained that we wanted to go join our relatives in France. They laughed and told us that we’d never be able to make it there, but we were able to convince them.

We told them, “What do you need us for anyway? You should be glad to get rid of the Jews. After all, your Fuhrer said that all the Jews should leave Germany.” Well, maybe they were just policemen and not really Nazis yet, and they let us go.

Late in the afternoon, we walked across the border into Luxembourg. I asked my young friends if they wanted to go to Belgium, and we all agreed we had to get out of Germany—so we went.

In September 1938, it was quite warm yet. As we hiked towards the Belgian border—there, all of a sudden, a Belgian border policeman stopped us and spoke to us.

He said in French, “Don’t kid around with me! I know exactly where you want to go!” Then he said, “I want you to remember this! I pass by here every hour on the hour. I have rounds to make and watch the border so that illegal aliens will not be able to cross the border into Belgium. I’m passing by here again in one hour, and if I see you here, I’m going to arrest you and send you right back to the Germans.”

Then he pointed toward the northwest and said, “This is where you go into Belgium. I’m telling you to just disappear from here. I don’t want to see you here anymore, and if in one hour you’re still here, you’ll be sorry!”

At this point, I had the impression that this guy was maybe not a human being. I had somehow felt that he was sent to us, like an angel.

I don’t know why I deserved that, but during our flight from Hitler, there were many more miraculous incidents with these “malochim” (angels); with these “scheliachim” (messengers from G-d). This happened quite often, and every once in a while, I had a dream that these helpers were really sent from above to help us.

In the middle of the night, we arrived in Antwerp. The first thing I did as soon as I arrived in Antwerp was to hire a “guide” for Fritzi to come to join me.

I wrote to Fritzi that she should come to the German border from Vienna and bring some money with her and some jewels and whatever else she could get out of Germany, and she would get help to cross the border.

We were not allowed to take more than ten schillings with us, which in today’s value would be about ten dollars. Jewelry and such had to be smuggled out from there. In 1938, it was not as strict as it was later, and I succeeded in bringing some valuables with me, and so did Fritzi.

A few days later, Fritzi arrived in Antwerp. She had her own exciting story to tell—how she crossed the border with four youngsters, but that is something I would like her to describe.

We lived from about September 1938 on, in Antwerp. Of course, our biggest desire was to help our parents and our other relatives.

Fritzi had six sisters and one brother. The oldest, Annie, had left Vienna years before. A rich manufacturer from Havana, Cuba, was on a visit in Vienna, fell in love with her, married her, and brought her to Cuba. Later on, Susie followed her to Havana, too. Then Elise, who was also a very beautiful girl, met a very good-looking young man, married him, and went with him to Palestine in 1936. Mommy’s next sister, Ilse, followed Elise to Palestine also before Hitler took over.    

At that time, Olga was left in Vienna and Rita too. My parents and mommy’s parents stayed behind as well. They couldn’t make up their minds to leave their established homes and, at an advanced age, stray out into a strange country once again—with all the risks of illegal border crossings.

Finally, in October 1938, Rita and Olga decided they had enough of life with the Nazis in Vienna. 

Rita and Olga had been attending dancing classes in Vienna. Olga was about 16, and both Rita and Olga were extremely good-looking. They got their artist’s visa to come to Belgium. They were just refugees using a pretense to come across the border.

My parents were still in Vienna under the Nazis, and so were Fritzi’s parents. It was November 1938, shortly after the “Kristallnacht” in Germany.

The “Kristallnacht” (crystal-night) was another anti-semitic tragedy, where the Nazis in one night all over Germany and Austria decided to raid almost all of the synagogues; break all the stain-glass windows and crystal chandeliers, destroy the Torahs and prayerbook, and then set fire to the edifices.

We had to save our parents very soon, and we engaged a “guide” to smuggle them in.

