That Son-of-a-Bitch Hitler
By Gerry Holzman
I called her Mama Sarah.
She was my mother’s mother and she lived with us, on and off, for the last 15 years of her life. Almost as soon as I could walk, she would take me on her regular weekly shopping expeditions to help her confront Jake the Butcher and Abe the Grocer. My short-term payoff for softening their hard hearts was usually a slice of salami or a schtickle pickle. The long-term reward was a trip to the Saturday matinee at the Carlton Theater to watch Tarzan or Tom Mix.
Because the feature film was accompanied by a short, a cartoon, and an endless serial, Mama Sarah always bought a little something for us to eat. Should her favorite daughter’s only child go three hours without food ?
These Saturday excursions would often begin with a visit to the candy store—the one with the big wooden Indian by the door—where she would patiently wait while I made the agonizing decisions required by the responsibility of picking out a nickel’s worth of candy that would please both of us. Other times she would stop at the corner grocery where Abe would fuss over me while he cut us an enormous slice of halavah from the big round loaf atop the counter. Every once in a while, she would bring a paper bag from our apartment filled with taglach or some other Russian treat from the Old Country. One time, she even brought two thick slices of pumpernickel slathered with great gobs of yellow schmaltz, an East European “delicacy” that has been blamed for killing more Jews than the Russian Cossacks.
Although she never talked to me about Russia and rarely even mentioned it by name, Old Country was a phrase that frequently made its way into her sentences of broken English. It was, “ Jerilah, bring the alte knoz, from the Old Country,” or “You want to sleep mit mine Old Country pillow?” or “Such a snow, like in the Old Country.”
Her family had come to America in 1898, refugees from the pogroms, the poverty and the prejudice that were so much a part of Nicholas II’s Russia. She was Sarah Bernstein then, one of four unmarried daughters of my great grandparents, two faceless and, I guess, courageous people about whom I wish I knew something.
It wasn’t long after her arrival that she met Jacob Lopinsky who was a shopkeeper on New York’s lower East Side. Overcoming her family’s groundless concern that he might be Polish (“With a name like Lubansky, what else!”) she married him and, in rapid succession, produced three daughters and a son. Seeking a better life, Jacob Lopinsky moved his family to Madison, West Virginia where, for 12 years, he conducted a prosperous dry goods business. Unfortunately, his premature death forced Mama Sarah and her adult children to leave and return to New York City. Because she had no marketable skills, she was entirely dependent upon her meager savings and the compassion of her children.
So that is how she came to live with us, first in a Jewish neighborhood in Jamaica and then, shortly after my father opened a department store in upstate New York, in our new home in rural Amenia.
She arrived along with a large steamer trunk which contained all of her important possessions, many of them the very same items that her family had originally brought from the Old Country: the large dented brass samovar, two complete sets of dishes, pots and silverware--one for meat and one for dairy-- down pillows, a huge quilt, linens, and an odd assortment of silver wine cups and brass candlesticks.
I don’t recall her bringing any books or for that matter, ever seeing her reading one. I know she could not read or write English; although I am fairly certain she could read some Yiddish since the occasional visitor from New York City would sometimes bring a copy of the Daily Forward for her.
Nor did she bring any photographs. I would not have expected to see many from Russia but as I look back, I’m surprised that there were none from the Lower East Side days or the West Virginia years. She literally had nothing tangible to look back upon.
Simply put, other than a few pieces of cloth, the only physical connections to the Old Country and to her past life in America were items used to prepare and serve food.
Fress a bistle, Jerilah,” she would constantly urge me as she hobbled around our tiny kitchen in Amenia, preparing some aromatic concoction from the Old Country. Although she spoke to me mainly in heavily accented English, she sprinkled her sentences with large doses of Yiddish. I never, ever spoke Yiddish to her or to anybody else—it was beneath the dignity of a teen-age American boy to speak such an alien and shameful language in the 1940’s—but I understood nearly everything she said. “ Furstaist vus er zug der?” (Do you understand what I am saying to you?) she would sometimes challenge me and I would invariably nod or mumble affirmatively.
In truth, Food was our common language, our mother tongue, our mama lukshon. Because there were no photographs, no books, no art work, no--not even a bubamiesah or two—it was through the medium of food that she taught me about the Old Country; the range of her course offerings was enormous: stuffed derma, fried herring and pickled herring, borscht and blintzes, gefelte fish ( for this, she grew her own horse radish), matzoh brie, chopped liver, honey cake, mandelbrot, knishes, challah…
To this day, I love the music--the pulse and the cadence--of the names of these traditional Yiddish delicacies nearly as much as I love their taste and smell:
kugel, gribenitz, kreplach,--
One might even say that Mama Sarah was a minstrel of sorts; her lyre was the stove and her song was “Fress a bissel.”
But the minstrel too early lost her lyre and her song too soon came to a close.
During the last three years of her life, she was forced to drastically curtail her activities because of a very severe arthritic condition. The stiffness in her hands and legs became so extreme that she could not even work in her beloved kitchen. There were to be no more sallies to joust with Jake the Butcher nor onions to be chopped with the alte knoz. Mama Sarah’s world was reduced to her bedroom(which I shared with her) and a daily fifteen-foot journey into the living room. The radio became her principal source of entertainment, information and social stimulation.
She loved Stella Dallas, the wise Kitchen Table Lady whose adventures opened the afternoon soap opera schedule (“a real bahlahbustah”); she laughed at the escapades of Lorenzo Jones, the amiable inventor (“some schlemeil’); and how she detested Our Gal Sunday’s snobbish husband, Lord Henry Brinston (“a regular Cossack”).
Those radio years were the years of World War II so Mama Sarah listened faithfully to the Sunday evening broadcasts of Walter Winchell (“a gantsheh kibitzer”) and expressed enormous admiration for President Roosevelt (“such a mensch”). But she saved her strongest emotions for Adolph Hitler (“He should gai in drerd, that son-of-a-bitch Hitler.”) For Mama Sarah, he was never Adolph Hitler, he was always “That son-a-bitch Hitler.”
The German tyrant was never far from her thoughts. Each morning as she endured her heartbreaking journey from bedroom to living room, leaning heavily on her cane during each agonizing step, she would invariably pause along the way to mutter a curse, “That son-of-a-bitch Hitler, he should have what I have.” Once Mama Sarah had finished telling God how to deal with Hitler, she would take a couple more short steps and collapse into her stuffed chair, ready to exist for another day.
Mama Sarah died in the early fall of 1946. She outlived that son-of-a-bitch Hitler by more than a year.
from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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