I believe that friends not only share the lessons we learn in life, but quite often are the greatest teachers of them. And one of those very special teacher/friends, who I knew a very long time ago, came to mind with last week’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah.
In the 1960’s, during that unequaled decade of self-expression and introspection, in a time of protests and forced changes of an intolerant and rigid society which no longer fit a new and liberal outspoken generation, I was in elementary school in Miami, Florida. I watched, albeit through naïve eyes, as the movement of change threw out old, unacceptable ways, and ushered in the tides of change which dropped this restless and forceful young generation into uncharted waters.
The country was in the throes of the Vietnam War. Nightly, as I’d finish up my daily homework of fractions and sentence construction while sitting at the coffee table in front of my family’s television set, I watched rallies of young people with their hand-painted signs, tirelessly chanting the many reasons why they felt that our government had become this nation’s enemy. With the blessing, or curse (dependant upon the way one looked at it) of the modern media, the American people were front and center, via television, as our troops stormed primitive Vietnamese villages, or as gun-laden American helicopters dramatically flew into rice paddies, scooping up our physically – and emotionally – torn-apart soldiers. Many came back home as a shadow of their former selves; unscarred soldiers in pressed uniforms, who’d been led by grand illusions of brave soldiers going off to defend the oppressed.
On the one hand, my 11 years of life had been safe and sheltered in that my every need was seen to and I lacked for nothing – especially parental and family love and nurturing. But, on the other hand, my mother and father did not try to keep the world at bay by refusing to let me watch Walter Cronkite chronicle the day’s events. On the contrary, I watched the evening news with them most evenings, and my mother read the newspaper to me most days. It was a time for us to be together, and a time that allowed them the opportunity to explain the goings-on in the world, and answer my questions in a somewhat cushioned, yet truthful, easy to understand way. It was also the perfect time to shape me, and instill in me those same compassionately liberal ideas and attitudes of which they lived by.
My best friend at the time was a Jewish girl named Lorraine Perl. There were three things about Lorraine that I will never forget. First, she had the most beautiful, thick brown hair, which she wore in a single braid every day. She had never had her hair cut, except for the slightest trim, and her braid fell like the heaviest of ropes down to her tailbone. The second feature, which drew me to her, was her laugh. She had that infectious kind of laughter which made you laugh even if you weren’t privy to the joke. The third thing was that she was plump, not in an overweight way, but in a way that gave her the sweetest and warmest look. Lorraine had the rosiest, roundest cheeks, and she looked as though her picture should have graced the wrapper of a loaf of Wonder Bread for the comfort and goodness which it invariably would bring.
Lorraine and I were inseparable in school; in class, at lunch, on the playground, and on the safety patrol squad. After school, we were together often, as well. We did not live far from each other, and many an afternoon were shared together up in some Banyan tree, or playing board games, roller skating or riding bikes.
Lorraine lived with her mother and an older brother. Her father had passed away from a heart condition several years before, so it was just the three of them who shared a spotlessly clean, modestly small home. Mrs. Perl was a large, quiet and unpretentious woman who was kind to me, and seemed to appreciate the friendship that Lorraine and I shared. My mother was always the type to take a group of children to the beach, movies or any number of special outings, however, Mrs. Perl always seemed to stay at home, alone, and was quite protective of Lorraine. Though we shared time together in the afternoons, I do not remember Lorraine coming to my home for sleepovers, nor do I remember sleeping at her house. It felt as though Mrs. Perl was a bit uncomfortable with Lorraine’s natural, easy-going way, and it seemed that it was with trepidation that Mrs. Perl allowed Lorraine to venture forth into the immediate world around her.
One warm spring afternoon, which had been spent in the front yard of Lorraine’s home, Mrs. Perl brought out cold drinks to us. Somehow, the conversation turned to the matter of Easter being just around the corner (this was the Christian holiday which I observed), and the Jewish holiday of Passover was fast approaching, too. Mrs. Perl asked me if I would like to come to dinner to celebrate the Passover with them, to which I said yes, and she assured me that she would call my mother to plan the day.
The following Thursday evening, my mother dropped me off at the curb in front of the Perls’ home at 6:00. I wore a light blue dress and my good Sunday school shoes, and I carried a bouquet of pink carnations which Mama had bought for me to give to Mrs. Perl. Mama would be back to pick me up at 8:00.
I knocked softly on their front door, and Lorraine, in all of her usual good cheer, opened the door enthusiastically and pulled me inside. The home was filled with wonderful aromas, and a sweet, but melancholic violin concerto was playing on the phonograph. Mrs. Perl came out from the kitchen to greet me, wearing a dark blue dress and white apron, and I gave her the flowers while offering my thanks (per Mama’s instructions), for having me to dinner. She fused over the loveliness of the flowers, while graciously putting them into a crystal vase. She then gave the flowers a place of honor in the center of the dining room table, and I noticed then that the table had been set with a white lace tablecloth, old, beautiful china, silverware, and glasses.
Mrs. Perl invited me to sit down for dinner, as Lorraine scooted into a chair across the table from me. Lorraine’s brother was out for the evening, and so it was a meal that was to be shared by just the three of us – and the ghosts from one of the most painful chapters in mankind’s history.
The meal was a lesson in itself. It was the story of foods that are lovingly prepared with much time and effort; a meal that is often reserved for Jewish families and their friends in celebration of specific Jewish holidays, or high holy days. It was a lesson of people and places and traditions, set forth in a time long ago when life was centered on the family; the cohesion of it, and, most importantly of all, the survival of it.
