A grown-up singular son writes a Mother’s Day story that recalls the life and times of the courageous woman he had the honor of calling his mom.
My mother was born on May 3, 1916. Her father owned a small shoe factory outside of Prague in what was then known as Czechoslovakia. My grandfather was so excited that he didn’t register her birth with local authorities until the May 10, which became her official birthday.
An excellent student and table tennis player, my mother completed medical school in 1939, and shortly thereafter was put on a train to Auschwitz. Her parents were selected to go into a line that was destined for the gas chambers. Not knowing their fate at the time, she wanted to go with them, but a Gestapo officer slapped her face and made her go to another line, the one for those who were young and strong enough to work.
She lost her eyeglasses when the Gestapo guard slapped her, which rendered her virtually blind. She would have been murdered for being unable to see well enough to work, but that night in the barracks, amidst dozens of other slave laborers, she found a pair of glasses held together by string. The miraculous glasses made it possible for her to stay alive.
She was sold to a factory and spent the war building airplanes. In 1945, the workers heard approaching artillery and most of the Nazi guards fled. She and the other prisoners were like zombies when the American troops opened the door to their barracks and told them they were free. She went out into the fresh air and sunshine for the first time in two years, collapsed in the green grass and found 3 four-leaf clovers.
On the mantle in my home in Santa Monica there’s picture frame with those 3 four-leaf clovers, along with the Chesterfield cigarette package where my mother kept them, symbols of her hope for the future.
She met my father in Prague after the war. He was divorced with a teenaged son and was 16 years her senior. She accepted my father’s marriage proposal after a two-week courtship. She didn’t want to practice medicine after the war, telling me once that she’d seen enough suffering. My father had permission from the Communists to travel to Vienna as part of a glass manufacturing delegation and he managed to get my mother out of Russian-occupied Prague when she was already pregnant with me.
My father’s son ran away shortly before he was to join us in Vienna. Since the Communists controlled the city, my father was afraid that his son would tell the authorities that he intended to defect and he’d be arrested. He went to visit his mother, my grandmother, who told him, “You have a new family now — you have to go.” So my dad left his son behind and took a train to Vienna to join my mother just before I was born.
Vienna was still a divided city and we stayed in the American zone. When my father left for New York to prepare for our immigration, my mother took care of me in a small village in Switzerland for six lonely months.
In February 1955 we got our visas to immigrate. We took a train to Cherbourg and booked passage on the Queen Mary to New York.
She read Agatha Christie mysteries to learn English. When I was six she took me to the local library and walked me through the stacks. “You can pick out any books you like,” she said, “but you will begin reading and you will read one book after the other.”
My mother carried on a raging battle with the pigeons that cooed incessantly on our fire escape. One day she returned home triumphantly from the hardware store with a yellow paste that was guaranteed to keep pigeons away. My father and I watched her clamber out on the fire escape to spread the paste, only to see the pigeons trample it with delight when she came inside.
When she was in her early 40s, I went to summer camp at the age of 15. I fractured my arm and was in traction in a hospital in rural Connecticut. It took my parents the better part of a day — two trains, buses and taxis — to reach me. Unbeknownst to my father, who would have said no, my mother then took a series of driving lessons and rented a car so that they could come to visit me again. She remained the only driver in the family until I was out of college.
When my parents moved to La Jolla my father was 80. She said my father was retired, but not her. She learned her way around San Diego, driving to places like Chula Vista and Encinitas, names she could barely pronounce. She was dedicated to maintaining an immaculate home, picked up crumbs that she found with licked fingertips, and scolded me for walking on her newly mopped kitchen. I always got a care basket of lox, cheese and bread for my return drive to Los Angeles.
But she loved La Jolla and after my father’s death in 1986, managed to get through a painful series of medical problems, including several surgeries, and lived a tranquil life of photography, gardening and contemplation.
A Catholic caretaker became like a sister to my mother after my father passed, and tried to get her to accept God. But while my father had his faith as the reason for his survival, my mother lost her faith in God entirely. She had no patience for talk of a loving higher power because her experience belied it. Her spiritual practice after my father’s death was photography, writing, gardening and watching tennis on television — and talking to me.
Shortly before her death she became aware of the hate groups that say the Holocaust never happened. She collected their propaganda to keep track of them. She visited a high school to tell students of her experiences during the war. She wanted to make sure they knew the truth. The kids loved and hugged her. She would have continued that work if she hadn’t died soon thereafter.
I believe she found some peace and redemption — partly through her written memoir which she wrote at the age of 74 on an electric typewriter. I published it last year, 19 years after her death. The title of her book is The Next Chapter. In her narrative, she emphasizes that it’s not intended as a Holocaust memoir, but rather a psychological exploration of what it takes to persevere, survive and try to resume a normal life after severe trauma.
Her memories haunted her until the end. When my father was still alive, we were celebrating his birthday at a restaurant with many of their friends, including other survivors, when someone remarked that they were missing a fork.
Suddenly mother said, “At Auschwitz we didn’t worry about silverware.” There was a hush because we all knew her story. My father didn’t react and the celebration continued. Later her close friend took her aside and told her what she said was “inappropriate.” My mother might have gotten defensive, but she took it in stride and began to realize the immense toll her anger had taken — not just on others but also on herself. She made a decision to begin to let things go.
She bought her last pride and joy, a brand new Buick, shortly before her death in 1993. She drove happily to see her friend in Encinitas and came to visit me by train in Los Angeles. She inspected my apartment and was incredulous and ecstatic to find a first-aid kit in my medicine chest. She could finally rest easy because it showed I was taking proper care of myself.
She enjoyed several pleasant “singular” years although she missed my father terribly. After years of declining health and a bad back as the result of a blow from a German rifle butt, she died from a cardiac aneurism on the night of July 3, 1993. I saw her for the last time that night and she made me promise not to allow the doctors to take any extraordinary measures. “I want to go,” she said.
“Who will take care of me?” I asked.
“You can take care of yourself,” were her final words.
My cat Eva is named for my mother. She is a spirited little thing with a mind of her own and is quite vocal in her opinions.
In some ways my own journey mirrors my mother’s — we both had to make our peace with a world that seemed harsh and brutal but also provided an immense amount of love.
Copyright © Tom Bunzel/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.