Surviving Auschwitz, 18-year old Elli leaves behind painful memories to start fresh in America in 1951. She faces challenges of creating a new life in hectic New York City. A powerful glimpse of immigrant America through the eyes of this teenager.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Livia Bitton-Jackson, born Elli L. Friedmann in Czechoslovakia, was thirteen when she, her mother, and her brother were taken to Auschwitz. They were liberated in 1945 and came to the United States on a refugee boat in 1951. She received a PhD in Hebrew culture and Jewish history from New York University. Dr. Bitton-Jackson has been a professor of history at City University of New York for thirty-seven years. Her previous books include Elli: Coming of Age in the Holocaust, which received the Christopher Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, and the Jewish Heritage Award. Dr. Bitton-Jackson lives in Israel with her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter Three: Broadway
After the Goldstein family leaves with Tommy as their gallant escort, Aunt Lilly suggests that we all take a well-deserved rest till the evening, when Tommy would drive us to Brooklyn.
"I would rather go for a walk, if Bubi is willing to take me," I say and cast an imploring look in my brother's direction.
"Okay," Bubi agrees, and the two of us bid Good Shabbes to Mommy, Aunt Lilly, and Uncle Abish. "Where do you want to go?"
"Just walk...anywhere. Is there a park in the vicinity?"
For several minutes my brother and I walk in silence. There is so much to say after four years of separation, so many questions to ask. Where do I begin?
"I want to ask you..." My brother is the first to speak. "When you met Uncle Abish this morning at the pier, why did you cry on his shoulder, calling him Papa? Did you for a moment think he was Papa? Did he remind you of Papa so much? But he's not like our father at all, not in looks and not in personality. There's no resemblance."
All at once tears spring into my eyes. "To me there is. Everything about him reminds me of Papa, his body build, his high cheekbones, hazel eyes...there's an aura about him that's like Papa. Oh, Bubi, I miss him so much!"
"Ever since that scene at the pier, I've been thinking. You didn't get to know Papa very well...couldn't, really. You were very young when he was taken away. I had a chance to know him before it all started, but you...how much time did you spend with him? To get to know him?"
"But I did. He taught me to swim and to ride the bike. While you were away at school, he taught me to play chess. We would play for hours, late into the night. Doyou remember the sports equipment -- the rings, the chin-up bar, the swing -- he fixed up in the yard and taught us to work out on them? I believe that's where my love of sport stems from."
How happy Papa was when I took to it like a duck to water...how proud. I was his kind of girl, he said. Ever since then wherever I have swum or ridden a bike, Papa has been beside me, cheering me on. I can hear his voice: Go on, you're doing fine....Just a little more! Don't give up....Never give up!
"Do you remember his dictionary of foreign words? We used to pore over it together, he, pointing out the origins of foreign words in Hungarian, and I, memorizing them. I believe that's where my love of foreign languages stems from."
The true source of my sense of kinship with Papa I can't reveal to my brother. During those years that he was away at school I overheard Mother say to Papa how Bubi was just like her family, her brothers, whereas I was just like Papa. "Bubi has a good head," I heard him concede. "But Elli has Sitzfleisch. She has perseverance. Sometimes, in the long run, perseverance gets you farther than a good head."
"Yes, I remember the dictionary of foreign words," Bubi says with a smile. "He was fascinated with the etymology of words. And of course I remember the sports equipment in the yard, how much he loved to exercise. You liked that kind of stuff....I must confess I didn't."
We walk on the colorless streets of the Lower East Side and talk of the Danube River back in Czechoslovakia, of its silvery blue ripples, of the brilliant green of the forest, and of the long, lazy summer afternoons when after a vigorous swim Papa would play soccer with us in the grass, then draw my brother into the shade of the woods flanking the river and study with him the portion of the week from the Pentateuch or a page of the Talmud.
"I'll never forget the passage of the Talmud that we studied together on that last night, before he was taken away," Bubi reminisces, and his voice is somewhat hoarse with emotion. "He said, 'This is how I wish to part from you, learning a passage of the Talmud. Remember this passage when you remember me....'"
Bubi falls silent as we stroll on the faded brick sidewalk past shuttered storefronts. All at once the elongated shadows of the tenement houses plunge the street into twilight, and Bubi is taken aback with the realization of the late hour.
"We must turn back," he says now with urgency. "We've wandered too far. We must get back to Uncle Abish's house before the end of the Sabbath."
We have wandered too far indeed. Although Bubi and I now gallop like racehorses through darkened streets and alleyways, it takes us more than half an hour to reach our relatives' flat.
