Monthly Archives: June 2014

Berlin afternoon

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I was on my way home from school that wintry day. It was a long walk for an eight-year-old carrying a school bag and a lunch box. That day it seemed even longer because there was no one to walk with.

Most days my mother came to pick me up at school and walk me home. This day something had prevented her from coming.

In my childhood memories of Berlin I see empty streets lining endless blocks of grey tall apartment houses. The buildings cast dark shadows onto sidewalks where no trees grew. I see no people on the streets, only a silent landscape of hard grey shapes.

When I look at a map now, so many years later, I find street names long forgotten. Suddenly the names are back and I remember the streets on which I walked daily on my way home from school.

I didn’t mind being by myself. I was always a bit of a dreamer and thought of all sorts of lovely things when I was alone, thoughts that could not run around in my head if someone was talking to me.

Adults always tell children, “do this,” or “don’t do that,” even on walks. I suppose children must do what they are told. I was told not to talk to strangers on the street, and I never disobeyed that admonition willingly. Yet, that afternoon …

I was daydreaming when someone appeared at my side and started talking to me. It was a young blond German man, but I couldn’t tell how old he might be. He suddenly came out of nowhere. I wasn’t even aware know how long he had been walking and talking with me.

“Little girl, I need some help,” he said. “You look as if you are just the person to help me.”

I was startled when he put his hand on my shoulder, but he continued to speak as he walked with me.

“You look like such a nice little Jewish girl… you are Jewish, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“Then I am sure you can help me to find Rabbi Silberstein who lives on this street. I have been looking for his name in most of the houses on this block. Do you know in which house he lives?”

I had no idea who Rabbi Silberstein was or where he lived. I did tell the man that I didn’t know. He was talking so fast I am sure he didn’t hear me. Or want to.

At that moment I became quite desperate. I wanted to run away, but I was afraid to be so impolite. The nice upbringing won out.

Within a few seconds he stopped at the front door of the nearest large apartment building and asked whether I would help him look inside. Once in the lobby, I noticed that he didn’t look at the large area of mailboxes where each box had a name affixed to it. I showed the mailboxes   to him.

“No, no,” he answered impatiently. “His name isn’t there. We must look on the second floor.”

He pointed to the large staircase and motioned for me to go ahead of him.

It got dark early that time of the year. I had never before been aware how dim the insides of those big apartment buildings were. The late afternoon sun filtered through the leaded glass panels on the landing barely enough to light up the stairs but left the rest of the building in semi-darkness.

The man pretended to look at the nameplate of every door on that floor. Then he shook his head again and pointed upstairs to the next floor, making me walk up ahead of him again. I thought of the punishment that awaited me at home if my mother found out about this.

I got a tight grip on my school bag and turned around to face the man who stood just a step below me on the stairs. I wanted to tell him I could not stay any longer to help him and that he would have to search by himself.

Suddenly, before I could say a word, he reached out, grabbed my waist, and knocked me down. In the darkness of the stairwell I couldn’t see his face but his heavy rapid breathing warned me that I must get away quickly. Like a trapped animal I felt a desperate urge to escape.

It was suddenly clear there was no Rabbi Silberstein in this house. The man had lied to me. Intense fear warned that I must get away quickly. In desperation I looked for an escape.

At the same time I was terribly angry. Hot anger boiled in me and gave me the strength I had not felt before.

I sat up, ducked, and ran right through the man’s legs, swiftly down three flights of stairs, and out of the house. Never looking back to see whether he was behind me, I did not stop running for at least ten blocks. When I finally reached home I darted into the house entrance, up the steps, and into our apartment.

Not until the door was closed securely behind me did I feel safe.

I rushed into my room and lay down on my bed. I cried and cried. When my mother questioned me, I told her the man had wanted to hurt me. I sobbed too hard to be coherent. She felt my head for a temperature and put me to bed for the rest of that day.

The scare did not pass easily. The next day I did not go to school, nor the next. I was calmer and could tell my mother some of the facts, but I was still afraid to go out on the street alone. Perhaps the man had found out where I lived and was outside waiting for me?

My mother finally went to the police without me. When she returned from the precinct station, she said the police had taken down her story and promised to look for the man who fitted the details.

She took off her coat and sat down in a chair next to the warm, safe bed I did not want to leave and talked to me. She fed me sips of hot tea. She looked sad and gazed past me out of the window into the winter sky.

My big pink teddy bear, dressed in my outgrown clothes, sat in another chair and listened, too.

I wondered what she had really been told at the police station. Perhaps they did not believe my story and said it must have been a child’s fantasy. Or did they care at all and had put her off politely?

I had always taken my problems to my mother, confident she would find the solution to them and set my world straight again. Her sad face suddenly revealed that my protector was not as strong as I had always believed. That day I knew for the first time that my mother too, was vulnerable.

About six months later I thought I saw the man again.

My mother and I were with friends on a Sunday outing in Berlin’s Grunewald at an outdoor cafe where strollers stopped for coffee and cake after a hike through the woods.

My parents had recently decided to divorce. No one explained to me what that meant.

All I knew was that my father was no longer living with us. My mother and I now lived in a newer apartment complex in West Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district. Walking home the long blocks from my school on Bleibtreu-strasse to our new home took much longer. After that past winter’s episode I had been unhappy and withdrawn. When spring came she took me out often, hoping that fresh air and exercise would perk me up.

That Sunday afternoon we sat at a round table covered with a white cloth. The waitress had already brought our order. Suddenly I was aware of a pair of eyes looking my way. They were the eyes of a young, good-looking, blond German man who smiled in a way that was not nice at all. I could not understand that kind of smile, and I stiffened with fright.

I was not sure he was looking at me, or that he had even seen me, yet somehow I sensed he had recognized me and that his smile dared me to open my mouth.

