Dirty Jewess is the personal account of one woman‘s courageous journey towards religious and political freedom while coming of age in post-Holocaust, communist Czechoslovakia. The narrative recalls the author's experience as a child of Holocaust survivors, living as a refugee in Rome, and finally realizing her dream of becoming a successful American citizen. Silvia Fishbaum's life behind the iron curtain is a universal tale of humanity, resilience, and overcoming adversity. Fishbaum weaves together her mother’s testimony of Auschwitz with the testimony of her childhood art tutor, Ludovit Feld—a victim of Mengele's experiments—to create a compelling and layered life narrative.
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About the Author
Born in post-Holocaust, communist Czechoslovakia, Silvia Fishbaum has devoted her life to the commemoration of the Holocaust and her childhood art tutor and Holocaust survivor, Ludovit Feld. She is a member of the Czech and Slovak Jewish Historical Society and is affiliated with the Holocaust museum and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove, New York. In 2012, Fishbaum was the keynote speaker at the Holocaust Memorial commemoration and the opening for the exhibition of a private collection of Ludovit Feld's art.
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The Only Jews in Our Village
Porubka, Czechoslovakia Fall, 1961
My parents had eagerly expected a son who would perpetuate our family's name and traditions, and it was equally important to them to have a son who would recite the Kaddish memorial prayer after they were gone. According to Halacha, or Jewish law, only males are required to perform this ritual.
However, my parents had three daughters: the oldest is the beautiful Melanie, the middle one is Hanka, and I am Sophia, who was known as the little rabble-rouser.
I am darker-complexioned and a bit more impulsive than my two sisters. Because of my temper and coloring, people joked that I must have fallen out of a Gypsy wagon on its way down the dirt road in our rural village of Porubka. My parents, Simone and Yaakov, must have found me and done a good deed, a mitzvah, by taking me in as their own. Since I was their last girl, my parents would have the barber cut my hair so that at least I would resemble a boy.
I had no clue what it meant to be Jewish.
One Friday, when I was six years old, my mother seemed somewhat different. She was a bit more at ease than her usual nervous self. It was no wonder, as her soul had been filled with pain and sorrow for so long, and her sense of serenity had been snatched away from her many years before. But on that particular day, she appeared less tense, and even smiled a little. Although she was a beautiful woman, you could see traces of horror and suffering in her eyes. She could never really laugh, and she seemed hesitant to fully embrace life. Constantly on guard, in silent tension, she went through her days with strength, dignity and poise.
"Shabbos is a delicate gift from God," Mother loved to say, as if giving us a peek behind the veil of mystery of Shabbat, or Shabbos. "We honor Shabbos and Shabbos honors us back."
She knew quite well that we were absorbing every word, listening as though we could never get enough. But while we were enraptured by her tales, we also knew how much was left unsaid.
I always cherished Fridays. From the wee hours of the morning, my mother would be even busier than usual in the kitchen, so that come evening, my family could sit together around the Shabbat table, relaxing, watching and enjoying the sunset. My father would play board games, cards, and dominoes with my two sisters and me, or read us story books and tell tales about our small country of Israel. While Mother was busy at the stove, she would nod approvingly at the whole scene, receiving pleasure or "schepping nachas," as she would say. The kitchen was her kingdom, always clean and tidy, with spice racks neatly placed beside fresh loaves of homemade bread, which she enhanced with her own handmade embroidered covers. The aroma penetrated every nook and cranny of our peasant house.
"Honoring Shabbos has always kept Judaism alive," my father would say. "We hold on to it, we lean on it no matter where in the world we are, whether drowning in our sorrows, or filled with gratitude. And we, as a people, are there for others as well."
Father was not a talkative man. He never went to great lengths to explain his motives to his family, but we knew very well that we meant everything to him. And still, he made sure to devote time to friends and neighbors, too. He was always ready to help, offer advice, or lend money to someone in need.
On this particular Friday, he seemed especially joyful.
