Jewish World Review May 10, 2002 / 28 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

My mother vs. Europe

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | As soon as I read the French premier's words in one of the newsweeklies, I saw her across from me again, ramrod straight, slightly upturned lips, a look in her pale eyes beyond contempt, beyond disdain, beyond involvement. It was the look of someone who knew Europe. Not the Europe of the travel posters, of the Technicolor movies, but the Europe she knew like a bitter taste she'd spat out.

Hers was the Europe of 1914-17, the Europe of 1933-45, and, she knew to the depth of her soul, Europe as it would always, irredeemably be. That Europe had been seared into her mind and bones at a young age, so that, a long and happy life later, she was never wholly secure, but always on guard, as if America could be taken away from her in an instant.

When my mother spoke of Europe, if at all, it was with the precision of experience, the perspective of distance, and with an indifference so vast the whole continent could have fit under her left heel, and she was a small woman.

I thought of her when I read the words of Lionel Jospin, the now former premier whom even the French finally saw through. He was being quoted in all seriousness by one of those indistinguishable American correspondents who take M. Jospin's kind of Eurospeak seriously:

There exists a European art of living. We have our own way of taking action, of defending our freedoms, of fighting against inequality and discrimination, of thinking and of organizing labor relations, and of teaching and of healing and of managing our time. Each of our countries has its own traditions and rules, but together they make up a common universe.

What a load of continental cr-p. I could just picture the reaction M. Jospin's words would have inspired in Sarah Ackerman Greenberg, American immigrant, Class of 1921. Or rather her lack of reaction. Her upper lip might almost curl, one eyebrow might almost raise. She wouldn't say a word, or feel any need to.

There exists a European art of living. Indeed there does, although sometimes it's hard to distinguish from a way of dying. My mother knew it well. She was 12 when the First World War broke out. A country girl in Poland, she would grow up on a battlefield, not knowing when she awoke in the morning whether the village was in German or Russian hands. Decades later, safe in America, she would find it hard to believe the Russians had launched a satellite into space. ("They couldn't even find their way around Mordt!")

She preferred it when the Germans held the town. They took just as much as the Russians, but they always left payment. It was only worthless scrip, but my mother was one who appreciated a gesture. Bedsides, there were always a few Jewish boys with the German detachments in those days. When she first came to America and needed a doctor, she would look for one with a German name. To her, young and impressionable, Germany meant science, sanitation, learning, progress. Then.

We have our own way of taking action, of defending our freedoms, of fighting against inequality and discrimination . My mother knew those ways well, so well she finally convinced her mother, my grandmother, to leave Europe in August of 1939 -- a very good time for a Jewess to leave Europe.

I remember as a small child being in the front of the house when I heard my grandmother scream from the back bedroom. It seemed to go on forever, then stop all at once, never to resume. Some fool had told the old lady what was happening in Europe. She would never see her other children again.

Each of our countries has its own traditions and rules, but together they make up a common universe. Yes, my mother knew that universe well, so well she couldn't wait to leave it. She remembered standing in front of the American embassy in Warsaw for a day and a half in the line for visas, and one detail of the story still sticks with me: She would use the rubber heel of her shoe to erase anything on the application that wasn't exactly right. She didn't dare make a single mistake.

Then, visa in hand, at 19 she rode the rails to Danzig, where she sailed with the others huddled aboard the S.S. Manchuria for America. She would disembark in Boston on February 10, 1921. She didn't remember the weather, but it was a golden day.

It wouldn't surprise Sarah Greenberg in the least to learn that they're still burning synagogues across Europe. When someone would speak of the glories of Europe in her presence, she would look at them quizzically. A small woman, she nevertheless had this way of looking down at you when you said something completely, incomprehensively, pitiably stupid.

My mother's attitude toward Europe was pretty much the same as Gandhi's on his first visit to the Court of St. James. When a reporter asked the little man from India what he thought of European civilization, he replied: "I would be all in favor of it."

This column's for you, ma. I think I'll call it My Mother versus Europe. Europe was seriously outmatched.

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