Little Lucky Girl
Let's Make A Deal
My mom's favorite show when I was a kid was "Let’s Make A Deal." Because I loved her so much and wanted to be just like her, it became my favorite show. My daddy liked anything we liked.
"Let’s Make A Deal" originally aired from 1963 to 1968. It was hosted by Monty Hall, an affable Canadian with a flirtatious personality who chose female over male contestants 10 to 1. It was produced and shot at the NBC Studios in “Beautiful Downtown Burbank,” as named by another show that was shot there – "Laugh-In." NBC Studios was just a mile and a half from our house, where we watched "Let’s Make A Deal" every day without fail.
The premise of the game show was thus: You brought to the show something to trade. It could be a football or a cake pan. It didn’t really matter. If you were lucky enough to get picked to make a deal, you were asked to trade your item for a sure thing. Either it was an amount of money, like $200, or a vacation to Lompoc. Then you had to choose the sure thing or what was behind the curtain. Behind the curtain was either a Brand New Car!! or an ostrich dragging a cart. Carol Merrill was the woman-next-door model (like Vanna White) who moved her arm in front of the curtain, seducing you to choose what was behind it instead of money in your pocket.
Each episode culminated in The BIG Deal, which could be a combination of prizes, like a whole new kitchen and a camper or a trip to Europe and a grand piano.
The American Dream was available to us on a sound stage not two miles away.
My mom and I wanted to be on that show more than anything, but because I was only 6 and way under their age limit, it was all up to her.
Each day the show was produced, folks would line up in front of the NBC Studios wearing wacky costumes – the Tin Man or the Statue of Liberty - in order to get the attention of the audience scouts who would roam the queues trolling for contestants most likely to make great game show television.
One day, my mom got up the nerve to go down to NBC Studios dressed in a costume of her own making and stand with the rest of the dreamers. It was a cold night and my daddy and I waited outside of the line, shivering. Despite this discomfort, we were so excited because maybe we’d win a family vacation to Bora Bora or a Gold Medallion Home. Also, we might be able to see Denise on a television screen. That would be the greatest gift of all.
Because it was so cold, my mom wore a coat over her costume, so she didn’t have a chance in hell of being chosen. She held a sign, which was mandatory of anyone in the line. It read “The Original Swiss Cheese,” which made sense only to us really, and from it hung an authentic Swiss cowbell that she got in the mail from her sister Madeline, who was still in Switzerland along with her other siblings.
Needless to say, my mom was passed over in the line. When the scout got to her, she didn’t reveal her lively personality, smile, or dark sexy eyes. For the first time ever, she was tongue-tied and shy. All she did was rattle her sign, which made the cowbell ring. Not impressive, except to my daddy. I was mortified.
My mom was dying to be chosen. She deserved it. The three of us all did. Instead, she didn’t even make it into the game. She stood in the line, a fake smile plastered on her face, as if she wasn’t deeply disappointed. All the scouts had left the area and the other rejects were dismantling their signs,
It foreshadowed what was to come.
Years and years later my mom and I went to Las Vegas together. I drove the four hours from Los Angeles and our conversation in the car avoided anything meaningful or deep. She was flush with anticipation and hope. I was full of dread, as if we were Thelma and Louise driving off that inevitable cliff.
All she wanted to discuss was “what are we going to do with the money?”
The only time my mom was truly happy was taking the Greyhound bus to a casino or sitting in front of a slot machine. She also enjoyed endlessly plotting how she could live in Las Vegas permanently.
“A plan. All you need is a plan,” my mom would say as we sped through Barstow, the half-way mark. “You stay at one machine. Be patient, unless you’re losing a lot. Then you find another machine.”
“Uh-huh,” I’d responded, keeping my eyes on the open, desolate, depressing-as-hell road.
“Find yourself a good machine, one willing to give. The progressives pay back 83% on the average. The megabucks, 78.”
As we got closer to Vegas, the billboards got larger, louder, and more hopeful. Big Payouts! Big Dreams! Live the Fantasy! Live the Good Life!
When we arrived at Caesars Palace, my mom put on her red felt gambler’s hat – imagine a female fedora – she’d kept safely on her lap in the car, and entered the glass doors to the casino with the elegance of a queen.
I was impressed with her attitude and let her take the lead. The cacophony of the bells, whistles, and sirens did not deter her, they fed her. All around us were men and women over 60 just like her, glued onto red stools, appearing bored out of their minds.
“Come, Come! I want to show you something,” she declared with glee.
My mom dragged me to the “Wall of Winners.” On this extravagant display are hundreds of photos, each showing a past jackpot winner beside his or her lucky slot machine with the grand total lit up in tiny bulbs. A tall, tanned Show Girl wearing a head piece as big as a nuclear mushroom cloud stands beside each gambler. The winners are all elderly, unattractive, working class people, and they have their arms around the Show Girl as if they are family. Their faces are nothing but teeth.
“The show girls are so sexy,” my mom said.
My mom studied the photos, as if trying to solve some cosmic mystery.
I wish she’d have asked for my opinion. I know there is no mystery. Once you’ve lost the love of your life, nothing on this earth can make you feel better.
Time and time again, my mom and I, together and separately, risked whatever we had because we felt we had nothing to lose.
After my mom died, at age 79, barely making it on $1000 a month and always lending me money whenever she could, I started having a recurring dream.
She’s gorging herself on a feast in the Caesars Palace penthouse restaurant overlooking the Strip. She’s surrounded by plastic buckets overflowing with quarters and hundred dollar bills. She’s won the biggest jackpot there is to be won in Las Vegas. She is alone at the table.
Suddenly Monty Hall appears, looking as he did in the 1960s – dapper and fun-loving. He says, “Denise Trost! You’ve been specially chosen from millions of Americans for The Very Big Deal.”
My mom, her mouth full, looks at Monty wide-eyed and shocked.
Carol Merrill enters, also looking as if no time has passed since the show premiered.
“Denise, are you willing to trade your jackpot – estimated to be over five million dollars – for what’s behind door number one, door number two or door number three?”
“My jackpot?” My mom asks, confused.
“That’s right! Because behind one of the three doors, is Harry Fischer, happy, healthy, and ready to come back home to you! Are you ready to trade in all of your cash for one last Very Big Deal?”
My mom responds without waiting a beat. She bursts into tears and shouts “yes!”
Immediately, all the money POOF! vanishes.
“So will it be door number one, door number two, or door number three, “ Monty teases.
She can’t answer. She is dumbfounded.
“Can I call my daughter?” she feebly asks.
“No you can’t. Cathy isn’t there. It’s only you.”
She looks at Carol for the answer. Nothing.
“Door number two,” she finally shouts, with conviction . . .and the dream abruptly ends.
“You can get your nosed fixed when you’re eighteen. Probably not before, because you have to be fully grown.”
This is probably not the greatest thing a mother can tell a twelve-year-old with extreme low self-esteem and a big hook nose, but I don’t fight the idea. Since my fantasy is to be Shirley Jones from The Music Man, I’m actually quite on board.
“I got it done, Daddy got it done, it’s really no big deal. You just can’t do it yet. Sixteen, maybe.”
My mother and I are at Don the Beachcomber on Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, pretending we are middle-class. We’re sitting closely in a red naugahyde booth, as if we’re on a date, a whisky sour in front of her and a Shirley Temple in front of me. Both drinks have little paper umbrellas, of course. Nothing but the best for the Fischers.
The decor is Disneyland’s “The Tiki Room” and the music is piped in Don Ho all the time. Tiny bubbles, in the wine, makes me feel happy, makes me feel fine.
This is the closest we will ever get to the romance of Hawaii, so it’s our favorite fancy restaurant of all time.
I’m going to start junior high on Monday, so it’s a special occasion.
“I can’t wait to get my nose fixed. Does it hurt much?" I ask.
“No, not at all. And maybe I can take you to Dr. Parks, who did mine. He is the best doctor. So sweet. He’s in Hollywood on Sunset Blvd.”
“Oh!” My eyes light up. I love Hollywood! I was born there and am dying to go back.
For some screwed up reason, my mom moved my daddy and I to Palm Springs a year ago. She thought it would be better for my dad as the air was better here than in L.A., and there was a lot less commotion. But it doesn’t really matter now as he died about two months ago, leaving her and me alone in this hell hole.
“Dr. Parks did Daddy, too. Such a nice doctor.”
I sip on my drink, wishing I were on a movie set instead of having dinner with my mom. I’m so embarrassed by her. She has a French accent, which I don’t find cute at all like everyone else does, and speaks very loudly. She either has this vacant look on her face, as if nothing is going on at all, or she’s mad at something. When she used to pick me up everyday from school, I wanted to disappear into the sidewalk. And she’s always singing some old song, like “Sentimental Journey” or “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” She cleans houses and waitresses.
Mainly, I don’t ever get the feeling she likes me very much. I guess the feeling is mutual.
Only my daddy loved me.
I’m so ugly, no one will ever love me again.
When I was a lot younger, like maybe in first grade, two brothers who lived down the street from us on Beachwood Drive in Burbank knocked on our door on a sunny Saturday morning. They were Steve and Mike Kilgore, probably eight and ten respectively, all-American boys with blond hair, blue eyes, and crew cuts.
I opened the door.
The brothers spoke boldly and with no humor at all.
“The police are going to come and get you. We called them and they’re coming.”
My heart raced with fear. I did not doubt the boys. They were the “cool” boys on our block.
“What? Why?,” I asked.
Suddenly, my mom yelled out from the back room, “Who’s at the door?!!!”
At the sound of my mom’s angry voice, the boys ran off.
I closed the door and could find no solace in the comfort of my living room.
Were we so different? So strange? That we had to be “run off” the street? Just because my parents spoke with accents and we were the only democrats on the block?
I wonder what it would be like to be in a world where everyone is just like me? But it’s probably impossible to find a world where everyone is a first generation American Polish Swiss Protestant Jew. Maybe if both my parents were Jewish, things would be easier? Or both Protestant? But I quickly discovered at a young age that being a mutt in America in the '60s had its drawbacks. The big nose and large breasts don’t help make things easier. So yeah, bring on the nose job!
My mom starts singing with Don Ho.
This is the moment I’ve waited for. I can hear my heart singing. Soon bells will be ringing. This is the moment of sweet Aloha. I will love you longer than forever. Promise me that you will leave me never.
I sit there mortified, speechless.
Her eyes glisten a bit I think, but I just can’t look her in the face so I’m not sure.
Finally, she stops singing, thank God.
“So, do you want the filet mignon?”, she asks.
“Sure,” I say. But there’s a pit in my stomach, deep deep down to my groin, as I know we can’t afford this. I feel just awful at the prospect of having a great meal.
We had money at one time. In fact, I was a “spoiled brat” as my mom used to call me. When we lived in Burbank, we had a house and a big yard. I slept in a huge canopy bed, like in a fairy tale, with bedding that all matched. In my bedroom, I was surrounded by enough books, toys, and dolls to open my own toy store. I really especially loved my Pebbles doll and my collection of the whole Barbie team - Ken, Skipper, Barbie of course, and the plastic sports car they all drove in with my help.
One day, my mom and I drove home a brand new Chevy Belaire that we had picked out, because my daddy didn’t care what kind of car we bought as long as we were happy. All three of us were so excited with this new car, we parked it in the garage and spent the night in it, smelling the smell of new car as we slept. Whenever we went anywhere in that car, we’d all sit proudly together in the front seat, my daddy always putting his arm out in front of me when he would have to stop the car or turn the corner.
My daddy drove that car to work every weekday from Burbank to Beverly Hills and back for a few years. That was when we were on our way to the American Dream.
Now, we’re on the road to God knows where, and I'm beginning to think there’s no dream at the end of it. I can’t afford to dream. There is only work. Kinda like that sign my daddy had to look at everyday when he was at Auschwitz – “Work Will Set You Free.”
I felt the lump in my right breast as I lay on the couch recuperating from a scooter accident. I was living in Denver, Colorado. The year was 2006. That was the same year my dear momma died in a hospice for poor people. It was also the year Kate, my daughter, graduated from high school in Colorado Springs and had begun college at Colorado School of Mines as an electrical engineering major, wanting to do something practical with her life so she wouldn’t end up like me.
I had no health insurance, no car, no mate/partner/lover, and no family to turn to besides Kate. I was working as a talent agent (for the first and last time) and did not do well with the stress of that job.
The lump was not very big. Did I think it was cancer with that first discovery? Probably. Was I in denial? Oh yes, just as I was with most everything else in my life. Was I an alcoholic? Did I have a gambling problem? Was I an irresponsible parent? Did I have terrible in fact devastating taste in men? Did I have a chance at being one of those top casting directors I admired so much like Marc Hirschfeld or Gayle Pillsbury and blew it all with my internal chaos?