You ought to understand how dangerous it was to rescue our parents from Austria and  Hitler’s claws. Most Austrians were more anti-semitic than the Germans. The Austrians were well known to be among the worst Jew-haters.

We got out of Europe soon after the Nazis overtook Austria, feeling the first ominous signs of this devilish plan to destroy all Jewish life in Europe.

It was this anticipation that made us leave Vienna so hastily. It took quite some ambition to succeed in this escape combined with guts, shrewdness, and determination.

And then, of course, I was fortunate enough to come back with the victorious American Army to make an end to this inhuman, barbarous regime.

Unfortunately, our intervention was too late for millions of our people who went down innocently and helpless. 

When I mentioned some of those angels who helped us on the way, usually in the most critical moments, I can really say that the All-Mighty, through time, selected us and others like us to be saved.

Mommy’s and my belief is that you can’t just meekly wait for destiny to help you. God helps you only if you are willing to help yourself. And we helped ourselves.

So, if it wasn’t for those wonderful humans we met on the way; the messengers from above, there would have been others. As long as we dared to take the chance, to take the risk, and gave them the opportunity to come forward to do this mitzvah for us.

Now finally, what should all this mean for you children?

There is no greater crime than the murder of a man’s soul.    

You have been brought up by us well protected, keeping out of the dangers of the present world situation.

We hope, and we didn’t mean to spoil you.

Maybe you will learn to take some lessons from our experiences.

Remember our determination, our love, and our loyalty to each other, to our parents, and to you children too.

Maybe you will learn from this attitude a certain standard of morals and ethics and the willingness to give aid and comfort to the needy ones, to your parents and to your relatives, and to poor Jewish people who are less fortunate than we are.

We don’t have to be ashamed to be Jewish; we have a right to be proud of our accomplishments.

And mommy and I, are content in our feeling that we have done the right thing with our lives.

Can Trauma Alter DNA?

Before Covid-19 interrupted my life, I learned from a friend in my writing group that trauma could leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes and subsequently affect their offspring.

She further explained that trauma could be passed down to the next generation and possibly beyond, and change their DNA through what’s known as epigenetics.

When I l did my research, I was stunned to learn that genetic trauma can indeed affect and alter DNA—sort of like second-hand smoke.

The alteration or mark isn’t genetic; it’s epigenetic. Although, the mark doesn’t directly damage the gene, and there is no actual mutation.

Who knew DNA could be tweaked or that trauma was catchy?

The bad news is that, yes, trauma can be passed down to offspring due to epigenetic changes in DNA.

But the good news is that positive experiences can also alter those changes. So ever the optimist, I have hope.

Years of therapy taught me that trauma stays with us forever. It leaves an invisible wound that never fully heals.

My trauma caused me to make some God-awful life choices—for decades. But I worked a lifetime to undo and move past those mistakes, and I still struggle every day to push the traumatic memories away.

Trauma has taught me to accept the unhealable but never to forget. It has also served as a solemn reminder that while having family is precious, not all of them are safe to be around.

Studies have shown that childhood trauma increases the risk of drug and alcohol dependency, depression, and poor academic achievement.  Trauma can also cause the brain to get stuck in perpetual survival mode—a short circuit in the brain.

The all-powerful brain.

It can forever connect certain feelings, sights, sounds, smells, taste, and touch with past trauma. And at any time or place, whether happy or sad, every one of those seemingly innocuous sensations can trigger a memory or flashback of the traumatization.

If our experiences can reverberate to our children or our children’s children, the implications and consequences of the effects of trauma are maddingly profound.

In essence, an abuser can cause lifelong trauma not just to his or her target but to countless generations of their descendants.

Hands


I could listen to Christmas music all year long. Listening to the music of the Christmas season takes me back to so many wonderful holiday memories.

Today I heard Jewel’s Christmas version of her song, Hands, and thought back to December 1998, when my ten-year-old daughter was going through some crazy stressful stuff.

Looking back on it, she was wise beyond her years and incredibly courageous.

