This is July 9, the birthday of my late Mom. She was born in 1899 in a small town by name of Trinec in a part of Austria-Hungary that became a town in Czechoslovakia in 1919. She was the daughter of the successful owner of a general store who at one time or another had migrated there from somewhere east in Galicia. Based on his way of reading from the Haggadah on Pesach or Passover, it was clear he had been a Galizianer or native of Galicia and thus a very frummer yid or observant/pious Polish Jew. For reasons unknown to me and never discussed in family circles, he had left Jewish orthodoxy and become assimilated. His German was impeccable and his handwriting full of aesthetic flourishes. Between him and my grandmother Hermine whom we called Omama, they produced seven children, my mother being one of them.
My mother’s first name was Anny, a Germanized version of the Hebrew Channah, meaning “favored or graced one.”
My Mom deserved her name. She happened to be the most loving person I ever encountered in my life. This little blog is dedicated to her. Quite apart from the loving care she bestowed on my sister and me, she was an extraordinarily decent, empathetic human person who at any time would have been ready to part with the shirt on her back to help a poor person. Because this kind of goodness seemed downright dangerous to Edith, my sister, and me, she and I watched her to prevent her from giving away too much, impoverishing her own family.
My uncle Emil was a sort of black sheep in the family. Nothing he touched succeeded. In American terms one could have called him a loser. Needless to say, both his wife and his two children, my cousins. were aware of this. Otto, the older one, many years later confessed to me that there were evenings when his mother had no food to place before them and both he and sister Lydia went to bed hungry. It was not unusual for uncle Emil to ask family members for financial help.
One afternoon with Mom, Edith and me being at home before my father had returned from his law office, uncle Emil arrived at our apartment and seeing us children, sternly sent us to our room. Alone with our Mom he began pressuring her to give him her two beautiful silver candelabra she used to usher in the Sabbath on Friday evening, so that he could sell them. Emil was quite an operator and my ever empathetic Mom was easily twisted around his fingers. My sister and I listened to the conversation and became worried his scheme would succeed. When my Mom, persuaded by him that a sister’s duty is to help her brother under such critical circumstances, left the kitchen to fetch some paper to wrap the candelabras before handing them over to him, my sister, ever the courageous and smart one, stopped her and insisted she wait for our father to come home to approve the gift. Reluctantly Mom agreed and uncle Emil left empty handed. Yes, watching my Mom on this and other similar occasions was the smart thing to do!
What I related above was a family affair and trying to help a brother in need can be understood, of course, even though this occasion was not the first or last one as concerns my uncle Emil….
The bell at the apartment door rang and I, probably eight years old, quickly ran to open it. What I saw as I opened the door defies description. Never, no never, had I seen anyone who looked as terrible as the person who stood before me.
It was a middle aged woman and that is about all I could determine with regard to her belonging to the genus human. Portions of her nose and ears were gone and where her mouth should have been there was a gaping hole – no lips. Her hand, stretched out toward me in a begging gesture, had fingers that suggested either their arrested growth to full length or some other reasons that had impeded their growth because what I saw were mere short stubs. Her clothing consisted of dirty rags.
I screamed, banged the door shut and ran to my mother. My mother listened holding me tightly. I must have been stuttering incohesive stuff in my fear of that horrible apparition when the door bell rang again.
This time my Mom walked over and opened the door. I was scared to get anywhere near that door but I watched. I heard Mom exchange a few words with that person and then, leaving the door open and getting her purse, returned to the door. Several coins changed hands and to my amazement and utter consternation, my good mother in this transfer of money touched the leprous woman’s hands. Saying a few words to her and smiling she said goodbye and calmly closed the door.
Leprosy or Hansen’s disease in those days, was considered communicable by touch. Surely, my Mom could not have known that this was not the case. Her goodness, her compassion for this horrible looking creature trumped any fear of being infected by leprosy herself.
A third example I will never forget: from my earliest age on to this day I have liked eating meat. And of meat there was always plenty in our household. It had become a tradition that after Mom had given our respective portion of meat to each one of us and placed her own portion on her plate, she always cut her own portion in half and handed me that extra piece of meat.
A guest at our table must have noticed this somewhat strange behavior and cautioned my mother about the potential damage relatively large portions of meat might do to her son’s health, that is to me. To reassure herself that no damage was done by her behavior she asked our pediatrician, a certain Dr. Neuman, what he thought about her son’s craving for meat. Dr. Neuman obliged with the following advice:
“Mrs. Ziffer, if your son craves meat, give him meat because his body obviously needs meat.”
This satisfied Mom.
I left Europe for America at age twenty in 1947. Twenty-two years later, I returned to my parents’ home for a first visit with a wife and four children. There were tears of happiness rolling down our cheeks. That evening we sat down at dinner. Mom had saved up all kind of goodies for that evening. Life under Communism had not been easy. Proudly she brought from the kitchen a lovely meal with my favorite meat dish of Wiener Schnitzel. Each one of us received a generous portion and then, lo and behold, Mom sat down, cut her schnitzel in two and reaching over to me, now a man forty-two years old, placed her half schnitzel on my plate. I was flabbergasted but, well… also pleased.
A wonder-ful yiddishe mame! What else is there to be said ? After 22 years of absence, an extra half-schnitzel for her beloved son.
And so, on this her birthday, I remember her and wistfully think how wonderful it would be to have her present among us. You, the readers of this epistle, probably feel the same about your Moms.
Her name Anny, or rather Channah – “favored one or graced one” – was well chosen. She fully lived up to the meaning of the name her parents gave her.
Happy birthday Mom! I love you. – Walti, your son.