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Florence Grende – The Butcher’s Daughter: a Memoir Excerpt
Florence Grende The Butcher’s Daughter
In The Butcher’s Daughter: A Memoir, Florence Grende shares her Jewish family’s journey of surviving Hitler’s Europe in the forests of Poland, and offers a glimpse into her father’s partisan activities there. Her story is framed by her coming of age in an America where, as one of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, she must find a balance between belonging and exile, and between her own life and her wounded family’s history, in order to come into her own.
“‘The Butcher’s Daughter’ is a deeply personal account of growing up in the aftermath of atrocity. It is not only the clearest view we are ever likely to get of the myriad and intimate ways that trauma is inherited and suffering passed on, it is also witness to the fact that the strength it takes to prevail is also part of that inheritance. Luminous and profound, ferocious and sublime, ‘The Butcher’s Daughter”will move you beyond measure.” –Richard Hoffman, author of “Half the House”and “Love and Fury”
Excerpt from the Introduction
In memory of your grandparents, Aaron and Helen And in memory of Joe
Try to look. Just try and see.
Charlotte Delbo “Auschwitz and After”
Outside, America Waits
“Were they in concentration camps?” a high school friend asks upon learning my parents are European Jews.
“They survived in the Polish woods,” I say, steering the conversation elsewhere.
Mameh, hearing German rifle shots, crouched low in a snowy trench, next to two quivering deer.
Tateh ran, without his first wife and children.
To bury their dead, they dug graves using spoons.
In my home, framed photos of dead relatives stared out from our walls. Images of the martyred many spilled over from albums and shoeboxes, apparitions rising into the ether like ghosts. I was raised with them, the slain, the lost.
It’s nobody’s business.
I remember a bitter taste and the color gray; the gray of water and wave, the rock gray of wall, floor and railing, the silvery gray sparkle of flying fish, their splash of tail and fin accompanying us on our journey across the Atlantic.
Mameh coaxes orange sections to settle my stomach. Juice dribbling from the corners of my mouth, I’m nestled against her, twirling my hair, back and forth, back and forth in rhythm to the up and down shifting of the big ship. We’re on the USNS General Harry Taylor, a Navy transport now freighted with refugees. Leaving Heidelberg, from Bremerhaven, ten days rocking and tumbling across ocean. Ten days pressed against each other amid the wailing of babies, amid the chatter of Yiddish, Polish and German, the barking of English, and the dazed gaze of the stateless immigrants animated only by the excited call of kik, kik—”look, look,” at the first sighting of land.
At the Port of New York we disembark into a cavernous room whose harsh light makes me squint. People mill about lugging suitcases, some bound in old twine. Families huddle together on great wooden benches and in small clusters under windows spanning floor to ceiling. Trunks are piled like blocks in empty corners. A uniformed man approaches carrying a clipboard, asking Tateh and Mameh questions in a language none of us understand. Mameh contracts, head lowered, eyes fastened on the shiny lower buttons of his jacket. Tateh clears his throat, rearranges his shoulders to expand his bulky frame and offers papers. The man stamps them, pins a tag on my coat bearing my name and number. I clutch Gerda, my doll, grip Mameh’s hand tight.
Outside, America waits.
My Brother is Born an American
The woman runs her palm around her swollen belly and grunts. Already she hates this thing growing inside her, this thing she can’t control. Already she feels its greed, taking, taking until she has not a hair left to give. She can hardly look at me, the one she has now, born soon after the war. The woods, the nightly fires, her uncle’s blood; she still smells it all. She took the memories into her entire body then, of her father, brother, uncle, and now there is no room for more. But each day now brings an intrusion into the gauzy curtain she’s drawn between herself and the outside. The woman wants only to sit immobile behind that curtain and be absorbed by nothing. “Nothing” is safe, “nothing” is home, “nothing” is no memory. Children insist on pulling that curtain away, wanting to be fed, clothed, talked to, held. The woman has so far endured the motions, attending to childcare with fast, hard movements, always eager to return to her own nothing.
This new one, she knows, will be strong, insistent, and so, one afternoon, when her belly is almost ready to burst, she climbs onto the kitchen table, pulls her hands into tight fists by her sides, closes her eyes and jumps. Landing crumpled on the floor, she feels a rush of warm liquid between her legs, the sharp twisting of her insides, and she begins to scream, loud, piercing cries.
