Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"MA SARAH" By Althea Wilson-Berkowitz- 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

By Althea Wilson-Berkowitz

July 1996

"Do you know who Hitler was?"

Ma Sarah, my Polish grandmother asked me this question as I visited her one summer in her bungalow in the Catskills, where she lived between June and August (the rest of the year, she lived in Sheepshead Bay, in a two-bedroom apartment.) I was no more than six or seven, and had been told that I should be proud of my grandparents, because they had fought against an evil man in a faraway land and come out alive— many, many years ago. I lowered my head and nodded. Hitler was the bad guy, and I even knew that he had a tiny, black mustache. 

"He killed my brother, my mother, my sister, my father. But thanks to God, I came to New York, and I had three beautiful daughters-- and your mother, a doctor! And now, I have eight grandchildren, kineinahora!"* (footnote- kineinahora literally means “the evil eye”, and is used to ward off bad luck).

I felt proud too, my very existence enough to be considered a triumph.

My cousins' other grandmother, who we knew as Ma Phyllis, sat with us at the table.  She rolled up the sleeve of her eggshell-colored silk blouse, and showed me the tattooed numbers on her plump, yet shriveling upper arm.

"Hitler did this to me."

I pictured Hitler himself, brow furrowed and mustache quivering, as he burned those numbers into her arm, Ma Phyllis screaming in pain. 

"It will always remind me of what he did. We were starving for many years, but I returned to Hungary, and I bought many cakes, the fanciest cakes I could find, from every bakery. I can tell that you like cake, am I right, Maidele*?" (footnote: Yiddish for “little girl”)

She pinched my arm, and then my cheek, a habit of my grandmother's contemporaries that I despised. I wrenched my arm away, and glared at her, holding back tears at the insinuation.

The grandmas laughed, and loaded a piece of apple cake onto a paper plate for me.

"Eat!" I was told, and I did. So did Ma Sarah, looking radiant and euphoric, dyed golden hair shining, red lipstick all over the rim of her white porcelain teacup, her cleavage overflowing from her blouse. 


July 2011

15 years later, after my sophomore year of college, I crash at Ma Sarah's two-bedroom apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, for most of the summer. I stay on the fold-out couch in her living room, her West Indian home attendant, Wendy, occupying the spare room.

During the days, I venture out of the apartment, wandering around the bay where I feed stale bread to the swans, and spend hours practicing my Italian by engaging in overly intimate conversations on Skype with a trainee lawyer from a slum outside of Naples. Within weeks, I am to depart for my junior year abroad in Florence, and I am overcome with passion for my unmet correspondent.

I play cards with Ma Sarah for at least an hour each day, the same game of Rummy over and over again. She knows I am her granddaughter, but can't quite recall which of her daughters is my mother. 
"Malkele,* I like that dress. But be careful, because it is minimizing," she says, indicating my chest. (*footnote: Malka, my middle name, means “queen” in Hebrew, and so “Malkele” translates to “little queen.”)

"What bra size are you?" she asks, for the hundredth time.

"32C", I inform her, patiently.

"Oh! Mine is MUCH bigger!" she exclaims. "38E!"

I nod, impressed.

"So tell me," she says, leaning forward. "Did you get your period?" 

Now 20, I have been asked this question regularly for years, usually immediately after Ma Sarah beats me at Rummy. I am too bored of the game, at this point, to put any effort into winning. I pick up and discard random cards, until Ma Sarah puts down her winning hand. 

Some nights, I hear screams through the wall between the living room and Ma Sarah's bedroom. Blood-curdling shrieks, hysterical coughing, and sobs, escaping my grandmother's throat in wretched and strangled spasms.

I stand in her doorway while Wendy tries to shake her awake in order to give her sedatives.

Ma Sarah stares wide-eyed and vacant, looking right through me.

"NOT MY SISTER. Please, LEAVE me alone! They killed my mother! My beautiful mother! Suffocated! My sister, she was so smart, so good.  How could you do this? I curse you, I spit at you, you animals!"

Wendy has to hold her feeble arm still and her mouth shut as she thrashes wildly, trying to reject the pill forced into her mouth, to elbow the woman trying to help her.

I remember the written account of Ma Sarah's I have read, her self-published memoir, and I know the very moments she is remembering. 

