|My mother is on the left, here pictured with her mother and younger sisters. Judging by the age of her youngest sister in this photo, this is probably from 1951, when my mother was 15.|
My mother’s story begins with running, a hand holding tight, a lost doll, and a dead body.
These are parts of the first memory she could recall, something that happened to her when she was only two or three years old, possibly even a bit younger.
Like her mother, my mother was born in Jerusalem. My grandmother, however, was born when Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule; while my mother was born under British rule.
My mother was the middle child of seven siblings to survive to adulthood. She had three older brothers and three younger sisters. She also had three sisters she never knew who had lived and died in infancy before she came into this world. She was born on the very last day of 1935, so it’s possible that her first memory is tied in with the riots that took place Jerusalem’s Old City during the November of 1937.
On the first day she could remember vividly, she was a little girl, just a toddler, sitting on a bus with her grandmother, Savtah Bat-Sheva.
|My mother, second from the top left, with her parents, sisters, and a baby (perhaps one of my cousins). My great-grandmother Bat-Sheva is on the right.|
My mother remembered my great-grandmother— the one I’m named after—as always being dressed meticulously. She had a printed housecoat that she wore around the house, but when she went out, she wore a black dress with a white apron. While the housecoat was something she had been bought in a store, everything else she wore was tailored and handmade. The apron had lace on it with intricate details that she had crocheted herself. The scarf on her head was also her own handiwork. Between all that close-up crafting and her almost constant reading, her eyesight was very poor, and she had to wear thick glasses.
They sat on the number 11 bus in Jerusalem, side by side, on their way from my mother’s house to her grandparents’ house on the other side of Jerusalem. Occasionally, Savtah Bat-Sheva spoke a few words to her in Yiddish, the only language my great-grandmother could speak. My mother held a little rag doll in her hand, a gift from her grandmother. Had her grandmother made it herself? Probably, although there’s no way of knowing now. The only thing that matters is that it was a gift from her grandmother, who sat beside her and smiled down, her eyes, behind her thick glasses, shining with love.
As they passed She’ar Yaffo (Jaffa Gate), they suddenly heard shouting outside the bus. People were running. They were in a panic. They shouted, “Pogrom! Pogrom!”
Other people were running behind them, angry men in Muslim attire, and they were shouting, “Itbakh Al Yehud!” Little Tova didn’t know that meant “Slaughter the Jews!” but she could tell the men were angry, and the people running away from them were terrified.
The bus stopped, and the doors swung open. Savtah Bat-Sheva held Tova’s hand tight, and Tova held her little doll’s hand tight. Young and healthy adults got off the bus and started running away from the Old City, away from the danger. A group of people carried bodies onto the bus. Some of those carried on were moving and groaning, but there was one bloodied person who was perfectly still. What was wrong with him? Why wasn’t he moving? Little Tova didn’t understand, but years later, she realized that the man had probably died from his wounds.
The driver swung the doors closed. He drove as fast as he could on Jaffa Road to the center of Western Jerusalem and didn’t stop until he reached where Binyan Klal stands today. He opened the doors. “Quickly, quickly!” he shouted at the elderly and the women with children still on the bus. “Get off! I’m taking these people to the hospital!”
Savtah Bat-Sheva picked little Tova off the chair and pulled her to the door. Tova held her grandmother’s hand tight in one hand and her little rag doll tight in the other. They got off the bus and found themselves in a streaming river of people heading in both directions. Half the people were running away in a panic from the Old City. The other half were running toward the Old City in the hopes of finding their loved ones safe or to see what they could do to help. Little Tova saw legs running, everyone running.
But what about her dear old grandmother?
The thing my mother remembers the most about that day is that her grandmother ran.
How was this possible? Her Savtah Bat-Sheva, this old woman who spent most of the day sitting and crocheting or reading—running?
But Savtah Bat-Sheva ran, then, ran for her life and her granddaughter’s life.
And Tova had to move her tiny feet faster than she had ever moved them before to keep up.
Her grandmother held her little hand tight, and Tova clutched her little rag doll tight.
Then the rag doll slipped from her little hand. It fell into the street. Tova cried out, “My doll!”
She reached back, but she couldn’t see it. There were too many people running around them. She wanted to stop. She wanted to go back to get her doll. But Savtah Bat-Sheva held her hand tight and continued to run. She ran and ran until little Tova finally reached her grandparents’ home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.
My mother didn’t know exactly when this event took place or exactly how old she was at the time; she only knew that it was her first memory and she was very little. In a video interview I made with her, she asked me to try to work it out based on historical resources. So I looked it up.
The riots of November 1937 weren’t the first or the last of the riots, but she hadn’t even been born when the Jews of Hebron were massacred in 1929, and she would have been too young at the time of the riots that took place between April and November of 1936 to remember them. It could, however, have happened later. The Arab Revolt lasted until 1939 when they were stopped by “Charles Orde Wingate, an officer in the British army. Wingate, pro-Zionist and a Christian, organized Special Night Squads of Jewish volunteers to combat the attackers.” So my mother could have been anywhere from almost two years old to over three at the time of her first memory. (Source: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/riots36.html)
How does an event like that shape a person?
You might think it would make them fearful, but my mother was fearless. You might think it would make them suspicious of other people, but my mother loved and was loved by almost everyone she met up until the end.
During one visit to the hospital, my brother asked an orderly where my mother was.
“Who?” the orderly asked, not recognizing the name.
“The charming woman,” my brother replied, having no better way to describe her.
The orderly smiled and knew exactly who he was talking about.
If anything, I think it made my mother appreciate life all the more. It made her see it as a miracle. And even in the worst stories she told—stories of riots and war and death and destruction (with the exception of one story that I plan to get to later)—there was also a sense of wonder that life, the miracle of life, goes on.