A Letter From My Mother


"Be careful what you wish for. It may come true," warns an ancient Chinese proverb. My wishes have come true on several occasions. Most recently, such a wish left me both happy and sad.

Several months ago, I was comparing housekeeping notes with friends. One friend complained that she cannot part with anything, and, as a result, has accumulated old bills, old letters, and other useless items. I complained too, but my complaint was different. I periodically go through my house and discard papers for which I see no use. As an unintentional result of my practice, I do not have a single piece of paper with my late mother's handwriting. My mother died long ago. We did not correspond, as we lived together most of our lives and I regretted that I had no sample of her writing.

Last year, while visiting friends in Manhattan, I met a lovely and worldly lady. She was raised in Europe, but had been residing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for many years. She was visiting New York on her annual trip to the United States when I engaged her in polite, casual conversation. I told her that I have relatives in Rio. To my embarrassment, I had to confess that I knew neither the names nor the addresses of my first cousins. In fact, I had never met any of them and suspected that they had changed their names upon arriving in Brazil.

Irene's mother Sarah Kolb.

My mother came from a large family. There were eight or nine children who survived the childhood illnesses of her day, and many of the remaining children perished during World War II. One older brother married young and then had four children, but he had few opportunities for a successful career in their small, Eastern European town. One day, a relative of his wife who had moved to Brazil reported that life was comfortable there, and invited his family to move to Brazil and help to run a prosperous family business. So, my mother's brother moved to Brazil with his family in pursuit of a better life.

This happened long before I was born. Yet, I heard many exciting stories about my Brazilian family during my childhood. There was little correspondence between brother and sister; news came to us, instead, from people who traveled.

When World War II started, our family concentrated on surviving in Poland. We did not think often about our Brazilian relatives. After the war, we moved several times before settling in a new city. Somehow, my mother managed to correspond with her brother through the Red Cross. I recall some letters and photographs of my uncle and his two sons, all dark and handsome. My uncle wrote to us about the death of his wife and two of their children, about his sons, and about his successful business. He also inquired about our lives. I remember my mother weeping over news of the untimely death of her relatives in Rio.

My mother wrote many letters once the correspondence was reestablished. I was too young and too preoccupied to undertake my own. I applied myself feverishly to school and daily social activities, and hoped to resume a normal life after years in hiding.

My parents soon realized that Poland was no longer home to us. We knew we must leave, yet did not know where to turn. I was in my early teens, and did not comprehend the severity of the situation nor my parents' worries of securing a safe home for their surviving children. There was talk of leaving for Palestine. However, Israel was not yet an independent state. Also, my father was a fur dealer and did not expect to prosper in Palestine's warm climate.

The last time my mother wrote to her brother in Brazil, she described the hopeless situation in Poland, the lack of real prospects, and her concerns about the future of her family. She described the perils of the Holocaust and the struggles that persisted after the war. She inquired about the possibility of starting a new life in Brazil, and asked for help in bringing our family to his adopted country. This did not lead to an invitation to move to Brazil. Instead, this beseeching letter from sister to brother was their last correspondence. We emigrated to Palestine several years later. I now live with my husband and children in the New Jersey suburbs.

The lovely and worldly lady with whom I chatted idly at the Manhattan party last year returned to Brazil and somehow located my Brazilian family. I received a beautiful letter from a young, charming man-- the grandson of my late uncle. Unlike his grandfather, he is deeply interested in his distant family. Although he is in his early thirties, and is busy with work and the social life of a single man, he writes to me regularly, taking up where his grandfather failed. He tells me about our family in Rio, about his life, hobbies, interests, and dreams. He is warm, sensitive, and intelligent, sharing many qualities with my late mother. I enjoy his lengthy, chatty letters. He tries to find parallels and similarities between "us" and "them." I have not met him, but I like him already. His letters reach my heart. My Brazilian cousin plans to visit the States next month, and has informed me that although he has been in the United States many times on business, his upcoming trip is strictly a family visit. I am excited about our meeting, about reconnecting with our lost relations.

A friend of mine recently visited Brazil. I gave her the name and address of my young cousin, and she looked him up and spent an evening with him. She called me upon returning, explaining that he had given her a copy of a letter from my mother to her brother. It was the letter my mother wrote in 1947-the letter that was never answered.

I believe that things happen for a reason, although we cannot always perceive or understand the reason. Several months ago, I idly wished for a letter from my deceased mother, yet I did not anticipate that a scrap of paper would reveal the sad circumstances surrounding the end of a correspondence between siblings. I wanted a letter from my deceased mother just as she must have longed for a letter from her brother in Brazil. Yet, I wanted the letter only to preserve a memory for myself and for my children, while she needed a letter in order to secure a future for her children. Now, some 45 years after the letter was mailed and the family ties cut, I have received the letter as well as the long-awaited response from Brazil: My mother's family wishes to reunite with their European cousins who survived World War II.