A Tape of Helen Gilderstein Speaking
By Leora Skolkin-Smith
New York City, 1989
"What about my life now, Lilly?" Helen had begun, "My life is a different story altogether. I do not believe you can understand it. I should make an exhibit of paintings. Then there would really be something to see. They have to have another exhibit about heritage? I am glad you are painting and that you have exhibits, but to me this is ridiculous. They will laugh at you if you say you are like what I came from, there is no connection whatsoever. I am a survivor and I don't lean on strangers for help. You were not a part of me anymore when all this happened.
"You had to have your own war, fine. Don't see me anymore until you are ready. You need your own identity. I can understand this. I am not as stupid as you think I am. I understand you children more than you realize.
"I will read the letter you wrote me when they took you away to that institution now that somebody is listening to me for a change. But you cannot play this tape for anyone. I don't want my family in Israel to know what went on here. Many days I looked out this window in this apartment now and thought: Jump! It was not that I traveled all the time and abandoned you. What was that to accuse me of purposely trying to keep you suffering? Then they said you took those pills because you were angry at me? I can only laugh, Lilly. You want to paint something about heritage? I could feel very sorry for myself if I wanted to. You lived and perhaps to be a survivor is not as simple as people like to say.
"All these years I didn't speak about it but you of all the family should understand why I left Jerusalem. I was the last of my group but we did not speak of things. It is not our way. Your grandmother, Savta, used to say once you talk about things, you ruin them.
"My friends and I--we were very tired. It was frustrating. We didn't think we would ever see the end. I left Jerusalem after my boyfriend was killed. It was still Palestine. This was in 1946. There is never an end to that story and there is never a beginning either. You shouldn't think I was involved with the state of Israel because it was still Palestine when I left it. The British were cruel, but what was worse were the Germans. That was our dilemma. The British used my boyfriend. They wanted his know-how. He was a spy for them. I remember after he was killed (and they never found the body; it was lost in the sea) I went to his mother and she said: 'Why? When all his other friends were doing nothing. It was always him who went. Why was he lost?' He was such a believer. He went very deep into it.
"When you were a little girl I took you, you don't remember, to the river Seine in Paris and we sat at night with candles everywhere burning, just to feel the life I missed. You are so young, you do not know real suffocation. When I was just a child I played in the rocks and olive trees outside our house in Jerusalem. Every day in school I learned the language English, but all around was this smell like flowers, delightful I would call this smell, and it was my mother who made this. My mother, she was only a housewife you know, but I have never been again so happy. There was no bath. We children we had to go to a shed to make pee-pee and the other thing. And there were so few families in Jerusalem, there were not even signs for streets, there was no need to name any street because what would be the reason? We knew everybody and where they lived exactly! Everyday in the gymnasium I learned the language English because it was a British colony and we had to carry our ID cards, even to take a bus, or walk to school the British with their police always checked the ID. When I was seven we moved to live in a flat above my father's department store, closer to the center of the old city. My mother would get up at dawn to make our bread; she had to walk into the place where there was an oven for all the women.
"I was the last child, she almost died having me and she was tired now. There were only eight rooms to this flat and my mother said there was a pomegranate tree up on the porch where we weren't allowed to go because it was too dangerous. For some reason this stayed with me. Wash the floors, cook--your grandmother, Savta, would understand everything about me. My mother hung our wet clothes on this pomegranate tree we never saw on the porch. We never believed her that it was even there. Years later, when my father was doing well, we had already a large house in the new city of Jerusalem, outside the walls, in Rehavia. My mother took us children in a car to where we lived before and we went upstairs now to the porch, we were old enough. Of course there it was, the pomegranate tree.
"Who will hear my side of the story? I was born in 1920 before the War of Independence. I did not have this quiet you children had growing up--thoughts. For a state there was everything and for one person, nothing. I am glad now that I missed this war, it was more terrible, I think. You take this tape I make with you now. You say it is for a new exhibition of your paintings on heritage? Well, it is also an opportunity for me to talk finally with my daughter. I want you to listen and then you make up your mind. If you don't want to see me until you are happy again, that is fine.
