Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.
She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.
Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.
And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.
For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.
Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.
Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.
For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.
The first book is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos M. N. Eire, and the second book is The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles.
In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.
Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.
When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.
“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.
Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.
I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”
The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”
And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)
The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!
But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.
Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.
Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.
“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”
“Because happiness always brings sadness.”
Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.
All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!
Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.
Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.
Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!