The first time I met Margot was after a performance of “Cabaret” in which Dylan played a Kit Kat Girl. I had never seen it performed live and when it was over I staggered out of the theatre, moved beyond words. When I was introduced to Margot in the lobby I asked her what she thought of the show. She replied, “I was there.”
I was born in Paris in 1933. My mother was from Poland and my father from Lithuania. They escaped from their countries because of anti-Semitism, and they came to France where they met and I was born a few years later.
I do not remember very much of my life until I was six years old. It’s almost as if it started then. I was put on a train with other children to go for a month of fresh air that the city of Paris was paying for, for children who could not afford it. I did not know anybody on the train. I felt lost, but when I arrived a woman came to pick me up and took me home. We lived in one room in a tiny village in the center of France. There were three little farms there and that was about it. She was very nice to me and I liked her very much.
I stayed with her for one month and then I was supposed to take the train back to my family, but my father, in a letter written to her, asked her if she could keep me longer and he would pay her what the city of Paris had been paying her because things were starting to get bad in Paris. There were bombardments and it was not safe. My father felt I would be much safer in the country. He was right, because this is actually what saved our lives.
She sent me to church because she did not know I was Jewish–it was not just Jewish children who were sent for the fresh air. But she did not send me to school because she said, “I don’t know if your parents would want you to go to school in a little farm town when you come from Paris.” Little did she know that the teachings were just as good in the country.
I remember after a few months my mother came to visit me and I thought she had come to pick me up. She stayed a couple of days, and I thought I was going to go on the bus with her, but she didn’t take me. I felt that my parents didn’t want me. I felt all alone. But the lady was nice to me and life went on. About a year after I had started to be there my parents arrived.
It had been getting very, very bad in Paris, not just for Jews but for everyone. Everyone was leaving Paris. The trains were being bombarded, they could not take the train. They walked 350 kilometers from Paris to where I was. It took them eight days and nights walking, being bombarded. When they arrived my mother’s feet were bloody. I heard my parents tell the woman how the roads were littered with blankets, carriages, dolls, toys, and dead people, including children. It was just terrible.
Of course, we lived in one room, and she did not have a place for my parents, so they slept in a stable with the horses and the cows. I slept with them because I wanted to be with them. Eventually the mayor of the little town found us a room that was more in the center where there were a few stores.
Life was not easy because we had no money. My father received a little pension from City Hall. I think it was really through the kindness of the mayor. When you don’t work you get compensation of some kind, but I don’t think he had to give it to us. It was certainly not enough to live on. So my parents worked helping farmers when they needed it, and my father worked for the town, whatever he was told to do. He worked in the forest cutting down trees, he dug up a cemetery that was next to the church, it was an old cemetery that had not been in use in many years and they wanted to build a park there. My father had to dig up all of those tombstones, and every night after work he would put them in a potato bag and bring them to City Hall. In the winter he would clean the snow from the streets, and he was happy to do it because our lives depended on it.
Life went on this way until one night he heard a very powerful knock at the door. We all woke up and my mother said, “Who is it?”
“Police. Open the door.”
My mother said to my father, “You know what, Bencil? Climb out through the back window and maybe you’ll be safe.” He said, “What if there’s police out the back window? It will be even worse for me.” So he didn’t go, he stayed. My mother opened the door. Two or three policemen came in and said to my father, “Get dressed and come with us.” My mother said, “Take a blanket with you, you’ll need it.” One of the policemen said, “Where he’s going he’ll be given everything he needs. He does not need to take anything with him.” Before he left, I remember as if it was today, he said to us, “Now, I will see you at the end of the war.” He thought, we thought, the Germans were taking the Jews to work camps to do everything they needed to be done. We did not know yet what was happening to Jews.
I don’t know how my mother and I survived because my mother depended on my father for everything, but I guess we managed. As a matter of fact, I did some babysitting for a little boy who was a neighbor, his mother worked, and I worked for my supper. It was all right, I was happy to do it. I was playing once with a little neighbor girl and she said to me, “What did you eat for supper?” I said, “What did you eat for supper?” She said, “It was chicken and salad and some French fries. What did you eat for supper?” I said, “I had boiled potatoes.” She said, “Oh, I wish my mother would make boiled potatoes.” And I thought, “I wish my mother would make chicken!”
After one year my father came back. We don’t know why he was liberated, it was not the end of the war, nobody understands. He told us that they asked him the night before his liberation if he was Lithuanian or Russian. I don’t remember what he answered. Whatever he answered was the right answer. He was told the next day to leave, that he was free. So he came home. He was very ill. He had an immediate operation on his stomach. We did not have the money. There was a town about 30 kilometers away from where we lived where there were a few Jewish families and one of them offered to pay for the surgery for my father. We heard a few months later that this very good Jewish man had been thrown in a well with other Jewish people and drowned. My brother, who was born later on, was named after this man.
After my father came back from the camp he never spent one night at home. He was afraid. As soon as it started to get dark he took a bike and took off somewhere, I did not know where, and he came back the next morning. He was afraid there would be a knock in the middle of the night.