"I cannot express myself like you. This is not the life story of Helen Gilderstein, this is not the point of what I'm telling you. You will have this tape and then you can decide whether you should have gone into a mental hospital like they were telling you to do. This is the letter you write me from this hospital. I want to read it into the tape now, if you will let me. Am I holding the microphone correctly? Listen, now:
"‘Dear Mom,’ you write me, . . . ‘I have a different doctor now in long-term care and I feel this is a good time to tell you we must separate. I ask that you no longer visit the ward as I am sure the social worker has already told you. I am sorry. You know I wish it could have been a different way. Your daughter, Lilly.’
"Who ever heard my side of the story? Thank you for seeing me at all, I guess I should say now. I am glad people want to buy your paintings. It has been many years now since the car accident, do you believe this? Your father is dead now almost sixteen years. Your sister Ivy now is married and has two children. The house in Bedford is sold now. When you were in the hospital I came to see you every day and then when they said I couldn't anymore, I didn't. Who will pay for these years now? I do not understand why you are this way. You came from me, I am sorry, Lilly. I can do nothing to change that.
"Maybe it is that I really wish I could go myself into a mental institution. What is that, boundaries? I don't even know for a minute what these big analysts of yours are talking about. We slept together on the floor in blankets when there was a war. For us, what happens in our body was not such a big deal. What is the shame? I am speaking into the microphone now correctly? Okay then. Let us hope so and begin finally. There are many ways to look at what happened, Lilly.
"My mother risked her life giving me birth. I was the second girl. There were three brothers, your Aunt Esther, and then me. My mother's father was really the first doctor of Palestine, though really he was only a pharmacist. My father brought the first gas stoves to Jerusalem, and had the very first department store, now it is bombed, but it was inside the old city. So between the two of them, my parents, we felt very important.
"Outside the house on Metudelah there was a basin where Esther was in charge of bathing me because my mother put her in charge. You see Esther with her long braids--she was jealous that my mother loved me. And then she would dress me only in boy's shorts and hats because it made her so jealous that the boys liked me instead of her. Really, it is sad. Uncle Isaac brought from the Gilderstein department store so many gifts for me, I was spoiled. What Esther did to me, no one saw. I have a fear of water the rest of my life now. She liked to cut my hair, too, with scissors; to her it was a joke to humiliate me and make me walk without any hair to school. And it was so no boys would like me, I understand it now. She was jealous, as I said. All the time, she took great pride in cutting my hair and touching me like I am nothing but hers and only a doll. And it was all the time but you would never know. To hear her, she was the perfect sister!
"My mother was tired, she had to put Esther in charge of me. My three brothers were away in the war, and my father, he never spoke to me much. But I got many gifts, you know, and it was just the way then, my mother would get up at four a.m. to bake the bread and clean the floors. I was the last child, she almost died having me and she was tired now.
"I didn't know freedom until I met your father. My sister Esther had a lot to do with it of course. Esther was nine years older than me but she tells everyone she is only three years older. She tells everyone that she had to leave school to care for me. My mother had no time for me. Esther tells everyone that she had to give up her life to take care of me. Years later, people said to me: ‘You were one of the beauties of Jerusalem!’ And I wanted to say to them: You should have told me that when I was growing up. Esther made me feel ugly like a rock and when I went hiking and got my face full of sun, Esther said: 'You look like one big freckle.' I forgave her. It was the wars.
"Nothing I did to you children was wrong. You see, everything had this enchantment with your Savta, my mother--all my life I wanted only this childhood to come back.
"Live and let live, my mother would say, she wanted everything I feel to be about freedom, to run wild maybe a little. Every morning when I awoke, the world would smell full of flowers, and it is all I really wanted. I wonder if that tree is still there sometimes. ‘What is this, a pomegranate tree?’ I said to her. Growing on the porch? Like mother and daughter is this tree, I think. It is from me you get your strength, Lilly. And this pomegranate tree you don't see. This I know and it is old wisdom, you might say. Everything you have, it is from me. I don't need my daughter visiting me every Sunday. I just want you to realize that you are my daughter. I do not mean property as people thought in this terrible hospital. I mean there is a spirit to things and the spirit to things was I loved you very much. I loved you deeply. I am glad you are no longer going in and out of the hospital at least. It was time to stop all that.