That night she pulled me into her room to watch an MTV video, which she said reminded her of us.

I was assuming the video would be something light and cute, but so not so.

The video was of the Jewel song Hands. The words and images chillingly resonated for so many reasons: Darkness indeed fears the light, poverty stole any golden shoes I might have wanted to wear, and I may be damaged, but never broken.

But what did the song mean to her?

My daughter said that Hands reminded her of the no-win situation that she was smack in the middle of, with no easy way out. And that although she was young, she could still stand up for what was right and speak the truth, no matter what the consequences. She was adamant about the fact that she had a voice—her voice, and her hands were hers alone. As she spoke, her hands flailed about animatedly.

Her words were powerful, and I felt a profound sadness and overwhelming guilt.

I know she felt my pain because she immediately took those tiny hands and oh so gently embraced me.

My precious youngest child was way too young to be experiencing the disunity that engulfed her.

And every time I hear the song, or watch the video it reminds me of her moral strength and steadfast resilience.

Hands

If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we’re all ok
And not to worry because worry is wasteful
And useless in times like these
I will not be made useless
I won’t be idled with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear

My hands are small, I know,
But they’re not yours they are my own
But they’re not yours they are my own
And I am never broken

Poverty stole your golden shoes
But it didn’t steal your laughter
And heartache came to visit me
But I knew it wasn’t ever after

We will fight, not out of spite
For someone must stand up for what’s right
Cause where there’s a man who has no voice
There ours shall go singing

My hands are small, I know,
But they’re not yours they are my own
But they’re not yours they are my own
And I am never broken

In the end only kindness matters
In the end only kindness matters

I will get down on my knees and I will pray
I will get down on my knees and I will pray
I will get down on my knees and I will pray

My hands are small, I know,
But they’re not yours they are my own
But they’re not yours they are my own
And I am never broken

My hands are small, I know,
But they’re not yours they are my own
But they’re not yours they are my own
And I am never broken
We are never broken

We are God’s eyes God’s hands God’s mind
We are God’s eyes God’s hands God’s heart
We are God’s eyes God’s hands God’s eyes God’s hands
We are God’s hands God’s hands We are God’s hands

Rockabye My Little Man

I don’t know about you, but the Christmas season always gets me thinking about;

well, everything.

Okay, I know what many of you want to ask me: Aren’t you Jewish?

I am Jewish, but if you are a regular reader of my blog, you also know that I was born Greek Orthodox, baptized Catholic at six years old, and then converted to Judaism at 31.

I’ve been here there and everywhere when it comes to God.

And listen: you can take the girl out of the religion, but you can’t take the religion out of the girl.

As a result, countless Christmas lyrics get to me every time.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…Strings of street lights, even stoplights…I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our king…Fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices…

TISSUES!

Last night, driving into town, I heard a song on the radio, and the words stunned and stung a little.

Okay, they stung a lot.

Now, Aaliyah Palmen’s song had zero to do with Christmas, but with the holiday lights twinkling, and the snow on the ground, and shoppers hustling and bustling, and those heart-wrenching words…

I felt the song speaking to me, so I pulled the car over and googled the lyrics:

Call it love and devotion
Call it the mom’s adoration
A special bond of creation
For all the single mums out there
Going through frustration
sing, make them hear

She’s gonna stress
She just wants a life for her baby
All on her own, no one will come
She’s got to save him

She tells him “ooh love”
No one’s ever gonna hurt you, love
I’m gonna give you all of my love
Nobody matters like you

She tells him “your life ain’t gonna be nothing like my life
You’re gonna grow and have a good life
I’m gonna do what I’ve got to do

Single mom what you doing out there?
Facing the hard life without no fear
Just see and know that you really care
‘Cause any obstacle come you well prepared
And no mamma you never shed a tear
‘Cause you have to set things year after year
And you give the youth love beyond compare
You find the school fee and the bus fare
Hmmm more when paps disappear

Now she gotta six year old
Trying to keep him warm
Trying to keep out all the cold
When he looks her in the eyes
He don’t know he’s safe when she says

So, rockabye baby, rockabye
I’m gonna rock you

Rockabye baby, don’t you cry
Somebody’s got you

Rockabye don’t bother to cry
Lift up your head, lift it up to the sky,

Rockabye don’t bother to cry
Angels around you, just joy in your eye


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D20cKBLp2QY

Atonement

As many of you know, I converted to Judaism from Catholicism almost 37 years ago.

