Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Mystery My Mother Left Behind

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

My late mother loved the New York Times crossword and she loved reading mysteries. Born in Poland, she said the puzzle helped her perfect her English; she never explained the specific appeal of crime novels, but she was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Frances and Richard Lockridge, and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read almost all the mystery library books she brought home; they were always better than the books assigned in school. On my own, I discovered the comic mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. While my mother enjoyed a good joke and had an Imogene Coca kind of laugh, those books weren’t serious enough for her.

It wasn’t until after my mother died in 1999 that I discovered profound and unsettling mysteries in her own life that I’m still trying to unravel. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She lost her family, her home, her freedom — and would have lost her life if the war had lasted any longer than it did. She spoke about those war years sparingly, and when she did, I was too young or too overwhelmed to ask the right questions that would have yielded more information.

Going through her things after the funeral, I found something shocking in her closet. My mother had kept the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when she was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. You’ve probably seen “dresses” like these in movies and documentaries: thin, crudely sewn, it was gray with purplish stripes (though the colors may have changed over the decades). My father told me she’d washed it after the war, but he couldn’t say why she had kept this reminder of her horrible brutalization and the nightmare of seeing her world ground to dust.

I knew the names of the camps my mother had been in and contacted one via email but nobody could find records for her. This was troubling, since I knew that despite bombings and German attempts to destroy files, records existed for many camps. And then I tried again, this time using the number on her uniform.

A world of mysteries opened up to me. For at least part of the war, my mother, Helena Klaczko, was listed in several Nazi records as Lidja Garbel. How do I know this Garbel and my mother were the same woman? Because the insanely detailed prisoner card for my mother at Buchenwald lists her parents’ name, her street address in Poland, her education and her birth date. All the information matches what I know to be fact. Whatever her name, the woman with that number on her camp dress was the woman listed on the card and indisputably my mother.

But why did she have another name? The mystery deepened when I discovered that in a transport from one camp to another, there was a woman whose number was right before my mother’s and whose last name was also Garbel. So somehow, for some reason, my mother took this other woman’s last name as hers. But why? And why Lidja? Was it possible there had been an actual Lidja Garbel whose name my mother had assumed for some reason? The sister of this Frida Garbel?

My father had no idea what the answers were or what any of it could mean. And when I told him that this same Buchenwald prisoner card said my mother was married to a Mikhail Garbel, whereabouts “unknown,” he scoffed. “People said all kinds of things during the war.”

I had written a handful of Nick Hoffman mysteries by this point, and even been reviewed in the New York Times my mother revered. Sadly, my mother never got to read any of them because she was so sick when they started coming. But nothing in any of them matched these real-life mysteries whose solutions I have pursued in many directions, without answer. Sometimes I wonder if there really was a Mikhail Garbel or even a Lidja Garbel, if both were completely invented. Sometimes I think, what if my mother was married before she met my father? Sometimes I think, “There’s a book in this, if only I can find it.” And I wonder if my mother read mysteries not just as a fan, but as someone who had turned her own life into something mysterious.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty-two books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at

This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post, and it’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history

Climbing the Ladder

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Who opens a negotiation with, “I will work
for your younger daughter Rachel for seven years.”
Offer to work for a year, maybe two,
then settle on three or four.
After seven years of labor, what does Jacob get?
Leah, the older sister.
Their father, Laban, tells him, “It is not the practice
in our place to marry off the younger before the older.”
Says he’ll give him Rachel if he serves another seven years.
What choice does Jacob have?

Take a look at Joseph.
He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and tells him
a great famine is coming, tells Pharaoh he needs
someone to run the country.
So Pharaoh appoints him viceroy.
Now there’s a man who knows how to get ahead.
He even gets a wife for free, doesn’t have to work a stitch for her.
Of course, his descendants end up as slaves in Egypt
for two hundred and ten years, but that’s another story.

Janet R. Kirchheimer, a teaching fellow at Clal, 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 online at Beliefnet and drafthorse, where this poem first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

For more about Kirchheimer’s work, visit:

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Filed under history, Jewish identity, poetry

Meta’s Untold Story

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The few stories that were passed down to my sister and I were about survival, escape, new beginnings in America. These stories always drew a clear line between the tragic background of the Holocaust and the fate of our family. We never knew. No one told us. My grandfather’s sister, my great aunt Meta Adler, was left behind. Five siblings escaped to the U.S., Israel, and South Africa. Meta vanished from sight and memory.

No one in our family kept Meta ’s memory alive. We have to look back and construct a memory of her life. So we can keep her with us. Some people discover a living relative who they never knew about, a sibling who was given up for adoption or a parent who was long absent. We discovered Meta, an unwed country woman who worked as a maid and failed to pass the U.S. immigration examination because she was too shy or scared to answer the questions.

