Mothers

Beshert - It Was Meant to Be: Part One
Chapter III

(Warsaw, Poland, April 1917 - November, 1939)

Dedicated to our mother's brothers and sisters: 
Adek, Pola, Sala, Andzia and Sevek, and to our father's
family: his parents Itzyk Ejbuszyc and Ita
Grinszpanholc, his sisters Dora and Bluma, his brother
Szya.

 

Part One - "At the Mercy of Our Luck"


On April 14, 2008, the original manuscript of  "Beshert - It Was Meant To Be" was added to the permanent archival collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D C.

Copyright Written in 1976 by Roma Talasiewicz-Eibuszyc
Copyright  Translated from Polish in 2007 by Suzanna Eibuszyc
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be used or reproduced without written permission of the Author/Rights-Holder:

Suzanna Eibuszyc
suzanna@chsoft.com


CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER THREE 
I try to be brave as I age.  The young doctor I saw today smiles and pats me on the shoulder.  As I watched him write the prescription for a new arthritis medication, I thought about the words I used minutes before to impress him with my discomfort.  It amazes me when I consider, with all I have been through that my minor ailments now take on such proportions.  

It is night.  I sit by the window waiting for the pills to take effect and I think of my mother and her pain, and her bravery. 

My mother started going through menopause when I was ten, although at the time I knew not of such things. I did realize she was going to the doctor almost every week. All she said was that her left hand hurt.  My mother, who was usually so calm and in control seemed to be suddenly nervous and anxious about almost everything.  

I remember that Friday, so many years ago when the dark cloud descended on our little family. I was going with mother, as I usually did after school to the open market to do our big shopping for the week.  It is difficult to explain but she looked different that afternoon.   I told her that my teacher made an example of my homework in Polish class again today and she nodded and looked away as though she had barely heard me.  Her face was pale and drawn as she waited for me to finish my afternoon snack of tea and a slice of bread and butter.  Sometimes I think that if I had said something, anything about my concern that day I might have been able to change the course of events that were to follow.  That is the emotional me talking.  The intellectual part of me says that a ten year old girl could not have offered to go to the busy market alone, or even had enough courage to suggest we stay home. 

That Friday she did not rush through the aisles, grabbing the vegetables and smelling the fresh produce she usually did.  She walked slowly, as if in another world, haphazardly put things in our baskets with little interest.  As we walked back home I remember thinking, for no real reason other than a sense of gloom, that I might never do this with my mother again. 

 As soon as we got home mother lay down and fell asleep. As this was the beginning of Shabbat we didn’t know what to think.  We lit a candle at sundown and ate whatever was available without cooking. We waited in vain for mother to wake up.  

The next morning mother’s left hand and leg were paralyzed.  Adek ran to bring a doctor. He came, quickly examined her and said that a vein had burst in mother’s brain. Mother had suffered a stroke.  She was unconscious when the ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital. The doctor was still with us as we watched the stretcher slide into the ambulance.  The kindly doctor’s face was so serious.    I can still hear his words as another great tragedy made its way into our lives again. “There is nothing I can do for your mother.”

  As mother was considered to be in critical condition, the Jewish Hospital allowed one of us to be with her every day in the afternoon.   From early morning until after lunch, the doctors made their rounds. Some of them were Jewish, some were not but I thought I could see the sympathy in all their eyes when they looked at my relatively young mother and then at us.  Since families of the critically ill could visit, Andza left work early every day to take care of mother at the hospital.  On Sundays the six of us stood around her bed helplessly. She just lay there, unable to move.  All I could do was hold her hand and cry.  

Our precious little home, our lives fell apart.  We stopped smiling. Most times we each sat in our own corner with our heads down. The only sound was that of muffled sobs.  It was summer but in the overwhelmingly sudden situation I was cold all the time. We were soon disheveled-looking. For two weeks we ate only bread and drank tea. I know that we were all secretly hoping that mother’s health would improve.  We were waiting for a miracle. Not only did the miracle not come, but mother’s condition got worse.   From being immobile and on her back she developed open wounds, and because she was not able to call for help, some nights she lay in her own urine.  Although the hospital did not have enough staff, they were strict about not letting families come in to help at night.  When he realized that her constant moaning was the result of the pain from her open wounds, Adek made the decision to bring mother home.  

The ambulance people carried mother up the steps on a stretcher.  Although her overall condition was the same, with no movement or words, her presence, in our home eased my heart, at least for a while. 

Our immediate concern was to heal mother’s infected bedsores.  Adek bought a large rubber tube that mother could lay on so that her sores would be exposed to the air.  Andza washed the sores daily and dried them with powder.  After three weeks mother’s sores healed, and I was able to breath again. 

