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Forget Me Not
By Lillian Belinfante Herzberg © 1999
No one could possibly realize what the simple request would bring when my grandmother asked my mother a simple question. “Helene, why don’t you ever make me a dress like you do for your sister, Beth?”
Mother told her she never heard her say she liked anything she made. “I just assumed you never liked them.”
“Well now you know I do.” my grandmother said.
So the following day the three of us, wrapped against the March winds, took the tram to a small suburb of Vienna where my mother knew the locations of the best Austrian dry goods stores.
After a while, got bored with grown up shopping, and wandered off into another area of the store. Soon a bolt of material caught my gaze. “Mutti, Oma, look at this,” I said, pointing to a dark blue material covered with tiny pink and blue flowers.
Oma liked it and so did my mother. I remember she commented on the forget-me-nots in the print and how they softened the dark blue background. She bought it and promised to start working with it as soon as we got home. I was happy I helped.
When we left the shop we were surprised to see the street full of people standing around. I asked, “What’s going on?”
My mother answered, “I don’t know.”
The crowd made me feel uneasy. I didn’t understand what was going on but I knew seeing all those people waving flags with swastikas on them was not a good sign. Where did they get them, I wondered. What was going on?
As we hurried on our way through the mob toward the tram line we heard marshal music in the distance and getting louder. Suddenly, my grandmother whispered in my mother’s ear. “Helene, the Germans are marching into Austria.”
My mother didn’t seem too surprised although I was. She lowered her voice and replied, “They threatened to do it and now they have.” And then she said, “I hope Robert gets home safely,” referring to my father.
I did not comprehend what was going on. I thought they should be happy we found such nice material. “What did they threaten to do?” I asked looking up at her unsmiling face, and when I didn’t receive an answer, I decided it would be best if I didn’t ask again.
Mother said we should hurry because she wanted to get home as soon as possible. “I don’t like the feeling in the streets,” she said quietly. “The Germans were afraid we would vote for Austrian independence tomorrow, so they took over the country today,” Mother said, her eyes tearing. “Well, they are not going to stop me from making you the finest dress I can.”
I saw German tanks followed by marching German soldiers parading down the main street. Loud cheers arose from the agitated throng who were frantically waving swastika flags which appeared from nowhere,.
It was March 12, 1938, and I, Lisle Albrecht, was about to turn twelve. The Nazi Anschluss was being exuberantly welcomed in the streets of Vienna by those Austrians who, for a long time, considered themselves German.
The tram at our station had stopped running. We had to walk away from the mob to find another station that would take us nearer to home. We rode the tram in silence back to the safety of the apartment the family shared on Walde Strasse.
When we arrived home, Beth, my mother’s younger sister, was already home from the hospital where she worked as a nurse.
“What are you doing home?” my mother asked.
“I’ve been let go.”
“Why, for heaven’s sake. You’ve been there for over ten years.”
‘Are you blind or deaf?” my Aunt Beth yelled. “Don’t you know the Nazis have taken over and since I am Jewish I have been fired.”
Mother sat wearily on a living room chair covering her face with her hands, trying to hide her tears.
“Oh my God!” my grandmother cried. “What will happen to us?”
Mother jumped when she heard the front door open. It was my father.
Rushing over to him, she threw her arms around him. “God, Robert, I’ve never been startle before when I heard the front door open.”
I listened very carefully, but I just couldn’t understand what was going on. And nobody seemed willing to tell me.
“Well, get used to it,” I heard my father say. “We’ve been invaded by the Nazi hordes, no doubt about it. They are already arresting Jewish men, or men who they think look Jewish and they are carting them off somewhere. I left work early and went down back streets to avoid those bastards.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked, very frightened.
“I don’t know, little one, but we will all have to lay low.”
It was only a few days later when Aunt Beth received a telephone call from the hospital ordering her to report back to work immediately. “But...” she started to say and was interrupted.
“There is a shortage of nurses and an exception has been made for me," she said when she hung up the phone. She sounded angry when she said, “I have no choice but to report for work tomorrow.”