"This day we sanctify God!" he exclaimed. "Shabbos, holiday of holidays!" "But why is Shabbos such a special day?" asked eight year old Hanka.
"Because God created the world in six days and on the seventh day he rested. That is what Shabbos is all about. It is a day of rest, of not working," Father explained.
"Is it because we have to gain new strength so we can work the next six days of the week?" Hanka asked. We had frequently heard our father's classic Story of Creation.
"Exactly," Mother replied proudly.
"Even if I am not tired?" asked my oldest sister, Melanie.
"The most important thing in life is balance. In order to work well, you must also rest," Father said. He himself happened to be a workaholic, and a perfectionist as well. It was important to him that whatever he did must be just so. He had a natural talent for precision, down to the most minute of details, and he expected the same from others. In addition to being a master roofer, he owned a huge vineyard just behind the village, which, other than us, was the most important part of his life.
"Mely, you are your father's daughter. It is undeniable," Mother said, taking one baking sheet from the oven, and sliding in the next one. She was obviously referring to my sister's personality that was similar to our father's. "If, for example, a pillow is not placed exactly as it should be, you automatically start fixing it," she said.
"Yes, you are right," said Mely, eight years my senior. "I too am a perfectionist. Perhaps one day I will do nothing but rest," she said, with a smile.
I could tell that something was bothering her. She didn't know where to begin. After taking a deep breath, she repeatedly turned towards our parents, then back to my sister and me. I felt as if I were watching a ping pong game. At the same time, she kept straightening chair covers, stretching starched table cloths, and bending down to pick up invisible specks of dust from the floor. She was always delicate, like a well-loved doll. Finally, she mustered up the courage to speak. "Father," she said quietly. "May I ask you a question?"
"What is it, my dear?"
"Why is it that we are the only family in Porubka that observes Sabbath on Saturdays? Why don't we go to church on Sundays like everyone else?"
"Because we are Jews and they are not," he replied. As Mely formulated her next question, his kind face grew stern.
She stepped forward and raised the pitch of her voice. "But why us? Why only us?"
Even at my young age, I stood there frozen, feeling chills run through my entire body, almost not wanting to hear the answer.
"To be a Jew is a privilege," Father answered. Then the conversation really started to heat up.
"Oh really, is that what you think it means, being treated like scabby dogs?" Melanie blurted.
Her body was shaking all over. "Is that considered a privilege?"
No one would ever have expected such a negative remark from such a sweet girl. "Melanie!" Mother shouted.
"Stop it immediately." Mother's smile disappeared. She was clearly shaken by my sister's outburst and rebellious attitude.
"They hate us. The whole village hates us! Nobody likes us. Why only us? What have we ever done to them?" Mely broke down in tears.
"It is not that bad," Mother said. "It will change with time, or you will get used to it. And we are not the only Jewish family, even though you think so. Many have perished and are gone forever, but a lot of us are still here." Although we girls had no clue what Mother meant by this, we knew it was not good.
"We are the same, yet different in our beliefs," Father answered, much calmer than before. "Those who go to church on Sunday have their laws and rules to follow, and we have ours."
Father was a good man. All he wanted was for everyone to be happy, and his greatest desire was for peace on Earth. I remember how upset he would become when the neighbors quarreled over the fence and about their hens apparently rummaging in each other's gardens. Simple, silly spats were not important to Father, and he would not engage in such frivolity. He was a man of substance and compassion, and could always see the bigger picture. When he saw his daughters suffering, he also suffered. Mely's feelings and outrage pained him, but he felt helpless. There was nothing he could do to comfort her or protect her from the outside world.
We were the only Jewish family in this Christian village of Porubka, and he knew that to others, we would always be "those Jews."
Father was about to say Kiddush, the ceremonial blessing over the wine that welcomes in Shabbat. He always prayed in Hebrew. At that time, I believed that Hebrew was not a language for everyday conversation, but just a language of prayer. Now I know differently.
