Friendships – Part Two


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This past week I’ve continued to enjoy a fabulous exchange with childhood friends on FaceBook through what can only be called an ongoing “Virtual Reunion.”  My High School, Jr. HS and now even Elementary School friends have been examining and identifying the faces of children we knew and were) a very, very long time ago.  (Well, perhaps only one “very!)  It’s what got me thinking that it was time to introduce my novel’s central character’s band of friends — Max’s self-named, Alter Kochers Club (Yiddish for “Old Farts”).

Max's Alter Kocher Club

Max’s Alter Kochers Club

Max’s best friend Sammy (presented in the last post) is as gregarious on one side of the equation as the conversely withdrawn and sullen Sid. A curmudgeon, he gets quiet pleasure from engaging Sammy in lively debate, as his negativity is the perfect foil to Sammy’s positive energy. So, I invite you to join us again by pulling up a virtual chair at the Cafe Arabica, brewing your own cup of coffee and grabbing a pastry of your own as we enter Max’s world on New York City’s Lower East Side.

Cuppa Coffee and a Pastry

Cafe Arabica – “Cuppa Coffee and a pastry.”

INTRODUCING SID LEDERMAN! Sid is a man uncomfortable with the changing events around him, and definitely not receptive to a “one world, one family” viewpoint. He’s conflicted by wanting time with his friends, but having to meet with them in a place uncomfortable to his politics. He enjoys owner Dahoud’s fine Syrian coffee and pastries, but has made it painfully clear that he not only abhors anyone who might remotely be tied to Nazis, but is also is suspicious about current events surrounding Jewish-Arab relationships, feeling such things should not be taken lightly.

(NOTE:  Quoted text is copyright protected by Sue Ross, 2012 and remains the exclusive property of the author.  Use of this material without permission is prohibited.)

When Dahoud’s wife, Bahia Mariana took over the counter, Dahoud would pull a chair to the table and bait the old Jews about current events in the Middle East.  Max, Sammy and Morrie usually joined in the spirit of discourse, but Sid had actually left the café on more than one occasion.  Each time he vowed in a loud voice that he “would never return,” railing against the Palestinians, the oil-rich sheiks of the Middle East, and the need to keep Arabs and Jews apart.  Yet, for every time Sid had stormed off in a cloud of anger, he somehow managed to return the next Thursday, taking his accustomed seat as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired.

Sid could only be described as rotund, a man made large by the delicacies that seemed to follow him everywhere he went.  Originally from Romania, he was considered by some to be a bit of a ‘gonif’ (thief), an attribute accredited to his inherited gypsy blood.  Troubled by an asthmatic condition, ill-fitting dentures that clicked when he spoke, and a panoply of arthritic aches and pains that frequently prevented his getting a sound sleep, Sid’s disposition was what one might expect from someone walking in tight shoes for days at a time.  He was always dressed in the same plaid shirt, over which he managed to squeeze a sweater at least two sizes too small with trousers worn belted high above what was once a waistline.  Sid took comfort in his unhappiness and wore his badge as group curmudgeon with a degree of self-appointed importance.

Friendships – Max’s Gang


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Flickr friends

The fuel behind the energy of our lives, friends are those rare individuals who elect to share life’s journey.  They are there during the good times – and the bad. While not related by blood, they are the people who elect to be there for us – our companions, confidants, and fellow-travelers by choice. Recently, friends from my youth have actively come together through FaceBook.  Perhaps the process of aging has caused us to reach back and gather close those who shared the formative years of our lives, inviting them to join us once again even as we venture forward. The process of exploring our collective past in Evanston, Illinois has brought up rich images of places, people, and experiences. Coalescing, these long-standing friendships are blending past and present.  The longing for the warm and familiar surroundings of our youth is being replaced by an extended family picking up where we left off.

That’s probably why two of my greatest pleasures in writing GOLANSKI’S TREASURES have been time spent with Max as a child reliving a youth surrounded by a warm and loving family – and as an older man in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood.

English: Tenement buildings in the Lower East ...

Tenement buildings in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having lost his family to the Holocaust, Max has developed a few close friendships with colorful characters who’ve stepped in to provide him with a semblance of family.  While they can’t replace those he lost, they provide him with a connection to the world, and camaraderie that only comes from being “known.”  They are a lively group, and I thought you might enjoy them.  So, without further ado, I’d like to begin introducing Max’s “gang!”

Leading the pack is Sammy, an animated ball of energy and Max’s closest buddy.  Sid is best  described as a well-meaning, but undeniable curmudgeon, and Morrie is simply a sweet and kindly soul.  Every week they meet for “a cuppa coffee and a pastry” at the Cafe Arabica, followed by pinochle in a nearby park.

