FORWARD: WHY I WROTE THIS
For fifty-eight years, I've been harboring within me an epic family story, lying dormant beneath the surface and threatening to eat me up alive: My mother and maternal grandparents were Carpathian Mountain People who, for four years, lived in a snake pit, often saw dead people, and worked for murderers. What is even more absurd is that the world believed their community was a cultural center.
No, they weren't criminals, just honorable, valuable, hard-working people, with normal human frailties. Their "crime" was being Jewish in Czechoslovakia in 1941, for which Hitler's Third Reich incarcerated them in the Terezín concentration camp. Only about 75,000 people survived the Nazi camps; of these, about 3,200 adults and 150 children survived Terezín. Miraculously, three of them were my mother and her parents. I am alive because my grandfather made custom boots for the SS, the elite Nazi officers.
I'm now one of about half a million children of Holocaust survivors alive today, who grew up in the shadows of their family's trauma. Many of us second generation (2G) survivors are imbued with “the unbearable lightness of being” (the title of a book by Milan Kundera, set in the Czech Republic), cursed and blessed at the same time, in a perpetual state of mourning for that which we have never known. The truth is, we're all partially meshugener (crazy)! We were raised differently than other children, and like our survivor parents, we carry emotional baggage from the Holocaust.
I have always been a Holocaust junkie, compulsively devouring wartime stories with morbid fascination. As a child, I would relish watching my grandmother cook and bake while telling me her family’s experiences. Her face and emotional expression would become a kaleidoscope of laughter, animation, tears, and despair. Since I was a young artist, I loved how my grandmother figuratively painted for me the picture of her amazing history, in intricate detail. I was absolutely riveted; I couldn’t get enough. I knew this information was precious. It was part of who I was and who I would become.
My story includes the following ingredients: what led to the Holocaust, what life was like in Terezín, how survivors and their offspring were personally affected, and what this means to future generations. Of course, the story wouldn't be complete without some personal family melodrama, expressed in poems, recipes, travel notes, and essays.
Now, eighty years after the rise of Hitler, the world is losing its Holocaust survivors. As the survivors are dying off, we must never forget this shocking chapter in world history. Second generation survivors are the only ones left to bear witness for those who can no longer speak for themselves. I feel it is beshert (meant to be, destined) that I try to document, understand, and memorialize my family’s past. The experience has been life-affirming. So, I give you the story of my mother and her family, my own real life heroes and heroines, of which I am so proud. May their history never be forgotten, and may the world never know another Hitler.
PART I: THE HOLOCAUST THROUGH MY MOTHER’S EYES
MY BELOVED MOTHER, MIRYAM ŠAPŠOVIČ LEVY
Zorinka: "Mila, you've got to help me!"
Mila: "What's the matter, Zorinka?"
Zorinka: "Those boys over there are being mean to me! They're saying I'm too delicate and dainty to play dodge ball."
Mila: "Don't worry, Zorinka. I know how to handle those bullies. If they don't stop, I'll just bite them in the ankle!"
Mila was the Czech name of my mother, Miryam, and Zorinka was her older sister. (For more about Zorinka, see chapter 5).
My mother was born on August 2, 1931, in Chust, Czechoslovakia, a rural farming village in the Carpathian Mountains which was then part of Czechoslovakia but is now part of the Ukraine. Her given name was Emilie (pronounced “Emil-yay”) Šapšovič. In Europe, Jewish women had to have both a Hebrew and Gentile name. My mother used her Hebrew name, Miriam, as her primary name. In Czech, Miriam was spelled “Mirjam,” which people pronounced as “Mere Jam,” so she changed it to “Miryam."
