one last story

Mom is the pretty girl on the right

Mom died on December 1st, at 2:20 in the afternoon, New York time.

When someone you love is sick, and you call them to say hello, somehow, it doesn’t occur to you that this might be your last conversation with them.

Mine was about a recipe. Mom made the greatest stuffed cabbage ever, holoptzas, one of her specialties. I tried making it once, years ago, and failed miserably. In honor of Mom and the holiday of Sukkot, I was willing to try it again.

Her power of speech was already slipping, but I wanted to know if I had done everything right. She listened carefully as I went through my list of ingredients; cabbage, tomato juice, ground beef, rice. I remembered seeing prunes and grapes and apples, so I was throwing those in, too.

Mostly, she listened. Then she told me in a rusty voice that it sounded yummy, better than what she would be having that night. I probably said something hopeful and stupid about how she would try the next batch I made.

And then she corrected me. “Use brown sugar,” she said.

My mom was a woman of fierce courage, high spirits, childlike wonder, and boundless energy. I used to describe her as the best dancer in the whole DP camp. This is the last story she ever told me. I listened to it, spellbound, when I came to visit her in August.

From my knowledge of the area and the events, I think it took place in 1942, when the Germans got serious about the Final Solution. At this time, my mother’s family had left Wlodawa and was living at Adampol, the estate and lands of a Polish Earl seized by the Germans and transformed into a forced labor camp.

Though Selinger was an SS officer, and Commandant of the camp, he wore a suit and a hat, never a uniform. From the little I know about him, he seems to have been something of a failed Schindler. My mother tells me he treated her father the way any man would treat another man. He was in Poland to run a business, not exterminate Jews.

Over the war years, Selinger collected his favorite craftsmen at the estate. Time after time, he saved them from the Aktzias going on in the nearby town of Wlodawa just a few miles away, by warning them in advance, or hiding them at his estate. My aunt tells me he bought them another year.

It was nighttime, everyone asleep. There was a loud knock on the door. German soldiers with semi-automatic rifles were telling the Jews to raus, raus. My grandmother quickly told her four children to climb up and hide in the attic, a space under the eaves reachable only by ladder. The dark space was filled with drifts of leaves, used as insulation against the cold Polish winters.

Mom was frightened; she was just a little girl, only nine or ten, maybe less. She decided she would rather be with her mother, even if it was safer to hide in the attic. So she shook off the leaves and came to the trapdoor.

The trapdoor was open. The shaft of an automatic rifle rose up through the square of light, where she scared the daylights out of the soldier fearfully coming up the ladder.

The Jews were ordered to wait in front of one of the houses, under a gallery. Upstairs, they could hear a young man refusing to give himself up to the German soldiers. Mom heard gunshots, and then blood began to run down through the wooden slats above them, falling onto her coat.

For a moment, the soldier guarding Mom and her family regarded the blood dripping down onto the little girl; then he lifted his arm and gestured for her to move.

Suddenly, Selinger was there. Mom said he looked flustered; he had not been notified about any Aktzia. “Selinger,” my grandmother hissed at him as he passed. “Look, Soroka is here. He’s a good man.” The SS man snapped at her to be quiet, then spoke to the soldiers. Yes, they had orders. They were supposed to lead these Jews into the forest. The Commandant wheeled around and stalked off.

The soldiers collected all the Jews they could find, around two-hundred-and-fifty men, women and children. They led them down the road, away from the houses, into the impenetrable darkness of the forest. No one had any illusions; everyone in the region knew what happened to those whom the Germans took into the woods. My grandmother whispered to my grandfather that he should melt away into the forest; my uncle was still hiding in the attic. He could still be a father to one of their children.

A flurry of activity, and suddenly Selinger was there.

He strode purposefully to the front, addressed the soldiers and the crowd of Jews. “You’re safe now,” he told them firmly. “Go back home.” God knows who he called, what he said. Using his authority, he was able to call off the Aktzia.

No one believed him at first. They were sure they would be shot in the back as they went back to their houses. But it was true; the German soldiers walked back to the camp with them, got into their cars and drove away.

As usual, Mom told this horrific story without a trace of emotion, just reporting the facts.

At shiva, we sit on low chairs in front of the visitors who come to mourn my mother. I recount this story to my aunt Marcy, Mom’s baby sister. She thinks it was after this that my grandfather decided it was time to leave, to take his chances with the farmers. We both wonder what happened to Selinger. She doesn’t know, either.