January 26, 2015

Liberation Day

Tomorrow, January 27, is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

I have no fresh insights appropriate to this occasion. What I do have is a page from my mother's poesiealbum that her classmate Hannelore Ascher wrote for her on October 3, 1938--a time when these 12-year-old girls still lived in Hamburg but were hearing frightening things about Jews in Germany being arrested and then disappearing.

Hannelore was quoting a little couplet that German girls would have been familiar with: "Speak little but speak the truth/Too much talk is dangerous!" (In German, it rhymes.) A month later, my mom escaped Germany with her parents and sister and came to the United States. Hannelore's family did not leave in time. Hannelore was deported to Auschwitz. She did not survive the Holocaust.

I don't have a photo of Hannelore, but I wanted on this day to remember her, along with so many others, and so I'm looking at her handwriting and what she chose to share with my mother.

Also: The Washington Post has put together a video of two D.C.-area survivors of Auschwitz who talk to students and visitors at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. These two men, Henry Greenbaum and Martin Weiss, are worth your time. You will see how students hang on their every word, as did I. Do watch it:  The Holocaust's last voices.

January 23, 2014

'Nothing Ever Comes Free'

From Katie Coon, a high school student in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, come two poems--one about saying goodbye, and the other about the sacrifices that freedom sometimes requires. 

If I had to say goodbye
To the ones I love the most
I would raise my glass, and give them a toast

How do you say goodbye
To the ones you love
Way way up above

Violence is like cancer
It spreads like wildfire
It hurts everything
That comes into its path

It’s so hard to say goodbye

To those we care about
We want the best for them
Without a doubt


The freedom we have today
Comes with a hefty price
For the people who came before us
Made the ultimate sacrifice

Always do the best you can do
Strive to be the best you can be
Because nothing ever comes free

We stand for what we believe in
Our hearts are true and free
We take pride in our freedom
The freedom for you and me


Many thanks, Katie, for sending your verses.

November 25, 2013

Coming To America

Serena Sherwood sent me this poem that she titled "Coming To America," back in April, when she was in Mrs. Susan Tenon's eighth-grade English class at Fairport Harding School in Ohio.  How I wish I'd posted it earlier, when my mom was still here to see it!  But maybe it's appropriate that I'm only getting to it today--coincidentally, 75 years (almost to the day) after my mother and her family sailed into New York Harbor on the Queen Mary. 

Here's why I say that:  Serena has taken on the point of view of my mom--that is, the 12-year-old Jutta in The Year of Goodbyes--as she and her parents and sister leave Hamburg on the midnight train, wait to board the Queen Mary in Paris, and cross the Atlantic Ocean.  This 21st-century student's channeling of Jutta's thoughts and emotions is spot-on.  Not only that, Serena conveys these thoughts and emotions, as well as the facts depicted in the book, in perfect rhyme!  I'm kind of in awe.  Enjoy, and thank you, Serena.


As the clock strikes twelve on this night
I will board a train with much fright
Early tomorrow morning I will be in France
We tour a city filled with romance
I had fun until the morning light
It was time to go on the ship, I felt quite alright

It was time to climb aboard the Queen Mary
Just to get there we had to ride a ferry
As the boat left I start to feel ill
But I will enjoy myself still
Coming to America I thought would be scary
But those worries I didn’t carry

Here in America I can be outdoors
I won’t be kicked out of all of the stores
My father can look at new jobs
There will be no angry mobs
I have enough stuff to fill a few drawers
But at least I’m away from all of the wars

Now my family and I get to start anew
With my poesiealbum where my friends drew
I really wish they could be with me
Maybe our paths will cross, we'll see

Finally, this Thanksgiving week, I can't resist appending an article my mother wrote for her student newspaper a few years after arriving here, to illustrate how appreciative she was to be living safely in this country.  Flaws and all, this country was a haven for her as for so many others, and she never forgot that.

November 19, 2013

'Nothing But Forward'

From Caleb Hites of Fairport Harding School in Ohio comes this poem about moving forward in the face of hardship.  "To keep going, keep moving," the poem counsels.  "Life goes on. . . . It wants to move on/Do you?"  Thank you, Caleb, for this poem of encouragement.