Before World War II, my mother, her sister, Zorinka, and their parents moved to Prague, where they had a carefree and happy life. My mother was a happy-go-lucky, precocious tomboy, a wanderer, and a little terror! She took mischievous pride in identifying herself as “the smart one” whereas her sister was “the pretty one.” Her joyful memories of Czechoslovakia wove a colorful and vibrantly textured tapestry that included all of these: her love of music, singing, puppets, playing the violin, delectable pastries and chocolates, eating her fill of watermelon, going to the cinema, her love of school, and her parents’ love of Czech President Tomas Masaryk.
She often recounted a favorite joke she and her sister shared:
A young private first class in the army was being coached by the staff sergeant on how to prepare for an interview with the general. The sergeant instructed him as follows: First, the general will ask you, 'How old are you?' You should answer, 'Twenty years, general, sir.' The second question will be, 'How many years have you been in the army?' You should answer, 'Two years, general, sir.' The third question will be, 'What duty do you prefer, cleaning the latrines or cleaning the mess hall?' You should answer, 'Both, general, sir.'
The private memorized his lines and felt confident about the interview. This is how the interview went:
General: How many years have you been in the army?
Private: Twenty years, general, sir!
General: How old are you?
Private: Two years, general, sir!
General: What do you think I am, an idiot or a lunatic?
Private: Both, general, sir!
But all my mother's fun disappeared and her world shattered in late November-early December 1941, when my mother, age ten, Zorinka, age twelve, their mother, Fanny, age thirty, and their father, Ludvik, age thirty-six, were deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezín). On my mother’s deportation documents, her date of birth is listed as April 2, 1931 (a typographical error, as it was actually August 2, 1931). Her transport to Terezín was “M” and her prisoner tag number was 445.
In Terezín, my mother was a fearless little girl who would steal potatoes from the cellar and risk severe punishment, but who did it anyway. Her feistiness, optimistic outlook, and abundance of happy memories enabled her to endure the unendurable. Her artistic leanings became apparent in the drawings she did in the ghetto, which were signed “Mila Sapsovic.” My mother remained in concentration camp for four years, until age fourteen; her sister, Zorinka, died there of typhus at age fourteen. The four years she and her family were imprisoned there was far longer than most of the inmates.
After the war, my mother and her parents resettled in Prague, where she completed her education and re-established a life of normalcy. She sang on a radio station, Radio Prague. She spoke at least six languages: her parents spoke Yiddish and Hungarian at home, and she studied Russian at gymnasium (high school). She told me stories about Petrus, a math teacher she remembered with trepidation, who would give her nightmares! (Math was not her favorite subject [particularly because she missed four years of schooling]; she must have passed that gene down to me.)
At eighteen, she arranged for her and her family to get visas to Paris (see chapter 26). They spent a year in Paris, where she had a glamorous life of freedom, style, and admiration, a reprieve from serious responsibility. She enrolled and graduated from the Academie Coupe de Paris, a fashion/design academy, where she concentrated on fashion (the start of her lifelong love affair with clothing and detail). She had private French lessons, and even had a personal dressmaker, who doubled as her chaperone. In that year in Paris, she fully blossomed, and she felt beautiful and elegant. It signified the happiest time of her life—yes, even more than when she got married and had children. When she later spoke to me of Paris, she’d get misty-eyed and as giddy as a young girl. I vicariously enjoyed my mother's fondness for Paris.
In Paris, my mother also found romance. She met a medical student, Georges, a French Jew, who she considered the great love of her life. She did not marry Georges; he became a prominent psychiatrist (now retired) in California, and wrote a book about his memoirs of his boyhood in Nazi-occupied France. One whimsical chapter called “Miriam” is entirely devoted to his young romance with my mother.
Eventually, my mother and her family immigrated to America, the Goldene Medine, where it was said the streets were paved with gold. They moved to New York, New York. She worked as a buyer and window dresser at Delbeau, a designer clothing boutique in Manhattan, whose customers included celebrities. She got her GED and took some night courses in languages at George Washington College in New York City. She dreamed of being a translator/interpreter at the United Nations, but it never happened. She was an incessant reader, who read mostly novels (like mother, like daughter).