Mrs. Perl began the meal with borscht, a beet based soup. I can remember so clearly being petrified that I would spill the deep red liquid on the creamy white tablecloth. One of the many lessons that evening was learning how to eat soup very carefully. The second course was gefilte fish. The soft, minced fish was surprisingly pleasing to my young, ethnically-inexperienced palate, especially given the fact that I have never liked the taste of fish. Then the main course was served; roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots in a butter sauce and green beans, while an applesauce cake graced their dining room sideboard.
It was during the serving of the mashed potatoes that I began one of the greatest lessons of my life, for as Mrs. Perl generously served me a heaping helping of the potatoes, I noticed a series of numbers imprinted on her arm. The numbers were printed in faded, but still clearly visible bluish-green ink. And, innocently, I asked her about it…
Because Vietnam was the war that made the headlines each day, and was a leading factor in the chaos and opposition in our country, World War II had faded into the background as another chapter in history books, and into old tales that parents and grandparents would retell from time to time, while the younger members of the family would turn a deaf ear or roll their eyes as if to say, “Here we go again.” However, my parents received my undivided attention for they refused to candy-coat too heavily or skirt the truth about life and life’s truths, including the atrocities that had taken place all across Europe decades before. Thus, I had listened and heard the stories, but, as I gazed across the table at Mrs. Perl, I did not make the connection between what I’d been told within the safety and confines of my home, and Mrs. Perl’s marred arm. Those stories, as horrific as they were, seemed surreal and oceans away, but now those tales were about to be bridged as an awful truth of this woman’s life, this one who sat so gently by me, handing me mashed potatoes.
I asked why her arm was numbered and Mrs. Perl answered that she had been tattooed with that identification number when she became a prisoner at the concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland, during World War II. She told me that when she was 16, and her sister was 15, the two of them, while looking for work in their war-torn country, had been told to board a train that was going to an adjacent town where jobs were plentiful and they could find work. But, the promise of work was a ruse, and the train was actually a death train taking scores of people to one of the world’s most infamous extermination camps. The two girls crowded onto the train, “like cattle,” Mrs. Perl remembered. Speaking softly and in an almost monotone voice, she described arriving at the camp and being pushed into one line, while her younger sister was forced into another. Her sister’s line was the line of death, where just a short walk away the gas chamber awaited the new arrivals. Mrs. Perl watched as the Nazi soldiers threatened to shoot her sister and the others in that line if they didn’t begin walking towards the chamber. Shocked by confusion and fear, they did, and that was the last time she saw her baby sister.
Those in Mrs. Perl’s line became the work horses of the labor camp; tending to crops in fields, building and maintaining the camp’s structures, and doing various other forms of back-breaking work. Mrs. Perl described being attacked by guard dogs; quietly recalled the starvation; as well as the brutal, unrelenting cold. It was clear that she could still see it, feel it, taste and hear it, every long and terrible moment of it. Even after these many years.
As her story came to an end, that being that she was set free from Auschwitz at the war’s end after more than 6 million people had perished in the camps, a heavy quiet settled over the table – the table dressed with the creamy white lace tablecloth, silver and china. I looked over at Lorraine, and she smiled that tireless smile of hers, and I wondered how she could manage to do so. How could she smile when her mother and her aunt, and other family members she’d never had the chance to know, had been taken, broken or destroyed by the behavior of a large sect of a society that had turned on them as viciously and insanely as a pack of rabid dogs? Though I did not have an answer to that question at that point in time, seeing Lorraine smile somehow bolstered my spirits, and gave me a sense of hope which I would come to understand the depth of through the gift of time.
I left their home that evening with more than a wonderful meal. For whatever reason, Mrs. Perl deemed I was ready to be told her story, and so she had given me a glimpse into the cruelest side of people, while at the same time showing me another side of humanity; that hope-filled, most extraordinarily resilient part of them, too. I turned to wave good-bye to Mrs. Perl and Lorraine, as they stood in the yellow glow of their porch light as Mama pulled up in her black Ford, and I knew that I was leaving their home a different young girl somehow, different than the one who had arrived in the light blue dress with the pink carnations at dusk of that day’s end.
Through the years, I lost track of Lorraine, but I never lost her family’s story. I have thought about that evening in their home many times, and have slowly found my own answers to the questions that I asked myself on that particular night so long ago. I have come to understand that Mrs. Perl, her son and daughter, in their tidy, unpretentious home, were survivors, and children of survivors, of the most magnificent kind. For though this gentle family had been broken apart, losing loved ones and suffering unimaginable horrors, it had not been enough to extinguish their spirits, or cause them to close their hearts or their doors to life, to love, and to the many good, kind people beyond those doors.
We live in a world of both good and evil, and we choose our own paths of darkness or light. And, even in those times when we are forced to walk a dark path through no choice of our own, we still have a heart within ourselves that burns a beacon of bright and loving light, but only if we’ll let it. Mrs. Perl chose to fight the dark paths of others with the unconquerable weapons of hope and faith, and a giving of herself which ultimately creates the strongest light of all – love. And Lorraine, her beautiful daughter and my warm, wonderful friend, was the result of that choice.
Wishing each of you a very happy Rosh Hashanah, and a year filled with all good things.