The beast rouses to sharpen its claws on the corner wall, then, circling the floor, grunts and snakes into a curl.
Much later, in the hospital with her husband by her side, the nurse brings a child to her. Wrapped in a blue blanket, its body smells of damp earth and talcum. The woman, refusing to look, turns her face to the wall, and says,
“This is not mine. I had a dead baby. Take it away.”
The husband, not knowing how to respond to this stranger, his wife, begins to laugh. The nurse hesitates a moment, puts the child between them, then quietly leaves the room.
And that is how my brother came into the world.
I Feel Myself Dissolving
Twirling thumb and index finger through a lock of brown hair, I caress the soft smooth strands draping my neck. Back and forth, back and forth, like silk against skin. A habit I’m told acquired in infancy at Mameh’s breast, it recalls milk and warmth and the comfort of adults. A habit I carried onto the USNS General Harry Taylor, it soothed me as the big ship tumbled across ocean while waves crashed against railings, fish frolicked on the water’s surface, and nausea, a tightness in my throat, lasted days. It was a habit I used to soothe myself then, one that transports me into sleep, into forgetting, at least for the night, Mameh’s angry words.
Mameh riles often these days.
This time, I made noise and woke my brother.
I haven’t discovered yet that Mameh wonders why she’s still alive, still gets up each morning tasting bitterness, choking on air, while the men in her family, her brother, father, uncle are all dead. I haven’t discovered yet that Mameh views her own womanhood as less than: less than men, less than intelligent, less than worthy. For now I’m convinced I must be bad if Mameh says so.
I stroke a lock of hair, back and forth, between thumb and index finger, back and forth, rocking gently and wondering when my mother will return. She’s been gone for what seems hours.
“Shopping,” she had said.
I watch my little brother sleeping. He’s moving his legs around in circles, as though already practicing to walk away, occasionally hitting ankle or toe against the side of his crib. How would it feel to pick him up, carry him over to the window, open it and let go? I’ve heard that a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building can gather so much speed and strength that, like a bullet, it can kill a person on impact. I imagine my brother, crimson pajamas somersaulting down five stories, picking up speed, a red baby bullet.
Sometimes my body feels far away from me, like the echo of an El train after it disappears from rails. I’ve been twirling my hair continuously since my brother was born, fingering, holding on, needing this contact with my body, to prove this body is solid flesh and bone that can be touched, felt.
Hearing the familiar rattle of key against lock I rush to the door, eager to greet my mother, eager to show her my own eagerness. Mameh’s face is flushed from the summer’s heat, beads of sweat blossoming on her forehead from the sticky Bronx air. Her cotton dress clings to her, half moons formed under her arms. She lays her packages on top of the kitchen table, absentmindedly pushing aside the candelabra she’ll light for tonight’s Shabbos. She keeps one bag with her as she walks towards the crib, a white bag decorated with greens, reds, blues and yellows streaming like confetti alongside the edge and crease of paper. My brother, awake now, coos as he extends his arms up to her, wanting to be lifted out, to crawl around the apartment floor. My mother smiles and raises him high over the slats, letting out a grand Oompah as she releases him onto the black and white checked linoleum floor. He curls himself head to toe, peers up at her sideways as she reaches into the bag and pulls out a soft plush puppy, its pink tongue lolling in a goofy doggie smile, its plastic eyes rounded, like my brother’s, in doggie delight.
Gnawing on the Bone of Belonging
The neighborhood strays, mongrel pack dogs, weave in and out of traffic, their muscle, fur and sinew loping alongside steel. I imagine these exotic creatures to have emerged from some wild, lush place. Traveling together, seeming to possess the rambling streets, they form a rich mass of tan, gray and black patches.
In silence, I follow, pretending to be one of them.
Here, on the streets, or in Crotona Park, I’m away from my parents’ arguing, my brothers cries, from the stifling atmosphere of that thing I don’t yet understand, its weight seeping into the very walls of our home.
Mameh calls it Dee Melchome.
The Weight of Hidden Words
When I speak, the other children in my third grade class lean over their desks, straining to hear.
