With the death of Irena’s father, her mother had to support two children. She thus became a commercial traveller, and with her handsome appearance, persuasive manner, and multi-lingual gifts, began to make a satisfactory if somewhat hazardous living. Neither was she always too worried about the quality of the merchandise. Personal survival was the object, and it was legitimate to subordinate everything else to that end if necessity so dictated.
Irena always remembered one occasion when she was with her mother in a small village somewhere in Germany – a “Dorf.” Her mother had been selling fur coats at very reasonable prices against the bitter cold of the coming continental winter, and she had made a killing and got rid of all her stock. They went back to their hotel, Irena hoping for a day of relaxation in the country. But the sky began to cloud over, and a thin drizzle of rain started to fall. Her mother began to show signs of great agitation, and went to the hotel desk, ringing the bell impatiently until the clerk came to attend to her.
“What time does the next train depart for Berlin?”
“At two o’clock, Madam.”
“We are leaving straight away.”
“But Madam, your bags……?”
“They are packed. How much do I owe you?”
The clerk added up some accounts, and she settled the bill. Dashing upstairs, she descended almost immediately, lugging two suitcases. “Irenchen! Komm’ schnell!”.
“But Mutti,” cried Irena, “why do we have to leave so soon?”
“We have to catch the train to Berlin.”
She dashed up the street, lugging her two suitcases through the drizzling rain, while Irena ran to keep up with her. In the distance they could hear the approaching train. Just in time they reached the ticket office, paid their fares, and climbed on board. Irena’s mother hoisted the suitcases on to the rack, and collapsed on the wooden seat, puffing and blowing. The train gathered speed as she regained her breath. Outside the rain began to pour down.
“Mutti,” said Irena, “tell me why we had to leave so quickly.”
“Those fur coats, Irenchen,” said her mother.
”They were no good. I got them very cheaply. That’s how I sold them so well and made a profit. But I got them because….. as soon as it starts to rain, all the fur falls out.” She began to laugh uncontrollably.
“Can you imagine? All the fine ladies of the village will be parading up and down in their coats. But as soon as they get a little bit wet, they will all start to moult. Their fur will fall out. They will look like mangy cats……like plucked chickens! Oh, it’s so amusing. But we couldn’t stay in that village when the rain started. We had to leave. Otherwise they would have wanted their money back!”
”My mother,” said Irena, in later years, “was not always one hundred per cent honest in business.”
But what woman can afford to be honest when she has two children to feed and no husband to look after the family.
The burden of caring for two children was a heavy one for Berta. Both Irena and Heini were sent to foster parents or orphanages to live while their mother travelled the country, buying, selling and cooking up all sorts of deals to keep the pot boiling. Slowly Irena began to spend more and more time with foster parents, while the mother kept Heini more and more with her when she managed to stay in Berlin. Did she sense that Heini was the weaker and Irena was the stronger? Did she feel that it was impossible to keep the two, or that she was only capable of looking after the one? Who can tell? Who can make a valid judgment at this distance when things were so bad in Germany for Jewish people; when Berta had to make her own way, or starve, with her young husband dead. Life must have been so lonely and difficult for her.
The unfortunate result was that Irena spent practically no time at all with her mother, and did not see her for months on end. She boarded sometimes at orphanages, but mostly with the Rüdiger family, being in the care of the old grandfather and his wife. These became her “Oma” and “Opa”, – her “Grandma” and “Grandpa”.
The Rüdigers lived in Blumenstrasse – (“Flowers Street”) – in a working class district of east Berlin. Three and four storeyed nineteenth century houses had been broken up into flats, each flat on its own level, reached by a common flight of stairs.
The Rüdigers lived one floor above street level. They were good Catholics who attended church regularly. But in addition (somewhat unusually), they were secret communists. There was a special hole in the ceiling where Opa Rüdiger used to hide his personal documents and party propaganda. Opa was a great canary breeder, and the walls of the kitchen at the back were lined with cages he had built himself. When the sun shone through the windows, the canaries would sing their hearts out.
Irena hated the times when she was separated from the Rüdigers and placed for some unfathomable reason in an orphanage. Her sadness was almost traumatic. But somehow she always gravitated back to the Rüdigers. She loved them most of all. From Opa and Oma Rüdiger she received the personal kindnesses, the good night kisses, the embraces, the small expressions of affection without which children die spiritually and emotionally. She felt that she belonged to their family. Her heart cried out for the need to belong to a family. Why had her own original family been taken from her after the death of her father?
There were, however, some relatives close at hand. Just down the road, in the same Blumenstrasse in which Oma and Opa Rüdiger lived, there dwelt also Irena’s Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti. These two inoffensive, elderly citizens kept a small clothes shop in another part of the city that Irena sometimes used to visit. There was nothing spectacular about their shop. It was rather cramped, and much of the merchandise was suspended high on the walls on special hangers, which were lifted down by Uncle Heinrich with a hook attached to the end of a long stick. Auntie Netti was a motherly type who enjoyed excellent relations with a long established clientèle. She made it her motto that no customer should go away dissatisfied, and if the required goods were not in stock, then they would be obtained.
It was a true family business in an unhurried age in which there was still time to have a chat with people and not rush them off their feet. Uncle Heinrich, quiet and self-effacing, seemed only there to help Auntie Netti. They went quietly to business together every morning and came quietly home in the evening. Their hobby was collecting silver. They were by no means rich, but over the years had built up a collection of interesting pieces, which Auntie Netti kept scrupulously polished.
Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti had no children of their own. But Auntie Netti was the sister of Irena’s father. She had promised him before he died that she would look after Irena, and whilst the little girl could not live with them, due to their need to go to business, they kept an eye on her when they were at home. The bakery was just down from their apartment, and whenever Oma Rüdiger sent Irena to buy a loaf of bread she looked in if she could on Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti.
It was typical of Irena’s mother that although she was at great pains to eat kosher and was in some ways very orthodox, in other directions her orthodoxy was conspicuous by its complete absence. For instance, she nearly always placed her daughter to be cared for by Gentiles, not Jews. Thus Irena rapidly began to lose touch with the pattern of Jewish life. The Holy Days meant nothing to her; even the Sabbath. The “most holy day, the bond between God and man” became just another day in the week for her. And it has been truly said…”More than the Jew has kept the Sabbath, it is the Sabbath that has kept the Jew.”
Yet although Irena lost her Jewish observances, she was conscious always that in the eyes of the outside world she was marked for life as a separate person, a Jew, somebody slightly different from the rest of humanity.