Chanukah at Schlachtensee: A Retroactive Plug

To the left stands twelve year old Rochele Wagner in her stage debut as central dreidel in the Schlachtensee Displaced Persons Camp’s 1946 Chanukah show. She is one of the lucky few whose entire immediate family sits in the audience--in her case, both parents and a younger brother--and she’s been practicing for weeks. In addition to a few words of basic English (such as “train” and “dog,” which the handsome American soldier she secretly likes has been teaching her class through enthusiastic repetitions of “chu chu!” and “woof!”), she speaks fluent Polish, Yiddish, German, and, after some recent months in a Soviet labor camp, Russian and Tajik. Tonight, however, she sings in Hebrew.

A year later, days of seasickness aboard a US naval ship will change the Rochele in the photograph to Ruth and leave her with a lasting hatred of military khaki. Our newfound Ruth Wagner will then learn the Latin alphabet and become one of the “pretty fine” girls of Freehold High in the “swamps of Jersey” a decade before the enrollment of the Boss himself. She’ll pass the rope climbing test wearing one of the school’s checkered athletic rompers, and giggling peers will teach her the concept of leg shaving shortly afterwards. At eighteen, wanderlust and an honors diploma will take her from her family’s chicken farm to her aunt’s apartment in the city and a job in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. She’ll hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Temple Emanuel on the upper east side and decades later describe her as “a nice girl, did you know she was a lesbian?”

In 1955, the expansive, interconnected network of New York City greeneh yidden will produce a blind date with a sideburned, dapper Litvak eight years her senior, and in 1956, a wedding will change Ruth’s “Wagner” to “Koren” and lead to a sharp increase in her cooking skills. At least once a week, the couple will down warm herring and cold vareniki between masterful renditions of the latest waltzes at the local Russian nightclubs, earning them the nickname “Fred and Ginger” amongst their friends. At dawn, he’ll drive her home in their new Chrysler before leaving straight for his twelve hour shift at the veal packing plant in Chelsea. Despite the American names they’ll give their three children in the coming decade, her husband will never call her “Ruth”; instead, he’ll content himself with “Rochele,” “Bopsy,” and the ironic “my Secretary,” in that order of frequency. The second, he knows, will make her blush and yell, “Shah, Ben!” through a perpetually lipsticked smile. The latter will produce a remarkably similar reaction; they’ll both know that for her to be the secretary, he’d have to be the boss.

While eight months pregnant, this “secretary” will stop a mini merry-go-round with her back when the operator at a local park refuses to let her crying toddler off; two days later, she will give birth to a second son six weeks early. She’ll receive a telegram from her sister-in-law in Israel inviting the family to their new home outside Jaffa and proceed to dismantle a four foot chandelier, pack its pieces in her suitcase, and reassemble it in their living room. In the coming years, she will continue to ensure a life of care and dignity for her bipolar brother, rearrange everybody’s furniture without any prompting, and spit on and slap her newly menstruant daughter for good luck. Her friends and children will come to call her a “giant in their eyes,” and they will not be referring to the high heeled shoes and weekly beehive touches at the salon that add another eight inches to her five feet. They may also, depending on the day and how many times she’s secretly reorganized their Tupperware, call her “Napolean.”

In 2016 that daughter will sit on a couch in her Riverdale home, look at the recently discovered photograph, and tell me, the child named for her great aunt Tolza, that I have her mother’s legs. She will struggle to get the words out through tears of laughter, but my father will understand her well enough and say, “What are you talking about, Sharon, Tali’s not malnourished.” And then I’ll stand and point to the way my joints simultaneously invert and protrude over my shins and say, “No, she means that I have the same hyperextended knees.” I could also say, “and her hair, nose, and stubbornness,” but after twenty years of me my father will have known that well enough. Later that night, Ruth Koren, now called “Bubbe,” will drive over with her husband in the front seat and the matzo balls for the obligatory Sabbath chicken soup in the back. Two hours will pass in a haze of second helpings, inquiries into my romantic and academic life, raised voices to accommodate my ninety year old Zaeda’s near deafness, and my repeated assurances that my plate does indeed have protein despite its glaring lack of meat. Bubbe will then yell at my mother for surreptitiously packing leftover brisket into their car, doesn’t she know they don’t eat as much as they used to, and my mother will yell back at her to let my ninety year old Zaeda eat some cake for God’s sake.

For now though, here, she is twelve year old Rochele Wagner, and she is dressed as a dreidel. She wishes that her mother’s sister Tolza and other cousins could see her too, but part of knows that they’ve been burned away with all the others. She is four feet tall, speaks next to no English, and knows nothing of New Jersey or nightclubs or merry-go-rounds or bipolarism. Instead, she knows that her mother, father, and younger brother have taken breaks from their respective potato peeling, bricklaying, and multiplication tables to watch her sing in Hebrew tonight. The girl in the photograph has put weeks into a show that deserves an international audience in the millions, and the ad I wish I could retroactively write reads something like this:  

Looking for something a little different this holiday season? International political strife got you down, and/or downright xenophobic? Curious about the army barrack kind of life? Ladies and Gentleman, it is our distinct pleasure to invite you to Schlachtensee’s 1946 Chanukah Extravaganza! Starring: Cardboard, glitter, and Jewish refugees!

And then this photograph at the bottom. Eat your heart out, Rockettes. Nes Gadol Hayah Poh.