family pets
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The Saga of My Family’s “Pets” Around the World

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Warsaw, Poland 1943

I am three years old, living in Warsaw with my mother under false identity as a Catholic trying to survive the hunt for Jews by the German occupiers. We have a one-room apartment, which serves as bedroom, dining room and living room. When the weather is nice, I go down to the garden and play with some children. 

There is a cute, white rabbit in a cage by the rear entrance. I do not know to whom he belongs. I must assume that he was kept to be served as a Christmas special treat. But, as a three-year-old, that thought does not enter my mind. I decide to adopt him as my special friend. Each time I go down I pet him, feed him and take great pleasure just watching him.

Chyliczki, Poland 1944

We are refugees from bombed out Warsaw. We have been given shelter with a farmer, his wife and two daughters in their two-room farmhouse. There is no indoor plumbing or electricity, but we are relatively safe. Everyone on the farm needs to help out with the chores, even I, the four-year-old. I am put in charge of their only cow. She is by no means my pet, but I need to watch her and make sure she does not walk into the wheat field. 

One day, she decides to do just that. She is huge. As I see her moving into the forbidden fields, I am behind her with a large stick and hit her as hard as I can. The more I hit, the further she goes into the wheat field. I panic! I have failed my mission. Sobbing, I run to the house looking for help. I do not remember if I was given any other chores, but I will never forget this “pet.”

Sopot, Poland 1945 – 1947

The war is over. We are free but we still live as Catholics. It is too dangerous to be a Jew in Poland. Father has found us an apartment and started a watchmaker, optical and jewelry store. He bought a German shepherd, a well-trained guard dog, Tom, to keep him safe as he goes to and from the store.

I am very excited to have a dog. He is not used to his new environment and is lethargic, not wanting to do anything. I want to see him eat. I take him by his collar and try to drag him to his food bowl. He growls, turns his head around and his fang rips into my finger, drawing blood. (I still have the scar.) My father is furious! He takes off his belt and hits Tom over and over again. The dog whimpers, goes under a table to hide. 

But from this day on, he becomes my protector. Anyone who even pretends to hurt me is confronted with his growling, aggressive stands. One day, Father pretends to strike me and Tom shows his fangs, ready to defend me. Sometime in 1947, however, he disappears. We never learn what exactly happened to him. My father had been approached by Russian sailors banked at the Sopot Dock who wanted to buy the dog. Father had refused, so he assumes that Tom was lured away by a female in heat.

Bad Homburg, Germany 1951

We move to Germany where my father again reestablishes a business. We are living in a hotel, waiting for an available apartment in Frankfurt as there is a great dearth of lodgings after the war. There are no children around to play with, so I am bored and decide to catch frogs. I collect quite a few and put them in a large glass jar.

I do not remember how I feed them, but I enjoy watching them. That is, until one evening, I realize that the biggest frog has disappeared. I search throughout my room but cannot find him. That night I can hardly sleep, terrified he would jump on me. In the morning, I release all the frogs and never catch any again.

Frankfurt, Germany 1952 – 1959

Father finds a beautiful apartment and life becomes normal. Mother recreates Jewish traditional dishes. Among them is the Friday night sweet carp. She buys a live carp early in the week, fills the bathtub with water and puts it in to stay fresh until Friday. My little brother then decides that this is his pet. He feeds, plays with and watches it – until the dreaded moment when he sees Mother kill it. He is very upset and refuses to eat his cooked pet. After a few weeks, Mother capitulates and buys the carp on Fridays and has the salesman kill it before she brings it home to cook.

Frankfurt, Germany 1960 -1961

I am newly married and living in US Army-provided apartment. I decide I want to buy birds. First, I buy a canary, hoping to hear some beautiful sounds. One day, however, he flies out of his cage as I am cleaning it and flutters haphazardly around the room. Somehow, he makes it back into the cage, but the next morning, I find him dead. I guess his poor heart could not bear the frightening experience. 

Next, I buy a couple of parakeets as I am told they make good, friendly pets. However, I am not informed that buying two is not a good idea. They have each other as company and are not interested in interacting with humans. Occasionally, I let them out of their cage to fly around. One day, they somehow escape through an open window. No more birds as pets for me.

Fort Bragg, North Carolina 1964

I am making gefillte fish, getting ready for Shabbos. One of the children opens the rear door and a cat jumps on my kitchen counter and gobbles up my fish.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1970 -1972

We have left the Army and our eight-year-old son, Steven, desperately wants a dog. The area where we live is not conducive to having a dog. We convince him to pick an alternative. We end up with turtles, goldfish and a caiman in rapid succession. Some of the turtles get crushed when our daughter accidentally steps on them. Several goldfish commit suicide by jumping out of the aquarium, and the caiman does not survive very long either.

family pets over the years

St. Louis, Missouri 1975 – 1980

We are renting a townhouse and convince our son that this is still not a good place to get a dog. But one day, a stray cat appears on our porch. Steven places a bowl of milk for him and that is all the animal needs to adopt us. Steven names him Sam and we take him to a vet for rabies shots. He becomes a member of our family.

That is, until we buy a house and move. We decide not to take Sam with us. He is a free spirit and would probably not do well in a new environment.

Our new house has a big back yard, and now we ran out of excuses not to get a dog. So, we go to the humane society and Steven picks out a cute puppy. He and Sarah, our daughter, swear up and down that they will walk him and potty train him. 

“You will not have to do anything with the dog, Mom! We will take care of her.” 

Steven names the puppy “Sheish” (six) in Hebrew as the sixth member of our family after Mom, Dad, Sarah, Steven and Sam. Well, all good intentions do not materialize of course. The puppy cries in the middle of the night and who hears her and takes her out? Of course – Mom.

Steven tries hard to train her to listen and come to him as he calls her and unfortunately, he does succeed. One afternoon, Sheish runs across the street, Steven calls her to come back and as she does, one of our neighbors happens to turn into our street and runs her over.

We rush her to the vet, but it is too late. She cannot be revived. Steven is inconsolable. It takes quite a while for him to get over this experience. Finally, though, he agrees to get another dog. This time, I put my foot down – we will only get a dog who is housebroken. We settle on Lucy, a nice middle-aged, mixed breed. 

But Steven just needs more pets. Both my husband and I said “NO!” to a snake and a monkey. However we do get a gerbil, a mouse and a hamster. Steven decides to find out who is smarter— a hamster or a gerbil. He builds a maze in a big box, puts some food at the exit and times which of the two animals will find it. The result is disappointing. Neither animal is able to finish the race.

Eventually, the gerbil dies, and we have a funeral ceremony in our back yard. I do not remember what happens to the hamster, but he probably also dies.

Over the next few years, Lucy, our dog, becomes a nice addition to our family. But then, the children grow up. Steven goes to Chicago to a Yeshiva; Sarah graduates and leaves for a year of study in Israel. We are left with Lucy. I do not mind, having to take care of her. She is housebroken and a nice companion. When my husband leaves on business trips, it is comforting to have a dog who is alert and barks if anyone approaches the house.

Unfortunately, Lucy gets too old and loses control of her bowels. The vet tells us that there is nothing he can do. We call the Humane Society, and they take her away.

I must admit I miss her. I miss her excited welcome when I come home from work and feel her absence keenly when my husband is out of town. All of those animals over the years provide fond memories of earlier times.

Read more by Felicia Graber.

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  1. This is a great story. Love how you made marginal pets into things to love. Be sure to share this story with your son.