Excerpt: Looking for Strangers
I knew it was my mother when the telephone rang that morning, not only because she always called me around that time on Sundays, but also because I thought the ring sounded angry and reproachful.
“So, you’re really going to Belgium,” she said, wasting no time for introductory niceties when I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Mom, fine—thanks, and you?” I answered, and then told her that I hadn’t changed my mind. She repeated all the objections she had already voiced when I stated my intentions to search for the strangers who had hidden me during the war. She reminded me that it had been over forty years ago. “You were a child then; for you, it was nothing,” she told me. “You can’t possibly remember anything about that time; those people did it for money. What makes you think they’ll be glad to see you ? Besides, they’re probably dead by now.”
“I don’t care,” I replied. “I want to find out. I’m going.”
“Why are you doing this?” she asked again.
It was hard to answer, since I couldn’t even articulate to myself why the compelling need, decades after the war, to recover memories of my life between the ages of three and seven, the years of our separation.
“What do you want to find out? Just ask me,” she said. “Do you know how difficult it was for me to give you up, how much I suffered, always worrying if you were safe? You were just a child—you didn’t understand.”
I told her that was not the point, that this was not a criticism of her as a mother. But we couldn’t understand each other. I couldn’t figure out why my projected trip was so painful to her, and she couldn’t believe that I needed to reconnect with a past that excluded her.
As we talked, I pictured her in her housedress, sitting on her plastic-covered couch, the shades of the living room drawn against the midday California sun, her wig perched on the black vase on the dresser (she always took it of when she was alone). The table would be set, ready for the big meal she would serve at noon to her boyfriend when he came by to spend the day. She often called me when everything was prepared, the unmolded apple-lime Jell-O ring wiggling on the kitchen counter, the codfish steaks ready to go under the broiler, the soup simmering on the stove. She probably had her slippered feet up on the glass coffee table, waiting for him, leaving enough time to change housedresses, then put on a little makeup and her wig.
I didn’t think she would tell him about our conversation; this was just between the two of us. Suddenly I wished I were there, sitting safely at the kitchen table with her, with no tension between us. We had lived on different coasts for decades now and only saw each other twice a year; these weekly telephone calls were like an umbilical cord still connecting us after all that time apart.
She didn’t wish me a happy birthday, although I knew she hadn’t forgotten. It was the first time that she hadn’t sent me a gift or a card with money for the occasion. I always felt a little uncomfortable taking money from her at my age, especially since I knew that I earned so much more as a college professor than she did as a seamstress, but I saw these gifts as tokens of her love, and so I accepted the cash or the inevitable flannel pajamas gratefully.
Nor did she wish me a good trip but instead hung up as I tried once again to justify my need to go to Belgium: She and I had never talked about the unshared years of my childhood, maybe because they had been too painful for her. For me, they had not seemed important until lately. Perhaps because I was now in my mid-forties and knowing that I would never have a child, I wanted to retrieve the child I had been. Or perhaps I was like many people who have gone through a traumatic experience but do not speak of it until decades later.
I knew the facts: My mother and I had been separated during World War II and reunited for a few months when the Allies landed in Normandy; then we were separated again as the war continued and finally reunited for good sometime after the peace. I barely remembered those years, and my fragmented memories were like clouds constantly drifting, dissipating, and re-forming.
Who were the strangers who had taken me in? Were they still in the same Belgian village? Why did they take such a risk? How could I thank them? Had they loved me, and had I loved them? What had I been like as a child? And then there was the mystery of my father: What had happened to him after his arrest in 1942? All my mother and I knew is that he had been deported to Auschwitz and never came back. My mother thought what had happened was clear enough, but I needed to know more; I wanted to find out about his life there and about his death. I had learned recently that there were war archives about Jews in Brussels in a government building; perhaps I would find answers there. In spite of my mother’s disapproval, I was going to go to Belgium—albeit with more trepidation than eagerness.
To read more about Looking for Strangers, click here.