 Andza, who was sixteen years old then quit her job and stayed home to spoon-feed mother three times a day and give her the medicines that kept her alive.  The money my other siblings were earning went to keeping mother comfortable and to buy those precious pills.  The doctor put mother on a special diet because everything she ate had to be easily digested.   She was allowed only bread that was made with eggs and milk, fresh milk and kefir.   For the first time there were bananas and oranges in our room.  She also had to drink special herbal teas that could only be purchased at a pharmacy. 

It didn’t take long for my little ten-year-old mind to register that I no longer had a mother.  I can not put into words what an earth-shattering loss I suffered with this realization.   Although mother was physically there in the bed, and as I had to take care of myself in all ways, I soon came to see that I had lost my mother. My brothers and sisters could not replace her.  They could not give me the motherly love I craved. Most girls have a special bond with their mothers; mine was beyond special, and it was broken abruptly and forever.    I wanted so much to have her hug me just once, to say a few words of comfort. Over and over I sat on her bed, kissed her and begged her to talk to me. She didn’t say a word.  

We were poor again although a doctor was sent from the hospital for free to examine mother every week.  Dr. Kozlowski was a tall, Polish army doctor. All the neighbors were frightened as he walked through the courtyard dressed in his uniform. A long sword, shining like silver hung from his side.  Dr. Kozlowski was a compassionate man. My brother heard that he worked at the Jewish hospital because he had a heart.  Each time he’d look at mother on her bed, then at the rest of us gathered at the other end of the room, he’d say, “I really want to save your mother, but there is nothing I can do. There are no medications to reverse her condition.”  

Taking care of mother left Andza totally overwhelmed.  The job was so exhausting for her she could do nothing else.  Everything around us was neglected.  As cooking and washing properly were out of the question, I was dirty and hungry most of the time.                                           

It was Adek who made the next big decision.  Pola, who was twenty years old, would now take care of mother and the chores.  Andza went back to work.  It was a smart decision as it was immediately apparent that Pola was better equipped for the job.   She was able to take care of mother, cook for all of us, do the washing and keep the room clean. My job was to help Pola after school.  I washed dishes, took out the garbage and washed clothes; I did everything that Pola asked me to do.

At home my life and future seemed dark and hopeless. It was only during school hours that I found myself able to escape my awful reality.  As a result I always was at the top of my class even with mother lying silent and paralyzed back in our room.   I learned without having my own books. I borrowed what I needed from my classmates.  I didn’t even have a schoolbag for my notebooks.  One day Andza who was a seamstress greeted me after school with one she made for me out of fabric.  It was a wonderful surprise; a colorful bag to carry my notebooks, dry roll and the five groszy I needed to buy a sour pickle.   

Dinner at home consisted of soup with an occasional piece of meat. Pola divided the meat among my older, working siblings. I got the bone.  I remember licking that bone and trying to feel grateful.  I never did ask for anything more.  I never complained. I chose to be happy with what I had.
                                    
At home, things did not change for four years.  Our siblings worked from early morning till late at night while Pola and I took care of mother and the house chores.  Every day I came home right after school so we could get ready to work on getting mother to sit up in her bed. My job was to lie behind her, up against her back to support her upright position.  Two years into Mother’s illness Adek did finally manage to get a padded chair somewhere.  We never asked questions. Every afternoon Pola and I carried our mother from the bed to the chair and back. Mother never regained her speech.  There were moments when she seemed conscious but most times she was like an infant, especially after she suffered a second stroke, and then a third one.

Mother died on a Thursday in May.  I was fourteen years old.  My brothers and sisters did not go to work the day before.  We did not sleep that night.   My brother went to get the doctor who gave mother her one last injection.  Adek sat at her bedside the whole night while the rest of us sat in a corner of the room.

It was five o’clock in the morning. The door to our room was open. The kerosene lamp threw threatening shadows on the walls behind mother’s bed.  I held my breath as strange black cat with blue eyes slinked into the room and ran under mother’s bed.   I wanted to scream but I couldn’t.  It was at just that moment that mother closed her eyes and stopped breathing. She died in Adek’s arms. 

