At Thirteen


Several weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine devoted almost an entire issue to the problems of today's thirteen-year-olds. As I read the story and looked at the accompanying photographs, I was astonished to learn of the problems facing our youth today: sex, drugs, peer pressure and identity crises, to name a few. Changes in our family structure over the years have not helped. Many teenagers live in broken homes and lack parental supervision. It sounded awful. I felt bad for today's young people, and as I read further, I reflected on my own life at thirteen and on the lives of my two children, now grown. I was struck by this thought: unusual historical events that occurred during my childhood deeply affected not only my life as an adult, but also the lives of my children.

Irene age 14 (at right) with her sister Pola.

Like the troubled youth of today, I lived in a single-parent household at the age of thirteen. That was not due to divorce, separation, or birth out-of-wedlock. Rather, it was because Nazis had taken my father to a concentration camp. That is, we hoped that they had taken him to a concentration camp. The only other possibility was that he had been killed. Our household included my mother, my older sister, and the poor woman who was sheltering us in her one-room quarters during much of the war. We spent our days hiding under a bed, trying not to make noise. As you have surely guessed, this was during World War II, when we were unfortunate to be Jews living in Poland.

By the time I turned thirteen, I had already seen the deaths of my older brother, numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, childhood friends, and neighbors. I had already experienced first-hand the cruelty of our tormentors, who stood ready to kill us at any time. I had already seen our non-Jewish neighbors and friends become hostile strangers ready to turn us in and steal our house and possessions.

I had already felt constant hunger and been exposed to extreme cold and wetness, as we hid in old attics or roofs without heat, or in the woods. I had already lived under the most despicable conditions: rats, mice, and lice were our daily companions. Worst of all, by the age of thirteen - a fragile age even under the best circumstances - I already knew that people can, without cause and without justification, hate, steal, harm and murder.

More than 50 years have passed since the end of the war. I survived, miraculously. I put together the shattered pieces of my early life, relocated to many countries, where I learned many new languages (by necessity), and lived in roughly twenty-five "homes." During this time, I also managed to have a family of my own. That, too, is a kind of miracle.

As I look back today, I realize that as I was not allowed the normal existence of a thirteen-year-old, I did not allow my children to be thirteen either. I did not allow them to rebel or even to be frustrated. They found little understanding or sympathy for their daily, teenage mishaps. I thought that by providing them with food and shelter, I gave them all that was necessary.

As I read of today's youth, I am sorry. I am sorry for their problems and for their unhappy, dissatisfied existences. I am sorry for myself and for what I endured at thirteen. I am also sorry for all the young people who never made it to thirteen - the tragedies. Finally, I am sorry for my now-grown children, and hope for a better world for their children.