“A weak voice,” Mrs. Hamilton says.
I can barely speak above a whisper. Sometimes my mouth forms words that seem to come from outside my body, as though fished from the air swirling around me and not from inside myself. Sometimes I think hard about the words before speaking, then they stumble around my tongue, racing and crawling all at once.
“Speak up,” the teacher urges.
I hoard my words. Like Oreo cookies, I don’t want to use them up.
I believe each of us is allotted a finite number of words per lifetime, these words housed in invisible satchels held deep within ourselves. Kings or queens are allotted extra bags containing foreign words used in emergencies, or diplomatic matters, such as meetings to end wars.
“Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore,” Mrs. Smith, the speech teacher, says, “Repeat.”
Every Thursday and Friday Sally opens shop to do business, which I then pronounce, syllable by syllable. My words tumble out in a whisper.
“Louder,” Mrs. Smith demands sitting across from me in the dusty Bronx schoolroom.
Stubborn sounds rustle softly like breeze through dunes. I imagine Sally and Peter-the-Pickled-Pepper-Picker sitting underneath the boardwalk, sipping orange soda, passing popcorn, enunciating together, sibilant.
Ward and I are the only two white children in Mrs. Hamilton’s class. Ward, who is fatherless, has blue eyes, blond hair and a blind mother he helps get around. I have a crush on Ward who wears thick glasses. One day Ward asks to come to my house to play.
“Only Jews here,” Mameh says after I ask her. “Unfair,” I want to shout, but keep quiet instead.
Quiet is better. Better than shouting. Better than the buzzing beginning to swell inside my head. Quiet is better than upsetting Mameh.
I didn’t know then that in Poland, where Mameh came from, Jewish children were commonly taunted, beaten and cursed by their Christian counterparts. I didn’t realize she may be have been protecting me.
I next come across Ward on the street, his arm threaded through his mother’s elbow, guiding her tap-tapping across a busy street. He’s hunched close to her, looking right and left, walking slowly, with care, as others rush by. They walk in lockstep, as one, Ward’s vigilance noble to my eyes.
Turning, I walk the other way.
Like Witches Maybe
In Poland I vas guerrilla, Tateh told me.
In my child’s mind, I was perplexed.
I had seen gorillas in picture books.
Although big like a gorilla, my father didn’t look like one. For one thing, he lacked fur.
Perhaps he lost his thick coat in Poland.
Or maybe a witch transformed him, back then, in the woods.
That must be it, I reasoned. I knew something bad had happened in the woods to Tateh and Mameh.
Like witches maybe.
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Florence Grende was born in American Occupied Germany to Holocaust survivor parents and grew up in the Bronx. As a young woman, she earned a Master of Social Work degree, and later, at age sixty, a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. “The Butcher’s Daughter” is her debut book. She hardly considers herself a late bloomer having pursued careers first as a therapist, then an AT&T union worker, a mixed-media artist, and Jewish Film Festival creator/organizer.
She holds an MFA from the Stonecoast writing program at the University of Southern Maine. Her stories and poems have appeared in “Litro Magazine,””Babel Fruit,””Poetica,””The Sun,””The Berkshire Review,””The Women’s Times,” and in the anthologies “Robot Hearts: True and Twisted Tales of Seeking Love in the Digital Age,” and “The Widow’s Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival.”
“In a clear voice that manages to be both haunted and compassionate, Grende reminds us that ‘Monster and victim can be one and the same. ‘Tackling subjects as harsh as war and family dysfunction, she writes with exquisite attention to sound and prose rhythms, reminding us, as all masterful writers do, that what you say matters because of how you say it. What a stunning debut.”
–Barbara Hurd, author of “Listening to the Savage: On River Notes and Half-heard Melodies””
Florence Grende’s Memoir wields the keen, bracing edge of utter honesty…She writes of the bits and pieces of rage, endurance, bafflement, grief, and the will to live. Here is a story of a woman trying to move forward in the new land of America but who has been raised with the shades of the European dead for company. The terse, poetic, prose makes the reader feel what it was like to grow up and live with silences that truly were unspeakable.
–Baron Wormser, Poet Laureate of Maine, 2000-2006, Author of “The Road Washes out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living off the Grid”