Stefanella's Drive Thru

Israel, U.S., conflict, war, peace, humor, travel, romance, fashion, fun

Only The First Four Hurt July 20, 2010

This past Holocaust Day I stood with head bowed during the moment of silence, attempting to contain the flood of emotions that washes over me each year when the sirens sound.  But this time as the wailing powered down, I had an epiphany: It’s time to get Uncle Irving’s history.


Uncle Irving is married to my dad’s sister Esther or Aunt Babe.  It’s been her nickname since childhood.  Growing up in Cincinnati, my Aunt Babe, Uncle Irving and my four first cousins were fixtures in my life: We dined together at our house on the Jewish holidays, BBQ’d and played badminton on the lawn of theirs on July 4th, the cousins and I went to the same sleep-away camp each year and we attended the same youth group.

When I needed information or immediate advice while both parents were at work it was Aunt Babe I phoned in search of answers.  For new gym shoes, socks or underwear it was off to the downtown warehouse Uncle Irving worked in & up to the top floor inside the creaky freight elevator to take my pick from multiple boxes and shelves of assorted wear-ables.

Whenever holiday dinners rolled around, though, my siblings and I were instructed prior to guest arrival:  “Put the dog in the laundry room.  Uncle Irving is coming over.”

We had been briefed numerous times:  Uncle Irving, a Holocaust survivor,  was frightened of dogs.   The Nazis had used German Shepherds to instill fear or attack Jews in the ghettos and camps.  And although we didn’t have Shepherds – ours were small Boston Terriers – we had to  enclose them regardless.

Uncle Irving had a whole bunch of “isms”.  He was super careful about the food he ingested, the utensils he used and the venues in which he was willing to eat.  He had a habit of inspecting all three for a measure of cleanliness only he could grade.  He would wake up at 4 a.m., his family joked, in order to arrive at the bakery doors prior to the 5 a.m. opening.  He wanted to buy his rolls fresh from the oven before anyone else had a chance to touch them.

Our mother told us his food “isms” were a result of camp survivors being forced to use the same container for receiving doled out “meals” as for collecting personal waste.

That’s what our Mom told us.  Our parents also shared that both of Uncle Irving’s parents and several of his siblings had been gassed to death at Auschwitz.  And we knew he hailed from Hungary.

But I never confirmed any of the stories with Uncle Irving himself.  Except for his Hungarian roots which was an obvious personal characteristic because he spoke Hungarian with his brother and sisters whenever they were together.

The truth is, decade after decade, nobody, including his wife and children, confirmed anything about the years he spent in the ghettos, concentration camps and hiding out  in the forests.  His kids and Aunt Babe knew he’d been through tremendous trauma but the unspoken rule was that he didn’t talk about his past.

And no one dared trespass into that realm.

As years passed and he moved to Israel with Aunt Babe to be closer to three of his four children and the grandchildren, the silent oath remained in place.  Even when his grandchildren worked on obligatory family tree school projects necessitating interviewing and digging, information regarding his past had to be gleaned from Babe.

But something shifted after Uncle Irving suffered a sudden bout of agoraphobia in his 60’s that kept him house-bound for a year.  Agoraphobia, I discovered while writing a story about 2nd Generation Holocaust Survivors, is common among survivors who have internally buried their trauma.

When he was able to leave the house again, he began disclosing bits of information about the past.  Seated at a dinner gathering, someone’s comment or remark would spark a personal story.   The family, starved of information thus far, would sit in silence absorbing the revelations. Or, upon discovering that a new acquaintance had also been in the camps, he would swap information in the presence of Aunt Babe or other family members.

The instances were random, unprovoked and family members were stunned but grateful when they occurred.  But they were the stirrings of something looming larger and as I stood with head bowed last April, it occurred to me that as a non-immediate, once-removed family member and a person who routinely interviews others for a living, maybe my uncle would talk to me.  I knew it was important to document his story and I also felt that this was something I could do for him and his family to repay them for their generosity and kindness throughout the years.

I live in Tel Aviv, about twenty minutes from Aunt Babe and Uncle Irving’s place.  In recent years I have been through some taxing personal times and Uncle Irving, Aunt Babe and my cousins have been staunch allies providing refuge,  advice, legal counsel, love & faith.   Uncle Irving even put up his house as equity on my behalf in a time of need.

And so I approached him with my proposition:  Can I come over and document your personal history?

And he agreed.

I spent several sessions talking with him, asking questions, probing and typing.  The sessions were not comfortable and he warned in advance that he would cry.  And he did.  At times he sobbed heavily into dining room table napkins.  I  offered to stop saying I could come back another time.  But he wanted to continue.

In the coming blog entries I will share Uncle Irving’s story because I believe that re-telling his history is as important as the documentation itself.  As I share, the above title will become clear.

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Missing in Action November 9, 2009

It’s another Ruth-themed blog entry day.  Ruth, for the uninitiated, is the in-her-eighties-woman at the Tel Aviv dog park I frequent who I’ve been fascinated with lately.

Ruth has spunk, attitude and sass to spare and I’d wager she’s the type who stocks vodka in the freezer for guests.  And if the guests don’t drink vodka?  She’d probably press a bill into her visitor’s palm and send him or her off to the corner store for an alternate libation of choice and some ice.