Max's "Alter Kocher Club"

Max’s “Alter Kochers Club”

However, rather than my telling you about them in the context of discussion, I thought you might enjoy taking a moment to peak beneath the tent of the world where Max lives.  So, today I’d like to invite you to brew up a cup of your own coffee, pull up a virtual chair at the Cafe Arabica and meet the first of Max’s “Alter Kochers Club” (Yiddish for “Old Farts”), Sammy Fuchs.  I hope you enjoy him as much as I do!

(NOTE:  Quoted text is copyright protected by Sue Ross, 2012 and remains the exclusive property of the author.  Use of this material without permission is prohibited.)

Sammy was small verging on elfin with hair an entity onto itself.  Jutting out at odd angles it danced around a face defined by years of laughter.  From the rakishly crinkled skin around his mouth, to his laughing eyes, Sammy was undeniably unique.  In many ways, his hair served as an antenna that drew attention to his way of interacting with the world.  While not immune from life’s challenges, he had traveled the years with sorrows miraculously held at bay.

‘It’s all about attitude,’ he’d explain, finding life much more to his liking when experienced as he wished it could be, rather than the way it really was.

Sammy’s family was from Munich, where before WWII Jews served as the heads of governments, banks, and universities.  Fully assimilated within the dominant society, their experiences were decidedly different from those of Eastern Europeans.  This contributed to a certain modicum of class distinction that sometimes spilled over into dealings with other ‘lansman.’  Possessing this self-inflated sense of worth as a German Jew bolstered Sammy’s already strong sense of personal power.  He identified himself as the group’s self-acclaimed troublemaker, whose mission in life was to keep both his contemporaries, and the rest of the world on their toes — one of the few things left that gave him pleasure.

‘Sex is like a song,’ he’d say.  ‘I can hum the melody, but can’t quite remember the words.  And food?  With these lousy dentures it’s impossible to chew anything to set my taste buds on fire!  We come into the world gumming pabulum and we leave it the same way.’  For Sammy, making waves was not only a form of entertainment, but a skill elevated to an art form.

Counting Blessings


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Looking out of the window of my office I am amazed by the beauty of the day. Hammering away (well, at least lightly touching) the keyboard before me, I find myself distracted from my manuscript — my eyes having been lured towards the beauty of a clear sky brushed by leaves swaying in gentle breezes as the Memorial Day weekend draws to a close.

Happily, I did finish revisions on yet another chapter today! While the next one looms large before me, I find myself satisfied, feeling a small measure of accomplished for the moment.  The view from my office is peaceful, and the breeze has been kind enough to pick up the perfume from my garden and deliver it through the open window filling the room.  The weeping willow’s leaves acknowledge my presence . . . .

Weeping Willow

Backyard – willow

It’s been a long week.  My partner, Charles had back surgery. Blessedly, all went well, and his strength and fortitude have been extraordinary — as has been the tremendous outpouring of support and affection of many loving friends, colleagues and family members.  Charles is my rock, and being rather on the small size, I can only do my best as his pebble.  For the skill of his surgeon and the grace of God I am beyond grateful — I bow my head before the trees swaying in the breezes outside my window as I whisper prayers of thanksgiving.

It is also Memorial Day, and the magic of social networking has made possible High School classmates joining online for a “virtual reunion.” How appropriate that it is this weekend we have come together to remember the pain and strain of passing through the portal of adolescence into maturity.  SUCH memories have come to the fore.  The joys of first loves, the pressures of studies, obstacles encountered, and parental expectations, sporting events and parties, friendships forged (lasting to this day). Moments when we individually and collectively discovered where and how we fit into the world revisited and magnified by the mirrors of one anothers’ reflections.

Vietnam War Memorial

– Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC

In addition, it’s been a day when old acquaintances joined together for a collective sigh. Our numbers have been diminished, the price exacted by the years.  Some were lost to illness or accidents, which must be expected. Yet, several classmates died as fallen warriors — casualties of war, which NO generation should have to expect.  Their lives may have ended in the distant jungles of Vietnam, but their memories have been forever etched into time. We remember them.

And so, today I pause from my usual commentary to listen to the quiet, treasuring the moments between life’s ups, and life’s down.  The light outside my window is tinged by the waning remnants of a sun-kissed day. Next week we will once again revisit Max’s world.  Thank you for joining me in this most amazing journey.  Until then, may your lives be gentle and your memories rich and joyous.

