Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction Issue #73


Madelaine Zadik


Grief is in my blood. Actually, my first contact with grief was through the amniotic fluid. When I was born, my mother had been grieving the loss of her sister Helga for ten years. However, she had lost more than a sister. Her mother died when she was thirteen and Helga was eleven, just two years before Hitler came to power. Over the next decade, the Nazis would rob my mother of family and friends, her country, her language, and her identity.


My parents got married in September 1938 in Breslau, Germany, when my father was 25 and my mother 20. Just two months later, my father was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. On advice from the relief committee of the Jewish community, my mother purchased steamship tickets for Shanghai, the only place then taking in Jewish refugees without money or a visa. When she presented the tickets to the Gestapo as proof of their imminent departure from Germany, they released my father six weeks later. In the meanwhile, my mother was arrested on charges of high treason and, by the time my father got home, she was sitting in a prison cell in solitary confinement alongside her sister.


As part of the Resistance, beginning when my mother was fifteen and Helga thirteen, the sisters smuggled illegal anti-Hitler newspapers into Germany and collected money for the families of political prisoners. At their trial in January 1939, Helga received a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Although my mother was acquitted, the Nazis were not freeing any political prisoners, even if found not guilty by a judge. Those steamship tickets again came to the rescue, and the Gestapo released my mother from custody just in time for my parents to board that ship.


My grandfather remarried just as my mother and Helga escalated their resistance activities. My mother blamed his preoccupation with his new wife for his inattention to what his children were up to. He might have strategized getting them all out of Germany earlier had his eyes been on his daughters. Helga was arrested eight months before my mother because of direct evidence that implicated her. My grandfather and his new wife quickly secured visitor visas and traveled to the United States. They had high hopes of finding a way to get Helga out of prison and out of Germany before her trial. By the time that hope vanished in America, they realized it was too risky for them to return to Germany.


My parents joined the 20,000-plus Jews who found refuge in Shanghai and formed a community in exile. Life was not easy there, but my parents were young, and, despite the hardships, my mother often described it as an adventure. She laughed about how constipated she got when they first arrived in China and had to share a bucket “toilet” with fifty other people in the one room where they all lived in together. There were bedbugs, and everything got moldy from the humidity. They survived with the help of the soup kitchen where my father offered his labor for extra food. They sold most of the belongings that they were allowed to take with them when they left Germany. They bought thermoses of hot water and reused it four times: for my mother to bathe, then my father, then to wash their clothes, and finally to wash the floors. Organ meats were cheap, so my mother stuffed and cooked a spleen and then recooked it after retrieving it from their cat who stole it off the table. They needed a cat because of all the rats in Shanghai. My father contracted typhus but survived.


After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese took over Shanghai, forced the Jewish refugees into a ghetto area, and controlled the airwaves. Two years later, in 1943, a short Red Cross message, delayed over a year due to war, informed my mother of her sister’s “death from pneumonia” at the Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp. Without access to news, the refugees were unaware of what was happening in Europe, and my mother had no information to make her question the cause of Helga’s demise. It was only after the war ended and the American Army arrived in Shanghai, that they learned the extent of what Hitler and his collaborators had done. Total shock set in.


Although my parents were grateful to have avoided the gas chambers in Germany and to have landed safely on another continent, they didn’t consider Shanghai a permanent home. In 1947, after eight years in China, my parents navigated their way to the United States, which finally allowed them entry. Since Germany had stripped all Jews of citizenship, they were without valid passports and were required to obtain affidavits from the United States Consul General in Shanghai verifying that they were stateless.


My birth five years later, just after my parents became United States citizens, furthered their trajectory, their new life. They got an apartment in the same building as my maternal grandparents. My mother’s cousin, who had survived “The War” in England, lived in an apartment building next door, and she had a daughter only six months older than me. Most of the adults in my parents’ circle of friends were Holocaust survivors, although they never used that word. They called themselves refugees, and it was a close-knit group. I didn’t know all their histories, but I knew some had fled to the Philippines or Australia; others hid in haystacks and watched as their parents were murdered. They all left their country of birth, not by choice. And they were the lucky ones.


These German Jewish refugees populated our neighborhood in northern Manhattan on the border of Washington Heights and Inwood—Frankfurt on the Hudson as it was called. Many of the shops along Nagle Avenue and Dyckman Streets could have easily been in Berlin or Hamburg. There was the Alpine Bakery, where one of the women behind the counter had a visible tattooed number on the inside of her forearm. That bakery supplied us with rye bread with caraway seeds and my father’s favorite Korn bread, a dense whole grain bread (Korn means grain in German). My mother purchased imported cheeses from Suzy, a woman with chubby pink cheeks who knew my mother by name. Her shop also sold various types of pickled herring, which were displayed in glass vats in a refrigerated case. At the deli just a few doors down, pickles floated in big barrels filled with brine, and you could get one for a nickel. Sunday afternoons, families gathered at Nasch Bakery for Kaffe und Kuchen. The mural on the wall recreated the ambiance of a European café. To this day, I remember the joy of Napoleons that filled my mouth with a velvety custard. The flaky crust was topped with a white glaze artfully intersected by zigzagging brown chocolate lines.