"What else should I talk about now? This tape is already too long and you will say I am only repeating myself. I did not treat your father badly as you say, I make this tape so you will know who I am finally. The first thing I knew was that all my life was gone. There is an automobile accident, your husband is sleeping they tell me, and he when he recovers he will be with brain-damage. I had to take care of him six years after this when he was an invalid and did not even know who he was. He could not work again and behaves like a child and I am the bad person? You were just sixteen when this happens. What was this to tell a mother that you are no longer a part of her? I made you live at home until you went to college because you had to help me. He left us nothing, your father, I didn’t understand the papers, the insurance, what was all that? I am not from America and they talk to me about these papers to sign. I got very confused, I am telling you. I am a very proud person. I am messy, also, you might say, but where I was born, to make pee-pee was not such a thing that you has to read books on how to do it. And when we said things like boundaries we meant cities or Arabs or another war, not what these psychiatrists tell me I didn't have with you. This was part of my heritage, too. And it was not serious, what I did to you. You are too sensitive for me. The boiler wouldn't work and it was winter and so maybe I started to scream a little. Psychiatrists make too much out of everything. They have children, these big psychiatrists? Your father, all he was in was humiliation and he tells everyone we are not doing well! We lived in a very rich place, Bedford, no one was to know our business. I came every day to see you in the mental hospital, but you were too sensitive for me. You felt a terrible guilt from the accident. I do not feel guilty for anything you accuse me of because I know I loved you. After your father died, I sat alone in that house in Bedford and you were all I had, and still just a teenager. What is there to accuse me of?
"I don't go into mental hospitals when things look bad. And I don't ask anyone to pay for me to sit and tell some stranger that my mother is a monster. I am a person, too, Lilly, and everything being said in this hospital was against me.
"All my life was about freedom. I yell maybe too loud. But I understand you more than you know. I am not a bad mother. Your sister, Ivy, she will say this, but if you think deeply about it, there is only something in the blood, you might say.
"If you say Gilderstein to anyone in Jerusalem, they know who we were. My brother used to keep ammunition in his Ford and he would pass the British soldiers on his way to deliver it and he would say to them: ‘How are you today? And how is your wife? And would you like some nice china for your party this Saturday?’
"I don't like to go to Akko with my old boyfriends when I visit Israel. There most of them run hotels now on the Red Sea. This city, Akko, still has a terrible smell, this is a terrible smell and I don't like this smell, it is terrible. You can see, too, the ropes that are still hanging--the British officers would beat the hinds of our boys with riding crops-I heard this story from my boyfriends. But if it was serious what the young boys of the Jewish underground did-the British would hang them. When I was still a little girl and before all this my father taught in the School for the Blind until my Uncle Isaac got the idea for the department store in Jerusalem. Everything they bargained from the Arabs: linens, stationery, in Europe they found household goods and chinaware and they sold them to the British when they came. Even in the middle of the Arab rioting, my father photographed a Jewish woman holding a Remington typewriter at the Wailing Wall to make more money for his store. And during all the terrible riots, we still went to Mishkenot to play our games of tennis. We played with floor brooms if we could not find our tennis rackets anymore! I wanted you to be strong like me, and never to give in. What is that, to give in and not to survive? Even after our own store was bombed, we did nothing but learn how to rebuild and fight back, no matter how silly we looked, perhaps.
"I was sorry you and your sister didn't have what we had. It happened to be very healthy, I think. It started at age nine. First, the scouts. We would hike all over the country, into Syria, and Lebanon. The next thing you know, you are to make liberation as a member of the Jewish underground and not even fifteen years old yet.
"Did you listen now? I kept this letter all these years. What was this? I will never forget going to my mailbox and getting this letter. This tape is only for you and no one else, do you hear me? I wish I could make these paintings of yours, perhaps they would tell the truth for once. Never mind about this letter you wrote now. You were not yourself. They were using you for research there and they put you up to it, if you ask me. They have to have another exhibit about heritage now? There isn't enough?
"Your father, he did this to me. We were not always the happiest before all this, either. Listen, Lilly, I don't want my family in Israel to ever know what these doctors said about me here. And you are not to talk about the British and the underground I was in or you will be in trouble everywhere. I tell you just for our own knowledge. It is to me that this happened, Lilly. And without my strength, you could not be.