Letting Go


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empty nest syndrome

“HOW?” I asked myself recently, “How is it that I used to reach for my trusty iPad every morning when I could pry my eyes open to work on second draft revisions to my manuscript?” Now, it’s all I can do to even think about moving mind and fingers towards such a goal?”  Then, after Mother’s Day, it hit me.  “Empty Nest Syndrome.”  We all know how parents (particularly mothers) struggle once their children leave for college, life elsewhere with a new spouse, travel abroad, or setting up a first apartment.  Never having had the good fortune to have children, might a similar phenomenon be at play as I look towards a time when I won’t be spending time with Max?  Have I become a Yiddisha Mama through the process of birthing a book?

YEP! That has to be it.  While all writers confront the day when no further meaningful edits and important changes can be made to tenderly crafted pages there comes a time when “THAT’S A WRAP!” seem the only logical words left. While we can edit until the proverbial cows come home, reality must step in so we can send our “children” off into the world.  Then, all we can do is stand back and await breathlessly the (hoped for) applause, or (dreaded) criticisms of the public as our hearts are laid open for scrutiny.

OR, is it possible that writing a (good) book resembles reading a good book? THAT must be it!  I recall years ago slowing down the pace of my reading when enraptured by an engrossing story.  As the end drew near (apparent because I checked ahead to see how many pages remained), I’d slow down.  Rather than racing through to see what happened next, each word, phrase, and chapter became all the more precious.

Cover of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (B...

Cover via Amazon

One book in particular comes to mind. Sometime between pre-pubescence and adolescence I was reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  The adventures of the mysterious Captain Nemo had pulled me into a magnificent world of fantasy made factual.  The immensity of childhood angst was lost amid an endless sea of fantastic characters and situations. Daily life faded into obscurity when weighed against those played out so many fathoms beneath the ocean’s surface.

Once I complete my own novel’s revisions and hand it off to a professional for a solid “whooping” to lift my manuscript to its loftiest potential, it will be out of my hands. Then, the adventure and magic of creating a new world and living within another’s skin will vanish. I’ll be left alone, without Max to serve as my conscience, filtering the world’s magnificence and injustices through his far more experienced eyes.  Sigh . . . . Empty Nest Syndrome.  I will no longer anticipate that delicious sense of curiosity as to “what will happen next?” (as so often happened while Max’s story unfolded before me).  I’ll be finishing my favorite book.  Sigh.

But, WAIT!  Even after this second swipe, I need to print the entire manuscript and read every word aloud to make certain that it can stand on its own. I’ve been assured by industry experts that there is no better way than reading aloud to test whether the story that has danced in my head for the past 12 years comes across as clearly and magically as it was whispered to me.  Why, in that case I’m far from finished!  I can test drive it while bonding with my cat and dog (who don’t care what I’m saying as long as I’m directing attention towards them).  WHEW!

And then? Once revisions are in place, I’ve read it aloud making changes here and there — THEN what? The copy editor will assuredly have reams of notes as to how I can improve the manuscript — so I will have to revise it yet one more time.  Oh joy, oh rapture!  Max isn’t leaving me just yet, although even with such delays, the time will come when just like a parent packing up a darling child striking out on its own, I must come to terms with a hole in my life.  Of course, Max and I will stay in touch.  AND I’ll inherit a new room to decorate and fill with other things!

Whatever will I do with all that room?  Why, write another book, of course! And the subject matter? I’ve been wondering what Max’s life was like between his 81st year in 1992, and his liberation from Auschwitz in 1945. Those years aren’t explored in GOLANSKI’S TREASURES, and I’m most curious. I’ll bet if I asked Max he’d be more than forthcoming, and we could hang out together for years to come.

Of course, that means I’d better get busy and finish this book if I want to get to the next one!  Gotta dash . . . I have another five chapters to revise before printing and reading the whole manuscript out loud!  Until next time . . . .

In Honor of Mothers


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As a special Mother’s Day tribute, I thought it only right to give a little bit of background on the character of Max’s mother, Pepe.  How she took form, and the qualities she embraces that made her a composite of the “Yiddisha Mama” touted in song and legend.

The original Pepe Golanski – Bessie (Pepe) Stein, my maternal grandmother.

Every character in the book has been named to honor family, friends “close as family,” and/or historic figures who may not be popularly known.  All of the children, and most of the current characters with whom Max interacts are currently alive.  The others hold people who have graced the planet in memory.

Max’s mother Pessel was actually named for my maternal grandmother, who was Austrian-Hungarian/Romanian by birth, and came to this country with her husband and first two (of nine) children.  Her husband’s name was Max (for whom my primary character is named, although my maternal grandfather died years ago — one of the exceptions to my naming of characters).  When Pessel arrived in the US, she was given the AMERICAN name of Bessie, which she begrudgingly accepted, although she was never comfortable within its skin. Compromising, she deferred to her nickname — Pepe — which is carried throughout the book.

