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Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila
I HURRIED DOWN THE hallway but stopped when I saw her. “Mom, why did you do this?” I cried. I stood there for a moment and studied her face. She looked beautiful. A white silky scarf was artfully wrapped around her head like a head¬band and she was wearing her favorite red lipstick. She was smiling at me and there was a twinkle in her eyes. “This could have all been avoided,” I told her. Waiting for a response would have been pointless, because photographs never answer back.
The front door opened without a knock.
“Jaclyn, I’m here! Aren’t you ready yet?” Shirley, my younger sister, called out.
I slowly took my eyes away from the black-and-white photograph and headed down the stairs.
“I’m just going to grab a piece of toast and then we can leave,” I answered. Shirley and I had made a temporary truce. This was an important morning, and for the next few days, we were on the same side.
My cell phone rang as I got into the front seat of my sister’s car. It was Nina, the baby of the Poltzer family. “Re¬member, Shirley is still Shirley,” she reminded me. “So don’t tell her too much.”
The traffic on the way to downtown was its usual stop-and-go self, but we finally made it. We parked in the lot across the street from the courthouse and walked together into the imposing federal building and through the metal detectors. Our names were printed on an informal sheet of pa¬per pinned to a board on the outside of a ninth-floor family probate room. Pushing through the double doors, we made our entry.
The walls of our courtroom were covered with wood paneling, and the floor was the standard government-issued marbled vinyl tile. A long wooden conference table with six chairs was set up for the attorneys and their assistants. At the head of the room was an elevated judge’s desk. It was flanked on both sides by flags, one for the United States, and one for California. Filling in the balance of the room were permanently installed stadium seats with walking aisles on both sides and in the center.
Shlomo, the eldest among the siblings, was already seated in the first row. A bundle of frayed nerves, he had devised a method of handling his anxiety by placing a large, thick rubber band around his wrist, which he planned to snap when¬ever he felt the need to yell. I wished he had brought an extra one for me.
Our attorney, Ken, walked in, exuding confidence. He stopped briefly in the aisle beside our seats.
“No making faces at Steven or the judge! No cursing, no mouthing words, no sighing, and no sounds of any kind!” he instructed us, but it was mostly meant for me.
A few moments later, Nina arrived. She came over to us and said a quick “good morning.” She was full of information she wished to review with Ken, so she took a seat beside him, up front at the conference table.
On the other side of the room was Steven, the remaining member of the Poltzer family. Piled up beside him were plas¬tic containers filled with files and paperwork. His laptop was turned on, but at the moment, he was concentrating on a document he was reading.
Five grown children on opposite sides of the aisle; Steven wanted it all.
Mom, what did you do to us?
CHANNA ALWAYS HATED STRANGERS
CHANNA PERSCHOWSKI, MY MOMILA, was a beautiful young girl with thin stick-like legs and wavy auburn hair. She was petite, but her spunkiness made up for it. Her eyes were soft brown, but when she looked at you, you could see she was filled with determination.
She was born on November 27, 1929, in Baranavichy, a small rural town in what was then Poland. Picturesque with its redbrick houses, Baranavichy was nestled amid thick woods that thrived in the country’s moist, dark soil. Beautiful blue lakes dotted the landscape, and rivers wound their way past ancient castles dating back to the eighth century. Turrets belonging to the Belarusian gothic-style churches competed with the dome-topped, wooden Jewish synagogues, but only in the context of old-world charm. It was a lovely place to live. However, my mother’s simple, idyllic life would soon be lost to the horrors of a war like no other.
Channa was the answer to her mother’s dreams. Eleven years earlier, Rachel Perschowski had suffered the loss of her daughter Sonya, who had been born with a hole in her heart. The fragile young girl was plagued with shortness of breath and weariness and had spent most of her time in bed. Rachel was a dutiful mother, never straying far from her daughter’s bedside. She spoon-fed Sonya bowls of hot, sugary semolina with large dollops of butter that slowly melted around the sides of the cereal. Despite Rachel’s tender care, Sonya died in her mother’s arms at the age of eight.
Her death was extremely hard on Rachel. She blamed herself incessantly, wondering what she had eaten or done during pregnancy that could have possibly caused her precious little girl to lose her life. She visited the graveyard often, spending much of her time sitting on Sonya’s grave.
Rachel’s only joy in those dark days following Sonya’s death was her son, Isaac, who was two years older than Sonya had been. Isaac had grown into a healthy lad with boundless energy. He had dark features and had inherited his mother’s worried eyes and prominent Jewish nose. He was a little short for his age, but was solid as a rock and strong as an ox. Even at his young age, he had a tender side and had loved his sister Sonya dearly, always treating her with gentle kindness.
Sonya’s death was very hard on Isaac. No one could give him the answers he sought or help him express the tremendous sadness he held in his heart.