At age eighteen, she met my father, Erwin Levy, a German Jew, while she was reading a book. After a March-December whirlwind courtship, she married him at nineteen. He was seven years older and had a secure career; he represented stability. Having her parents living upstairs provided a built-in security blanket and a convenient way for her and her parents to look after each other. My mother (also known as Milushka, Mila, and later Mima and Mimi) was a sunflower by any name. She was a compassionate caregiver for her parents, an extremely devoted mother to us, and a very loving grandmother to my daughters and my sister Sharon’s daughter. No doubt she would have doted on her first great-grandson (my grandson).
My mother was extremely active; sometimes it seemed she could move mountains. She assisted my father with shipping and deliveries in his wholesale jewelry business. After my parents’ 1978 divorce, my mother worked briefly as a manager at McDonald’s and a chiropractic assistant, then for many years as a private nanny for young children. She was always very resourceful, had remarkable mechanical ability, and could fix anything.
Mom was good-natured when I (and others) teased her for her Czech, Zsa Zsa Gabor-like accent. Always the mimic, I’d say, “Vash de vindows!”--which always made her chuckle. Mom used to call everyone younger than herself “Sveetie,” which I thought was so quaint. She always smelled so good and loved to floss her teeth, primp, and collect cosmetics. Her wavy chestnut brown hair with reddish highlights was always colored and fussed over, as she went gray early. She was enamored of wearing colorful Hawaiian-style muumuus in the 1960s, which she'd put on after she took off her stylishly fitted shirtwaist dresses and sundresses. I would relish going into Mom's closet and wearing her pointy gold brocade high heels, the ones she wore with her gold brocade dress for my brother's bar mitzvah.
She instilled in us a great love of music, theater, art, culture, and education (which I’ll describe later in more detail). Like many child survivors, she retained a strong cheerfulness despite her emotional scars. She loved to laugh and sing, and she always had music playing at home. My mother’s sentimentalism was expressed by frequently listening to her beloved Czech opera, Dvorák’s Rusalka, which was about water nymphs, similar to The Little Mermaid. The storyline was tragic, as it is in most operas, but she enjoyed the agony as well as the ecstasy. She also loved the composer Smetana. She used to take pride in the beauty of Prague, and she colored our world with our Czech cultural heritage.
I remember she was bubbly and vivacious, and she was a gracious hostess. She was famous for giving the best birthday parties on the block. Her specialty was a platter of halved pineapples, with cut sections topped with mandarin oranges and grapes on colorful toothpicks.
Much to my amusement, my mother cultivated European stereotypes. One of my favorites was how she described a man’s ideal wife (or three perfect wives): “A Czech in the parlor, a Hungarian in the kitchen, and a German in the bedroom.” I’m sure you catch my drift!
At age sixty-eight, my mother met a man many years her junior, Manuel (Manny), who became her loving companion. They bought a co-op apartment and RV together. They loved to walk along the river, him playing the guitar, both of them singing, and watching their dog swim in the lake. They lived together for six years in a romantic, stormy, and passionate relationship. He was the main inspiration for a collection of over forty love poems she wrote, in a charming Lord Byron style, in the last years of her life. It seems fitting that near the end of her life she was reciting her own eloquent love poems. My sister, Sharon, intends to edit and publish these poems. Two of my mother’s poems appear in chapter 35.
Around age seventy-two, my mother began to suffer from various debilitating illnesses, but managed to have “nine lives” and always bounce back. My sister, Sharon, became her primary caregiver and helped her with medical, legal, and financial issues, as Sharon had done for our grandparents.
My mother never wanted to return to the land of her ancestors when the Czech Republic was Communist. Unfortunately, when Soviet rule was demolished and democracy restored after The Velvet Revolution of 1989, her health had begun a downhill slide, and she could not return. She became averse to travel in general, preferring to sleep in her own bed, remaining in her familiar comfort zone. As a guest, she never overstayed her welcome, preferring to relax at home and retire to her bed, her books, and her television.