The scooter accident was a wake up call in several ways. I was returning home very late from an event and after-party of a client’s comedy show. The streets were still slick from a rain, it was dark, and I slid on mud I didn’t see. My knee had opened up and was bleeding profusely. I managed to move the scooter upright and get it to the side of the road. How? Have no idea.
I stood on the sidewalk, alone in the dark, staring at my bloody knee, wondering who to call on my cell. “In case of emergency,” as they say. There were no easy answers and anybody I chose, I would have to show my vulnerability.
I wondered the same thing when I felt that lump. I had been so independent and secretly felt like an outcast that I had inadvertently isolated myself from the rest of society. I burned bridges, kept my distance, didn’t ask for help, and didn’t save money. On the surface of things, I was accomplished, successful, I had been to Emmy parties and had been there for the casting of “The Office.” I helped hundreds possibly thousands of actors achieve their dreams. Internally, I was a mess. That damn cancer showed itself when I needed it the most but desperately wanted it to just go away.
I waited five months before I had a mammogram and the subsequent biopsy that told me the cold hard facts. I had stage-two breast cancer and would have to first have a lumpectomy then do chemo and maybe radiation. I had lymph node activity which of course meant the cancer cells were most likely starting to plant their seeds in various parts of my body. The oncologist I went to scared me to death. I hated him and the whole machine of cancer treatment.
I experienced flashbacks that were not my own. I had visions of myself as a starved, hairless, emaciated prisoner being sent to the gas chambers for burning.
Growing up with a parent who was constantly in and out of hospitals made me extremely squeamish about them and the whole medical machine. So much so that I wanted to avoid all of it, even to the detriment of my own health.
I chose to forego chemo, radiation, and hormone blockers. I felt fine. If it was “my time,” I’d rather just go naturally. This I explained to my daughter and she seemed fine with it.
In truth, I gambled with my life and hers.
The lumpectomy I underwent that June was without incidence and I sailed through the recovery. Then, in lieu of chemo and radiation, I turned to alternative treatments.
Little did I know there was this vast underground world of nontraditional treatments and I embraced it with gusto and excitement. I knew I needed to make some deep changes in my life and was ready to do it. Just as long as I didn’t have to lose my femininity (namely, breasts, hair, sexuality). In my mind, if I lost my sexuality, I might as well be dead.
I changed my diet, took herbs, had incredible hypnotherapy sessions with Stephanie Jones, and saw a doctor who practiced NeuroModulation Therapy. This therapy was a non-invasive strategy to help my own body’s immune system breakdown the cancer – to melt the parts of me that were blocked and inflamed. I cleansed, did colonics, and went to healing and prayer meetings. I slowed down my busy, chaotic life. I worked on my anger issues and wrestled my demons. I transformed into a more positive, grateful person. I even asked for help. My dear friends in Colorado, Mare and GerRee, threw a benefit for me and raised over $3000 to help me pay for all my alternative treatments and basic living expenses. When word got out in LA about my condition, the community raised another $3000+.
I realized I was not alone. I had tremendous friends whom I now called my Angels.
I lost a bunch of weight and was looking and feeling great. I responded to Craig’s List ads to meet men and started having the best sex of my life.
I started a blog called ‘Lulu’s Life.’ When I was a kid, my imaginary friend’s name was ‘Little Lulu,’ after the comic strip character. Lulu was a kind and sincere little girl who, though prone to mischief, usually ended up saving the day. When I became an adult, ‘Little Lulu’ morphed into my alter ego ‘Lulu,’ and after my divorce from Kate’s dad, Lulu became a bad girl. She had been kept in-check and silenced far too long and suddenly ran wild with a vengeance. She made me do all the things I was too scared to do in the past, for better and for worse. She smoked cigars, played poker and blackjack, and went to all-night parties.
When I go back and read my Lulu blog, which was ‘live’ in 2007, six years ago, I’m fucking shocked I’m still alive. The delusions and justifications I wore like badges of honor are now embarrassing. But damn if I didn’t survive my illusions and had a whole lot of fun in the process. The revelations about myself were significant and I was the most optimistic I had ever been.
Then in 2009 my stage 2 breast cancer became inflammatory breast cancer, and the real story begins.
The Real Good Doctor
I took the bus by myself to the Los Angeles County-USC Hospital in East LA on a day in October of 2009. As I stood outside of the brand new gleaming hospital compound, I was overcome with a primal fear I’ve never experienced. Not only was I scared for my life, but the prejudices and misconceptions toward very poor folks and non-whites that I didn’t even know I had surfaced in all their ugliness. Now I was one of those very poor folks and I desperately needed help. I needed to be saved even though I didn’t want to be.
“I can’t do it,” is what I told myself, waiting in the very long security line just to get into the building.
I knew once I got in there, I would be deconstructed, hacked up and put back together, ground to a pulp. There were no frills in that building, nothing to make me forget who I was – one very sick puppy with no financial resources. I now had a myriad of Angels, this is true, who did provide moral support, and Kate moved with me back to Los Angeles, but no one could go through this treatment for me.
If my momma were still alive, she would have immediately offered herself up as a sacrifice.
I made it through the metal detector at which point I was in this huge lobby that looked on the surface like a way station of a third world country. Or perhaps this is what Ellis Island was like when my daddy finally got to enter this country? Folks of every color, creed, and religion were waiting for relief, and it was not a quick and easy process. It seemed as if everyone were camping in this holding tank.
It was depressing as shit. Is this America? For all those who lament those “damn illegals,” sucking the system dry, I pray that one day they will be one of the unfortunates who have to wait for four hours to see an oncologist or a surgeon. Yeah, I guess you could say I was to blame for my predicament, but sometimes the legacy you happened to be born into has an undertow and velocity that you can’t see let alone control.
“Give me your tired, your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Does this not apply if you are poor Mexican or Black?
I was deeply ashamed to be here.
On the other hand, is the LA County Hospital such a terrible place to be? Was I just feeling sorry for myself and really had no true compassion for all the others? Was I so “spoiled” that I couldn’t just be grateful that I even had a place of refuse? And the beauty of America is that all tribes, colors and creeds do live in relative peace with each other. Why was I despondent when I should have been happy? Why do I tend to look on the fuckin’ dark side of life? Finally, is there any place on Earth that can truly take care of the injured, damaged, ‘wretched refuse’ of all the wars, genocides, slavery, intolerance in the history of Mankind?
Since I had an appointment, I was able to bypass this holding tank and go upstairs to the OB/GYN department, where all perspective breast cancer patients must start their long journey. Although I had prior experience down this road, I had to restart at ground zero.
My right breast, which had already been ample (double D), had become inflamed, swollen probably twice its size. It was red and the skin had become thickened. It was a heavy weight.
A very kind and knowledgeable alternative doctor in Pasadena I had gone to see told me bluntly, “Cathy, we have to know exactly what we’re dealing with here. You have to get rediagnosed. You’re going to have to contact the LA County Hospital. You have no choice.” He took the role of the parent I didn’t have and although I wanted to fight this advice, I didn’t. I am forever grateful to him.
I found the number to the hospital online and called, called, and recalled. This was not an easy maze to get into. I could have gone to the emergency room, like most people do, but I was petrified of that. I spent days trying to get a human being on the phone and when I finally did, I felt like I had discovered buried treasure.
So there I was, entering the lair of the monster known as free health care for the needy.
I waited 3 ½ hours to see my first doctors, in an area with no cell phone coverage or internet service. We were all cut off from the world-as-we-know it. The forgotten. The uninsured. The world could end, but we’d be here still waiting for care.
When the harried attendant finally called my name, I felt I had won the lottery.
I sat in the exam room, wearing just a flimsy hospital gown, my disgusting and diseased breast hanging down, facing two young female doctors. One was the doctor and the other, the intern/resident. Yes, just like in Grey’s Anatomy. Since this hospital is affiliated with USC, it is an educational institution. What better place to learn about caring for people when the volume is so high? As an intern, you see everything under the sun and in every configuration. Also, since the uninsured wait so long to get help, you see very advanced stages of whatever. You can face anything and then some after your tenure here. A true trial by fire.
As a doctor, this place is obviously not for the weak of heart, soul, or stomach. It turns out, however, and this is the best-kept secret in LA, that this is the finest educational hospital in the world and is highly competitive to get into. The men and women who choose and are chosen to be here are very special human beings who want to help humanity. I felt this with every single doctor and intern I came in contact with, which was a lot.
The doctors I met that day, I never saw again, and I don’t remember their names, but they were practical, honest, and set me up with the battery of tests to determine exactly what I had and whether I would survive it. Since what I had looked horrible to them, they put me on the fast track. What would have taken me weeks to get an appointment for one test, took me days.
I left the building and returned the next week. The first test was the dreaded mammogram.
I waited in an artless, windowless corridor with about twenty other women, all braless, our diseased breasts covered with a scratchy yellow “gown.” (Why they use the word gown is beyond me. It is the opposite of gown. It is a large napkin with ties.) The A/C was on full blast and the temperature was unbearable, especially after several hours.
The demographic of this particular group was predominantly Hispanic, a few Blacks, and I was the only white. The Spanish-speakers all sat together, the Blacks on the opposite end, and me, somewhere in the middle. We were all freezing, scared, and angry, but no one said anything. If we were men, sitting with no pants and just a sheet around our naked genitals, we would not tolerate this. We would shout out, storm the barricades like in Les Miz, and they would change the system. There would be no more barbaric mammogram machine where the swollen and tender breasts would be poked, prodded, and smashed. But we said nothing, did nothing. Hours went by. What was particularly demoralizing was when the staff left for lunch and didn’t say anything to us. The only thing that saved me from jumping out the non-existent window is the thought that I would someday put this experience into a book to share with other scared women around the world.
Once my name was called and I got to move from the hallway into the testing room, things started cooking. I was interviewed, x-rayed, and ultra-sounded. Yes indeed there was something terribly wrong with my breast - which anyone could tell just by looking at it – but the tests made it official and deadly real.
The very next week, I had an appointment with the doctor who would become my breast surgeon and primary guide. And that waiting room, which I shared with my Mexican compatriots, had a TV! It was so exciting that I didn’t mind we were watching a soap opera in Spanish. On this particular episode, the main woman, who was gorgeous, rich, and stylish of course, was lying in a hospital bed suffering from an as yet unknown fatal disease. The doctor who presided over her was tall, dark, handsome and incredibly sexy. The hospital set was clean and comforting. The gorgeous sick woman was not worried about healthcare, money, or being alone.
A poor Mexican woman entered our waiting room selling trinkets and candy to other poor Mexican women and one poor white one. None of the snacks were healthy and seemed more appropriate for a baseball game than a hospital filled with very sick people, but what the hell, I bought a bag of M & Ms.
After three hours, I moved from the holding tank into the exam room, where I got out of my clothes and into another gown. I waiting in this condition for another hour before a clean-cut and very earnest young man came in to interview me. He was the Intern in this, the surgical department. We were seemingly polar opposites in every way. I stereotyped him as coming from a wonderful stable affluent family and not having a care in the world, and yet, he was working at the LA County Hospital studying breasts. He was a bit stiff and shy, but he proceeded to ask me very personal questions and wrote down my answers with great interest. I vomited out all the gory details. I was a lesson in how not to take care of yourself, after all, and I made a vibrant subject for this perspective physician.
After our lengthy interview he left the room, leaving me with just myself, which was fucking frightening. There was no consolation from a friend, a magazine, my cell phone, a window with a view any view. My dark thoughts whirled around the room like a typhoon. What the hell had I done to deserve this?! I was faced like a head-on collision with my biggest fears. I was poor, unmarried, no health insurance, no car, no steady job, no savings. My future would be a succession of tests, treatments, and surgeries until I died. Chemo, loss of hair, loss of menstrual cycle, loss of energy, loss of libido, loss of control. My breasts would have to get whacked off, of course.
What had my life been up until this point? Giving everything I had, giving it all to other people? Crazy making to make money, have fun, running away. I was always running away. Run Cathy Run. Why, why, why? So I would never have to face myself? So I would never have to feel true, demoralizing pain? Escape the pain, run run run. Deny deny deny.
I couldn’t run anymore. This was my day of wreck-a-ning.
Just when I was at the point of wanting to find a sharp object with which to slit my wrists, in walks Dr. Leah Kelley. In casting jargon, she was a cross between Cate Blanchett and Katherine Hepburn. She wore no makeup and was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Her piercing blue eyes bore into me and all I could see was pure intelligence and goodness in them. Her demeanor was very serious and yet she gave me a slight smile from the side of her mouth.