Upon her arrival at Auschwitz from the Lodz ghetto, her younger sister, Mirka, and mother, Cipa, were selected for extermination, while Ma Sarah was deemed fit for slave labor. They were sent in opposite directions, and thus were parted forever.

At the end of the war, in the first days of her liberation, Ma Sarah freely roamed the grounds she had been imprisoned and starved upon. A British soldier named Tommy took a liking to her and took it upon himself to restore her to health and beauty. They took walks together each day, Ma Sarah eating the chocolates and cakes he gave her from his army rations and smoking the cigarettes he brought her.

They passed by some of the Nazi guards, now prisoners of war, and Ma Sarah recognized one who had been particularly violent. Ma Sarah, suddenly free and on the winning side, walked up to him, and stood facing him directly through the wire fence that had previously confined her. She spat hard, right in his face, and he stared unflinchingly and defiantly back at her, refusing to submit to my grandmother's insult.


November 2016

I'm now 26, and on the way to Ma Sarah's apartment with my mother. A box of perfectly undercooked brownies are on my lap, and after months of depriving myself of all sugar, I devour three in a row, with a wolf-like appetite.

"Enough!" My mother chastises me. I glare at her, since she herself had pressured me into "at least trying" a brownie. The women in our family treat chocolate like a drug. Ma Sarah, in her old age, doesn't go a day without requesting chocolate about twelve times, all while vigorously refusing the soft foods that her home attendants prepare for her.

"Can I have a piece of chocolate?" she asks.

"No, Ma Sarah, not 'til you eat your fish and noodles," she is told. Either she cooperates, or screams, "I don't want it! Give me a piece of chocolate!"

She asks me the same question, but in a hushed voice, "Malkele, can I have a piece of chocolate?"

She has learned that visitors are more likely to supply her addiction, and sure enough, I always break her off a few squares of the Cadbury milk chocolate usually occupying an entire shelf in her fridge. I put it into her mouth, because her hands shake. Chocolaty saliva drips from the corners of her lips and I wipe it, trying to play the role of dutiful granddaughter well enough to undo my guilt about not visiting more. Now 92, Ma Sarah has no recollection of who I am, and little of my mother either. I visit less than once a month. Although my grandmother and I both live in Brooklyn, she feels as distant as someone as far away as Europe.  Or rather, someone who lived in Europe nearly a century ago, who has no conscious thoughts about which cocktail bar has the most enticing egg white cocktails, or whether ordering Seamless from a Thai restaurant with fewer than 4 stars on Yelp is a good idea.  

Ma Sarah seems to me a relic from a coldly exotic world. 

She was born in Lodz, Poland, in August of 1924, the daughter of a textile factory owner from Bratislava.  She fell asleep each night staring at a ceiling that an artist had painted with murals of clouds, and grew up in an observant yet “modern” family, as she told me while I was still in middle school. 

“Malkele, did you know that my father was a very modern man? Once, I went inside his closet, searching for a coin or a piece of string, and do you know what I found? Condoms! It was so much fun blowing them up like balloons, and, can you imagine, he found me like this. But, he wasn’t mad at all. He was such a good man, what a tragedy that Hitler killed him. When he would return from a business trip, he would bring a beautiful wool coat for me, and one for the maid too. He was very shrewd, and knew that it was important to always treat servants as well as his own children.”

Even as Ma Sarah lost her memories, steadily, and in reverse chronological order, this value stayed true. She always thanked her attendants for bringing her anything she could recall asking them for, and later, she really began to treat them like family, telling them “I love you, give me a kiss!” countless times throughout the day. This was especially heartwarming, considering that Ma Sarah came to this country having barely seen a black person before, and without the most favorable impressions of them. 

“Schvartz-eh!”, she used to hiss, clutching her purse protectively, if a black person passed by her on the sidewalk. Now, she spent day and night in the care of a West Indian woman, who she kissed goodnight. Occasionally, Ma Sarah would make a passing racist comment about “the schvartzes,” usually expressing a suspicion that "they" may steal her jewelry, but there wasn’t much to do besides cringe, and hope that they couldn’t understand the Yiddish word for “negroes.” 

Circa 1999

I remember accompanying Ma Sarah to her poker club as a kid, and watching her eat two or three small plastic cups of chocolate pudding while she sat at the card table. After we arrived back to her apartment, she opened her purse, taking out half a dozen cups of pudding that she had apparently nabbed from the event.

