Channeling my Mother

Updated: May 5

I did not intend to write this blog post, but after what happened, I must. I am actually in the middle of gathering data for my next Tapestry of Israel piece, but something occured last night that hit me like a ton of bricks.


You've got to hear this. I am still in shock!


Sometime towards the end of 2019, as my tour guiding business was doing well, I read about a Poland certification course opening up, one where you learn to lead tour groups in Poland. You might not know this, but aside from my passion for history, the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and such, I also connect very deeply to the story of Polish Jewry, as my parents were both born there.


Zamosc, Poland 1997. The family.

Back in 1997, my Dad took us, my mother, sister, brother and I, and two of his cousins, to Poland on a family heritage tour. We visited the places where he and my mother were born, where they lived, where the family was murdered. It was fabulous and emotional and bonding and I knew that I had to return one day to learn much more.





So when the opportunity came to learn how to guide groups in Poland, I jumped on it. The course was to open in March of 2020, and well, you know what happened. Covid-19. Pandemic. So the class was postponed. For so long as a matter of fact, that I totally forgot about it.


And then in February of this year, I got an email saying the course was starting in April. By now I had been unemployed for over a year. I certainly did NOT have the nice income I had in 2019 when I originally registered. How would I pay for it? Did I really want to do it? Why now? Why bother?


When I shared my indecision with Nittany, my daughter, she laughed. "Mom, this is exactly what you've wanted to do for 20 years! You wanted to guide people in Spain, Poland and Israel, remember?"


Wow! She was right. Back in 2003, my husband Yitzhak and I wrote a business plan for a dream company of ours: Galut v'Geulah (Exile and Redemption). We invisioned a touring company that would lead Jewish Heritage tours: a week in Spain, then a week in Poland and finish with a week in Israel. And I wanted to lead these groups. That dream never materialized. However, it must have been in the back of my mind all this time!


I realized that unbeknownst to me, I had been fulfiling my dream! First by getting certified as a group leader of Jewish Heritage tours in Spain (2011), then becoming a tour guide in Israel and now this... Poland. There was no way I was going to miss out. Money be damned.


I asked my Dad if he would help me pay for the course, he said he'd put in half. I charged the other half on the credit card and started the course. My Dad also asked me to keep him abreast of what we learn, so every once in a while I send him snapshots of my notes.


It's been so fascinating. I am mezmerized by the history of Poland, the land that took in my ancestors and was their home for hundreds of years. I am amazed that despite the harships and antisemitism, they flourished and built a life full of culture, literature, music and theater. And its been emotional and difficult, as Poland is the land where my family was wiped out, obliterated, leaving few remnants of two once large families, one from Lublin, one from Szczekociny.


Every Monday night, when class was over, my soul was full. I was loving it.


Yesterday was our fifth class session. Yesterday we began learning about the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, and the Soviet invasion of Poland seventeen days later. Yesterday, as Uriel, our lecturer spoke, I teared up. I thought of my mother's father, Yitzhak Zylberstein, owner of a transport company in the small village of Szczekociny, urging the whole family to get on a bus. "Hurry, hurry", he must have said. "The Germans are just a few kilometers away. We must escape toward the East!" I know that were it not for his intuition, his resourcefulness, his stubborness, I would not be alive today. Neither would my brother or sister, or my cousins, or our kids.


My mother's family lived in Szczekociny and went east

In the first days after the Nazi invasion, my grandparents, one year old mother and five year old uncle, went East and ended up behind Soviet lines. Through some small miracles, they were sent to Siberia and eventually to Khazakhstan, where they were placed in work camps. Life was harsh, it was cold, they were hungry and did hard labor. But they survived. As did around 100,000 Polish Jews who took the same route eastward as the Germans invaded.


Yesterday, during the last hour of the class, we spent time learning about Lodz, an industrial city in Poland, where thousands of Polish Jews who survived Siberia were repatriated to after the war. Including my mother and her family.

Rosh Hashana card: My grandparents Yitzhak and Sarah Zylberstein, my mother Pola, her brother Wilek. Lodz 1956

This really opened the floodgates and tears flowed as I learned about Lodz. I could not help thinking about my Mom, who passed away almost two years ago. She would have been so pleased I was taking this class, so proud. I kept imagining her as a young girl in Lodz, in youth groups, at school, at home.


My mother became a successful artist, sculptor and ceramicist. One of her favorite themes was life in small villages where she had lived, Poland and Peru. Her sculptures depicted the simple villagers, women and men who toiled for a living. I love her art pieces and have many of her sculptures around my house.


And then, as I was thinking about my mother and missing her terribly, I suddenly received a Facebook message from someone I do not know. I opened it:

Hello Anat. My name is Deb ____ and I live in California. I have a large ceramic sculpture made by your mom. I believe it was from a series she did called "The Shtetl and its People." My mom (now deceased) bought it around 1990 when she lived in the Bay Area. We have the brochure from the art show at Gallery House in Palo Alto where the piece was shown. We are moving and won't be taking the sculpture with us. And when I researched Pola Harrel, I learned of her passing. I wanted to reach out to you to see if you or other family would like the sculpture. We would much rather it go home to family than sell to someone. We are located in Santa Maria but could easily get it to someone in the Bay Area. Here is a photo. It needs some cleaning.
A Shtetl and its People, Gallery House, Palo Alto, 1990

My heart was beating so hard I literally heard it. I thought I was going to faint.


I could not believe what had just happened. My mother was with me. She had reached out!


Right there in front of me was this gorgeous sculpture of the very shtetls, small Jewish villages, we were learning about. My mother's art, her love of her people, her story. I had totally channeled my mother!!! She was with me!


I immediately replied to Deb through my tears. Of course I want the piece!


How do things like that happen? I sit here and write and still cannot understand. The Universe performed its magic, but I take credit as well. I certainly played a major part, my thoughts and love and passion for my people, my family, my history, my mother. Totally.


Today, by email, we'll start planning the logistics of transfering this sculpture. And soon, it will come to Israel, to sit in my living room. I can't wait.


And my mother will be so pleased. I know she's smiling.

Pola Harrel

P.S.

May 5th, 2020: I wrote the above blog post yesterday morning in Israel. It was night time in California, where my brother and sister soundly slept, and I couldn't wait to tell them the story. I called early, California time, and asked them to read the post.


My sister loved it. She was touched.


My brother, who lives in San Jose and as part of his work, does lots of driving to presentations, meetings and conferences said:


Wow, this is amazing. What a coincidence! I'm driving through Santa Maria this evening on my way to Santa Barbara. I can pick up the sculpture TODAY.

Ladies and Gentlemen, THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES !!!


My mother had done it again. Somehow, she worked her magic and made it all work out.


My brother and Deb. Transfer completed.

So, within 24 hours, the transfer was complete. My brother indeed met up with Deb in Santa Maria in the evening and she handed over my mother's Shtetl sculpture. It is now safely tucked away in my brother's trunk.


I can't wait to bring it home to Israel.





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