Today is my mother’s 88th birthday. She is the most amazing person I know, the best example of a survivor that could ever hope to meet. And she knows things……has seen things……has done things……and is the one who taught me to be a Pollyanna about life.
She is the product of a union rare in the 1920s. My grandfather was Jewish, my grandmother Catholic. Born in Hungary, the family moved to Germany for business. Mom was talented. She danced, she sang, and she did acrobatics on ice, all starting at the age of three. Later came acting and musical theater. The focus was on her career so education took a back seat…. and it paid off. One of the venues in which she performed was the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
My mother and her sister came of age just in time to hear Hitler’s campaign speeches. An early marriage to a diplomat kept mom out of the line of fire when things got ugly, but my grandfather wasn’t so lucky. She remembers standing on the balcony of the family’s apartment with her mother, watching her father walking down the street to go buy bread. He hadn’t gotten far when a Gestapo vehicle pulled up beside him and forced him inside. My mother and grandmother were horrified as they watched, unable to stop it, knowing that if they screamed and drew attention to themselves, they would be next. Pulling in favors from everyone she knew, my grandmother eventually found out to which camp they had taken him and the process of extraction began. By the time he was back with the family, he had been beaten, starved, and his teeth knocked out. The family spent three days on foot, travelling through the forests by night, afraid to be seen or speak to anyone, until they reached the Hungarian border.
By this time, her marriage had ended. Her husband’s family, an upper class bunch, thought that his marriage to someone in show business was beneath him and forced him to leave her under threat of disinheritance.
Her memories of the war are horrific. Certain tenants in the apartment building where she lived were suspected of harboring Jews so the tenants from the building next door were hustled out, forced to stand on the banks of the Danube, and shot in front of their neighbors, their bodies falling into the river, as an example of what happens to those who defied the Nazis. Soon after, the building was bombed and the survivors were living in the basement, trying to keep warm and avoid starvation. One of the things my mother knows is that horses are sweet. I’m not referring to their disposition. The meat was a gift from Russian soldiers, not that they knew about it…….
When the war ended, my mother and her parents came to America to start a new life. As far as I’m concerned, my mother is the perfect immigrant. She is still fiercely proud to be an American, grateful to be here, loving the country that gave her a chance to make a new life. With her third grade education, she learned basic English and took her citizenship test in the language of her new homeland. When I was a child, we kept the European traditions in our home, but she never expected anyone out in the world to accommodate her heritage in any way. She embraced this country the way I wish everyone would – with all her heart.
She arrived in New York, found the love of her life, and had my sister. Too many issues ended that union and mom took her talent on the road. Eventually, she landed in Las Vegas, an up and coming entertainment destination that was happy to hire the charming, beautiful young woman with the perpetual smile who spoke with a delightful Hungarian accent, called everyone darling, danced like she was floating on air, and sang like a nightingale.
That’s where my father met her, coming to her show every night until she agreed to have dinner with him. He was a wealthy building contractor who helped make Vegas what it eventually became. She got to retire and become a wife and mother. But the marriage didn’t last - my father had issues too. By then she was a little long in the tooth to be a showgirl anymore and had developed hypoglycemia. So there was my mother, two children to care for, health problems, no job skills, and a heavy Hungarian accent. I remember going over my English homework with her when I was in elementary school so that she could speak it better and read and write it well enough to be employable. She made a living doing secretarial work which she learned on the job, and waitressing, managing to pay the bills and put food on the table. Yes, she was struggling but she barely let it show. I know plenty of people who would not have recovered from such a fall, whose pride would have made them bitter. But not her. As I said in the beginning, she taught me to be a Pollyanna, to play the glad game about whatever challenge we were facing, to remember that we were blessed to have each other and there was always someone in worse shape. The saying “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” could have been written about her. She sang show tunes in the car, tap danced in the kitchen, could make delicious soup out of the most meager leftovers, and made a night at the drive-in movie theater as much fun as Disneyland. Her influence on me and how I look at life is profound and I thank her for it every day.
She still calls everyone darling, sounding like one of the Gabor sisters, but that comparison makes her cringe. After so many years in this country, she doesn’t hear her accent any more, but trust me, she has one. If you ever meet her, do her a favor and don’t mention it. : )
Happy birthday mom! I love you!