my parents’ move from Belgium
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The Pearl Earrings

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Whenever I open this drawer, I see them, the earrings. I see them framing her small delicate fine chiseled face, highlighting her dark complexion and enhancing her refined air. Her black eyes and hair and her simple hairstyle completed her almost Hispanic appearance. Those beautiful eyes never seemed to smile, however, and the slightly drooping corners of her lips added to the poignancy and sadness to her face.

I seldom heard her laugh or saw the corner of her lips turn up in a genuine smile, but when she did her eyes glowed with a brilliant light. There was something regal, noble in her bearing. During the last years of her life, her black hair was speckled with gray yet her almost wrinkle-free complexion belied her age.

Lipstick and a light dusting of face powder were the only touches she used to enhance her features. She dressed simply and pleasantly, preferring classic, ageless styles to current fads. But she always wore her jewelry, nothing showy, mind you – tastefully small and elegant. And she always wore her pearl earrings.

She did not have a happy life. Brought up in a strictly traditional Jewish household in a small town in Poland, she rebelled early against the obligatory Orthodox restrictions. Her dream was to go to Palestine, to learn farming and join a collective community, a kibbutz. She got a brief taste of her dream when in 1933 she joined a group of young men and women and enrolled in an agricultural school in the land of her ancestors. I think that that year was probably the happiest in her life. She would often talk about it, describing the dirty, strenuous work with love and nostalgia. She would describe her friends, her teachers, the summer heat, the dreams she had had for her future.

But then, the telegram came. Her mother, whom she adored, was gravely ill, her days were numbered. She packed a few necessary items, leaving most behind and made the difficult trip back home. She fully intended to return to Palestine, believing that pioneer existence was her destiny.

However, life had other plans for her. She never went back. Her mother died shortly after her return home. Her sister followed a few months later during childbirth. She and her brother felt the double blow intensely. How could she leave him all alone when he needed her support and help? So, she got a job and remained in Poland. In March of 1939, she married, her future seemed to look up, but again, fate intervened.

A few months after her wedding, on September 1, Hitler invaded Poland and life would never again be the same. By the time I, her daughter was born the following March, living had become a struggle. Daily new restrictions were imposed on the Jewish inhabitants. She had to leave her beautiful apartment, the new linens, the furniture barely two-years old. She could only take whatever she could carry. And this was just the beginning of a long and dangerous journey that would propel her into a new and perilous, treacherous world where a wrong word or a wrong gesture could mean the end of our lives.

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Read more by Felicia Graber.

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