So . . . to review.  Max is named after my maternal grandfather, and Max’s MOTHER is named after my maternal grandMOTHER.  (Ahh, the luxury of “poetic license” allowed writers!)  With me so far?

In the book, fictional Pepe was born to be a mother (as was my actual grandmother).  She embraced every opportunity to love, teach and support each of her children: Moishe (Max), Izzy (Isadore — incidentally, named after my own father), and Miri (Miriam), named after my maternal Aunt Mary.  Her husband Julius (Max’s father) is a kosher butcher.  In my family the real Julius was my paternal grandfather, who was, in fact such a butcher.  STILL with me?  

As a Mother’s Day tribute, I’d like to share a snippet from a scene in the book to bring you back to Max’s world as a child growing up in Poland — when the Jewish world of his existence was still balanced (however precariously), and logically unfolded within an environment filled and defined by cultural traditions, faith and the love of family.  It was a place where a Yiddisha Mama was revered, serving as the center of home, family and community.  So, without further ado, it is my honor to introduce Pepe Golanski, butcher’s wife, and Max Golanski’s beloved mother . . . .

(NOTE:  Quoted text is copyright protected by Sue Ross, 2012 and remains the exclusive property of the author.  Use of this material without permission is prohibited.)

While Julius worked, Pepe would chat with the ladies who came by just as much to schmooze and trade recipes as to purchase meat.  Once she had completed her chores both in the shop and the family’s second floor apartment, she’d join her contemporaries in discussing the latest gossip of the day.  Always taking charge of such discussions to make certain the women in her shop shared information, rather than malicious rumors, Pepe kept a firm grip on such conversations, chiding those who sought out juicy details that might be hurtful to others.

“So, nu?  Marta?” she’d say.  “You wouldn’t sleep as soundly as you do each night if you didn’t know the details of Yonkel’s failing as a husband to poor Chava?”

Pepe’s belief that petty rumors were unnecessary, unkind and unworthy of attention made her greatly respected throughout the neighborhood.  Her use of discretion was legend and she was fond of reminding everybody that, “Small minds produce the world’s biggest headaches.” A traditional balaboste, Pepe was a highly disciplined housewife and adoring mother.

“You’d think the sun rose and set upon the heads of those three children,” Julius would often say, shaking his OWN head when she’d over-indulge them.

“But, my beloved husband, the sun DOES rise and set upon their heads,” she’d reply, her face alive with a mother’s love. Yet, she was also the undisputed disciplinarian of the family.

“Children, off to school with you,” Pepe would announce the second the last parcel of dark rye bread had disappeared from the table and her husband had left for work.

“Miri, I told you that dress needed a few stitches at the hem.  A lady you should be.  I’ve never known such a girl as you.  Now run and change.  Moishe, those fingernails look like those of beggar.  Do I need to take a brush to them myself?  Go scrub them again.  I’ll not have a child of mine going to school with dirty fingernails.  Izzy!  Now where is that child?” she’d mumble, full well knowing that her eldest had already bounded down the stairs to wait for his siblings in front while he sought to catch a peek of the attractive girl who lived next door.

Moishe remembered how the delicate fragrance of baking challah, and meat-filled, sweet cabbage wafted from her apron.  Perfumed by onions, Pepe’s large, peasant hands were moist and supple from folding schmaltz into her chopped liver.  But, Moishe most loved her laugh.  It shook loose from deep inside until her earrings danced, tears flowed from her eyes, and her ample bosom bounced up and down. What Pepe lacked in a formal education was more than adequately covered by her more pragmatic schooling as a perceptive student of life.

“People are my books,” she told her children, and would refer frequently to her living library when fielding questions about the world.  Pepe’s mish-mosh of characters seemed to hold answers from whatever might ail, to putting together a school report, to the most attractive ways of braiding the flaming red hair of the rambunctious Miri.

Born Pessel Libe she was raised in Galicia in the town of Shoenfolo in Maremosesiegatz, where she spent her childhood swimming in the river that divided Austria from Hungary.  Pessel was her Jewish, or Yiddish name, but she preferred her nickname, Pepe.  In addition to being the best swimmer and fastest runner, she was also known for her culinary skills, the result of early training by her own motherChana, who was well accomplished in the art of Jewish cooking.

“Pessel, to catch a husband, you should spend more time on your brisket and less time looking in the mirror!” Chana would say.

As catching a husband was top on every young Jewish girl’s list, Pepe watched intently, taking mental notes of what made up a “pinch,” or constituted a “dash.”  While not the sole reason, her cooking was certainly part of the reason she so quickly won the affection of a husband who was partner, provider, and father to her children.

