Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors and Skokie, published in April 2011 and available now on Amazon.
My mother always starts with the pig’s head. Whenever she tries to cajole me into eating, she drags out her two most miserable food stories from the Holocaust, when she lived in the forest, starving and running from the Nazis. The first one is about the pig’s head.
One day during her two years in the forest, the Partisans slaughtered a pig and gave her family the head to eat. They were thrilled.
“A pig’s head? To eat?” I look at her like she’s joking. If someone handed me a pig’s head I’d have nightmares about it for the rest of my life.
She nods. “It was delicious. I’ll never forget it.”
I still don’t believe her. Because I’m ten and my job is to doubt everything she says, I give her a skeptical look and say, “Weren’t you kosher?” Like I have to remind her that her family was kosher so maybe she can come up with a more believable story to get me to eat.
“Not during the war we weren’t!”
She’s a little jubilant at this point in the conversation since she’s conveying one of her core truths to me: that food is anything that doesn’t eat you first, a truth she learned at eleven that stayed with her always. But there’s also a little criticism here, of the idea that being kosher matters at all, and astonishment towards my grandparents for becoming kosher again after the war. Like once you eat a pig’s head, there’s no going back.
I try to imagine my mother, my uncle, and my aunt - all children at the time - and my grandparents, carrying around the decapitated head of a pig; and not just as food but as precious, coveted food. Not surprisingly, this image doesn’t make me hungry. It has the opposite effect. I feel ill, like maybe I’ll never eat again.
The other story my mother tells me about food is told every time she sees me trim the crusts off slices of bread. As I slice them off she looks on in horror at the horrible waste.
And then I get to hear the Crust Of Bread Story.
She says, “In the forest, one time I had to survive a whole week on a crust of bread, just like that one. A whole week I nibbled at it slowly, crumb by crumb, sitting in my pocket. It got cold and hard and tinier every day, yet still I was so happy to have that tiny crust of bread. And there you are, just throwing it away!”
She is incredulous. What’s more, each time she sees me do it she’s incredulous again like she never saw me do it before. Sometimes she grabs the crusts before I can throw them out, saving them to eat later.
I don’t know what to say to this. I never have an adequate response because no matter how much she had starved and no matter how long she had nibbled on that crust of bread in the forest, I still don’t want to eat the crust. Born in the United States, a second-generation child of Holocaust survivors, I cut off those crusts anyway.
It’s late 1959, September. I’m not born yet. My Dad’s family is living in a brownstone apartment building on Sawyer Avenue in Chicago, one stacked on top of the other; a vertical Jewish shtetl. My Dad, Mom, and my five older sisters who are born already live in a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor; my grandparents live a floor down. My Dad’s two newlywed brothers and their pregnant wives are scattered elsewhere in the apartment building, and later one of Dad’s sisters moves in, the whole family connected by an umbilical cord running from their individual apartments to that of their parents. Where there aren’t family members, there are Jews.
My aunts and my mother are in and out of each other’s apartments all day and all night - talking, gossiping, fighting, making up. They inspect each other’s apartments for many things - how clean they are, how kosher, whether dinner is on the table.
Before I’m born, my mom has managed to pop out these five older sisters of mine – Francine, Lauren, Brenda, and the twins, Denise and Sherry. After me she’ll have one more, Mindy. With just two or three girls she would perhaps have been the object of pity among the other Jewish mothers, but with five girls, then six girls, and eventually seven, she becomes the stuff of legend.
At this particular time, in late 1959, my Mom and my aunts Rose and Ida are big, bigger and biggest, all pregnant at the exact same time. My soon-to-be cousins and I are swimming around in their bellies, sucking up all their energy and their oxygen, swelling up their feet, and popping out varicose veins and stretch marks.
Aunt Ida is the biggest. She gives birth to my cousin Barry in October 1959, resulting in my Uncle Sid announcing, “It’s a boy!” glowing with pride and, I imagine, my Dad gnashing his teeth in frustration. After all, Mom is pregnant with his sixth child - me - and he already has five daughters. Does he glare at the belly?
Aunt Rose is the second biggest and the next to go. She gives birth to my cousin Aaron in December 1959, resulting in my Uncle Meyer’s exultation, and a second announcement of, “It’s a boy!” most likely rankling my father. Both of his younger brothers having boys for their first children, and my Dad sitting there like a shlimazel with five daughters already! But maybe he started thinking they were all going to have boys; that there was something magical about this time out.