She clinically asked me to open my gown so she could examine me herself.
Her expression didn’t change as she saw my ugliness.
“Would you mind if we took some photos of the infected area? Since we work as a team here, I need to share them with my colleagues who will also be working on your case.”
“Of course,” I immediately answered. I now had a medical team of people wanting to help me. Modesty be damned.
She whipped out a small camera and documented my body as quickly as possible. What a way to get in the limelight!
“You can close your gown now,” she said, comforting me.
Then she looked deep inside me. “You are very sick.”
“Yes,” I blurted out, looking down at my hands. Then I started balling. I finally got it.
She immediately handed me a tissue, from where I have no idea.
She calmly explained all that I had expected and more. Six months of heavy-duty chemo, a mastectomy, radiation, and hormone therapy for 5 years. It had to start immediately.
I looked up and had the nerve to ask, “what if I don’t want the treatment?”
“Well, your immune system is going to put all of its efforts into the infected area and your organs will start shutting down. Within the year, you will be gone.”
“Can I go to a hospice?” There I said it. I wanted to die and I wanted to do it now.
“Of course it’s your decision, but I would strongly advise against that.”
“I don’t think I can go through it,” I sobbed.
I can’t remember exactly what she said to me next. She might have told me I was still young and that I had a daughter, for God’s sake. I would be in good hands and I couldn’t have asked for better medical care. But it didn’t matter what she said to me, it was the way she said it and what I saw in her. There was humanity, compassion, and a heart a million times the size of mine.
I believed in her. Something switched in me and I was ready to do anything she said. If she had told me to run around naked in the halls of the hospital, I would have done it, but she didn’t. She was not that kind of person.
She was the kind of person who made me want to stop dwelling on all the other folks who “deserved” cancer more than I did. They have their own hells to go through. I suddenly wanted to turn this around, to make this my reawakening, not my trial-by-fire. Could I transform the images I had of fire and bald, naked bodies from the Holocaust into sunlight, bright and streaming down on me, making me warm, comforting me not harming me? Could I possibly do anything in my God-forsaken life with grace and humility and without this debilitating fear and dread, anticipating the very worst that could happen?
I wanted more than anything to live my life not as a refugee but as someone who belonged and was loved. I wished to be at ease because fretting about every moment of every day is incredibly tiring.
I’ve got this fucking burden I’m carrying around now. It’s massive, heavy, and burning me up. Please, Dr. Kelley, cut it out of me. I’ve had it long enough. My back is breaking. I don’t want it anymore.
I immediately wanted to make a documentary film about her. Who are these men and women who silently devote their lives to helping disadvantaged people get well? They are the opposite of the kind who tortured my father.
Landscape of the Body
I never thought I was pretty. I was always the one who “had a great personality,” the funny one. Even when I was young, I hated the way I looked and didn’t appreciate the attractive parts of me – my breasts, my eyes, my lips and smile. Nothing could prepare me, however, for the way I felt about my body and myself when I awoke from my single mastectomy surgery, my head still bald, in a no-frills hospital. I had been taken down, and whatever self-loathing I had experienced in my life up until that point had found new depths I didn’t think possible. Was it a gift? No. It was fucking awful.
My left breast was still Double D and sagging. The right was gone, wiped off the face of the earth. I was convinced I would never feel attractive and sexy ever again. (But as with every terrible event in my life, in comparison to what my father went through, it was just a slight bump in the road. Not yet, though.)
When Kirk walked in my hospital room to check on me, I felt like a moldy rock. For all the times we had great cavorting in bed under the sheets, finding me this way under a thin one must have been like a kick in the teeth. He didn’t say anything about the way I looked or the way he felt. Turns out he was a great actor, too.
Kirk was the ‘casual encounter’ I met online in Denver, who now had to face a train wreck. It wasn’t bad enough when he sat with me during five months of chemo infusion, in a dreary old hallway with no windows that we shared with a stream of other patients worse off than me. Or that he waited with me, scared out of my mind, in the surgical holding tank with hundreds of other people at 5am that morning. Or worse, that the physical intimacy we had adored so much had dried up months ago and he was left to take care of a scared, angry fifty-year-old who didn’t really love him that much. I couldn’t love anyone or anything. I was in survival mode and I was not gracious about it, damn it, not even toward a man who literally cleaned up my shit when the terrible constipation I had during chemo would plug up the toilet nearly every time I went.
Kirk also had his own damage to deal with. On July 22, 2009, he was in a near-fatal paragliding accident in Boulder, and at this time, nearly a year later, he was still recovering himself, building back his body. To add my troubles and pain into the equation was not a good combination, but for some odd reason that we still don’t understand, we were meant to help each other.
None of these facts, however, could erase the sight of me hobbling out of bed like an ancient woman, naked, slashed and bandaged up, my drains and untouched breast hanging down, no hair or eyebrows, a scowl on my face, desperately trying to get to the bathroom to pee. Plus, the pain medication I was on was making me incredibly nauseous, which was exacerbated when I got up, and I barely made it to the toilet before I vomited.
The next day I was released earlier than expected and I couldn’t get a hold of Kirk to come pick me up before our allotted time. I was so pissed off and demoralized by this, when I really should have cut the guy some slack. When he finally arrived, I was so agitated that nothing he did was right and the only thing that could have appeased me was heroin (which I probably could have acquired on the street corner outside the hospital had I only looked).
Putting on enough clothes to get me out of the hospital without getting arrested for indecent exposure was an ordeal. And waiting in the car turnaround while Kirk went to get the parked car was torturous. His sense of direction was not great and I thought he had gotten lost. My disappointment in him, my pain, self-hatred, and exhaustion all mixed to create an emotional Molotov cocktail* of epic proportions that I hurled at him.
No wonder he left LA within a month of that day.
What I kept forgetting to tell myself was that after four years, I was finally officially cancer-free.
* the term “Molotov Cocktail” was coined in September of 1939 in Europe.
The waiting room for Dr. Leif Rogers, who is one of the top plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills, is the Ritz-Carlton of waiting rooms. It’s all marble floors, finely upholstered couches, and a sweet receptionist who immediately asks if you’d like water or coffee while you wait. Since you only have to wait an average of five minutes, it hardly seems worth the trouble.
When I would wait to see the oncologist at LA County, which was every two weeks for eight months, the receptionists had no time to offer water. They were checking in hundreds of patients in a short period of time. The average wait to see the doctor was four hours solid, no exaggeration. The benches we all sat on had no covering. In fact, they were like church pews, hard as a rock and void of comfort.
Finding myself in the lap of luxury after a year of LA County felt like I had died and gone to heaven. In reality, I was very much alive and one of my Angels came to my rescue. In yet another wacky turn of events, my friend Darren Schroeder, who is an actor I met when I lived in Denver, was now also living in Los Angeles and lo-and-behold, he worked for one of the top plastic surgeons who specializes in reconstructive surgery after a trauma. First of all, I had no idea that my breasts could be reconstructed let alone be covered by insurance. Had I known this when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I might have chosen my path a little differently. Secondly, I met up with Darren for coffee randomly while I was going through chemo, having no idea what his day job was. Within the week, he had spoken to his boss about me and I was having a consultation.
I sat there in the comfortable exam chair, my poor destroyed chest exposed. Facing me was the most beautiful, both figuratively and literally, doctor I had very laid eyes on. He looked at me as if I were normal and attractive, not the deformed old woman I felt I had become.
Dr. Rogers explained very simply all the different options of reconstructive breast surgery available to women like me, who had been decimated by cancer. Sure, he’s a plastic surgeon who takes on patients who just want to look better, more assimilated, more traditionally beautiful, but he also travels to foreign countries to repair kids and adults damaged by war. He is a humanitarian. Lucky for me, he was also an expert at the tremendously time-consuming and difficult surgery that could make me whole again.
Because I had gone through radiation therapy after my mastectomy, my options were severely limited. The skin that used to be my breast was now scorched, flat and tightly stretched with a brutal scar across it, in line with where my nipple used to be. Expanders and implants were out of the question.
The only option I had is known technically as a diep flap – deep inferior epigastric perforator flap. This is a surgery in which basically a new breast is formed by using my own skin and fatty tissue, which can be taken from my stomach, back, or thighs. Since I had had a c-section twenty-four years prior and the skin around my abdomen was flabby, I of course opted for my stomach. I would essentially be getting a tummy-tuck along with a new breast.
As Dr. Rogers patiently explained the complicated procedure to me, it was hard to believe he could take fat from my belly and mold it into a natural looking breast that he could then reattach with the blood vessels intact to my chest. The blood vessel thing was freaky and wonderful. It meant that my fake breast would become part of my body, warm and alive. It was done using microscopic surgical techniques that had been perfected in the last ten years or so. The reconstructed breast would look and feel like the original breast, with blood pumping through it and natural coloration. The one big downside is that the new breast would not have the nerve endings of the original. In other words, I would not experience the tingly sensations when touched. Thank God I still had one breast intact!
I would most likely need three separate surgeries over the course of six months to a year. The first would be the creation of the new breast. The second would be balancing, or “matching,” the old saggy breast with the new one. I would then have two perky breasts, which at my age, was truly an unexpected gift. In order to match them properly, there would have to be a few months between surgeries so the new one could “settle” first. The third surgery was the creation of a nipple, which would come from my own flesh.
It all sounded clean and easy, like when I got my nose “fixed.” I could handle this and I had a great surgeon handling me.
Dr. Rogers offered up his services pro bono. I was dumbfounded. The generosity I experience in the world can’t be underestimated, although in my dark hours I do.
I was excited at the prospect of having two breasts again and wanted to start the procedure immediately, but that was not to be. I had to wait at least six months after my last treatment, which was the radiation, so my body and skin had time to regroup and prepare itself for the 6-8 hour reconstruction ordeal.
All in all, it was to be a full year I had to live with just one breast. Although the LA County Hospital supplied me with a rubber fake one that I placed into a special bra whenever I was clothed, which was all the time now, I felt like Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
After my consultation, Dr. Rogers’ assistant, Jo Sanchez, came in to the exam room with a huge camera and took pictures of me naked from my thighs up. I’ve never felt comfortable in front of the camera even when I looked good, so I sure as hell didn’t want to be a model under these conditions. Once again, however I was the poster child for “don’t let this happen to you!”
After I put my clothes back on, Jo brought me into her office, at which point she sat me down in front of her computer screen and showed me a slide show. This was not just any slide show, like photos of a vacation in Tahiti or the Red Carpet before an awards show. Before my eyes were revealed photo after photo of “before and after” naked shots of women who had first had a mastectomy and then reconstruction. The frame of the pictures only included the stomach and chest area, so these women had no faces or lower bodies, just mangled bodies, like mine. It looked like some war or terrible crime spree had taken place and the images were extremely tough to take. Scars, discoloration, lost and misshapen breasts made up the “before” shots. There was nothing pretty about them, and what’s more, a lot of the women were out-of-shape, which I hadn’t seen in photos or real life very much prior. These shocking photos didn’t comfort me in the least. They were a reflection of me and made me want to run out of the room.
I desperately wanted my experience to be like in those makeover shows on TV, where in just one episode the contestant morphs from ugly mess to beauty. Although these kinds of broadcasts are known as Reality Shows, the true reality is a miserable, tough process involving much pain, emotional turmoil, and the unconditional support of all those around you.
It Starts with Language
I met the Siegel family - Lynne, Ken and Mark - when I lived in Denver. They came into my life because Lynne hired me as an acting coach to work with her talented son, Mark, in 2006. This business relationship was somehow fated and eventually morphed into love and a trip to Poland I never could have afforded or organized.
In 2009 I wanted to die and was on my way to doing so. In 2012, exactly a year after my reconstructive surgeries, I traveled to my daddy's homeland.
Lynne and Ken hired a remarkable guide, Tomasz Cebulski, a youngish (33) Catholic Polish man who has tirelessly devoted himself to research, history, and education, so that something as horrible as The Holocaust never happens again.
Tomasz has a gift. He brings long-forgotten stories back to life. If was as if I had time-traveled in one of those big Hollywood movies I love so much. He made me feel as if he knew my dad. My broken twelve-year-old self never could have imagined this scenario, even in her wildest dreams.
Tomasz taught me so much.