I dedicate today’s entry to Max’s Pepe — my maternal grandmother, Pepe (who died before my birth) — my own beloved mother, Rose (whom I miss dearly since her passing several years ago at the age of 91. Mom would have so enjoyed being part of this journey) — and all mothers who bring children into the world, and lead them through its often confusing waters.


 – Remembering Mom.  Rose Ross with Baby Sue (a long time ago.  My skin was definitely too big for me).

Humanity’s Moral Imperative


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Yom HaShoah has passed, yet discussions continue as to the importance of keeping the Holocaust “present” in memory and psyche.  Having immersed myself in studying the events leading up to and through one of the acknowledged crimes of any century, I have come to learn several things that bear repeating.

One piece of information came from Dr. James Miller from Keene State College, an extraordinary presenter in the Holocaust and Genocide Lecture Series at Sonoma State University.  Dr. Miller actually conducts week-long training sessions with diplomats and military leaders at Auschwitz to empower their greater understanding of the nature of genocide.  It is hoped that as “boots on the ground” they can identify early warnings of hostilities toward groups of people before they erupt into full-fledged genocide.

Dr. Miller shared studies as to how it was possible for such evil to exist and be visited upon innocents both during the Holocaust and other 20th century genocides (Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, to name a few.)  It was chilling to learn that the Nazis were not unusual in their makeup and are not believed to have been born inherently evil (a nation of “bad seeds” so to speak).  While The Third Reich’s leadership set into motion the unfathomable murder of millions, the lower-level functionaries who carried out their heinous crimes were average individuals . . . the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker . . . the doctor the lawyer, the housewife . . . the teacher, the merchant, the laborer.  Individuals like any other.  Individuals.  No different than you or me.

Nuremberg Trials

For me, that information makes Yom HaShoah even more compelling.  Once a year we not only commemorate the systematic destruction of human life, and set in our hearts the memories of those who perished — but engage in self-examination.  If “regular people” perpetuated such horrors upon others, what might WE have done had we been given such orders?  Would we have followed along without question?  If so, how might we have justified our actions against the moral compass that steers our lives?  What would have made it feel “right” to murder innocents?

Yom HaShoah also invites our putting ourselves in the position of those targeted for destruction.  What would we have done to save ourselves and our loved ones?  Would we have questioned?  Would we have hidden behind a wall of denial to maintain our sanity?  Would we have resisted?  Would we have tried to hide or flee?  Would we have denounced our heritage?  Would we have sacrificed others to save ourselves?

Moral dilemmas on both sides of the equation.  And now, as the numbers of Holocaust Survivors dwindle due to the passing years, efforts to record their memories and keep alive their stories has escalated.  Escalated, for as memories of the Holocaust fade, the potential for it being repeated grows stronger.  Many years ago, when I visited Jerusalem’s Yad v’Shem Museum, the words, “LEST WE FORGET” were emblazoned upon a large sign at the entry.  Those words stood as a reminder to all human beings that lessons not learned, or forgotten are doomed to be repeated.

There is a distinct challenge in writing a fictionalized version about real events that happened to real people in real places so many years after the fact.  Those who experienced WWII directly, or the generation that followed is not the experience of young people now in school, let alone future generations.  It is disturbing to realize that a growing number of people are unaware of the Holocaust.  Taking it a step further, many have also never heard of Rwanda’s genocide, notwithstanding the news coverage that marked the gruesome events of 1994 — just 18 years ago.

Remembering Rwanda Genocide

As a society, we are exposed to images of violence and brutality daily – in the news, online, in video games, television and film.  Such distancing from the Holocaust and equally disconcerting, the desensitization of our young people, is a breeding ground for future genocides.

Genocide is dependent upon various things falling handily into place:

  • Victims must be either demonized and/or dehumanized so the distance between “us and them” widens.  The more people are identified as “others,” or “outsiders,” the less empathy one builds towards them and the more likely actions against them are not perceived with the same level of intensity than had they been close to us.
  • Those who take comfort from a pack mentality consider whomever holds a leadership position above question.  They prefer being told what to do rather than think independently, tending to forgive themselves from even the most unimaginable crimes as being appropriate and condoned by the larger group.
  • And most importantly, genocide would be less likely to succeed if others spoke out against the oppression of others.  Bullies – whether national leaders, religious zealots, political power-mongerers or the big guy throwing around his weight on the school playground – could be rendered less powerful if people stood up and said, “NO!  THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!”  The silence of witnesses, whether complacent in the crime or not, allows the criminal free reign.