He waits and waits until March 1960 rolls around since Mom was due the last of them all. And then I am born, the one who will be a boy for sure. I show up headfirst so it’s looking good, both boys and girls have heads. My shoulders emerge and, again, I could be a boy. My belly appears and they still can’t tell. Then my bottom half pops into view and it’s unmistakable. I am Not A Boy. Again.
Uncle Meyer and Aunt Rose go on to have three boys. Uncle Sid and Aunt Ida end up with three boys and a girl. Dad has seven daughters.
Later that day the baby me is lying in the newborn nursery at Edgewater Hospital in Chicago. My father shows up at the hospital, my mother tells me, coming over after he closed our laundry on Division Street that day, to see me. He is standing at the nursery window, noticeable for his Polish round head, short-sleeved button down shirt, baggy khaki pants and a skinny black belt.
If I wasn’t just a baby, I’d be very worried right now. Mom is sitting in her hospital room chewing on the end of a pencil with my Hospital Birth Certificate in her hand, the one with my footprints on it, her head tilted to one side. Having made her decision, she ponders the name she’s already chosen for me, “Jane,” which is already recorded on my Cook County birth certificate, and then pencils in above and in front of it, “Linda.” She does this because her brother, my Uncle Herbie, has already come to the hospital to meet his new niece. He saw me and held me in his arms, marveling at the thick black hair sticking up on my head.
Then he said to my mother, “What did you name her?”
“Jane,” she said, and he almost dropped me.
“Jane? Jane? This is no plain Jane! How could you name her Jane?” And he renamed me Linda, with my Mom penciling in the change.
That’s how I got my first name.
Another reason I should be worried is that when my Dad comes to the hospital and stands in the Newborn Nursery, he’s looking for a bassinet with the last name “Burstein” on it but his last name is “Burt.” Just who is this guy anyway?
But he is my father. He’s just changed our last name already.
Dad had name problems for a long time. He had too many names, for one thing. Being Jewish and Eastern European, he had been born with a Hebrew name, Tzvie ben Gershon; then he had the name his parents had given him in Yiddish, Herschel. The name Herschel had always sat heavily on him as being too Jewish. In the Displaced Persons camp in Germany after the war he got another name, Hersz, the German equivalent of Herschel. Then, when he arrived in the U.S. in 1951, he translated his name into English, choosing the American sounding Harry, which took care of his first name.
Our last name also had its spelling permutations. In the old country our last name was Bursztyn; in the U.S. Dad spells it Burstein, but his brothers spell it Burstyn. No matter how it’s spelled, it’s a problem for Dad; it’s just too Jewish for someone who’s uncomfortable with everyone knowing he’s Jewish. Dad will do the deciding about when and if to tell people he’s Jewish; he doesn’t want his name to do it for him. Of course, he won’t tell anyone at all, so he doesn’t want his name announcing it.
On top of that, it has to be spelled all the time. Anyone who hears our name thinks it’s “Bernstein,” so that spelling our name becomes the bane of Dad’s existence, translating Polish sounds and letters - his first language - into English sounds and letters, which is more than he wants to do day in and day out.
In 1956, in between sister number three, Brenda, and the twins, sisters number four and five, Sherry and Denise, he changes our name. First he gives it a lot of thought. It should sound a little like our original name - so should it be “Burst” or “Stein?” He pretty much decides on “Burst,” telling Mom that we’re going to be the Burst Family. She hits the roof and says that if he knew anything about English, he’d know that “burst” means to pop, like an explosion.
“It’s not a name you pick on purpose,” she tells him. “It would be very bad for the girls to have a name like that.”
“Oh.” Dad is deflated. He doesn’t want to jeopardize marrying us off.
So he ponders it again, now down to “Bur” or “Stein.” He doesn’t want Stein because what’s the use of getting another Jewish name when he could slap some bland, American name on our family and let us pass for Christian?
While he’s thinking about this, Mom says, “What about ‘Burt?’”
