International Holocaust Remembrance Day: A short recollection

Until that day in 1965, I had never thought of my mother and father as different. Like most of my friends’ parents, mine had accents and secrets, and casually juxtaposed references to “the camps” with requests to pass the salt. Awareness can dawn anywhere; for me, it happened at Idlewild airport.

Our entourage (me, my sisters, a hired driver, his wife) huddled around my jittery parents in the El Al departure lounge as they waited to board their first-ever airplane flight. Flying can induce apprehension under the best of conditions, but their nervousness was heightened by their destination. They were about to be re-united in Israel, a fledgling war-torn country, with relatives they hadn’t seen since World War II.

My mother’s cousin, Chava, who had grown up with her in Poland and left for Palestine in 1938, unknowingly avoiding the fate of her parents and siblings, was there. My father’s nephew, Binyamin, one of the two surviving children of my father’s oldest sister’s eleven children, all who had been deported to Auschwitz from their Carpathian village, was there, as well.

Especially poignant would be my father’s reunion with his brother, Shloimi, who was one of the three out of ten siblings who had remained alive, and also the only survivor of his own young family. My father would be meeting his brother’s new wife and their teen age daughter, Hadassah.  Shloimi, in turn, would be introduced to my father’s new wife. (At that time I didn’t know that there had ever been a first one, as well as two young children.)

Clearly, the trip was high stake and the frenetic shopping and packing started weeks before they left. The living room was the staging area; open suitcases and flight bags lay on the floor waiting to be filled like baby birds poised to be fed. Chosen clothing articles were lovingly folded and packed; shavers, irons, and other electric gift items, were added to the luggage, as well.

Especially well thought out was the airport attire.  Large hooks were fastened to each side of the living room door and hangers placed on them;  the left side was for my mother’s clothing and the right for my father’s. Clothing items were hung atop each other in proper dressing order and the final layer included a light rain coat with a pocket book over hers and an instamatic camera on his. On the day of their flight, I don’t recall my parents actually getting dressed; it was more like a beaming from the hanger mannequins.

When we were ready to leave for the airport, my mother gathered her teenage daughters and read aloud her list of directives, which included ‘no boys’, (the first to be discarded). Then, after repeatedly checking that the stove wasn’t lit and that the door was indeed locked, we squished into a station wagon and were off. True, it was six hours before the scheduled take-off hour, but my mother’s just-in-case-things-go-wrong philosophy was never questioned.

Despite our absurdly early arrival, the terminal was already full of passengers scheduled for the same flight. Most were also Holocaust survivors, (I could sense that before hearing accents) and throughout the area, identical scenes were being played out.  Heavy electrical items were given to non-flying family members to hold stealthily until completion of the luggage weigh-ins, and instructions to ‘write every day” and to “dress warm” issued. The family scenes were also similar in that no old people were present; grandparents were virtually non-existent.

Going back home before boarding time was not an option for us non-flyers, so I decided to pass some time ambling through neighboring airline terminals. What I didn’t anticipate was that a short walk would expose me to an alternative universe and upend the world as I knew it.

In the airline lounges I passed through, I saw people with small tote bags reading or speaking quietly to their travel companions. The most extraordinary scene, however, took place at Pan Am. There, a couple came in from the street accompanied by a young woman who gave each a peck on the cheek and following a nonchalant “enjoy Europe and all that”, took out her car keys and walked out the door without ever looking back.

Could this drama-free scene represent how a good deal of the rest of the world went about their daily lives? I pondered this dreamily as I slowly worked my way back.

At the El Al terminal, excitement was peaking. The first boarding announcement was heard and once electrical items were snuck back into the passenger flight bags, the long walk to the departure gate began. Although ‘passengers only beyond this point’ signs were ubiquitous, at that point in time they were more like polite entreaties than warnings that could lead to airport lockdown. And so we walked; men with cameras over raincoats and ladies with large pocketbooks and corsages, accompanied by their followers.
After each warning sign was passed, a few of the escorts would drop out, but the strong and fearless kept on going until we could go no further. As we slowly began our retreat, some walked backwards and continued to make eye contact while waving and throwing kisses until out of the passenger sight line.

Not me; I was anxious to display my new understanding of the world. When no one was looking, though, I snuck a backward glance.

About the Author
Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and she and her husband raised three daughters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She has published several freelance articles and produced a documentary, "The Road From Destruction", based on interviews with survivors. She recently retired from Kingsborough Community College where she taught writing.
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