As I am looking at my mother’s picture some sixty years after she died, at the age of fifty-nine, I realize how little thought I gave to the kind of person she really was when I was much younger. One of my earliest memories of her takes me back to the tiny village of Lichenroth, Germany, where I was born. She was sitting by the window sewing,watching us children playing outside. I believe that her silent presence conveyed a sense of well being and security in us that can never be lost.
Life was comparatively easy for my mother in Lichenroth because we lived in a big house with a barn and a stable, and because of Lina, our household help, whom we all adored. I used to enjoy watching my mother kneading a big trough full of dough, forming big round breads that were baked in the village oven, that usually supplied our big family for two weeks. I loved the laundry day when I could run after my mother and Lina to the meadow by the river and pick wild flowers, while a huge pile of laundry was spread out to dry in the sun. I was rather head-strong and insisted to help Lina milk the cows, until I was kicked by one of them. I also remember that I was able to climb on top of one of our rather wild horses, and was lucky that our stable man managed to save me.
Because Lichenroth had a one room school house, my parents decided to move to Berlin to give their five children a chance for a better education.
A household like ours would have driven me crazy. There were never less than nine people around our dinner table. Five children, my parents, my mother’s mother, and my father’s father who came to live with us in Berlin in cramped quarters until they died. In addition, my father often invited one or two poor people to have dinner with us on Jewish holidays or on Saturdays. I can’t believe how my mother managed to do the shopping, cooking, baking, and cleaning mainly by herself. She never complained.
I am still ashamed of myself that I often was embarrassed, that my mother looked and was older than the mother’s of several of my friends. After all, my oldest sister was ten years my senior. I was also embarrassed by her South-German accent, as she was born in a small town near Heidelberg, and she never adapted the Berlin Hoch-Deutch. As I got older, I often complained, thinking that I was the poor neglected child, being the fourth girl, five years younger than the third, and four years older than my brother. But that wasn’t really true. I can’t think of one incident where my mother showed preference for any one of us over another.
I remember one time thinking that she didn’t care if I was dead or alive. I was about seven years old. I was testing her, spreading myself out on the floor of the foyer with a white handkerchief on my face, which I thought would make me look as if I was dead. But my mother walked back and forth, doing whatever was on her agenda, stepping over me because I was in her way. After a while, I gave up.
While my mother never nagged to be neat, there were certain rules to be observed, like never do your homework on her beautiful cover on the dining room table. The one time I did, the inkwell spilled. In horror, I covered the spot with a piece of paper, and yelled in the kitchen, “Ma, I’m going down to play.” Upon my return, I received a slap in the face, one of the few I remember. My mother’s calm attitude, her ability to cope with difficult situations was reflected in many of her favorite expressions, which became a life’s philosophy for me as well. If you were too worried about a situation that you couldn’t control, she would say (translated from German), “If the sky falls down, all the sparrows get caught,” or “Nothing gets eaten as hot as it gets cooked.”
At this time in my life, I realize how lucky I was. No matter how poor we were, I never felt depraved. I was unspoiled and strong, which helped me to cope with many of life’s trying episodes.