Thursday, March 19, 2009

Excerpt from
by Ann Szedlecki
(my late mother)

Dear Friends,

OMG, it’s happening! The kick-off for the Azrieli Foundation memoir series is fast approaching with book launchs in Montreal and Toronto. My mum’s memoir will be part of that series. I will keep you posted on actual dates/places for the events.

NB: It is sixty-six years almost to the day since my mother's brother, Shoel Frajlich, succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two in a Siberian hospital. The passage below describes the period of anguish, loneliness and despair of my then-eighteen-year-old mother during the ordeal of her brother's illness and passing.

Here’s the link for more info on the Azrieli Foundation Holocaust memoirs project.

Write me privately for more info.


Excerpt from
by Ann Szedlecki


The deterioration of my dear, sweet brother, and how I handled it, will always be the most painful chapter of my life. It's something I will never get over.

One morning in the autumn of 1942 I came back to the dorm after working the night shift and found my brother Shoel sitting on the stairs. He had been there all night in the bitter cold. One of the girls, Eva Goldberg, had thrown him out because she was afraid of contracting his tuberculosis. This picture will stay with me until my dying day. Eva is dead now, but I can neither forgive her nor forget what she did. Maybe she even hastened his death. I find it extremely difficult to write about it even now.

Shoel had been released from the hard labour camp after two and a half years. I couldn't believe it was the same Shoel. The beautiful winter coat that was new when we left Poland and fitted him so well now hung on his wasted body. His blue eyes were sunken in their sockets. He had endured such horrific, inhuman torture. At the time I didn't realize how sick he was, with no known cure. It wasn't just his lungs but the whole body that was consumed. He was in and out of hospitals. There was a time when he stayed with me in the dormitory which I shared with the other girls. He had no other place to stay. I shared my food with him and even used the same utensils although he was coughing up blood. I easily could have become infected with the disease myself, but I did not think about it at all.

The last time Shoel was admitted to hospital was sometime in February, 1943. We were in the same city, but I could not help him much. I found a job in the mine's cafeteria washing dishes and peeling potatoes. There were thousands of bowls. Miners worked two shifts of twelve hours each. At least my work provided me with some food. I worked a twenty-four-hour shift and then I had forty-eight hours free. I went to see my brother. While we carried on a conversation he became silent and kept his eyes closed. His eyelids were translucent. I panicked, but he opened his eyes and said, "I'm not dead yet."

On my last visit, Shoel shared with me his only last wishes.

"I want to come home, have a piece of white bread and butter, a glass of tea with lemon, kiss our mother good-bye, and die."

Just before I left, he asked me to take his clothes with me, along with some money.

"No, Shoel," I said, "I'll come back after my next shift. I'll pick up your things then."

There was no phone to inquire about him, and of course, I couldn't take time off to see him.

On Thursday, March 18, 1943, when my shift was over and I was ready to go to the hospital, a messenger came with the news that Shoel had passed away a few hours earlier.

A nurse there told me that his last words were, "Is my sister here?"

Even though I wasn't there when he took his last breath, these painful words would always ring in my ears. He died alone.

With my last connection gone, I became an orphan. Of all the things he had wished for on his death bed, all Shoel got was a lonely death. There was no piece of bread and butter; no glass of tea with lemon. Nor did he get to kiss our dear mother, whose fate we did not know.

A few days before he died I had a disturbing dream:

I am walking up the dark, wooden staircase, hanging on the shaky wooden banister for dear life. When I reach the third floor, I take off the key that hangs from an oval ring. I open the door and let myself in. The kitchen is in semi-darkness lit only by the light from the next room.

I enter and what I see, or what I assume I see, is my family, sitting around a table covered with a white tablecloth. Our silver candlesticks, one still slightly bent, candles are shining bright…food is on the table.

I realize it must be Friday night - the Sabbath. I can only see my mother. The others are just shadows.

I'm standing in the doorway and my mother says, "Come in. Why are you standing there? Sit down and eat."

I continue standing.

"Where is my son Shoel?," she asks.

"He'll be here soon," I reply.

My mother's face becomes very sad, and very quietly, through tears, she says, "No, he will never come back!" Her mournful crying was breaking my heart.

I awoke, my face wet with tears. I knew she was right. I knew the meaning of my dream, no matter how hard I tried to reject the interpretation.

I couldn't make myself view Shoel's body, never having seen a corpse in my life. There's another thing for which I will never forgive myself, until my dying day.

The vultures had descended: The things he wanted me to take home disappeared. It didn't matter to me anyway. I lost the last connection with my family - the last link gone. I was desperately alone, lonely and poor. Nobody offered to help arrange his burial. I took three days off from work without permission. That eventually landed me in a hard labour camp for six months.

Finally it was left to the city to look after this matter. Ten days after his death, during a very heavy snowfall, I was allowed by my friend Hela Picksman to stand in the window of her apartment and watch the sled carrying my brother's body to the cemetery where he would be buried in an unmarked grave.

It is another load of guilt that I carry, because he was not buried in accordance with Jewish law, which proscribes burial within twenty-four hours and a mourning period of seven days. Shoel was a Cohen, a noble descendant of the Jewish high priests of the Temple, worthy of the highest burial rites.

I could not go with him for his final send-off. I had no shoes or warm clothes. Silently I said my goodbye when the sled disappeared from view. Hela interrupted the saddest moment of my life by asking me to leave her home, because she did not want her husband finding me there. She made me feel like a leper. I was a sorry sight, and not a very clean one.

It has been many years since the day Shoel died. But the grief and guilt is as raw as ever. If anything, I think about him even more often now. At least I know when to light the yahrzeit candle: the eleventh day of Adar II, 5703. He is the only member of the family whose date of death and approximate place of burial I know.