No sooner does Dad hear this than his mind is made up. My Dad always leaps before he looks, he always has to chop and clop; he never has any patience. He’s a man of action, impetuous action, so he lops off half of our name, sending those extra letters packing, off wherever someone can appreciate an extra syllable. And so we become the Burt Family, which he ends up spelling every day anyway, all the days of his life. No, not Birt. No, not Bert. No, not Byrt. B like in boy. U like in umbrella. R like in Robert. T like in Tom. Burt.
Then Dad had another problem. The three oldest girls were born “Burstein” but now our name was “Burt.” So he decided to have the rest of us born under the name “Burstein” as well, just to keep everything consistent, or inconsistent, whichever.
I’m born Jane Burstein, but within minutes of my birth she no longer exists. I leave the hospital Linda Burt.
The final thing I’d be worried about if I wasn’t just an oblivious baby is that my birth certificate says my mother was born in 1930 in “Krzywieze, Poland” and my father was born in 1926 in “Wyshkow, Poland,” and they’re both Jews.
This is not good. After all, there was a war that occurred in the villages where my parents were born, almost in their front yards, in between then and now, a war in which ninety percent of the Polish Jews were killed, as I’ll later find out. There was a war in which the Nazis marched on Eastern Europe, right to the places my parents lived, and killed as many Jews as they could. There was this war that my parents survived physically but not altogether mentally or emotionally, if it’s ever possible to survive a war like that mentally and emotionally, and I’ll get to relive it with them every day of my little life.
A lot has happened in my family before I’m even born. There are sheaves of photos in which my face doesn’t appear. There is a whole place they used to live, the mythical apartment on Sawyer in Chicago, that I don’t remember since I’m six months old when we move to Skokie, a northern suburb. In these photographs there is a two-toned 1954 Oldsmobile sedan parked in front of the apartment building on Sawyer, the apartment that’s filled with my little girl sisters, who are smaller than I’d ever seen them, smaller than I was even then. They’re beaming - happy, somehow, even before I’m alive. There are other things: first days of school and kosher meals and the fluent Yiddish they spoke as an immigrant family, until my sisters’ teachers crushed that right out of them when each of them started kindergarten and then, mysteriously, they could no longer speak it, only understand. There was our move out to Skokie, the sudden luxury of a three-bedroom house, the play potential of a swing set.
My oldest sisters are the Yiddish-speaking, apartment dwelling, kosher children of immigrant parents. I end up being the suburban dwelling, English speaking, non-Kosher child of parents who appear to be American – on the surface anyway.
They tell me about life in the apartment on Sawyer. Two bedrooms filled with little girls. My crib in the dining room, the twins playing beneath it, me sleeping through all the noise, watched with anxiety by my grandmothers, both certain I was deaf.
“How can she sleep through such tsoris?” My mother’s mother laments, wringing her hands. She yells in my ear to check if I’m deaf and wakes me up.
The reason for my parents having so many of us was a topic of great conjecture. Was my mother trying to repopulate the Jewish world after the Holocaust? Or maybe it was Dad who was goading her on, was he trying for that elusive boy? Or was it the faulty birth control methods of the time, the diaphragms, the rhythm method, the primitive version of the birth control pill? Maybe Mom didn’t understand the instructions for using her diaphragm since English wasn’t her first, or even her fourth, language? Would there have been less of us if the instructions had been written in Yiddish?
For ease, the seven of us are given numbers, with the twins smack in the center of the family, taking numbers four and five. I’m number six, down at the forgotten end of the family, the evil number six, where, if we were Christian, I’d have had to worry about the Mark of the Demon, the triple six. But I don’t; six is nothing in Judaism. None of my relatives look at me in terror, expecting me to burst out speaking in tongues; no one ever examines my scalp searching for the other two sixes. I’m just the next single birth below the more notable twins, the one who isn’t the youngest, the middle child of the bottom set.
Being number six is a very low number in this family. It seems capricious, like if Mom had managed to get some reliable birth control, I wouldn’t be around. So being of precarious existence, I guard my spot jealously. After all, I want to move up, to push the other sisters out of the way. In a family where everyone wears their sister number proudly I fidget under the weight of mine. I hide the ugly part of me, the part that wants life and the world and all our existences to begin with me, with March 7th, 1960, with Skokie, with the house on Drake Street, with English, with three bedrooms, with the station wagon - just one-toned, blue - and nothing else.