Family Matters: When I Was Miri
What is in a name? For one woman, her nickname represents a slowly fading era and a childhood that spanned the worlds of German immigrants and American Jewry.
When I became a grandmother, I struggled with what I wanted to be called. I knew it wouldn’t be grandma or nana. No one in my family used those terms.
As the American-born daughter of German Jewish Holocaust refugees, I called my grandmothers oma, the German affectionate term for grandmother. But now my son and daughter use that moniker for my mother, and so I settled for omi. My 5-year-old granddaughter, Chana, manages to keep the two names straight. What she hasn’t noticed is that my mother refers to me as Miri, the German diminutive of Miriam and my childhood nickname.
Not many people call me Miri anymore. When my American-born husband affectionately says Miri, he does not get the German guttural consonants quite right. My German-speaking relatives in the United States and Israel refer to me as Miri. When I hear it pronounced correctly, I feel that I belong.
Close friends and colleagues don’t even know that Miri is my other name, one that symbolizes my life growing up in parallel worlds in Boston in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a life in two different communities, German Jewish immigrant and American, with diverse customs and values that seemed to converge in me. I was aware of the differences on so many levels, from the German custom of setting the table with the teaspoon above the plate to hesitancy about speaking up to a landlord, challenging his authority.
My parents’ friends in the refugee community called me Miri. Almost all of them were members of the Immigrants Mutual Aid Society, which sponsored coffee klatches, Hanukka parties and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.
There, where everyone conversed in German, I learned about what was frequently described as an ideal life in the Old Country, where many Jews prided themselves on being assimilated Germans.
My mother spoke about the furniture stores her family owned in Freiburg, the southern German city where she grew up. When other immigrants visited our apartment, they immediately felt at home when they saw the Schreibshrank, a bookcase and desk combination that had made the transatlantic journey from the store. Many had similarly styled furniture in their own apartments. Fondly, my mother also described the fun she had on her Jewish youth group’s cross-country skiing trips.
If anyone brought up the Holocaust, the subject was usually changed abruptly. Some had survived concentration camps or lost spouses, parents or siblings. Others mentioned how non-Jews who had been close friends suddenly shunned them and did not even say hello when they passed on the street. A few came to Boston via Shanghai or by way of Central or South America, the only places that offered refuge. Still others, like my parents, sailed directly to New York, passing the Statue of Liberty before stepping on American soil. All struggled to build a new life in a land where they knew little of the language, had few if any relatives and were considered enemy aliens until the end of World War II.
IMAS gave the refugees a familiar community where they could share joys and sorrows with others who understood their struggles and spoke their language. The organization even provided a final resting place at the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Martha Halberstadt and her husband, Kurt, owners of a dry-cleaning business, were regulars at IMAS events. Martha’s recent death at 90 left me in tears. I wasn’t sure why, since I had seen her only a few times during the past three decades at rare social gatherings and, of course, funerals. Then it hit me. Not many people are left to call me Miri. The realization left me feeling abandoned, like a little girl rather than a 62-year-old grand-mother. I tallied them: my 89-year-old mother, two aunts in their eighties, two aging uncles and a few cousins.
Along with the Halberstadts and most IMAS members, my father is buried in the West Roxbury cemetery. After I place a pebble on his grave, I make sure to also lay one on others’. I can still hear their accented voices calling me Miri. I am comforted that my husband and I will be buried in the IMAS cemetery, too.
I always pause at Rudi and Erna Lehrberger’s double memorial, loaded with stones. Informal leaders of the IMAS community, the Lehrbergers hosted Sunday afternoon social gatherings, where they served apple strudel and plum cake. Rudi, a stocky, balding man, sold Fuller brushes door to door. I wish I had asked him what work he had done in Germany. Erna ran a rooming house where the couple and their daughter, Carol Ann, lived. Now a grandmother like me, Carol Ann shortened her name to Carol decades ago. She still follows her mother’s recipe for plum cake, which she bakes for Rosh Hashana and other important occasions.
In the next row lie the Josephs. My parents and I spent many Sunday afternoons at the beach with Mr. and Mrs. Joseph and their son, Gary. I can still see Gary, a few years younger than me, perched on their red-plaid cooler, relishing French fries from the take-out stand. I wonder where he is now.
Mr. and Mrs. Theise are close by. I remember stopping by their small grocery store and hearing Mrs. Theise call out, “Hi, Miri, would you like to taste a slice of bologna?”
Ruth Kolb’s grave is here, too. I last saw her at someone’s funeral, looking thin and frail at close to 90. We recognized each other immediately and shook hands warmly, as is the German custom. Some months later, at her funeral, Mrs. Kolb’s son, who lives in Colorado, reminded me that we played together as children.
Then there is Maria Blatt, resting in another section of the cemetery. I often think of her standing tall in her navy blue dress next to her sister at High Holiday services; she always greeted me with a smile and a nod. Even though I was just 5 years old at the time, I can still see her son, Günter, in his sharply creased green United States Army hat, visiting my parents’ apartment to announce that he was home from the war. A few years ago, my mother told me Günter had died.
My heart breaks every time I pass the tombstones of Mr. and Mrs. Simon; their teenage son and daughter were tortured by the Nazis and died from their injuries. The Simons were my grandmother’s childhood friends from Trier, Germany’s oldest city.
Once, while visiting from Israel, my oma was surprised and delighted to learn that the Simons lived only a 10-minute walk from our house. They had lost touch more than 30 years earlier after my grandmother moved away and later fled to Israel. The Simons rarely have any stones on their graves, save for the ones I place.
Until a few years ago, IMAS ran a special box on the obituary page of The Boston Globe noting members’ deaths and funeral times. I watched for the box daily and went whenever I could, following its instructions: Please attend. Perhaps I went out of respect for the vibrant person I once knew, perhaps to reconnect with the “Miri” of my youth. As time went on, fewer and fewer people remained to fill the seats at the funeral home. More used canes to steady themselves as they hobbled behind the casket at the cemetery.
Then, when no one was left to keep track and notify the newspaper, the box disappeared. I never even considered taking on the job, nor did the few other children of IMAS members. Like me, they face the present and the future. None of us feels pulled to continue IMAS. I am one of the few who can speak German, although most understand it.
Recently, Chana complained that people pronounce her name, taken from Hebrew, incorrectly. “When people don’t say my name right, it doesn’t feel like me,” she said. I wonder if this is a good time to tell my granddaughter about the little girl who was once called Miri and grew up to be known as Miriam and also omi?
Miriam Stein is a writer and advocacy consultant, trainer and speaker living in Arlington, Massachusetts.