I was the only one who saw the black cat.  It was not my imagination. My mind shut down as soon as I realized that mother had just died and I never told anyone what I saw.  I was sure no one would believe me.  However, even now I can see that onerous sign as vividly as if it happened yesterday.  I know in my heart that it was really the angel of death, in another form come to take my mother.                                                  

Once again unbelievable grief overwhelmed us.  According to the Jewish tradition mother’s body was laid on the floor with her feet toward the door.  Since it was Friday, we had until twelve noon to make the funeral arrangements. Adek took care of everything.  All I remember is that I cried and cried, and that a woman came to our room to sew a white cotton burial shroud.  During the two hours that it took her, she talked to us about how G-d gives and how G-d takes.  She said, “G-d comes and you have to go to a place where you forever rest”. She also said, “Children, don’t cry, soon a messiah will come, riding on a white horse and all the dead will come to life.” Her attempts at reassuring us did not work at all. While we were, of course, in the midst of a terrible, personal tragedy, we had also grown somewhat more secular in the four years mother had been ill. We certainly listened.  What the woman had to say surely reflected the strong faith that most people still had back in those days.

The images of mother’s funeral will be etched in my mind forever.  Before twelve noon on that dark Friday in May, we all came downstairs, single-file and dressed in black.  Mother’s totally covered body was placed in a black wooden casket.  The wagon waiting for us in the courtyard was covered in black fabric. There was an opening in the back for the casket.  The two horses pulling the wagon were also covered in black. Only their eyes were visible.  My two brothers were the first to walk in the procession behind the wagon. After them was Sala who was being supported by her closest friends.  Then, came Andza, also supported by her friends.  Our next-door neighbor walked on Pola’s side and I walked on her other side, holding my sister’s hand.

Mother’s brother and his children came to the funeral, as did mother’s sisters and their children. They had in fact come from time to time when mother was sick, bringing food and trying to comfort us.  The truth was that I was in such misery that it must have been impossible for them to help me. I can hardly remember those times.  I also know it must be difficult to picture today to those reading this, but the heaviness, the hopelessness in our room was such that people, even mother’s family came and went like shadows. There was nothing anyone could do. They left as quickly as they could while maintaining good manners.

We walked for forty-five minutes to the cemetery.  The horses pulled the wagon slowly while funeral workers dressed in black walked on each side.  Everyone was praying as we moved along.   Once we got there mother was to be washed and dressed in a special building. Here we had to wait depending on how many other people were being buried on that day.   

It took two hours for mother’s body to be prepared. She was dressed all in white, including white stockings and white cotton shoes.  Her eyes were covered with small ceramic pieces.  The grave was lined with wooden planks since the body was buried, according to Jewish tradition without a casket.  Covered with the white shroud that had been sewed for her earlier that day, Mother was lowered into the ground, Kaddish, the prayer for the dead was said over her grave.
  
There are still deep, raw wounds in my heart since that day.  It is hard for me to write about my mother’s burial. Even now, some fifty years later, the pen falls from my hand as I break down and cry once more.  I must stop writing for today.

Today I am back to writing but my thoughts are scattered. I need to grab hold of them but it is difficult. Yesterday I touched on deep feelings and emotions that I had hidden away for a  very long time.  It is a good thing that paper has patience, and will wait.

For the second time in my young life, black dirt covered my parent forever. On the trip back home all I could think about was that I would find mother still in her bed, that it would not be empty.  After four years of caring for her, there was no longer anyone to take care of.  It was a drastic transformation for which none of us was prepared.  We did not eat that day. My three sisters and I climbed into one bed and stayed like that, mourning in sobs throughout Saturday. Thankfully our brothers fared a little better than we did.  They took turns taking care of us, forcing us to at least drink some tea.  When Sunday arrived, again according to the Jewish tradition, we started to sit Shiva.  Shiva meant sitting on low stools or in a crouching position for a whole week.  Mirrors were covered. The only light in our room that week came from a candle. Family and neighbors came to pay their respects, and left.

After that tragic week passed, my two brothers and two sisters went back to work. I went back to school and Pola stayed home and took care of us.  A few weeks later I graduated from public school.  The year was 1931 and I was fourteen years old.  My classmates came to school on that last day with their parents. I came alone.  My siblings didn’t want to miss any more work   and risk losing their jobs. Pola rarely ventured out to public places. After six years of school and one year of being home-schooled [during the first grade], I graduated with a diploma and some small amount of satisfaction, but that graduation day remained forever one of the saddest days in my life.  At the end of the ceremony I stood proudly with my graduating class as we recited this poem:

“Life goes by quickly, like a stream runs the time,
In a year, in a day, in a minute, together we’ll be no more,
And our young years went by quickly into the past,
In our hears will remain a sadness, a void and an absence,
This is the last day of school; we will face many different roads,
Into the world we will go, taking our future into our hands”.                                      

Now my life veered into a totally different direction.  What I had dreamed of throughout my childhood was suddenly unattainable. I had to get a job.