In this community, my parents made new friends easily. Mothers lined up their carriages alongside the benches in Fort Tryon Park as they gabbed away. The women often babysat for each other. I had a built-in circle of friends. My mother and father attended regular gatherings of the “Shanghailanders,” and hosted numerous dinner parties. Political discussions, often heated, filled the air in our apartment. I remember my mother’s friend Ernst discussing Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when it was serialized in The New Yorker. My mother became an early environmentalist.


Finding jobs was not difficult. They weren’t picky, just happy to support themselves. Before I was born, my father labored as a cutter in a wallet factory. My mother worked as a secretary for customhouse brokers in lower Manhattan. Eventually, they both joined her father and stepmother in a lampshade enterprise that originated in my grandparents’ living room. Later, my parents took over the business, and after my grandfather died, my grandmother continued working with them. It was a wholesale operation, serving a variety of retail stores, hotels, and interior designers. Custom lampshades were designed to match clients’ curtains or couches. Some were straight out of the Victorian era, made with fancy silk brocade fabrics, often woven with gold threads, and with glued-on decorative fringes dangling from the bottom edges of the shades. My mother did all the bookkeeping. Evenings, I would sit with her, as she entered numbers into ledgers of gridded green paper. I learned to carefully write out the monthly statements that were mailed to customers. Sometimes, my parents brought home some of the lampshade materials. My grandmother mentored me on the craft, giving me pointers on technique. I became adept at stitching fiberglass sheets to the metal rings at the top and bottom of the shades using vinyl cord of varying colors. When my work withstood the scrutiny of my grandmother’s critical eye, I felt proud to get that nod of approval.


This refurbished life was molding itself around a new narrative in the United States. Still, the Holocaust remained as part of the landscape, and my parents became skilled at entombing their trauma. They tried to protect me, and themselves, from their pain by never outwardly displaying any emotion about what had happened. My mother spoke of Helga’s death almost matter-of-factly, never using the word murder. Helga’s absence was a part of the carpet and the air, as was the absence of all those other people pictured in the photo albums that my mother had so carefully carried with her to China, then over the Pacific Ocean, and cross country to New York City. That included her aunt Klara as well as my father’s parents and his brother Benno. The old stories, the accented English, the pain of what was lost, and the scars, both physical and psychic, could not be fully expunged from the scene. As I was growing up, my life was wallpapered with these unerasable details. I sensed the subterranean mourning.


A sixteen-year-old Helga, frozen in time, stared out at us from a colorized black and white photograph that hung on my parents’ bedroom wall, a constant reminder of the young woman who never lived beyond twenty-one years and nine months. My grandfather’s unexpected death when I was five and a half was another huge loss, but my mother again kept her grief hidden. Nevertheless, we took long drives to a Long Island cemetery annually on my grandfather’s birthday. We always stopped at a nearby florist shop on the way. As we entered, my mother scrutinized the offerings through the glass doors of the cooler. Carnations were the blooms of choice. “They last so much longer,” my mother declared as she selected sunny oranges and yellows. But Helga had no grave for us to clothe with flowers.


Although grief does not easily give up its hold, my mother kept hers at bay by focusing on the life right in front of her. She loved going to the opera and concerts and visiting museums. We lived frugally so we could go on vacations, and my mother derived endless pleasure from recounting those adventures. Over and over, she would narrate the story of our miniature golf encounter on a trip to Germany when I was a teenager. The German players behind us made nasty cracks about our golfing skills, assuming we couldn’t understand them since we were speaking English. After we finished the last hole, my mother turned to them, gave them a big smile, and in her native German said, “Ist es nicht ein wunderschöner Tag, um draußen Minigolf zu spielen?” “Isn’t it a simply perfect day to be out playing miniature golf?” just so they would know we had understood every word of theirs. At that moment, her triumph eclipsed her grief.


She and I went to Hawaii together, and Iceland. In the 1980s, she took me on a three-week tour of China. In Shanghai, our tour guide placed us in a taxi and instructed the driver, who spoke no English, to follow my mother’s hand motions. By pointing, “Go this way,” then pointing left here and right there, she successfully navigated us to the building where she and my father had lived in the Jewish Ghetto of Hongkou. It was now a school. The teachers kindly showed us inside. I stared at the green walls of the tiny room that my parents had shared with another couple, using only a sheet hanging on a string across the middle to provide them with an illusion of privacy.