The word you find often in Polish history is “uprising.” Between the Prussians and the Russians and between Napoleon’s army and Germany’s forces, the Polish people have a history of fighting back against much more powerful forces. They get invaded a lot and rarely are the invaders, and the city of Warsaw gets the brunt of it. While our Civil War was raging, for instance, the Underground Polish National Government located in Warsaw was rising up against Russian rule, and during WWI, they had to take orders from the first German occupation of the 20th Century only to see their country revert back to the Bolsheviks.
With the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the Polish people successfully defeated the Red Army, and the area entered a period of nationalism. There was no communism and no Nazis . .yet. The Polish people of all religions were integrated and culture, debate and commerce flourished.
My daddy was born in 1923, into this relatively bucolic period, in the city of Lodz, which is about 84 miles south-west of Warsaw. In the mid-1800s, it was already an established, bustling industrialized area, with factories and a huge mill. By the time my daddy entered the world, Lodz had a population of 700,000, the second largest city in Poland (behind Warsaw) and bore one of the largest Jewish communities worldwide, about 30% of the city. It was a major center of textile production, generally referred to as the Manchester of Central Europe.
Lodz was not part of the pograms. This was not the world as depicted in Fiddler on the Roof, which took place in Russia. I loved that musical and knew every song by heart, but that was not my family history. My daddy was born into an urban, solid middle class life in Poland. His family owned a business – a barbershop – and he and his brother were groomed (ha!) to follow in their father’s footsteps.
There were six people in the family - father, mother, two sons and two daughters – all living in a large apartment in the nice part of town. They were not Orthodox Jews, but rather moderate to liberal. They had friends who were catholic, protestant, even German, who’s people made up 9% of the population.
As with all things, this ideal life was not to last.
Jokes about Polish people being stupid or needing 100 of them in order to screw in that proverbial light bulb still persist, despite the fact that the following great human beings are all Polish:
Isaac Bashevis Singer
This is just a tiny fraction of notable Poles.
When you add in degrading jokes about the Jews . . .well, the Polish Jews were really screwed. And I wonder why I sometimes have terrible feelings of inadequacy and insecurity?
In contemporary America, we fear the “thugs,” “low lifes,” and most especially those nameless, faceless “terrorists.” Yet, we’ve been terrorized by more middle class white guys in the last few years than any other group.
The Germans have always been a highly civilized, cultured society. Did my Polish family have any idea this group would be the worst enemy on the face of the planet? Yes, there had been “occupations” and tensions, but The Holocaust? The Armageddon, if you ask me. It would be like if Canada suddenly took us hostage. That could never happen. Right?
Your worst enemy is never who you think it’s going to be, and your biggest fear is never the thing that will take you down.
In 1939, the schools were shut down. My daddy was sixteen, when this rich bold adult life should have been starting for him. Was he already in love with a girl? Were photos taken when his youngest sister was born in 1937? Did he and his family have any inkling of what was to come? I will never ever know the answers to these questions and never ever see a family photo of the Fiszers, my family, prior to 1945.
Julian Waga wrote these words when the ghettos started forming late in 1939. “What is left of the high-sounding and expressive words about our power? The gap between what we were fed with day by day through the years and the moment of lightning defeat was immense. We are unable to admit to ourselves that this is the beginning of a catastrophe we have not seen in our history.”
I hate to admit, but I was a Holocaust-avoider prior to 2012. I was not obsessed with finding out the truth. I never did any research and somehow avoided all the personal accounts and history books that erupted in the 1970s and 80s. I didn't become a militant young adult yearning to join “my people” in Israel. I didn’t read an Elie Wiesel book until I was in my late 40s. I had seen Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful, of course, but nothing deeper than that. My moto was put my head down, say nothing, and get through it. Don’t make waves. Don’t look at the truth otherwise you will go insane. Escape escape escape, whenever you can.
The Jews did all the hands-on dirty work for the Nazis in the camps, so the SS could keep at a distance in order to keep in control. My daddy was a slave. And although not 12 Years a Slave, it was for five, and he was tortured into doing harm to his own people, the ultimate humiliation.
All Poles, not just the Jews, were displaced by the Nazi invasion and forced into slave labor to manufacture the very armaments of war that ripped apart their country, so the Germans could fight the Russians for more land.
My daddy was skilled as a barber. The upside is that he was exceptionally useful to the War Machine. Everyone had hair and it was constantly growing. The downside? Well, let me just say he had to come in contact with a lot of naked bodies, both alive and dead.
With most genocides, the evidence has been obliterated. The Holocaust is one of the few where this was not the case. That’s why it needs to be visited and revisited by everyone and all future generations, if there are to be any.
It starts with language. Dirty Jew, filthy dog, Polak, Kike, Chink, Kraut, Faggot, Nigger, The Ugly American, The Final Solution. They used the innocuous word camp to describe hell-on-earth and work to describe torture, so work camp didn’t sound like such a horrible place to be. It was.
My daddy was not liberated at Auschwitz by the Americans, as I had always believed since I was a young child and first heard the word “Holocaust.” The Americans never even got to Poland. Anyone who has read any detailed historical books, fiction or non, on the subject would know that. I was ignorant. The moment I learned the truth, that my daddy, my uncle, and my grandfather, all were transported from Auschwitz to two more work camps in Germany, hundreds of miles away on yet another one of those cattle trains, blew my mind.
When I was a child, my daddy loved to listen to classical music. One of our favorite pieces to listen to was the Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto (a German composer). I started playing the violin at the age of four, and although I saw it as more of chore than a passion, I loved making my daddy happy and my playing, no matter how mediocre, certainly did that. When I would play the Danube Waltz for him, which I did often, I don’t think he could have been more joyful in those moments.
Polish cities have Main Market Squares – called Rynek Glowny – at their centers. They are referred to as the Old Town and often seen as tourist traps, but I love them. They are expansive areas surrounded by historic townhouses, palaces, churches, shops, and outdoor cafes, which seem to go on for miles. You enter the square by going down narrow dark cobblestone streets, making the sensation of reaching the open area all the more breathtaking. It literally feels you’ve gone back in time in a good very romantic way.
When I was in Krakow’s Main Square, I went to a piano concert of Chopin music. The venue was the old Bonerowski Palace now made into a beautifully restored boutique hotel. The small ballroom where the young pianist in her 20s performed overlooked the square and all the French windows surrounding her were open. It was a gorgeous summer night.
As the sun went down, the natural light made the sky and the buildings look like a painting. The fluffy white clouds looked fake and it felt as if God himself would appear sitting on one of them. This view along with the emotional music made my heart expand three times its normal size, like what happens to The Grinch when he discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I could see and feel, for a few breathless moments, what life must have been like for my daddy before the world caved in. The Sound of Music could be heard everywhere, and the incredible culture, freedom, and intermingling of religions was felt like a vibrant heartthrob throughout the land. It was paradise.
I had always thought my daughter, who is now twenty-seven, was born into a world that was doomed. The fact of the matter is that my daddy’s youngest sister was born doomed, literally. So was the grandmother I never met. They both died in the gas chambers in 1942.
According to the history books, Hitler was so pissed off with not just one but two Warsaw Uprisings within a year’s time, as the Germany military-might was actually losing the war, he ordered the capital of Poland to be destroyed. Not just debilitated, razed to the ground. It wasn’t enough for him to murder 400,000 innocent people – half the pre-war population - he had to annihilate all that had been created by those inhabitants and by all the generations before them. When the war finally and thankfully ended, Warsaw was 85% destroyed. The brutal truth is that you could probably say the same thing about my daddy.
As the new communist government started to rebuild the city, my daddy was rehabilitating in a sanatorium in Switzerland. He suffered from severe malnutrition, tuberculosis, typhus, skin problems, sever lower back pain, digestive issues, along with God knows what else. I will never know. He’s not in any of the history books nor did he write a memoir. The Shoah Foundation didn’t videotape his testimonial. By the time he died, they hadn’t even started on that project.
I flew into Warsaw by myself, ignorant of the history of the city. Since my daddy wasn’t from Warsaw, I didn’t bother to do any research. I am unable to sleep on airplanes so I was not only ignorant of my surroundings I was unbearably jet-lagged.
During the cab ride from the Warsaw airport to my hotel downtown, I wanted to turn around and head back to the palm trees of LA. On the surface, this was an ugly city. A mish-mash of utilitarian Communist architecture from the 70s – boxy, nondescript – and new buildings made to look old. Flat landscape. Dreary, dowdy, grey even though it was a beautiful summer day. This is a city in a country that’s been decimated every which way and it’s hard to look at, difficult to be around. Just like me.
Below find a link and a podcast from a radio show 99% Invisible, which reports and decimates all kinds of stories related to design and architecture. The company is run by Roman Mars, who was named one of the 100 Most Creative People in 2013 by Fast Company.
Sure enough, in February of 2013, he and his colleagues, Amy Drozdowska, Dave McGuire, and a Warsaw-born anthropologist, Michael Murawski, blogged and spoke on the reconstruction of Warsaw. It’s worth visiting the site right now for this show as it’s deeply thoughtful.
The truth of reconstruction, rebuilding, rising-from-the-ashes-type experiences that I was not aware of prior to my cancer is that no matter how much you try and how much care you put into the recreation, it can never be the same as it was originally.
The reconstruction of Warsaw, it turns out, was not a recreation of the city from the late 1930s, before it was flattened. Nor was it a recreation of the city in the 1830s, when it was thriving culturally and philosophically. Turns out, the Warsaw you see now when you walk its streets is the vision of an Italian artist, Bernardo Bellotto. He painted beautiful cityscapes with fine details in the 1700s.
Yes, the Soviet government at the time decided to rebuild Old Warsaw in the likeness of an Italian artist from two centuries prior. They recreated an imagined place. You could say it’s the fantasy of a perfect city.
I didn’t know any of this when I came upon contemporary Old Town Warsaw. I was merely walking around for miles all over the huge city, oblivious of historical facts, when I suddenly found myself on this cobble stone street – the recreation of a cobble stone street. I turned a corner and literally the sight ahead of me took my breath away. It was the dead center of Old Town and I gasped at the downright prettiness of it all. The sky was a deep deep blue with puffy white clouds and frankly didn’t look real at all. Was this a painting? CGI? Had I walked onto a film set? The buildings were brand new but made to look like the old ones, although they had never in fact looked like this. Since I didn’t know better, I just thought, “Wow, this is like a better, more real Disneyland.” And for as much as we make fun of it, what is Disneyland, but an imagined ideal place where folks come in droves to feel happy and comforted. That’s exactly what I felt, standing in the square, crying like an idiot. I was in the fantasy of a Polish city. Did this make me superficial or easily duped? Well, it is true. I do cry at Disney animated musicals as well.
A few days later, I was in Lodz with the Siegels and Tomasz.
I never thought I would be walking the streets my daddy walked, let alone go to the places where he lived. Seriously, I was 52 years old, had gone through what turned out to be years of cancer treatments, came close to dying, believed I would never feel good or vibrant again, and here I was, parading around with a magical group of people as if the journey had been an easy one. It most emphatically had not been.
My daddy lived at 22 Sienkiewicza St, which at that time was in the “good” part of town. He was born there and stayed with his family until aged sixteen when all hell broke loose.
Because of the Communist rule in Poland from 1945 until 1992, a lot of the buildings that were once well-kept but miraculously survived the war had now gone to seed. This was one of those buildings and it was very sad to see. What once was an excellent middle-class urban apartment building, housing cultured Jews and non-Jews alike, all business owners, now appeared to be what we in the States would consider a “slum” or “ghetto.”
Interesting that the term “ghetto” is predominantly associated with poor blacks. So is “slavery.” My daddy was both a slave and lived in a ghetto.
We had no way of going inside the apartment, but we went into the building and courtyard. It seemed abandoned, thrown-away almost. A ghost town of a long ago era, and yet my daddy lived here only 75 years ago. The paint was faded and peeling, and the banisters and stairs appeared as if they could not bear weight of any amount. But my daddy had walked up and down those stairs, so had his father, mother, two sisters and brother. A family of six, that I am a direct part of, had lived a life here. To feel their presence, for the first time ever, was enormous emotionally. It was surreal, and also very real, to think what had happened to them all after 1939.
My head was spinning with sadness, disbelief, horror, disgust, anger, and happiness. I could imagine my daddy as a young person now, for the first time ever. The fact that his childhood and early teen years were happy, prosperous, and hopeful was a great comfort to me.
Down the street was an antique store filled to the ceiling with heirlooms and treasures from pre-WWII. I wondered if I could buy what might have been confiscated from my father’s household by the Nazis. I didn’t have the nerve to ask or do it.
