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A daughter of survivors tells the 'second chapter' in their story
Life—in many ways—was a Jewish Norman Rockwell painting for Linda Pressman, growing up in Skokie in the 1960s and 70s.
Her childhood included all the usual trappings of suburbia of that era—manicured lawns, her beloved banana seat-decked bicycle, and frequent trips to meet the Good Humor truck jingling down the streets of her neighborhood.
Her idyllic upbringing glided along in stark contrast to that of her parents, Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. While Pressman grew up in post-war Skokie, one of the safest locales in the world to be Jewish, her parents spent their formative years in the most unsafe place in the world to be Jews.
After immigrating to Chicago following the war, her parents raised a full house of seven daughters, Pressman the second to last. She chronicles her experiences—funny, wacky, and heartbreaking—in her new book Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors and Skokie (CreateSpace), a story offering a unique perspective on the Holocaust, one generation removed from the war. In conjunction with Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Pressman, who now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, will return to Chicago to speak about her book in April.
Helene Burt, Pressman's mother, hailed from Lithuania and Poland, and then survived the Holocaust in the forests of Eastern Europe. Pressman's father, Harry Burt (who passed away in 1975), and his family fled their hometown in Poland, and spent the war in the frozen tundra of Siberia. After the war, Pressman's parents met each other at a displacement camp in West Germany, before eventually making their way to the States.
Unlike many Holocaust survivors, in the immediate years following the war, Helene Burt "was loud with the Holocaust, in your face with the Holocaust," as Pressman writes in your book. While her father was more taciturn, Helene talked about the war to her daughters every chance she got. As comfortable as her mother was telling her story, Pressman was just as uncomfortable hearing it, finding it too hard to wrap her mind around a world so removed from her, so overwhelmed by her mom's oversimplified anecdotes that always ended with "…and then the Germans killed them all." It was only in her adulthood that Pressman came to terms with listening to her mother's stories and even sharing them through her writing.
In advance of her visit to Chicago, I spoke with Pressman by phone.
How do you characterize children of survivors?
Linda Pressman: There are different types of children of survivors. There are the types that really attach to their parents' stories and who can talk about it…And then, there are the types like my sisters and I who built a wall and didn't want to hear it. My mom—now age 81—would start talking and we would run out of the house. I heard a filtered amount—I heard the bomb, I heard the grenade—and that was enough.
As time went by, you decided you wanted to tell your parents' story. What changed for you?
As I would share the story [of growing up in Skokie at writers' workshops], the other students would say they want to know more about …I can't talk about what it's like to have Holocaust survivor parents and not say that this story happened. The reason why they…hoarded food and wouldn't spend money on anything that wasn't food or shelter was because of [what they went through in Europe]…To be able to tell what kind of a crazy, miraculous, heartbreaking, and yet funny childhood I had, to tell what that their experiences led to has been an honor to tell.
Describe the dichotomy between your mother's upbringing and yours as a girl in Skokie.
My mom would talk about the war, and I'd look outside and there was no forest and there were no Nazis…Her experiences led her to believe that it wasn't safe to be Jewish. She was very young—11 years old—when the Nazis marched into her town. And then, until she got to the U.S. at 19, it was very much not a good thing to be Jewish. In her stories, every single person ends up dead, every story has a bad ending…But here I am living in the 1960s in Skokie and it seemed like the stories were really obscure. Now I know that the war hadn't happened that long before, [but back then] it seemed like she was talking about a different planet. She was talking about a place where it wasn't safe to be Jewish. In Skokie, everyone—I mean everyone—was Jewish. There couldn't be a safer place to be Jewish than Skokie in the 1960s.
How has being the daughter of survivors affected your worldview?
Finding out that your parents have suffered is a really disconcerting moment in the life of any child. As a [little] kid, my impression was my parents were like other parents. I couldn't hear the accents because they were too close to me to actually hear them. As I left home and went to school, it occurred to me that my parents were different than other parents...I started realizing that my parents came from this different place and suffered and they weren't just safe here being Bobby soxers and dancing to the Big Bands in the 1940s. It has made me feel protective of her all these years.
How does your mother feel about your book?
My mom could never stop talking about the Holocaust. It was a problematic issue for me. I would call her up and we would be talking about dinner or shopping or doing something typical and suddenly she'd change the subject and we'd be talking about the Holocaust…and then when I gave her my book, it was like this huge burden was lifted from her. She feels relief that her story will live on without her having to talk about it all the time.
