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Hila Stern knelt in front of the wheel chair, raising deep cerulean eyes to meet her great-grandmother’s rheumy ones.
“Why don’t you ever talk about your family, Grandma Lise?”
Were my eyes ever so clear? Lisebeth mused. Certainly no one in their blue eyed family had eyes with Hila’s depth of color. She seemed to have distilled the ancestral line in this as in many things. She was the most beautiful of the three great granddaughters, the most tempestuous and brave, the most histrionic, the most self-centered and willful. An excellent mathematics student, nevertheless she’d settled on acting as a profession. Her parents disproved and were insisting she study medicine or science, like her sisters.
Lise would counsel her grandson not to create a rift, if he asked. Support her, love her, and let her decide her own fate. Don’t make yourself the enemy, the world is enemy enough, she’d say. Though it was doubtful he would ask, Lise hadn’t seen him in almost a year.
Hila came often, rushing in unexpectedly, breathless with some news she had to tell, or a problem she wanted to solve. An hour from Tel Aviv wasn’t far, but life could catch you up, Lise knew, as it did other members of the family. Hila took hold of life and carried it to be examined at the foot of her great-grandmother’s wheel chair.
Hila’s tone demanded attention. Lisebeth suspected that very tone would wear her parents down and land her in the Habima Theater School.
“Yes, my dear?”
“Tell me. I want to know why you left Germany alone.”
“I wasn’t alone.”
“I mean without your family.”
Lisebeth sighed, she’d been generally successful sidestepping that question through the years.
“Perhaps some things are best left in the past, Hila.”
“I want to know about my great, great grandparents. It’s my history. If I’m to be an actress the more I know the better. It’s grist for the mill, as you are fond of saying.”
“So now I am to be a history lesson?”
“Yes, if you like.”
Denying Hila would certainly take as much effort as telling the story, Lise knew she’d face a barrage of pleading and drama. Still, her will was equal to her great-granddaughter’s. The important question was, why deny her? She’d hit on an excellent argument. It was her history.
Hila sat back on her heels, waiting patiently, exhibiting the good sense to allow her great-grandmother time and space without more pressure. That she did so tipped the balance. Lisebeth gazed at her fondly and began to gather the fragments, moving backward through the life she’d made with Aaron. Such a hard, good life! Back. Back to her childhood and another life entirely, one she had escaped shattered.
Hila settled onto the floor comfortably as Lisebeth began.
“We lived in Hamburg, a lovely, northern city not far from the Danish Border. We were a small family, Mother, Father, Jacob and me. My father was a dreamer, a philosopher. He taught French and Spanish at the Gymnasium, what you call a secondary school. I adored him. My mother had been a seamstress when I was young but she stopped working when I was nine years old and Jacob was born.
My father’s brother and his wife, Uncle Levi and Aunt Helen, lived near us. They were quite well off, Helen had been a rich widow, several years older then Levi. They had no children of their own and we saw them on Shabbat and often other evenings during the week, when my mother cooked dinner for the six of us. Uncle Levi was two years older than my father but seemed younger, what you call cool. He was an art dealer, clever, charming and very generous. He gave me a pony when I turned six, and he paid for its keep and riding lessons for years, until I grew out of it. We all loved him, my father respected him enormously. Aunt Helen was a sweet, delicate woman, also possessing a generous spirit.
My mother’s brother and parents lived in Berlin so we visited with them less often, once or twice a year. They usually came to us on Rosh Hashanah.
Altogether, we were a happy family, although of course, I didn’t think about that until later.
In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor things changed quickly. It was extraordinary how fast our world diminished. No more tennis club or symphony, no swimming or playing in the park, no street cars or buses, very soon we were barred from most all common situations where we might meet with non Jews.”
This was not new information for Hila, she’d been exposed to multiple stories of the Holocaust from early childhood. Nevertheless, she sat riveted with glistening eyes as Lise continued.
“My mother’s family immigrated to South America immediately. Her brother was a journalist who’d spoken out against Hitler. I remember my mother rushed to get to Berlin before they left and came home heartbroken, worried that she’d never see her parents again.