The barbershop that my family owned was at 33/35 S. Jaracza St. The current neighborhood was not fancy but not impoverished either. It was like most areas in Lodz we walked through – modest, livable, not trendy or extravagant, very urban. The highs and lows of Warsaw’s cityscape were nowhere to be found here. The general population seemed like nice working class people, but I also got the feeling that my generation and older have definitely experienced hard times, whether it was during WWII or under Communist rule or both in some cases. Most seem extinguished of spirit, distrustful, sad, and hurt. And they definitely don’t like Americans. As Tomasz told me on our first day together, “growing up I was taught to hate you (Americans).” He had to remind me it was because of “us” that Poland went to Russia after the war.
The younger generation, on the other hand, appear hopeful and full of life. Born after the fall of Communism, they speak English and are living the dream of owning a house, buying new merchandise in the beautiful new gleaming indoor malls, and having 2.1 kids. They smoke Lucky Strikes. They get married “not for the sex like you in America, but for the family." It’s like the fantasy I have in my head of the U.S. in the 1950s, only whiter. What’s more, because they are part of the EU but not on the euro, everything is very cheap – about a third of the cost of Paris, for instance.
If I were to move to Poland, would I then live The American Dream that my daddy always wanted for us?
Next on the Holocaust Tour was the Lodz Ghetto, where my daddy was forced to live and work slave labor for 4+ years. This was the location where, during the “pre-selections” of 1942, my toddler aunt and grandmother were yanked from the rest of the family and taken to their deaths.
The room/”apartment” that my father shared with twelve other people was located at 10 Bier Strasse, #9. Ironically, this apartment building was in much better shape now than the first building we visited. In fact, nothing about this area of Lodz reeked of “ghetto” or even run-down Communism.
Tomasz, Lynne, Ken, and I walked up to the building. My heart was pounding. This was where all the torture had started.
It was such a pretty day and there were two cute young girls playing in the courtyard, oblivious to life’s hardships.
A very plain, severe looking Polish woman with black hair pulled back tightly leaned out of an upstairs window. She watched us silently with great distrust in her eyes. I thought she was going to run us off the property and yell “ugly Americans” in Polish as if we were mangy dogs. A weathered man with missing teeth wearing a wife-beater shirt stuck his head out of a nearby window as well. He was scary and looked like a henchman, if there are indeed such people. He was smoking a Lucky Strike of course.
Thank God for Tomasz, who started a conversation with the woman. He began telling her in Polish about my story and why we were here. Almost immediately her stern demeanor softened to reveal compassion and sympathy. The henchman listened solemnly.
The woman, who turned out to be the owner of the building, told Tomasz that her grown son and family lived in apartment #9, but they were out-of-town. Apartment #9 was no longer just one room, but a cluster of small apartments that made up one big one. We learned that the woman’s father, who was not Jewish, bought the building in 1938. In 1939, it was immediately occupied by the Nazis. Her father was displaced and relocated to Germany for “compulsories” for the duration of the war.
After the war, he returned to Poland and managed to buy the building for a second time. We guessed that this woman was born in the late 1940s. She is now slowly but surely renovating each apartment.
Since my life is charmed, the woman whom I thought was going to run us out of town instead invited all of us to come into the building so she could show us the room where my daddy had been imprisoned.
I could not run up the stairs fast enough with my posse right behind.
Meeting us at the top on the landing was not only the woman but also the scary-looking man. Later, Tomasz made a remark to me with which I agreed. “If I met that man on the street, I’d probably either cross to the other side of the street or be very concerned for my life.” Boy, were we wrong! This man turned out to be the one who insisted to the woman we be allowed to come into the building and, in fact, he was the compassionate soul who let us in to apartment #9 and gave us the background and tour.
The interior had been gutted and is now a beautiful, inviting living space with light hardwood floors and clean design, like an Ikea model apartment. It’s what we’d consider a trendy loft in the U.S. The kitchen could be the set for one of those many cooking shows on TV. In essence, the terrible past has been erased, made pretty and charming, making forgetting all the easier.
When we heard the story that my daddy had shared this one room and the kitchen with eleven other people, a group that most likely included my grandfather and uncle, for nearly four years, it all seemed unreal. Apparently they put mattresses down on the floor at night to sleep and then in the morning they’d stack them up in the corner and go to their work assignments within the ghetto’s walls.
Did all this terror and enslavement really happen? It’s hard to believe without the actual evidence.
I was comforted once again to be in yet another building in which my daddy had lived, but could I feel the fear, sadness, torment, and constant hunger? No. It’s just too far from my everyday experience.
At every turn, there is disbelief. People were treated worse than cattle, worse than horses or dogs, like vermin. There was a stripping away of all dignity, first with the thoughts, then with the language, and finally with the physical, in all aspects. Not just “people,” but the Jewish people. Not just Jewish people, but my people. Not just “my people,” but also my dear sweet daddy who would never do harm to anyone. The man who helped create me, whom I shared space with for twelve years. It’s inconceivable, so I don't want to know. I don’t want to look at because if it can happen to my daddy then it can happen to me now. Am I ever really safe from harm?
We were done with our tour and I felt incredible gratitude toward the scary-looking man whom I had sorely misjudged. I bowed to him humbly and thanked him. He couldn’t understand my words but he felt my deep emotion. He took my hand and kissed it, this man with missing teeth, greasy hair, and eyes full of pain and longing. I was overwhelmed with love for this man. I hugged him as well as the female owner, whom I now thought was beautiful. Her severe features had completely vanished, replaced by empathy and understanding.
We left the place that I had never thought I would see.
When I thought the day could not get any better, Tomasz took us to the Registry Office of the city of Lodz, where he had pre-ordered copies of the birth certificates for both my father and uncle, Gustav. Remember, everything had been taken away from my father and his family – clothes, shoes, photos, jewelry, books, suitcases, and important papers. They were literally stripped down to the bone.
I now have an official document proving that my daddy was born and lived in this town. That’s incredibly meaningful under the circumstances.
It was very hot the day we visited Auschwitz II - Birkenau; between 90 and 100 degrees fahrenheit. About a mile away from Auschwitz is this camp in which my daddy resided. As the Lodz ghetto was being liquidated (830 survivors in all at the time) in August of 1944, he had been preselected to go to this concentration camp to be a worker bee. Here is where his age (late teens) and skill as a barber was a double-edged sword. On one hand, he was able to survive. On the other hand, he was assigned to the task of cutting and shaving the hair off the heads and bodies of all the corpses after they were gassed and before they were burned. The hair was used for weaving into thread for making clothing and textiles. Nothing went to waste. Every hair, every tooth, every ash was used for profit. Pretty resourceful, those Nazis.
Although I learned from Tomasz that my daddy only spent maybe four to five months in this place, just the thought of spending even four to five hours under the actual conditions that existed just 68 years ago is just too much to comprehend.
The most dreaded building we entered was the bathroom facilities, housed in one of the stables. I’ve always been a clean freak and have had constipation problems since early childhood - yes, I’ve had a problem holding on to my shit - so I was freaked out by this place. The toilets consisted of four long rows of narrow concrete slabs built up from the ground with round holes cut out of the top of them, each hole only inches from the next, on both sides of the slab. You sat on the concrete, only inches away from another man, with the hole underneath you, and defecated down into the soil, much like at a camp site, only there was no privacy whatsoever. 400 men would be using the toilets all at once!
The time in the toilet was highly regulated and occurred only twice a day. It’s still hard to believe Tomasz’s story, told to him by a survivor, that going to the toilet was the best time of day for the prisoners. It was one of the few times there were no Nazis present, because apparently it was too disgusting even for them. It was the only time when you could speak with the other prisoners openly and relatively freely. Going to the bathroom was the only moment of peace for these men (and women in separate toilets). What’s more, the men who were assigned sewer duty had the easiest job. They didn’t have to work in the hot sun and if they worked fast, their shifts were the shortest and least back breaking.
The fact that the toilet situation was not the worst time but the best time for the prisoners helps illustrate the upside down moral nature of the world my daddy inhabited. Bad was good. Dark was light. Bottom was top. Being lucky was actually those who died in the gas chambers. Their torture was swift. My daddy's torture went on until he died 30 years later.
I imagined the skinny, bald, fully exposed and vulnerable man of twenty years of age, Henryk Fiszer, hunched on the cement with the hole underneath, his only moment of solitude all day. His beautiful blue eyes are expressionless. There is no wailing or speaking out, just endurance. Has he stopped praying to God? I do not know. Is he dreaming of coming to Hollywood, where he eventually ended up? God, I hope so! There is another naked man sitting next to him, their butts only inches away from each other, and another man only inches away from this man. I don’t know the names or the faces of the other 398 men, but I certainly know my own daddy. I can recall his sweet tender blue eyes and his loving, happy voice read to me when I was six.
After this hot, miserable, disturbing, torturous, informative, amazing day, Lynne, Ken, and I went back to our Bed and Breakfast in Kracow. It was a quaint place in the middle of this beautiful, picturesque city that was as heavenly as Auschwitz II - Birkenau was hellish. I am so very blessed that I could visit the death and concentration camps under the best, most comforting conditions, with dear friends and the most compassionate guide. I was also fortunate that I could leave it all behind and come back to my pristinely clean room, the perfect balance of the old world and the new. I have never loved a hotel room so much!
I immediately took a shower. It was the greatest shower of my life, because I could. I am extremely, extremely, extremely lucky. I washed off the dust of the day, but not the memories and the feelings - never forget. I washed out my shirt and bra in the sink but not the past I had sought and found.
Ken, Lynne, and I had a meal in the courtyard of the lovely restaurant right across the narrow street from our hotel. The food was great, it was not very crowded, and little lights sparkled in the trees. We ate outside on a balmy summer night, and it was the first of two dinners we all shared, expressing our feelings about the trip and what we were all discovering.
The next morning is when I had the revelation. I always thought there was something wrong with me, and I’m sure my daddy, when he was lying in a bunk with seven other men trying to sleep, or when his baby sister and dear mother were taken away to the gas chambers one sunny day in 1942, also asked the exact same question, “What is wrong with me?”
The answer is, “nothing."
Hollywood Here We Come!
I often wonder what it was like for my daddy to get off the bus in Hollywood for the first time. I have this image of him stepping down, his one suitcase in his hand, and landing on Sunset Blvd. The sun shines on this face and he stands there for a moment, basking in the warmth.
But first he immigrated from Switzerland to New York. According to the New York Public Library, he arrived in New York City on September 18, 1952, on the ship Argentina that set sail out of Genoa, Italy. His possessions were one suitcase and one box. He declared “Stateless” has his country of origin.
He was issued a social security card in 1953 and his address was 1312 Teller Ave in the Bronx for approximately five years. Although he supposedly trained to be a dental hygienist in Geneva, Switzerland, he repaired watches in New York instead. Perhaps the fact that he had to have every single one of his teeth removed and replaced right after the war lead to this decision.
He remained on the east coast until 1957, at which point he relocated to Los Angeles, joining his older sister Helen who was already living there. She’s another survivor with a story that will go untold as she died in the 1980s never once wanting to speak about the unspeakable. Aunt Helen had a family by this time, so my daddy got his own place in East LA.
My daddy got a job working for Ruser Jewelry on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. William Ruser was an American GI who opened what was to become a very famous jewelry store to the stars in 1947. Loretta Young, Joan Crawford and Ava Gardner were among his fans and endlessly touted the man and his unique creations. He used fresh water pearls as his predominant stones, which are unlike regular pearls in texture and shape. Using the creamy elongated pearls as wings, his signature piece was a baby angel sitting on pearly clouds, looking down at the world. It was the whimsy and simple beauty that made Ruser’s jewelry so popular, and my daddy helped assemble these angelic pieces. In 1969, when Ruser retired, Van Cleef and Arpels bought up the shop and it remains there to this day, one of the fancier jewelry stores in a city made up of fancy stores.
Although my daddy had to stop working at the jewelry store in 1970 due to chronic ill-health, he was happily working there in late 1958 when he met my mother.
They met on a blind date, set up by a mutual friend who was also an immigrant as well as one of my mom’s ex-boyfriends. The location was a nightclub called “The Moulin Rouge” on Sunset Blvd. that had once been a glamorous “entertainment palace” for the rich and famous, but by the late 1950s had fallen on hard times and also doubled as the venue where the game show "Queen for a Day" was taped. It was New Year’s Eve, and I guess the flowing champagne went to their heads because they were married in Las Vegas by February and I was born exactly nine months later.
Just as I imagine my daddy getting off the bus, I often imagine this first night they spent together.
Les Brown and His Band of Renown are playing and Doris Day is singing.
Goin’ to take a sentimental journey/ Goin’ to set my heart at ease/ Goin’ to take a sentimental journey/ To renew old memories . . .