Life goes on
It may get difficult
But you have to have the strength
To keep going, keep moving
Nothing but forward
Never move back
If you move back
Did you lose all progress?
Is that ultimate failure?
Yes it is
Life goes on
When you are ready
It doesn’t move back
Unless you force it that way
It wants to move on
Do you?
Forget the past
And all your bad memories
Make the future
And all the good ones will come

October 1, 2013

Jutta Salzberg Levy

I have put off writing this post.  I have put off writing, because it is so painful to share the news that on September 4, 2013, my dear mother, Jutta Salzberg Levy, died.  Not just that, though–it’s not just that it is painful.  If I’m going to tell you about my mother’s death,  you see, I want to tell you about her life, too.  You may know something of her life, because she is, after all, the central figure in my book, The Year of Goodbyes.  But that book covers just one year in her long (not long enough) life, when she was 11 and 12 twelve years old.  And there is so much more to know than her life in Germany in 1938.

So I have put off writing because when I reach inside for the right thing to say here, I am finding both a geyser of memories and, at the same time, a well that has run dry.  Some might call it writer’s block.  I think it’s simply daughter’s grief.

And yet, I do want visitors to this website–who are likely to know “Jutta Salzberg” from The Year of Goodbyes–to know that she is gone, and I want you to know at least a little bit more.  For that little bit more, the best I can do for now is to share what I said about Mom at her funeral service. . . .
When Rick told me on Thursday morning, the day after Mom died, that my sister in law and brother in law were going to drive in to D.C. from Ithaca for today; when Sharon told me, also on Thursday, that my mother’s niece and her husband were driving down from New Haven—I had the same impulse I have when I catch a really nice fish:  To tell my mother.  “Mom, Ann and Brian are coming in, isn’t that nice; Mom, Susie and Marty are driving down, isn’t that great; Mom, Kathy flew up from Greensboro; Jon and Melni are here from Connecticut; Mom—I caught a 23 inch rockfish. . . .”
I’m having the same impulse now:  “Mom, look at all your friends who gathered to say goodbye!”
I don’t know that I’ll ever free myself of the impulse—the need—to pick up the phone or get in the car and drive over to talk to my mother.
And I know that I’m not the only one.  My mother made friends everywhere she went and at all stages of her life.  In the grocery store checkout line.  At the gym.  In the beauty parlor.  The nail salon.  The theater.  The doctor’s office.  The dialysis center.  At my dining room table, with my friends.  At my friends’ dining room tables, with theirs.  There was, it seems to me, nothing my mother liked to do more than get to know people, all kinds of people, from all walks of life and different ages and religions and ethnicities and, even, believe it or not, political persuasions.
We could always get a table at Clyde’s because she became friends with servers and managers there.  We could always get a hot ticket at the Kennedy Center because she became friends with a very dear man, whose name shall remain top secret, in the box office.  She didn’t make friends to score a reservation or a theater seat.  Mom was without guile in that way.  She made friends because she found people, in all their variety, infinitely interesting and inherently worthwhile.
But, as anyone who knew her knows, my mother was not all talk.  Relationships and the attendant yakking were central, but so were experiences.  Here are some things Mom did with me into her 80s:  kayak, fish, fish from a kayak, run around in a power boat, run aground in a power boat at a fairly high speed (my heart was in my throat, she was kind of, “and so?”), explore Sugarloaf mountain or, to be exact, the products of the Sugarloaf mountain winery, go to dive-y jazz clubs. . . .
Here are things she did without me—not into her 80s, but still—helicopter around the
rim of a volcano, get submerged in a submarine, travel to Alaska and Russia when such travel was still exotic, become a charter member of Bally Total Fitness and joyfully head to the gym for classes—aerobics, weights, Pilates—almost every day. . . .
Really, Mom could be a beer commercial:  “Go for the gusto.”  She loved the Kennedy Center, National Theater, opera, parties, movies, her grandsons, the rest of us in the family, her friends. . . .
And so I’m back to her friends.  Which brings us back to relationships, and to talking, and how, right now, I want to say, “Hey, Mom, shall I bring you a copy of Rick’s eulogy?”
But I’m going to veer in a slightly different direction, to finish out with something else that Mom loved, and this is a direct quote:
“I love my stuff.”
She said this to an auditorium full of seventh and eighth graders at the Holton-Arms School.  It was 2010 and I’d just finished a talk on my then-new book about Mom’s last year  in Nazi Germany.  One chapter depicts my 12-year-old mother agonizing over what would fit into the suitcase she was allowed when she and her family were packing to leave Germany forever. 
Now, at Holton-Arms, it was Q&A time, and I had a not-so-secret weapon in the audience:  my mother herself.  Hands waved.  The kids wanted to know—how did she feel leaving behind her friends, family, home?  How did she feel about leaving her stuff?
How did she feel?  “Terrible,” she said.  “I love my stuff.”
Truer words were never spoken.
When we sifted through her stuff at the house on Vance Place, before the move to the apartment, Mom could barely contemplate selling anything.  I insisted—everybody downsizes, Mom!—and we pulled together enough for an uninspired estate sale.
I admit:  Mistakes were made.  The Barbra Streisand CDs:  missing and presumed trashed.  There were tears.
The opera glasses that belonged to Mom’s mother-in-law, a woman so forbidding that my mother only ever referred to her as “Mrs. Levy,” not “Mom” or “my mother-in-law”: missing and presumed sold.  More tears.
My mother’s love affair with her stuff makes sense.  You may lose your childhood, but if you manage to hang on to your poesiealbum—it’s not entirely lost.
You may lose your father at a young age, but if you have the mother-of-pearl handbag he gave you, his doting love remains tangible.
Your mother-in-law never liked you—but in the end you got her exquisite opera glasses.
So, loving your stuff isn’t really about loving your stuff.  It’s about loving your life.  And, although there were certainly some low points, my mother loved her life.  It was full of people, it was full of gusto, and also, okay, it was full of a certain amount of truly cherished stuff.


