Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Seren's Serenity Prayer
"What a waste!" my mother complained. "I rinse the dishes, load, then unload. I could have just washed them and be done with it!" Her rant focused upon the dishwasher my father presented her -a Mother's Day surprise. Yet, when life's difficulties intervened, her true self emerged: a pragmatist and survivor possessing boundless courage. Her diminutive size belied the stamina and cunning that lurked inside. To her clients, she was an elegant woman possessed of quick humor and remarkable dressmaking talent.
Three days before she died, my mother, Seren Tuvel, gave me the only knick-knack she ever displayed at her dressmaking salon. She was slipping away from me, perched on the divide between life and death, frail as a fledgling swallow encountering its first breeze. Her gift: a wooden box painted to resemble an antiqued book. Within its covers, a poignant message was printed in flowing script upon a background of Renaissance angels.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)
Growing up, I heard tales of Seren's courage from her old European friends, recounted with great relish at holiday gatherings, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. There also was incredible courage I witnessed as her daughter. A single theme ran like a raging river through her life -moral strength manifest as intense courage.
Three decades have passed since my mother died. I now comprehend the significance of The Serenity Prayer in her life. It gradually worked its way into mine. Seren was, by anyone's standards, remarkably courageous and determined—a woman whose influence upon me surfaces when life's challenges stump me.
My mother embraced courage as her life's philosophy. "Live courageously. No matter what, trust heart. What you know to be the truth will feed courage. Otherwise, how can you live with yourself?"
It was her mantra - one she recited to me during my teens and into my stressful twenties, a decade filled with career dilemmas, graduate school challenges and perplexing romances.
I sat on her hospital bed. There were so many unanswered questions I had about my mother. I was 33, newly married. She was 65. "Mom, when the Nazis rounded up Jews in Bucharest," I asked, "many Jews converted to Catholicism, so why didn't you? It might have saved you from being sent to the camps."
Her response was unemotional, clear-cut even and her Romanian accent imparted an exotic quality to her voice. "You live your beliefs because you must live with your conscience. Now I'm asking you; if I'd become a Catholic, I'd have been a dishonest Jew and a dishonest Catholic. What would be left in my soul?"
Seren grew up deep within the Carpathian Mountains before World War II. Her father, Avraham, managed a lumber mill, the only local business other than farming. Her family was among the twenty Jewish ones in the remote village. That statistic rendered her vulnerable and conspicuous.
Even as a girl, she was determined and courageous. During the daily two-mile hike home from their Catholic school, Seren protected her two younger sisters from impending danger. One day, bullying peasant boys launched anti-Semitic taunts, along with mud rockets and stones. Seren stunned them all. Retaliating with her own bombardment of rocks collected along the way, she chased down the largest boy, unleashing upon him her full fury. Their walks became uneventful.
An intellectually gifted student, Seren went loggerheads with her pious, old-fashioned father. Each discussion about her educational goals yielded his customary retort. "No daughter of mine will leave home except with a husband. Enough, end of discussion!"Avraham resumed reading his German newspaper.
"But papa, there's a regional scholarship contest. The student with the highest scores wins a full scholarship to Gymnasium! I want to try, please?" She persisted. She was fourteen years old. "Papa, please?"
"Seren, forget this foolishness! What girl needs university to have children, to cook, to sew? Concentrate on finding a good husband."
Against her father's wishes, her mother as her collaborator, Seren secretly entered the competition. It was the third decade of the twentieth century. With anti-Semitism and pogroms rampant throughout Eastern Europe and fearing reprisals, only five Jewish children arrived for exams - Seren the only girl.
The following Sabbath, her large family gathered for breakfast after synagogue. Seren burst into the expansive kitchen, letter in hand. "Papa, Papa, look! I won the scholarship to school in Bucharest!"
Avraham slammed his cup on the table, bellowing, "I forbid you to go! You'd have to live away in a dormitory among non-Jews. You think you can hide what you are? I say you won't go!"
"I will go!" Seren was the only child who ever challenged Avraham.
"You defy me? I won't have it. If you go, don't come home!" And she went.
My mother's goal vanished shortly after classes began. Her temper erupting as her teacher issued anti-Semitic remarks, she lobbed her ink bottle at his head and promptly withdrew from school. But she refused to admit defeat to her father by returning home. Instead she traveled to Bucharest. Disembarking the train in unfamiliar territory, Seren went shop to shop searching for a dressmaking apprenticeship. She was hired that day and her life changed forever.
Seren's educational failure led her to a talent that became the basis for her future. Her new skills positioned her to survive in the ghetto by finding work. It was the mechanism by which she survived the war—succeeding in keeping one of her sisters and two close friends alive, and ensuring her group's usefulness in Dachau. In post-war Germany few survivors found work but she did. Immigrating to Canada with her husband and new baby—a distant foreign land where she knew no one, had no job, spoke no English, she again proved courageous.
Her courage to change course and challenge social conventions proved indispensable over her entire life. Her journey spanned Nazi occupied Europe, Dachau concentration camp, years in post-war Germany, and in her meeting my father. As a skilled worker, she gained entry to Canada—a haven for Holocaust survivors. Seren's courage led to financial stability and finally, to our family gaining USA immigration visas.
By her own admission, my mother failed her educational endeavors yet succeeded her quest for independence while saving numerous lives. For those dependent on her, Seren's courage was the difference between life and death. During difficult times, I still ask, "What would Seren do?" or "If she were here, what would she suggest?"
Before my mother slid out of life, her rabbi asked, "Do you regret anything you did during the war? You know so many survivors do."
"Not one thing!" She replied. "I lived more life than I'd ever imagined. You know, I made a good life from nothing that was left after the war. To me, it's exactly like taking a plain piece of fabric and making it into a beautiful suit. The most important thing I did? I kept my courage and lived morally at a time when so many others abandoned all values."
Seren Tuvel, my mother, was an embodiment of courage!