Long to Belong
Curious about a woman in the deep background of my own story, I started asking questions to learn more about who she really was, and where she came from, and how she landed — only years out of the Auschwitz concentration camps complex — with our family in suburban Cleveland. Here’s the problem with history: eventually those who lived it will not be super-available to provide the details. So talk with your elders, write and tell your stories, share your cultural capital widely and freely so it is not lost.
Olga Peters might not even have been her name. But that is what we called her. From my earliest years, until well into my formative years, Olga was a fixture at my paternal grandparents’ house. She arrived regularly by bus, in a simple navy or black dress, sensible shoes, carrying a snap-top purse and wearing a boucle coat that buttoned up the front. In my grandparents’ house, she had a room in the basement with a dresser and mirror and chair, just off a small washroom. There, she changed clothes into one of her faded print housecoats hanging on the back of the door. She parked her good shoes, and donned her scuffs and a hairnet, and went to work cleaning, laundering, ironing, scrubbing, handling whatever tasks awaited.
Sandwiched between the Summer of Love and the summer of Woodstock, the summer my sister was born was also the summer my mom’s dad was dying of cancer. That was the summer Olga traveled to our house once a week to help out. With four girls, half not even school-aged, and a brand new baby, her extra pair of hands were welcome. Let me quick mention Olga’s hands, because they would be one of the first things you noticed. Olga’s hands were mangled and broken, missing at least two fingers on each hand, gnarled together kind of like fists. Yet, she scrubbed and cleaned, washing dishes and floors and dusting and vacuuming. She stood at the ironing board, with a glass Pepsi bottle full of distilled water, topped with a plastic cap full of tiny holes, and sprinkled water on the pillowcases and dress-shirts before pressing them to perfection. As I watched her deftly handle the bottle and the iron, I asked her why her hands were so bent and broken. “An unfortunate injury”, she said. Then showed me how to steam-press open the seams at the edges of shirts.
Once, my cousin Anne and I asked her about the numbers tattooed on her forearm. To this day, Olga’s tattoo is the first one I ever saw up close, or saw how time and wrinkles fade the edges but do not diminish the presence. She said we could ask our parents, and we knew enough to not actually do that. Olga was calm and efficient. Heavyset, she moved quietly and gracefully. At the end of the day, I watched her neatly twist her gray hair, that had come loose under her hairnet, back into a tight bun and secure with hairpins clamped between broken stubs of fingers. I watched her tie her sensible shoes, and she took the time to teach me — infinitely patient — how to tie my own brand new Red Ball Jets (navy, with white rubber at the toes) tennis shoes, skillful even with gnarled hands.
As summer stretched into the start of the school year, Olga continued to be at our house each week. We had chores of our own to do, and were paid an allowance on the days Olga was there. I like to think I looked forward to Olga arriving, but probably I wanted the cash. Either way, I anticipated her at the side door, dressed in her smart dress, with her housecoat and scuffs in a Higbee’s shopping bag. One day at the kitchen sink, she braided my hair tight to my scalp then down into two braids (like a french braid) entirely different than the Laura-Ingalls-style I usually sported. So fancy. She had me stand with my back to the front hall mirror, and positioned my mom’s heavy hand-mirror in my hand so I could see the back of my own head, and her handiwork — a trick I’d never tried before. I was impressed with both the braiding, and the mirror-in-mirror maneuver.
Eventually, Olga’s visits ended. Probably after my mom’s dad died, and my mom (and her mother) no longer had to split time between our house and time with her dad. A few years after that, Olga was no longer at my other grandparents’ house; maybe she retired, or was ill. She was younger than my grandparents, so I didn’t think she had died. I was a teen, and don’t believe I really noticed — until both my grandparents died during my sophomore year of high school. Then, I asked my mom about Olga. Then, I found out Olga had been in a Nazi concentration camp as a young woman, and her mangled hands were result of torture there. Then, I found out my grandparents had hired her through an agency to help displaced persons after the War.
Now, I do the math. During the Nazi occupation of her Polish homeland, Olga would have been about the age my own daughter is now. When Auschwitz was liberated, she would have been about the age one of my sons is now. Certainly she once had family: parents, siblings, maybe a spouse or even children of her own. And friends and neighbors, classmates, work associates, before the occupation. But when she came out of Auschwitz, she had nothing, and presumably had no one. I don’t know about those years between leaving the concentration camp and arriving in the United States, but I do know she started over, completely and entirely. She left her war-torn country and shreds of whatever past she had, learned a new language, and began again.
I don’t know all that transpired to bring her from Germany, or Poland, or elsewhere, and eventually to suburban Cleveland. I do know my grandfather, who hired her, did months of medical school surgical rotations in Vienna in 1935, ’36 and ’37. His letters home spoke of border closings into Bratislava, where he did surgeries. In his last rotation there, he was sure his room was searched; he had associates denied rooms because they were Americans. Six months after he left Vienna for the last time, the Nazis invaded Austria and annexed it into the Third Reich — the invasion known as Anschluss. After the war, he felt the best way Americans could support the rebuilding of Europe was to travel there, and he took his young family for a European tour before that was a vogue thing to do. It would be no stretch for him to reach out to displaced victims of Nazi war crimes, though I did not know this at the time Olga was a regular at his home.
Instead, now I ask my dad’s remaining brother to confirm what I think I know, to give clarity to this chapter. And I think about many of us, on the edge of what we call re-entry, new again to workplaces or schools, churches, community centers, and about what worries us, how we treat each other, how we accommodate or how we judge, what is unsettling or scary or daunting, how we might cling to what is calming or familiar. And I think about Olga, and the quiet presence that carried where she had been into where she arrived, unbelonging and longing for all that was lost, and — somehow — doing it anyway. I think about her hands broken by hatred, and then creating order, teaching tasks, finding joy and beauty, and how hard that must have been and how gently she guided us to acceptance and kindness.
Without question, we don’t know all that we each carry into re-entry these next weeks, but could err on the side of being more responsible for each other, not making something difficult more so, and realizing that when history tells our story it should be one of rebuilding and creating belonging, not dividing — and we are writing that chapter now. In this season, we are not building from scratch, learning everything new; though we have suffered losses and feel weary, we are in a far better spot than those who have recreated communities in the periods before this one. We have had our shoes tied and houses made orderly by hands that survived the scorching of their very souls and yet who have pressed on. They have breathed into us the operating instructions for resilient commonwealth. We are the engineers of re-entry, and our template for how we do this will last far longer than we do, so it should be nothing short of our best effort.