Monday, May 15, 2023

The Shape and Contour of a Life

Every Mother's Day, I reflect on the many mothers who have influenced my life. My own mother has been gone now for almost eight years and yet she still feels close to me, embedded in my wiring. We often say, "may her memory be a blessing" and her memory has indeed become one.

I have always had strong friendships with women of my mother’s generation, something that becomes more difficult with time as so few of them are left. This year my friend Dora invited me to join her family for her Mother’s Day brunch. Dora is 99 and was born within two years of my mother. We have gotten together weekly since we met almost thirteen years ago. It was a connection of bashert (Yiddish for fate). We were introduced by two separate friends, one in Israel and one in my community. I was creating a website on the former Jewish community of the Polish town from which my grandfather came. Dora was born in that town. She survived Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen and later came to Minnesota after the war. 

Susan and Dora at  our show in Poland

We have traveled back together to our shared ancestral town. I showed artwork there together with photographs of Dora’s pre-war and ghetto life, photos that survived hidden in her family members’ shoes. On a weekly visit in 2020, just prior to Covid shutting the world down, Dora told me she had a little project for me. Now I should have been suspicious when she said “little.” There is no such thing as a little project, for me or for Dora. They always expand. She wanted to document her relationship with seven generations of women dating from her great-grandmother to her great-granddaughters. She sat between those two poles and reached out her hands to touch them all, from great-grandmother to great-granddaughter, she was the point of connection.

The following week the world shut down. After such steady contact with Dora for ten years, I wasn’t quite sure how we would stay connected, but that “little” project proved to be central to our evolving relationship. It also proved important in giving her a purpose and a connection in a time of great isolation. We set up a weekly phone call and, on that call, I interviewed her. She would talk and I would type. By this time, I knew much of her story. She had told parts of it on video when we were in Poland. Later she told me stories that I painted. Sometimes she used the paintings in her classroom talks as a Holocaust educator. I would interview her and show the image of the painting. She would tell the story. 

But this was somehow different. It was a continuous thread, from childhood through the Holocaust, the loss of family members, the chanciness of survival. She told me of life after the war in a displaced person’s camp and attending university in Germany, going to school with former German soldiers. When asked where she was from, she replied, “The east.” It was only when spring came and she wore short sleeves that they noticed the number tattooed on her arm. In 1950 she and her husband immigrated to America. There she found her way in a new culture, returning to school for a graduate degree, starting a family and a career, then telling her story as a Holocaust educator. It gave me the shape and contour of a life, one which was lived in a purposeful way, with intention. 


After we could get together again, we began to meet at her home. Rather than going out to lunch, I now bring lunch to her. Afterwards we pick up the thread of her story. We are often faced with the limits imposed by aging. Her sight is impaired, so we were reliant on hearing. As her hearing worsened, I improvised with technology so she could hear what I had typed to review and edit. I set up a speaker and used the speak option in Word in a male voice which was easier for her to hear. I would jot her changes and then add them to the version I had uploaded to the Cloud. Her grandson, a journalist, was our editor. He would read through it and make changes, move passages around and leave questions for me if something was unclear. I would pose his questions to her and send him a note back with her replies.

Dora in Warsaw at memorial to deportees

We are nearing the end of the story, writing a conclusion. There was a symmetry in recent events which speaks to the cross-generational theme of this project. Recently, I was at her home when she and her daughter were on Zoom to a class at the university where Dora talked of her experience during the Holocaust. A few days later she testified at the state Capitol in support of Holocaust education. She had been nervous going there. She had spoken to many large groups and never seemed to be ill at ease, but this time she felt the weight of what she was doing. There was a consequence that was important. She had to get it right, to make a difference. I got several emails that day from members of the press trying to locate pictures of her as a young woman. Her daughter, who was with her, didn’t have easy access to the photos and had referred the press to me. I sent the photos off and later watched her and the photos on the evening news. She was the star of the show, an articulate spokesperson seeking to make a difference for subsequent generations, for those great-grandchildren for whom she had written her story. 

No comments:

Post a Comment