Thursday, July 12, 2012

Chapter One of Sondra's Search: Finding a lost Torah scroll can be as difficult as finding yourself.

     When the lunch bell rang at Lincoln Elementary School, eleven-year-old Sondra had no idea that during the next hour her life was going to change forever. She waved good-bye to her classmates as she climbed aboard her father’s mud splattered pick-up truck that was standing in front of the school waiting for her.

     “Hi, Daddy,” she leaned over and gave her father a kiss. His clean-shaven face was smooth and he was dressed in a blue suit that matched his eyes. That was the way he dressed every weekday when he worked in the Men’s Department at Apple’s Department Store. It was quite a contrast to the father Sondra saw in the morning when she woke up and in the evening before supper. Then he would be dressed in old, ragged work clothes with a woolen cap on his head and high rubber boots on his feet. Sometimes Sondra kept him company in the barn while he milked the dozen dairy cows by hand. Once in a while, when it wasn’t too cold, she still helped him. It was one of their special times together.

     Julius Afelbaum drove his truck five blocks out of town and then rode over a narrow bridge and around potholes for a tenth of a mile till they arrived home. Home was a two-story farmhouse set on seventy acres of rich, Kansas pastureland. Waiting at the back porch was Helga. A small woman, with short, black hair and dark eyes, it was clear that Sondra got her looks from her mother. Helga’s face lit up at the sight of her daughter and husband and she had a kiss for both of them. Sondra returned the kiss with a smile and the dimple on her left cheek deepened.

     “What’s for dinner?” Sondra asked as she entered the sunny kitchen. With red gingham wallpaper, lacey white curtains, and a bright white, old-fashioned gas stove it was a most cheerful room. In the summers the family ate their meals in the dark dining room full of ornate furniture and china knickknacks that had been brought over from Germany.  It was wasteful, though, in the winter to heat that room just for mealtimes.

     As Sondra sat down to the pot roast her mother had made she felt sorry for all her other classmates, who were sitting down to a cold peanut butter or lunchmeat sandwich with only their mothers for company. It was her father with his funny stories from work who made their meals lively. She and her mother were an appreciative audience, and usually one of her father’s stories would remind her mother of an amusing anecdote from college. There was usually a lot of laughter at the table.

      This meal, though, Sondra had something on her mind. An assignment for science, making a family tree to study the similarities between the children, parents, and grandparents, had reminded her that she had no idea what her maternal grandparents looked like. Dipping her bread into her gravy, she took a deep breath.

     “How come we don’t have any pictures of Mommy’s family?”

     There was a silence and Sondra heard her mother, suddenly pale, set her fork down.

     “I…, I don’t feel well. I think I will lie down.”

     Sondra watched as her mother made her way from the table. Sondra suddenly felt uncomfortable, and angry that she felt that way.

     “What happened?” she asked her father with an edge to her voice.

     Julius Afelbaum wiped his hands and mouth methodically and set the linen napkin next to his plate. He rubbed his hand across his eyes and moved his chair closer to his daughter.

     “Do you remember last fall when Cousin Oscar told you how his parents were killed by Hitler?”

     “Yes,” Sondra nodded her head slowly, feeling fearful.

     “The same thing happened to Mommy’s parents.” Julius reached out and took his
daughter’s hand.

     “I don’t understand,” the little girl said. “Mommy always tells me such nice stories
about her parents.”

      “It was nice, ‘til Hitler came to power.”

      “Why didn’t her parents leave like Oma and Opa?”

      “My parents had great-uncle Simon here to help them. Mommy’s family had
nowhere to go. Listen, Sondra,” Julius closed his daughter’s smooth, little hands inside his two callused ones. “The Nazis made my life hard. I had to leave home and start over again here in America. But that is nothing like what happened to Mommy. They murdered her parents and her little sister. Mommy had to work in a work camp and was a slave. I know very little about it because Mommy does not want to talk about it. It hurts her too much. Any questions you have you can ask me, but not Mommy. Do you understand?”

     Sondra nodded her head slowly. “The Nazis burned the pictures, right.” It was a
statement, not a question and the tears that had been threatening to overflow ever since her mother left the table broke into heartrending sobs. Her Daddy put his arms around her and patted her back, but he did not say everything would be all right as he usually did.  He let her cry herself out and then, once she had dried her face, suggested they have dessert.

     “How can you think of dessert?” Sondra accused her father with resentful eyes.

     He shocked her by laughing quietly. “Sweetheart,” he said, stroking her dark hair. “I know this is hard for you, but I’ve had twenty years to come to terms with everything the Nazis did to us. The best revenge I can take is to live a normal life and show them that they didn’t kill all of us.”

     In the end, Sondra ate the bowl of applesauce her father brought her. The two of them cleaned up the kitchen together and Sondra was just a little late going back to school. If anyone in the sixth grade class noticed that she had been crying, they did not mention it.

     She was surprised when she returned home that afternoon to find her mother sitting at the kitchen table with her history textbooks spread out in front of her as if nothing unusual had happened that noon. Helga chatted pleasantly with her daughter while Sondra ate an apple. If she had not known better, Sondra would have thought she had imagined the whole thing.

     “I think I’ll ride my bike over to Howie’s,” Sondra announced.

     Helga nodded her approval. “If you’re going to be late, ride over to the store and Daddy can put your bike in the back of the truck and bring you home.”  She kissed her daughter good-bye and watched from the window as Sondra took her green Schwinn out of the barn and pedaled out of sight.