“That’s him, that’s the man, “ I said to my mother. I pulled her hand to get her attention for she was talking to someone at our table.

“Mother, that’s the one.”

I was anxious to go home. Those staring eyes, that smirking smile had spoiled the Sunday outing for me.

During the months that followed there were several occasions when I thought I saw the man again, especially among crowds of people. Perhaps it was my imagination.

As time passed I could no longer completely recall his face. His eyes, however, stayed with me for a long, long time. Now, after many years, the eyes too, have disappeared from my memory. Only in an occasional nightmare do they still linger.

Just prior to the start of my third school year the Nazi regime decided its good German children should no longer be exposed to daily contact with undesirable minorities and permanently barred Jewish children from attending public school.

I did not mind at all that I could no longer go to school.

I was glad.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.





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Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

Unlocking the Past

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

We did not expect to find the diary. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies with her daughters… We will never know.

I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, as I turned the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I felt grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.

Written in English in the mid-1950s, when a postgraduate traveling scholarship had taken her back from Melbourne, Australia, to her birthplace of Israel for two years, the diary provides a glimpse of what life was like then for a single, 20-something woman. Attractive and bright, she was courted by a host of mostly unsuitable admirers, although occasionally, one would become the focus of her hopes and dreams. After all, as she notes, her mother had advised her to “secure a future” for herself, urging her to work hard to accomplish her purpose: in other words, “get married”.

Part-travelogue and part-social commentary, the diary reads like a film script, the vividly portrayed characters flitting in and out of various settings. One moment my mother is at a party or concert, describing the dating scene: “Noticed some very good looking men in the audience. Wonder where they usually hide.” The next, she is on a crowded bus, discussing the four young Yemenite girls seated behind her: “probably recent arrivals to the country. Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in high pitched voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus.”

A picture builds of what life was like in what was then the recently established State of Israel. Many of those she meets are keen to move elsewhere, believing there is more opportunity overseas. A certain unease lurks behind the pages too, and on one occasion, she even has to identify a suspect at the police station after an elderly woman is raped across the street from her home. More often, however, she is scared to walk alone in isolated areas, having heard about “some unpleasant and unfortunate encounters with Arab infiltrators”.

The term, “infiltrator”, with its connotations of menace, danger and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when there were several attacks on Israeli settlements, resulting in around 100 casualties and culminating in the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” of 1954, which defined those citizens of surrounding Arab states, as well as Palestinians, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators”, punishable by law, especially if they were armed or had committed crimes against people or property.

Emotions certainly ran high within Israel itself too. On a morning walk through the Carmel market near the family home in south Tel Aviv, my mother describes police arresting an “old Arab who was selling baskets… He was yelling his protests. Bystanders said he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the market.

“Further on I heard terrible cries, saw a young fellow who had slashed his own throat in protest at having had his cart full of vegetables taken to the police station. Apparently, he too had no permit to trade in the market.”

I had long known that after leaving Israel, my mother had undertaken an epic sea voyage to Italy, also visiting Paris and working in London before deciding to make her way to Montreal, where she would ultimately meet her future husband and my father. Until now, however, I had thought that those often-recounted stories had been buried with her. So imagine my delight to discover that the diary also contains a record of the first part of the journey she undertook by ship from the northern Israeli port of Haifa to Venice via Greece and then on to Milan by train.

Penniless, she could only gaze longingly at the elegant Italian shop window displays, but could “afford nothing no matter how cheap the prices were”. Arriving in Milan and not wanting to stay on her own, she was on the verge of boarding the night train to Paris with nothing to eat bar a box of biscuits, when she finally managed to contact the aunt and uncle of one of her best friends in Tel Aviv, who invited her to stay with them. Successful furriers, my mother writes, they had “made a name for themselves”, their shop frequented by “a good class of clientele”, including members of the aristocracy and movie stars.

Although most of the numerous names that appear in the diary remain unfamiliar to me, the family name of my mother’s good friend stood out. Hadn’t I gone to school with a boy of the same name?

It so happens I had been reminded of that particular family at the beginning of this year – before we discovered the diary — while on holiday in Israel, when I had learned that Michael, my old school friend, was staying in the same hotel. We spent some time catching up and also exchanged contact details.

Now, as I turned the pages of the diary, I realized that the characters so vividly depicted by my mother included various members of Michael’s extended family. My mother’s friend was Michael’s aunt, meaning the Milan furriers must have been his great aunt and uncle. I sent an email to Michael, who immediately put me in touch with the Italian branch of his family and all was confirmed. Even better, his elderly and frail aunt in Tel Aviv could still remember my mother and recalled the deep friendship between various generations of our families.

As it transpires, our familial ties date back at least a century to Poland via Tel Aviv and on to Australia: A tale of friendship and support, harking back to the days of our great grandparents, with the diary key to piecing together the puzzle of just how we are connected.

The ravages of Alzheimer’s disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young, passionate woman searching for intelligent companionship and the man of her dreams. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at:, as well as and



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Filed under Australian Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

More Funerals Than Weddings

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Not a close friend by any means,
he bravely fought cancer, and lost.
No other friend went to his services,
but lest you think me heroic,
know I was, perhaps, just ghoulishly curious
as to Final Words solemnly spoken.
What would be the column addition
totaled up by the well-meaning rabbi?
When the eulogies are read,
would they provide a clue to my own?
Am I just playing Mark Twain
attending my own funeral,
or am I making serious preparation
to understand the finality of things?
Does the last ledger indicate a zero balance,
marked in neither red or black?
You go out as you came in – with nothing;
a shroud has no pockets, you know.
So, why am I not making more of my time
at the fair before the big tent is taken down forever?

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 the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

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

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