And for those of you who are wondering how I could have walked away from my religion, I will tell you in all honesty that it was one of the most difficult life decisions I have ever made.

What gave me solace over the years was my belief that if I lived a kind, honest, and generous life, I would be blessed no matter what religion I was.

And if there’s a heaven, I have faith and hope that I will be welcome there when the time comes.

But this blog post isn’t about my conversion.

It’s about atonement and my fear of it.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

According to rabbinic tradition, the Hebrew calendar started at the time of creation, placed at 3,761 BCE.

This year, on Rosh Hashana, Jews throughout the world celebrated the ancient anniversary of the creation of humanity; the commemoration of God’s creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden 5,780 years ago.

As a celebratory holiday, I gathered family and loved ones together for two nights, eating challah bread and apples dipped in honey, and prayed for a sweet year.

I prayed for a positive future and asked for the strength to believe in the promise of better humanity and a brighter tomorrow.

According to Jewish tradition, God opens three books on Rosh Hashanah.

In the first book, the righteous are inscribed for life in the coming year.

In the second book, the wicked are inscribed for death.

And in the third book, the names of the rest of us are temporarily inscribed. Our fates during the coming year are based upon our actions and behavior during the Ten Days of Repentance, which culminates on Yom Kippur, a solemn day of fasting, repentance, and atonement.

The Hebrew word for atonement is “Teshuva,” which translates to “return.”

Over the years, I have personalized what the word “return” means to me in the context of atonement.

I have rationalized what “return” means to me in the context of my life.

Return to my better self.

Return to a place of goodness.

Return to kindness.

Return to the people I’ve hurt.

Returning to the people I’ve hurt is a tough one because, in the Jewish tradition, the process of atonement and repentance includes three acts:  confession, regret, and a vow not to repeat the misdeed.

Judaism requires that those who are in need of atonement must seek out those they’ve hurt and ask for their forgiveness.

And if the apology is rebuffed, the atoner must ask at least three times before giving up.

For me, three times rebuffed is way more rejection than I would care to bear.

But the possibility of forgiveness more than makes up for my fear of rejection and gives me the courage to ask, regardless of the pain it may cause.

My angst is overwhelming, but I know I need to set it aside and reach out to that person I hurt in the hopes of reuniting and returning to a more fulfilling, loving life.

I forgive you. Three words that could change my life. Or lives.

Judaism requires atonement but also emphasizes that it is never too late to make amends. It is never too late to repair what’s been broken.

Return, atone, repair.

On Yom Kippur, we take a frank look at our character and our actions over the past year and ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of our existence?”

And we promise God to engage in a project of self-improvement, self-transformation, and self-actualization.

And we ask ourselves:

Could I have done something differently?

Should I have done something differently?

Do I owe someone an apology?

Are there errors that I can still fix?

Have I made my family proud?

Have I made God proud?

Am I fulfilling my mission on God’s great earth?

During Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, many of the blessings, prayers, affirmations, and confessions are said as “we.”

“We have sinned” vs. “I have sinned.” “We ask for forgiveness” rather than, “I ask for forgiveness.”

Perhaps this is done to remind us that we are united and to help us understand that we are all in this together. We have all sinned. We all need to ask for forgiveness.

Pay it forward. Cause and effect.

One of us affects another, who, in turn, affects another, and another, perhaps infinitely.