     Howie lived across town, past the university, in the newer section of Lincoln. Their fathers were brothers and the two cousins were born a month apart. Sondra’s earliest memories were of Uncle Herbert dropping off Aunt Irene at the farmhouse so she and Howie could play together while their mothers visited. In Sondra’s eyes, it was a tragedy that they went to different grammar schools, but it was probably one of the best things for Sondra. Quite a daydreamer, she tended to look to Howie for direction when they were together. Being in different schools had made her more independent.

      Aunt Irene answered the door. As far as Sondra was concerned, her aunt was one of the prettiest women she had ever seen. Slim and stylish with her honey-blonde hair twisted into a French knot, she was quite a contrast to Helga. Sondra’s mother cared little about clothing other than that it was clean and comfortable. Still Irene and Helga were the best of friends, talking to each other daily.         

     “How are you, Sondra?” Irene asked.

     “Okay,” Sondra answered hoping that her aunt had not noticed her swollen eyes. She wondered when the family had all switched languages. German had been Sondra's mother tongue, but now she spoke English with everyone but her Oma.

     Irene ushered her into the modern, electric kitchen where Howie and Lisa were. Lisa was dressed in her Blue Bird’s uniform, complete with the girls’ club beanie. She and Howie were just finishing bowls of ice cream. Irene left the children and returned to her ironing in the basement. Indeed, she had noticed Sondra’s swollen eyes. She had called Helga that afternoon, not long after the kids had gone back to school. In a strained voice her sister-in-law had said she had a headache and didn’t feel like talking. Helga called back an hour later and was her normal, cheerful self. Still, Irene did not need to be a psychologist to know that there was a connection between Sondra’s swollen eyes and Irene’s headache.

     With an impatient motion Irene ran the iron back and forth across Herbert’s handkerchiefs. As much as she loved her sister-in-law, Irene strongly felt that she did not belong in a small town with only a handful of Jews and no other Holocaust survivors. Irene had been fourteen when her family left Germany, but that had been in 1936 before things had gotten really bad. They had moved to Omaha, where her father had an aunt. Irene had learned English and made friends quickly. She had none of the horrible memories that haunted Helga. Nor did the rest of the family, all of whom had gotten out in time.

     As much as she would miss her, Irene thought Julius should sell his cows, quit working for Uncle Simon, and take his family to live in Kansas City where Helga would find friends with similar backgrounds. But Uncle Simon would never approve and Julius would never go against his wishes. Thank goodness Herbert had stopped working at the store as soon as he finished high school. Raising cattle was hard work and Herbert but in many ten- and twelve-hour days, but at least he was his own boss.

     Meanwhile, back in the kitchen Sondra had refused Howie’s offer of ice cream. She bided her time, waiting for Lisa to leave for her Blue Bird meeting. The eight-year-old finished her last drop of ice cream and ran out.

     “What’s wrong?” Howie asked. He was a big boy for his eleven years, broad-shouldered and tall.

     Without preamble Sondra explained what she has learned at lunch.

     “Wow,” Howie exclaimed. “I didn’t know that!”

     “Nobody talks about it. My mother doesn’t like to talk about it.”

    “Oscar doesn’t like to talk about it either.”

    “I know,” Sondra answered sadly. “But I want to know what happened to Mommy’s parents!”

    Howie leaned back in his chair so that only two legs remained on the floor. He rested his blonde head against the wall and studied his cousin.

     “You know,” he tried to be comforting, “a lot of kids our age don’t have any grandparents. At least, you have Oma. Try not to think about it.”

     Try not to think about it!” Sondra exclaimed. “You wouldn’t be saying that if it was your grandparents.”

     “Don’t get in a tiff,” Howie sat straight his chair. “There no point worrying about something you can’t change. Do you want to look at my new rock star magazine?”

     “No,” Sondra answered shortly. Last year she and Howie had spent hours sitting together reading comic books. Now he was just interested in sports and rock star magazines. She could not understand what everyone saw in the Beatles. “I’m going to the library.”

     “Do you want me to come with you?”

     “If you want.”
     Howie followed her out of the house and jumped on his on his new ten-speed.  As they pedaled side by side, they made a handsome pair. He, with his Nordic good looks, was quite a contrast to his dark little cousin. Once inside the library, Howie picked up a Sports Illustrated and Sondra made her way to the card catalogue. It was the first time she had used it. Normally she would browse through the fiction section and grab books whose titles interested her. This time she looked up two subjects, Nazi and Holocaust. After wandering through the shelves she came to the librarian’s desk with two books. One was an elementary World War II history and the other The Diary Of Anne Frank.

      The librarian pointed to the second book. “You might find this a little difficult,

     “I want to try,” the girl insisted.

      “Okay,” the woman said as she stamped the books.

     The two cousins parted on the library steps and Sondra rode home to delve into her books. She made no mention of them to her mother, but when she did have questions she turned to her father, her Oma, or sometimes even to Cousin Oscar. Soon the librarian realized what subject Sondra was interested in and guided her to find books that were on her level.

     Summer came with its ninety-degree-plus weather and the pool opened. Howie gave Sondra no peace every morning until she agreed to meet him at The Crystal Plunge. She never suspected that he had received directions from his parents to keep her out of her room and in the sunshine. Although she was uncomfortable to be seen in a bathing suit with her budding new shape, it was fun frolicking in the water. And Howie was more like the old Howie, talking far less about rock groups and far more about fishing, baseball, and cookouts. Sondra continued her reading, but she learned that she could still enjoy life, even if Nazis had murdered her grandparents. By the time she entered seventh grade at the junior high school, she had developed a maturity that impressed her teachers.

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