"If only those others could see how happy we are for who we are, and how we the Jews celebrate Shabbos with such joy and devotion," Father said. "Then they might understand us a little better and not hate us so much." He wanted to end this unpleasant debate as soon as possible, and stop arguing with his own daughter.
But Mely was relentless. "They hate us!" she screamed.
"That's enough." Mother stepped in to rescue Father. "The time will come when you will understand it all."
This was typical of our mother. Just like her. With one of her classic sentences, such as, "You are not mature enough, but one day it will all make sense," she had put an end to all the questions, accusations, and explanations. And, as always, she was right.
The matches in her hand were a clear indication that Mother was about to light the Shabbat candles. It was also an unspoken signal there would be no further questions or answers, neither from her, nor from Father. We all knew that there was to be no more discussion.CHAPTER 2
From Porubka to Kosice
Our little village of Porubka, in the Eastern part of Slovakia, was slowly recovering from the devastation of World War II. But despite a few barren years, I remember our childhood as relatively carefree. I remember small peasant homes with flower gardens in the front and back yards; farms with vegetable patches, and grain and potato fields, separated by alleys of various fruit trees, where everyone was equal — everyone, except us. We had the same farming land with the same chickens, geese, ducks, cows, and goats, and also the same water well and the same outhouse as everyone else. However, the simple fact that my father didn't raise pigs, and that he was named Yaakov, rather than John, George, or Michael, made us outcasts. We were Yaakov's daughters — the daughters of that rich, stinking Jew.
My father was rich, which made us doubly cursed. He owned a huge vineyard on many acres of land. On the side of the house he had built a sizable workshop, where he employed many young village boys as apprentices in his trade. He was famous throughout the region for his quality wine, and this vineyard determined our future back then. A year consisted of cutting back the vineyard in freezing February, planting young grapes during the spring, endless journeys up and down the hill, pruning fresh buds, and tying them until June. By the end of summer, we would all celebrate the joy of the harvest.
Our entire home and yard smelled of grapes. We produced Beaujolais wine, fresh grape juice, and other wines that were fermented in barrels and then poured into bottles for sale. Yaakov's wine had an outstanding reputation, not just for the quality of his product but also for how well he treated his customers. People flocked to him from all around the region just to get a taste of his wine. It practically sold itself and he worked mainly through word of mouth. Father was passionate about his wine and made every batch with love, care, and consistency. But because of the success of his vineyard, we lost the chance to go to America or Israel like the other Jewish families in our region. As with any blessing we receive, there is often a downside. For my family, losing the chance to emigrate was the price we paid for what the vineyard provided.
I was born under the Star of David, so there was no need to have it sewn onto a coat or affixed on my forehead. Everybody already knew that I was Jewish. How I hated it when the kids on the street, thinking I wasn't looking, would whisper things behind my back. The more courageous ones would wag their fingers, indicating that I was a persona non grata, stick out their tongues and yell, "stinking Jew." In those moments, all I wanted to do was disappear. I was so hurt and embarrassed by their taunts that I wished the earth would just swallow me up and take me away from this torment and cruelty.
At those times, I would run to the shelter of my home, where I could hide from the outside world. I would curl up in our cozy living room, furnished with chairs, a couch, and a small coffee table decorated with a vase of dried flowers. A lovely picture of the Tatra Mountains hung on the stenciled, painted walls. My home was real and gave me great comfort. It was my sacred space. By contrast, Israel, that dreamed-of land we'd heard so much about, seemed to be so out of reach, so untouchable: a storybook world filled with miracles.
Here in Porubka, I couldn't understand why the other villagers behaved so differently towards me, especially the other children. Was it my imagination? Or were they constantly poking fun at me and calling me names? Whether I wanted to be one, or whether I chose to be born as such, how did they know I was a Jew? And what did the non-Jews see that made me stand out? Were there horns on my head? Was my blood a different color? I felt just like everyone else, but even at the age of six, I realized that others did not see my family and me the way that I saw us. Why was it they preferred for us to be known as a Jewish family, rather than a winemaker's family, or a roofer's family, which is what we were? There were no real answers, neither at home nor outside.
