I stood surrounded by familiar names glistening in the sun, the stark grey stones seemed to be illuminated against the bright blue sky. I found myself searching tombstones for recognizable names. It was odd, but I felt comforted. I felt loved. I felt like I was home.
This was my place – surrounded by my people. I felt happy that I had been blessed to have grown up in this suburban community in New Jersey; this community that gave birth to so many incredible people whose memories still bring a chuckle to my mouth.
We gathered together at the Jewish Cemetery on February 27th to pay our last respects to one of my beloved parents’ friends, Ernie. Ernie was one of the complicated characters that filled my childhood with imagination and amusement.
Ernie’s story of survival has always fascinated me. Perhaps it was his accent, or the way his eyes twinkled when he told my daughters “Bernie Stories”- stories about my father, Bernard, who passed away 13 years ago.
Bernard Kislin, my father, son of Samuel Kislin, birth place Vitebsk, Russia, was born in New Brunswick, NJ. Samuel Kislin was one of the lucky ones. His parents had the intuition to send their oldest three sons, which included my thirteen-year-old grandfather, to America prior to WWII. My Bernie lived with his sister, Rose, and his three brothers in New Brunswick before finally settling in Highland Park. The Kislin’s neighbors became his family and lifelong friends. This is how Ernie fits into the picture.
Ernie and his two sisters were also miraculously sent to live in America during WWII. Ernie’s mother had died before the war, and his father was sent to Auschwitz. Ernie arrived in Highland Park when he was fourteen years old, separated from his dear sisters. Ernie was a Holocaust Survivor – in the truest sense of the word.
Ernie was sent to live with a family in Highland Park. Shortly after, the family he was residing with no longer had room for him. A friend of his had an extra room and offered to take him in. So Ernie went to live with Dossie, one of my father’s oldest friends, even though Ernie’s first cousin, Myra (also one of father’s oldest friends), was Ernie’s cousin.
Are you starting to get the picture? So many lives were interwoven into this incredible fabric called life. It was full of struggles, illnesses and financial issues, but one thing that remained sacred was the love of their friendships, good food and laughter.
A lifetime later, Ernie moved into the senior community where my mother resided since the passing of my father. My mother was so pleased to have Ernie by her side. He lived around the corner from Myra (his first cousin) and her husband Marvin, and a few streets from Iris, my mother. It made me feel so happy and content that my mom was still surrounded by the love of her friends.
Standing beside my mother at Ernie’s grave, I looked at the remaining friends and looked at the names on the grave stones of the beautiful souls who filled my childhood. I noticed a black bird that was perched high on a tall tree branch. I thought to myself, “who’s soul is watching over us?” I hope it was you Ernie, listening to all of the love and gratitude for a life well lived. Wow – now that’s a child-like response, but so what? I allowed my heart to feel the love and sadness as the tears ran down my face. I stood there remembering Ernie. I honored his life for being a true survivor and for giving us his beautiful son, Noah, and two grandsons. Seventy years after Hilter’s war on the Jews, I know that his memory and his legacy proves that Hitler did not win.
Then something really interesting happened. The funeral became political. Seriously. One of Ernie’s nephews pledged that he would continue to fight for freedom for refugees in Ernie’s honor. Several additional comments were made about how all of us must not allow this administration to strip away the memory of the Holocaust and allow it to happen again. Ernie would have loved this!
As is in the Jewish tradition, I put dirt on Ernie’s casket. I threw the dirt for my dad, for my mom, and for myself. I thanked him for blessing my parents’ lives with laughter and friendship and for teaching me that the human spirit is stronger than we can imagine. Ernie, I will miss hearing you tell “Bernie Stories.” I loved seeing my dad through your eyes. It was such an honor to listen to your perspective on my father’s life.
And then I drove to my childhood home. I parked the car and got out, despite the guy who was working on his car in the driveway.
I chuckled to myself – thinking that for the 37 years that my father lived at 781 Carpenter Road, he never once opened the hood of a car to work on it.
That was not in Bernie’s repertoire.
I started telling the young man that I grew up in his house and that I just wanted to take a look. I looked at the big tree on the front lawn, remembering how we used to rake the leaves, and smiled. I imagined peeking in the window of my old bedroom and remembering the shag green carpet and the yellow walls. I laughed out loud at the memory of my sister urging me to crawl out of my bedroom window and sunbathe on the roof.
I forgot all the angst of growing up.
And in that moment I just cried. I cried for that little girl who felt so much, but never had the right words to express the intensity of her feelings. I inhaled this amazing feeling of safety and contentment. I literally felt this wave of inner serenity wash over me. I embraced this feeling that I was truly safe, a feeling that I have spent much of my life searching for. It is the result of growing up in a special, protected world full of family and friends – often not knowing who was really family or friends and knowing it didn’t matter.
I find it funny how I needed to go back to my childhood home to remind myself that as long as I remember to feel safe, there isn’t anything I can’t do or feel.
-Nancy Kislin, LCSW & MFT