"I don't want you to feel any guilt. I didn't pay for these trips to the emergency room because I don't believe in doctors and there was nothing wrong with you. It wasn't that I wanted to keep you with me or that I am trying to give you no medical care, I wanted that you be strong and survive, to teach you about life. What was that to accuse me of this word? Reckless endangerment? These are words the hospital taught you to use because they don't understand heritage. I needed to keep up appearances; it is part of who I am to be proud.
"All these years I never spoke to you about my life. I was going to see that social worker at Payne Whitney for myself a long time ago. Perhaps you do not know this, or they did not tell you at the time. All my life people said I am crazy, too, Lilly. Is this what you want to understand? This is not the same as being a bad person. We are survivors or we are not survivors, that is how I see things whether they liked me in the hospital or not. You think you can decide I am not your mother anymore and everything is fine? Who told you this? How much did this cost, this stupidity? I wish sometimes, too, I was not what I am.
"Now I will tell you something, Lilly, but you must promise not to tell anybody else. I had a cousin who had a motorbike. He would say to me: ‘Do you want to go for a ride?’ And I would know exactly what he meant. He gave me ammunition and I put it under my skirt, inside my underpanties. We drove through Jerusalem on his motorbike and onto the highway to Tel Aviv to deliver it. Till now people don't know we did it. You can't say we were heroes because I don't think we knew it was dangerous.
"Everything is, for me, about survival, Lilly, not to just give up and go into a mental hospital. I wanted my daughter to not be a charity case and have people laugh at her. What is that, to give in and not to survive?
"When the British first came to our country it was very funny because suddenly the Turkish flag disappears from the sky and we see these men with white flags and my father says to my brother: ’You have cigarettes in the basement? Give the British soldiers the cigarettes and we will live today.’ The first time I talked to a British soldier, he was smoking a cigarette my brother found in the basement. Your grandfather is buried in Mt. Scopus, and I cannot for the life of me tell if it was the British or the Arabs that decide if I am allowed to the grave. Aunt Esther, she saw the boats filled with diarrhea come from the forests in Europe and she is only sun-bathing in Herzliya and already her life is changed and twenty-one years old. We gave everything, as I said; we hid the refugees, we cleaned them, I sit with the Australian soldiers and I am a nurse and then the British ones come, we are already laughing, what did it matter to us which country comes? They are all soldiers, who cares from where? Or about our lives before?
"We were under British rule and the country was still Palestine and it was an underground. It was not always that the British knew who was serious and who was just a boy playing with balls, shall we say--and the British could also be very gentle and kind. The goyim are not very smart in general and they use the Jew for his know-how. I honestly don't think the British knew what to make of all of us there, but they were very polite and quite cordial. My father sent my brothers to British schools and I was in London as a teenager and we marched in the rain against the White Paper, but to tell you honestly this paper I never really read. You know my boyfriends in Jerusalem would make so much out of it, but to tell you honestly, I see a lot of the Likud and Haganah soldiers now and it turns out some of them are a little bit idiotic--I even look at some of my old boyfriends now and say to myself: This man is a little bit of an idiot after all, what was he all about? I mean, really. In England we had fun and we smoked cigarettes and my brothers liked it too and they would come back always depressed to Palestine. We dressed in British styles, very nice, cashmere and woolen skirts, and they are so polite. Good old boys, your Uncle Eliezer would call them. But if the British soldier had seen the guns in my brother's Ford, he would have to take him to Akko, to the gallows.
"By fourteen, you were initiated into the Haganah. Someone would approach you--it was in school--someone who was four classes higher than you. I remember her very well. Her name was Edith. She had red hair in a braid and freckles everywhere. ‘You are to come to school at such and such a time,’ she said, ‘We want to talk to you. Don't tell anybody else about it.’ This was a little bit of a joke because by the time you got there all your friends were there, too. It was supposed to be very hush-hush because you must remember Israel at that time was Palestine and it was under the British mandate and it was an underground. You would come to a classroom at night and you would be initiated. They would ask you if you believed in the country and do you want to serve? Everywhere, even inside the kibbutzim, the Jews were preparing for independence. They hid armaments and gunpowder everywhere and some places, the fanatic Jews, Irgun or Likud, put bombs in British motorcars. Aunt Esther, she will tell you how we used to dress up, the women of Metudelah Street, and look like we are only going to the opera or a concert. The men would stuff bullets inside our brassieres and packets of gunpowder for explosives and they knew the British would never have stopped us. They taught us how to walk down the street like we are doing nothing but going shopping or getting our hair done! And so proud we were then! Like little peacocks you might say!