2005 reunion in D.C. with classmates from 1930s Jewish School for Girls of Hamburg, Germany

With Valerie and Janee Ross, creators of incredibly good Boss ice cream

Garrison Forest School, Owings Mills, Maryland

With me and Sister Patricia Gamgort, OSB, of St. Martin's Ministries, Ridgely, MD

And now she paddles away. . .

June 24, 2013

A Wish

Maxwell Dingess, a student at Ohio's Fairport Harding School, wrote in an email to me that The Year of Goodbyes reminds him of love and friendship.  The poem he sent, "A Wish," reminds me of optimism and hope.  Thanks, Maxwell, for your thoughts.

A Wish one wish
Only one
A wish for world peace has come
To stop fighting is a dream
I wish it was true
But only with a wish from a Kind loving soul
If A wish was made
May it be for peace, Freedom and love
No hate
No fear
Only love
A wish for freedom and world peace
Save the world
With a wish of freedom
No disagreements
No discrimination
No pain
Just loving people
That’s a wish
A wish for world peace

June 10, 2013


Fifteen-year-old Stephen Maffo attends Fairport Harding School in Fairport Harbor, Ohio.  Reading The Year of Goodbyes led him to wrestle with the subject of war.  When, if ever, is war necessary?  In his poem, Stephen emphasizes the risk of not standing up to attackers, and the need to ensure our nation's survival.  It's a weighty and serious subject.  I appreciate Stephen's thoughts and the manner in which he has expressed them, even as I don't embrace the zero-sum thinking reflected in the poem's we win/they lose thesis, and I hold on to the hope that, in most conflicts, there is another way.

Many have mixed feelings
About this topic,
Serving in a war is a war for survival
It’s a struggle
That we as Americans
Face with the utmost
Feelings to fight for it,
And do what you feel is right for the nation.
You may be thinking
“There are ways around it” and
“We shouldn’t fight, we need another resolution.”
Another resolution?
You mean withdraw.
Let them build up and strike us again?
Attack us
Terrorize us
And allow it to happen?  
The survival of our nation
The defeat of theirs.