In 1939, my grandparents had left behind their house on Viktoriastrasse, a leafy lane in the town of Elberfeld, where generations of German Jewish women like my grandmother had kept impeccably well maintained, intimidatingly scrubbed homes...Cleaning was something of a sub-religion, a new denomination in the ever- more-secular Jewish world of my grandmother. This was something she had in common with Mrs. Fujimoto, who, I should clarify, was not a German Jew. My grandmother went at housecleaning like a demon, and even in the Weimar years, when my grandfather’s ribbon factory in Elberfeld was doing well and they had the money to hire housemaids, my grandmother was loath to turn over the cleaning to anyone else. Oh, she had no qualms assigning the intimate task of breast-feeding my mom to a wet nurse, but polishing the silverware?--ach Du lieber, now that was personal.
My grandparents had left a lot behind in Germany—their language, which upon arrival in America they pretty much refused to speak, except unconsciously when counting out playing cards and totting up points in their weekly bridge games, or in the occasional nursery rhymes they would sing to my sister and me. Hoppa hoppa Reiter, wenn er fällt dann schreit er...
So they left behind their language, if not their accent. And their house on Viktoriastrasse, if not their cleaning habits. And they left behind their mothers. My grandfather had to make a bargain with the Kommandant at Dachau—said he already had visas to leave with his wife and children, just release him and they’ll get out on the first available ship to America, stop waiting for the mothers’ visas to come through.
No time for the bread to rise: my grandparents, like the Jews of Egypt, left in haste. They threw their clothes into suitcases, they hid my grandmother’s jewelry in the insulation of the icebox door, and they left their house and their mothers in Elberfeld. The icebox got out. Their mothers didn’t.
My grandparents’ house in San Francisco still felt to me like a piece of the Old World: there was a certain Prussian formality, tempered by very warm and generous surprises—a secret candy drawer...toys hidden in the piano bench...a foosball game in the closet. Reluctantly as she aged, my grandmother yielded more and more of the housework to Mrs. Fujimoto—a fellow San Franciscan who had her own family story of wrongful imprisonment. Her family too had left their homes in haste, spent the war in internment camps, and had returned to San Francisco simply to carry on their lives.
My grandmother loved Mrs. Fujimoto, respected her talents. She may have been the only housekeeper who actually exceeded my grandmother’s exacting standards. Before a Thursday morning visit, my grandmother would go around the house anxiously fluffing the pillows...tidying up for the housekeeper. And Thursday mornings were the only time that my grandmother allowed her husband—the man she had married at age 19 and with whom she would eventually spend 72 years— yes, Thursday mornings were his one weekly appointed time to eat his beloved breakfast treat: matza. You see, matza was simply too crumbly to risk being eaten on days when Mrs. Fujimoto was not on hand to vacuum away the offending shards.
I don’t know if my grandmother ever explained to Mrs. Fujimoto what the little cracker crumbs were that she vacuumed up every Thursday. But I can imagine how it might have sounded, the way my grandmother would say it as we gathered around the seder table:
“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in need come and celebrate.
This year we are slaves: Next year may we all be free.”
--Peter L. Stein
commissioned by and presented at the City Winery's Downtown Seder, San Francisco, 4/9/14