Rummaging through a trunk of our late parents’ memorabilia, my sister rediscovered one of their proudest treasures – a collection of photographs documenting my bar mitzvah celebration 44 years ago.
For more than three decades my parents had given pride of place in their living room to a bound album of enlarged photographs from my bar mitzvah. With my sister’s discovery, we suddenly remembered that those selected enlargements had been culled from this larger collection.
Misty-eyed with nostalgia, we thumbed through the stack, glimpsing faces that were so familiar from our childhood but are now long departed. We were taken aback at how impossibly young and vibrant our parents, Kurt and Giselle Lion, of blessed memory, looked back then – my father all of 44 and my mother 39.They were both German Jews who had escaped the Holocaust, come to America penniless after the war, met, married and built new lives and a Jewish family for themselves.
In one photo they are posing proudly beside my two sisters and me, their bar mitzvah boy who had been to the bimah just the day before. How happy, even jubilant, they looked. From my perspective as an adult I can understand their jubilance, for at that time the hardships and terror of their youth must still have been writ large in their minds.
My mother had lived in poverty with her parents before fleeing Germany, making her way across France before that fear-filled night when, only 10, she was carried piggyback across the Alpine foothills into Switzerland. There her parents were interned as illegal aliens and she spent nearly three years in foster care before they immigrated to America.
My father, just a year after his own bar mitzvah, had been deported to internment camps in southern France and had lost both his parents. He managed to escape, adopted a gentile identity, and fought with the French Underground. Later he served on a “Free French” Air Force bomber and after the war reunited with his two older sisters who had fled to New York in the 1930s.
What anguish my family had endured! Again reflecting as an adult, I now understand some of the incongruities that puzzled me as a child. Arriving as penniless refugees, my parents had always lived modestly, forgoing luxuries to provide their children with comforts they had never known themselves. But when planning my bar mitzvah celebration, they uncharacteristically chose only the most deluxe. “For this we want nothing but the best,” my mother declared.
They held the reception in a swanky Manhattan hotel, listened to dozens of demo tapes to pick the right band and spent weeks searching for the perfect photographer. Most important, they carefully deliberated over the mountain of food that would be served.
Seeing the photos awakened my memories of the bar mitzvah planning. I clearly recalled my parents mulling the menu choices, my mother commenting, “We could never have imagined it!” An impatient 12 year old with little understanding, I had responded, “Why the fuss?”
With a faraway look in her eyes, my mother clasped my arm, explaining: “Many of those who will be at the reception were trapped in Europe during the war, scared and hungry.” Then, with a bittersweet smile, she remembered that during the war her father, my “Opa,” had often dreamed of eating meat.
Her smile widened as she returned to the menu. “But now we’ll be having those foods we only dreamed about. Opa will be so proud, eating like this with our mishpachah around him at his grandson’s bar mitzvah!”
Remembering those words, we continued perusing the photos.
Staring up at me was the beaming face of my grandfather, Sam Weisman of blessed memory, who had long ago shepherded my mother and grandmother Elsa to safety. They had fled to France where he valiantly tried to keep his family alive, waiting in long lines attempting to get visas from America and even China, to no avail.