"Where have you been?" The entire Friedman family is racked with worry.
"You can stop worrying," Bubi the cool pragmatist reassures the excitable Hungarian bunch. "We are here, safe and sound, and Shabbes is not even over yet."
In fact, Shabbes has been over for some time, and Tommy has gone to bring his car and drive us to the pier for our luggage en route to Brooklyn.
Mommy and I bid a fond farewell to our American family, and they promise to come visit us in Brooklyn.
My heart is brimming with excitement as I am sitting in the front seat of Tommy's new car, in between Mommy and the driver. These amazing American cars are so wide there is room for three people in the seat. What an exhilarating experience, driving in the face of oncoming traffic, a sea of blinding light beams and a cacophony of honking horns.
"Is New York City like this every night?" I ask.
"Saturday night is. On Saturday night people go out. People from the boroughs drive to Manhattan to theaters, movie houses, concerts, restaurants. We're lucky to be heading in the opposite direction so we're not stuck in a traffic jam. Soon we'll reach the Brooklyn Bridge. You'll see all the traffic on the bridge. It's tremendous at this hour."
"I have never seen so many cars in my life!" Mother cries.
Tommy's car rolls onto the ramp off the bridge and soon makes its way to a beautiful boulevard, a wide, tree-lined street stretching on and on for miles.
"Is this Broadway?"
"Broadway? Oh, no! We're in Brooklyn now. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge twenty minutes ago. Broadway is in Manhattan."
"What street is this?"
"This is Ocean Avenue. It's the street where Aunt Celia and Uncle Martin live," my brother calls from the backseat.
"Really? I didn't expect such wide streets in Brooklyn. I thought..."
"That's the meaning of avenue," my brother explains, "a wide street, like a boulevard."
"Is Broadway much wider than this? Is it far from here?"
"Do you want to see Broadway?" Tommy asks. "I can take you tomorrow, if you want."
"Will you? I can't wait to see Broadway, and the cloud scrapers. Papa told me that on Broadway there are cloud scrapers, buildings over a hundred stories high."
"There's one building like that," Tommy says. "The Empire State Building. It's a hundred and ten stories high. But it's not exactly on Broadway."
"And the word is skyscraper," Bubi pipes up again in the back.
I remember that New York was Papa's city of dreams, and he hoped one day to make it to New York. But I must not talk about it. Not now. I must not tell Tommy that Daddy promised to buy me the prettiest dress on Broadway. Papa would point to a picture of one of the staggering, tall buildings. "This is over a hundred stories high. Can you fathom a building so tall? One day you and I will walk up on Broadway and turn our heads to see the top of that building that touches the clouds. I guess that's why they call them cloud scrapers. Can you see the big shop windows?" He would go on. "We'll go into one of those big, fancy shops on Broadway and I'll buy you the prettiest dress." "Oh, Papa," I would exclaim, and give him a tight hug. "Oh, Papa. I love you so."
It was our game during the dark, difficult times. By then we had been waiting for more than two years for our turn on the American quota. The war was raging and Hitler's armies were drawing ever nearer, spreading panic in their wake. And there was no reply from the American Embassy to our inquiries as to when, for God's sake, we would get entry visas to America. It seemed hopeless, yet Father kept up our morale with tales of the dazzling metropolis we would reach "someday."
"Well, this is it." Tommy says as he pulls alongside the curb and parks the car in front of a large, impressive building. "2010 Ocean Avenue."
"This is where Aunt Celia lives?"
"Yes," Bubi answers. "This is the house."
I gaze in amazement at the stately building and follow Mother up three or four wide stone steps to the entrance and into the spacious lobby. The two boys follow behind, carrying our luggage to the far end of the hall. I cannot believe my eyes. The courtly look of the hall with its polished floor and fireplace reminds me of opulent, turn-of-the-century buildings in Vienna. This is more like the America I have dreamed about.
We climb the stairs at the far end of the lobby to the first floor. Bubi rings the bell on a door in the left-hand corner of the hallway, and I feel my throat tighten. In seconds the door opens wide, and Aunt Celia, as tall and as beautiful as I remember her, rushes to meet us.