"I wasn't involved with the fighting. Don't think that. Do you know what I did in the Haganah? I washed the dishes. I was stationed in the kitchen and the men would go out on their mission and we would wait for them to come back and give them dinner. I was only just a schoolgirl. It was not as glamorous as people like to think. We were to make the men comfortable. They didn't tell us what they were doing. We were youngsters and they didn't want us to know.
"It happened to be very exciting, washing the dishes. And we felt very good doing it. Everybody did something. It was not that there were heroes and non-heroes. We learned sharing, we learned how to give among ourselves.
"You must remember, too, that the Haganah was not a terrorist movement. We were not the fanatics. It was defense. It was so that the fanatic Arabs could not just go and slaughter.
"My mother was born in the old city with many Arab friends and my father always took me to parties in Transjordan. My father supplied the Middle East. We had a department store. We had wonderful dolls and wonderful silver, dishes and things like that. That's why I used to go to Europe so much. My father used to take me when he went over there to buy for the store. Only the very extreme Arabs would stir up once in a while. Every year or so they would stir up. Hebron and the outskirts of Jerusalem were always the most dangerous. There used to be Mufti who was their leader. They have a holiday called Ramadan where they fast for thirty days. They used to sit in the mosque--that's where all their political decisions would be made--and they would come out into the streets very heated. They went into homes with their knives and slaughtered. I remember when I was eight or nine, my parents would go to Europe and leave me with my aunt. I remember this very clearly. But, you see, we also played with the Arabs. My friends were Arab children and we played together: cards, ball, dolls.
"Before we moved to the house on Metudelah Street we lived above the store as I have told you. It was not residential and I used to be very afraid to walk home. There was a riot. The fanatic Arabs were killing Jews on the street, with knives. I was playing up on the roof and my ball fell. I didn't think. I rushed down to the street to get it. I remember 'till now my terrible fright. And my mother screaming out the window! The riots of '36 were very bad. They killed women, children--with knives. I had friends who were killed on buses. But these were only the fanatics and they killed many Arabs, too, who would not join their gangs.
"The Haganah was to build Israel, to make room for many Jews, and to make independence from the British. In order to do this, they took from the Arabs. You could say that the Americans took from the Indians and we took from the Arabs. You see there are two stories to it. There are always two arguments. You have the Arabs who really lived there for a million years and the Israeli suddenly takes away the only home he ever knew. I don't ever want to get attached to one place. I don't ever want to get so attached to land.
"We were a wild crowd. We were very bright but not what you would call studious. I remember we were called in at school and we read in the paper that there was a Hitler and there are new immigrants coming. You should be very patient with them, our teacher said, they don't know Hebrew but they'll learn fast. But in Germany they were much higher in school than we were. I remember a boy named Gabby. When he came into history class he knew so much more than we did. But Gabby wanted to belong. So he purposely became a bad student to be a part of our group. Then he joined the scouts. Next thing we knew, he was in the Haganah.
"In the Haganah you give a month of yourself to working in a kibbutz. We worked in Kiryat Anavim, up in the fields with the shepherds. One day there was a call that a group of new immigrants arrived from Germany. The kibbutz rang the bell for lunch and all these young immigrants scattered into the fields. They were screaming and running very fast. You could not get them to believe the bell was being rung so that they could be fed. They thought it was rung for the slaughter. They thought they would be taken if they did not hide themselves. This stayed with me all my life.
"I gave a lot of my years. I'm not comfortable with the political issues. I never was comfortable with them. I'm a great believer in intuition. I believe there are purposes you don't know about until many years go by.
