icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


War Child

Kyiv on a quiet night in wartime.  Photo © Peter Zalmayev 2024 with permission.



In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.


-Bertolt Brecht




Judging a poetry competition in 1927, a time, like ours, of ascendant fascism, Bertolt Brecht  decided not to award a prize, considering all the entries "useless." This is exactly how I felt watching the Oscars on Sunday night. How is it possible that songs about dolls amuse us? How is it possible that a story about Oppenheimer's afflicted conscience is subsumed in cinematic tricks without accurate dialogue to contextualize the powerful images? Protected, at the moment, from the specter of war, those of us living in North America are free to indulge in such decadent chicanery, and may even find it entertaining and transformative.  I do not.  I am a child of war, raised in what my parents assumed would always be a safe haven. They are roiling in their graves.


A few years ago I went back to the same street where I lived alone with my mother from the ages of 1-4 years old. Even though she had casually mentioned the address to me during one of our oral history sessions, I had suppressed it. I wrote it down and kept the notation but there was only a blank space in my mind; I could not remember that I had lived there, only that I  had been told I had lived there. Also, there was a photograph of an empty room; all the walls were blank and the furniture was nondescript and minimal. A small couch, a small easy chair, a side table, one lamp. The photograph was an artifact, nothing more; it meant nothing to me. Now, for some reason, perhaps because I was preparing to move out of the city again, I decided to visit the street and record my findings, or observations. I pretended I was a detective researching the scene of a crime which gave me the emotional distance I required.


The apartment building dated back to the Art Deco period and the exterior was ornate. It was on 84th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway in Manhattan on the south side of the street. The entrance was on 84th Street and it had a red canopy and a doorman in a uniform standing outside. I wondered if there had always been a doorman, or if the building had "gone co-op" and therefore had become gentrified and exclusive. It was certainly not exclusive when I lived there with my mother. She was a refugee, a single parent, and her resources were limited. She held a low paying job as a nurse's aide having arrived in the United States without any English and a foreign medical license; her specialty was obstetrics and gynecology. An only child from what was once a large extended family before they were murdered in the Nazi genocide, she loved babies, and she loved me. During the day she worked with babies and old people. Though she was overqualified, she did not complain. Refugees become adept at new complex identities and these become characteristics known and understood by all who encounter them, especially their children—when their children grow into awareness. My mother did not complain, she worked hard, and expected me to do the same in school. That I knew from an early age.


Leaning against a low wall, I took out my phone to check my emails, a distraction from my unsettled mood. Whatever upset me was buried deep in my psyche, what the Buddhists call "store consciousness." On that particular day, I left it there. But I have been thinking about my mother a lot these past months as the war in the Middle East has intensified, and the war in Ukraine grinds on with no end in sight. And I have been thinking about the children in those particular war zones, and other war zones, how they are endangered from morning to night and even at night, and how I was spared bombs, flight, famine, murderous gangs, kidnapping, and death camps because I was born in America.


It is said that we walk behind our mothers, not in their shadows exactly, but in their wake. Recently I dreamt I was walking up a long stone staircase behind my mother and her small dog. She had on a taupe silk suit that matched her permed gray hair and the dog's fur. Someone said, "She likes dogs." I knew that was correct, but it wasn't me that said it. I remained silent.  Slowly, I followed my mother up the stairs. She did not know I was there because I had not as yet been born. 


In daylight I have continuing rhetorical questions: On what day did my mother receive news of our murdered relatives? What year was it? Did she receive a telegram, a letter, or a knock on the door from the International Red Cross? Did she collapse? Was she stoical? Did she go to work the next day, and the one after that? Did her English falter whenever she tried to ask a question? How did my mother hold her grief, or express it? Who was there when she opened the telegram from the International Red Cross, or was it a letter, or was she called into their office?  If so, who did she talk to? Did she recognize anyone in the waiting room? Did she talk to anyone in the waiting room? Or was it an ante room where they served coffee? Did she have a coffee but have difficulty swallowing the coffee? Who was there to console her?


    Dedicated to all the children in war zones. May they survive and prosper.

Post a comment