My mother at 7

Her feet pounded on the dry cracked earth. Dust rose like smoke clouds behind her as she ran across the barren expanse of land: A courtyard surrounded by housing for the Military Officers. There were no children playing out in the open; at any moment there could be shells, or gun shots.

She got home and ran to her room. Everything important to her was pushed against an interior wall. She sat on her bed, so rarely slept in, the danger was at night – they slept together in an interior room.

A ribbon in her hand clutched so tightly, so tightly. She knew she shouldn’t have taken it. She was so jealous – it was so beautiful. Her parents couldn’t buy her anything as beautiful. Even as the knock on the door came and she heard the low voices of her mother and Johanna’s mother, she knew she couldn’t keep it. She was ready when her mother came to her bedroom door, before her mother could speak she handed her the beautiful hair ribbon, one of many Johanna kept on her dresser. Would Johanna have really missed it?

Quick images, little glimpses, snippets. My mother had a whole life full of pain, sorrow and loss before she knew the world that we live in. She lived a life of fear and wanting. A life of uncertainty.

She is a Sabra: A Jewish woman born in Palestine. She is a child of war; of two wars. Born in 1939 to parents who had fled everything they knew as almost strangers – nay, companions – to start a new life in a country on the brink of another war.

My grandmother left this world at the age of 96, I was 34 and had realized too late how much I wanted to know. How much I needed to know. Her memory was failing her by then and the stories were often disjointed, rambling. I didn’t know then that my mother would not be able to fill in the blanks. I didn’t know that every time I asked about her past her eyes would swell with tears and she would refuse to go on. I would refuse to push her.

My Grandfather Hans

I couldn’t push her because her pain was too much for me to bear, I didn’t want to know about the pain. Only the adventure, the wonder of a foreign land. But to an 8-year-old who learned about war from the front; stray bullets through bedroom windows and the poverty of being the child of a military doctor willing to fight a war for nothing but his birthright. She was not first or even second. Her fears could not be consoled.

When at 13 she moved to the United States and her father became an American doctor, and a well-known photographer and musician; she shut the door. She cleaned the slate and created the American girl she wanted to be. An American girl with no past. No pain. There was no therapy for children of The War of Independence, there was excitement and hope. Israel was a state! What more could you ask for? Your father was a hero.



One of my Grandfather’s patients in Jerusalem. I would never know my Grandfather, but shared his love of photography. His joy was capturing moments in time on film.


30 thoughts on “Sabra

  1. Wow, Jen,
    This is amazing. I love how it started out as a story and then became so personal for you and your family. I want to know more! Has your mom opened up to you more recently? Do you think she will? These individual stories are so important to share and to remember. I love the photos and so hope that you’ll do a part 2 (and 3 and 4) to this!

    • Thanks Kristi, this post has been stewing for a while. She doesn’t share often, it’s like little hiccups, I can’t ask because she is so stoic. I never know what will happen if I do.

  2. I’m glad you knew her for 34 years. What a life and what an inspiring story.

    Her seven-year-old picture looks contemporary, like she was ahead of her time.

    Thanks for letting me read this.

  3. Fascinating! I love stories of family history. And I love the connections between past and present. This is so vivid! I wish that I had asked my own grandparents about their lives. My grandparents were British and lived through the Blitz in London, and my dad lost his leg in the war. Even though they died in my twenties, I never asked them about it, not even once.

    • I know Jessica, I feel the same way. Even though I started to ask my grandmother questions, she just wasn’t clearly telling the stories anymore by then. At least I got something.

  4. What a wonderful tribute to your family and its harrowing history. I love the line about fighting a war for nothing more than his birthright. And the pictures are haunting and beautiful. It’s lovely that you are choosing to memorialize these stories on your blog. Your son will be grateful to read them one day.

  5. LOVED THIS!!! There is absolutely nothing I like reading better than family history stories. It is so important that these stories be shared. I could feelyour

  6. Hit the wrong button! 🙂
    I wanted to add that I could feel your mother’s pain. What an amazing story of courage, stoicism, honour and integrity. I would love to learn more about your family. Thank you for sharing them with us!

  7. I totally understand both your desire to know about your roots and your mother’s desire to keep them buried. I hope that in time she will open up a bit to you. It’s tragic that so many stories go untold. Thanks for sharing some of your family history with us.

    • Thank you so much Dana, my mom read this and I was very surprised by her reaction. She wasn’t upset as I thought she would be, she felt honored, which honored me.

  8. There’s something quite special when our grandparents open up to us. Sounds like your family has a fascinating history. Hope you get to find out more some day.

  9. Wow Jen, you manage to convey so much in such a relatively short post. You touch upon such emotionally charged and fascinating subjects like your protectiveness over her, the way her personal story is intertwined with history and the age she lived in. You write so sensitively yet without it being the least bit melodramatic. LOVED and totally honoured.

    • Thank you so much Katia, I really couldn’t have written this post without you. You are so inspiring to me!

  10. Whoa. So many emotions and feelings from such a short post. I want to know more! I’m riveted!

    P.S. thatnks for posting this to the HonestMom’s link up!

  11. What an amazing and beautifully told story Jen. I interviewed my great aunt for a college project when she was in her 80s and before that it had never occurred to me to really talk to her about her life. I’m so glad I did. The stories she told me were fascinating. And so is your grandmother’s. You really get a sense of who they were in a life way before we came along.

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