If people, young or old, are unfamiliar with what happened both during the Holocaust, and other instances of genocide around the world — it is the responsibility of a sane, compassionate and humane society to inform them.  If such examples seem too distant, ask if they’ve ever experienced, or witnessed bullying, bigotry, or racism.  EMPATHY is key.  If the human race is to retain its humanity, we must see ourselves as part of a larger family of mankind – OUR family – which must be protected and respected by everyone if we are to survive as a species.


Yad V’Shem, the Memorial Museum in Jerusalem



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Yom HaShoah Memorial Candle

No man is an island, entire onto itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

I have long felt John Donne’s eloquent statement to be a somber reminder of what should be a basic tenet of human existence. How different might our world have been had such ideals dominated Europe from 1939 – 1945. Instead, our human family was indeed diminished.

Six million Jews and millions of others were systematically annihilated in the penultimate pogrom we have come to know as THE HOLOCAUST: Communists, Czechs, Greeks, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, mentally and physically handicapped, Poles, Resistance fighters, Russians, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, trade unionists, Ukrainians, Yugoslavians, prisoners of war of many nations, and countless others.

Those  who perished were lost to the world in body, but not spirit, for as long as we remember them, they live on.  And so we remember. And in remembering we honor the innocent, and reaffirm our condemnation of the guilty. We remember in the hope that in so doing such crimes will not be repeated.

We will remember them in services around the world today during YOM HASHOAH, “The Day of Remembrance.”  We will be moved by speakers, some who survived the conflagration. We will voice heartfelt prayers and light memorial candles. We will reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man as perpetuated by the Nazi killing machine in Europe. We will realize the immensity of the crime — six million Jews. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish pre-WWII population, and half the world’s pre WWII Jewish population.

In 1989 the Holocaust became irrevocably real to me as I explored the killing grounds of Auschwitz while traveling on behalf of Spertus Museum of Judaica.  I was not obligated to visit, but felt a that bearing witness to the Holocaust was a responsibility – a moral imperative. Walking past displays of “physical evidence” I kept reminding myself that “but for the Grace of God….” It was a sobering and life-changing experience.

Years later, immersed in writing, my fingers froze as they were poised above my computer’s keyboard. I was uncertain as to how to tackle the chapter where my fictionalized character (Holocaust Survivor Max Golanski) visited the death camp where he had been imprisoned.  I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Knowing the impact visiting Auschwitz had upon ME, I was stymied as to how to enter the skin of one who had actually lived that horrific truth, then returned to renew his tie to the time, place and events as a living witness.

As happens sometimes among those of us who are either blessed (or condemned) to write, I finally removed myself from the process and let Max tell his story. I typed at a rapid clip, through closed eyes as my heart drummed madly against the walls of my chest.  The chapter quickly evolved into a surreal ballet. I was there only to serve as scribe.

To honor the memories of the innocents murdered in the Holocaust, I offer the following selection from that chapter of  GOLANSKI’S TREASURES.  May the memories of the Martyrs be a blessing, and may we live to see a day where “Never Again” is no longer a prayer, but a reality.

(NOTE:  Quoted text is copyright protected by Sue Ross, 2012 and remains the exclusive property of the author.  Use of this material without permission is prohibited.)

Max entered a darkened room made smaller by the omnipresence of a large urn.  Its circumference was the size of a mature tree’s trunk, yet stood only a few feet tall.  The focal point of the room, the simple and unadorned urn beckoned Max to approach.

Slowly walking forward he stopped abruptly, as if confronted by a hidden barrier.  Noticing a sign in Polish, he drew closer to read the faded words, then pulled back abruptly, his breath wrenched from his chest.  Suspended in time, Max felt the presence of invisible sentries hovering nearby.  Stepping back a few paces his heart slowly absorbed the simple words inscribed.  The simple clay urn cradled precious ashes collected from the ovens.  Ashes taken from the nameless, faceless, countless, unknown souls who had perished in the crematoria.

Reaching a trembling hand towards the vessel, Max felt a bolt of electricity course through his body as his hand made contact.  Was he touching the cheek of his beloved wife?  The shoulder of his childhood friend?  Had the ashes of a young Russian soldier co-mingled with an old Gypsy woman with flashing gold-earrings, or a sympathetic Catholic priest who dared to object?  Was that the laughter of a small girl?  The sobbing of an old woman?  Were those the persistent and distinctly melodious strains of a violin crying with her?

As he withdrew his hand, Max’s breath swooped back into his lungs leaving him gasping and light-headed.  Closing his eyes he sighed deeply.  A long, thin puff of air escaped his lips.  Max was reminded that the Third Reich’s perverted quest for world domination was built upon subjugating and exterminating all non-Aryans.  Its malignant vision left no one people holding a monopoly on suffering.  Death had become the great equalizer.

PASSOVER – The Story!