We cling to each other in exaltation tinged with pain. I remember another reunion, in another place, at another time. How long has it been? We are locked in a silent embrace, and all at once the dark hallway is transformed. I'm in the midst of a desiccated vista battered by blinding, scorching sun...and in the distance I can see a tall, sticklike figure meander about, shouting, "Laura! Laura! Laura!" It's my aunt, Mom's younger sister, still stunning in the drab prison uniform with shaven head. "Aunt Celia!" She looks at me uncomprehending, locks me in a frantic embrace. "Elli! Little Elli, you are here? How can it be? And your mother...where's your mother?" Her tears smudge my face as I lead her to the dusty hollow where Mother has fallen asleep. Celia crawls into the hole next to her and the two sisters greet each other with silent panic, hold each other in a silent clasp, weeping silently in the scorching dust hole of Auschwitz, the most dreaded concentration camp...only to be separated again.
How long has it been? And now here we are, after years of longing, the three of us once again locked in a tight embrace....But now in a new world, at the threshold of a new life.
The ecstasy of our reunion is marred by the agony of remembering. Our tears of joy are mingled with tears of pain for the agonizing losses we suffered since that meeting in Auschwitz during the first day of our arrival. The ghost of seventeen-year-old Imre, Aunt Celia and Uncle Martin's cherished only son, is locked within our embrace as, still sobbing, Aunt Celia leads us into her American home.
The exuberance in Uncle Martin's eyes as he greets us and the two boys is in sharp contrast to the telltale signs of grief -- the deep lines in the boyish face and the streaks of gray in the once unruly red hair.
"How is my favorite chess partner?" he asks as he hugs Mother. And when it is my turn to embrace my beloved uncle, I break into sobs almost as uncontrollable as when meeting Uncle Abish at the pier. What's the matter with me? Why can't I keep my emotions under control? In front of my new cousin...how embarrassing. And in front of my brother...he used to call me a crybaby, but now, thankfully, he does not say anything.
My weeping makes Uncle Martin's eyes turn red, and he whispers, "There's so much to talk about....Thank God you're here."
In the sparse, well-lit kitchen the table is set for six. But my brother, Bubi, and my cousin Tommy decline Aunt and Uncle's invitation to dinner. Bubi has to return to his studies at Yeshiva University, and Tommy offers to give him a lift.
"Tomorrow at nine," Tommy promises. "I'll come pick you up and take you to see Broadway. And to the Empire State Building."
After dinner the four of us talk and talk late into the night. There is so much to say, so much to remember. And so much not to.
It is after midnight when Celia and Martin open the Castro convertible couch in their living room, and it becomes a double bed for Mother and me. When we finally bid each other good night and I crawl under the covers, I find it difficult to fall asleep. What a long day it has been! The deluge of new impressions surges like a torrent in my mind's eye. I stay awake thinking about all I've experienced since our arrival this morning.
And then there's something else that keeps me from sleep. Every half an hour or so there is a thunderous clatter like the rattle of an approaching and departing train. How can one sleep through all this noise?
"That's the elevated train," Aunt Celia explains in the morning. "The Brighton Line of the subway system, just about four blocks from here."
"You'll get used to the noise very fast," Uncle reassures me, laughing. "In time you won't be able to sleep without it."
The four of us have breakfast together -- orange juice, rye bread with cream cheese, and instant coffee with milk from a carton! -- my first American breakfast. Then Uncle Martin leaves for his workshop where he manufactures children's hats.
Tommy is prompt. At nine o'clock sharp he appears on my aunt's doorstep, ready for the day's outing, just as he promised.
Broadway is not as wide open a boulevard as I thought it would be. And Tommy is right: There are no skyscrapers, only ordinary two-, three-, and four-story buildings.
"Why is it called Broadway? It's not very broad."
"I don't know. There must be some story attached to the name. There almost always is."
But when we reach mid-Manhattan, Broadway becomes exciting. Colorful traffic. Beautiful shop windows. Huge multicolored posters and signs advertise everything from plays and movies to Camel cigarettes. There is a billboard that I can't stop staring at. It's a man in a Fedora whose mouth is open -- and puffs of smoke blow from his parted lips! A sign that smokes! Tommy turns off Broadway toward the Empire State Building.
"I'll park somewhere near, and we'll walk to it."
The Empire State Building is a staggering sight. It seems to sway as I crane my neck to follow it to the top. As the clouds drift above, the building seems to swing in the direction opposite to that of the clouds. The thrill reverberates in my body, makes my stomach churn.
Oh, Papa, it has come to pass. The "cloud scraper" is just as exciting as you promised. The shops on Broadway are just as glamorous. But, Papa, where are you? You promised to stroll with me on Broadway, to buy me the prettiest dress. I stand here at the foot of the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the city of your dreams, and the mass grave in Bergen-Belsen casts an enormous shadow over it all. And for a moment the excitement turns to ashes in my mouth.