She and my father didn’t want to leave. They kept thinking they could wait it out, that it couldn’t get worse. In 1935 my father lost his teaching position and began to work for Uncle Levi. Levi had devised a scheme, dealing in approved German art, which he would export to France and pretend to sell to art dealers and collectors in Europe. It flattered the Nazis to think their dreadful artists were prized by other Europeans. They wanted to believe him, so, even though he was a Jew, he was able to carry out this plan. What they didn’t know was that he and my father were moving my Aunt’s art collection out of Germany hidden under the terrible German paintings.”
“They fit the good painting just so, inside the bad one and then framed them together in a thick frame. It could only be discovered if someone took the frame apart.”
“That was cleaver.”
“After a while my father did most of the traveling alone because Helen was ill and Levi didn’t want to leave her. In Paris my father would take the paintings to a dealer who used the German ones for their canvas, and sold the others. He brought a portion of the money back to the Nazi painters and some for Levi who needed to grease the right palms to keep the business going. He also brought back contraband for certain Nazi officers, but, my aunt’s paintings were very valuable, most of the money went into a Swiss account.
By 1937 they had been carrying on the scheme for almost two years. I was seventeen and like you, headstrong. Jacob was almost nine, a sweet, cleaver, handsome boy. I loved him very much.”
Lisebeth swallowed with a dry mouth. She’d been holding herself rigid.
“Could you bring me a glass of water Darling?”
Hila got up to get water from the bathroom faucet and returned, to sit on the chair across from her.
“It was such a long time ago but still it makes you so sad.”
“Yes, a long time ago,” Lisebeth smiled. “One day you will be surprised how short it is, really.” She took a drink and set the glass on the table. She liked her room in this home for seniors. She’d thought she wouldn’t but she did. It was full of light, with large picture windows from which she could see the garden. The facility was clean and very peaceful.
“One day, when I was a month from graduating from the Jewish Gymnasium with honors, they posted a notice suspending classes. Since Jews were no longer permitted to enter the university there was no point in graduation.
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it and I raced to get home. However, as upset as I was, I remembered to walk quickly but not to run, to use the side streets, to watch and be wary of being noticed. I got to the house and it was quiet. My mother was out, I supposed. I slipped into my room, crawled under the covers of my bed and wept.”
Lisebeth gripped the handles of the wheel chair, her heart pounding in her ears.
“Then I heard something. A moaning, like the sound of a wounded animal. It was something bad, someone in pain. I took up a heavy candle stick, the only thing I could think to grab, and crept along the hall. Silently I opened the door to my parent’s room. There I saw my uncle on top of my mother in the bed. Her eyes were closed and she was moaning, but not, I realized in pain. I stood still in shock, holding the candlestick like a weapon, watching them. She opened her eyes and saw me before I turned and left the room.
Very soon after I heard them walk past my door and then the front door shut. I met my mother in the hall. She clutched her dressing gown around her, pale as death, her eyes were frightened, like a child’s. Her fear fueled my rage.
How could you do that?’ I screamed. Don’t you know father is risking his life this minute for all of us? How could you betray him like that? Both of you! It’s horrible.
She stood quietly until I finished. Her lips drawn thin in a circle. When she spoke it came from a deep place in her throat, like an animal, threatened. I’d never seen her so.
You will not speak of this. You will forget what you saw and never mention it again. Or, you will destroy us all.
If only she’d cried, or been shamed, if she’d asked me not to tell and promised it would end, but it seemed she made it impossible. If I held my tongue I became a party to betrayal. Suddenly I hated her more than the Nazis, more than anything.”
“So, you told your father?” Hila’s concerned eyes searched her face.
Lisebeth nodded, slowly. “I met him at the train station the morning he came back from France. At first he didn’t believe me, then he seemed to let it in. We got home and there was a terrible row. My mother accused me of making it up because I fancied myself in love with my uncle. They’d cooked up the story between them. Uncle Levi came over and agreed that I’d been after him for months. He said he’d tried to put me off gently and then he had to be more forceful. When the school closed they said, something inside me had snapped and against all reason I’d accused Levi of not using his influence to keep the school open. I’d threatened to destroy him and had made up the affair with my mother. It was a good enough story. My father wanted to believe them and so he did.”