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Beginning Friday evening, Jewish people around the world will gather to retell the story of the Exodus. Extraordinary! Modern-day Jews, religious or not, continue to fulfill the ancient, biblical commandment “And you will tell your son (sic: children) on that day saying….” The story of the Jewish Exodus in the 6th century BCE following the destruction of the Second Temple joins Jewish people worldwide to shared origins, binding us to Jewish culture, traditions, and one another.  As a storyteller, I have always been fascinated by the magnetism of this saga as a vehicle offering both connection and inclusion.

Is the story true?  Some believe every word while others consider the story a metaphor.  I find its greatest value as offering a framework within which the concept of faith and deliverance are renewed annually, both individually and as part of a people. Retelling the story keeps a chain of inheritance alive, sustaining Jews living both in Israel, and the Diaspora (dispersion/scattering) that marked the initial exile of the Jewish people. Since then, Jews have been expelled from other regions of the globe. Spain during the Inquisition. Pogroms and other political actions where they were pushed from homes established over centuries. And the Holocaust — the penultimate expulsion.

The word Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) refers to the “Passing Over” or “Po-say-ach” of the Angel of Death who was sent to strike down the firstborn sons of Egypt in a final show of strength by the god of the Hebrew people. The last of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh and his people, the ancient tale relates how God instructed Moses to have his people place lamb’s blood upon their doorposts as a sign to the Angel of Death to “pass over” their households, sparing Jewish children.

The story of the Exodus is one of passion and drama, brought to the screen by Cecile B. DeMille in his epic film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses, standing upon a boulder above terrified slaves who suspended common sense because Moses assured them that God would protect them as they crossed the emptied bed of the Red Sea, parted for their escape. The image of Moses standing with arms spread wide before terrified Hebrew slaves fleeing Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots in a mad dash to freedom is embedded in our psyche.

Yet, Passover Seders (the traditional pre-Passover dinner, where the story of the Exodus is retold) are themselves steeped in the generational memories of individual families. In GOLANSKI’S TREASURES, Max shares what occurred during one particular Seder celebrated by his family in Poland in the late 1920’s. So as not to spoil Max’s tale, let me share instead my own family’s Seder traditions.

As a family raised in the Conservative tradition we celebrated two nights with two Seders.  One was with my mother’s family, and the other with my father’s.  My mother’s family gathered at a lovely Jewish country club in Chicago hosted by her sister. Long tables accommodated the large family of aunts, uncles and cousins.  Seated opposite a cousin who blessedly did not like boiled egg whites, ours was a symbiotic relationship, for I didn’t like the yolks.  When the traditional boiled eggs were passed, we would quickly remove the yolks from the whites, and make a clandestine exchange of boiled egg pieces beneath the table according to preference.

Gefilte Fish and Beet Horseradish.

My father’s side of the family would gather for a Seder at my grandparent’s house.  Another large, extended family, we had an “adult’s table,” with satellite seating for the children. When I finally reached the age marking my matriculation to the “adult’s table,” my grandmother passed away. Several years went by during which my mother prepared wonderful Seders for our immediate family at home.  When my father’s sister decided to once again bring the entire family together my excitement at joining the “adult’s table” was quickly extinguished. Other cousins near my age had also advanced, so we simply sat at a newer version of “kiddy tables.”

At some point, my father’s older brother and older sister and their (now adult) children left the larger gathering for Seders with their own children (and grandchildren).  The baton was passed to my father to officiate. While nobody could hold a butcher’s carving knife to Dad in the kitchen (did I mention that my Grandpa Ross was a kosher butcher?), Seder leadership fed into Dad’s propensity for telling L-O-N-G versions of any story.  Each year our Seders became increasingly lengthy. To keep ourselves amused, the cousins (by then young adults) established a betting pool.  The one closest to calling the exact time it took Dad to finish won the pot.  At Dad’s last Seder before he died, I won. Of course, several cousins complained it was fixed, and as Dad took no offense upon learning of our friendly betting, I suspect he had become aware of our shenanigans and maybe even overheard my wager.  I’ll never know.

I’d love to hear favorite stories of memories from other people’s Seders, so please feel free to comment on this post and share them.  Don’t forget to check the GOLANSKI’S KITCHEN page on this blog for a new recipe!

"Old Country" photo in Poland/Russia of my Great Grandfather Louis (bearded) - my Grandpa Ross is on the left.

May your matzoh balls be fluffy, your brisket moist and tender, and the four glasses of kosher wine acceptable even to connoisseurs.  Warmly, Sue

(Please check out a wonderful post regarding the significance of retelling the Passover story of the Exodus by Dasee Berkowitz in the JTA blog of the American Jewish Congress listed under LINKS – JTA.)