For a while, my life continued as usual. My aunt worked long hours in the hospital because of a shortage of doctors. My mother fitted Oma for her new blue dress with pink and blue forget-me-nots. My father worked at home now until Jews were no longer allowed a telephone. I continued to attend school and played with my friends inside each other’s homes.
In October of 1939 our family was informed any male over the age of 12 should meet at the railroad station the following day to be relocated. Mother managed to prepare a wonderful dinner the night before. Everyone pretended we were having a normal evening Father promised to write as soon as he was situated. The next morning everyone but my Aunt Beth, who was required to work, went down to the railroad station to say our goodbyes with optimistic smiles camouflaging our fear and anguish. Everyone waved as we held back our tears. I turned to my mother and grandmother and said with no trace of adult pretense, “Papa is never coming back.”
For the first time in my memory mother slapped me hard across my face saying, “I don’t ever want to hear you say that again, do you hear me Lisle?”
My lower lip protruded and trembled. I promised my mother I would obey, but to myself I said, Well, he isn’t.
Things got worse over the next year. We had to give up our apartment and move in with another damily in a smaller apartment in a different area. Beth lost her job again. I no longer could attend school. Mother lost dressmaking clientele, radios were confiscated and Oma could no longer listen to her classical music. Life grew barely tolerable but at least we were together.
July 1 the family received a notice similar to my father’s. On July 2, 1942 hundreds of us boarded a train that would carry us to Theresienstadt near Prague.
The doors opened. We were ordered off the train. A Gestapo officer was assigning us into different lines. He indicated with the movement of his head to my mother, “You - to the left.” To me he said, “You - to the right.”
With a youthful matter-of-fact tone, devoid of a whine or pleading and in perfect German I said pointing, “She’s my mother.”
Inconsistency must be the spoils of the selected few, because the Nazi, without any overt sign of kindness, simply shoved me toward my mother. Oma and Aunt Beth went to the right and disappeared never to be seen again.
I met a boy! He was from Prague. We discovered we had a great deal in common. He told me, “After the war we should plan to meet in my home town of Prague." Before we were separated, I promised him I would.
Toward the end of the war mother and I were sent east on a train carrying us from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Mother watched over me very carefully. She never showed me how she really felt and she never allowed me to give up hope. We made a game of picking out lice from each other’s hair. We kept as clean as possible under vile conditions, and we survived.
After many months of starvation and illness we prisoners noticed the Nazi guards and officers were rushing off leaving the camp unguarded. Rumors abounded.
“We are being liberated by the Russians,” the grapevine reported.
In mid-January 1945, as the Soviets entered Auschwitz, my mother, wary of conquering armies, scratched out a sign reading “Smallpox” on the door of our barracks. The Russians gave it wide berth.
When we were finally released, given some food and warm clothing, we decided to make our way to Prague to meet the man I planned to marry when we were freed. As we walked down the main street of one of Prague’s oldest sections we saw a woman walking toward us. She was wearing a dress in a very familiar style with the unusual print similar to one mother had made for my grandmother. Smiling at the stranger so not to frighten her, we stopped and asked, “Please, can you tell me where you got the dress?”
At first the woman was defensive, “It’s mine. Why do you want to know. I bought it. It’s mine.”
Mother explained, “I don’t mean to sound rude, but it looks like a dress I made for my mother, and we don’t know what happened to her in the camp.”
“Oh, why didn’t you say so,” the woman responded. “Yes, I admired the print. Forget-me-nots are my favorite flower so this wonderful old woman who was in the hospital in Terezein with me wanted me to have it. She told me her daughter made it for her. Oh, she was so wonderful. She kept us amused by telling funny stories and making the hospital staff laugh, even the Gestapo doctors, may they rot in hell.”
Because of the dress my mother made we were able to learn from this woman that the hospital staff did nothing to harm my grandmother, and that she died peacefully in her sleep a week after the camp was liberated. We thanked the woman warmly.
A few days later my future husband and I found each other. We married soon after and the three of us sailed off to America.
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