For the past few weeks, Ruth hasn’t shown up at the park at the usual hour.  And because her health is sketchy and she has already had one near-death experience, my ruminations have meandered to concern regarding her whereabouts or possible demise.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

As I climbed the stone stairs of the dog run entrance yesterday, Jacob, another octogenarian park regular, posed:  Have you seen Ruth lately?” I shrugged and motioned for him to join as I crossed the grass path to the stone bench beneath the orange tree.  I sat beside David, a middle aged regular whose dog is named Meeklee and whose American partner is also named David.

Have you seen Ruth lately? I asked him.

No & I’ve been worried.  I know that when she was hospitalized for a month, she put Jessie in the Dog Farm.  Maybe something happened to her and she put her there again.  Maybe they know something, David offered.

I had the Dog Farm number handy – Ruth had given it to me as a kenneling recommendation – so I dialed the number from my mobile phone and awkwardly explained to the proprietor that a group of dog park people was concerned over Ruth’s disappearance.

Did she bring Jessie there?  Do you know anything about where she might be?

The Farm owner understood the gist and said that Jessie wasn’t at the Farm.  But she offered up Ruth’s last name.

One call to information later, I was ringing up Ruth’s apartment.

Hello? a small voice answered.  I didn’t recognize the accent and guessed it might be the Russian caretaker she had mentioned several times.

It’s Stephanie from the dog park.  I’m looking for Ruth.  Is she there?

Yes, mamaleh (English: sweetie).  What is it you need?

Ruth?  Is that you?  We haven’t seen you in a while.  So a few of us are sitting here and we were worried so we decided to —-

Tell her the view’s not the same without her! Jacob interjected, the relief in his voice audible.  I think Jacob has a thing for Ruth, between you and me.   

Oh,  I’m fine.  I’m fine.  Thank you for calling, Ruth soothed and I could tell she was touched.  I don’t come in the evening anymore because Jessie gets into the garbage and eats trash and it drives me crazy.

I laughed aloud and David commented  Well if she’s laughing, everything must be okay.

Ruth, give me your cellphone number, will you?  Just so I have it.  And take mine, I urged.  We exchanged and then she said:

Thank you mamaleh.  Thank you for calling.  I come on Saturday mornings so I’ll see you then.  But listen, I have to go.  I’m watching my German mystery series on t.v. and I have to see how it ends.

That’s the Ruth I know.

 

GI Jane October 21, 2009

I have posted here a few times about Ruth from the dog park.

She’s someone I love running into because at 80-something, Ruth makes up in pep for what she has lost in mobility.  Bright red lipstick, carrot-colored choppy hair, manicured nails and a cane for support, she’s got that naughty glint in her eye that says: “I know how to work it and I will if need be.”

Last week when we met at the dog run, Ruth shared that she had fallen in the crosswalk earlier in the day while out with  her dog Jessie.

Oh my God! I reacted.

Yeah, came her casual replyI was like Jesus on the cross. Spread out all over the place.

Are you okay?  Did you hurt yourself?

Me? she countered wide eyed, gesturing toward herself.  No no.  I know how to fall.  I took a parachuting course years ago.

All of a sudden I felt a pang. 

Ruth parachuting!  Wow.

And I sort of had to squint in my mind’s eye to past-blast beyond the moment and conjure a younger Ruth bodysurfing on the wind.

Of course Ruth has a past.  But I had never contemplated it.  And being confronted with it in such a lively manner sparked within me a combination of awe and sadness.

It made sense that Ruth had lived a daredevil life: skydiving, avoiding marrying her boyfriend of fifty years, and playing the con artist.

But in facing the image of a younger Ruth, I was facing myself.

THIS is why I like her, I epiphanied.

I Scuba dive and windsurf.  I was thrown from a horse into a Mercedes years ago on a wild, midnight ride at Giza’s pyramids.  I’ve done my fair share of conning and as for amorous relationships with men. . .I’ll save that for another posting.

Ruth, I realized, reminds me of me.

With luck, I’ll be like her when I get where she is.

 

Conning the Cops October 4, 2009

I’ve posted here several times about “Dog Park Ruth“, the orange-haired, highly spirited octegenarian I have befriended at the popular dog run near my home.  This is the same Ruth who had a near death experience and chooses, for the sake of her relationship, to maintain a dwelling separate from her boyfriend of 50 years. 

Ruth always has at least one story of interest to share and several morsels of wisdom to impart when when we meet.  This weekend was no exception.

You know there were municipal officers here today handing out fines for off-leash dogs,”  Ruth advised as she spread her newspaper on the stone bench, placed her cane on the retaining wall behind her and sat beside me beneath the lime tree.  “The tickets are 450 shekels ($120 U.S.)”

Damn! I replied.  Did they get you?

“Me?”  Ruth responded, an impish grin appearing on her carefully made-up face. 

“First of all, they didn’t want to fine me.  They wanted to haul Jessie off to the pound because she was off-leash and they didn’t know where I was.   If that had happened, they would’ve fined me and THEN charged me a per-day holding fee.”

Wow!  Bastards!  I responded. 

“Nah, nah,” Ruth retorted with a dismissive wave of the hand.  “I told them they can’t fine me; I’m a pensioner.  It’s illegal to demand more than my social security pays me each month.”   Ruth was beaming as she continued. 

“Then I purposely looked sad and asked the officers: ‘What?  You’re going to take away my best friend?  The only companion I have in my life?  What will I be left with?'”

I chortled, clapping my hand to my mouth. 

You’re shameless!  I admonished with delight, hastily reminding her of the boyfriend of five decades and family members she routinely mentions in conversation.

Ruth smiled broadly, her red lipstick accenting gleaming white teeth.  I eat those types for breakfast.”

I have a lot to learn from this woman.