It is all up to us. We have the option to cause pain or to repair.

We can choose to do something to someone rather than for someone or speak badly vs. praising a person.

Each action we choose will have repercussions upon our life and someone else’s life and perhaps the lives of generations to come.

I’m afraid of rejection, but during these holidays I know I need to atone, I recognize I must be brave and take a chance at repair. Reach out and ask for forgiveness.

I fear the silence, but I have hope; the hope of the return of someone I love and miss more than life itself.

Nightmare 2.0

My sleep patterns are substandard at best.

And what little shut-eye I do manage to sneak in, is more than often consumed with a never-ending succession of movie-worthy dreams; chock full of ideas, emotions, and images.

Unfortunately for me, way too many of those visions involve wild menacing beasts, which make them more nightmares than dreams.

These epic brain dumps typically wake me up in the early hours of the morning in a heart-pounding, anxiety-heightened sweaty state.

I call them my bogeyman wake-ups.

My typical bogeyman wake-up goes like this: I open my eyes, paralyzed with fear. I quickly turn on the light and check the room. I pull out my notebook from the nightstand next to my bed and furiously write down everything I can recall. Sometimes this exercise takes ten minutes, while other times it takes two to three hours.

If the image or idea is particularly vivid, I can write an entire essay until I either run out of words, am mentally exhausted, or I’ve self-talked myself to calm it down.

Once I’m calm, I’m usually also wide awake, so I regularly turn on my tablet and research the why of all of it.

I recently found a quote by Sigmund Freud answering his why of all of it, which stuck with me:

“On my way to discovering the solution of the dream, all kinds of things were revealed, which I was unwilling to admit even to myself.”

This past Tuesday my bogeyman alarm woke me up at precisely 3:02 in the a.m.

The apparition was an animal image combined with a question: How can I escape?

The dream started out with a very scary goat.

I know what you’re thinking. Goats aren’t scary.

But this goat was a scary doozy, and because I was in a corner, the goat was even more terrifying.

It was less a dream and more of an idea. Or maybe it was less of an idea and more of a blurry image of that super scary goat and helpless me.

I wrote “scary” and “goat” in my notebook.

And then, with nothing better to do with my drenched and anxious self, I grabbed my tablet and looked up, “scary goat.”

Google offered me several choices:

scary goat
scary goat gif
scary goat meme
scared goat
scapegoat
scapegoating

Oh, my God.

“On my way to discovering the solution of the dream…”

I then looked up scapegoat: A compound of the verb scape, which means “escape” and two Hebrew translations/interpretations. 1) A possible misreading of the Hebrew word ‘ez ‘ozel (goat that departs) and 2) the Hebrew proper noun Azazel (demon).

I also discovered that In Leviticus 16:1-34, a goat was used in a ritual by a rabbi on Yom Kippur; where the rabbi symbolically loaded a goat with the sins of the Israelites and then let it loose into the wilderness to die.

The bottom line in Leviticus 16: that unsuspecting harmless goat who did nothing wrong was blamed and punished for the mistakes and sins of everyone else.

I continued my research.

By definition, a scapegoat is a person who is blamed for all that goes wrong, regardless of the guilt and wrongdoing of others. Scapegoats are repeatedly subjected to character assassination, abandonment, betrayal, and outright hatred by family members.

Scapegoating is also a way for adult children to hide familial abuse by blaming everything negative that happens, on one particular (and innocent) family member.

Further, scapegoating by adult children is usually due to having one parent with a personality disorder. To protect the parent with the mental disorder, the adult child uses the other parent as their scapegoat.

In an abusive, dysfunctional family, keeping their image unmarred is key to the scapegoat coverup. They live in an alternate reality. The dysfunctional family will go to any lengths to destroy the scapegoat because otherwise their abuse and sickness will be uncovered. They will also do whatever it takes to convince others that the scapegoat is a horrible person in order to further isolate and destroy them.