My soon-to-be-parents are dancing close. My daddy loved the Swiss people very much as they took care of him when he needed it the most. He must have felt he had won the jackpot when he found himself across the table from a sexy, vivacious, single Swiss woman and wasted no time in asking her to dance. Time had been wasted enough already.
“You move like a queen,” Harry tells Denise as he holds her in his arms. “I’m such a lucky man.”
Denise stares into his blue eyes that remind her of her own mother’s. They are kind eyes, loving eyes. She sees no darkness in them.
“You’re not like any of the other men. You make me feel special, not like a dime-a-dozen,” she confides.
“Je t’adore,” he whispers in her ear. There is no slickness, no expectations. He is sweet and genuine.
“Ah, you speak French?” Denise’s eyes light up.
“Mais oui. Also three other languages,” Harry answers humbly.
“You are a man of the world,” she says.
Harry doesn’t know how to respond to this. Instead, they stop talking. He pulls her closer to him and lays his head on her shoulder.
They dance like this for days.
Never found my heart with you from yearning/ Why did I decide to roam?/ Goin’ to take this sentimental journey/ Sentimental journey home.
The Gaslite in Santa Monica is a popular watering hole. It’s a dark, divey bar with a small dance floor, red nagauhyde booths, and Christmas decorations that never come down. The clientele are old drunk guys in the afternoon and young attractive hipsters and college students after 9pm.
Although I obviously don’t fit into either category, I was there one night recently. I’ve been coming to this bar since 1994, when I was known to dirty dance with my then boyfriend, Dan, up against the jukebox. On this recent night in 2013, I was there with Kirk, who had fled Southern California in 2010 supposedly never to return. Well, he had returned and we were living together yet again.
This “casual encounter” had been there with me through five surgeries as I had been there for him when he lay in the ER in Boulder in 2009 ready to die. His own surgery that awful day was over eight hours long as the doctors pieced him back together, and yet here he was, in the Gaslite in 2013 without the aid of crutches, a wheel-chair, or prescription pain killers.
Helping me get through those early weeks after my first reconstructive surgery was arduous. I was a mess and felt like Frankenstein’s creature. Was Kirk always compassionate and sweet? No. I can still remember how demoralized I felt when he flirted with an attractive woman in the hot tub at the Loews hotel during my first outing post-op. I was barely functioning, in a great deal of discomfort, and my new breast felt like the alien monster in the original Alien. I was upset for months and month after that incident, but now that I look back on it, is that the worst a man can do? Being a caregiver is as difficult as needing the care.
Flash forward two years and Kirk and I were saddled up to a bar, one that had live band karaoke no less. We’ve both done regular karaoke together even though I’m not a great singer, but singing with a band with no sound check or rehearsal in front of people is insane.
My go-to songs for regular karaoke are “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Piano Man,” and “Delilah.”
Actually, I love anything originally sung by Tom Jones because as a young child I loved watching him perform on TV with my head in my mom’s lap. Women in the audience would scream and throw panties and room keys at him. “He’s so sexy,” my mom would say.
Why I always choose songs originally sung by men I do not know. On this night, though, it was different. So was live band karaoke. It’s not for the meek, it’s for the professionals, which as you can imagine there are a lot of in Los Angeles. You get a back-up band that is top notch, and although the lyrics are projected on a screen like in regular karaoke, you don’t get the advantage of each word getting highlighted as each note plays. There is no “follow the bouncing ball” with live band karaoke. There is only you, three great musicians who’ve learned a library of cover songs, and an audience of cool men and woman in their 20s ready to party and glaring at you from two feet away.
I watched the band set up and all I could think was “no fucking way.” I would not be caught dead getting up there and singing my heart out, not with my voice, not at my age, not with all that I’ve been through physically.
Kirk, well he’s another story. He loves to sing and dance, and although he doesn’t exactly abandon to the music, he does put himself out there. He chose a song he knows and does well, “I Love The Rainy Night.” He was so shy and cute, adorable. With him, it doesn’t matter if he’s the caliber to play in a big arena or not, he doesn’t really care.
I care too much what people think of me. I’ve always hated to be judged or made fun of. I prefer to be behind the scenes, where it’s safer. I feared being booed off the stage. I don’t want my hand slapped or for someone to say, “we don’t want to hear you.”
How or why I marched up to the sign-in sheet on the counter to write my name and name of song I wanted to sing, I have no idea.
“You going up there?” Kirk asked me with excitement in his voice and a twinkle in his eye.
“Yep,” I said, downing a shot of tequila and taking a swig of beer.
“You go, Girl.” He patted me on the back and was genuinely encouraging.
My heart was pounding as if I would have a heart attack right then and there. I made it through years of cancer and cancer treatment but now I would die of a heart attack doing live band karaoke.
In anticipation of my name being called far too soon, I removed my sweatshirt, revealing a tank top that exposed my new cleavage. A person off the street would absolutely not be able to tell all I had been through and all I had lost. Sure, I was self-conscious of the fact that my right armpit and the skin behind my new breast didn’t look good, but I just thought, “fuck it.” I look great!
The inevitable happened, the lead band member called out my name, and when he put the microphone in my hand, I felt like a rock star. I looked out at my fans, which included Kirk and a dozen or so young people I had never met. They stared at me as I began to sing a song I had never once sang before in public and one I had not listened to in years.
And I’m here to remind you/ of the mess you left when you went away/ It’s not fair to deny me/ of the cross I bear that you gave to me/ you, you, you oughta know.
I didn’t just sing the lyrics I screamed them from my gut. All the angst and anger I had been harboring in my soul for years and years, my whole life really, expressed itself in this particular song in a divey bar in Santa Monica. What’s more, I abandoned to the performance, just as I always coach my acting students to do but have never been able to do myself.
To my surprise, the audience sang and danced along. They listened and could relate to what Alanis Morissette had written nineteen years prior, when most of them were six.
Did you forget about me Mr. Duplicity/ I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner/ It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced/ Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?
Yes, I said fuck with all the passion of a scorned woman and it felt wonderful.
Where have I been all of these years?
The song ended, the stunned band members shook my hand as if I were their new lead singer, the young people applauded enthusiastically, and I walked off the stage as if it was no big deal.
I returned directly to Kirk’s side, which is were I belonged. He smiled at me like I was the bravest human alive and put his arm on my shoulder. “Wow” is what he said to me.
“I know, right?,” I said, a huge smile on my face. I could not believe what I had done.
The next day, I decided to quit my job and become a full-time writer.
The Scene of the Crime
In 2010, Lynne invited me to attend a JewishGen (the home of Jewish Genealogy) conference with her in Los Angeles. In took place in July, less then a month after my mastectomy. My hair was still barely growing in from the chemo and very white. I felt as if I had been through a war, and in a way, I had.
I had never before attended anything related to the Holocaust or to my Jewish heritage, so this was a very big deal and really the beginning of my journey to find out exactly what happened to my daddy between the years of 1923 and 1959, when I was born.
At that conference, Lynne promised me that she would help me find my Jewish family and organize a trip to Poland. She kept her word . . .and then some.
In August of 2010, Lynne sent my daddy's name and a few statistics to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Two full years later, on August 16, 2012, the organization which opened in 1993, sent us both an email, on which was attached a plethora of documentation. I had landed back in Los Angeles from Poland on the 15th. Before I could even catch my breath and start processing all I had learned on that life-altering trip of a lifetime, a flood of shocking information poured down on me.
A simple typed index card was tantamount to an explosion.
The entry of "Auschwitz, Strehlen, Ahlem" means that my dad was in three concentration camps, two of which where in Germany.
This was a shock because 1) I had never heard of a concentration camp called Ahlem, and 2) all this time, I had always believed he was liberated by American troops at Auschwitz. As I explained previously, in fact, the Americans never got to Poland.
Germany. My daddy was liberated in Germany. In a weakened state, after four years of starvation, kidnapping, enslavement, torture, beatings, and demoralization in Poland, he was sent to the very country that destroyed his own family, forced to work for the war effort that decimated his homeland.
Germany. The country and people within that country I was taught to hate as a child.
Finding the Red Cross footage of the liberation of Ahlem as well as the photos of the prisoners taken by Vernon Tott, one in which my daddy appears, was revolting. The images I had in my head of what he might have suffered could not compare to the real thing. Those two minutes of video instantly wiped away the 41 years of stoicism I had in place since his death.
I felt I had suddenly entered a black world that was so full of hate, I wondered, "why go on at all?"
Was it better not to know?
I was not only mourning anew (or perhaps for the first time) my own sweet daddy and the life we all could have had had he lived longer, but I was also mourning the life he could have had, had the damn Nazis not brutalized and killed millions of innocent people.
I could not be consoled and didn't want to be. I could hardly breathe. This was raw terror and hopelessness I was feeling.
Little did I imagine, it would be the German people themselves who would provide the most profound comfort for my grief and depression.
Thanks yet again to the tireless help of Lynne and along with Roni Liebowitz, who helped produce a documentary entitled Angel of Ahlem, on August 18th, 2012, my relationship with "Citizens for a Memorial" began.
"Citizens for a Memorial" is a group of Germans, all born and raised in Hannover, composed of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation from World War II.
The core group is made up of the following individuals: Ruth Grone, Matthias Dusterhoft, Birgit Saalfrank, Judith Wilkers Saalfrank, Mike Wilkers, and Katrin Farkas. They are tirelessly devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, specifically the Ahlem Concentration Camp, and ending anti-semitism. Yes, they are the Davids in a world of Goliaths.
When Matthias, Birgit, and Katrin were young (in the 70s and 80s), they would ask the generations before them, "how were you involved in the War?" No one felt comfortable answering the question, and no one admitted to being a Nazi. It was like once the war ended, there were suddenly no Nazis and no one had been complicit. Was it all a dream?
Ruth Grone was a young girl during the war, born in the area of Hannover to a Jewish father and gentile mother. In 1943, her family was relegated to Ahlem, to the Israelite School of Horticulture, which had been converted from a revered educational institute and boarding school for the young people of Eastern European Jews into a collection point for deportations and imprisonment. Her father was deported and most likely died in May, 1945. She will never know as there is no grave site or records. German record keeping of the murdered went to shit as the war was ending.
Ruth's vantage point made her an unusual witness to what happened at the Ahlem Concentration Camp as she lived just a stone's throw away. At aged 81, she is reliving her experiences and retelling the tale of what her own country did to so very many people to anyone who will listen, of which there are a lot. Without her, Citizens for a Memorial would not exist. May of 2014, she was awarded a Badge of Honor from the Region of Hannover.
One of the many things Citizens does is reach out to Survivors and their families and invite them to Hannover/Ahlem, all at the expense of the City and Region of Hannover and private donors.
By October 8th, 2012, travels plans for myself and my daughter were underway. It was a whirlwind, to say the least.
At any point did I question going to Germany under these unusual conditions? Hell, no. The correspondence I received from everyone involved was respectful, compassionate, and timely. They were extremely interested in our story and wanted to hear about it in detail. No group of people had ever reached out to Kate and me like this.
Please find in the next section the speech I gave at the site of the Ahlem Concentration Camp on April 10, 2013, the 68th Anniversary of the liberation of that camp.
These articles were published about it:
Speech at Ahlem, April 10, 2013
Speech Manuscript - April 10, 2013
I’m extremely grateful to be here with you today. And to be here with my daughter, Kate. It’s a miracle! In fact, several miracles.
First miracle is that my dad survived not just one but three concentration camps, plus four years in the Lodz ghetto. This speech is dedicated to him, Harry Fischer, Henryk Fiszer. He was a very sweet, mild mannered, humble man. I have no idea how he made it through all that he did. Unfortunately, he survived Ahlem but couldn’t survive “real life.” He died over 40 years ago.
Second Miracle is that I was born. One of the few things my father told me was that when he was rehabilitating in a hospital in Switzerland he was told to never marry and never have a child. Why was he told such a thing?? Thank God he didn’t listen to this advice.
It’s a miracle that my daughter was born. When I was a young person, I didn’t dream of having children. Knowing what little I did know about my dad’s experiences, I would say “Who’d want to bring a child into this terrible world?” I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my own advice!
Harry Fischer never had the chance to speak about his anguish and hope to anyone, let alone a gathering such as this one. His stories of Ahlem died with him.
Prior to August of 2012, I didn’t know a place such as Ahlem existed! And yet, here I am today. Speaking to you on his behalf. It’s unbelievable.