Passover in Poland – Memories from Max


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Charoset made with kosher wine, apples, pears,...

Charoses made with kosher wine, apples, pears, cinnamon, honey, pine nuts, and crushed walnuts.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PASSOVER (Pesach) is still one week away, and I’m delighted to present a few holiday recipes from several wonderful readers to help make cooking “Kosher for Passover” not only delicious, but a shared experience.

In GOLANSKI’S TREASURES, Max’s mementoes trigger fond recollections of his life in Poland before WWII. Here’s a short clip from a story he shares during his flight home with a student who carried two items he purchased in a curio shop in Warsaw . . . an old wooden chopping bowl and a distinctive three-bladed chopper (called a “hackmesser” in Yiddish).

When I was a young and curious boy, Mama (of blessed memory), allowed my sitting quietly in a corner of our kitchen to watch the women work.  She was quite the expert on Seder preparations, and by the time I was ten she felt I could do simple tasks. That’s how I became the only boy around who knew how to make charoses, a delicious chopped spread symbolizing the mortar Hebrew slaves used to cement together bricks for the great pyramids.

I somehow became convinced that the quality of my charoses contributed to the ongoing architectural integrity of the pyramids, so I worked extra hard to perfect the dish.  I can still remember the ‘chop, chop, chopping’ sound as the multi-bladed hackmesser struck the wooden bowl.  Mama taught me how to create a charoses worthy of the Seder plate.  I could even remove the thin red, green and yellow glossy skins from each apple in long, continuous spirals with one of Papa’s sharpest knives.

Crisp and tart, the clear juices from the apples coated the hackmesser’s blades as I worked.  Chopping the walnuts into the apples, I’d add crushed cinnamon and a dollop of honey, then dribble sweet, red wine into the mix.  Chopping and blending, the fragrance of apples meeting walnuts, honey, cinnamon and wine was intoxicating.  Learning to reach the proper consistency took years to perfect.  As I grew older, I enjoyed embellishing upon the original recipe Mama had taught me, and must confess I became quite well known for my charoses!

Check out the new page just added to the blog called “GOLANSKI’S KITCHEN.”  I’ve started the ball rolling with Max’s description of the ingredients and process of creating an easy, thick and chunky, yet spreadable charoses — the traditional Ashkenazi (Eastern European) recipe:


  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup ground cinnamon (or to taste)
  • 5 cups fuji apples – peeled, cored and chopped
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  1. In a bowl, mix the honey, cinnamon, apples, wine, and walnuts thoroughly and let sit several hours.

While I no longer cook that much (I’m blessed with Charles’ fabulous creativity in the kitchen), I still look forward to preparing my annual Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls for Pesach.  I confess that I generally use box mixes for the matzo balls, but please take note of the technique employed in shaping and introducing the mixture into the boiling water (a trick learned from my own “Yiddisha Mama”).

You’ll also find other Passover dishes from two contributing cooks who answered my call for recipes.  More have come in, but preparing recipe posts for the blog are somewhat labor intense for me, so please be patient and keep a lookout for other Jewish dishes that will be posted periodically.  All reflect the ongoing love affair between Jewish people and food.

(Please feel free to send your favorite recipes for future postings.)

Seeking Passover Recipes!


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PASSOVER (or PESACH)Passover (Pesach) has long been one of my favorite holidays — Jewish or otherwise. As such, it’s also a favorite of Max Golanski’s.  In fact, one of the chapters in the book I most enjoyed writing was Max’s recollection of a Passover Seder celebrated with his family in Poland, around 1927.

In anticipation of the holiday I would love to share some favorite Kosher-for-Passover recipes from YOU (alongside one or two of my own).  If you have a favorite that you would like to share, please forward it to me BY MARCH 29, 2012.  (If you have a photo of the dish, contact me via FaceBook for instructions as to how to email it to me directly.) I’ll select a few recipes to be included in the “Passover” post, which will go out prior to the holiday so those still planning holiday meals can check out a few new menu ideas.

As I have no idea how many of you might have great dishes waiting to be passed along (puts new meaning behind the term “Passover”– forgive the pun), please do not take it personally if yours isn’t posted. Please make certain that the  recipe is “Kosher for Passover.”  However, should you have some wonderful Jewish recipes that are not necessarily Kosher, please hold on to them as we may add a page dedicated to Jewish cuisine.

If you would prefer not being acknowledged publicly for your family recipe, let me know and your name will be withheld should it be selected. Otherwise, you will be credited, as is proper.

By the way, I finally figured out how to add the “Rate This” feature (Whoo Hoo!). Please feel free to add some stars should you be so inclined.