“My mother demanded an apology and when I refused to recant, she ordered me to leave the house. I appealed to my father but he shook his head and said it was between me and my mother. I packed a small suitcase, hugged Jacob, and walked out the door. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, there was a curfew at nine pm and I had nowhere to go.”
“What did you do?”
“A boy at school had spoken about a man in Copenhagen who offered young Jews help and a home in Palestine.”
“Was the boy Uncle Samuel?”
“Yes,” Lise smiled. “But then, he was just a boy I knew from school. I went to his house to ask for the information and he decided to come with me. We took food from his kitchen and started to walk that night. We slept off the road, in ditches or fallow fields during the day, once we stayed in a barn at a farm that looked deserted. Three days later we managed to cross the border into Denmark. I cannot explain the feeling of freedom. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever felt. We ripped off the stars on our jackets, running and yelling and laughing. We stopped at a farm to ask for water and they invited us in and gave us food and a bath and beds. The next morning the farmer took us in his truck all the way to Copenhagen.”
“And there you found Joseph Schiesel, who gave you maps, forged papers, and money.”
“Yes and put us together with three others.”
“Uncle Karl, Aunt Heidi, and Grandpa Aaron. The fabulous five who walked to Palestine.”
Lise had told the story many times, they’d walked from Denmark to Sweden, then Finland, across Russia and down through Turkey. The journey had taken sixteen months, people along the way had helped, many had become friends and the five of them had forged a family to replace the ones they’d left in Europe.
“Then you got here and you and great-grandpa got married.”
“I’ll tell you something you don’t know. I was already pregnant with your grandfather.”
Hila laughed. “So you had a nice little family right away.”
“Yes, too soon, but in those days things happened fast. It was Palestine, the Arabs were in revolt, the British were in control and then Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. We had a place on a kibbutz just outside Jerusalem. Aaron got up at five every morning to farm and I found myself alone with a baby in a little room while the world exploded into war. I didn’t want to stay in with a baby. The kibbutz needed drivers so I learned to drive. Then the British army needed drivers. By that time Aaron was fed up with farming and wanted to go to college. We moved into the city. I assisted the British army as a driver and he took care of the baby and went to school.”
“You were the founders, the pioneers.”
“After the war I worked in the British embassy trying to help Jews who wanted to stay in Palestine. That’s where he found me.”
“Levi, my uncle. He’d gotten very old, I almost didn’t recognize him. He’d come to tell me what had happened.”
“What did he say?”
“Not long after I left they all moved to France. My parents could have gone to South Africa but my mother refused. She wanted them to stay together. Levi agreed, he thought they had could make a new life in Paris or Amsterdam. Then Hitler invaded France. They tried to get into Switzerland but only Levi and Helen were allowed to cross, my parents had to go back to Paris. Levi said he would have gone with them but Helen was very ill. She died a few weeks later. He sent my parents money through his art dealer friend. They were hiding but he heard from them occasionally until 1942.
Immediately after Paris was liberated he went back to France. They had been discovered in late 1942, his friend had been shot, and they had been deported. He went from camp to camp until he found out how and when they’d died. My mother and Jacob very quickly, my father after several years at Dachau. Then he tracked me down through the British army.”
“It was all his fault.”
Lisebeth shrugged. “I thought so at the time. I was still very angry. Yet, it was the Nazis, not him, who made it a life and death situation. And, what business was it of mine, to tell my father?”
“What did he want?”
“He wanted to come for dinner, to meet my husband and my sons. He wanted to give us money and make life easier. I told him to go away and leave me alone. I said I would never forgive him. When he didn’t go, I picked up some correspondence and pretended to read it. He kept talking, even though I ignored him. He said he and my mother had tried to stop it happening but they couldn’t and he was sorry for what they’d done to me but very glad I’d lived. He said he’d loved both my parents, that he would have gladly given his life for theirs. Then he stopped talking and I knew he was crying. Still, I didn’t look up. I waited until he turned and walked out. I never saw him again.”
Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Davis Stein.