"Malkele, eat!" she ordered.

At 10 years old, I was already pushing "chubby." My parents routinely showed me the pediatrician's growth chart in order to let me know that I was at the very lowest percentile in the height category for my age group, while I was an entirely average weight in comparison to children my age of every height. I had no trouble understanding what this meant; my weight was above average for my height, a deep shame. This should have been no surprise, considering that I was often left unsupervised after school, and took this opportunity to devour Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips by the mouthful, filling my cheeks up with as many as I could fit, in an effort to imitate chipmunks collecting acorns for the winter. I would then savor the melting glob exploding out of my mouth until I managed to swallow all of it, although sometimes I would drool some of the mixture down the kitchen drain so as to limit my calorie consumption. 


July 2011

Another night, Ma Sarah wakes me again with terrified screams, and again, stares blankly, in the midst of a waking nightmare she can’t be roused from. 
"Where is Daddy?!” she asks frantically. “He went out to drop Shelly off at school, but he never came back. “ 
“Maybe he went to shul*?” (footnote: Yiddish for Synagogue)
I didn’t have the heart to inform her again of her husband’s death, and of the fact that my mother, Shelly, was now in her early 60's, no longer needing to be picked up from school. But, as she looked at my face imploringly, I had to tell her. “Actually, he died three years ago."
“Oh, that’s right,” she replied nonchalantly, as if I had instead reminded her of my age, or bra size.
She pointed to the ceiling, indicating his presence in the heavens above.

“You know, Hitler killed him! He was such a good man, and I loved him with all my heart. When will he be back?” she implored. 

I had no answer for her. “Soon.” I said, as her tranquilizers started to work. 

“I will always miss my father very much.” she said, as she gave in to the tranquilizers, and fell into the dead sleep that I hoped gave her relief.


Ma Sarah had suffered anxiety and extreme claustrophobia ever since the war. She always chose stairs rather than elevators, refusing to wear a seatbelt in cars, as they gave her a feeling of confinement. This fear could well have been fatal.

In the summer of 1998, Ma Sarah got a ride with a fellow resident of her bungalow colony to refill a prescription at a pharmacy in a neighboring town. On the way back, on 17A in upstate New York, the driver swerved to avoid hitting a deer, crashing into a ditch. The other three passengers were unharmed, all safely strapped in, badly shaken, but uninjured. Ma Sarah, however, had flown out of her seat, slamming her head into the car's windshield, suffering a concussion and internal bleeding into her brain. She had always despised any confined space, a fear we attributed to the infamous train ride taken from the Lodz ghetto to Auschwitz, when around 200 Jews were crammed into a cramped and overheated cattle cart, spending over 24 hours without access to bathrooms or water. During that ride, Ma Sarah recalled speaking with her mother, extremely frail and jaundiced, for the very last time. During the conversation, Ma Sarah expressed pity towards a fellow passenger who had recently lost her mother. Cipa, my grandmother's mother, stated that the girl was luckier than they were; the death of her mother no longer impended, but had already come to pass.

After her car accident, Ma Sarah seemed to recover. She returned home, and seemed to go about her business as usual. When we visited her, she served us soup like always, but it didn't feel the same. She gave us dirty spoons, crusted with old food, and frayed paper napkins, caked with the browning remnants of previous meals, that she had stored back in her cabinets after using.

"Eat!" she commanded.

For once, I disobeyed her, as I had lost my usually ravenous appetite. I shrank away and told her that I wasn't hungry. After that, I never again ate in Ma Sarah's kitchen. I watched her, as she was fed Farina, pureed soup, or, later, Ensure through a straw. The nutrition was enough to keep her alive, but feeding her was a fight, as she no longer had any desire to be fed. She either complied, and only small dribbles of food would drip from the corners of her mouth, or she would resist, forcefully expelling whatever liquid she could down the front of her nightgown. 

After the war, Ma Sarah, then 21, was sent to a convalescent home in Sweden, where many survivors were being nursed back to health. While in Stockholm, she took a train to a dentist’s office one day. Although she had managed to endure the tough war years, her teeth had not, and she needed to have them all pulled and be fit with dentures. On the train, she met a man heading to the same destination. Fifteen years her senior, at 36, he was very handsome, with a quiet yet stoic demeanor. They fell in love, and were soon married, Ma Sarah wearing a brick-red dress she had sewn herself, eschewing white in light of the recent atrocities. 

