I whisper in mum's ear 'Israel's in trouble'
The TV is blaring in mum’s room at the Aged Care Facility. Israel is bombing Gaza. The aim is to rescue the hostages and wipe out Hamas, so that the massacre of 7th October will not happen again.
I squirm. Every piece of footage from Gaza increases the condemnation of Israel and the hatred towards the Jews. Mum and I watch the angry pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Melbourne City, and all around the world.
I glance at her and wonder what she's thinking. I whisper in her ear 'Israel's in trouble'. She looks at me trying to make sense of what I’m saying. Thank God she has dementia, but she's aware enough that something bad is happening.
I am reminded of mum's stories from just before the war, when she was a teenager. She told me about her neighbours who betrayed her family, her childhood friend that suddenly stopped talking to her, her mother’s masseur, a dwarf with strong hands, who led the German soldiers to their apartment, kicked mum and her parents out, and then proceeded to move in.
Over these past 2 months, I've also lost friends - close ones. One has bombarded his site with vicious anti Israel coverage. He tells me he's not an anti-Semite. 'How could I be? My step- mother was Jewish'. I have also lost friends through silence. No kind messages. No ‘How are you?’ or 'How is your family in Israel, your daughters, your grandchildren?' Just silence. They were close friends. One often shared Friday night meals with us, knew my family intimately. My head still can't get around it.
I feel sick, my skin hurts, my heart pounds and the feeling of being despised is making me claustrophobic and breathless. They - our haters - equate Israel to Hamas. A non-Jewish friend explains to me 'We're not against Israel, it's the IDF we can't stand'. No-one mentions the massacre on 7.10.23. Not one word about all the hostages languishing - or dead - in those gloomy soul-destroying tunnels Hamas has built for years for the purpose of wiping out Israel, the Jews.
The demonstrators in my home town, and all around the world, shout out words of hatred. I feel and see the hate in their eyes. It is terrifying.
All this reminds me of another one of mum's stories from 1938:
After bashing up those 3 nasty bullies who bullied the Jewish kids, I must have got a reputation for my bravery. If one of the Jewish kids was threatened by the non-Jewish hooligans, they came to my place calling out ‘Marta! Marta!’ One day when they called for me, Olga, my nanny, was chopping meat, and as I ran past the kitchen, I grabbed her cleaver and dashed out to the street. Luckily, the young thugs had already run away because I don't know what I would have done to them if I had the chance.
The spiteful anti-Semitic comments hurt just as much as the stones and the fists. I overheard discussions about Poland in which they always mentioned the ‘bloody Jews who were taking over commerce and were the cause of all the country’s problems'. How was that possible in Zgierz, where most of the Jews wove fabric in their homes for the German factories? They also said that the Jews must leave Poland and go to Palestine. The lies and hatred spread like an epidemic until it seemed our whole town was infected.
One day our class had exams and I arrived at school early to go over my notes. I was sitting in the corner of the classroom behind the big, tiled oven, unnoticed by the others. I overheard a group of boys chatting. One of them said to another, ‘Look I know you like Marysia, but couldn’t you choose a Catholic girl and not a Jewish one?’ I ran out of the class, stung by those words.
My world was shattered that morning. No matter how much I tried to be part of the group, they would always think of me as an outsider, ‘one of the Jews’, whilst I had always felt like a Pole who happened to be Jewish. My family was not religious and was assimilated into Polish society. It became clear to me that in the eyes of non-Jews, a Jew was a Jew and no-one cared about how clever, beautiful, religious or Polish that Jew was.
After the incident in the classroom, I decided to become involved with a Jewish youth movement. It was the winter of 1938 and I was nearly 15. I discovered a gathering of Jewish youths in a nearby yard, so asked if I could join. The group turned out to belong to Hashomer HaTsa'ir, which translated from Hebrew means ‘The Young Guard’. The youth movement was Zionist and left wing, but I did not care or understand what its politics were. I just wanted to belong to a Jewish group...
Mum, 4th from the right, after joining the Jewish youth group, Hashomer HaTsa'ir (The Young Guard).
Zgierz, Poland, 1938
Mum, (standing, left), and Kuba, with stick, (sitting on the left). Kuba was her first love.
Hashomer HaTsa'ir youth camp, 1939