My Mother’s Memoirs

My mother (I bless her memory) wrote three notebooks of memoirs for me, at my request. She wrote the first two in 1962 (she was about 57+ then, & I was 26), when we were both living on a kibbutz, Nirim, in the northern Negev of Israel, beside the Gaza Strip. I was a member of the kibbutz. I had left my mother in Melbourne in April 1959, hitch-hiked around Europe for a few months, and arrived at the kibbutz in October. After a year’s “candidacy” I was accepted as a member, and about six months later the kibbutz agreed to allow my mother to live on the kibbutz as a member’s parent. She quit her job, vacated her home, packed & sent on the belongings she wanted to keep, and came (after stopping off for a few weeks in Johannesburg to reunite & spend some time with her brother Bronek: they hadn’t met since Warsaw 1939).

At the kibbutz all her basic needs (food, clothing, medical care, housing) were provided for. She was given a small but comfortable self-contained unit (a relatively spacious bed-sitting room with kitchenette, bathroom and patio), one of four such apartments in one of several rows of concrete apartment buildings in the veteran members’ area. All she was asked to do was to put in four hours of work a day, which she did in the kommuna, the communal clothes hut, where all the members’ clothes were looked after. Members would drop their clothes in the laundry bags, and the washed and dried laundry would be brought to the kommuna, to be mended or ironed if necessary, folded, sorted (every member had a laundry number, and every item of clothing had a member’s number stitched on it with red thread) and placed in the members’ cubicles. She quite enjoyed the work, the atmosphere in the kommuna, the women’s chit-chat (even though she understood no Hebrew), the music on the radio…

I lived on the other side of the kibbutz, where I shared a room — one of several in a row in one of the prefabricated Swedish huts in the younger members area — with another member. I worked full days in the irrigated crops, where we grew cotton, sweet corn, potatoes, sugarbeet as fodder for the milk cows — and would visit my mother quite often, generally in the afternoons, after work and a shower, or accompanied her to dinner in the kibbutz dining hall, sometimes too together with my closest friends on the kibbutz, Joe and Maxine, with whom my mother got along very well.

I don’t remember why I asked her to write her memoirs. I’m not sure that at the time it was because I wanted, then, to know about her life before whatever I could remember of her. I may have asked her some questions and seen that it was difficult for her to answer me face to face, and thought, OK, maybe you could write about it. But I don’t remember that I even asked her questions about her life. Something of the silence she & I had tacitly agreed on (I think) after my father died in Shanghai in 1945 may have kept me from putting such questions to her. Or I may have thought that I should ask her to write them because I might want to know at some later time. But I’m not sure. I suspect it may have been because I thought she was a bit bored, depressed and lonely. Apart from me and my friends she had no real ongoing contacts with anyone on the kibbutz. I may have suggested she write the memoirs so as to give her something to do that would keep her interested.
She was glad to do it, and wrote almost every day for many weeks. In English, not without errors of syntax, vocabulary or spelling – but still surprisingly well for someone who knew very little English when she arrived in Australia, who had had to take on fatiguing manual work as a piece-work finisher of women’s winter coats in a Flinders Lane factory because she didn’t have enough English for work more suited to her secretarial experience and her temperament. But between the time she began working & the time she left for the kibbutz she had learned a lot, and read a lot in English (her favorite author was Harold Robbins), and the last job she had in Melbourne before she left was indeed as a secretary & clerk.

She filled two khaki-covered Israeli 40-page notebooks, and gave them to me. I didn’t fully appreciate them then: I don’t think I was really all that interested at the time. At 26 I had other things on my mind, and busy hormones. But I kept them. Two or three years later, when she was living in Melbourne again, she filled more than half of an Australian 96-page notebook…

Click on a pic to enlarge & see in gallery form.

Over the years I’ve read & reread them, & several years ago I typed them, with some light editing. Her narrative is chronological, Notebook 1 about her childhood; Notebook 2 about her adolescence, Notebook 3 about her adulthood, her marriage with my father, our refugeehood (from our flight from Warsaw, to soon after our arrival in Australia (she probably assumed I didn’t need to be told what happened after that). In Notebook 1, however, she breaks her ongoing narrative to write about her parents’ families.

I have broken up her Notebooks into sections, & they appear in chronological order as “sub-pages” of My Mother’s Memoirs. I’ve added titles of my own to all the sections (the only title my mother gave was on the first page of the first notebook.

 

Notebook 1

Her Childhood     Her Parents’ Families

 

Notebook 2

Her School Years     Her First Working Years     My Father’s Family

 

Notebook 3

Marriage      Motherhood      Refugeehood: From Warsaw to Shanghai   

Shanghai      Via Hong Kong to Melbourne

 

Updated 130216

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