But I will not let the mass grave be the final arbiter of your dreams! Your dreams are not buried in Bergen-Belsen. I will make them live on here in New York. I will make all your dreams live on. I promise I will make all your dreams come true.
Copyright © 2005 by Livia Bitton-Jackson
Reading Group Guide
Hello, America Reading Guide
About the Book
Eighteen-year-old Elli has a number tattooed onto her arm. It is an indelible remnant of a terrifying past. . .a life lived, for many years, in the death camp of Auschwitz. When Elli arrives in New York City, she can not speak English, and has no high school diploma and very little money. What Elli does have, however, is courage, perseverance, and a loving family. Elli's challenges in her adopted home are great. She must not only acclimate herself to a whole new culture but, more importantly, must acclimate herself to life outside of a concentration camp. With the help of family and new friends, Elli, like the proverbial phoenix, rises from the ashes of a world torn asunder, to face, and ultimately embrace, a new life in a new land.
- Elli arrives in America in the spring. Do you think the season in which she arrives is significant to the story or is it simply incidental? Explain your reasoning.
- Elli's father said of his daughter: "She has perseverance. Sometimes, in the long run, perseverance gets you farther than a good head." What do you think Elli's father meant by this? Do you agree or disagree?
- Elli attends a lively debate regarding the Biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea. How is this particular debate, over religion and science, similar to debates that are occurring today?
- Describe how Elli responds to Polonski in the paper bag factory. Was her rapid departure justified, or do you think she overreacted? If you found yourself in a similar situation, what do you think you woulddo?
- Throughout the novel, the author infers that Elli is a person of great courage. Discuss how the author reveals Elli's courageousness to the reader through her behavior. Provide some specific instances where Elli's bravery is illustrated.
- Elli is surprised to learn that American citizens are not required to carry ID cards. Alex tells her that the only purpose of ID cards is to make you feel suspect and controlled. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, there has been much debate over whether Americans should be required to carry ID cards. Do you agree or disagree with Alex's assertions? Under what circumstances, if any, do you think it is justified for a free society to require its citizens to carry an official identification card?
- Eli is reprimanded by her principal and accused of telling her students "horror stories" regarding the tattooed number on her arm. What does the principal advise her to do? At what age do you think students are old enough to learn about humankind's darkest moments? What kinds of things did adults tell you in the aftermath of September 11th?
- When Elli questions Mr. Rosenfeld about his nephew, he implies that young women like her survived in the concentration camps because they provided sexual favors for the German soldiers, and that she should be "grateful if a decent fellow is willing to marry her." How is Mr. Rosenfeld's attitude toward Elli indicative of attitudes toward women in general in 1950s America?
- Hello, America is written in the first-person present tense. Why do you think the author chose this particular voice? How would the story change if the author selected a different point of view? In small groups, assign students a specific chapter from the book and have them rewrite it from either the third-person omniscient or third-person limited points of view.
- We hear Elli say: "Ever since that fateful day when Dr. Joseph Mengele, the Angel of Death in Auschwitz, pulled me out of the line leading to the gas chambers, I've been plagued by an agonizing guilt: Why me?" Elli, like many survivors of the Holocaust, suffers from survivor guilt. Investigate this psychological phenomenon further by reading personal accounts of other survivors of Auschwitz at www.holocaust-trc.org/glbsurv.htm
- Throughout the book we see that the preservation of cultural and religious traditions are very important to Elli and her family. Write a short descriptive piece that tells about the cultural traditions of your family and how these traditions are observed and honored.
- A euphemism is an expression that substitutes an inoffensive phrase for something that may be considered offensive or cause discomfort. Elli learns that the expression going into the bushes is a euphemism for having sex. In small groups, make a list of some other euphemisms. Write a humorous exchange between two people who speak in almost nothing but euphemisms.
- In the aftermath of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of survivors, like Elli, were left homeless and classified as "displaced persons". In an attempt to help alleviate the problem, President Harry Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. In small groups, have students research both the European and American responses to the problems of displaced persons, and how this is connected to the creation of Israel. Useful resources: http://www.trumanlibrary.org/ and http://www.ushmm.org/
- Elli is very excited to learn the story of how her grandmother and grandfather met. Conduct an interview, either with your grandparents or an elderly member of the community, to discover the circumstances under which they met their spouse. Student interviews can be compiled into a newspaper which chronicles the romances of another generation.