Helga wrote to family around the world during her three-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Lucky to have evacuated herself to safety, my mother left behind a sister she could not save. For decades my mother was unable to look at her sister’s letters from prison. She kept them safe and secure but out of sight, desperately trying to keep her grief at a non-menacing distance. Ultimately, though, she had to face her sister’s words. In the 1980s, my mother pulled out an old cardboard box with the letters. For me it was a big surprise. Although my mother often spoke of Helga and their wonderful childhood, and we spent many hours perusing the photo albums full of images of two adorable young sisters, she had never mentioned the letters. I had no inkling that my mother had been avoiding her sister’s chronicle of her years behind bars. Now, as we reverently held the browning sheets of brittle paper, she quietly revealed that it was only her second time looking at them. Reading Helga’s words again, her admiration for her sister grew. Helga was so courageous. My mother wanted to translate the letters into English. Would I help her?


We embarked on the translating project, complicated by the fact that Helga’s scrawling lines of fountain-pen ink were quite unintelligible to me. My mother first transcribed her sister’s writing, and then roughed out a first translation for us to polish. We began with the first letter in the stack and worked our way through to the last one dated June 29, 1941. In that letter, which was to be sent around the world, she addressed her aunt still in Germany, her sister in China, and her father in New York. Helga was fully expecting to go home after completing her sentence:

My Dear Sister,

I must write you once more from here because we will have to postpone our reunion, and so I want to make up for it by writing. How are you? I do not have to write about my life here anymore … Let’s hope for the best. Did you remember that Mom died 10 years ago last week? She has been spared a lot, and I have been thinking all these years in prison about what she would have said. I’m sure she would have understood us. [This refers to their resistance activities.] We were so young when she died. Dear Ursel, I hope this letter reaches you. I assume that you also have tried to continue our correspondence via Daddy and hope to find mail from you in Breslau. I say good-bye with a firm handshake. Keep well!


As we were translating the letters, some 40 years after Helga disappeared from my mother’s life, I saw a tear trickle down my mother’s cheek. She quietly wiped it away and muffled any sobs that tried to escape. It was the first time I saw my mother cry about her sister.


After my mother died in 2013 and I was clearing out her apartment, I found an archivist’s treasure trove of papers. My mother’s old passport had a frayed green cover. The first page was stamped with a big red J next to the German Imperial Eagle, its wings outstretched and talons gripping a ring encircling a swastika. Her name, Ursula Beyer Zadik, was handwritten, but above that, the name Sara was stamped—what the Nazis assigned to all Jewish women. More swastikas covered her photo on the next page. Certificates of good citizenship, required for them to leave the country, were printed on now-yellowing paper, also stamped with the Nazi insignia. My mother even kept my father’s elementary school report cards, oversized sheets of paper, which      revealed my father to be good at math from an early age. I think my mother kept every single letter she ever received, and often carbon copies of the letters she wrote. There were piles and piles of papers, notes, and writings from my mother’s friends and relatives, dating back to before they left Germany. There wasn’t enough time to sort through everything, so I filled box after box and stashed them in my basement.


I tried to ignore those boxes. The one time I dared open one, I found a crumpled-up paper with a handwritten note from my grandfather written in the summer of 1938 as he was trying to find a sponsor for Helga. He was not an accomplished English speaker, and his penciled words had clearly been erased and rewritten repeatedly as he perfected his plea for help and nurtured the hope of getting his daughter out of Germany. I caught my breath as his desperation stabbed deeply into my heart. I felt the grief rising from my belly, threatening me like a tidal wave. I had no choice but to close the box as fast as I could, throwing that scrap of paper safely back inside.


Did I really want to know what else was in that box? Could I risk the grief? Grief about my mother alone felt overwhelming, but then there was my emotional pain. I had never known my Aunt Helga and could never know her because they murdered her. I knew the box contained evidence of other people’s desperate attempts to escape, attempts that failed in the end. Once I went there, that box of grief expanded to include all the evil in the world. But, the most dangerous emotions were my own feelings of guilt that I hadn’t done enough in my life to honor Helga.


Then again, who was I kidding? The grief was not sequestered in that box. It was already within me, and I was clinging to it as tightly as I could. With my mother gone, that grief is a vital connection to her, to Helga, and to all the other dead people in the box.

By Madelaine Zadik

Madelaine Zadik lives in the wooded hills of western Massachusetts. She is currently crafting a memoir about her relationship with her Aunt Helga, whom she never knew except through letters Helga wrote from prison in Nazi Germany. Featured on New England Public Media, her work has appeared in The Sun, Consequence, Wordpeace and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit her online at