"I don't like to talk about it. Your father was the talker in the family. My mother always said: once you talk about certain things, you ruin them. When Theodor Herzl came to One Metudelah Street in Jerusalem, your grandmother, Savta, threw pots of boiling water at his shoes. You could see her running down the street: ‘Who are these foreigners?’ She is screaming.
"President Roosevelt sent a judge to investigate the concentration camps in Europe after World War II was finally over. There was a rule that an Israeli family should entertain foreign guests. I was the judge’s guide to Jerusalem. I showed him the Old City and so on. He suddenly says to me: ‘You belong in America, young lady.’ Then, at dinner in my home, he says to my father: ‘Send her to America. She can study to be a social worker or a teacher.’ My education was interrupted by the war (I studied in London and then had to come home because the war broke out). My father thought it wouldn't be such a bad idea if I came to America for a little while. I thought I was only going to be here for six months! Of course my father knew the consul and so I got a visa. ‘You can go, but don't marry, young lady.’ the consul said to me. I came over to America on a War Brides ship from Italy. I was in America ten days when I met your father. We married four months later.
"I loved America from the first step. It was the freedom. Maybe I was suffocating. My sister Esther had a lot to do with it, of course. You know I was the last child and my mother was very sick after she had me as I have said. I am repeating myself.
"I am not comfortable with political statements. I believe in silence, in things we don't say. I am a person of intuition, not of politics.
"My father supplied the Middle East as I have told you already. We had wonderful dolls and wonderful silver, dishes and things like that. That's why I used to go to Europe so much. My father used to take me when he went over there to buy for the store. And my father dressed like a European, not like his father, who wore dark clothes like the Orthodox and was also strict and needed only respect. They say I am a little wild like my father, a little reckless, perhaps. I have a little of his temper but also his fun. We traveled all over, to Milan, Paris, Vienna. And there in those cities, even if it was two in the morning, he would wake us children up and say to us: ‘Hush, your mother is sleeping, let's go and see the world!’
"For me, Lilly, everything is very complicated. You see, I don't believe this person or that person is bad, or even that the people who we must believe are only enemies, are bad, either. I still do everything by intuition and I am suspicious, you might say, but this is not bad. We did not think how it will affect our children, no reasons for things. I live by impulses and freedom, as I said. That means I am a criminal? Then, fine, I am a bad person.
"Now I have gone on too long, perhaps you will say I am only rambling. I don't have to go to these big psychiatrists to understand myself, Lilly. You do not know about real abuse, and, look, I still love my parents. Perhaps you will understand someday why I could not always express myself with you and Ivy. I tell you this history not to bore you but so that you can take something from it to make you strong again. No one could understand what I went through as a child.
"Perhaps if you see some of my old friends again in Jerusalem, they will tell you about the Exodus and the boats that came to us. But first was always to make liberation from being only part of someone else. Heritage? You also needed a war of independence and you needed to make boundaries, to get away from me. I understand this, maybe this is the reason you went into the hospital, but that doesn't make me bad like those doctors told you.
"There was nothing wrong with you, Lilly. You were twenty-four years old, what could be wrong? They tell you you must leave your mother and be put inside an institution? What do I have to say now about psychiatrists and this analysis and that--to exist at all was the purpose, and mother and daughter are like that pomegranate tree, I promise you. You will not see what is this pomegranate tree until you are much older.
"There is never an end to that story and there is never a beginning, either. Perhaps that is why I am so frustrated and repeat myself so many times. Life is a cycle like this. I went to my mother, always--I was very attached to her. The reasons come much later in life. This is enough. Everything you have, it is from me, Lilly. In the meantime, I will wait. I will always wait for my daughter to come back to me."
Copyright © Leora Skolkin-Smith 2011
Leora Skolkin-Smith’s first published novel, Edges, was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Ms. Paley's own imprint at Glad Day books. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award by Grace Paley. The Fragile Mistress, a feature film based on Edges is currently in pre-production, scheduled to begin shooting on location in Jerusalem, Jordan, and New York, produced by Triboro Pictures. Recent publications include a piece from The Fragile Mistress, which appeared in Guernica Magazine. Leora Skolkin-Smith’s new novel, Hystera, has been recently published by The Fiction Studio Books. For more about Leora Skolkin-Smith, please visit www.leoraskolkinsmith.com.