Bio Note: My most recent poetry collection is Outside From the Inside (Dos Madres Press, 2020), and my most recent chapbook is Escaping Lee Miller (Ethel Zine and Micro Press, 2021). My first appearance in Verse-Virtual was in 2018.
Now in her eighties, Erika sits in a chair in a circle of chairs to tell us her story for Yom HaShoah. “During the Second World War, the British took in ten thousand children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. I was one of them, sixteen years old in 1938. “I was scared, lonely, unhappy. When the blitzkrieg started, the bombs fell indiscriminately all over London. Then I felt better; I had wanted to be like everyone else, and now I was. “I never dreamed my parents were murdered. I didn’t learn until after the war. I was completely unprepared. The way I felt – it’s more than anger, it’s the deepest despair. I lost my faith in God. I’d made a bargain— I’ll get through all this, and You’ll reunite my family. “The bargain was one-sided. When I found out, it was Yom Kippur, 1945. I went to a non-kosher restaurant. The meal I ate stuck in my throat, but I wanted to make my point. “After Chamberlain and Munich, I remember my father saying, ‘It’s a good thing there’s no war. If there’s a war, they’ll kill the Jews.’ My parents might have known they were saying goodbye for good at the dock in Hamburg in 1938. “I was the youngest and they considered me useless. All my efforts were for them. I wanted to show them what I’d accomplished. In some ways I’ve never gotten over it. I think of what they did for me.” Erika’s daughter Kim says, “My mother was P.T.A. President and led the Girl Scout troop. She never talked about herself, but I knew she was different. When a friend said, ‘Your mom has an accent,’ I replied, ‘She does?’ my voice rising in a question, knowing and not knowing.”
“On September 1, 1939, when war broke out, I locked myself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. I was crying; I knew my world was ending. “We had a good life in Warsaw. My father owned a business; we kept two servants; my sister and I went to private schools. “After one week the city was bombarded from morning to night. Warsaw was beautiful, and it was completely destroyed. “No one knew at first of Hitler and Stalin’s secret pact. Soon the city was reorganized and the ghetto set up. “Young Jews were going to Russia. Before the ghetto was closed, my fiancé and I escaped across the green border to the East. “It wasn’t so easy. He was very smart at arranging things and on the black market bought me an original birth certificate of a person my age who’d been taken to Siberia. “I spoke excellent Polish because we’d spoken Polish at home. He and I lived in the suburbs of a city that was Judenrein. I looked Jewish but he didn’t. He had blond hair and blue eyes. “One day he left in the morning and didn’t come back. I still don’t know what happened to him. The Germans picked him up. They killed people for nothing. With men, it was simple, ‘Pull down your pants.’ “My parents perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. My sister died with her daughter in a terrible concentration camp. She couldn’t think like a person after her husband died in the Army in the short war. “He was wounded at the front and brought to a hospital in Warsaw. The Germans used poisoned bullets. His wounds weren’t mortal, but infections developed. “My second husband saw his wife and daughter killed before his eyes. There are things you don’t talk about or understand. Until the end of his life he screamed in his sleep and I would hold him. He was a good husband, a good father, a good man. “For a year and a half, until the end of the war, I survived on my own without means, with no family or home. I had a twenty dollar bill to buy my life if I were arrested. No one knew I existed. I believe I was fated to live; I don’t know why. “Truman is my favorite president because he let us in the U.S. after the war. In New York I found my cousin. She took me into her bedroom and showed me her photo albums. ‘Take what you want,’ she said. Can you imagine what it meant to me to have a picture of my parents?”
©2022 Anne Whitehouse
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