One afternoon in the early spring of 1956, when I was almost eleven-years-old, I came home from school and pounced on my mother, smothering her with kisses, our after-school greeting ritual. This particular afternoon Mom said, “Joanie, you can’t jump on me like that anymore.” I asked, “Why?” and Mom announced, “We are going to have a baby.”
I snuggled closer. I was very pleased. All my friends had either a sister or a brother. Now I too would have someone to play with on a rainy day. My brother, Richard, was born at the end of May. I was so excited.
By the time the holiday weekend rolled around, the cool spring days were long gone and the weatherman predicted temperatures up around 90 degrees. My parents decided to head north to escape the steamy Long Island heat.
Mom packed a lunch for Dad—sardines and black bread, some cheese and fruit— but she and I looked forward to the frankfurters and French fries we would buy at the food stand. Dad checked the oil and tested the tires of his shiny old Cadillac for the long stretch of the tree-lined Palisades Parkway that led to our favorite summer destination: Bear Mountain State Park. As soon as we arrived, we looked for a good spot to spread our blanket. Mom parked Ricky’s carriage under a broad old oak. Dad tied his rope hammock, a remnant of his life in Europe, to two sturdy white birch trees.
I waved goodbye and went off to test the waters of the giant swimming pool. I descended at the shallow end, step after careful step. As I pushed through the crowd, excusing myself as I went, I noticed a man with wispy hair who was wearing a dark maroon bathing suit with a white belt, just like my dad’s. He must be from Europe, I thought. I puttered about aimlessly, careful not to “wander too deep” and to “stay no more than one or two strokes away from the edge,” as my father always warned.
After a while, I saw the same man again, now perched at the edge of the pool waving his arms like a frantic bird. I realized he was trying to catch my attention, so I waded over. The man bent down on one bony knee and said, “Take me to your father.” I recognized his accent as Polish. Though I was sure I knew every member of my parents’ refugee crowd, this man was new. I hoisted myself up onto the rim, stood up and squeezed the water from my bathing suit skirt, then led him to the place where my family sat enjoying the protective shade.
Daddy was relaxing in his hammock, as I approached with the stranger at my side. But when the two men’s eyes met, even I could see there was a lightning flash of recognition. Dad jumped to his feet and moved towards the man. As they hugged and kissed on both cheeks, they looked like two small bears. Neither man spoke until they pulled apart.
“Ignas, after so many years, I’ve finally found you,” the man said to my father.
“Mommy, how does Daddy know this man?” I was puzzled.
“He is Daddy’s friend from Warsaw. We also met him again, when we got to Portugal. I told you about Portugal. That man got a visa for Argentina and left Portugal much before we did. We haven’t seen him since.”
My head began to hurt like it did whenever my mother spoke about their escape from Europe. The old friend turned to my mother and exclaimed in broken English, “Look at you, Hala! Two children!” My mother nodded his way, but didn’t speak. She seemed uncomfortable.
“How did that man even know I was Daddy’s daughter?” I continued, turning my attention back and forth between the man and my mother. “I know all your friends and I’ve never seen him before.” As my dad and his friend continued their conversation in Polish, the man looked back at me several times. Then tears began to flow down both men’s cheeks.
“Mom, why are they crying?” I sat down next to my mom, even more confused. “Sweetheart, there is something I haven’t told you.” I leaned over, straining to hear what the two men were saying. I did understand a little Polish. Mom’s words did not register at first.
“Like what?” I demanded. “I know all your stories about your family and the war.”
“Not everything, sweetheart,” her eyes downcast. “Daddy just told him the sad news,” she said in a voice no higher than a whisper.
“What sad news? What are you talking about?” My stomach began churning.
Mom looked directly at me, all color drained from her cheeks. Her normally vibrant eyes were dull. She took a slow, deep breath.
“You have your sister’s eyes,” was all she could muster. I began to shiver. She tried to wrap her arm around my shoulder, but I pulled away and stared at her.
When I found my voice, out poured more questions. “What do you mean? What sister? What are you saying?” Mom looked past me, her gaze seeming to traverse space and time.
“You never told me I had a sister” I persisted.
“She died while we were waiting to come to America,” Mom said in a flat tone.
“Do I look like her?” I couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“What happened to her? Why didn’t you tell me?” Now I was crying, too.
“What good would it have done for you to know?” Mom protested weakly as Ricky squirmed in her arms. Then she got up and gently laid my brother in his carriage.
Until that day, my parents had never spoken of a child they had loved before me, a girl just like me. I was shaking, but I could not stop questioning her. “How did she die? How old was she? What happened?”
“I can’t talk about it,” Mom said as she moved her head slowly from side to side. My heart hurt, I felt it shrinking. I was just getting used to having a baby brother in the house and sharing my parents’ attention. Now this!
“Where did she die?” I continued. “She died in Jamaica, when we were in the camp,” she offered reluctantly. Her eyes begged for mercy as she rocked the carriage from side to side, like a storm-tossed ship on a vast winter sea.
“Now, please stop” she added more forcefully “I said I can’t talk about it.” At last she promised, “I will tell you more one day, but not now.”
The next time Joan could get her mother, Hala, to broach the subject of their first child was in 1997. At that time, Joan’s mother handed her the photos of Yvonne that you see in My Sister’s Eyes.
In addition, Joan has incorporated translations of the last letters her mother received from the Kaplans, her family, that was trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto at the same time that Hala was a refugee in Portugal.
The personalities of the members of Hala’s family come through so vividly that one can get a real sense of what Hala had lost.