Whenever he was outside playing and he saw a lizard scurry by, he would remember his little sister. He’d remember how he used to catch the small reptiles in his hands and carry them into the house. Sonya would gently stroke the lizard’s back, and they would both laugh until their mother came into the room.
“Isaac, get that out of here!” Rachel would always say.
Isaac’s deep sorrow about the loss of Sonya was lessened with the arrival of Channa. He adored Channa, and, being the much older brother, took on the role of her protector. The bond between them would prove to be more important than either of them could ever know.
A few years later, the family was additionally blessed with another baby girl, whom they named Yetta. She was a happy baby with round, chubby cheeks. Her hair was light brown and full of curls.
Rachel worked tirelessly and bestowed a great deal of love and affection on her three children. Often seated on the cold wooden floors, she would play games with them for hours, ignoring the cooking and the cleaning. On days when the weather kept her younger children inside, she would bake sugar cookies with them. She would carefully guide their small hands while they pressed various shapes onto the floured dough. Then she would patiently show them how to sprinkle sugar and cinnamon onto the warm cookies as they cooled on the counter.
Shlomo, the children’s father, was less patient. He worked hard, and when he came home, he demanded serenity. He had little tolerance for the children’s noise and energy, and at times, he could be quite harsh.
“Sit down and be quiet!” he often yelled. “If you can’t be quiet, go outside to play—and stay there a while!” When the children disobeyed his demands for silence, he would bang his fists on the table, causing them to run and hide under their beds.
Luckily for the children, Shlomo traveled extensively for business. He was often away for very long periods of time, which made Channa angry at him. She constantly feared he had abandoned them. When he was home, he never tried to earn their love, and they could sense their mother’s indifference toward him. Neither she nor her siblings ever developed a close bond with their father.
While Shlomo might not have been the best father, he was an outstanding provider. He was in the schmate, or garment, business. He regularly journeyed to America with clothing patterns. These patterns were then turned into blue jeans and shirts to be sold to the American public. He would save up all the money he made and take it back to his family in Poland. With each homecoming came a bundle of cash, which was spent on a variety of things. The house and the barn always seemed to need repairs, and the children were always outgrowing their sweaters and shoes.
Channa loved the family home. The house had originally been built for Rachel’s mother as a gift from her father, Yonkel, to his only daughter. The one-story wooden structure had a single fireplace in the kitchen. A metal roof kept the house watertight, although the rat-tat-tat was loud during the rainy season. There was a covered porch and a charming white fence separating the house from the dirt walkway in front and from the neighbors’ houses on both sides. In the back were a small livestock barn and a garden where the family grew their own vegetables. Toward the rear of the property stood a number of mature plum and apple trees that bore sweet fruit, which Channa devoured as soon as they were ripe.
Channa’s great-grandfather, Yonkel, had made a living in¬scribing and selling mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a tiny parchment scroll. On it, written in black ink, are two passages from the Torah: Shema Yisroel (“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe”) and Vehaya (“Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix the mezuzah”). These two passages declare a family’s faith and unity with God and obligate the bearers to observe Jewish beliefs in and out of the home. The parchments Yonkel inscribed were placed inside small protective cases that were nailed to the right doorposts of all doors leading inside.
Years passed and life was good for Channa and her family. The town blossomed as several large Jewish-owned textile mills opened and brought prosperity to many. The boulevard was crowded with merchants, shoppers, children, and even a few cars. Electric lines flanked the streets, and horse-drawn carriages, weighed down with bundles of fabrics, rolled down the boulevard.
Channa’s brother, Isaac, married a woman named Frieda and they had two children, Samuel and Ruben. Isaac worked as a furniture builder for a man with a small shop. There, they hammered, sawed, and stained wood furniture, filling customers’ orders for tables, chairs, and beds.
Isaac’s children, along with her sister Yetta, provided Channa with an ever-present assortment of playmates. In addition to her human friends, Channa had several animals. Her family’s lop-eared goats provided milk for the family and sometimes newborn goats to play with. One beautiful spring morning, Channa went out to the barn to discover that twin goats had been born during the night. Two wobbly-legged females stood on the straw with after-birth still hanging off their bodies. Channa immediately fell in love with one in particular. She was reddish in color with large patches of white fur, big dark eyes, and long, velvety ears. She named her Rosa and carried her everywhere until Rosa grew too big. When¬ever Channa entered the barn, Rosa would leap around joy¬fully. It was a happy time for Channa.
However, happy times were rapidly coming to an end as Hitler’s war machine crossed into Poland.
More and more people seemed to be out of work, and large numbers of police were suddenly everywhere. The atmosphere around the house and within the small town of Baranavichy changed seemingly overnight.
“Remember, you are not allowed to go to the park!” Rachel told Channa as she walked out the front door. An edict had recently been made that Jews were no longer allowed in parks.
