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Our Voices - Robin Savitt

Family Memories

By, Robin Savitt

           My parents were storytellers. They wove their memories without a plan. A rhythm of consciousness propelled them. A photo ignited remembrances; newspaper clippings recalled a long forgotten incident. In going back in time, each parent peeled away the surface; each exposed the core, the essence of their being.  
          The selected events handed down by father and mother to my sister Lee and me were as disparate as their personalities. My father's stories recounted the sensible, solid course of his life. He was practical and accepted business setbacks and other vicissitudes, with equanimity, believing we lived fluid lives and time would resolve most problems. He had an endless capacity for love and a luminous optimism and was our rock. 
          My mother lived many days of her life in levels of darkness. We, her family, were unable to arrest it although present in form, her mind seem to slip through descending levels of despair until it settled in some comfortable place detached from her tiresome brood. Then, with no prompting, she would begin her ascent, until the light pressed in, pried open her mind and swallowed the blackness. 
          Yet it was my mother, with her vivid, colorful recollections who brought my sister and me seamlessly into the old world. She was the major catalyst for our passion for writing. She was the one who viewed events through a visceral, emotional lens . 

My Mother’s Family…The Klingers

By, Robin Savitt

 

The Klinger family consisted of my grandparents and five daughters. They were orthodox Jews who lived in Rsechow, a shtetle in Poland, not unlike Tevya’s ‘Fiddler’, but my grandfather was not a farmer. He sold insurance to the people of his town and struggled like his neighbors on the fringe of poverty.

The daughters, at times were a toxic brew of anger and spitefulness but it was modified by their strong belief in the Bible, and would sometimes quote from it when they acted with generosity and compassion for the sick and needy.

The first daughter, Frieda, the most headstrong, tall and solidly built. Her capriciousness had horrified my grandparents, and fascinated me. Her photos in our family album show her tossing her head, smiling, looking unflappable. When she and her sisters passed the armory on their way to school, she flirted with the Polish soldiers. The next oldest Gizella, would tattle to their father who would smack Frieda, which never altered her behavior. She smoked in her teens and at eighteen ran away with a man in a neighboring town for three days. My mother told us these stories without reproaching Frieda. It was Gizella, the farbissina, for whom my mother reserved her venom. We loved to hear the story. My mother always ended shaking her head and stating that Gizella was envious because she was the only daughter who was not pretty. “My sister should have been a nun,” my mother would conclude.

My mother, Florence, was the middle daughter. The next in line, Pauline, contracted typhus in her teens. The disease, though not fatal, weakened her and the other daughters had to assume some of her chores. This they did with love and tenderness.

Ernestine the youngest, the smallest, became the family ‘maven’ as she grew up. Her opinions, spoken with great authority, saturated their lives. Age exacerbated her dominating behavior. My father used to say that God gave her a big mouth to make up for her size.

Frieda’s escapades ended when she met Leon. She was twenty-one years old. He was a third generation French Jew, brought up in Paris. My aunts would recount how educated and charming the man was, and he had a business in Lyon that prospered. The couple married. My grandfather provided the dowry, of course, and they moved to Lyon and had a happy life together until the early ‘40’s when they were deported and murdered in a concentration camp.

The people of the Jewish communities in Poland would say they kept one ear and one eye open even when they slept. It was a tinderbox, where the raw hatred of Poles would ignite through drunkenness or a rumor that a Jew had committed some affront to them. On a few occasions, soldiers had raged through the shtetl on horses and foot setting fire to homes and stores, although there had been no killing.

Now in one of the far pockets of Poland, in 1915, a tremor rose on the dust. A feeling, a murmur, shapeless, that mouthed no word as yet; but it scurried through the shtetls and through the months defined itself as WAR.

Leaving their homeland was not a new thought to the family. The overwhelming task, physically and emotionally, was staggering. America was religious freedom and opportunity, but the unknown stretched ahead of them and the burden to protect his family would rest with my grandfather.

My grandparents considered the consequences of war. Hunger, possible starvation, soldiers with guns running amok among them. Their next-door neighbors were already making plans to leave. There would be conscription; they had sons who would be taken. The pressing question no longer was whether they should leave, but how could they risk staying.

The threat of war was a growing menace for Jews; Moses Aaron had another problem; Frieda’s dowry depleted his meager savings and he had four more unmarried daughters.

They will leave for America!

Thu, June 20 2019 17 Sivan 5779