Nov 2016 
I sit in the subway, wearing a pair of torn black jeans, black ankle boots, a tight black sweater I've worn hundreds of times, and a vintage black patent leather purse I had found in Ma Sarah's closet on my last visit. I had looked through her closet, curious to find any evidence of the person she had once been, and found meticulously labeled cardboard boxes, filled with wool hats, purses, and jewelry. Each handbag, as Ma Sarah called them, had a neatly folded white handkerchief inside and handwritten lists in her precise, capital letters:
Pick up dry cleaning
Buy apples and kleenex
Call plumber

I'm on my way to a concert about to be put on by my aunt, Ma Sarah’s eldest daughter, called "The Power Of Unity”. I’m not quite sure what to expect, and when I show up at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, I’m impressed at the turnout. The theater is completely filled, mainly with a mix of Hassidic and Modern Orthodox Jews. The lights are dimming, and an announcer comes onstage.

 “Welcome!”, he says, with the accent typical of Borough Park. "We are here because, we have worked hard with so many phenomenal Jewish artists, and we want to prove to you that “kosher” music can be so good that you really don’t need to go outside of the circle for good music. To start, we have a special treat-- the Holocaust Survivor Band!” 
He introduces the performers, all jovial and remarkably strong-looking, in their mid-80’s. The announcer went on. “This is why we are here-because these heroes never gave up. These gentle giants are the most amazing people here tonight, and it is in their honor that we have come together.”

The Holocaust Survivor Band performs a few traditional Jewish songs, finishing to enthusiastic applause. 

Next, a black Hassidic rapper partners with an Israeli singer on a rap song. “Ashkenazi or Sephardi, it won’t matter to a Nazi,” he spits into the microphone. Heavy electronic beats back him up, and lights flash in every color. A group of 10 or so backup dancers, dressed in the male Hassidic uniform, perform choreography that fuses break dancing with traditional Jewish moves. 

The crowd goes wild, 25-year-old mothers of three throw their hands up. Next, a sad song begins, lamenting the loss of the traditional Jewish mother. "Mamaaaaaa," wails the famed Israeli singer, a married father of three who I've seen flirting aggressively and drinking vodka with a pair of pretty 16-year-old fans at the filming of a music video a few years before. Already drunk, he had tried to kick me off the grand piano on set where I had been playing a Chopin nocturne, in order to show off his music skills for the adoring orthodox schoolgirls. 

A faded black and white photo of Ma Sarah at age 27 is projected on the screen. Newly arrived in Brooklyn, she has shoulder-length hair, a toothy smile, symmetrical face, and grinning eyes. The black and white photo and melancholy music induce such a strong sense of nostalgia that tears run down my face.  Ma Sarah has forgotten me, and I fear that I have forgotten her too, if I ever really knew her. 

"What was Ma Sarah actually like?" I ask my mother. 

“She was always very wrapped up in herself. She had absolutely no idea what was going on in my life. If I took a day off of school, because there wasn’t much going on, she would just say ‘I trust you, you’re a good student and know what you’re doing.’”

“But wasn’t that a good thing? That she trusted you?”

“I did know what I was doing – but that was because I had to.” 
My mother refers again to the recollections I have heard many times. About how she went to a private yeshiva rather than the performing arts school because Ma Sarah felt her poor drawing skills would have barred her entry to the latter. My mother remembers the yeshiva as poorly run, and her resentment for its sexist policies has never faded.

“My skirt at school one day was just slightly above the knee, and nothing like a miniskirt, may I add. Maybe it showed half an inch of knee cap. Those pervy rabbis, getting excited over knees?! Anyway, I was called into Rabbi Weinstein’s office, and he told me that I could either change my skirt, or go home. So, I went out to lunch, and didn’t go back.”

“But you went back the next day, in a longer skirt?” I asked. 

“Yep, pretty much.”

My mother also blames Ma Sarah for hiding important information about the family history. Not until at least 20 years after the events of the Holocaust, when her older sister interviewed her father for a school project, did his full story come out.

Before the war, my grandfather (who had many names: Zayde, Moishe, Moses, or Morris, depending on the context), lived in a small farming village that is now a part of Ukraine, but previously had been conquered by the Hungarians, and briefly, the Czechs. In 1526, the city was officially a part of Transylvania, and its castle occupied by the Prince of Transylvania until his death.

