Itka’s sun-tanned left fore-arm stretched out limply from her hospital smock when I visited a few months ago, the five numbers tatooed by the Nazi SS shocking me with their blue clarity as nothing else can. She was in a rehab center near Philadelphia after falling down the stairs in her Northeast rowhouse. Thank G-d she wasn’t hurt worse, but still it was awful: a broken wrist, a fractured sternum and a rib; painful compression in the neck vertebrae, plus miscellaneous contusions and bruises. She’s been handsome and brave through it all; her faced contorted over and over as lightning bolts of pain shot through her 86-year old torso and spine. as I sat there unable to help. What can it matter though, in a certain sense: Itka Zygmuntowicz has seen so much worse.
From Ciechanow, Poland, Itka was thirteen when on September 1, 1939 the Wehrmacht invaded and World War II broke out. The Holocaust had long since begun in Germany itself. The pace of torture and murder in Poland was horrific, and in no time, Itka and her family were deported from their home town to a ghetto in a small northern city and ultimately taken to Auschwitz. Her siblings and parents were exterminated forthwith, her mother bidding her goodbye at the infamous point of separation. Telling Itka that she must go with the younger children and to be brave, her mother’s last words bid my friend that no matter what might happen, she should not carry hate in her heart….Itka, 15 years old at deportation and still strong, managed to survive until liberation, after the Nazis prison guards forcibly marched thousands of Jews out of Auschwitz in the spring of 1945. Her odyssey through Sweden, thence to America, is a story of hope and survival and grit.
We’ve been acquainted now for more than 20 years. We’re makhatonim, related by marriage, but only since 1992. But before that came an even stronger bond. Yiddishkayt, Jewishness, and the language itself, have grown between us like bamboo in the tropics. Her mamaloshenis flawless and I’m fortunate and blessed to speak with her, every word, every phrase, a gift to my heart, a blessing on my soul.
I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town built solely to ”finish” the War. By “War,” I mean World War II, of course. My generation uses that term without a thought, as if the American involvements in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan do not matter. Oak Ridge was built to create the Atomic Bomb, a deus ex machina intended to break the Japanese war machine by terrorizing its populace to their very core.
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, my mother in poverty, gehakte tsuris and mishegas, my father in a middle-class home. Yiddish was a secret language that my parents spoke in short bursts and quips at the dinner table so us kids couldn’t understand. My mother learned it as a child from her grandparents and parents, all living in one home, the older generation having emigrated from Dvinsk (Latvia) and Cherkasy (Ukraine) at the turn of the 20th century. My father’s parents also spoke the tongue but only as children. Cy’s home was an “all-rightnik” one. Americans spoke English. He learned seven languages in his school years, and his Hebrew and German (as well as Russian) made Yiddish a cinch when he spoke it with Rose.
My mother’s father, Pop Polonsky, visted us in the summers sometimes, even lived with us for a full year when I was five or a bit older. He and my mother fought a lot, screaming at each other in that strange but juicy tongue. Geshmak vowels and guttural consonants kidnapped my kishkes. Meanwhile we watched endless re-runs of American newsreels from World War II on Walter Cronkite’s Twentieth Century, Sunday evenings right before Lassie. I read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and learned of the camps. The War surrounded us at school and at home, in popular culture and in Hebrew School. So did the khurbn, the Holocaust: stories of human skin lampshades and the Bitch of Buchenwald seared my teenage brain as I made my way through Shirer. Eichmann was captured and executed in Israel. Slowly it all came together for me.
What can be more precious than a human connection? Itka’s body and soul are my living links. What is the sweetest revenge against Hitler? History has a chance if it’s written in a book, told in a story, seen on an arm. Ink, tatooed or printed, doesn’t lie. It cannot be erased. And Yiddish can be learned and preserved for another generation. Hitler lost; the scoreboard glows: Yiddish 20, Nazis, none.
How can I treasure enough of these moments, the connection I feel when I speak Yiddish with Itka and she tells me for the umpteenth time a story of her childhood before the war? A beggar would come to the door of their modest home asking for alms and little Itka would answer the door and recoil. Her grandmother would send her back with a few precious coins telling the child what tzedokeh, charity, really means in life. The words ring in my ears each time, loud and clear as the first time she spoke them to me: You only have what you give away.
Itka’s surviving sons and their wives and children have become family to me and my wife in our home. Acts of lovingkindness come naturally but Itka never stops talking about them, thanking me profusely. My zkhus, my spiritual account, fills to the top in her constant reckoning, though by my take, it remains quite poor.I’m embarrassed each time she starts up, but know that I should express my gratitude for her feelings that she loves to share.
And this is why I offer up phrases everywhere, straining to teach a few words to the Yiddish-impaired. I’ve worked at my bond with Itka Zygmuntowicz, forging a connection that I want to remain. Passing along this precious linguistic yerusha,this inheritance, allows me thank her, allows me to own what I give freely away.