June 11, 2008, - 5:01 pm
My Grandma, the Seamstress Who Lived the American Dream, Blessed Be Her Memory–Insight From Whence I Came
By Debbie Schlussel
I’m sorry that my promised piece on a Al-Qaeda terrorist on our shores–whose son fundraises for Barack Obama–is not yet up. But I just returned from my grandmother’s funeral (and to make a bad day worse, I returned to find my tire flat as a pancake). That piece will wait for tonight or tomorrow.
For security reasons, I will not note my grandmother’s name here, especially since she is now, escorted by relatives, on her way to burial in Israel, next to my grandfather in Jerusalem. If–and probably, when–the spineless Israeli government, along with pressure from the equally spineless U.S.–the Muslims are bequeathed Jerusalem, I do not want some of the many Muslim haters who read this site, to find my grandparents’ graves and do what they did to other Jewish graves under their control (they drilled holes and urinated in them and used their tombstones to make a Nazi-esque sidewalk).
And now more about my grandmother, whom I briefly mentioned, last night:
Although my grandmother had been ill for some time, stricken with Alzheimer’s-esque dementia, I remember her fondly as a dedicated wife, homemaker, and mother. In listening to my mother’s eulogy, I learned things about my grandmother I never knew before. Here is some of what I remember and know, and some of what I learned:
From the time I was little and too young to understand the Holocaust, I knew that both of my grandparents had no teeth, a result of extreme malnutrition and no dental care in the Nazi concentration camps. Both wore a full set of dentures. But it, like losing most of her family to the Nazi ovens and bullets, did not stop her from making it.
She was a survivor.
My grandmother was born the sixth child of seven children, five boys, two girls in Olkusz, a small Polish town near the border of Germany. At a young age, she showed strong sewing skills, which saved her life. Because she was a talented seamstress, she was sent to work and learn from her uncle–my great-great-uncle–a well-known tailor in the Champs-Elysees in Paris. I still have relatives, the descendants of the tailor, who live in France. She was also sent to a special school for seamstresses.
When the Nazis invaded, my grandmother was allowed to live because she sewed. While most of her family was sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, my grandmother worked in Sosnowicz, Poland in a workshop, where she was ordered to make Nazi Wehrmacht uniforms. Yes, my grandmother helped make brown shirts for the brown shirts. And that’s how she survived.
Later, she was sent to a camp, where every day the Nazis marched her into a workshop where she mended uniforms and sewed, sort of like the sewing workshop in the movie, “Escape From Sobibor.” There were Czechoslavakians in and around the camp, and many of them were good to the Jews. They gave them bits of their stale food and old cake and helped them. That’s why my grandmother always saved a picture of a Czech woman and her son, who helped her survive.
Compared to my grandfather–who survived hard labor and near death in many camps–my grandmother had it easier. Maybe that’s why, when most Jewish Sabbaths–after we walked to my grandparents to visit, my grandmother would leave the room, when my grandfather talked about the experiences in the concentration camps. She didn’t want to hear about it. She wanted to forget and move on.
When the Holocaust was over, my grandmother learned that her sister, my late Aunt Esther, and two brothers survived. Her brother was in Bergen Belsen camp. And when my grandmother reunited with him, she met his friend, my grandfather, and they got married. They lived in Bergen Belsen, which became a displaced persons camp, for 3 years. That’s where my mother was born. My grandfather planned to leave it all behind and move to Israel, but at the last minute, he chose America instead. He heard that so many survivors were flooding Israel that people lived in tents on the streets of Jerusalem.
When my grandparents moved to America, they had nothing–no bilingual education, no government aid and welfare. They had the shirts on their backs. They and my mother lived in a single room in a house of a Jewish woman in Detroit. My grandfather found it hard to find a job because he refused to work on the Jewish Sabbath.
(Incidentally, my grandfather was descended from the Amshinover Chassidic Rebbe, the Peshischa Chassidic Rebbe, and the Afstrafser Chassidic rabbi–a heritage of which he was always very proud.)
Finally, he learned that Detroit needed a “shoichet”–a kosher slaughterer. He trained himself and ultimately opened his own kosher slaughterhouse. He and my grandmother got up at 3:00 a.m and took three buses from 12th Street in Detroit (where they lived) to Morris Kosher poultry, my grandfather’s business, in Hazel Park–a Detroit suburb. My grandfather would do the slaughtering, and my grandmother would pluck the feathers and put together the orders for meat and poultry. It was the last kosher slaughterhouse in Detroit (and it was never raided by ICE on a $10 million boondoggle).
When my grandfather finally closed up his slaughterhouse–because of government over-regulation and racist state inspectors harassing his Black employees–he turned the business into a giant kosher poultry, meat, and food distributorship, which my uncle now owns and runs. My grandmother helped him–not only in the business as his first employee/partner–but also at home as a homemaker–cooking, cleaning, sewing with pride.
Because sewing saved my grandmother’s life, I remember her constantly urging my mother to take me and my sisters to sewing lessons, thinking maybe it would someday save our lives, too. I took the lessons, and although I can’t make anything or make major alterations the way my grandmother–the skilled seamstress could–I can sew some pretty cool things. And I do sew some cool embellishments and designs on clothes as a hobby. In the future, I’ll put up pics of some of the things I’ve created. It’s really more art than anything else.
My grandmother made the greatest costumes. I could show her a picture of anything, and she could make it from scratch, without a pattern or anything. When I was a kid, my favorite thing was “Little Orphan Annie,” the musical. I showed my grandmother a picture, and she made me a satin red dress with the white collar, just like Annie. With my red, curly wig, I looked just like her for a costume party. So many people complimented her skilled craftsmanship and offered my grandmother money to make them things for them. But she wouldn’t do it. She made stuff for us out of love.
I won’t forget my grandmother’s “Bubbelehs”–giant matzoh-meal and egg pancakes, with tons of sugar on top. Those were good. And even though I’m not a fan of the dish, no matter who makes it, my grandmother’s gefilte fish was very popular in the Detroit Jewish community.
As I noted last night, because of the Holocaust and poor record availability, we don’t know exactly how old my grandmother was. But we know she was into her 90s and probably 94.
She lived a long life and after a lot of sorrow, lived the American dream, building a family, home, and a business with my grandfather in the only country on earth where they were free to do it.
My Grandma, Zichronah LiVrachah–Blessed Be Her Memory. May she rest in peace in her final resting place of Jerusalem, the eternal Jewish Capital.