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HIDDEN VICTIMS

When I turned 3, my mother would hold me in her arms, take me to the apartment door and pretend to give me away to a stranger. She did the same with my sister, Daniella, who is 2{ years younger.

My mother explained: "I used to think constantly _ what did my mother feel when she put me in the arms of that man? Could I give Lisa up? Could I give Daniella up? I would rather die."

She never took us shopping, because she was afraid we'd get lost in the crowds. Instead, she baked cookies, took us to the ballet and insisted we all spend weekends together _ even as teen-agers. She smothered us with kisses and tried to fill our childhood with elegance. Order out of chaos, she called it.

If Daniella or I forgot to meet her at a mall, she'd become frantic and begin imagining we'd been kidnapped. Now she says her behavior was an attempt to control the lives of people close to her because of the terrible loss of control she experienced as a child.

On a damp day in 1942, Sylvie Reichman was a chubby, bright-eyed 2{-year-old sitting on the kitchen counter, giggling as her mother playfully tapped her knees with the sash of her bathrobe.

It was in Antwerp, two years after the Nazis invaded Belgium. Jews were forbidden to stroll in the parks; the deportations had begun. Benjamin and Itta Reichman took a chance and arranged to hide their little girl with a Catholic university professor.

A man in an overcoat knocked on the kitchen door, and Itta Reichman started crying. Clutching her only child, she pushed Sylvie into the man's arms and said in Flemish, "Go with him." Professor Henry Rooze pressed the girl's curly locks to his chest and disappeared into the morning.

It is the last memory that my mother has of her parents. Months later, they were deported to Auschwitz and gassed to death, two of the 6-million Jews to perish in the Holocaust.

That morning started an emotional journey that has led Mom to become attached to and then forced to abandon three families before she was 7. It has made her scared of being abandoned by me, Daniella and our father, Oliver. It has made us enormously protective of her and angry that our family couldn't be like everyone else's.

But last month, at the first international gathering for children who were hidden during the Holocaust, we realized we weren't alone. Spouses of hidden children talked about the burden of living with frightened adults.

Children of hidden children, me included, talked about the protectiveness we feel toward our parents. Mom listened to others deal with the guilt of surviving.

And everyone talked of the compassion of those who saved thousands of Jewish children.

"Imagine! These wonderful people, every moment of their life, risked death to save us," Mom said. "How much more can one affirm the faith in the goodness of people?"

Sylvie Reichman spent 2{ years on a farm in the Belgian countryside, posing as the Roozes' niece. She played with their eight children and went to Catholic church, becoming one of the top students in Sunday school. On Sylvie's birthday, Mrs. Rooze made her favorite meal, beets and mashed potatoes.

There were drills. The children competed to see who could race the quickest from their beds to the trap door that led to the cellar, their hiding place from the Nazis. One day it was real. Mom shared a mattress in the cellar with five children, listening to the soldiers' boots above her head and waiting to die. Only when morning came was it safe.

But though the family was kind, my mother always felt she had to be good or else she'd be sent away. One day, in an effort to be helpful, she tried to carry a full chamber pot to Mrs. Rooze. It slipped from her hands, tumbling down the stairs, and she started crying, "I want my mommy, I want my mommy!" Mrs. Rooze rushed to my mother, put her arms around her and said, "You don't have a mommy anymore. You will never see her again. I'm your mommy now."

When the war ended in 1945, Mrs. Rooze told my mother she had to return to her relatives in Antwerp. She gave Mom a doll's tea set as a going-away present. Mom flung the dishes aside and clasped her arms around Mrs. Rooze's legs.

"Please don't make me go," she cried. "You said you'd be my mommy. I don't want a tea set, I want you."

My mother went to live with her Uncle Isaac and his daughter, Rosine, who was Mom's age. Mom played in the park, ate ice cream, was petted and fussed over by the few family members who had survived in hiding. Isaac wanted to adopt her but was overruled by his sister-in-law (my mother's maternal aunt). The aunt had escaped to America with her husband in 1939 and was living in Brooklyn. She persuaded Isaac to let my mother go.

So, at age 6, Mom acquired a third family. She grew up in New York and California with her aunt's family.

For the next 17 years, my mother was physically and mentally abused. Her aunt beat her for accidentally dropping plates, for making too much noise, even for maturing into a charming, intelligent young woman. Mom's cousin became her new sister and hated my mother for all the attention she got. When Mom was 16, her aunt told her that she, rather than her parents, should have been killed at Auschwitz. When Mom became violently ill during her last semester of college, her aunt told her, "You're a failure. Your parents are up in heaven looking down, and they're so ashamed."

Mom met Oliver Lednicer in 1962, when he came to San Francisco on business. She says she felt immediately at home with him because his parents had known hers in Antwerp before the war. His family had fled to five countries before coming to America. "It was like going home," Mom said of marrying Dad in 1963. "Finally, I had found family. He belonged to my people."

I was born in 1966; Daniella followed in 1969. Motherhood was agonizing for Mom because she had no mother of her own to reassure her she was doing the right things. The fear of losing her loved ones returned.

We were lucky that she told us about her childhood, because so many hidden children don't tell their sons and daughters why they're lost and frightened. And yet familiarity with my mother's history led to other problems. Daniella rebelled against Mom's overprotectiveness in high school by becoming alarmingly thin and preparing her own food. She refused to have a phone her first two years in college.

I sat in algebra class in high school and wondered which one of my friends _ Jeannette? Maria? _ would hide me. Daniella and I were obsessed with the Holocaust, watching TV movies while my mother stayed in her bedroom. Mom lit the Sabbath candles every Friday but said she hated being Jewish.

"Because I was Jewish, I lost my mother, my father, my adopted family. . . . If there was a genie who gave me one wish, that would be to make me un-Jewish. Every Jew who is born has a burden," she said.

When we were rude to Mom or complained about household chores, my father said we were terrible children for making Mom so miserable. After all she's been through, how could you do this to her? was his unspoken question.

When I left home for college 800 miles away, Mom refused to call me my entire freshman year at Northwestern. She says now that she realized she couldn't hold me to her anymore and had to fight the feeling she was being abandoned again. What helped her, she said, was talking to a therapist. She has been in therapy for nine years and says she won't quit until she has worked out all her childhood trauma. It could take years, she says.

I wish I knew the family who hid my mother. Mom wrote the Roozes when she was in college, thanking them for saving her life. When we went to Belgium in 1982 to visit relatives, she called the Roozes. One of the children answered and said his parents, who were out hiking that weekend, talk of Sylvie often and wonder how she's faring in America.

Mom was overwhelmed by the attention she received during workshops that were closed to the media. In those private sessions, Mom exchanged tales of anguish with other hidden children. Even those who had survived concentration camps said she had suffered more than they, and several asked her to form a support group. Though the conference was a traumatic experience, she says she is glad she went.

"I was part of a large group, and it felt like family," she said. "I don't feel like being perfect anymore. It truly liberated me."

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