The winter after my mother’s death, I visited my father in Fort Lauderdale where he and my mother had a small vacation condo in a seniors’ community since his retirement.
Each time I glanced at him I felt a pang to see him alone without my mother somewhere nearby. They had been married nearly 50 years, and were unusually close, even for those traditional times, doing everything together
My father and his older brother Jack were the only ones of their family to survive the Holocaust. He was devoted to Jack, and Jack to him, and when Jack died in middle age of cancer, my father drew closer to my mom as she too began to ail. She had peripheral artery disease, which while incrementally decreased her mobility, never lessened her stoical, good-natured determination to live her life with my father as she always had. My parents continued as they had, but increasingly my father took on the responsibilities of caregiving, and they became inseparable—necessity shadowed by fear of loss.
I knew, and thought I understood, how bereft and lost my father felt after my mother’s death. He tried to keep busy, but all the shared activities he once had relished, were now merely distractions to fill the interminably long days to be gotten through. He missed having someone to share his daily stories with—both my parents were wickedly funny storytellers.
I didn’t truly understand how profoundly lost he felt without his constant companion until I experienced those feelings after his death. Our relationship had become more involved as his Alzheimer’s advanced. I became his caregiver, being with him almost every day the last five years of his life.
Of the two, I had presumed that my mother was more introspective since she was eager to share her stories of her past and her feelings. I knew much more about her and life than I did my father’s.
As a child, my father had taught me to ride a bike, play badminton and cards, and as a teenager, to drive a car and golf. Yet as an adult, outside of running errands, we were seldom alone and seldom had the heart-to-heart conversations that my mother and I engaged in so easily and automatically.
We both liked to walk and in Fort Lauderdale, on my visits, typically we would get up early and walk for an hour before it got too hot. That January, uncommonly hot and humid, was even steamy in the early morning, so my father suggested we walk at night.
Unlike Toronto, where the light pollution blocked out the stars, the night sky here was star filled. As we walked around the complex, to my amazement, my father pointed out and identified all the constellations. He told me that knowing where they were located in the sky was essential to his and Jack’s survival during the Second World War. They were hidden by two Polish farm families in their barns. During the frequent Nazi searches for the town’s remaining Jewish residents, they would take cover in the forests and grain fields–the constellations, their GPS.
During our nightly walks, my father turned out to be a starry Scheherazade, relating stories about his childhood, family, meeting my mother and my birth that I had never heard before. Losing loved ones means losing shared memories – everyone that he was attached to and that he had known since childhood and adolescence, the exception, Jack’s wife Yetta – were gone. As he told me his stories I realized how much comfort, and joy, it gave him to have someone he loved and who loved him, to share his past with.
His initial stories were about his beloved father Pinchas and how respected he was in their hometown of Ostrowek. His father was grain merchant, renowned as a trusted, fair, smart man. It was this reverence for him that led to the survival of my father and Jack.
Since Pinchas dealt with the shipment of grain, over time he and the railway master had become friends. In the spring of 1942, the railway master summoned him, revealing he had just learned that Nazis had made arrangements for several trains with cattle cars to arrive in the next days to transport the town’s Jews to to the Treblinka death camp. Pinchas informed friends and relatives to pass the news around and he made arrangements with farmers he bought grain from to hide the family. Because of their relationship with him, and though aware of the risk of death if caught, the farmers agreed.
For safety, the family temporarily split up—Pinchas, his wife Sarah and Goldie, the eldest child, went to one farmer, my father and his brother Jack to another, but they made plans to meet up. As days passed and his parents and sister didn’t arrive, the brothers urged the farmer to go into town to see what had happened to them. He discovered that the three of them had been robbed, beaten to death and thrown in a creek by classmates of my father and Jack.
After the war, he and Jack stayed in the Leipzig Displaced Persons camp where Jack met Yetta. They married in the camp, and were sponsored for immigration by Yetta’s aunt in Toronto. My father contacted his mother’s sisters in Argentina and while waiting for a visa, settled in Nice where he held multiple jobs to save money—working as a gendarme, in a fabric store selling bolts of material, and on the side sold cigarettes and nylons.
Jack sent my father letters, entreating him to immigrate to Toronto and not to Argentina, writing that they had survived together and shouldn’t be separated. My father decided he was right and immigrated to Toronto where he dwelt with Jack, Yetta, her younger brother Sidney and Yetta’s Mume Grossman in rooms above a movie theatre. My father joked that his English teachers were not just in Harbord Collegiate where he took evening classes, but James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and Bugs Bunny because six nights a week they listened to the two feature films, the soundtrack coming up loud and clear through the floor.