One article specifically used the following example: A wife leaves an abusive marriage, (which in and of itself takes enormous courage).  The family of the husband becomes paranoid that his abuse, dysfunction, and psychopathy will be revealed, and used against him, so the lies, brainwashing, and alienation begin until the scapegoated wife is attacked, denounced, alienated, and ultimately removed entirely from the familial picture. The scapegoating is used to deflect accountability for the husband’s abusive behavior.

“…all kinds of things were revealed which I was unwilling to admit even to myself.

Out of that scary goat dream, I had an epiphany:

The hurtful accusations and condemnation I have endured over the years were explicitly designed to protect an abusive family member. I was scapegoated and sent out into the wilderness to shrivel up and die. But now that I’ve found my way back home, I can finally stop beating myself up. I can eviscerate the self-doubt and let go of trying to work out a relationship that I now see is sadly impossible because the one that I miss the most is complicit in all of it.

The goat wasn’t scary. The goat was scared.

The goat wasn’t the demon; the goat was the target.

What started as the mother of all nightmares turned into a miraculous and most welcome wake-up call.

Sliding Doors


Click here for the MOVIE TRAILER OF SLIDING DOORS

Sliding Doors is one of my favorite movies. As soon as I saw the trailer above, back in 1998, I knew I had to see it.

I went to the movies alone and armed myself with a jumbo popcorn slathered with extra butter, a large coke, and some chocolate covered raisins.

Gwyneth Paltrow played Helen, a London advertising executive. After she gets fired from her job, she devastatingly walks out of her office and plans to go home via subway.

And then fate kicked in, and two side by side scenarios emerged.

In the first scenario, Helen squeezes her way into the subway train just as the sliding doors are closing. Too bad for her, because, she comes home and finds her boyfriend, Gerry (played by John Lynch), in bed messing with another woman. Heartbroken Helen leaves Gerry, eventually finds the love of her life, and lives happily ever after.

In the second scenario, the sliding doors shut in her face, and she misses the train. While hailing a cab, a mugger tries to run off with her handbag, and she falls, hitting her head. By the time Helen arrives home, the other woman is long gone. Gerry continues to cheat on Helen, and poor suffering Helen lives a miserable life.

I was recovering from my own misery; a harrowing and heartbreaking familial divorce, so I found the movie sadly relatable.

What if I had never moved back to New York? What if I never went to that stupid party? What if I said no instead of yes? What if I decided to go it alone and have the baby anyway?   

As the movie tracked through both storylines, I had no idea whether Helen got on that train or not.

But I was rooting for Helen. I was silently praying that those sliding doors shut right into her face. I was crying throughout the entire movie while shoving handfuls of overly buttered popcorn with a side of chocolate raisins into my mouth.

My tears weren’t for Helen; they were for me.

Because I had been the leading lady in my own version of Sliding Doors.

Haven’t we all?

The Sliding Doors theme song Thank You by Dido

 

My Grandmother’s World War II Home Front Job

In the late 1930s, my grandmother Mammy (pronounced MayMe) came to Bridgeport, Connecticut from Caribou, Maine as a single mom in search of a better life for her and her young daughter.

Soon after she arrived, millions of unemployed Americans went to work to make weapons of war, many of whom were women.  My grandmother was one of them.

She had a 3pm-11pm shift at Remington Arms boxing bullets on an assembly line.

She had other jobs as well—at least three or four at the time, but Remington was her bread and butter.

Remington Arms was a sprawling 73-acre manufacturing complex on Barnum Avenue in Bridgeport and was among the biggest munitions factories in the world, employing over 17,000 workers and producing tons of ammunition and weapons each year.

For women like my grandmother, the war brought enormous change in American women’s lives and was a crucial step on the road toward equal rights.

Before the war, women were second-class citizens and were unfairly discriminated against in the workplace. World War II was first a stimulus, and then became the model for women like Mammy and solidified their place in the job market.