It was difficult to find a job in Warsaw in 1931.  People got up as early as four o’clock to get the morning paper and look in the classified section for employment.  At times as many as a hundred people applied for one position.  Sometimes after a few days a newly hired worker was fired for no reason.  Reasons were not needed.  The ugly truth at that time was that working people had no rights.  Rights seemed to belong only to rich capitalists.
 
After mother’s death, our living situation remained the same.  We were determined to stay together.   As a matter of fact, we felt it was necessary for our very survival.  Adek bought a spindle machine for Pola and me and we started working at home. Our job was to spin wool onto large spools.  The owner of the factory where Adek and Sala worked since they were twelve years old gave us this wool.   Spinning wool onto spools was seasonal work so Pola and I did our best to work from early morning till late at night, sometimes till two or three in the morning.  We knew the need for this type of work lasted for only a few months and we wanted to make as much money as possible before it was too late.  We needed to save this money for a time when work was not available as there were no benefits for us, or the other workers.  When the season for wool ended we substituted silk thread for wool thereby making the season last a little longer. 

Beside my work at home, I carried dinner to the factory where Adek and Sala worked.  It broke my heart to watch how hard they worked in that small clothing factory. Pola continued with all the cooking and the house chores. Working with wool was difficult. Soon everything in our room was covered with a layer of white wool dust.  We did manage to make good money, and so we persevered.

Over time, our situation at home improved even though mother’s death still haunted our minds. I believe I was affected the most.  Looking back I see myself as a new flower with my petals just opening when a devastating storm suddenly brakes the stem.  I took orders from Pola who was very strict and demanding.  I did what ever she told me to do and never once objected to her commands. This was my life and this was how it had to be.  There is no doubt that our lives were a constant battle.  All of us were fighting, struggling to just survive in the best way we could.

I don’t know exactly when the realization came about but in any case it was suddenly clear. My destiny was to live a difficult existence.  Acceptance became my way of surviving in a world where hours and days slipped away without notice. My older siblings and especially Pola now made all the decisions about my life.

For my work I didn’t even get spending money and for some reason I didn’t dare ask. In the meantime I watched, as Pola went about doing strange things for those outside our immediate family.  At first it had to do with our uncle Motel who was mother’s youngest brother. Motel, who came to visit us during mother’s illness and often after she died, was a divorced man with three school age children.  He lived in the Polish section of Warsaw, owned a factory and a store selling fashionable ladies hats. He bragged about how he took care of his children, how he cooked, washed and cleaned his home by himself.

Motel came to our room every Sunday and Pola proceeded served him the nicest dinner.   As I said, this went on for many years from the time of my mother’s illness and after her death.  During those times my dinner consisted of a bone instead of meat.   I remember the many times I would be playing out in the courtyard when I saw my uncle running, not walking to our building.  The first time, I thought that something must be terribly wrong.  I waited a few minutes and went upstairs. To my surprise nothing terrible had happened at all.  There was Pola bending over Motel to serve him an ample fish dinner.  There was chicken soup with noodles, compote and tea.    My uncle was actually smacking his lips.  Thirty minutes later he thanked Pola and said he needed to get back to his children.   This routine went on for years. I never said a word but the resentment built inside me.  How Pola could be treating Motel this way when the six of us just barely got by and especially hen there were still many nights I went to bed hungry. My siblings were at work when Motel came to dinner.  They had no idea this was happening. I started to wonder if perhaps our Uncle’s dinner was served with just my sibling’s schedules in mind. I felt even worse when Pola occasionally invited not just Motel but her friends as well.  She fed them, gave them shelter, and always for free. On the one hand I heard the others say Pola had a very big heart and was good at giving to others.  On the other hand, this did not make sense to me at all.  There was no one to turn to, to talk to. In my misery I resigned myself to the way things were.

I must have been almost sixteen when I suddenly realized that even my poorest friends had some coins in their pockets, even if only for a small treat. Later as I looked back with some maturity, I saw there was something else operating in my sad, motherless life.  That something was so alien, so covered up it took years for me to accept that mother had protected me, even from my own siblings.  Education, as I noted earlier, was everything to mother and then to me. Sevek did go to school until he was thirteen.  As soon as mother got sick he had to leave his education behind. I was able to stay in school the longest and got the education none of my siblings got.  I wish I could say they were proud of me but in truth they did not understand.  I felt they were even resentful when they saw me reading a book.  There was a jealousy that seemed to be bound together with the resentment, and that together made my life miserable.  From time-to-time I was given an old dress, a coat, or a worn down pair of shoes.  I was trapped in a depressing situation that held no hope for a better future.
 

Beshert - It was Meant to Be is published here, in a serialized version, with the permission of Suzanna Eibuszyc.

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