How I Knew and When

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Age 8 – My father hangs upside down on a pipe that was part of a fence
that separated our street from the next. All of his change
falls from his pockets. He looks so young.

Age 15 – “There were one hundred and four girls
in the Israelitisch Meisjes Weeshuis orphanage in Amsterdam.
Four survived,” my mother says.
“I remember Juffrouw Frank, the headmistress.  She made us
drink cod-liver oil each morning. She said it was healthy for us.”

Age 17 – My father tells me his father and sister, Ruth, got out
of Germany and went to Rotterdam. They were supposed to
leave on May 11, 1940, for America. The Nazis invaded on May 10.

Age 21 – My mother tells me Tante Amalia told her
that on the Queen Elizabeth to America in 1947, after she
and Onkel David were released from an internment camp
on the Isle of Man, she was so hungry she ate twelve rolls
every day at breakfast. She said it was the best time she ever had.

Age 24 – My father tells me, “Otto Reis got out of Germany
in 1941. He took a train to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian railroad to
Vladivostok, a boat to Shanghai, a boat to Yokohama, a boat to
San Francisco, and a bus to Philadelphia, his wife and three sons
staying behind. Carola Stein signed affidavits for them, but
the government said she didn’t make enough money.”

Age 31 – My mother’s cousin refuses to accept money a rich
woman left him. He says the money has too much blood on it.
My mother tells me that in 1939 her cousin had asked this woman
to sign affidavits for his wife and two daughters. She said no.

Age 33 – My father asks me to dial the number. His hands shake.
He asks my cousin Judy if she wants to send her three children out
of Israel during the Gulf War. She says she can’t let them go.

Age 42 – A waiter in a Jerusalem hotel tells my father
he should come to live in Israel, because it’s home.
My father tells him, “Home is anywhere they let you in.”

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007), a collection of poems about her family and the Shoah. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals such as the Connecticut Review and Limestone, as well as on Beliefnet. She is a teaching fellow at Clal.

This poem has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

For more about Kirchheimer’s work, visit:

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish identity, poetry

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