As my mother found out only once she was in college, Papa Moishe, as we called him, had had a wife, a three-year-old son, and a five-year-old daughter before the war broke out. When his son asked for a drink of water, a Nazi soldier shot him in the head, and his daughter and wife were gassed at Auschwitz soon after. According to my mother, Ma Sarah hated that she was “the second wife”, and didn’t want anyone to know that her husband had been married before.

Was this the same snake-like jealousy I felt when I would imagine any of my ex boyfriends in the throws of passion with any of their prior exes?  I would stalk through old Facebook photos, or, once, photos on an ex’s laptop, seething at the thought of a boy who I liked to think was exclusively and entirely devoted to me still recalling some previous girl not with indifference or disgust, but fondness or nostalgia— the horror! 

How did Ma Sarah feel when she thought about the prior woman, the one who no longer existed, who would have still been sleeping in a bed with her husband if she had not suffocated on poisoned gas? I too would not have come into existence without the events of the Holocaust, including this woman’s death. 


In February, 2016, I visited Ma Sarah. It was a Sunday afternoon, and my mother and I had just finished eating chocolate chip waffles at my apartment. We had driven over to Ma Sarah’s, fighting the entire time over which radio station to listen to ("it gives me a headache!"), which side of the street I should drive on ("this is what happens when you stay in the right lane!"), and how much lipstick I was wearing ("you look like a clown!"). 

I recognized her house, as I had ever since I could remember, by the black iron horse, about six inches tall, adorning the white garage door.

We pulled into her driveway, climbed the long flight of concrete steps, and rang the doorbell. Wendy opened the door, and we led ourselves down the hall, through the kitchen, and into Ma Sarah’s bedroom. She sat in her reclining brown pleather hospital chair, wrapped in pastel-colored blankets. She was not wearing her dentures, so her lips sank inwards towards the center of her mouth. Her green eyes were open wide, like an owl’s, I thought. She looked so very diminished, her sagging skin empty, as though most of her fat had been drained, making her appear more deflated than thin. 

“Look who’s here, M’Sarah!” said Wendy. “Your granddaughter, Malkele, and your daughter, Shelly!” 

Ma Sarah glanced at us blankly, and turned back to Wendy.

“Put me in bed!” she yelled, with the frustration of someone who had asked for something hundreds of times, and been ignored each time. 

“Not now, Ma Sarah, after you visit with your family,” Wendy replied, ever patient.

Ma Sarah turned to us instead.

“Help me! I want to go to bed!” she pleaded.

Wendy had left the room, and my mother lingered in the hallway.

I tried to comfort her. “In a minute, Ma Sarah, Wendy will put you in bed.”

Ma Sarah opened her mouth, and screamed, a short, raspy, choking shriek. She screamed four times in succession, and lifted her arm, hitting herself as hard as she could in the head, fist closed, four times in a row. 

My mother ran towards her, restraining her arm, and begging her to stop. 

“Ma, what are you doing?! Why are you hurting yourself?” 

Wendy stepped in, calmly taking Ma Sarah’s hands, and speaking to her just the way I hear the Park Slope nannies from the Caribbean talking to their blonde, two-year-old charges.

“Let’s not hurt ourselves, M’Sarah. I’ll put you to bed in juuusssst a minute.”

Ma Sarah opened her mouth, and screamed, again four times in a row, her eyes wide and confused.

This weakness, breaking apart a woman who had always seemed invincible, struck me as more imposing than all the strength I had ever fathomed she possessed. The Historic Ma Sarah had survived every disease, injury, and desecration of self imaginable, yet even her gradual and incurable undoing seemed more mythical than actual. 

My mother and I stood side by side, gripping each other as we watch her in horror. My mother broke into a minute or two of hysterical sobs, and I held her tightly, as if we were staring up at a rising wave gaining fifteen or twenty feet in height. The urge to escape hit us both, and we unspokenly agree to leave immediately. My mother tried to kiss Ma Sarah goodbye, my grandmother raising her fist again, defensively pushing my mother’s sharp collar bone.

“Are we boxing again, M’Sarah?” Wendy asks cheerfully.

I thank Wendy, closing the screen door behind us, and preparing to reenter the Brooklyn that my grandma did not live to see.

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