I’d like to think that my grandmother’s experiences helped to lay the groundwork for the women’s movement in later years. And I know for sure that her experiences in the factory and her work on the assembly line helped to shape the way she raised me.

Whenever Mammy spoke about her work at Remington Arms, she recalled it fondly. While we never spoke of her job in terms of whether her work helped the democratic cause, she always spoke of her pride in the work she did, including the enormous amount of overtime she booked, week after week, month after month.

For Mammy, her job at Remington Arms was a vehicle for lasting change and offered her hope for a prosperous future. It altered her thinking about who she was and gave her pride in what she had accomplished during the war.

As a result of her work boxing bullets, the American dream was more than wishful thinking. It was finally within her reach and had become her goal.

World War II was the catalyst for change, and America was undeniably transformed by the end of it.

And so was Mammy.

Pam 6/2/52-5/20/09

This is one of two photos I have of my cousin Pam in her before-life.

Before her life took too many tragic turns.

I combed through my albums looking for the oldies but goodies to honor her today.

I was hoping to find some photos of us together as carefree kids, with no knowledge of the devastation awaiting her.

It saddened me that I only found two photos of the before Pam.

The one above, of her alone, and one of Pam with her husband Joe, before he heartbreakingly passed away at 38 years young.

Just two photos before her world came crashing in on her.

Before her husband died.

Before her son died.

I met Pam on March 6, 1966.

I know this because going through some old files last week, I found an entry I wrote on some Rheingold Beer stationery all those years ago.

A sign from Pam reminding me of the where and the how.

I was a nervous wreck that March day in 1966. I didn’t need to read my old notes to recall the terror I felt.

I was meeting my future family and it was going to be awkward because they knew my mom for several years, but they didn’t know about Theresa. I was a dirty little secret.

I couldn’t blame this family for being upset. They were Catholic like us, and I was the mortal sin.

The meeting started out not good. But in the end, it didn’t go as horribly as I thought it would.

Because of Pam.

She made it okay.

She was beautiful inside and out, and I never forgot her kindness.

We weren’t blood but everyone who saw us together thought we were sisters.

Can you see it?

 

 

Ballroom Competition and Mother’s Day

It’s May 12, 2019, and I’m writing this blog post for my mom.

I’m reasonably sure she doesn’t read or even know about my blog.

But it’s Mother’s Day, and I’m missing her. Badly.

So please stick with me on this blog post?

A close friend of mine invited me to Philadelphia to watch her compete in an Amateur Ballroom Dance Competition called the Philadelphia Dancesport Championships.

Now let me be clear. I know ZERO about Ballroom dancing, so whatever I blog here is from a know-nothing perspective.

And if you bear with me, you will see how I managed to intermingle her dance competition with Mother’s Day.

My friend is an amateur, but extremely talented ballroom dancer, who partners with a masterful professional.

As a fan of “Dancing with the Stars,” I was super excited to finally see Bo dance.

First, it was off to New Jersey for a two-hour lesson and practice, followed by picking up the mother of all sequined dresses.

I’m pretty sure the dress weighed more than Bo!

Then we spent a quiet evening at the Westin Hotel in Philly.

And the next day, while Bo prepared for her competition, I went to the ballroom to familiarize myself with the dancing lowdown.

There were numbers on every table, so of course, I quickly grabbed a seat at my lucky numero 18.

The table was set up with battery-operated fans, bottled water, lots of tissue boxes and neatly folded perspiration cloths.

There were at least seven judges, heads bent low to their table, busily writing stuff down.

Professional photographers were snapping photos and videographers were busy filming the competing couples.

Watching the contestants compete, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had day jobs.

I imagined, for example, that the hot tamale in the senior novice division doing the Cha-Cha in an ever-so skin-tight green dress, was an accountant by day.

“Number 476—the Cha-Cha, let’s hear it for the contestants.”

There was the Rumba, the Swing,  and the Mambo.