Also unbelievable are the photos and video I saw for the first time last August. Of course, I’m talking about the photos taken by Vernon Tott and the video footage taken by the Red Cross exactly 68 years ago today on. In one such photo, my father, wearing an oversized black coat draped over his emaciated body, stares into the camera. His face is so full of sorrow and confusion. This image is so shocking and uncomfortable to look at. No wonder my father never, ever wanted to talk about what happened here.
My father had great years from 1959, when he met my mom in Hollywood, to 1967. On the outside, he was happy and full of life, as if nothing bad had happened to him. We’d take family trips to Disneyland and we’d often go to the beach or to a public pool and stay all day, not a care in the world. I felt incredible love from him and cherished the times he would read to me or we’d play poker. As I said earlier, he was a very sweet, mild-mannered man who never once spanked me, nor did he ever get mad at me. (My mom was the disciplinarian.)
We celebrated Christmas and went to the movies all the time. We had a house, a car, and lots of things. We were living the American Dream. Some would say we had a charmed life. But this magical time was short-lived.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard the word “Holocaust,” but I do know that I was very young. Maybe 6 or 7. I was told that my father had been the victim of a tragic time in Europe and that he had been in a concentration camp called Auschwitz. But I did not know the details. When I would ask about it, both my father and my mother, who was not Jewish, would say “it’s in the past! Forget about it. We’re in America now.” I was too young to understand and he could never tell a young girl all he had experienced, so he just remained silent on the subject. When I would tell my friends or my teachers that my dad was a Holocaust survivor, they would look at me with horror.
In 1968, my dad started getting sick a lot with various ailments, and by 1970, he stopped working full-time. I remember accidentally going into the bathroom at our home one day while my mom was giving him a bath. The water was red from blood. This is a terrifying memory. I still don’t know exactly from where he was bleeding. I also have vivid memories of my mom driving him to the hospital, where he’d get whisked away in a wheelchair, the look of unbearable pain on his face. This happened a lot.
My mom would go to work at night, leaving me alone with him. I was always scared because he would have these terrible nightmares every night, screaming angrily in Polish. I knew he would never hurt me, but I could feel his anguish and despair. He was stuck in the past and simply could not escape. My mom had to commit him to a mental hospital in 1971 because she was scared of what he might do to himself.
I hated when I was a kid and the other students would ask my “are you Jewish?” And they asked it in a way that made it seem like a terrible thing to be. I would always say “No!” I did NOT want to be associated with Jews at all. Now I’m ashamed of this thinking I had. People always commented on how big my breasts were, when I was a teenager! And that it was my Jewish side that made them so. I was so embarrassed by this. And I had a large nose. I was the MOST embarrassed by this, and could not wait until I turned 18 so I could have it “fixed.”
Not a moment goes by when I don’t think about him and everything I experience is weighted down by what happened. It’s as if I’m living in the contemporary world and the past all at the same time, the images going back-and-forth like a strobe light. This flashback is constant and I can’t stop it from happening. On a gorgeous sunny day at the beach where I now live, for instance, I will think about the gorgeous sunny day when my father was ripped from his home in Lodz, stripped of all his belongings and sent to the ghetto. When I am at a public shower, when I go to the gym, for instance, I can’t help think about the showers my aunt and grandmother were lead into before they were gassed. Often, I’ve felt as if I live in a bubble of anguish. That I can’t relate to anything “normal”. Everything seems trivial compared to what my father went through.
I am very sensitive to any meanness of any sort. If someone says something derogatory about anyone – gay, Mexican, Germans, Arabs – I cringe and want to say, “No, don’t say that!” but most of the time I don’t have the courage to say this.
In my household, before my father died in 1972, we were not allowed to speak about Germans or own anything made in Germany. We would never own a Volkswagen or have a German TV set. I wonder what my father is thinking of me here with you, observing me from heaven.
In a way, I am facing the “enemy,” but instead of feeling hatred or anger, I feel great comfort that I am being heard. I’m honored that you want to help me understand what happened on this site . . .and hundreds of other sites like this all over Europe.
Connecting deeply with other people, especially those we don’t understand or have been taught to hate, is critical in making this world a safer and better place to be. The more we keep the dialogue going about torture and the ills of war, the more we can prevent them from happening.
I want to join all of you in keeping this dialogue alive.
Liberation from Hatred
In July of 2014, I returned to Hannover, Germany, this time by myself. Thanks to the generous contribution of many, including the tireless Citizens for a Memorial, I was able to attend the opening of the Gedenkstätte Ahlem. A "Gedenkstätte" is a Place of Memory. It's not a museum built from new ground but an actual location of profound history that now serves as a place of education and memory. Auschwitz is also a Gedenkstätte. The Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, is not.
I was among 75 guests from the USA, South America, Israel, Poland, Riga, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, all who were somehow personally connected to either the Ahlem Concentration Camp or the Israelite School of Horticulture before the war. There were approximately twenty in the group who were Survivors, five of which followed the exact same trajectory as my dad from 1939-1945.
Below is the Diary of Cathy Fischer Reinking on the trip.
My trip had already started before I took off from LAX. It was June 26, 2014, and I was at Barney's Beanery on the Santa Monica promenade about to watch the World Cup game between the USA and Germany. It was 8:30am on a work day and the place was packed, literally to the rafters. There was a TV screen on every square foot of wall space. It was raucous and the crowd was amped up, more so than for even the Super Bowl. World Cup fever had hit Los Angeles big time.
I couldn't find a spot anywhere. Finally, there was one bar stool on the third level, in a corner. A group of guys in their 20s, ethnically diverse, were nearby and to be nice, I asked "Is this seat taken?"
"Yes!" one of the guys shouted at me, ready for a fight. "I'm saving spots for a couple of friends."
The game was about to start and their mates were obviously late; in fact, the place was at capacity and the management wasn't allowing anymore people into the bar. "Come on, be fair, they're not here yet. I just want to have breakfast and watch the game," I implored, probably sounding whiney and bitchy. I could feel my face getting red and hot.
"I've been waiting since 6am," the leader of the pack whined back.
"But they aren't here!" I snapped.
One of the other guys finally said to his friend, "just let her have it." The leader just silently turned away to look at the closest TV.
I took the seat, embarrassed. I wanted to be invisible.
Then, the players from both teams came out on the field and all eyes around me were glued to the TV straight ahead.
The camera panned first the USA team, who stood in a line, all smiles and pounding their fists in the air. The crowd in Barney's Beanery went wild.
Next the camera panned the German players, who were all standing quietly and calmly, waiting patiently until they could start kicking that ball.
The guys around me started talking about the German players.
"Look, they're so unemotional."
"Typical Germans. Assassins."
I was shocked. Are these players really "killers"? That happened over 70 years ago! What about us, for that matter? The U.S. certainly can't throw the first stone.
I said nothing.
How many years does hate last against a former enemy? Will stereotypes ever fade away?
Why did I, who's own family was persecuted by Germans, want to defend them now so badly? I wanted them to beat the pants off the U.S.
Day One - 7/17/2014 (on the train, traveling through Germany - on a little side trip before I get to Hannover on the 23rd)
Where r my People?
Poland is the birthplace of my daddy, but it's a much different place from when he was born. (Although there is a Jewish community although small). Stateless. But it is very cheap to live there and beautiful.
I'm not Jewish so Israel is not my country although I'm sure I have a cousin there.
I've never felt true blue American. Perhaps Switzerland?
My identity has confused me, haunted me, tortured me my whole life and still does. Where the fuck are My People? Meaning, who will truly, deeply care about my stories? And why does that even matter so much to me? I'm so concerned with Who I Am instead of What I Am?
Germany appears so peaceful, so quaint. How could it have destroyed the 20th Century, one side of my family, and consequentially me? What they accomplished from 1933-1945 basically affected every single person in Europe at the time as well as the Americans who fought, and now the 2nd and 3rd generation? That's a hell of a lot of people.
What can a country do after being the personification of Evil? Crawl into a collective hole and die, kinda like what they did to the Jews?
How do the countries/people they affected get along with Germany now?
I somehow feel very connected with these lands, like it's home. More than in the United States. I don't know why.
Maybe I'm just protecting myself. If I can't be labeled, I can't be bullied or, worse, persecuted. I'm not just Jewish or American or Swiss or Polish or inherited by the Germans. I'm just me, and for the most part, at least for now, people leave me alone. I'm pretty much invisible, which drives me crazy sometimes, but it's better than getting noticed for being "one of them."
Day Six - 7/22/2014 (traveling on overnight train from Paris to Hannover, with what I think is a sprained ankle)
On the second train of the day. First was effortless, even with my swollen ankle. Julie (my ex-sister-in-law, whom I stayed with, in Central France) helped me on and I had a window seat. No compartments, just regular seating like on Amtrak back in U.S., of this century. Four hours and boom, in Paris. Now? I'm on a train from the communist era. No A/C (and it's unusually hot and humid - heat wave), no outlets to recharge phones or what not. I'm in a compartment shared with four others. The seats are hard as rock and don't recline for sleeping. I will be on this train for 11 hours, arriving into Hannover at 6:30am.
It could be worse, of course. At least I'm sitting.
I'm not in danger. Images of the trains my daddy had to travel during the war flash inside as the memories I keep that I never experienced. I'm so grateful for this train I'm on that is hot, cramped, and cheap that I want to get down on my knees and pray to God for thanks, but I don't. I share this compartment with two Serbians, one woman originally from Cameroon who now lives in Berlin, and a very quiet, young Brazilian female. I don't want to embarrass myself. It's already bad enough I'm American and come from Los Angeles. Everyone who hears my accent and finds out I work in Hollywood automatically assumes I'm rich. That's a laugh.
I've of course decided to write a movie about an all-night train where five diverse strangers fend off pirates and save each other from peril. Or perhaps I just have them sitting up all night talking, becoming fast friends a la Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise." Either way, they are good people who bond over unexpected similarities, whom otherwise would never have me met.
Must we always fear The Other first?
It's just before midnight. Lights out and I'm the only one not able to sleep, except for the quiet Brazilian who dozes off and on and is very sweet and smart. Of course, I can't sleep. Even under normal circumstances, in my own bed, I have terrible trouble, but now, traveling on the same tracks perhaps my dad traveled in the cattle car, in the darkness, standing, not knowing where he was going? I'm terrified out of my mind, just like he no doubt was. Are you kidding me? No fucking way I'm sleeping.
Also, I should not have watched "Snowpiercer" before this trip. A never ending train ride where the poor folks are in the rear, in squalor, and a small band of rebels who mean well, make their way way to the front of the train. It's the longest, arduous trek ever. During the journey from car to car, they experience visions of extreme rich and poor, lots of fighting and gruesome violence, and the finale is just strange and unsatisfying.
Oh dear Lord, help me get through this one night.
Day Seven - 7am - 7/23/2014
I've arrive at the Meritim Hotel in Hannover, early check-in, in a daze. No sleep and by myself. I insisted Birgit (Saalfrank) not pick me up at the train station even though she offered. Thought it was way too early in the morning for anyone to pick me up when I could just as easily take a short taxi ride, but now of course I regret it. I'm depressed and wonder why I made this trip in the first place. I'm looking for the Happy Ending to my book, but maybe searching for a happy ending is a fallacy.
Even though I missed the first group event, which was a lovely boat ride, I was able to get about four hours of sleep on a very comfortable bed.
I attend a luncheon at which President Jaugau (dignitary from the Region of Hannover) speaks. I'm amidst the Survivors and their families for the first time and I'm overwhelmed, feeling as I always do - the outsider.
Renata, a wonderful German woman, whom I met on the last trip and spoke with her at the time about my Cancer experience as she was about to start her own, ran up to me as I arrived. She was so happy to see me and proceeded to thank me for giving her the courage to go through chemo and radiation. It was rough, but she got through it. I'm so grateful for her kind words, but instead of letting those positive feelings linger, I'm shamed by the very next conversation I have. It's with a Survivor, a single living in Hannover. He asks me whether I speak Yiddish, and I say no. "But it's disgraceful for a Jew not to pass on his culture to his child," he sternly says to me. I try to explain that upon arriving in Southern California, my daddy wanted to assimilate completely. "But that is disgraceful. How else will the culture survive?" I don't know what to say to that and proceed to feel badly.
There are four distinct groups that make up this microcosm of Survivors. Those who migrated to Israel, Canada, and the United States, and those who stayed in Germany (or returned). The group from Israel turns out to be more important to me than I realize. Three of the men knew my uncle very well and speak very highly of him. They all basically built post-WWII Israel together and the stories they have are amazing. How they had the stamina to literally build a new country after what they suffered is miraculous. Unfortunately, my uncle died a few years ago as did his wife. Their daughter is still living, apparently. Perhaps I will be in direct contact with her, my cousin, some day, but perhaps not. She is orthodox and my dad was baptized
Thank God, I bond with a 2nd generation Survivor, Ami Liss, after my disastrous confrontation with the Yiddish speaking man. He is a kind, gentle man who lives in Israel and is there with his father, Chaim.
