Two Rings – A Story of Love and War
I FIRST MET MILLIE WERBER AT HER SON MARTIN’S HOUSE. He and his wife, Bracha, are family friends of mine, and once a month on Friday nights, they invite a group of twenty or more to their home to share a potluck Shabbat dinner, filled with casual conversation and song. Millie had been coming to these dinners for several years, ever since her husband Jack died in the autumn of 2006, and I had seen her, sitting quietly at the end of the table, listening, attentive, but always a little held back, an observer more than an easy participant in the boisterous goings-on. A diminutive woman, barely touching five feet tall, Millie was always impeccably dressed—a tailored dark blue dress, or perhaps a simple sweater jacket and slacks. Her clothes, like her demeanor, were graceful and quiet. We had been polite with each other, and I could tell there was a warmth to her—her eyes would brighten readily whenever she greeted the many people who came over to her—but she seemed rather reserved, and her stillness made her seem somewhat fragile, too; our interaction had never gotten far beyond the how-nice-to-see-you’s.
Martin first proposed the idea of my interviewing his mother and writing a book about her wartime experiences. Though urged over the years by members of her family, Millie had been reluctant to speak in detail about her life. It can be that way with survivors, I’m told—not wanting to impose themselves on others, not wanting to burden people with the horrors of the past. But Martin thought that perhaps now, finally, Millie might be agreeable, and he thought that the two of us might hit it off. He had a feeling about us, I suppose.
I was reluctant, too, at first. I’m an academic, a professor of English literature, not a history buff and far from a Holocaust scholar. And though Jewish, my family has little connection to the traumas of the war. No one in my family died in the Holocaust. Three of my four grandparents were born in the United States; the fourth came from Hungary late in the nineteenth century. Growing up in suburban New York, I barely had any experience of anti-Semitism: When I was in
high school and played violin in a county orchestra, my stand partner, a devout Catholic, asked me once if she could see my horns. But this was harmless, a parochial silliness; whatever malevolence lived in the age-old slur she had heard, none of it lived in her.
So I was tentative starting this project with Millie, because I could see no way in; there was no clear connection between Millie and me that would make such a project viable. If I had experienced nothing of real anti-Semitism, nothing of true hardship, nothing of danger or the kind of dread that keeps you awake and trembling in your bed at night, how was I to understand Millie, who was forged in these things, who was made by them and still lives them? How was I to understand the experience of what she would tell me, the feeling of her experience?
Nonetheless, we decided to try. We agreed that I would visit Millie regularly in her home, an elegantly appointed ranch on suburban Long Island.
“Where shall we begin?” I asked the first time. And without further prompting, the stories came pouring out. Like a dam undone, a torrent of stories, jumbled together, all intermixed. One ran readily into the next, the contours wholly unclear. After holding back for so long, it seemed, Millie wanted to tell everything. Something had been unleashed, and it was running—not wildly, not chaotically exactly, but with such profusion it was difficult to sort. I was lost in the surge, and Millie was, too, I know. Our first session lasted four hours; many hundreds more together followed.
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