EXCERPT OF BY MY MOTHER’S HAND

BY MY MOTHER’S HAND
As Told by Survivor Henry Melnick

This book is dedicated to and in memory of my late wife Hela (Chaya) Melnick, and all of my relatives that did not survive the war.  I am the sole survivor of my entire family.

Chapter 1

I have no memory of my mother’s face.  We look like a picture-perfect family in my only remaining family photo – my father, sister, brother and I – taken one Saturday morning in a park in Lodz, Poland.  My mother missed this one perfect moment, and because of that, I no longer remember what she looks like, not even her face.  So many missed moments and missed opportunities enabled my survival and forced so many others to perish.

This is the only surviving photograph of my family from before the war.  It was given to me shortly after I arrived in Israel following the war.  Friends of my parents from Lodz, who moved from Poland before the war had this among their family photos.

family_prewar
Back row left to right: Yosef (my brother), Elijah (my father)
Front row left to right: Genia (my sister), Henry (me)

My mother used to hug us all the time.  My father did too, but not as much.  My parents never hugged each other in front of us.  This behaviour was considered unacceptable.  Though they did not dress in the orthodox fashion, they were still very traditional in their behaviour.  All we knew about love and marriage was that a man must love his wife.  My parents did not overtly explain this to us; we understood through their actions towards each other.  Whatever I learned about sex, I learned in the courtyard of our building.  A boy I knew told me that he used to share a bed with his father.  One night he woke up and his father was in his mother’s bed…that was our sex education.

I did not know either of my grandparents because they lived in the 1800s during the epidemics of cholera and tuberculosis.  They died very young, long before I was born.  We never spoke of the dead so I do not even know their names nor do I have a picture.  Growing up, I would always hear stories about different diseases such as cancer, which they described as a very hard illness.  Medicine was not very advanced back then.

My mother had two sisters; Chana and Esther. My mother’s older sister, Esther, lived with her married daughter only two blocks away.  We used to visit them all the time with my mother.  Esther had three children, they were all older and their names are lost to me.  My mother’s other sister Chana Abramovitz and my uncle, Wolf, had four children; three boys – Chaskel, Avraham, Leible, and a girl – Tzela.  They were all older than us.  I fondly remember that Purim at Doda Chana’s was always a party.  We would dress up in all kinds of costumes; Haman, Achashverosh and Esther.

My mother used to sing traditional Yiddish lullabies like “Oyfn Pripechik.”  I used to speak Polish with my mother and Yiddish with my father because he never learned proper Polish.

In our family I told my mother I always felt like I was the middle of the sandwich.  My mother told me that as many children as she has, she loves them all equally!  My brother was very active and talkative, my sister was very studious and I felt stuck in the middle.  I felt like I didn’t have a voice.

Our family residence was at 35 Piotrkowska Street, within the centre of Lodz in a prestigious area known as Hoyche Fentzte, which literally translates to “High Windows.”  It was called this because most of the buildings looked similar and they all had very tall windows.

Our apartment was small; two bedrooms, one room for my parents and one room for the three siblings.  Our apartment was on the third level and had red-stained wooden floors.  Every room had a ceramic oven for heat and the kitchen had a tiled ceramic stove that burned wood and coal.  There was an arched gateway built into each building.  After eleven o’clock at night the doors were locked and one had to pay the janitor to enter.  Through the archway there was a courtyard and the building continued with entrances through the apartments with many different staircases.  The bathrooms were on the ground floor, with a separate building of outhouses.  The outhouses had an oven in the winter that the superintendent would ensure was lit.

In our building there were 25 apartments.  On the front of our building, along Piotrkowska, there were shops and restaurants and above was our housing.  The stores looked out onto Piotrkowska Street.  This was a place where the Jewish military and Jewish families spent many precious moments.

Our apartment was like a train station, with frequent visits from many including my Aunt Chana who lived on the third floor within the same courtyard.  Our apartment felt warm and welcoming.  Our door was always open to friends and family and there were always visitors.

My mother’s distant relative, Sarah, lived on the ground floor of our building where she ran a small grocery store.  “Cousin” Sarah had three daughters and a son.  Two of her daughters were married and lived in Lodz (I cannot recall their names).  The third daughter, Regina, got married and moved to Palestine (Israel before independence) before the war (she has since passed away).  Sarah’s son Simon was a doctor in Lodz but didn’t survive the war.

Once a year for Passover we would all get new clothes.  That meant one pair of pants, a shirt and shoes and that’s all.  Socks would come easily because of my father’s factory.  All other items were in short supply.  I remember breaking a glass at dinner one night and getting yelled at because it could not be replaced.  I never lost anything as a child because, simply, I had no personal belongings to lose!