Rachel was starting to feel anxious whenever any of her children were away from her side, and her daughters could feel their mother’s fear. While outside playing, Channa often spotted grown-ups huddled in groups and speaking in hushed tones. Rachel tried to keep dinner discussions off the subject of what was happening, but Channa could not help but over¬hear disjointed tidbits. There were frequent mentions of someone name Adolf Hitler and talk of fires and killings.
The list of warnings from Rachel grew longer.
“Don’t tell anyone where we are hiding the money,” she told Channa as they buried a stocking filled with gold coins beneath the house; banks were no longer available to Jews. “Don’t leave the house without wearing your coat with the star on it!” Channa heard as she headed for the front door.
“Why?” she asked, with a bit of irritation in her voice.
“Because it’s the law!” her mother answered.
Everyone was nervous and on edge, and everyone was busy hiding their valuables. Although Channa could not make much sense of it, she could feel that something was deeply wrong. The home that had always felt so safe was beginning to feel less so.
One evening, someone banged on the front door. Two heavily armed soldiers told Shlomo he would need to go with them…immediately. He asked over and over again what he had done wrong and where they were taking him.
“Just come with us now,” they said to him.
Rachel pleaded, and Yetta and Channa cried, but within moments, Rachel, Channa, and Yetta watched their husband and father leave without so much as a good-bye.
Channa screamed hysterically, “Mama, where has he gone? When will he be coming back? Why did they take him? Are those soldiers going to come back and take us away?”
Rachel stood for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. She wanted to give her daughters some comfort, all the while knowing in her heart that their father would not be returning. After a long pause, she decided to shield them from the terrible reality of the truth with a lie. “Don’t worry, he will be back.”
The turmoil inflicted by Hitler’s soldiers continued for several months. Jewish-owned businesses now had to display yellow stars in their windows. Physicians could no longer tend to Jewish patients. A seven o’clock curfew was instituted, and entire families were forcibly removed from their homes in broad daylight. Then suddenly one day, the may¬hem appeared to stop. The authorities assured the Jews that no further restrictions would be imposed. A bizarre type of normalcy now controlled their lives.
For a time, Channa slipped back into her comfortable childhood. However, Isaac remained skeptical. Life was not easy under the current restrictions. Since Isaac could not find work building furniture, he had plenty of time to speak with other young men who were also out of work. They agreed that Hitler was not done with the Jews yet and that it was time to leave Baranavichy.
Isaac hurried home, eager to speak to his mother.
“We must leave here!” he told her as she stood at the sink washing dishes. Even while standing in the safety of their own kitchen, he found it necessary to glance around the room to see if anyone was listening. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Things are going to get very difficult, and we had better leave while we still can.”
“No!” Rachel replied adamantly as she scraped the remnants of the afternoon meal off the plates. “Why should we uproot the family when everything is quieting down? What if we go somewhere else and it is even worse? The neighbors aren’t leaving, and if they don’t think it’s time to go, why should we?” It was typical of Rachel to use the neighbors as a kind of barometer of what her family should be doing. “Just wait,” she said. “Things will get better.”
“Mama, please listen,” Isaac implored her. “We can’t wait.”
“The neighbor across the street heard that the Red Army is getting close. When they get here, we will all be safe,” his mother said as she dried her hands on a towel.
Isaac shook his head sadly. He knew in his heart that he should insist they all leave, but he did not know how to convince her and would never leave without her. So he kissed his mother good-bye and walked home to his wife and children.
For a brief time life was indeed better. Then, abruptly, things took a turn for the worse. Channa watched as neighborhoods were cordoned off. Bales of barbed wire were unrolled and secured to posts, and places that had been accessible just the day before suddenly were not. Street signs were torn down and replaced with new ones written in Ger¬man. Since not everyone in the town was fluent in German, many people inadvertently wandered into restricted areas and were severely punished. One day, Channa sadly watched as her mother turned the radio in to the authorities. Then, suddenly, she was no longer allowed to attend school. She was now home all day, which should have been a treat, but some¬how was not.
Rachel was walking home from the marketplace one afternoon when she saw a group of people huddled together around the community bulletin board where all the edicts were posted. She made her way to the front of the crowd and read the newest posting:
ALL FARM ANIMALS ARE TO BE TAKEN TO THE TRAIN STATION IMMEDIATELY
She hurried home. As she approached the house, she spotted Channa playing with Yetta. There was no way to sug¬ar-coat the news.
“Channa,” she said, “tomorrow morning, we must take all the animals to the train station.”
“No!” Channa said, spinning away and refusing to look at her mother.
But Rachel would not relent. She put down her bags, held Channa’s face roughly, and stared into her eyes.
“We need to stay invisible to the Germans!” she said in a tone Channa had never heard before. It was the sound of genuine terror. Channa knew she had no choice.
The next morning, Channa walked into the barn. Rosa hurried over. She stroked Rosa’s head and velvety ears, sadly slipped a rope over the mama goat’s head, and led her away with the twins following close behind.