A Life Not With Standing
A Memoir by Chava Willig Levy
My grandparents gave my mother more than life. They gave her music. Not the contemporary music of their day, but the melodies of the Chasidic masters of long ago. Growing up in Oswiecim (a little Polish town that the Nazis called Auschwitz), and later in the Brooklyn tenements of Brownsville, Imma sang at the Sabbath table. She took great pride when neighbors, Jewish and Gentile alike, gathered below her parents’ kitchen window just to hear the Weiss family harmonize.
My Tante Chadsha gave my mother music too, but a music foreign to their Chasidic home. The first of her nine siblings, brilliant, multilingual Chadsha was twenty-four years old when Imma arrived on the scene in 1923. Single until 1930, she gladly helped raise her baby sister. And in the eleven years they were destined to share, Tante Chadsha filled Imma’s ear with note after glorious note of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Grieg.
Together with her parents and unmarried siblings, Imma immigrated to the United States in 1934, taking with her Chadsha’s passion for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, classical music. She gladly would have given up that treasure if she could have taken Chadsha with her instead. But three of Imma’s siblings—Chadsha, Aidel and Chatzkel—stayed behind with their spouses and children. Hitler’s henchmen murdered them all.
Whenever I asked my parents for which departed relative I had been named, as is customary in Ashkenazic families, they would answer vaguely, “Well, for a wonderful aunt, we named you Chava. And your middle name, Yehudis, is also in memory of an aunt.” I always assumed they were referring to two of their own aunts. But ten years after Imma died, I learned that they had been referring to one aunt: mine.
“Take a look at this,” my cousin Lazar said, a gleam in his eye, during my visit to his Los Angeles home. With tenderness generally reserved for a newborn, he handed me a frayed black book.
“That’s a pretty old siddur,” I said, leafing through the morning blessings. “Where’d you get it?”
“It was passed on to me after my mother, or as you called her, Tante Jean, died. But you ain’t seen nothing yet. Turn to the first page.”
Florid, extraordinarily compressed Hebrew filled the fly page. “I can’t make this out,” I confessed. “What is it?”
“It’s a record of each of our grandparents’ children, you know, names and birthdates. Kind of the way some people inscribe milestones in their family Bible. Only Zaide used his siddur instead.”
My eyes widened when I deciphered the first entry: “My daughter, Chaya Yehudis, may she live for many good days, was born on the night leading into Sunday, the 15th of Teves, 5660, December 17, 1899.”
“Tante Chadsha’s real name was Chaya?”
“Sure,” my cousin replied. “Chadsha is a diminutive for Chaya.”
“But that makes my name, Chava Yehudis, almost identical to hers!”
“Well, your parents probably made a slight change—Chaya to Chava, both linked to the Hebrew word for life—so that your name would differ from that of someone who died so tragically.”
“But still,” I mused, “someone who lived so fully.”
So, I had been named in memory of Tante Chadsha! Maybe that’s why it gave my mother such joy when, at eighteen months, I would toddle around humming Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz, standing on tiptoe to reach the high notes. Maybe that’s why it surprised her not a whit when I declared French as my college major. I was musical, multilingual Tante Chadsha’s namesake. Did it fill Imma with wonder or perhaps anguish that, like Chadsha, I passed my thirtieth birthday still yearning for a husband, cushioning a lonely life with language and music? She never spoke of such things. In fact, she rarely spoke of Chadsha at all, not her life and certainly not her death. It was only after Imma’s own death in 1991 that my father handed me an envelope postmarked Krakow 1940, “Deutsches Reich” and Adolph Hitler’s profile on the stamp. In it, I found a tear-stained, handwritten letter:
My dear little Ella,
I received your letter, darling. Of course, I remind you always when I’m looking to my baby. Often I think she is like you, with her sweet eyes. The colour of them are dark gray—perhaps they will be later black or blue, it happens so with little children. Yes, you are right, she has a “Weiss” nose… But the mouth with her laugh is honey—sweet, and when she sees me, she’s laughing to me like a little angel. I’ll make a picture and send it to you because I imagine myself how curious you all are to see her.
Please don’t laugh about my English—as you see I forget every day more this language.
Don’t be angry that you must work at home. When you’ll grow larger than you’ll be the beautifulest in N. York and—when God will help me to be there—I’ll look for you to make you happy. Oh, how happy I’ll be than! To be together with you all…
My mother’s silence notwithstanding, we all felt Chadsha’s presence, perhaps because Imma filled our home with music her sister would have loved, music from every corner of the globe: horas from Israel, chants from South Africa, fados from Portugal, chansons from France, calypsos from the Caribbean, sea shanties from the British Isles, ballads from England, Russia and Greece. Held in particularly high esteem, as evidenced by their representation at dishwashing time, were songs from her adopted homeland: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Goodnight, Irene and rounds like Oh, How Lovely Is the Evening.
Our most cherished piece of furniture was a heavy, clunky maple wood RCA radio-Victrola. In my pre-polio days, I would stand near it for hours, watching in enchantment as the records spun around. In fact, before I could stand at all, I knew something magical was happening in that big box. Soon after my first birthday, I reached up and grabbed its handle, intent on standing to see where the music was coming from. I was stronger than anybody suspected. When I yanked the door open, the entire Victrola toppled over, breaking my arm but never diminishing my love for music.
We didn’t own many records. We cherished the ones we were able to afford: the Weavers, Theodore Bikel, Marais and Miranda, Paul Robeson, Frank Luther’s Winnie-the-Pooh classic, Chasidic gems and a series of albums for children, each devoted to a Jewish holiday, featuring Gladys Gewirtz. I remember listening to those Jewish albums over and over again in the months following my discharge from the hospital. Polio’s acute phase was over, the contagion and iron lung were gone, but I was left a feeble four-year-old. I had barely survived my battle with death. As I lay on our living room couch, Ms. Gewirtz’s songs gave me life.
And so we all shall pray
That God be good to us this year,
So that we too may
Be good to others and bring them cheer.
But her songs also brought my unconscious face to face with the death sentence I had escaped. No longer able to keep my head erect, I would frantically beg my mother to lift the needle so I wouldn’t hear Queen Esther singing:
Oh, woe is me! What shall I do?
The king knows not that I am a Jew.
And if I go without his call,
He might decree my head shall fall.
I didn’t know it then, but music, reassuring or terrifying, was medicine for me, a vehicle for facing vulnerability at a time when my well-intentioned parents inhibited its expression. The record player’s needle and the hospital’s hypodermic needles: both had kept me alive.