At seventy-four, her health began to fail. My siblings and I hoped upon hope that our mother would last for months longer than she did. She kept any discomfort to herself, and, as always, surrounded herself with the people and things that had meaning for her. In her final days, I slept beside her on the floor of her room at her nursing home, and my mother (after being mute for days) said to me, “There are no words,” which is what she told anyone whose compassion touched her so deeply it rendered her speechless. She held on for as long as she could, seemingly for her children’s sake, as if to postpone our grief. Once we recognized that she was doing this deliberately, we gave her permission to let go. She peacefully passed away on May 22, 2006, at age seventy-four.
I still deeply mourn my mother. I am angry that she chose to neglect her health, and instead devote herself solely to the health and happiness of her loved ones. I felt that, with her youthful outlook and joi de vivre, she was too young to leave this world. I am disappointed that I cannot take her again to see Prague, which she so loved.
I am grateful that she did not live to see the death of her son (my brother), David, who passed away from multiple myeloma at age fifty nine on February 6, 2012.
I miss our long heart-to-heart talks on the phone or on her bed. I can no longer rely on my Mammeleh as a sounding board or reap her sage advice. Her wisest words to me came from a German translation: “Everything you say must be the truth, but not every truth must you say.” I try my best to do this.
I can’t bear the thought that she can no longer untangle my impossibly tangled necklace chains and audiotapes, rewire lamps, and make things work again. I miss her meticulous sewing alterations.
I have to be my own mother.
I still weep at the sound of Dvorák and gypsy music.
I miss shopping together for schmattas (clothing; it literally means “old rags”) and her treating me to lunch at a good diner. Understandably, she always ordered extra food and took the bread and rolls home, wrapping them in napkins and stuffing them in her handbag. She was always late, and she would always rummage through her overstuffed, bottomless handbags and junk in her “jalopy,” as she called it.
I miss her giving me birthday presents months early. Birthday wishes were traditionally given erev (the night before), and she’d also call the next day and sing me the birthday song or leave a singing message on my answering machine.
My sister, Sharon, wrote in my mother’s obituary in May 2006:
Our mother will long be remembered for her great generosity, her wonderful zest for life, her sense of style, beauty, and detail, her strong mechanical ability (she was known as 'Mima Fix-It'), her love of entertaining, her flamboyant hats and scarves, her beautiful singing voice and violin music, and her innocent and romantic poetry. She lived life on a grand scale, and she turned every day into a celebration.
My fondest memory of my mother is when I was a little girl and she and I would sit outside together on folding chairs in front of our house in Riverdale, New York (in the Bronx). She would knit and I would embroider, and she would feed me sliced oranges and apples. I had my own sewing box. Now I have her old sewing boxes.
For now, my tears are dried, but I think of my mother every day, and she will always be a part of me. I feel blessed to have had such a wonderful mother.
Sept 20 from 6-8 pm at Ye Olde Warwick Book Shoppe, Warwick author of "Legacies, Lies and Lullabies--The World of a Second Generation Holocaust Survivor," Esther Levy, will be doing a book-signing. Refreshments will be served.
Esther Vivien Levy is an accomplished artist of classic oils and pastels, a poet, and a creative soul who was reading and writing incessantly from earliest childhood, from the time her mother bought her a wooden easel at age three and she listened at her grandmother's knee to her Holocaust stories. This story has been inside her for her whole life, seeking expression. She always felt different from other Jewish American girls and American girls in general, growing up in Riverdale, NY with European parents and other greenhorn relatives, and living with beloved grandparents. She has traveled to Prague and to Terezin twice, putting together her legacy and validating her feelings of belonging to a vanished world, so that she could paint--with words--the story of her family's dark history. keywords: Memoir, Holocaust Studies, Nonfiction, Survival, History, Sociology, Biography, Inspirational, Holocaust