As the next generation, do you feel a responsibility to tell their story?
I don't feel that I'm the best person to testify about the Holocaust. I do feel like I'm the best person to testify as to what happens after the war. Here are these two people who come out of Siberia and out of the forest. The question children of survivors can answer very eloquently is 'Did they live happily ever after?' I can't ever tell a Holocaust story as well as a survivor actually could and thank goodness there are so many testimonies about that. But I can tell what kind of parents they were and how sad or happy they were or how they lived the rest of their life. To me, that is a very compelling second chapter to the story.
Let's say the world was your (Jewish) oyster…where in the world would you like to travel to—Israel, the Galapagos Islands, Wilmette?
We posed that question to Jewish Chicagoans with the travel bug.
Here's where they're itching to go…
Neurologist, former Chicagoan who lives in Denver, Colorado.
Not just saying this because it's JUF News, but Israel. The tremendous history, the culture, the architecture, the religion—one of those places I really should have visited by now but haven't.
Teacher, lives in Chicago.
Where would I love to travel? I'd Backpack through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. There is nothing better than the serene landscape of Asia to clear your mind and bring you back to what's important.
Assistant Director, AJC Chicago, lives in Chicago.
Argentina! I have family there that I've never met and my grandmother was born there.
Teacher, lives in Oak Park.
I would love to do the wine country trip in northern California; the last time I was in that area I was pregnant-torture! I would also love to go to New York with my husband; we've both been there but never together. We love going out to see music and trying new restaurants, so I can just imagine the fun we'd have there together. We always talk about it. Maybe one day...
Attorney, lives in Chicago.
I want to go to Iceland and explore the natural beauty, see The Northern Lights, and scuba dive the Silfra Rift, a crack between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Director of International Affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council, lives in Chicago.
I have always wanted to visit wildlife national reserves in Africa. The animal habitat is shrinking so this is the time to truly experience the beauty and wonder of the continent.
Public Relations Manager, JUF, lives in Chicago.
I would like to travel back to Israel with my wife. We had to curtail our honeymoon itinerary because she got sick, so she still has not seen the Dead Sea, Masada, Ein Gedi, most of Tel Aviv, or the best beaches.
School Social Worker, lives in Glenview.
There are so many parts of the world I would like to visit. Although the winter season has been mild, in thinking about where I would like to go if I could hop on a plane today, I would prefer to go somewhere incredibly warm, peaceful, and relaxing. That being said, Antigua and Anguilla both seem like ideal Caribbean island destinations for my hypothetical trip anywhere in the world!
Attorney/Jury Consultant, lives in Chicago.
I would like to go to Iceland over the summer. It is full of spectacular mountains and glaciers, is volcanically active, has many great rivers, upper 50's temperature in the summer, very unusual nature all around the island, whales, and an interesting Scandinavian culture.
Senior Private Equity Consultant, a Chicagoan currently living in London.
Traveling allows me to have completely new experiences I can't find in my own backyard. Traveling through India, I experienced a Brahman ceremony in Varanasi, Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in Hindu and Latin in Agra, and lit a travel menorah to welcome Chanukah close to the Nepalese border. My next adventure will be in Morocco, where I can get lost in the winding streets as I explore ancient Medina and the old Jewish quarter.
Information Systems Consultant, lives in Chicago.
Everywhere. Israel, as it is a home and I have friends to see. Italy, well, because it is Italy :). I want to experience India. Argentina again, Brazil, all of South America. Scandinavia, (the fjords, in June or July of course). Australia. China. Thailand. Vietnam. Africa, (safari in Morocco, Tanzania), Russia, Poland, Lithuania (family history), even the Congo or Sudan, and Iran, Lebanon, Syria (highly unlikely I would actually go, but would like to safely see and experience all of the world, the good and bad). Spain, Portugal, Prague, Budapest. I could list every country and city. North Korea would be fascinating, not a beach vacation, but... Yellowstone, Glacier, Arches, Zion, Joshua Tree, Badlands, Bryce, Cape Hatteras, Crater Lake, Death Valley, there are 58 protected areas known as National Parks in the US alone, and I want to see them all. Sorry, was I supposed to pick just one place?
Two families in the Chicago Jewish community need your help. Marc Chibnik, father to four children, suffered last January from high fevers and what was thought to be pneumonia. However, he was blindsided to receive unimaginable news, diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma ALK+ IV (a form of blood cancer). A transplant from an unrelated donor is essential for his survival. He needs the transplant immediately while he is in remission because of the aggressiveness of the disease. His cancer came back within seven months of his last transplant using his own stem cells.