We've taken a long bus ride to Marienburg Castle, which was built in 1858, as a gift from George V of Hannover to his wife Queen Marie. It's a gorgeous location, but I can't help but think - why bring real people who suffered at the hands of the Germans to an ostentatious castle built by aristocrats? And why in general are tourists still interested in studying and revering the Monarchy? Just because their houses were so opulent?
How could terrorism come from such beauty and culture?
I'm taking photos and jotting down notes on my iPhone, to chronicle this trip. Does doing so distance myself from those around me as well as prevent me from actually taking in and enjoying the moments? Is this the Artists dilemma?
A man in his 90s, Earnest Wortheim, who is part of the group, comes up to me. He is very flirty and asks "who are you texting so voraciously? Your boyfriend?"
"No," I say, "just taking notes. I'm writing a book."
He looks at me skeptically, as if I'm a tart.
Day Eight - 7/24/2014
During (another) luncheon, I sit next to Ami and his father, Chaim. We are chatting and having a lovely time. I like these two very much. They both speak English very well, although it's not their first or even second language. They live in Tel Aviv.
So we're chatting and such. Chaim asks me questions about my daddy. He can't really remember him even though they shared experiences for six terrible years. I tell him I visited Poland and really loved it.
"Where was your father born?" he asks.
"Me, too. We owned a bakery."
"My dad's family had a barber shop."
"Where did they live?"
"I've been there. I have a photo."
I find the photo below on my iPhone and show it to him.
His eyes light up.
"What address on Sienkiewicza?" he asks.
"22," I tell him, thinking, no, this can't be.
"That was my address! Until the war, of course."
"What??!!" I exclaim. I show him this photo next.
"That's it! I played in that courtyard!"
"Crazy! Did you know my family?"
"It was a long time ago. A lot has happened. I was only eight."
This man, and all the Survivors, really, won't be alive very much longer. Talk to them while you can.
I'm floored by this information. What are the odds I would find a man on this trip who lived in the same apartment building as my daddy? And to find this out in Germany! I've experienced a lot of strange coincidences. Kirk always marvels at how I can talk to someone in a bar, any bar in nearly every city, and inevitably we find some connection or place in common. It's eerie. But this connection?! I'm dumbfounded. It's as if my own father is sitting across from me right now.
What a tiny world it is.
Day Nine - 7/25/2014
The Big Event is about to start. The opening of the Gedenkstatte Ahlem. We're inside a big tent on the property of the Horticulture School with hundreds of local visitors and dignitaries. The speeches are about to begin.
On the bus ride over, I sat next to a woman who is 94. She appeared dignified and classy but timid and fragile. She told me her story: She was born in Hannover and was a student here before the war. In 1941, when she was 17, her own countrymen deported her and over 1000 other German-Jews to Riga in Lithuania. Out of 1000, only 65 survived the war. Miraculously, there are ten still living! This is incredibly emotional for her, to return to the scene of the crimes. She said many interesting things, but they didn't come easy. What came easily were my tears as I listened.
At one point, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, "the Jews are always hated. After the war, no (other country) wanted us. No one wanted the Jews. Israel was born from that." She, herself, ended up migrating to New York City and had lived in the same apartment in the Bronx for 55 years. Her lovely grandson and his wife have accompanied her here. She is obviously still so tortured, her eyes reflecting fear, but the sight of her and part of her family is so beautiful and hopeful to me.
I'm the only one here who is not accompanying a Survivor. I represent one who didn't survive long enough.
Although there are only about 20 Survivors and their immediate family and guests, they represent millions and millions, oceans of people.
Young people, all this talk about the Holocaust and such, we are trying to tell you, "look at us. We were fucked by war. Don't let this happen to you."
Have I been working too hard? Is my legacy and life's work finally and simply to just be a good, compassionate person?
I'm feeling very depressed. I slept just a few hours last night and I'm very irritated by my foot, so yes, I'm exhausted and can't do my usual escapes like walking and exploring the city, meeting new people and zoning out. Instead, I'm forced to lay on my bed, leg up, left alone with my own dark thoughts.
Even amongst "my people," the only group on this earth I have the most in common with, I feel like an outcast. I came by myself. For whatever reasons, which really don't matter now and are simply justifications for me feeling sorry for myself, my daddy didn't have a long and prosperous life. His American Dream was short lived, and for some reason I still don't understand, so was mine. I'm not like the rest of the participants. I'm not middle class bordering on rich, nor do I have an extended family. I feel like a failure because of this. But why should I?! I'm a good person at heart, although way too obsessed about being Important, Admired, and Respected.
What to do with all this? I want to create art, help promote tolerance and end anti-semitism, as our German hosts want to do. I want to keep the individual stories alive, of which there are so many - too many - each one more brutal than the next. I want to write a screenplay with my (new) brothers in which we finally make a Hollywood movie about the Holocaust told from the prisoners/slaves point-of-view, which would be more action packed than anything out there today.
But I also feel like 'John Sullivan' from the brilliant film by Preston Sturges, "Sullivan's Travels" (1941). In the movie, Sullivan is a man who is famous for making popular comic movies but feels his work lacks deeper meaning. He goes on-the-road as a vagabond in order to learn about the Everyman's tribulations so he can make serious films that matter. His chaotic travels lead him to get into a lot of trouble and he ends up as a prisoner on a chain-gang. Life on the chain-gang is far worse than anything he could have imagined. Stripped of all freedom, dignity, and clean clothes, the men become shells of their former selves. The climax of the film is when all the prisoners, including Sullivan, receive a much needed respite; still tied to each other with chains and shackles, they are led into a church and made to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon. The relief of laughing at something so "mindless" transforms the tortured men into joyous human beings, not a care in the world.
Sullivan has traveled the country looking for hardship only to discover, "there's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."
I've ironically made a career working on sitcoms and comedies. I've often felt it was too trivial a pursuit. Maybe I've been wrong about that all this time?
Does anyone really care about the Holocaust, unless you were directly affected? Is it possible to finally end anti-semitism???
Day Nine into Ten - 1:00 AM - 7/26/ 2014
My adopted German family - Birgit, Judith, and Mike - have a life I envy. They are very close and love each other very much, their jobs are helping others, and they belong to a strong church community (Baptist - where there is a menorah on the alter, besides the cross). They have a lovely apartment home in Hannover that is cozy and welcoming. Oh, and in their spare time, they are very active members of Citizens for a Memorial, fighting anti-Semitism and taking classes in Hebrew to better understand the Jewish culture. Judith is marrying Mike in three weeks, and yet they are very generous with their time during these big events.
When all my dark thoughts were floating around my addled brain, I reached out to them. They immediately came over to my hotel room, asking me with concern "what's the matter?" I broke down like a scared young child. "I'm so sad my daddy's not here with me," I balled.
Birgit, who is my age and truly the sister I never had, sprung to her feet without a moment of hesitation and sat next to me on the bed. She took me in her arms and caressed me like a baby, not saying a word, just cooing.
I don't think I've ever experienced anything like this. At first I was self-conscious, uncomfortable that I had broken down in front of people. My gut reaction was to say, "no, no, I'm okay" and pull away out of her embrace, but thank God, I didn't. I said nothing and just let the love and compassion wash over me. She held me that way for quite a while.
With all the pomp and circumstance that's been provided so far by the city and regional officials and dignitaries, which I do appreciate, don't get me wrong, Birgit's show of genuine affection was more profound than any speech. If one is truly desirous to comfort those who have survived torture at the hands of their ancestors, this is the way to do it.
Day Ten - Noon - 7/26/2014
I've stumbled into a large food court. It's so full of life. Bustling. Families together on a Saturday. I love it. I've traveled from the torturous past of Germany to the life of it now. It smells so good in here! I want to eat all of it!
I think it's pretty safe to say nothing like the Holocaust will ever happen again in this country. The Germans are very careful and self-aware. It's illegal to have guns or automatic weapons of any kind. They are prosperous, not in an American larger-than-life-overconsuming sort of way, but in a modest, life-is-good-with-wine-good-food-and-friends-and-family sort of way. And everywhere is so clean!! My kind of place.
I was going to interview Germans-On-The-Street. That was my big fantasy, just selecting folks at random and asking how the Holocaust has impacted them personally, but I just don't want to disturb their lovely Saturday afternoon. They had nothing to do with what happened. Like me, they were born randomly into a shameful legacy. Luck of the draw.
What can be done now but live your life with gratitude and kindness? It seems to me, the more hardship one has experienced at an early age, the more kind, grateful, and compassionate one is. I spoke with several men last night who knew my Uncle very well. They all described him as a very good person. So was my father. They had every reason to be angry and bitter, but they were not.
Day Eleven - 7/27/2014
The four seated men - Chaim Liss, Nachum Rotenberg, Joe Rozenberg, Moshe Miedzinski - all followed the same torturous trajectory as my dad during WWII. They were left to die in the Ahlem Concentration Camp, only to miraculously survive, going on to live long, full loves, producing the five men you see standing behind them - Ami, Meyer, Allan, Ofer, Shay. These are all amazing human beings. True heroes, not manufactured characters.
There is one man missing, alas. Henryk Fiszer AKA Harry Fischer.
Hopefully there is still time to commemorate him as part of this group.
Day Fifteen - 7/31/2014
I'm on Lufthansa Flight 456, non-stop from Frankfurt to Los Angeles.
I didn't keep a diary for the last four days because I just wanted to enjoy my time with my new friends and family. It's been a remarkable journey. All of it, from my daddy's birth in 1923 up until this moment. The next moment will be remarkable no doubt as well.
As I sit in the rear galley of the gorgeous airplane, with my left leg up, resting on a metal box the kind flight attendant brought me, I ponder everything. It's a long ass flight!
I went to Germany yearning to be rescued, and I was helped by many. I went to be saved, but maybe I'm the one to save others?
I'm ecstatic to have met my three "brothers" - Ami, Ofer, and Allan. They are all lovely lovely men, all a perfect reflection of their respective fathers only better because they were never enslaved. I only had contact with them for a very short time, but I love them. They are good, compassionate, knowledgable, extremely intelligent human beings, and (thank God) not as neurotic as I am. I'm honored we share a similar legacy. We seem to have all become the better for it. My favorite memories of this trip will be the times we spent together in the hotel lobby bar late into the night drinking, laughing, crying, listening, and scheming on how best to tell the story our fathers shared in a Hollywood movie.
And my adopted German family - Birgit, Judith, and Mike, as well as Matthias, Corinna Luedtke, Katrin Farkas, and all those others who hosted us, led by the selfless Stephanie Brumeister - you join the ranks of Angels in my life. You all hold a special place, however, because I never in my wildest dreams expected help to come from you. Just like nearly 70 years ago when the same thing happened to my daddy, a team of kind Germans helped me, injured and well-worn, out of the country. The only difference is, I will return.
I really am a "Little Lucky Girl." My dad coined that phrase when I was born and I used to repeat it a lot when I was very young. Now, I don't know why I've ever thought otherwise.
On The Road to Find Out
Credits and Thank Yous
The Angel in the photo is the only piece of jewelry I have of my daddy's creations.
Here's a list of the Angels in my life. If not for all of your support in every which way, this ebook would not have been created. Thank you thank you thank you.
Animator/Graphic Artist by Daniela Repas
Narration by Amelia Baker
(Ahlem Segment Only)
Music by DeReau K. Farrar
Recording by Andrew Murdock, Hobby Shop Studios
DeReau K. Farrar, piano
Juan Gallegos, clarinet
Marco Meneghin, percussion
Citizens for a Memorial
Judith Wilkers Saalfrank
Thanks to Kickstarter and Jewcer
Victoria and Tom Cole
Lynne and Ken Siegel
Michael Stevens, Jr.
Kay Collignon and Kathy Paulson
Denise and Mike Olson
Jasmieson K. Price
Stephen Tobolowski and Ann Hearn
Susan Grossman Buehner
Richard H. Fox
Susan Pierce Freeman
Jennifer and Tim Gibbons
Hannah Marie Hines
Peter and Jude Kallok
Laura and James Norman
Cathleen and Scott Rinker
Robert William Rinker II
Martha Pardee Sandvold
Wendy Alaine Wright Smith
Mark J. Sullivan
Todd Waring and Eve Gordon
Cathy Altmann Zambrana