The silence was broken last year on a sunny April afternoon in Altwiedermus, the village where Meta and the rest of my father’s family trace their roots. We had traveled to the rural enclave, forty-five kilometers northeast of Frankfurt, to see the old Adler house and meet with Gisele, the woman who had spent years researching the fate of the twenty-seven Jewish residents of the village in 1933. I had almost canceled the trip due to a sense of unease about what might lie ahead. Instead, we drove into the past and the vague contours of my German Jewish family history were abruptly reshaped in a darker hue.

It was Gisele, someone I had just met, who told us about Meta as we sat at her dining room table and thumbed through an enormous album of her historical notes, photos, and clippings. Meta stared at us from the past with a direct gaze that ended the decades of erasure from our family tree. As Gisele patiently related further details about the thirteen Jews who perished, I was too stunned to concentrate and can’t recall much of what she said.

How could I not have known about Meta ? Was I told about her as a child, but the story hadn’t lodged in my memory beside the other vignettes with the happy endings that were passed down to me? In the following months I queried key family members about our family history narrative. It was through these conversations that I slowly became aware of the collective family silence about Meta. This knowledge brought deep sorrow, but there would be ample time to grieve for Meta. I felt a much more urgent need to honor her memory and restore her to our family.

That fall I met a Jewish woman whose family had fled to the U.S. even later than mine. “It was because my grandfather would not leave until all family members had permission to emigrate,” she said. “Not my grandfather,” I had to tell her. The silence about Meta was a thin cover for the guilt that must have haunted my grandparents. Couldn’t they have done more to help her escape?

Reclaiming Meta ’s place in our family has not been easy. Only the faintest traces of her life have survived. Many people in Germany, from government archivists to self-designated Holocaust historians like Gisele, have shared clues about her fate. Months of research after our trip to Altwiedermus yielded little more than a set of financial records that the Nazis used to assess whether she could keep her meager Reichsmarks earnings. The trail runs cold on a bare sheet of paper dated May 9, 1942, four years after my father’s family fled to the U.S. The document notes that she was “evakuiert.”

Nine hundred and thirty-eight people were deported from Frankfurt on May 8, 1942. The records from this transport were destroyed, but Meta was likely among the deportees. We think they went east, possibly to the Izbica concentration camp in Poland. The date and location of her death are among many of the unknowns in her story.

The German government has placed Meta’s name among the Holocaust victims at two memorial sites in Frankfurt. Our family of survivors has so far done nothing. My father and his sister inherited the silence of their parents. They had a living memory of Meta, but could not reach back to embrace her. It is left to the “second generation” to look back from a greater distance and tell her story. My move to Germany in 2010 was the first step that made this possible.

My aunt has now broken her silence about Meta and supports our efforts to reclaim her memory. She remembers Meta as a woman in the shadows, perhaps someone who lacked a valued place in the family even before they left Germany. She also recalls that my grandfather, Meta’s brother, left the problem of what to do about Meta to my grandmother.

As a child I yearned to know more about my parents’ lives in Germany and the events surrounding their escape. Decades later I’ve uncovered a hidden truth about my family history: we closed the door on someone we lost. I will now pass down to my children a different Holocaust story than the one I heard as a child. Our efforts to confront the past, while living as Jews in Germany today, have become a new chapter in our family narrative.

This summer we will lay a stolperstein (brass stumbling stone) in the ground for Meta Adler. So she can be remembered, in the village of her birth and within our family. Meta’s stone will join the thousands of cobblestone memorials to individual Holocaust victims throughout Germany.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine.


Filed under German Jewry, Jewish identity

A Fan in the Stands

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

A fan in the stands
reaching over the railing
for a foul ball falls 20 feet to his death.
His son next to him witnesses all.
So now tell me there is a God.
Tell me this wasn’t some kind of celestial joke,
exacted upon a father taking his son to a game.
Yes, the world has seen greater calamities,
but is this not a microcosm of the universe’s absurdity
when a tragedy so sudden, personal and wrong
can happen without a second’s notice?
Sure, it is not up to me to ask Job-like questions,
questions beyond my meager capacity to understand.
Yet, I am more outraged by these minor disturbances
than by full-scale slaughter I cannot comprehend.
I weep for the death of an individual,
but “at the immolation of a race, who cries?”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

He wrote this poem in response to last summer’s baseball tragedy when a fan fell twenty feet from the outfield stands while reaching for a ball during a game at the Texas Rangers’ ballpark in Arlington, TX. The quote in the poem’s last line is from John Blight’s “Death of a Whale.”

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit:

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Filed under American Jewry, poetry