Nine-year-old Lacey Horwich was diagnosed with HLH, a rare blood disorder that causes the blood cells to attack the body's cells and organs. She has been in the hospital since August 1, 2011 fighting for her life. Most recently, Horwich woke and discovered she has permanent, severe hearing loss. Despite all this, she and her family fight on for her to return to the things she loves; spending time with family, dancing, and painting.
The best match for Chibnik and Horwich are members of the Jewish community. Many synagogues and Jewish organizations have been hosting bone marrow donor drives. A quick five minute swab is all it takes to be added to the donor registry. If you are interested in hosting a donor drive, contact Jennifer Baird at Be The Match at (877) 601-1926 ext. 7742.
While it is hard not to think of the current political climate when thinking of Iran, Persia was once the center of the spice trade for the ancient world. Animals, textiles, metals, gems and foodstuffs all passed through its ports. Ancient Persia was quite the cosmopolitan empire with influences from India, Egypt, Syria and more.
Jews have a long, tempestuous history in Persia that dates back to biblical times. The books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles and Esther contain references to Persia. Present-day Iran is the home to the largest Jewish community living in a Muslim-majority country.
The foods of Persia are exotic and reflect thousands of years of tradition. Pomegranates, pistachios, rose water and almond pastes are just a few of the flavors of Persia that we cherish today. Persian cuisine is fresh and brightly flavored and seasonal.
Khoreshes are part stir fry and part stew. The simple ingredients are first browned, and then cooked together and delicately spiced with saffron and cinnamon to highlight each ingredient. The end result is a full flavored and delicious meal.
Chicken and Pomegranate Khoresh
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken
2 large carrots, sliced into julienne
½ pound shelled walnuts, toasted
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup pomegranate paste diluted in 2 ½ cups water or 4 cups fresh pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
1. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the chicken and continue sautéing, stirring occasionally, until golden brown (about 15 minutes). Add the carrot strips and stir-fry 2 minutes longer.
2. Finely grind the toasted walnuts in a food processor and transfer to a small bowl. Add the salt, diluted pomegranate paste, sugar, cinnamon, and saffron water and mix well to create a smooth paste. Transfer the walnut mixture to the pan with the chicken, cover and simmer for 40 minutes over very low heat, stirring occasionally.
3. Taste the sauce and adjust for seasoning and thickness. This khoresh should be sweet and sour, and very thick. Add additional pomegranate paste for sourness or sugar for sweetness. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with warm water.
4. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve. Serve with Jeweled Rice Pilaf.
Jeweled Rice Pilaf
2 cups Basmati rice (I use brown Basmati rice)
4 cups chicken stock or water
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
½ cup chopped toasted pistachios
½ cup chopped toasted almonds
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
½ cup dried barberries* (if not available, substitute chopped dried cranberries)
Suggested garnishes: dried barberries and fresh mint
1. Place the rice, chicken stock or water, saffron and salt in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting cover. Simmer over medium low until the rice is cooked completely (about 25 minutes).
2. Transfer the rice to a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.
3. Serve the rice garnished with additional barberries (or chopped cranberries) and chopped mint.
*Dried Barberries are the tart and garnet colored fruit from a barberry tree. They are commonly found in Middle Eastern and Persian grocery stores and on-line.
And since tomorrow is Purim, here is a little something to brighten the holiday. This cocktail can easily be made for children by eliminating the vodka.
Yield 4 cocktails
4 ounces vodka
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate paste
1 ½ cups soda water
1. Stir together and serve. Garnish with orange slice.
Get real experience from your internship in Israel. Spend 5-10 months kick-starting your career with world-class innovators who won't send you out for coffee. Instead, you'll be a real part of the action. Here at Masa Israel Journey, we don't just help you find the best internships, we also offer funding to help you get there.
Go to www.MasaIsrael.org/Intern to see how we can help you find and fund your perfect internship.
Start here. Go further.
Sign up for a JUF Chicago community bus this winter. Taglit-Birthright Israel is a FREE 10-day experience of a lifetime. If you are Jewish, 18-26 years old, and have never been on an organized peer program before - let your journey begin!
With Shorashim you experience the adventure of Israel through the eyes of Israeli peers. Shorashim is the Taglit-Birthright Israel program where all groups travel for 10-days with Israelis your age. Visit http://israelwithisraelis.com for info.