Sam and Sarah Roth survived the Nazi death camps of World War II. They escaped the Communists after the war. Refugees from Czechoslovakia, they bore me in a displaced-persons camp in Germany in 1946. They made it to the United States in 1949, but they could not escape their memories and their ghosts.
The early years here for me were a blur of small apartments in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Kew Gardens. Midnight moves and resettlement. Always resettlement. Finally, we arrived at our piece of earth in South Farmingdale in 1960. We settled in a small ranch house on Lyons Avenue and tried to fit in.
Long Island was a new start, but ignorance about our religion followed us across the waters even to this young suburb. Jews were few and we were made to feel different. Neighborhood kids many times accused me of killing Christ.
My father found refuge at the South Farmingdale Jewish Center. He took the cantor's place on the Sabbath and completed a minyan, a quorum of 10 men, nightly. My mother found sanctuary at home, despondent, having forgotten how to smile, cleaning and cooking. She was always sure to feed her family well.
Even today, I see her sad face transfixed by the chicken parts floating in a sea of soup greens. She carefully selected the chickens at a kosher butcher in Plainview, and Friday nights our house filled with the smells of the Sabbath. Slumped forward, she would stir and stir the soup, seemingly forever, without a word. Sadness seemed to have taken over her body.
In the midst of that solemnity, Steve, my younger brother, and I would break the spell with horseplay -- only to be set straight by a mother's stare. Like an automaton, she blessed the Sabbath candles and remembered the dead. Beneath the headcovering, we knew she was crying. After her prayer, she said, "Good Sabbath," and returned to her soup.
My memories consist of her sadness and my specters. A picture on my desk shows my grandmother and a host of uncles, aunts and cousins wiped from the planet. My mother was one of 11 children -- the rest of whom died in the Holocaust.
It was all confusing to me. Often she would scream out in the night. I never truly understood what this person who made our food, cleaned our clothes and kept our home had experienced.
By now I have come to accept the source of her sorrow. In 1945, in her late teens, she was a prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The mark it left was tattooed within and she could do nothing to hide the painful images of death locked inside. Among them were memories of Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz "doctor" in front of whom she and others quickly presented themselves naked each day. She would rub beets into her cheeks to appear healthy so he would let her survive.
I lived with my mother's sad face until she died a few years ago. She had found soup and a warm home, but was too overwhelmed by her past to find joy. I so wanted to see her smile. I rarely did.
These memories, like an itchy scab I'd like to scrape away, come to me now because Thursday is Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we must volubly declare that cry of "Never again!"
Reader Sy Roth lives in Mount Sinai.