Sunday, December 20, 2009

I Remember Santa...

Growing up in Michigan, snow has always been an integral part of the holiday season for me.  Just about Thanksgiving, my memory paints a picture of very cold days, bright sunshine and glistening snow.  The most important detail is that it never melted.  Snow just kept accumulating.  Every street crossing was decorated with four crystal towers, tall and ever accented with black smoke.

There was always a pair of skates slung across my shoulders and finding ice was hardly the problem.  I've broken more glasses on the ice, just simply skating over them as they fell from my face in the zest of a fantasy race, beating out both Hans Brinker and the BergerMeister's daughter to the finish line (which was the end of our driveway).  Skating into the night, snow sparkling all around me, and the moon shining brightly in the sky reflecting the icy flakes made for nature's own light.

My first pair of skates came from the Salvation Army store.  They were boy's skates and black in color.  My mother,  as cause of my concern to wear boy's attire,  carefully polished them with white shoe paint until they glistened a silvery gray color, commenting that "they are your very own Cinderella skates", and I bought it.

There was no Christmas tree in our house.  We didn't celebrate "that holiday" but we did have our own traditions.  For 8 nights, a candelabra burned brightly on our dining room table.  Mama made the best potato pancakes and they deliciously slipped into our mouths hot and crispy laced with cold fresh sour cream.  On the few occasions when Christmas and Hanukkah coincided with each other, we felt a part of the season with our school mates but that was rare.  More often, Hanukkah was a few weeks short or a few days later than, what seamed like, everyone else's celebrations.  Still we enjoyed the season like all children do.

The new color TV in the dining room, played the most delightful movies all week long.  My baby brother and I cried when Jimmy Stewart got lost in Pottersville (It's A Wonderful Life),  and we commiserated with Natalie Wood when she didn't believe in Santa Claus either ( Miracle On 34th Street) and the Macy's parade on TV held us glued with bright colors and pretty people twirling on finely decorated floats.

Still... I have a secret about Christmas and Santa Claus and I have waited over 50 years to tell it.

When I was about 5 years old, I was carried to the hospital by our next door neighbor.  Her name was Dr. Hamady.  She had an office in her basement, right in her house.  With memories of Europe still in their heads, my parents were very leary of doctors.  In the concentration camps, a visit to the doctor usually meant someone disappeared and was surely dead.  

I don't remember much about that 1st day other than the putrid sweet smell of the ether that was given to me before my surgery but I imagine I must have been pretty sick for my mother to break all her vows and seek out Dr. Hamady.  

Poor Dr. Hamady, mom had to sneak her into the house through the back door while she kept my dad busy with my baby brother.

The doctor assured my mother that she had a very sick child on her hands and without rushing me to the hospital immediately, she would have a dead child by the next day.  Against every fiber in her being, mom allowed Dr. Hamady to take me away.

Let me paint this picture for you, we were new immigrants, we spoke little English and we were deathly afraid of everything based on our previous experiences surviving the Holocaust.  I don't think we were doing all that well financially either at the time.  I am certain we didn't have any health insurance.  Suddenly, in this new country, that had promised us new hopes and freedoms, I was being swept away from my mother's caring arms.

Up until this point, it was my dad who had actually ventured out into the new country.  He went to work everyday and mingled with those "Americans".  Mom worked from home as a seamstress, so her clientele were screened before they entered our house and most of them were aware of the circumstances of our lives, so they stepped on eggshells around her. This was our 1st big adventure into the strange and amazing bigger world we now lived in.

Unbenounced to me, I was taken to the "charity ward" of the hospital after my surgery.  They had gotten me to the hospital just within the nick of time, as my appendix had already burst.  Apparently, I would be confined there for the next ten days and it was Christmas eve to everyone else in world.

 Sometime, in the middle of that 1st night, I awoke.  The ether must have finally worn off.  I opened my eyes and saw that I was in a big room with many beds.  My own bed was a huge crib with metal grates on all four sides.  As I looked around, probably a bit frightened, I saw a figure in the shadows moving quietly around the room.  This big man all dressed in a red suit was stopping at each bed and lovingly laying bright boxes and bags at the foot of everyone.  As I watched him, he sensed my awakeness and looked at me.  Then he winked at me, his long white beard flashing in the dim light, smiled and said something I had never heard before, "Merry Christmas little girl".  He patted my head and soon became busy at the foot of my own confines laidening it too with shiny colored packages.

I fell asleep once more.  In the morning, when I awoke, my mother was leaning over me with a great concern on her face but I was not interested in her, I wanted to see if I had just had a wonderful dream or were the pretty wrappings still there, at the foot of my bed and to my glee, they were.

There was a lovely doll in one box and candies and a whistle and a ball and so many other things.  I was sure he had meant them for me and I told my mother that but she was adamant, "these things are not yours," she said.  I shook my head but to no avail.  She whisked them away to the nurses station before I could eat my breakfast.

"They made a mistake," she tried to console me.  "We didn't buy these things, honey." 

"But he gave them to me.  He looked right at me, so that man knew who I was,"  I pleaded.

"He was mistaken!" she concluded.  and that was that, the end.

Every year after that, as I was still small,  I waited for the man to come again.  In school, I learned his name was Santa Claus and he loved all good little children.  "Wasn't I a good little girl?", I thought.  But he never came again.

As I got older, I almost resented my folks for discouraging me that special pleasure I once was privy to.

Then, one day, I became a mother too.  Finally, I understood the lesson my own mother had wanted to imbue me with.  There were 6 other children before I was born, not one of which survived the camps or the Holocaust alive.  It would have been sacrilegious of her to allow me to  accept those gifts.  My own bothers and sisters were killed by folks who spent Christmas with their children while my siblings were begging for their very lives.

Now I am well over the middle mark of my life, my own parents have long left this world and I am telling you in a loud and clear voice, "There is too a Santa Claus and I, for one, met him one dark and sleepy night while I lay in my bed."  He smiled at me and he patted my head and I am sure he thought of me as "a good little girl".
So, Santa, if you are reading this.... 

Happy Holidays everyone and I promise you, 
He does exist!


  1. Wow! this is a very touching story. I really appreciate your sharing it with all of us.

  2. What terrible atrocities you and your mom and dad endured. Having lost 6 of her own children and your siblings, and no doubt countless of your other relatives is unfathomable--yet we know so many survivors of the Holocaust endured similar insults.

    I'm so glad your mom was able to let you get the operation you needed, that must have been a trial similar to the Holocaust for her! Thanks for sharing more glimpses into your life and world.

    Can't believe I missed this one earlier! ;o)