Hundreds of thousands of Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust. As the war escalated in the early Forties and Jews were sent to ghettos, and to work and death camps, parents tried every imaginable way to save their children. Many gave them away for hiding, hoping to come back for them after the war. Children were taken to convents. Some Christian families were willing to risk their own lives to save a child, others were bribed and still others turned over the children to the authorities while keeping the remuneration. The hidden children were usually raised as Christians. Those who were given away as babies did not remember their parents after the war and often were reluctant to leave the only family they knew. If no mother or father survived, the child’s background was withheld. Today, particularly in Eastern Europe, thousands of middle-aged adults know nothing of their true parentage or religion. Writer Lili Berger tells a not uncommon story of a teenage girl who discovers an identity hidden from her for fifteen years....from Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women
Today’s story opens on Saint Katerine’s Day in 1957. In 1942 a group of Jews were being marched through a small town somewhere in German occupied Europe. Everyone in the village closes their windows and fears to look at them. Once they pass a woman, her husband and child were collateral damage in the war, finds a baby has been left on her door. Now five teen years later the girl’s class mates taunt her for “looking Jewish”. Katerine knows something is wrong, she has little resemblance to the woman she has always believed was her mother. In a very well rendered emotionally wringing scene the mother does tell her how she came to be adopted and tells her “Yes, you are Jewish”. The girl wants to know her real name. The last lines are very moving:
““I’ll ask Sister, perhaps she has it, perhaps …. But be patient, better I go myself, it’s more fitting.” “And family? Relatives? Do I have someone … ?” “How can we know that? You have … me, Uncle Karol, Auntie, aren’t we your family ? Am I not a mother to you and you a daughter to me?” “Yes, yes, you are, of course you are, but —” and Katerine broke into tears again. Shortly after Saint Katerine’s Day, mother and daughter together composed and mailed the following notice to the Red Cross, Missing Relatives Division: “Miriam Zack, daughter of Leyzer and Rivke Zack from the city of T., seeks relatives, wherever they may be, within the country or abroad. Reply.”
I have access to two more stories by Lili Berger and hope to post on them this year.
Berger, Lili. From The Yivo Encyclopedia of Eastern European Jews.
(1916–1996), Yiddish novelist and critic; resistance fighter. Lili Berger (née List; “Lili Berger” is a pseudonym) was born in Malkin, in the Białystok region of Poland. Brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family, she attended Hebrew school for three years and also received a secular education at the Polish Jewish secondary school in Warsaw. In 1933, Berger moved to Brussels and studied pedagogy. Three years later she joined the growing number of Polish Jewish refugees in Paris and soon married Louis Gronowski, a leading figure in the Jewish section of the Communist Party.
Before World War II, Berger worked for various Yiddish journals, including the daily Di naye prese, the weekly Di vokh, and the monthly Afsnay. She also taught at Yiddish supplementary schools. Her professional interest in pedagogy later inspired her to write about renowned Jewish educators; these figures appear in several short stories, a play about Janusz Korczak (Der letster tog [The Last Day]; 1978) and a novel (Nisht farendikte bletlekh [Unfinished Pages]; 1982) about Bundist leader Ester Frumkin (Khaye Malke Lifshits).
During the Nazi occupation of France, Berger and her husband, like many other Jewish Communists in France, were active in the Jewish resistance; she herself led a small autonomous cell within the Communist Party. From 1942, Berger was head of the National Movement against Racism (MNCR). In 1949, she returned to her native Poland, and in Warsaw published her first three books: a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and a novel. The short stories, titled Fun haynt un nekhtn (From Today and Yesterday; 1965), drew predominantly on Berger’s own experiences of the war in France and its aftermath in Eastern Europe. In Eseyen un skitsn (Essays and Sketches; 1965) she criticized works of Polish, French, Swiss, and Yiddish fiction and reflected on the role of literature.
Berger passionately believed in the dream of Jewish reconstruction in the Communist state. Her ideological conviction outlived that of many others, and she did not leave Poland until the late 1960s. “Di papirene oytsres” (Paper Treasures), written immediately upon her return to France in 1968 and published in the collection Ekhos fun a vaytn nekhtn (Echoes of a Remote Past; 1993), is a thinly disguised autobiographical account of a writer having to choose a small number of manuscripts to take with him when he is forced to leave Poland. The story, while focusing on dilemmas faced by an individual, powerfully reveals Berger’s own mixed emotions toward that historical moment when the curtain was about to fall on Jewish culture in Poland.
Berger’s literary career gained great momentum after she settled in France for the second time. Though she published two books in Polish, most of her writing was in Yiddish. There she produced three novels, several collections of short stories and essays, a play, and translations into Yiddish from French and Polish. She also contributed widely to Yiddish magazines and participated in Parisian Yiddish circles until her death.