I was mesmerized by the abundance of illusion, glitter, sequins, feathers, and spray tan. And those splits! Oh my.

And every time a dance duo would glide by me, they would smile and gaze adoringly at me.

I was patting myself on the back that my slit wide-leg pants, glitter top, globs of face makeup, eye shadow and mascara had paid off…until I realized that there was a ginormous mirror behind me.

While the contestants were throwing back all brands and sizes of bottled water, I was happily throwing back a Chardonnay.

Two of the male dancers at my table were in deep discussion about hair gel, while I was mesmerized by one particular male dancer on the floor.

Not only did he have impressive dance moves (not that I would know), he had swag.

Mr. Swag competed with more than twenty different female partners, and he danced them to winning status every time.

Which got me to thinking: Does he live near me?

A thought balloon hovered over my head: The Terster in a tight green dress…okay maybe not so tight, because of, you know, the belly roll…

But there is the Terster—floating around the dance floor with Mr. Russian Swag Guy. And the winner is!!!!!!!

Okay, I was having a blast, but you know Teri.

She can always pull something out of the past to put a damper on any old day.

And this is where Mother’s Day comes in.

Because back in the day, my mom was an Arthur Murray dance instructor, so a lot of the songs and dances reminded me of how she would sing and dance around the kitchen on Huron Street with a phantom partner.

Once in a while, she would grab my hand, and we would float around as best we could in the cramped spaces between the table and chairs and the fridge.

Well, my mom floated, I clomped.

The flashback of the two us—with my mom so carefree and happy.

Back then, if she was happy, then so was I.

And of course, my grandmother would be sitting at the table, smiling, but covering her mouth, lest we would see her loose-fitting dentures moving around.

Maybe I looked forlorn, perhaps a little distracted. I can’t say why, but the young woman sitting next to me placed her hand on my arm. “Are you okay? Are you watching someone out there?”

I was a little choked up, so I merely shook my head no.

I pulled out a tissue from one of the several boxes on the table to catch the tears in the corners of my eyes.

Leave it to me to take a perfectly enjoyable dance competition and make a weepfest out of it.

A couple of minutes later when I had my emotions in check, I told the young woman about my mom and Arthur Murray. Well not Arthur per se, but you know what I mean.

She had bleached blonde spiky hair, a nose ring, and a mohawk motorcycle helmet. Not exactly ballroom material.

She told me that her mom was a senior novice. “The vision in lavender,” she said, as she proudly pointed her out. I answered that my favorite color was lavender.

And then she told me everything I needed to know (or not) about ballroom dance competitions, her passion for motorcycles, and how her mom got her mojo back through competitive dancing.

In between dances, contestants would come to the table and fan themselves, yank out a handful of tissues, and gently blot the sweat off their faces.

Then there came a series of songs that just stabbed at my heart:

♪ Sunrise, sunset, Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears ♪

I grabbed for a tissue and ordered another glass of wine.

♪ A time for us, someday there’ll be
A new world, a world of shining hope for you and me ♪

I mean seriously? These songs were hardly conducive for a happy Teri outcome.

I grabbed a few more tissue, said a quick goodbye to my punky friend who was busy videoing her mom and bolted out of the ballroom before dark Teri reared her ugly head.

Plus, it was almost showtime for Bo!

A flurry of stretching, hair, makeup and then the donning of her elegant sun-yellow gown.

Bo’s dancing was superb. She was a vision in yellow—a beautiful ray of sunshine. Bo and her partner danced with elegance and spot-on precision. I was so proud of her.

She breezed through the Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Fox Trot, Quickstep, and the Tango, and took first place in all of her heats.

Her last dance was the Fox Trot. The song was Fly Me to the Moon.

Thank God for those tissues.

How many times had I adoringly watched my mom float around our dumpy kitchen on Huron Street while singing that tune?

A lifetime ago.

What I wouldn’t give to have one more chance at one more dance.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.