It went on this way till the end of the war. I remember when we were told France was liberated. It was a very small village. Everyone went outside in the little town center and began to sing “La Marseillaise,” the national hymn.
My mother was one of five, and she was the only survivor. She had a sister in Paris who remained a little too long. My parents had already come to join me in the village. My mother’s sister was well off. She had a business in Paris so she didn’t want to give up her house and her business, until she saw that it was really getting bad, then she left. It was too late. She was caught by the Germans when she crossed the demarcation line and it was over. We never heard from her again. When I looked through files I saw their names there. They were sent to Auschwitz.
I survived. I was not in a concentration camp and I never wore that yellow star. So I always considered myself not having lived through it. I didn’t know any of the family in Poland, I had never seen them. I was only six when the war started. We were lucky, we survived.
I had absolutely no confidence in myself because during the war I was less than nothing. Anybody could have given me a kick and thrown me anywhere. One day I was going home from school and the boys were playing outside of the butcher store. One was the son of the butcher and he had a whip in his hand. He ran over to me and whipped me in my legs and my leg was bleeding and I ran home crying and said, “Papa, look what the butcher’s son did to me!” he said, “Margot, you’re a big girl, I can do nothing for you. You have to take care of yourself.”
I went to school to be a seamstress and then I received a ticket from my cousin and my aunt to emigrate to the United States. I was 19 years old. There was nothing for me in Paris. We were very poor, and when you’re poor you don’t have too many openings for yourself. My father talked me into coming, and he was right. So I came to the United States not speaking a word of English, no money, no close relatives, but what my father said always went. In my opinion, he was always very smart.
I arrived in the United States and I thought it was very large, oh my goodness, I’m remembering the train. I landed at Ellis island and my cousin who had come to pick me up brought me on the train to Massachusetts. And I saw all of these fields! Kilometers! It was unbelievable how big the United States was compared to France. My cousin found me a job in a factory in Boston—piece work. I wasn’t used to that because I had worked in a small place where there was the boss, the person who ironed, the clothes, and me. Oh my gosh, all these machines, the headache was unbelievable. Anyway, I worked there a while and then I had a cousin who introduced me to my husband.
We had three daughters and I worked at various jobs until my husband opened a shop on Atlantic Avenue in Boston—a little shop inside a big office building, and I went with him into business. We had greeting cards and books and he worked in the front with the customers while I worked in the back doing the bookkeeping and ordering. He had said I shouldn’t be in front because I’m too nice of a person and the customers will take advantage of me, which was not true.
We worked this way until he got cancer, and he said to me, “Margot, we have to sell the store because you have to take care of me.” One of my daughters said to me, “Mom, what are you going to do after Dad dies? I don’t think you should sell the store because at least this will keep you busy.” She knew I would be able to take care of the store.
I went to the store every day. He came with me and stayed in the back because he didn’t want to be alone in the house, so I worked a little back and forth until he died. That’s over thirty years ago and I’ve managed pretty well. I think I stayed for 15 years on my own.
I met someone, we had a relationship, and when I retired from the store in my mid-sixties my daughter Jackie took over for a little while. I was too young to be retired, so I was babysitting my granddaughter, Julia, which I enjoyed tremendously. She was wonderful, we had such good times together, she made me feel young!
Somehow they did not renew the lease on the store, and that was the end of the store. I didn’t need to babysit anymore so I looked for another job. I became a teacher’s aid in an after-school program and I loved it. I wanted to work until I was 75, and I did, at 75 I retired. I still was not ready to do nothing but nobody would hire me, of course, so I became a volunteer at a hospital. I sat at the desk of the Maternity Ward and directed people where they needed to go.
Neil and I were together for six years and then he died. After that I didn’t work anymore. I was lonely, very lonely then. It was hard for me to take care of the house. There was a very hard winter when there was so much snow and everybody was cleaning the snow off the roofs and I had no one to do it. I said, I’ve had enough, I’m moving to Brooksby (Village). I had always planned to move to Brooksby. I’m very happy here. I love it because I have friends. If I want to be with someone I do, if not, I stay by myself with my dogs. I read, I watch tv, I shop, I cook, whatever, I’m happy, and that is my story.
I hid the fact that I was Jewish almost all of my life, I was fearful, and afraid for my children. I think I was mentally ill from the war and I went for therapy. My daughter said to me, “People are not the way you think they are, not everyone hates Jews,” and I’m finding this out now. Here at Brooksby they try very hard to have people of different religions and different backgrounds get together and enjoy each other’s company without any prejudice.
Once on a trip to Israel I went to the Holocaust Museum and all of a sudden I saw a mountain of shoes. All kinds of shoes, all sizes, all styles. Those were the shoes from the people who had been to the gas chambers. I saw some little tiny shoes, and it occurred to me that some of these shoes might have been from my cousins, and then it really hit me, how I had been touched by the Holocaust. Not just me but my whole family. I burst out in tears. From that time on I realized that I have suffered too.
We lost everyone and everything in the war. I had nothing and nobody when I came to the Massachusetts. Now we are rebuilding our family. To me this is precious.
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