My father found employment as a spring assembler. He stood the whole day, twisting and assembling the coils for the innersprings of mattresses. I remember how self-conscious he was about how his blackened his fingertips were, for no amount of scrubbing ever entirely removed the oil stains. When I learned to count, he let me help him count the blackened slips of paper he brought home from work and wrap them in bundles with elastic bands for he was paid by piecework, not an hourly wage. Eventually he and a fellow worker on the assembly line whom he had befriended saved up to open their own small mattress spring factory.
We both looked forward to these nightly walks in Florida and storytelling sessions, as he was as keen now to share his memories and stories as I was to hear them. Even when the weather cooled we continued for it seemed easier for my father to talk in the star-lit night
At first, he hardly mentioned my mother, her loss too overwhelming. I told him that each night I looked for the brightest star in the sky, my mother, and told her how much I missed her and loved her. He did so too as he slowly began to recount how he met my mother.
“See that girl over there,” my father had said to a friend, pointing to a slender, sandy-haired woman who was walking on the other side of College Street, “I’m going to marry that girl!” His friend laughed at him, informing him he knew her. She was Dora Ber and she was engaged. My father didn’t say another word, but just stared at her until she disappeared from sight. Sooner or later, he knew he would run into her again, given the law of averages since most of the eastern European Holocaust survivors, were clustered together in the Kensington Market neighbourhood of Toronto. Maybe then, with any luck, the engagement would be off.
The next time my father saw my mother again she was tossing a beachball to her brothers on Centre Island, and as luck would have it, her engagement was off. This wavy brown-haired man with a swagger of self-confidence went over to her and asked to borrow the beachball. After chatting together, my mother impulsively invited him to her birthday party. He arrived with a gift of Chanel No. 5 perfume. They dated and he asked her to be his girl while sitting on a bench in Queen’s Park. Soon they were engaged and then married.
To save money for their own home, (they resided in the attic of my mother’s parents’ home) my father worked overtime and my mother remained at her job as a button finisher in a children’s clothing factory.
Watching his face, I could see how much pleasure it gave him to return to those times and by how captivated I was. My parents knew me through and through, and now I was getting to really know my father.
Finally, they had saved up for a down payment on a house, and just in time, as my mother was pregnant. Initially my mother regarded her pregnancy as a breeze, but by the eighth month she had gained 50 pounds and was struggling to breathe. The doctor she was seeing insisted that there was nothing wrong with her. She felt so poorly she asked to be sent to another doctor who diagnosed her with toxemia. She was so swollen with fluid and her blood pressure so high that he sent her straight from his office to the hospital where she was bedbound for the next month. My father moved into their new house alone.
When my mother neared the ninth month, the doctor scheduled a caesarean. The surgery seemingly went fine. I was born premature and placed in an incubator. Then my mother began to hemorrhage and was given three transfusions. Afterwards she was taken back to her room and fell asleep.
When she woke, she saw my father and Jack sitting on two metal chairs at the foot of her bed.
“Where are your parents?” she cried out, as she looked around the room. My father and Jack stared at her, stunned.
“Your parents were just here,” she insisted, declaring they had been sitting on a wooden bench where the chairs now were. She then went on to describe their parents. Pinchas had dark hair, deep set eyes, a small moustache and was tall, and was wearing a dark overcoat. Sarah’s hair was red and curly, and she had a full round face and had on a print dress with a furry collar under her wool coat. “Don’t worry,” she told my mother. “You have a healthy baby girl and you will name her Surah. You will get well and be a healthy mother.”
Suddenly my mother remembered that my father’s parents were dead and stopping talking. My father and Jack were still too shocked to say a word. My mother had just described how their parents looked and how they were dressed the last time they’d seen them. But how? She had never seen a picture of them for they had none, and my father had never told her what they looked like because at this point in his life, he found it too painful to talk about the past with anyone other than Jack. They didn’t know what to believe. Ghosts? Or an uncanny hallucination? I was named after my grandmother. A few months later, my father received a photo of his parents from his aunts in Argentina—the only one he had. Their appearance was exactly as my mother had described them.
“Sherilah, so that’s how you got your name,” my father said, patting my arm.
Years later as my father’s Alzheimer’s progressed, I would spark his memories of his past by retelling him the stories he had told me, he filling in the details as long as he could. And when he couldn’t, I told him the stories of his life that I now knew as well as he once did.