We were not your typical family in a small village that had only one street with an upper and lower end. We were the only ones with a motorcycle, which my father owned before the war. We were also the only ones who did not cross ourselves in front of the crucifix when we passed the church in the center of the village. However, there was one time when this was not completely true.
Our Melanie, oh, how she wanted to blend in, to assimilate and conform. She wanted to be just like everybody else, the ones she called "The Normals." One day, on the way home from school with her classmates, she inconspicuously crossed herself in front of the crucifix. The old matrons dressed all in black, who spent their days gossiping on the bench, began to laugh, and the rest of Melanie's entourage felt uncomfortable. Those old women made faces at my sister. They couldn't figure out how to react to what they had just witnessed. Neither could Melanie. She didn't mean any harm, but her intentions were misunderstood. Rumors traveled fast in our village, and sure enough, word got back to my mother before poor Melanie could make it home. She hadn't even walked in the front door when Mother confronted her.
"You can't do that!" Mother said. "What do you mean?" Melanie asked.
Despite being beautiful, Mely wasn't a good actress. Her face was laden with emotions, and she was unable to hide her shame, which was mixed with pride. Forbidden fruit tastes the best, even if it is slightly rotten, unripe, full of worms, or stolen from a nearby neighbor's tree.
"You know quite well what I am referring to," Mother continued in the same breath. "But I ..."
"Mother, all the boys and girls and everybody in the village cross themselves," she continued. "Let them! But not you! Not us!"
Melanie took a deep breath. "Please don't start again with your litanies of one day understanding it all, figuring it out, or that someday this will make total sense."
"We are not everybody! Don't you ever do that again, do you understand? Never!" Mother's voice and hands trembled as she spoke.
"But Mother, why? Why don't we go to church on Sunday? Why can't we recite The Lord's Prayer? Why not us?" she pleaded.
"Because we are Jews. I do not want to repeat this endlessly. They have their cross, which they believe is theirs to carry all their lives. Do not try to take it away from them, Mely. Let them have it, let them cross themselves as many times as they wish. Just don't you ever do it again."
Mother's voice was firm and no one dared to oppose her. Finally Mely entered the house and closed the door behind her. As she passed by, Mother took her hand and continued. "We have our burden and we are a minority, so we have to defend ourselves. We must never, ever give up. You are a beautiful girl and you should be proud of yourself, your heritage, and everything that we are and stand for," Mother said passionately.
"That's exactly what I would like," Melanie conceded.
"There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of," Mother wisely said.
Melanie started sobbing, as if she had betrayed her own people. She sobbed out of guilt, anger, shame, and pain. She took my mother's words seriously, scared that she had hurt her. Ever since then, whenever we approached the crucifix, Mely would lower her head and turn her gaze in the other direction. She said she would rather drop dead than hurt our parents again. They left her alone with her bowed head, knowing that one day, she would walk proudly through the village, flaunting the golden Star of David that she now hid on a thin chain under her clothing. They knew that one day she would look straight into people's eyes, holding her head high.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dirty Jewess"
Copyright © 2018 Silvia Fishbaum and Andrea Coddington.
Excerpted by permission of Urim Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Only Jews in Our Village,
2 From Porubka to Kosice,
3 Beginning Anew In Kosice,
4 Jewish Blood,
5 Discovering My Old Teacher,
6 The Only Choice,
7 Dreaming of Love and Escape,
8 Attempting to Escape,
9 Playing it Safe,
10 Saving Money for My Escape,
11 A Second Chance to Escape,
13 Moving to New York City,
14 Meeting Mr. Right,
15 Getting Married,
16 Living My Dream,
17 Traveling to Israel and Italy,
19 Why Is This Happening?,
20 After the Fall of the Iron Curtain,
21 The Saddest Chapter of My Life,
22 Moving On,
23 Festival of Light,